TOM NEIL 17 July 2008

I want to talk to you generally, not only about the battle itself but the prelude to the battle, because really the Second World War was a continuation of the First World War really. Most of the people who made the decisions in the Second World War were young chaps in the First World War and also how deeply affected by the First World War people were in this country, which people tend to overlook. For 6 hours at the Battle of the Somme, the nature of Britain changed as they lost 30,000 dead in 6 hours. If you look at all the details of the various battles, you get to see that the British never learn, or when they learn, they learn very, very slowly. They keep doing the same thing over and over again.

It’s very interesting that you say that because in January I went out to Helmand and spent a bit of time with 52 brigade and subsequently I have done a number of what they call Staff Rides but everyone else calls a battle field tour in Italy and there are amazing similarities especially in the way occupying forces deal with civilians with the Italian example – i.e. not thinking it through beforehand at all and they are all quite open about how they don’t learn enough from the past and they always say they are going to and make all these copious notes and then they are put in a draw and that’s the last they’re heard about. So they are always constantly having to re-learn. So you are right; this still goes on today.

Take Passchendaele in the First World War…..

My grandfather fought there.

They shelled the place so much; they reduced it to a quagmire and then expected the troops to advance over it which they couldn’t do and drowned, but in Caen in the Second World War they did exactly the same thing. 365 Lancasters came and each dropped 7 tonnes of bombs and reduced Caen to a quagmire; didn’t damage any Germans and the British column couldn’t advance over it and there are so many examples in history. In the First World War  what people don’t really understand is that not only were there those ghastly casualties – a million dead – but of course there was a tremendous incidence of TB in the immediate post war years.

And Spanish flu as well.

And Spanish flu – 20 million people died of it – greater than the casualties of the whole of the First World War believe it or not. The period between the wars was much worse than ?? Britain between the two world wars was a pacifist country.

And militarily, the bods at the top of the army went very much back into their imperial/colonial role – border scraps on the Northwest Frontier and that kind of stuff. That’s where you see Auchinlech and Alexander getting their first brigade.

It was understandable – Bunker Hill in 1775, they advanced and there were blokes on the top of the hill with their rifles and 8 line abreast with their red coats on and they were mown down and they did exactly the same thing time and time again. When you are fighting a war and ducking and weaving, you don’t have time to think about anything really constructive; you just carry on fighting in the same old way. All the people who took part in the Second World War – Leigh-Mallory, Dowding, Park, they were all in their 40’s in the Second World War and were absolutely steeped in methods and of course you couldn’t relate the Second World War  to the First World War. Broadly speaking, and this is where you get onto the Hurricane which I think was a disaster.

I was going to ask you about that because a good pal of mine who is by training a scientist; a PhD scientist and academic, but in his spare time he’s a great aircraft archaeologist. He has various theories about the Hurricane but the more he’s discovered about it, the more he thinks the Hurricane was an absolute disaster.

I was in Scotland about a month ago and gave my talk to hundreds of people against the background of an original Sopwith Camel which was great fun, but when you look for example at a Hawker Hart – all the Hawker series – what you are looking at is a Hawker Hurricane without the topping and the undercarriage. It was designed in 1926 by a chap who had the mental attitude of 1926 aircraft and getting in to the Hart, on which I was trained, was like getting into the same aeroplane.

The only difference was the wing structure wasn’t it? And the undercarriage; the fuselage looks exactly the same.

They couldn’t do very much about it. They could expand on it; a Spitfire you could; a different aeroplane altogether. When I left Malta, I went to the local church in Worcester and lit a candle and said “Please God never let me fly a Hurricane again.” And guess what, I go to ? and do the same dame thing! Except they’d been maintained by our chocolate chums with bits of string and sticking plaster and flying over hundreds of miles of jungle in those was not fun. It contributed to our disaster because the fuel tanks were wrongly placed; one in front which never caught fire; two by your legs – right leg; left leg always caught fire…..

Why was that?

It was somewhere to put it.

But why did they always catch fire when the one above you didn’t?

Because they didn’t have any self sealant. You were always hit from behind; the Germans didn’t need to go underneath; they went behind.

And they had canons.

Absolutely and the fire would come straight up to the pilot’s face and 75% of the people who were hideously burnt were in Hurricanes; Mark II of course had the self sealing tanks which made a little bit of difference but not much. Everyone used to think if the pilot was sitting in front or just behind the patrol tank – they were 30 gallons each roughly, so 90 gallons – this was the one that would be hit. It very seldom was; it was the wing tanks that were hit. The Hurricane was used because it was the only one available; there was nothing else. It was just slightly in advance in terms of time than the Spitfire, but there was nothing else. This was because Britain was a pacifist country and Mr Baldwin got re-armament brought about by sleight of hand. We only really started in 1935 building the new airfields, Linton on Ouse and Church Fenton and so on. They were inferior and when you compare our aircraft with the 109 for example, on the one hand you our aircraft which had a 27 litre engine, which is really quite small – Rolls Royce – and the Hun had 39; walloping great thing. It had a better super charger which changed speed all the way up.

