Interview by Michael Thompson
Introduction by interviewer, Michael Thompson
Harry Webster Apple II was born in Birkenhead on 22nd July 1925.
He was 14 years old when war broke out in 1939.
This interview records his memories as a teenager and young adult during the early stages of the war and his time with the Royal Air Force, Serial Number 3021869. He left the Air Force as Leading Aircraftman (LAC).
He was awarded the G.C./V.R., the Defence Medal, the War Medal 1939–1945 (also known as the Victory Medal) and the Bomber Command Medal.
Harry: My name is Harry Webster Appleton the second, named after my father. My mother was Nellie Hughes. Now, they were married in St James’ Church, Birkenhead, and they were married by the vicar, Leigh Mallory. That name should strike a bell, Royal Air Force wise.
And I was born on the 22nd July 1925, in my home in 302, Borough Road, which was one of …. a house of a dozen terraced houses. The road outside was of tram tracks, which was the main road through Birkenhead, right from Woodside Ferry right through to Oxton …. Prenton …. that would …. led right through …. and we had tracks …. double deckered trams …. up and down each way …. run outside the house, but we …. my father worked at Joseph Rank’s flour mills, when he was a labourer and earned about 15 shillings a week in order to keep myself, my young sister, who was 3 years younger than me, Eva Muriel Appleton.
Now …. grandfather …. we lived with grandfather and grandma Hughes, as we did in those days because you are looking at the back end of the Victorian – Edwardian days and we were strictly controlled as to what you could do, your position in life …. Everything was governed by their …..
I played outside, I went to school, my first school starting at 5 years old was Claughton Higher Grade School which was just a few hundred yards up the road up Borough Road which I had to walk backwards and forwards to, to get to school.
From there, I went to, when I was 10 years old, I went to Temple Road Central School, which was the main school. That was up near Tranmere Rovers football ground in Prenton.
Now, my playground was outside …. just outside, anywhere, because we lived in Wirral, and Wirral was a farming country. If you went up to Bidston Hill, and stood on the top of Bidston Hill, on one side you used to turn around and you could see all the factories, the ships, the buildings, Cammell Laird’s, Grayson Rollo graving docks where they built all kinds of ships, the Ark Royal. I was at Cammell Laird’s when the Ark Royal was actually launched. I saw it going down slipway when the Thetis, the submarine, was built there, which got stuck in the mud in the mouth of the Mersey and I was there. I was walking down, 10 or 11 years old. I saw the women running up and down the road screaming, because their husbands were stuck in the submarine ….
That was the kind of memories, I have.
The playground was Birkenhead Park, which I believe Central Park in New York is modelled after.
Now then, what else do you want me to ….
Michael: No, I think that is a good start, and …. But now, let’s us just think about 1939 because ….
Harry: ‘39, ok. Yes, well, in January 1939, my mother, who was taken ill, and taken to Liverpool Hospital to undergo an operation for what I do not know …. in those days, kids were not told everything …. you mind your own business …. but, she died and she was only in her 30s, and that was in 1939, a significant year of my life.
During …. from the time from January to July, my grandfather, Granddad Hughes …. he died through, I believe, shock of his daughter dying so young. He became mentally disturbed and then died.
So, in July, I left school, 14 years old, and I had to, from then I had to find a job …. that was my first thing, you found a job …. which I got a job in a shipping office in Liverpool …. thanks to my uncle, Uncle Frank, my father’s brother.
Michael: Ok …. because having left school …. and 1939 was obviously quite a momentous year ….
Harry: Oh this, this is where my life really started ….
Michael: Yes ….
Harry: My mother had died …. grandfather had died, and then in the September …. when I was just 14 in July, war broke out ….
My father, who was a member of the Royal Artillery Territorial Army …. he was immediately called up, so, that left myself, my sister and Grandma Hughes and the dogs.
Grandma Hughes had to go and live with the Hughes side of the family. My sister, Eva, was evacuated to North Wales, to Bala, Llyn Tegid, if you want it in Welsh. So that left me and the dogs.
Michael: All alone.
My father got me to live with my Uncle Frank and Auntie Dorothy who unfortunately hated my guts because I was beneath her. I was a scruffy little kid. I was a scruffy little kid, I admit that. I was always bandaged up, always in trouble, I was doing daft things, you know, the way kids are. But I lived my life as it was.
Michael: Sounds like character to me.
Harry: Well, my father only had 14 and 15 shillings a week to live …. We couldn’t go on holidays, we didn’t have a car. I remember my father once buying me a bike and he had paid 5 shillings for it. And it had to be constantly repaired because it was absolutely done for anyway, but it was my bike. And I trundled all over Wirral on the bike …. that was …. if you wanted something, you had to go and make it.
If you wanted any money, you had to go and earn it. On either side of me were two young lads the same age as me. One was called Joe Steele, another one called Jeff Redhead, and we were all pals.
On a Saturday, if we’d decided we wanted to get some money, we would build a little cart out of a box with wheels on it …. I am not telling you where we pinched the wheels from, but never mind …. …. pram went missing …. and we have to go down to the coke works about 2 miles away, and get it filled with coke and trundle it back again and sell it to somebody who wanted some coke. And don’t get the big lumps, they don’t last as long.
Michael: These were tough times for you.
Harry: They were tough times
Now then, in my papers there, I have a school report from 1935 and that was the year I suffered malnutrition to such a state that they had to send me to a place called Thingwall Sanatorium for 6 months.
I had 178 days off school. Now, that was how under-nourishment is. A jam butty was your breakfast. A bottle of water. If you wanted to go out …. if my mother ever saw me during the summer, if she ever saw me between breakfast such as it was a jam butty and dark, whatever time it was, there was something wrong, because we were always out.
We had the whole of Wirral to roam about and we would travel far and wide …. we’d go …. Joe Steele and Jeff Redhead and myself ….
We’d decide one day, let’s take Eva, my sister when she was old enough, and there was 2 young girls who lived in Borough Road, further down the road, Alma and Margaret …. Alma Woodhead and …. Fearnley, Margaret Fearnley.
How about that for remembering?
And a gang of us would go to the local fishmongers at the top of the road and we would beg for a cod’s head and we would try and find a ball of string, and we would walk from Borough Road to New Brighton, right through all the traffic through the docks, over the dock bridges, all along the promenade, go underneath the ferry, down into the pilings on the pier and go fishing for crabs, that was a day out.
That’s where we entertained ourselves, and we’d fill the bucket with crabs, but by the time we got back to Seacombe, all the crabs had gone.
Michael: So you didn’t really get a taste of crab meat in the end?
Harry: No …. they would be inedible anyway …. But we had a cod’s head ….
Time Code: 00:11:16
Michael: What do you remember about the break out of war itself?
Harry: The break out of war …. broke up …. my family disappeared in front of me like I have just explained, and my father had to get special leave so he could arrange closure of the house such as it was ….
It was damn near falling down anyway. It was hundreds of years old, and it would only need a good push and it would have fallen …. even though …. There were a dozen houses in the road, you know what they’re like, old single brick Victorian houses, they were dreadful things. Water used to run down the bedroom walls, we had no heating, we had no hot water, cold water, there was no flush toilet except in the back yard …. the far end of the yard which in winter used to freeze solid, which was a great help.
There was not much you could do about that.
Michael: Let us move on a little bit there, because you went to live with Uncle Frank ….
Harry: Uncle Frank and Auntie Dorothy, yes …. well …. when I was there …. I had as I say, I started working …. a shipping office, no names no pack drill …. at a shipping office in Liverpool …. so, I had to travel either by ferry or by the underground. Well, the ferry was cheaper, so it was only 2d to go across the river, and I think I had about 14 shillings a week. I got about 14 shillings and that always went to Auntie Dorothy so that I could pay my way. And I got a couple of shillings pocket money.
But it was while we were there that …. when …. during the war, Uncle Frank decided because the German bombers were coming, he’d have to build an air raid shelter in the back, and they had a house similar to this one with a big patio in the back, so he and I dug up the patio to a depth of about 6 feet deep and we built a concrete air raid shelter, to Uncle Frank’s design of course, and we reinforced it with the railings we had pinched off Birkenhead Park, because they were cutting them down to take them away for the war effort.
I hope they don’t …..
Michael: So, the police will be after you before long ….
Harry: But they were no good because they were cast iron. So that was reinforcement like …. a chocolate teapot, you know, but we used those to reinforce the concrete air raid shelter.
Uncle Frank had beautiful dogs. He had spaniels, setters …. oh, they were gorgeous and they had them in kennels outside the house, and the dogs had to be put down because there was no food for them, and that really broke his heart.
But during one raid, the Germans came over …. what they used to do, they would fly up the Welsh coast and sometimes in the Summer months, they would set fire to the gorse on Bidston Hill, and that was the aiming point for the bombers, so the German bombers, when they get over Bidston Hill, they’ll see the fire, just let it go, peel off to port and come back down again, down the channel.
And it was good luck, or good management that they hit Liverpool or Birkenhead, they just scattered them anywhere and everywhere, they weren’t bothered.
But one stick of bombs came down, and the last one …. one, two, three, four …. the fifth one went down underneath the grass verge of St David’s Drive where we lived with Uncle Frank, underneath the concrete road, blew a damn great hole in the road, and our, Uncle Frank’s house on the corner never had a scratch except for one tiny little hole in the window.
The houses further up the road on either side, the roofs were stripped off.
So, another bomb and I wouldn’t be here now. It would have landed in our garden right on our concrete air raid shelter.
So, there is luck of the draw in that, isn’t there?
Michael: At some stage, I think you moved from Uncle Frank’s and went to ….
Harry: Oh, I joined the RAF.
Michael: Ah, right, ok ….
Harry: No, no, how that happened, right …. My father, who was is in the Territorials …. he was in the First World War as well as a machine gunner in the Cheshire Regiment …. I have his medals here but in the Second World War, he became a non-combatant and he was an officer’s servant, a batman, known as a batman, and he was with an ack-ack battery in various places of England, but the last place he was based was across here on the fields on Lancaster Road with 4.7 ack-ack batteries and from there, he was demobbed and he met at the time, he met a woman who lived in Salford, a widow. To cut a long story short, they married each other and they set up …. well, he went to live with her really in Wentworth Avenue, in Salford.
And that’s how I came to live here, because, I just waited then for the time when I could join the RAF.
The reason why I joined the RAF …. let’s get that …. in 1935 or 36, my father once took me to Sealand Aerodrome which is just outside Chester and they were having an air display, with Hawker Furies, Hawker Harts, Vickers Vymys and all the old aircraft that they used to use at those times and they had one of these Hawker Fury, set up on stands firing into the butts, through the propeller, with a machine gun, twin machine guns on top of the cowling and I saw this, and I thought, oh I would love to have a go at that. I was only what, 10 or 11 years old.
And …. when I saw these young lads in their uniforms, their blue uniforms with …. like breeches, and they were all puttees then, blue puttees you know, uniform …. I’d have loved …. actually, I asked the sergeant. I said “When can I join?” He said “You’ll have to get some time in first, lad!”
I absolutely adored that, and I knew then ….
Well my father, my mother and father were married by a man called Leigh Mallory and he was Air Marshall of the Royal Air Force, wasn’t he? In Fighter Command.
Michael: Yes, he was …. Herbert Leigh Mallory, the Reverend ….
Harry: The Reverend, oh you found out have you?
Michael: Oh yes, the Reverend Herbert Leigh Mallory married ….
Harry: I’ve got the Marriage Certificate here
Michael: Yes, well he was the father of Mallory who died on Everest ….
Harry: Oh, that Mallory, yes ….
Michael: And the other Mallory who was as you say Air Chief Marshal ….
Harry: Oh, I knew it was something like that ….
Michael: …. of Fighter Command.
Harry: That’s right, yes ….
Michael: And so ….
Harry: I was destined, wasn’t I?
Michael: Sounds like it.
Harry: I had no option really ….
Michael: You didn’t have a chance really ….
Harry: No, I am a firm believer that your map is laid out for you, you know, you just follow it.
Michael: So, in the meantime, before you actually joined the RAF, you did some work …. now did you tell me this just earlier about Liverpool Street and the coal merchants?
Harry: Oh, the coal merchants, Herbert Hodsons ….
Michael: Yes ….
Harry: Yeah, the coal merchants on …. when everybody used coal there in the fire and I worked there for a short time, and he, God bless him, sort of expanded my knowledge by sending me to a typing school in Manchester, once a week …. and up Mosley Street ….
I’ll only get in trouble here ….
And, really … the only thing …. I learned how to do typing and shorthand …. Gregg’s typing. I learned all my alphabet, Pitman’s alphabet …. you know …. “pee” “bee” “tee” “dee” “chay” “jay” “kay” “yay” “eff” “thee” …. you don’t know those, do you? No ….
Time Code: 00:20:34
Michael: No, I have never done it but …. not shorthand.
Harry: So, anyway …. But the only thing I was interested in there was the young woman that worked there, a young girl also learning typing. Una, her name is, and she had long blonde hair. She was a cracker. And I used to take her to a local cafe and we would have a coffee during the interval. And we got very friendly, and when I told her I was joining the RAF, she said “When you do get to a station properly, because you are a lot more beside that? When you do get to a station, will you write to me?” No telephones in those days. “Write to me, and ….”, she said “I will write back to you.” So, I said “OK”.
Well, of course, I have to go to Arbroath to square bashing …. did all that, then I went to Squires Gate to do my engine …. engineering training, I did that …. then give you a ticket and said “Right, go to Swinderby with all your gear …. and be there prompt at 7 o’clock in the morning.”
And that was the help you got. Anyway, I did it ….
But, during that Spring, I got a letter saying that Una would be coming to …. she was going to Gainsborough, because her auntie lived in Gainsborough, and her uncle was a Naval captain at the time, he was sailing the North Sea somewhere, so she would come down to Swinderby and meet me.
Oh, it’s brilliant this!
And that …. I got a 36-hour pass …. all right I got a 36-hour pass …. I was billeted in …. I was billeted away from the main camp in a place that we christened Stalag …. it was just a heap of Nissen huts on the inner field about a quarter of a mile away, down this concrete path ….
So, that’s where we were based for the rest of the war.
So I had got all chamfered up on the Saturday, presented myself to the guardroom, saluted, and there in the middle of the square was a young woman with long blonde hair, a nice whitish coloured dress, white gloves, white handbag, white shoes being chatted up by half a dozen RAF officers.
I have to go up to them, salute to say “Excuse me, Sir, can I have my girlfriend back?”
Michael: You didn’t have to fight for her?
Harry: You know, it was marvellous because when I walked up and saluted …. “Yes, airman, what can we do for you?” I said “My young lady, Sir”. “Oh ….”
So, we …. together …. we daren’t go arm in arm because it was against the rules …. but we walked up the pathway …. the local road …. we had to pass the end of the runway …. and at the end of the main runway, there was always a guard, armed guard there …. he was to stop traffic in case aircraft was approaching to land or take off, and when he saw me and Una walking up, he did the full present arms.
Now, I said, “How are we going to go to Lincoln, it’s 8 miles away, we are on the Fosse Way?” And she said “Well ….” And just then I said “Would you hitch hike?” She said “Ooh yes, I have never done that before …. “
God bless her!
Just then, a farm tractor came round the corner. There was a low loader on it, with some bales of hay on it and I thumbed a lift on that, we sat on there, laughing our socks off …. all the way down to Lincoln, 8 miles.