Also, the DB601 was mainly cast iron which also affected the cooling. If you got hit in the radiator, it could keep flying for longer…..

Not much longer; about 5 minutes that’s all.

But a Hurricane or Spitfire was less as I understand it, wasn’t it?

Only marginally less; if you hit a chap in the plumbing system, it’d go down within 5 minutes. You very often didn’t see it land because you’d been shooting at it at 16,000 feet and by the time it’s hit the ground, it’s gone 30 miles. This is why there were so many apparent errors in the calculation of victories because it could have been attacked another 5 times before it hit the ground and all 5 could claim, but the people who ought to have been in the know…..I think they did know; I think they knew exactly what was happening but they couldn’t tell the country because it was not politic to tell the country that we were not doing as well as we thought we were doing.

Let me tell you what my scientist friend Rick discovered. There was a rod that went through the prop on the Hurricane, to change the pitch on the propeller blades. He said the rod was not strong enough for the job in hand and quite often it used to snap, leaving the blade like that, so you’d be sliding into nothing and then you’d just fall out of the sky.

I did hundreds of thousands of hours in a Hurricane and I never came across that. What it used to do was leak. There was a Gitts seal that used to leak and if you look at all Hurricanes, you’ll see a little curving bit around the back of the propellers which was to prevent the oil soiling your windscreen.

What was the effect of the leakage?

It would hit your windscreen and you couldn’t see out. They couldn’t cure the leak and so what they did, rather like in the Javelin, they couldn’t stop the blades flying off – the Armstrong Siddeley engines they used to fly off and cause terrible disasters. They said they couldn’t do anything about that, but they’d surround it with chain mail so that it would hit the chain mail and not go any further. This was the sort of action they took on the Hurricanes, they put a little curving bit around the back of the propellers which was to prevent the oil soiling your windscreen. But I have never heard of the propeller rod…..the propeller was reduced at half speed. If you did 3,000 revs on the engine, the propeller speed was 1,500 revs. This was because with the 12 feet diameter you were going supersonic with your trip (?) so you couldn’t do it at 3,000 revs because you’d go supersonic and that would ruin the whole thing. So they reduced the propeller speed for half engine speed. But we never had any trouble with that and in fact, on the first Spitfires, we had a plank propeller and we then had a 3 bladed propeller because the more power in the engine, the more blades you have to have, otherwise you get to the stage where your aircraft is turning round the propeller rather than the other way round. We had our original Spitfires with 2 pitched propellers – fine pitch into course pitch with nothing in between. But as soon as we got onto a later type of Hurricane – P registration – it was a constant speed propeller which meant that you could set the speed of the propeller and then everything sorted itself out; it was constant speed thereafter and you increased or decreased revs with a thing by the side of the throttle quadrant. I never had any problems except with the oil leak but the great problem was on the Hurricane, first of all it had a high lift wing this thick and it went up at 140 miles an hour; that was climb speed. The Spitfire had a much thinner wing with different contours and used to go at 180. The 109 had a very thin wing and of course couldn’t accommodate the undercarriage and they had a lot of trouble with the 109 with people pranging on landing and a lot of people were killed during the landing process. The difference in my view was the 109 was a better aircraft than either the Spitfire or the Hurricane because it did 2 things very well. It had a speed differential between the enemy and itself and it accelerated very quickly; dived quite quickly; climbed quite quickly and the difference between its approach and the enemy was great and it caught up very quickly and it disappeared very quickly at the other end and of course it had excellent fire power. It had 2 machine guns with a 1,000 rounds each, whereas we only had 300. They had  2 cannons; admittedly they had to chop the cannons – the Oerlikon cannon they had to reduce the muzzle length and velocity – the longer the muzzle length, the higher the velocity. But with all those detractions, it was had excellent fire power.

They also had the cannon coming straight the propeller hadn’t they?

No, on the 109 they were all on the wings. In the 109F they tried it but it wasn’t very popular with the Huns. Initially, with the 109E’s, as opposed to the F’s, these were the ones we encountered, they were wing mounted cannons. They flew the E’s and then went on to the F’s which was more advanced and they liked it because of the armaments. You couldn’t see out of it, like a Spit or a Hurricane and it didn’t turn as well, but who gives a bugger about turning? You need never turn. All you need do is go like a bat, catch the other fellow, fire the guns and disappear. You don’t need to turn. It had a weak tail and so they put struts on the tail and the ailerons weren’t very good either but it didn’t really matter; these were minor points.

So it was better designed for the job?

Indeed; it did 2 things very, very well. It could catch the enemy and it could run away from the enemy almost at will.

I’ve been talking to a lot of Luftwaffe pilots and with this book I am widening it out. The big clash of 1940 is that Germany has got to get Britain out of the war before it can go into Russia because it can’t afford a second front and can’t afford maintaining a launch pad for if and when America gets into the war. Britain has to hang in there…..

We didn’t win the Battle of Britain and we didn’t lose it.

Germany didn’t achieve what they were trying to do in 1940 and that’s the big thing because it was essential for them to get Britain out of the war come what may and they didn’t do that.

Let me just expand on this because I’ve been thinking about it a lot and talking about it a lot. The people in Britain didn’t want to go to war, that’s the long and the short of it. I was from a very patriotic family but none of my family wanted to go to war; they bloody well didn’t. You can’t train an army under 3 years. It takes 3 years to train an army. As an example, our first victory of arms was Alamein which was 3 years after the outbreak of war.

Absolutely right!

It was a very substantial victory with a small number of people but it was in many ways a turning point in the war.

The first time Britain had defeated Germany on the ground on her own terms.

There were good reasons for that, one of which was Malta. Hugh Pugh Lloyd went up from group captain to air vice marshall; he should have been shot! He was not orientated at all.

When I was doing the Malta book, there was not one request for Spitfires that came from him; not one. There were lots of times when he said “We need more fighters” but he didn’t specify what and it should have been perfectly clear to him what was required.

The Air Ministry had a lot of fighters around. My father, before the war, said “Son, never go overseas because the further you go from London, the less consideration you’ll get.” Let me go back to the time between the wars. It is fondly believed that people entered wholeheartedly into the war. There were a lot of politicians who positively did not want war. Lord Halifax for example – a Quaker – he didn’t want to fight, nor did he want his mansions and estates in Yorkshire to be knocked down. He so nearly became Prime Minister; in fact the King wanted him to be Prime Minister but by the grace of God, and this is why I believe there is a divine ? – nothing to do with theology – there’s a bloke up there who suddenly works the oracle so you do things in a certain way – Churchill became PM. He had a lot of faults but at least he had the right sort of understanding. The great problem in Britain between the wars was Communism. We bloody nearly became Communists because all the mines, all the steel, all the locks (?) were Communist land and if you don’t believe that……in 1952 I went to staff college. It was the most wonderful course and we used to have a week in which we wrote appreciations and were given an infinite number of lectures by every sort of person on the seditious threat and we used to have a little chap called Douglas Hyde; knee high to a duck. He was a raucous, out and out communist and a communist has to have an authoritarian religion; he lives by the book and then of course the Hungarian uprising happened in the late 50’s and suddenly he saw the light and went from one authoritarian religion communism to another authoritarian religion Roman Catholicism; became a vehement Catholic and then changed sides. He used to lecture to us at staff college and we’d have a whole day of him and he would tell us how he could work the oracle – he was a shop steward in the company that made the Sabre engine. There were 3,000 employees and he took great pride in it even after he changed sides he’d say “I could get those buggers out on ??” And what people don’t realise is that when we were fighting, there were strikes in South Wales, in the steel industry and at the docks and everything used to come through the docks in those days and there was pilfering at the docks and Deeds of the Daily Telegraph used to say that when tanks were received they were missing bits and they’d been thieved by the dockers. They regarded themselves as having the first picking of everything and that was London, Bristol, Liverpool and Clydeside and after the war there were these buggers who were seditious from the word go. What is also not generally believed or understood is that Russia and Germany entered into a pact in August 1939 in which Germany told Russia what they were going to do about Poland, well beforehand, and said “We are going to invade Poland and you can come up to the half way stage and we’ll give you a free hand in Estonia and Latvia etc. provided you give us an unlimited amount of strategic metals and an unlimited amount of food and oil” which they did and until June 1941, when the Germans moved up to invade, the Russians were on the German side and whilst Russia was in side, the communist element throughout the country, for them the war hadn’t started; it was only when the Germans attacked Russia that for them the war started. Douglas explained this to us saying “A third of the country was not at war until Russia was invaded.” You don’t learn about this.

There has definitely been a way of writing about the Battle of Britain and this is one of the reasons that has convinced me there is still a lot to say because I think you have to put the whole thing into perspective. It’ not just the fighter pilots and clashes in the sky; it’s more than that; there’s more going on and as you say with the communists and the strikes, there are quite a few people handicapping our own side and I want to get all that in if I can.