And we went round Lincoln, we went in the cathedral, and we each bought a punnet of strawberries and wandered round eating strawberries, then we went to the cinema, and then we went home, to her home in Gainsborough on the train. I got a free ride, because I was in uniform, and her auntie put me up for the night. And then sent me off on my way, the following day. But, how about that?
Michael: Very nice indeed. Now tell me a bit about your work …. what was your ….
Michael: Well, yes, what was your rank and what was your trade?
Harry: Oh …. well you start as an AC2, aircraft’s man second class. And you did training, and your proficiency goes up to AC1, aircraft’s man first class. And then, if you have done enough, you become a Leading Aircraft’s man, which I was.
Also, as the time passes, you are deemed worthy of becoming an aircraft engine fitter, not a mechanic. So, you go to Henlow Training School to be trained on Rolls Royce engines or the general principles of engineering, and then you come out of there and you start back as AC2 fitter, then AC1, then the Leading Aircraftsman …. I got the whole lot …. I got mine in the field, I used to …. The flight sergeant, God bless him, used to take me out and quiz me …. and …. “If that’s right that’s good enough. You know what you are doing, you are going to be promoted”, and he would give me the promotion there.
There were all kinds of things happened, you know. I had a wonderful life in the RAF.
Michael: Just …. so, what sort of aircraft were you working on?
Harry: First …. there you are, I was trained in Squires Gate on Rolls Royce Merlin engines and I was posted to Swinderby, and when I get there, I find they are radial engines which I had never seen in my life. They were Hercules sleeve valve engines on Sterling bombers and when I went to the Flight Sergeant, I said “I have never done this Flight”. He said “Oh, just go join the lads, you’ll soon pick it up!” That was the training you got.
You know, there is a hell of a difference working upon an inline engine to a radial engine where the cylinders are upside down at the bottom, and you have to go struggling, looking upwards instead of downwards.
It’s …. quite a job, particularly at say 3 o’clock in the morning, and it’s freezing …. and freezing and foggy and you can’t show any lights …. a lovely job putting a new set of spark plugs in an engine like that, it’s wonderful.
You see, your fingers are frozen and you can’t heat them up, no, a wonderful job ….
Michael: So, what was your typical day in those days?
Harry: What from time?
Michael: Yes …. how did you spend your day, I mean, you talked about being there at 3 o’clock in the morning, was that quite normal?
Harry: Sometimes …. you were on call, that was it, you were on call, but generally, your time …. in the forces, your time is spent waiting …. Nearly all your time is spent waiting, you are waiting for something to happen. It’s like retroactive rather than being active. You are not forcing something.
You are waiting for something to happen, to react to it.
So, you sit in your hut …. in the woods, our A flight was in the woods so they couldn’t be seen by Germans …. flying over.
The Flight Sergeant had a …. he had a caravan, a very posh job but we were in a bit of a hut, in the woods …. and that’s where we spent our time.
You’d have breakfast, what time? Oh, say half past six in the morning. You have your ablutions, that’s it, the ablutions, they were in a brick block away from the rest of the nissen huts and there was always freezing cold water. The only warm water you got was in the Summer and you have to get washed and shaved and showered and anything else, then you go to walk up to the mess and have breakfast. We were well fed in the RAF. Dear God, we were well fed, I put weight on like nobody’s business.
As I said, I practically starved to death at home, and when I saw all this bacon and eggs and …. I’d never seen anything like it in my life. Yes, you used to line up in the mess with your tray and your plate, and everything would be loaded up onto that one plate. I used to like getting a big round of bread and dipping it into the bacon fat ….
Time Code: 00:30:50
Michael: What form of …. I mean, can you think of some highlights that occurred whilst you were at Swinderby …. I mean, before the end of the war, let’s say …. ?
Harry: Not a lot happened, I remember one …. I think it’s in my …. I have actually written in my book ….
(Am I out of focus a bit?)
Times when it snowed, and it really snowed. You would get 3 feet deep snow and there is nothing to stop it when you are in Lincolnshire …. it’s just dead flat and the wind comes across there …. 90 miles an hour sometimes and it goes right through you, it doesn’t go round you.
And one of our jobs was to keep the trolley accs [accumulators] running. A trolley acc is a JAP 2-stroke engine running on petrol … petrol oil …. and it was there to charge up the batteries in the cart to which it was attached. They were used to start the engines.
You would plug the trolley acc into the aircraft, and then give the pilot the thumbs up to start the engines and you had to push the buttons to make the contact, and they would start the engines …. and then that was what they were for …. they had to be constantly charged so, the trolley accs had to be charged up, and they were at all the dispersal points around the air …. round the aerodrome.
Now, some of these dispersals were …. there were some of them on the other side of the Fosse Way …. there was 2 in particular and aircraft were parked there on a number of times, with a radial engine …. then, after they had been standing for a while, had to be turned over by hand to eject any surplus oil that was caught down the snifter valve, it was called, the snifter valve because of the sleeve valve, it would hydraulic if it wasn’t released and you had to put this great long pole into the engine nacelle in a little trap door.
And two of you and two handles would wind it like this and keep winding until the engine had turned over and the propellers had turned round twice like this ….
And we were doing this …. Dougie …. Dougie Hooper …. he was a mate …. He and I were doing this and a lady came along the road and she said “Oh, you’re winding them up, are you going out tonight boys?” “Wind them up tight!” Oh dear, God bless her! They must have thought we were running on elastic, or something! You know, things like that stick in my mind.
I mean, a big story that when we get back to the Flight and tell the lads, all falling about laughing.
Michael: I seem to remember you had some other stories. There was one aircraft that landed on the Fosse Way, did you say?
Harry: Oh, no, what happened, it is in a book there written by the pilot of that aircraft. As I was coming back from A Flight, it was in the Summer, I was driving the Fordson tractor ….
Coming back from A Flight, I was passing the end of the runway, which is a short runway which is very seldom used …. and this Lanc just passed over my head, one engine feathered, and it landed fine, and just carried on. Well, I didn’t bother with it after that, I just carried on with what I was doing.
Then I got a call from the Flight Sergeant, “Appy, I want you.” He said “Go and get your tractor and go up to the hanger. No 2 hanger”, he said, “Go and see the Sergeant, we’ve got a bit of a prang at the end of the runway.” He said “Did you see that Lanc that just arrived?” I said “Yea.” “It’s in the car park outside the pub on the Fosse Way.” “Oh.”
So, I went up to the hanger and the Sergeant greets me with a set of keys, “Now there’s the tractor that you’ve got to use. It’s outside in the hanger”. And it was the biggest …. biggest tractor I have ever seen in my life.
It was a Canadian Caterpillar tractor, and I had never driven a Caterpillar tractor in my life, never even seen one before but it had more gadgets on it than you ever saw in your life. It had pumps on it. It had compressors, winches every damned thing you could think of.
“Now don’t bend it,” he said, “you’ve got to go and get …. go and get the lads together and get the bogey, and take it up.” He said “It’s in the pub ….” He said “….. you’ve got to go and bring it back!” “Ok.” He said “Have you ever driven one of these?” I said “No, what’s it like?”
He said “There’s no steering wheel for a start just 2 handles …. to direct it.” I thought …. well, I had to go round the yard outside, you know. “Ah, that will do ….”
Well …. to cut a long story short, I went up there with great big …. we used great big canvas straps to fasten round the fuselage of an aircraft …. you couldn’t use ropes because they would cut it in half. So, we went right up to …. where the …. what was it called? The Halfway House, that’s right ….
The Halfway House on the Fosse Way. And …. we had to lift this aircraft up, because the tail wheel was all gone …. So, had to shove this bogey underneath it …. strap it down with these great big straps …. these canvas straps …. and I’m driving to pull it back the same way as it went in ….