The Battle of Britain started and we had about 650 aeroplanes – 35 squadrons. We were comparatively short of aircraft and we were making new squadrons, usually 3 at a time – 249, 229 whatever…..but there was never any shortage of aeroplanes – I’ll make that absolutely clear. We started off with about 650 and ended up with more than a thousand in November. Why did that happen? Time and time again we would have 3 or 4 major interceptions per day and the established fighter squadron is 18 aircraft and you fly 12 and by the time 5 or 6pm came, we’d be down to 7 or sometimes 5. Chaps would be returning by train from all over London or by bus with their parachutes under their arms. Others would be in hospital, but by Lunchtime the following day, we were back at full strength because the miracle of organisation that is seldom mentioned.

So Beaverbrook has his place?

He was a bastard; a little shit but he did it; absolutely and despite the fact that the Supermarine organisation was bombed heavily, there were never any reductions in Supermarine aircraft and the following day we would always be back to almost full strength and this is a miracle. When you are 19 you don’t think about it.

It just happens……. in contrast, the Germans were all over the place. The production levels were going down, not up. I spoke to a chap the other day who was in JG2 and he had to wait 3 weeks – arrived in the middle of August and joined the squadron with Helmut Vick and all that lot and had to wait 3 weeks for an aircraft.

What a 109?

Yes and two of them joined on the same day and both had to wait 3 weeks before they got an aircraft. There was another chap I was talking to and he said that quite often the Staffel was supposed to be 12 and quite often they flew with 5, or 4 or 3 and every time they’d come across half a dozen Spitfires and he said it was really demoralising because they could tell that despite the intelligence coming through from Colonel Beppo Schmidt and all the rest of them, it was clear that the RAF were getting more aircraft. What has been very interesting for me talking to the Luftwaffe guys is that they were having major problems from quite early on and that also they were suffering from battle fatigue on the whole that was greater than the RAF.

They had a morale problem certainly. Every time one of their aircraft was shot down they usually lost a pilot, but often we didn’t.

Another thing is that 3 of them mentioned that what they found irritating and annoying and soul destroying was that they’d finally get their head down and these Blenheim’s would come over and bomb their airfield……

I keep harking back to the past but the Air Force was very badly served with aircraft – the Blenheim…..look at it in Malta – 50% casualties.

Yes terrible; if you did 2 tours I think you had a 17% chance of survival.

The Wellington was all right; the Whitley was a disaster; the Hampton was another disaster. We had some lemons of aircraft but it was inevitable.

The Oxfords they used to train in were made of wood and used to crumple. It’s interesting that the German pilots were saying what a nuisance it was that at night they’d be trying to get some kip and the Blenheims would come over and even if they didn’t hit them, the sirens would go off and they’d have to get out of their tent and jump in slit trenches and so they were absolutely exhausted.

Their methods of reducing stress….they didn’t move their pilots around; they moved the whole organisation backwards and forwards whereas we had a tour of duty of 250 hours which is really 9  months in an active squadron or 30 trips in a bomber and then you had 6 months’ rest and came back for a second tour of duty and you very seldom had more than 2 tours of duty which is 550 hours. Which is a lot of hours. The likelihood is that you are going to be shot down and be very badly injured or killed. Very few people flew more than 550 hours. But you know it is so difficult to related the success of the Germans as opposed to our success. I fought like a hound dog and got a maximum of 17 victories; there’s a bloke with 450 victories on the other side and he didn’t join til 1942! That sort of thing.

Also it was a completely different way of doing things. Half the guys I’ve interviewed have been Knight’s Cross winners and getting to that 25 victory mark was a big deal for them and you could feel them still bristling about it now; it matters. That whole idea of focussing everything on how many you’ve got – it’s not really the point is it? The point is to defeat the enemy; not necessarily get a massive personal score.

If I was asked to tell the absolute truth, I would say that in the main, the Germans in the main were better than we were.

As pilots?

As a fighting force; first of all they were very well disciplined and we were not. Secondly we couldn’t shoot for toffee. After the war I was at the School of Land Air Warfare and amongst other things, I was associated with operational research. It was deduced from facts and figures that of every 100 bullets fired by us, 97 missed. The success rate was 3%.

But I think it must be pretty hard to hit when you’ve got 8 guns spread out across your wings.

That doesn’t matter – our chaps didn’t have a very good gun site; they couldn’t hit anything other than dead astern; couldn’t do any deflection shooting and so most of the stuff we shot down was from dead astern. This was what made the Germans so successful because they had the sort of armaments that if they got dead astern, they got out quick behind the chap. The bloke who shot down four hundred and something, he said he never opened fire beyond 10 yards

352 …..Eric Hartmann.

That’s it and that sort of thing. If you had a chap coming quickly up your backside and disappear, that’s what he did with great success. Our shooting was abysmal and of course we had the .303 bullet. Looking back, I didn’t really care too much for cannons because you had 60 rounds each and they thumped and thumped and one invariably stopped and so you went sideways, but they had much more ammunition than we did and it was effective; their cannon shells exploded.

My theory is that there are 2 disadvantages of .303’s; firstly they are not so effective so you have to fire more of them to get something down. There are more bombers as well and they are harder to shoot down…..

Provided you hit.

Yes, you’ve got to keep at it and that puts you on the target for longer because you think oh just one more second; I’ll keep going because I nearly got him. The fact that you are having to spend longer to shoot a plane down, it means you are longer on a target which then exposes you because you are not looking behind you, checking your backside and secondly that you are going to get through your 15 seconds quicker than the German because with his cannon, he’s only got to get one good shot and boom and you are off. Would you agree with that?

Up to a point, yes. I don’t think we spent too much time comparing whether we spent a lot of time shooting or whether we didn’t; mostly we missed and it didn’t matter how long you spent shooting something if you weren’t going to hit it. The whole thing is that if you fired your full load of ammunition with .303’s assuming you hit with every one, you hit with 2.1lbs of metal. If you hit with .5, you hit  it with 6.1lbs of metal and if you hit with 20m cannon……it’s a question of how much metal you can hit the other chap with. Half of our people couldn’t shoot for toffee.

Is that lack of gunnery training?

Yes; why? Because even in peacetime in the Air Force, even in the 50’s and 60’s, a pilot on a squadron has about 20 hours a month – that’s the normal flying hours a month. Of that 20 hours a month, he did one on gunnery.

Was there not a case for doing clay pigeon shooting and so on, as well?

Yes but you’ve got to do this for years. This is why, and I hesitate to say this, but the Canadians did better than us because they were natural users of guns.

When you joined the volunteer reserves, had you ever picked up a shot gun before?

No; we had clay pigeon shooting in the squadron, once every couple of months.

Was there much analysis of deflection shooting?


You weren’t taught about that; you were taught lots about cumulous and navigation……?

There are so many myths perpetrated. One of which was that a Hurricane and a Spitfire can out turn a 109. it’s not true. If a 109 chose to reduce its speed to 160, out came the slats and it could out turn both a Hurricane and a Spitfire but they said why should we go down to 160 miles an hour doing this when at 350 miles an hour we can catch them, shoot them down and disappear.

The other thing that was very interesting talking to the German pilots – the amount of times I heard “We’d be struggling to get up to height and then the Messerschmitts would be waiting for us and dive onto us out of the sun.” The Germans said “We’d have to come over with these stupid escorts, weaving around at a ridiculously slow pace; couldn’t get the better and then the moment we turned back for home, which we all knew we’d have to do at some point, the Spitfires would be waiting with the sun behind them and they’d just pounce on us. They’d always be there…’ve no idea! Poor old us lumbering around in our 109’s!” It was sort of the same story but in reverse almost.

Well, one of their great problems was having this thumping great engine and roughly the same amount of fuel as a Spitfire, they only had an hour and 20 minutes so they couldn’t really……

Yes, a lot of them talked about this nightmare of having to go back across the Channel knowing they hadn’t got much juice and all this. It was very interesting for me to hear it from their perspective. The way the Battle of Britain story is so often told is this David and Goliath thing with the RAF being David and the mighty Luftwaffe being Goliath, and I don’t think it’s quite like that.

Oh no; certainly not and we were well aware at certain times that their morale was low.

Oh were you?

Oh yes indeed; at this stage they were losing so many people and we had heard that Goering had issued an ultimatum that either they did what they were supposed to do or else they’d be court martialled and shot.

And very interestingly, Goering was one of the ones who most definitely did not want to go to war. He didn’t want to and he was very anti going against them all going to prison and when your commander’s heart is not really in it, it is not ideal.

When Hitler achieved his enormous success in May and the beginning of June, he said,  broadly speaking, “Let’s wait a month to see whether they were going to ?? and all his generals were most reluctant. They said “It is not just a question of putting 270,000 men on the south coast. We’ve got to put 30,000 forces (horses?) ?? you’ve got to keep doing this right throughout the winter time; we can’t do it. We can just about cope with the Navy if we mine the North Sea……”

They were completely hoisted by their own petard just getting the invasion barges ready in Rotterdam and Le Havre because they had to take a lot of the coal barges from the Kiel Canal so the coal production went right down which is exactly what they did not want to be doing when they were planning to invade Russia. Before the Russian invasion everything needs to be in peak production and one of the places they really lost out was in Dunkirk because they had a massive amount of casualties at Dunkirk in terms of aircraft losses. It was a far bigger and more significant air battle than the Tommies on the ground would have realised at the time and they never really recovered from that; it was a big shock to them and I think some of that was because they were coming into contact with Spitfires, not just Hurricanes and Moranes that were more effective against them. They certainly had a lot of casualties over Dunkirk which they never really recovered from.