You went out of the car park, up the road, over a ditch, through a hedge, and then back onto the tarmac, and that …. and then, of course, you’ve got all kinds of people shouting at you while you are doing this ….
“Don’t …. don’t do this, Harry, don’t do that, Harry!” You know “Look out for this, Harry.”
“Will you go away!” Well, I didn’t use that word but ….
Michael: Something equivalent, anyway, yes ….
Harry: Anyway, that came back and they ripped it to pieces, and took it away after that, but …. but that’s in that book, the pilot’s view, and actually what happened was while the pilot was actually in the aircraft looking down at the pub, the publican came out and said “While you are here, do you want a pint?”
The CO was not best pleased! …. He definitely wasn’t best pleased! No.
Time Code: 00:38:35
Michael: We’ve talked about quite a hilarious occasion, were there any less than hilarious occasions, or sadder occasions that you remember whilst you were there ….
Harry: Yes, well yes …. while I was at Swinderby, that’s the time when the paratroops went into Arnhem. And, I used to sneak out of camp through the bottom hedge and go to Bassingham, the local pub in Bassingham …. it was called ‘The Black Swan’. We christened it ‘The Mucky Duck’ …. [This pub reverted later to being a farm, Harry said later, not to be confused with ‘The Black Swan’ in the neighbouring village of Beckingham.]
But there was a great big house on that road, and it was taken over by the paratroops. So, I, walking down there …. and this paratroop jumped out from there with rifle and bayonet …. shouts “Halt!” [German accent]
Now, he was about 6′ 8″, I think, a very tall lad and he was a German. And he had been recruited into the Paras …. he’d been captured in North Africa, or somewhere, and his father was German and his mother was English, and they hated the Nazis and he’d volunteered to join the paras because he had been trained in Germany as a Fallschirmjäger, that’s the German equivalent of the paratroopers.
He joined our Paras, and he used to delight in jumping out from the hedge and putting the wind up the locals with a damn great rifle and bayonet!
But I got pally with the bloke, can I mention his name? Tom Mollineaux. And he was a good pal. And he was a radio operator and he used to show me what he was doing. He would lay out the lines for the receivers and he used to curse them, because they never really seemed to work ….
Those paratroopers used to get up to all sorts of weird tricks, you know …. Oh, and he married one of the girls from our station …. from the WAAFs …. Dorothy …. beautiful girl. And I went to the wedding …. I was invited to the wedding, and the wedding ceremony was held at a little tiny church on that same road, near Bassingham …. it was a tiny little place and they all went to the local pub for the …. for the …. what do they call them? The wedding breakfast.
So, you can imagine what happened when these …. the two of them came out of the church …. Instead of confetti, they were met by a barrage of thunder flashes and God knows what else. It frightened this poor girl to death ….
So, I went in my full uniform, best uniform, wearing white belt and everything, I got permission from Flight, time to go up. He said “Make sure you are back here this afternoon, Harry.” I said “Ok”.
Well, I was really in no fit state because round about 2 o’clock in the afternoon …. We never had watches, or things like that …. we never knew what time it was …. All I know was that I was enjoying myself, snacking pints away and smoking cigars of some horrible nature.
But when I told the fellows about this, I said “I have to go back”, they said “Oh, come on.”
About six or seven of us all piled into a jeep, and roared off up the Fosse Way, right into the camp, right round the perimeter track to A Flight where they threw me out.
And the Flight Sergeant took one look at me and …. oh dear God!
“Have a …. have a cigar!”
But …. the thing was, in a few days after that, they went to Arnhem …. and Tom never came back.
You know, that’s the saddest part.
Things like that that bring it all to you.
Michael: Absolutely. Moving on because we were coming up pretty close, I would think, to D-Day ….
Harry: Oh, D-Day, yea …. that was strange that, you know, because in Lincolnshire, you are miles away from any action, so far as that was concerned, but we suddenly saw aircraft coming in, painted up with three white stripes on the wings and the fuselage.
That’s …. D-Day’s arrived. Now, we were told “Now then, any aircraft coming in with those stripes on, you service them. If you are an armourer, you arm them, complete with bombs, bullets, whatever the hell they need. You don’t ask questions …. you just do it. You check the engines, the oil, they have got to be turned around almost straight away.”
And then we were kept at it for three days and three nights. They used to give us little tiny pills, little brown pills …. we were all walking around like zombies. It was ongoing …. constantly …. whatever aircraft came in, whatever the shape or make it was, if they had three stripes round it, you serviced it.
You didn’t bother with Form 47A which was the ….
Time Code: 00:44:55
Michael: And moving on from that, I mean that was 1944 obviously, we come on towards the end of the war and, I am not sure whether it was before V.E. day or after, you made a flight over Europe, I think.
Harry: Oh, it was …. when I went?
Harry: Again, if you serviced an aircraft and engine, particularly engines, you put your money where your mouth was.
“You serviced it, are you willing to fly in it?” And I was only too …. I loved it. Lancasters, Sterlings, anything else I worked on. And you’d find that a Flight …. a pilot …. then a wireless operator, navigator, they’d come down to test …. air testing …. and they did what they used to call ‘circuits and bumps’. That means take off and landings around the airfield.
“Do you want to come, Appy?” “Yes, fine.” “Go and get your parachute.” Now there you go …. “Go and get your parachute.” So, I go over to the packing room, and I thought I’d get all …. suffer all the banter from the girls …. who used to pack all the parachutes. You’d get like comments “If it doesn’t work, you bring it back won’t you!” …. you know. Or, “This one’s special, it is half a crown deposit.” But the thing was, I don’t remember ever having been shown how to use a parachute nor did I have the harness, sometimes, that you were supposed to hang the parachute from.
What the hell was I supposed to do, jump out with one parachute in one hand, I don’t know.
But that never seemed to bother me. That was that, I would just take up station in the ….. I used to love being in the tail, so that, as you took off, the runway just started going smaller and smaller and smaller …. It was a lovely sensation. I loved flying.
Michael: But on one occasion, I think you went over Holland and Germany?
Harry: Oh, yes. That was in …. it was a beautiful Summer’s day …. Well, when I say Summer, a sunny day, it was a sunny day and it was about 10 o’clockish in the morning and I was on the flight doing something, and the Flight Sergeant calls me up. “Appy.” He said the CO’s going out in an aircraft. He said “Do you want to go with him?”
An unusual request. So, I said “Yes please”, and he said “Right, go and get your gear.”
Well, I got the flying jacket and I always had my own helmet, with ear things to plug in for the wireless intercom. I had my own …. use to have a bullet hole in the back.
Anyway, I saw the CO …. and I said “Where are you going, sir?” He said “Oh you will find out when we get there.”
Now, I had only had breakfast at 6 o’clock that morning, and I was a healthy young lad, so, my stomach was rumbling to start with …. But …. I got in and said “Where do you want me?” He said “Go down there”, he said, “in the bomb aimer’s place.” He said, “Just stretch out down there.”
It is not very comfortable. I had my flying jacket on which is well padded. So, I am lying on that looking out through this round porthole at the front, and we flew down to Holland, we flew over Walcheren Island which looked as though someone had trodden on the one end of it and shoved it under water.
I remember that for a start. So, I asked, I said “What’s that?” He said “Well, the Germans have flooded the dykes, they have broken the dykes to stop our blokes coming up from the French coast. Monty’s lads coming up …. to stop them entering the Rhine, and that’s what that is.”
So, we flew on. Then, we were flying about what? 15,000 feet in daylight.
No German aircraft.
I think they had shot them out of the skies. The Yanks had anyway.
We flew over the towns, some of the cities …. oh, my God …. we think that the Germans did us a lot of damage. Nothing like what we did for them. We completely flattened …. as you are flying over a city, you’d find an odd chimney stack, factory chimney stack sticking up, or a church steeple or the walls of a city, just standing there, empty, nothing else.
We flew over the marshalling yards, the railway marshalling yards of Hamm and that was just a tangled mess …. it was like a cat had been amongst the knitting with the railway yards, the railway lines twisted up in all kinds of grotesque attitudes, railway engines, wagons and everything else, they were all lying on their sides, cast all over, just as though some child had just thrown them about.
And the ground was a continuous …. area …. of bomb holes. It just progressed from one bomb hole to another …. no plain ground just …. absolutely …. it was terrible.
Then we flew over …. back to Hamm …. Hamburg …. from Hamm to Hamburg to Bremen, and then we turned back and came back over France, down the French coast.
That was my journey.
Michael: That is not likely to be something you will ever forget.
Harry: I’ll never forget that. I know, when I got back, and we landed, it was late in the afternoon and of course, the first thing I do is get out of the aircraft and salute the Captain. I went back to the Flight Huts, and the Flight Sergeant, and I opened my mouth to say “Oh, Flight, you should have seen ….” and he put his hand up, and he said “I don’t want to know.” “Don’t tell me, I don’t want to know.”
“Oh, Ok, Flight ….”
That was it.
Michael: We come onto VE Day ….
Harry: Oh, we didn’t see any action …. Oh, that’s right, VE Day, that’s right, in Europe.
That was a strange happening …. nobody was in …. I remember coming back from the Flight …. We were right round …. I’ll show you maps which would indicate better where we were …. I walked all the way back to the mess and had an evening meal and as I came out into the barracks square, I heard some shouting going on …. because we had barrack blocks then, but the WAAFs were using the barrack blocks and we had a lot of Canadian airmen there as well …. and Dutch …. but the Canadians were shouting “The War’s over. The War’s all over, it’s finished!”
And …. I stood stock still. I realised …. and I thought to myself, “What the hell are you going to do now, Harry? Where are you going to go? What’s going to happen?”
But …. that was my first thought ….
The Canadians, they were having the time of their lives …. they even put fire hoses through the …. the upstairs windows of the barrack blocks to wash the girls …. The girls wouldn’t come out and join in the festivities ….
But we knew …. we were headquarters, we were 5 Group Headquarters at Swinderby, so, we had all the radio communications, so we knew almost 24 hours before anybody else did, and me, in my ignorance, I thought “I know, I’ll get my bike and I’ll go down to Lincoln. I bet they’ll be having the time of their lives down there.” So, I pedalled all the way down to Lincoln …. Not a soul in sight. Nobody knew. We knew, nobody else. I was rather disappointed in that.
But, that’s what I …. that’s then I decided, “What am I going to do now? I’ll sign on again.”
So, everybody starts clambering, “Oh, I want to get home …. let’s get home to the wife.” Of course, …. So many of them had wives and children …. they wanted to get home from that …. I was on my own. I’d no family to go to. No home to go to. So, I signed on again.
Just as simple as that.
First of all, they said …. that was it, first of all, I was posted …. they just didn’t know what to do with us …. I was posted down to Cheltenham to some dump in there, what for, I don’t know, because nothing happened there. we were in a …. we were in the wettest Nissen huts you ever saw in your life. Water used to run down the walls from condensation, uniforms were wet, the bedding was wet.
Well, from there, we went to …. near London …. to a fighter station …. what was the main fighter station in London? Do you remember?
Michael: I …. the only place I could think of was Northolt, but know whether ….
Harry: No, fighter station ….
Michael: No, I have no idea …. unless somewhere like Herne ….
Harry: Biggin Hill!
Michael: Biggin Hill, right, yes, indeed.
Harry: We went …. I think it was Biggin Hill we went to …. of course, nobody …. no aircraft there. And we were fed like fighting cocks.
[It was actually North Weald, not Biggin Hill]
Well, I was …. “Where are we going? Oh, we don’t know where we are going, we are going to get posted abroad. Right, that will do me! That will suit me fine!”
I mean, we were given uniforms, tailor made, khaki uniforms with the RAF flashes on them. Now, I was entitled to the Eagle, the VR, my LAC badge, my GC stripe and two War stripes, and I was very proud of my uniform.
Michael: I bet.
Harry: and they sought …. beautiful material, it was like Officer’s material …. Oh, I thought this was it. You wanted to go on leave …. going on a fortnight’s leave …. What’s my dad going to say when he sees me in uniform, khaki uniform ….? He was all over the moon, you know ….
And then, I had to go back again, and they took it all off us again and gave us khaki drill …. “You are going to Africa” on board the Empire Caine …. Ken …. the Empire Ken which was a boat that we had requisitioned off the Germans. It was a Hamburg – Bremen Line ship …. beautiful ship and again, I had the time of my life on board the ship.
I remember the first morning, when we had washed and shaved …. I went to the galley and I remember my dad telling me …. my dad had served on board ship and he knew his way around and he said “When they call for volunteers for galley work”, he said, “just hang back a bit, wait till they call for the officers’ mess, then go for it.”
So, my mate and me, we stood to one side …. Officers’ mess, now, they want for peeling potatoes and things …. right, now come on …. and we used to go there, and what we had for breakfast …. a big freshly made bun, lashed up with butter and a fried egg on it! Oh, beautiful! Beautiful!
That was a kind of …. and our jobs …. one of things was bringing food up from the hold, the gangways were athwartships …. in other words, across the ship. So, if you ever had a sack of potatoes on your back, you had to wait until the ship rolled forward like that, and then you’d run halfway up the ladder and wait until it rolled back again and then it would roll forward, and you would run up to the top …. Well, some of these sacks had been down in the hold for God knows how long …. they were rotting …. and I was halfway up the flights of stairs with mine, and the bottom dropped out, and the poor bloke on the seat at the bottom, waiting to come up …. and he had a hundredweight of spuds on his head!
Michael: Oh dear.
Harry: Oh dear!
I loved sailing then because one of the things I used to do, I used to go and lie on top of what they called the “heads”. The “heads” are the toilets of ships as you most likely …. Are you aware?
Michael: Yes, indeed, yes.
Harry: You do? Oh. And there was a flat roof on the heads, and I used to go up on the top of there and look down in, in the bow …. and at the bow, ploughing through the seas, and flying fish. Oh, they were marvellous. Shoals of them would come out of the water and fly for, it felt like for miles before they would duck down into the water, it was a wonderful sight …. dolphins and porpoises and thing like that, a wonderful sight.
[Pause in filming]
Time Code: 00:08:59
Michael: You are on your way to Africa ….
Harry: Oh yeah, that was wonderful because it …. we sailed right down the coast of Africa …. the first …. my knowledge of being near Africa was I could smell it. I could smell, almost like perfume, I could smell mahogany.
We sailed right round …. we couldn’t see it, but I know I could smell it, because I used to go out on the deck, I used to sleep on the deck, asleep on the forward hatch on a blanket, because it was warm, and I used to go to sleep with the stars above me, and with the masthead light just swaying gently in the breeze, high up and it was wonderful, and I used to think to myself, how in God’s name can there be that many stars in the sky?
There doesn’t seem to be enough room for them all. It was a mass of beautiful twinkling stars. A wonderful sight. These are things which impressed me, on my mind.
It is simple things like that which affect me, more than anything else.
We passed this ship going in the opposite direction all lit overall, because it was after the war, there was …. and we were lit over all …. there was music playing on deck …. I don’t know whether there were anybody dancing, but I remember the tune ….
“Time on my hands …. you in my arms …. nothing but love in view ….”
Why does it stick in your mind?
Michael: Yes …. they do ….
Harry: And then we sailed right through to Freetown. That was the first …. the first deep harbour. Of course, it is the deepest harbour in the world, I believe. Freetown in Sierra Leone.