I was always most impressed by the Germans; I thought they were bloody good, they really were.

What I have learnt is the average German service man was in a different league, on average. Obviously there were exceptions; some were terrible and there were some exceptional British and American or whatever. As a rule of thumb…..they were just tougher; prepared to put up with more.

The other thing is your German is a land animal; he thinks in terms of his army and he thinks in terms of war, but when he thinks in terms of war, he doesn’t think about war in his own country; oh no. It’s war in somebody else’s country. When he looks at the Navy and the Air Force, they are there to help the army so the German Air Force was a tactical organisation. The dive bombers were just airborne tanks and the fighters were there protect the dive bombers. There were no long range bombers; they just had medium range bombers were to assist the army conducting their affairs on the ground.

The Junkers 88 was used as a dive bomber more than……

Of course, it was designed as a dive bomber; as tough as boots and they were very good. Let me tell you about this story about discipline……the war hadn’t finished – just before the end of the war in 1945, a chap called Bob Russer (?) and I went to Schleswig Holstein – they had a Fokke Wulf 190 unit there because my group captain Pete Donkin said “If you can find an engine that you can pinch from the Germans, I want it for my boat.” All the girls were giving up their bodies for packets of tea and coffee and so forth.  So we went to Schleswig and landed at the airfield and everyone was German there. We had the back of the aeroplane filled with coffee. I was nearly sick having smelt coffee for about 6 hours solid. We were waved in with batons by the Germans= air crew and parked the planes. The airfield seemed to be deserted and we walked to what we perceived to be the officers mess, past the hangars, inside of which were a whole flock of 190’s and the crews were carefully removing the ailerons and the elevators because they’d been told to do so and they were greasing them up to put into storage. We went into the mess and it was deserted. The table was laid for a meal but there were no people there; it was like the Mary Celeste. The stewards were there bowing obsequiously. We went out into the car park and there were Opels and Mercedes and BMW’s. They’d all been told to leave their keys and so we took the biggest car we could find, a Mercedes and went for a drive……

Presumably you were only about 24 or something?

Yes, and we went down the road and then the engine stopped. This was at the stage where people were still wont to fire at you from the trees; Hitler Youth and such like who couldn’t be persuaded that the war was over. I lifted the bonnet to see if I could see what was wrong and then over the hill came about 20 or 30 German soldiers with an officer at the front and the sides and the back. I thought “Christ, we’re going to have out throats cut here.” Bob and I were watching them come towards us and they drew level and the sergeant yelled for them to stop and this chap came over and saluted and said “Excuse me Sir, could you tell me how to join the Royal Air Force?”

How extraordinary!

I said “I don’t know!” He said “We want to fight the Russians!” I shook my head and said again I didn’t know and so he started the men marching and off they went. Can you see that happening in England had we been defeated? The discipline was absolutely perfect.

I talked to a chap who was a bomber pilot. He was very bright and eventually got a long way. He joined the Luftwaffe in 1934 or 1935 when it had just started up again. He was always being disciplined for sticking his neck out. He was testing the JU 86 and told them it was rubbish and wasn’t going to work and got his knuckles wrapped for that and sent off to Spain and then he came back and was writing reams of papers on what he thought ought to be done about bomber tactics. Firstly I was struck by how often he was getting told off about what in the RAF would have been no misdemeanour whatever and secondly, and he wasn’t the only one, how in their spare time they’d be studying and reading more and learning more about tactics and writing papers. I asked all the pilots I saw what they did in their spare time. Did they go to bars and drink and so on and they looked at me askance and said maybe once a month they’d go to the fleshpots of Lille but basically get their heads down and write papers or letters or go to sleep. There was no sense of all going off to the pub and having a jolly good time.

There were 3,500 Americans here at Seething (?). They had B24 Liberators……I can you some stories about that! My son, who flies for the King of Bahrain now, he flew the Queen for 6 years when he was on VC10’s in the Air Force. She goes periodically to Kentucky to buy horse and he used to fly her to Lexington. My son and the crew had to kick their heels til she was ready to come back. He told me about a chap who entertained them one time who said “I flew in the UK during the war from a tiny little place called Seething.” My son said “It just so happens that my father lives on the side of Seething airfield!” I wrote to this chap and said if he was ever in England, he should look me up and blow me down he wrote and said “Sure thing!” He turned up with his lovely wife, a Mormon. He was called Kent Mosely. I said “Kent, how long were you here for?” He said “6 months and I did 17 trips.” I asked him if he went into Norwich and he didn’t. I said “Did you got to the pub up the road?” “No.” “What did you do?” “Saved my money; we were well paid and I wanted to be a dentist.” I said “Didn’t you do anything while you were in East Anglia?” He said “No, just took off and did our job and came down again and didn’t stir from the base.” I asked him to tell me about their ops. I said “You only did 17 ops? What happened then? You came back?” He said “No, I landed in Scandinavia.” I said “Did people do that regularly?” “Sure; when people had done 17 ops they got fed up and wanted to go home.” If they got hit, they’d land in Sweden and would be incarcerated for a short while and then they be POW’s and sent home and they knew damn well they wouldn’t be sent back to England.