We watched the bum boats …. what they call the bum boats …. young men in dugouts, rowing out, offering all kinds of things …. And we would throw pennies over, and they would dive down into the water for the pennies, and some crafty fellows had got a halfpenny and wrap it up in a bit of silver paper, and throw that over. It was surprising how …. that all Africans should speak very fluent English swear words but that was the kind of thing. They were wonderful, I loved it, absolutely adored it ….
And we went round to …. from Freetown, we sailed on to Takoradi. That was the next port …. with a harbour.
I don’t remember much about it, you just end up outside a harbour. You offloaded onto trains and then you shipped out somewhere …. your life is just one continuous moving …. movement …. it …. Everything that you took, took with you, your kitbags. You had two kitbags, one, a plain white one, all with a single band round it, and the other had two bands. That one went down in the hold, but everything was there when you came back, there was nothing ever lost …. nothing ever …. not like today where you …. they lose cases and things, we never lost a thing.
We boarded trains and we were given cases. There were 6 of us to a carriage …. open carriages. When I say open, there were no windows in them.
You were given cases of Ind Coope Red Hand lager in tins, and they weren’t tins like you get nowadays with opening things on them. These were just like a tin of milk …. you know the old …. or a tin of beans …. you had to have something to open them, and did they supply those? No! All we had was our bayonets. Now, we weren’t issued with the blade bayonet, the little one. We were given these, what they used to call, pig stickers. They were about, what, 7″ long with just a spike and we found that if we put a tin of beer on the floor between your feet and you put a bayonet on the top of it, and another one on that side, and bang both in together and then pulled them both out together, you could have a drink. Otherwise, it was all over the …. all over the compartment which stunk like a brewery.
But we went through the night to Coomassie [Kumasi], right up into the hinterland of Coomassie. And we stopped at every, little tiny station on the way. It took all night.
When we got to Coomassie, it was morning, and that was a wonderful sight because there was thousands of people worked there and everybody seemed to welcome us. I don’t know why. They did. There were never any problems, no anger. They just accepted us …. come on in, you know …. wander round at your free will, then we boarded the train again and came out of Coomassie back to Accra.
And that was our final station.
That was where the main airport, which is now Accra, is the capital of now called Ghana, which was called at the time The Gold Coast. And it is there where I met lots of lovely people. Where I …. I …. On the airfield, to which we always went by truck to the airfield …. we only stayed there till lunch time, and then we came home, and had lunch, then we went down to the Yacht Club or onto the beach. We had the time of Riley. We did …. it was a wonderful life! We led the life of Riley!
And I met a chap called there, an African, and his name was Kenneth Gadzekpo, of glorious memory. He was built like a brick outhouse. A big man …. and he was a Corporal in the West African Air Force.
And he told me his story, he came originally when he was born, he was born in a place called Awunaga of the tribe of Ewe in Togo. That’s the country of Togo and as he became a man, he wanted to join the RAF. And he left Togo, and travelled to Ghana where he met a Christian girl. Now, he was a heathen, he was no Christian, no Christianity at all. And he was disowned by his parents, because he was a Prince, a junior Prince of the tribe of Ewe.
Still remember these names.
And he met this girl and married her and became a father, and I was present …. he took me into his “giddah” to be presented to his new born son in this tiny little …. it was only a hovel. It was wonderful …. Kenneth Gadzekpo …. a wonderful man.
We used to go all over the place together when we were not working. We worked on aircraft together …. Well, the aircraft we had were passenger aircraft, they weren’t …. we had no aircraft of our own and they were generally Dakota …. Dakota 3s which everybody used to go through in those days, I flew home in a Dakota. I flew all over Africa in a Dakota.
We used to go …. he would take me down into the village and introduce me to people …. goldsmiths …. you’d see goldsmiths working on pure African gold …. hammers making jewellery …. beautiful stuff. I was privileged, really privileged. He once, just before I came home …. in eighteen months ….
Now let’s go back a bit ….
We used to go out, meeting people, all kinds of people, he would introduce me to people so that, when I walked down on my own into Takoradi, people would say “Mr Appleton, Sir ….” They recognised me …. I only had KDs on, or most of the time, I was in civvies or mufti …. I had them made, they looked smashing.
A diet of …. oh, that’s right, our mess was …. a Sergeant Cook was in charge of the mess and he was a wonderful man. He had, what, a team of 6 chefs working for him and they would put on the most wonderful food. And every morning, he would have them in parade, make sure you have clean hands …. They would do that …. clean hands …. and they had iced orange juice, big dixies of it, and you would just dip your mug in …. no ceremony.
We always had to have a Mepochrine. Mepochrine was to keep the mosquitoes …. malaria …. and now, the trick was with Mepochrine, it was the bitterest thing that God invented. So, what you had to do, you had to put the …. your hand was dry …. you put the little tiny pill in the centre of your hand, open your mouth and throw it as far back into your throat as you could get it, and then take a swig of orange juice because if it got on your tongue, you were with it all day. It was terrible.
Michael: You didn’t ever get malaria?
Harry: I did.
Michael: You did.
Harry: But, I didn’t until I came home again, I was actually home, in the Isle of Man. I was on holiday in the Isle of Man with my father. That’s where I started malaria, the only time I ever had it. I was …. I was lying on at Douglas, on the grass at Douglas, shaking violently …. still in uniform.
Time Code: 00:20:59
Michael: When you finished in Africa, what happened after that?
Harry: Well, it kind of wound down, you see, again nobody knew what to do with you ….
I know I came …. when I came back …. let’s go back a bit …. I was still …. before I left Africa …. on boat nights, as it was known. That was when the boat came in to take all the bodies away and the new ones come in. We had a real knees up. All …. everybody in the canteen all drinking …. oh so stupid, singing the bawdiest songs which I have got copies of it if you want them. We were singing our hearts out, and the Commander would come down, and all the officers would come down, we’d have a real good time, and everybody would get wound up.
Then they’d put the shutters down in the canteen and that was it.
But we always had, under the table, a case full of beer to carry on with. So, we do all this, and it was late on, and everybody is getting ready to go home. They’re all disappearing …. When I say go home, they go back to the billets ….
And a Sergeant came in, a white cap, “snow drop”, Military Police, RAF Military Police, with two Corporals, and he was looking for trouble. He was going to have his pound of flesh from somebody. He wasn’t bothered who it was and he was shouting and bawling and doing all of this. Corporal Macauliffe, my mate, and he is not far away from me …. and he …. he set off … “Give over ….”, you know, “Stop your mythering, we are finished now ….”
They put him on a charge for insubordination. Of course, that meant a Court Martial. And the Sergeant looked at me and said “You saw that!”. I saw what? I was three sheets to the wind anyway, I didn’t see a damned thing …. “You are a witness ….” “Oh, Ok ….”
So, I had to stay behind, all the men went home on the boat.
Corporal Macauliffe and I, we had to stay behind to attend this, and that was a farce because we were arraigned in front of a full court of military men, you know, the officers.
And the prosecuting officer said to me “You witnessed …. what did you see about ….?”
I said “Well, I’m sorry, Sir, I was too drunk to see anything much at all.”
“Oh, too drunk were you?” I said “Yes, Sir.”
“Well, I might as well close the case then, case closed!”
So, Mac and I, we came home a couple of days later by air in a Dakota. They were very very basic in those days, very basic. Canvas seats, nothing like I am sitting in now, you know. Just a canvas seat, you know, steel frame canvas seat.
And took us three days to get back.
First of all …. we took off from Takoradi, flew all the way round the coast, and that was …. we saw so many ships on the beach …. caught in storms and either then, thrown up, or ….. wonderful to see.
We landed first at Bathurst in Sierra Leone, and we stayed overnight there. From there, we progressed on up into the South Sahara Desert. We were still following the coast round, in case the pilot got lost! And we put down at a …. I can’t say it was an airfield …. we put down on the sand where we re-fuelled, and the fuel came out in barrels, pushed by the “fuzzy wuzzies” …. They were unnamed, their hairstyle was a huge ball of hair, it truly was the biggest hairstyle you ever saw in your life and big, baggy trousers on, and they pushed these barrels out and used a pump …. hand pump to get the petrol back into the aircraft.
And then, while I was there, I was looking out into the desert, and I saw the masts and the funnel of a ship going through, just above the sand …. So, somewhere along there, there must have been a waterway. But it was weird to see the ship sailing along the desert.
Time Code: 00:26:04
Michael: Because you are on your way back to Blighty, essentially ….
Harry: That’s right …. we was landed …. came back by air through …. we stopped in Lisbon overnight to re-gain …. where we stopped at the Hotel Europa and I was very disappointed with breakfast because all that was offered was a croissant and some coffee.
So Corporal Mac and I kind of looked at each other and said there’s not much for a growing lad here so we got back on the plane and landed at a place in France.
I have no idea where it was, it might have been somewhere in Normandy. There was lots of airfields then, we just landed in an airfield for some reason, not sure why. I said to him, “I’m going to find something to eat”. So I asked the pilot …. He said “Well, there is a farm over there, if you go over there, they might give you something to eat.”
Well, I am sorry to say this but I met the most miserable looking French people I ever saw in my and I asked them for something to eat, and he had a cigarette in his mouth, and she was a dirty looking woman with a frown, you would …. oh, terrible. She didn’t like us at all.
But I asked for an “omelette, s’il vous plaît “. Ugh …. that was all the answer we got. Well, I got an omelette, just an omelette, and Mac got one as well, so at least we had something inside us, but …. but they were, I don’t know why they hated the English, may be because we had just being bombing, I suppose …. they wouldn’t take much kindly to that. But anyway, we’ve landed back in England, at …. and I don’t …. and I don’t …. again, you are never told where you are, you know, you just come down.
That was the biggest disappointment in my life. Don’t forget, because we had just come back from Lisbon, a city of lights …. Everywhere was lit up, people eating outside in cafés and things like that and neither Corporal Mac or I, we haven’t got a sou or a penny in our pockets. We couldn’t join in, we couldn’t eat or drink …. It was a wonderful sight though because we saw, saw things in shops that we never had even dreamed of before.
Well, we landed back in London, anyway, and they carted us off to a hospital in Uxbridge …. err …. not right …. Aylesbury, Aylesbury ducks, yes, …. Aylesbury …. to a hospital [probably Stoke Mandeville] …. and they left us there, I think it was for about a month to see what developed, just in case we sprouted all kinds of things …. I don’t know.
But they just let us wander about now in our blue uniforms, you know, hospital uniforms.
Well, from there …. they said “Right, you are posted now ….” …. that was the term …. and we posted to another place, a holding camp …. out …. that was an adventure because we went to this place, a camp somewhere, typical RAF camp. And one evening, we were only there for about a week, if that …. One evening, I went into the NAAFI, and was sitting talking to a bloke at a table, having a drink, and the shutters went up on the NAAFI counters and the most beautiful girl I have ever seen in my born days, dark hair, absolutely beautiful. I turned to this poor fellow and said “I am going out with her tonight”. He said “You’ve no chance …. you’re crackers ….” I said “Watch my smoke, I am going out with her tonight ….” I said “I might even just talk to her, but I am going out with her tonight.”
So, I waited for a while, and I went across and I said “I am going to ask you a strange thing, will you …. when you finish tonight, when you have shut up shop at 10 o’clock, consider meet me outside at the back door, I just want to talk with you ….” and God bless her, she did.
And it was a moonlit night, and all we did, was arm in arm, we walked round the perimeter of this camp, very slowly, just talking and laughing and joking, just being happy. She was a stunner, she was a Welsh girl, so when we got back towards the canteen where she was due to go back in an hour’s time, we lay down on …. a kind of …. lay down on the side of an EWS tank …. Do you know what that is? An Emergency Water Supply tank.
Now, they were big steel tanks filled with water, and the sides of them had been banked up with earth, so, over the years, grass grew and they were wonderful places to lean on while you are talking to a beautiful young girl!
You can’t blame me, dear God, you can’t blame me, and she …. she was Welsh, so I wondered whether she would succumb to my charms if I recite some poetry …. And I said, “You like poetry, do you?” She said “Yes.” I said “Would you like me read ….” and I recited that poem that Wordsworth wrote about his young daughter …. you know it?
Michael: I don’t but ….
She was a phantom of delight, when first she gleam’d upon my sight
A lovely Apparition, sent : To be a moment’s ornament:
Her eyes as stars of twilight fair; Like twilight’s, too, her dusky hair;
But all things else about her drawn From May-time and the cheerful dawn;
A creature not too bright or good For human nature’s daily food,
For transient sorrows, simple wiles, Praise, blame, love, kisses, tears, and smiles.
See, how about that?
Michael: Amazing ….
Harry: So, I took her back to the canteen, and never saw her again! There you are.
Michael: There you are, that’s a shame.
Harry: Do you like that?
Michael: Yes, I do indeed. Now, you must have been coming near to the end?
Harry: Yes, from there, I was posted to Market Drayton, in Shropshire. Now there, that was a camp, no aircraft. How can I describe it? It was like two separate camps, one was a camp, the domestic side of the camp where we ate, slept, cooked and everything else, and then, we went through the Bermah valley, no, the Bermah road through the valley onto the other side where we came to the hangers, which were full of AFS fire tenders which had been collected after the war and stored in fields, barns, sheds and God knows what else, and they were absolutely in a horrible condition.
There was birds’ nests, there was dead mice in them, there was all kinds of things in these and they had been stored, they had been put into the hangers and our job, we’ve got to refurbish the lot. And all we have to do is strip them right down, absolutely right down to the last nut and bolt.
So, I in my wisdom thought right, I know what I am going to do. I am used to working on carburettors ….
So, I took the …. carburettors off each one of them, labelled them all up and took them into a side room, inside a caged wall, and that was my domain. And I re-fettled all these carburettors. I had them all lined up, all numbered and labelled and they gleamed when I had finished them. And when the engines …. when these engines …. they were fire pumps, you know, when they were all fettled, we tried them out. I put a carburettor on each one of them and tuned it up and we practised fire drill with it …. that was funny ….
So, we had a championship match between us and the local fire service and what we used was the EWS tanks again, outside the hangers. And the thing was to wheel these things out, get the engines going, drop the suction pump …. the suction hoses into the EWS tanks and then hit …. the fire hoses had to …. they had to hit a couple of barrels which were in the field across the way.
Well, this was fine, except we had to stand on the sloping sides of these EWS tanks with these fire hoses, and we said, “Right water on ….” …. proper drill, you know …. “Water on ….”, water on, engine on …. “Right, full bore!” Full bore and instead of just opening the taps gradually like this, he opened the lot, spun them open like this, and of course the poor blokes at the far end on the nozzles got hit by God knows how many pounds per square inch of water! And they were flung off the side of these EWS tanks, the sides of them. Oh, it was fun and games. They were soaking wet by the finish.
But a good time was had by one and all. Things like that.
I had a motorbike while I was there …. when I said I bought it, at least I paid £10 for it which I couldn’t afford and I had to pay half a crown a week. And I got this motorbike …. it was an old 250 Royal Enfield, and I got it going. I get it all fettled and one afternoon, I put a new gear on it, and my mate, I always used to take him back to the billet in this. He’d stand on either side of the bike and tuck his great coat underneath his bottom like this …. and tuck it round him and I’d set off.
Well, when I put the new gear on, I took off like a rocket. He shot over backwards and landed on the ground on his back. “I suppose you think that’s funny, do you?”