How astonishing; I’ve never heard of that before.

I said to him “Tell me, if you were in formation and going to Berlin say, how did you do your bombing?” He said “When the guy in front dumped his bombs, we dumped ours.” They flew in fairly close formation and when the leader dropped, they all dropped. I said “What happened if you made a mistake?” He said “We bombed Switzerland a couple of times.” That’s not to say that they did do some wonderful things, but…….let me just talk about the hierarchy. You had the Baders and the ruffians and the nutcases; you had to have some of those around. Lots of people engaging in one-upmanship. Then the leaders – I met Dowding many times during the war and after; I never once saw him smile. He wasn’t a charismatic and almost half a generation older than everyone else.

He was close to retirement wasn’t he?

He was middle 60’s but they couldn’t sack because he knew more than anyone else. He knew about radar and his great claim to fame was that when he was pressed to send Spitfires to France to try to prevent France from going under, he said no.

Lots of them still went anyway.

Not Spitfires.

Not Spitfires but there were Spitfire squadrons operating from south east England over France.

Even Churchill wanted to send them to France but he absolutely dug his heels in and said he had to have 53 squadrons to defend Britain. He won the day; he stood up to the politicians. There were a lot of people like Lord Halifax and Sir Samuel Hoare who could just as well have been on the other side; should have been shot. A lot of them were downright seditious. It has to be remembered that a lot of people favoured the masses, including some nobility in this county. In fact, Henry Williamson who wrote Tarka the Otter – his first wife used to live in the next village and I went and had a long talk with her one day. She was as deaf as a post and used an ear trumpet but luckily her daughter was there and she translated for us. Henry Williamson, he was a rascal. He really should have been interned because he was a Fascist.

An awful lot of people were anti-semitic as well.

Indeed; many people viewed nationalism as the antidote for communism.

That’s how it was painted in Germany as well.

Yes; Williamson farmed up here in Norfolk before moving to the West Country and he was in the dog house in the Second World War. They almost put him into clink.

Dowding did a pretty good job didn’t he? And Park.

Absolutely; he was a highly educated man – Winchester…….

And a Spiritualist.

He lost his wife very early on.

His wife was a big Spiritualist wasn’t she?

The second one was. He didn’t get re-married til he was 53.

What was that book he wrote? Many mansions?

Don’t know; his son’s wife is French – Odette and we meet often. She hasn’t really a good word to say about her father in law. Keith Park was rather like Montgomery – they gather people around them they can trust. If they found that a person did their job particularly well, they took them with them. Keith Park was a group captain and suddenly became an air vice marshall which upset a lot of people terribly. A lot of people thought he was a bit of an oik because he came from New Zealand and wasn’t frightfully well educated. Leigh-Mallory never flew a fighter in his life. In the First World War  he was in his late 40’s – he was very fond of me and tried to get me as his PSO. But he didn’t have me because I would have totally out of my depth. I said no thank you.

Did you like him as a person?

He was a very pleasant man but slick, polished, had a pipe.

He was George Mallory’s brother wasn’t he?

He was a brain picker; he had people around him whose brains he picked and one of them was Bader. Bader was a gung ho sort of guy and he killed more people on our side than he ever killed on the German side…..

Is that so?

Of course he did because he wouldn’t obey rules. He’d be leading a formation and half way through he’d change the rules and do something he wasn’t supposed to do and instead of flying round France at 15,000 feet, we’d be at 4,000 or 5,000 getting shot to pieces by flak; that sort of thing.

There was a rumour that he got the squadron posted to Malta.

No, that was Alf (?) Thompson’s view but…..we flew with him a bit; infrequently because he was at Duxford, which we always used to regard as up north. He dictated terms as far as Leigh-Mallory was concerned. Leigh-Mallory and Park used to have a monthly intelligence summary and used to berate each other and I used to read them as a pilot ?? I thought how could air marshal’s speak to each other like this? It was demeaning that tye should be so rude to each other. Park would say that this man let us down up north because they didn’t reinforce and Leigh-Mallory would be getting very cross with Park for various reasons. Leigh-Mallory and Park were at daggers drawn.