Oh, daft things like that, that happened ….
Oh, that’s right, I was on guard duty, I was guard commander …. I don’t know what I was guarding, I have no idea, just these …. just these …. pumps, these fire pumps, and we were in this, like …., it had been an old watchtower, I think. We were in this place, and there was a grate, a fire grate there. And in the next field, the following morning, very early one morning, I looked down and there were white things in the grass. I thought, “They look like mushrooms ….”, so I got my knapsack and over the fence, I went, and I filled the knapsack, they were beauties. They were just about so big, you know, absolutely gorgeous, fresh in the field …. took them back and told the lads, “Go down to the cook house and go get me something I can use to cook”, I said, “margarine, lard and anything I can use in the frying pan.”
And we got the fire going, and the frying pan on the go. Oh, we just got this going, and the officer of the watch came in. He says “What can I smell cooking?” I said, “Mushrooms, sir, do you like mushrooms?” “Oh ….” he said “I love mushrooms.” “Sit down” I said, “have a plate of mushrooms.” He sat down and enjoyed a plate of mushrooms …. well, he was on the early shift.
So, when dawn came, and the last officer of the watch came in, he said “We’ve had a complaint, the farmer ….”. Somebody had been pinching his mushrooms. “Have you seen anybody ….?” I said “No, sir, I haven’t seen anybody.” I wasn’t telling lies, it was me.
There you go, there’s another little story. Have a plate of mushrooms!
Michael: So now you can never go back there again.
Time Code: 00:39:57
I think we are just about coming to the end of the interview if that is all right ….
Harry: Of my life story ….
Michael: And, I mean, you get demobbed, eventually …. about April 1949?
Harry: That’s all. “Here’s your train ticket, you are going home, goodbye.”
And off you go.
Do you know, when I was in that demob unit, and I was taking my uniform off, I nearly cried and the Sergeant behind the desk looked at me and he said “I know exactly what you are feeling, son ….”
And I was given this God-awful suit …. I didn’t …. I loved the uniform …. I know it is crackers, everybody wants to get out of uniform, but, no, I was home in the uniform ….
Michael: So, what did you do?
Harry: What did I do? I don’t really know because I had nothing planned …. I went to live …. stay with my father in this …. and his new wife in Salford. Well, the thing was, I was trying to …. I had to ask myself “What am I going to do now? Am I going to find a job? Where am I going to find a job? What kind of job do I want?”
My job …. I had been out doors …. six years …. I didn’t want to get stuck indoors but of course, nature takes its course, and I got a …. my first job was in Metro Vicks as it was then, in Trafford Park. And the job was to calculate the …. to calculate the cubic capacity of cases to take things to foreign parts. And that …. I could do it automatically …. percentages and all that. That didn’t need calculating, and things.
I could do that …. I was bored stiff, so eventually, someone said “Try Gardner’s, the diesel engine people. They want engineers, you know, so I went down there and got a job …. well, the thing that I found out about Gardner’s was I learned how to use a Herbert 2B, centre lathe, not a centre lathe, a turret lathe and I found the more I did, the less money in proportion, I got …. that was their piece work system. So, for instance, if I earned a hundred pennies for a hundred items. Now you think, if I made 110 items, I would get 110 …. No, you have a sliding scale down, you’d only get 105 pence.
And I thought, there was no future in this.
So, my father, who was working at the time with what they call a work taker in the factory at Green Lane [Patricroft], the Royal Ordnance Factory, “Why don’t you come here? You’ll have a better job here ….” And that’s how I started.
I started sweeping the floor in 63 Centre in the Royal Ordnance Factory in 1950 …. I think it was July 1950. I have got it all written down and, it is all …. now, and when I finished up, I was in management. And to my knowledge, I am the only man to achieve that. True ….
Michael: Not an easy route to take.
Harry: I worked my way right through all the grades. I started, and they said to me “Can you operate the machines?” So, I said to them ‘”I am sure I can.” So, they put me on a centre lathe, and it was never any bother to me. There was no job he gave me that I couldn’t do.
I found I went from a Machine Hand B, like the RAF AC1, AC2 …. a Machine Hand B to a Machine Hand A …. then I became …. instead of piece work, “Would you like to do some ….” covered time work, they called it.
I got a steady wage for whatever I produced. So, they knew very well that I’d produce top work all the time. I was never absent except, unless I was ill of course which was very seldom. Then I went …. they said “Look, we’ve got some experimental work coming …. top secret stuff if I wanted to go in on that ….” So I said “What’s the rate?” “The same as you are on now ….” he said. “But you are on the Herbert 2Bs now, the big machines ….”
So, I said “Fine.” I just progressed and then they found out I had what they call a green card.
In other words, I was entitled to be a full union man. When they found out …. “What the hell are you doing …. doing unskilled work?” …. as it was then, labouring, unskilled work. I said “I’m learning, I’m learning how I am going on ….” They said “Well,that’s fine, but how would you like to become a setter?”
A setter was a man who looked after the machines, tool the machines up for operators to op …. it might have half a dozen machines …. half a dozen girls to look after as I did …. And I took that job on and I made a success of that.
Then a vacancy became in the laboratory workshop, the metallurgical laboratory workshop. It was at the far end of the factory. “How would like to work in there?” So, I had been working, when you work as a setter, you work in a top pitch all the time because all of the machines have to be kept running at all times. The girls are on piece work, so they look to you to make sure they can work those machines to earn their money. You’re earning their money, you are not earning yours, so you have got a big responsibility in that respect.
Well, they took me off that …. they said “Go work in the laboratory workshop.” And that was a big, quite a big machine shop …. there was only three of us in it, myself, another skilled man, Terry, Terry McLaughlan …. I wonder if he ever sees this …. Terry McLaughlan and Jim, he was a labourer, and he swept up and made sure it was all right. That’s how I spent the next twelve years.
But in there, I progressed on, I became charge hand. I was in charge of everything that went on in there. So, I didn’t ….
And then they decided that I’d make a good Assistant Foreman. So, they said “Right, there is a posting coming up.” They were …. Notices were put round all the factories, the same notice, that a vacancy will occur and anybody can apply, but I was told “You are in for this ….” So, I applied for it, as a foregone conclusion in my case, I was told what to do.
And I went into the Iron Foundry, which I had never seen in my life before. So, I had to learn all over again, right from square one, things that I had never seen before in my life.
And then, of course, there they decided that I would be better back where I belonged in amongst the machines, making ammunition. And they put me back into 48 Centre. Yea, in 48 Centre making 105mm high explosive shells, 120mm high explosive shells, and anything else they could think of, and then I became a full foreman.
There you are, that’s my story.
Michael: Excellent. I think we are just about there, if that’s all right with you because …. I mean, it has been a fascinating story.
Harry: I won’t say I make sense of it, I feel as though I am rambling sometimes, which I suppose I am, because my thoughts ….
Michael: What you had been through, particularly during the war years ….
Harry: I was all right, I was lucky, I was a very lucky man. God smiled on me. Somebody up there is looking after me. I’ve had too many things happen in my life not to happen …. not to be that way …. I sincerely believe that. Whether you call him God, Allah, Buddha, Confucius, anybody you like, there’s a …. I believe, honestly believe there’s a supreme power somewhere, that’s guiding me, and I am still going at it now, but as far as …. I’ve not regretted anything I have done, I’ve had some bad times, I’ve had some good times ….
This sounds terrible, but since my wife died, I’ve had the time of my life. I’ve been out with ladies, I’ve been to …. on holiday where I have met ladies who demanded my presence ….
Michael: You are obviously good company ….
Harry: I’ve written all this story in a different book again …. Yes.
Michael: Well, Harry, thank you very much indeed.
Recorded by Michael Thompson, Hardy Productions UK, Manchester.