Do you think it was more than just an ideological conflict? A personality conflict as well?

Principally ideological and the nigger in the wood pile was William Sholto Douglas; he was an unpleasant man; he was a shit.

Wasn’t he in with Beaverbrook?

He was a politician so he was in with anybody; had his eyes on the big job. It was a cabal of ambitious underlings that put the skids on……Archibald Sinclair was a Liberal and he used to bow and sway all the time. Leigh-Mallory was dead keen on having 11 Group and to become head of fighter command and then he was killed in 1944 in an air crash. But Park was a fighter pilot.

Park understood fighters didn’t he?

Oh yes.

It’s very interesting – Goering commanded the Richtofen squadron at the end of the First World War  but knew absolutely nothing………


He was a brave man though.

Oh yes and very cunning and very clever but the least able to command an air force.

We were talking about senior officers…..there was so much in the way of political manoeuvrings that it became obvious even to us 19 year olds. As I became more experienced in the ways of the Air Force. As I became more experienced in the ways of the Air Force I realised that there was a lot of sleight of hand at all sorts of levels and all sorts of people were shifted and booted out for one reason or another, purely because their face didn’t fit.

I think that still happens now; I am absolutely certain of it but it has a destructive element. It was bad in the RAF but it was doubly, tripally worse in the Luftwaffe. I am amazed that the Germans survived until 1945 in spite of everything, rather than because of……

How they kept going, I just do not know because they suffered so much damage and so much heartache. One or two of my friends in the Battle of Britain organisation married German wives. I was talking to one the other day – delightful woman and she speaks about going underground with no animosity whatsoever.

When I was re-reading your book, I got the impression that you father worked for the railways and that you were an only child?

Yes; my mother was a Roman Catholic, the daughter of an Irish gentleman who apparently spoke 7 languages and he started of in the Liverpool Scottish before the First World War and then went into the artillery – 9. something howitzers he told me. He was one of the first members of the Lancashire and Yorkshire railway and eventually became the head man in the northern part of the ?? in the early 20’s and ended up as a big cheese in Euston House in London.

When you moved to Manchester, he was moving up the ladder?

Yes, he had an inspecting role. He was in charge of the railways up to northern Lancashire and Yorkshire.

It was quite a big job.

Well, he was just my father.

Where did you go to school?

I went to the grammar school in Bootle which is no more which is no more and then I went to a grammar school in Manchester.

Manchester Grammar?

No, that was too far away. Eccles Grammar School which has now disappeared. They were minor public schools without the boarding. The staff were enormously highly qualified; all Oxford and Cambridge men. I didn’t enjoy schooling terribly.

Yes, I sort of got that impression because you didn’t mention it and if you’d had the time of your life you might have done. Why was that do you think?

When we moved to Manchester, I suddenly found myself in a different environment. They taught things in a different way. I’d never done chemistry before and suddenly I had to do chemistry and I had to do in one year for my matriculation what should have taken 5 years and I rather surprised myself that I was able to do it and in fact got quite a lift out of that. I was a moderate student and strangely enough I wanted to go to the University College of Wales as all my friends were going there and my father said “No, not if you want to join the Air Force.” And there was the ridiculous thing of being able to fly before I could drive a car.

With your stolen driving licence!

Yes; in those days you could take a short service commission at 17 and ¾ and you had a 4 year stint and then just before the war they upped it to 6. I wanted to go to Cranwell but my parents wouldn’t hear of it and so I said I’d take the short service commission and they wouldn’t hear of that. ‘Whoever heard of being out of a job at 22 and all you can do is fly a stupid aeroplane…..’

And they were very worried about the evils of drink weren’t they?

Well, neither of them drank. My father smoked and that’s why I’ve never smoked is because I was so upset by it. I lost a friend called Barthrop…..

I knew him.

He had emphysema at a very early age and died.

He turned up at my local pub with Alan Curtis. Barthrop sat in a corner and you’ve never heard such bad language! He was telling me that he was going to become a new Fascist.

He was the saddest creature. His mother died when he was born and his father never forgave him and never spoke a word to him. He was brought up by aunts and uncles. He’s never read a book in his life. He was at Ampleforth, the Catholic School. His father went bankrupt and they made his life hell at Ampleforth, the shits. So he had to leave. He tried to get into the Air Force and couldn’t make it; tried the Army and they wouldn’t take him and so he went to a crammer and learnt sufficient to get a short service commission in the Air Force and joined in 1939 and he is 6 months younger than me. But he is the kindest and sweetest man on 2 legs and the most obscene in the whole of Christendom. He wasn’t a good pilot; he went into the test pilot business with me and he was a hopeless test pilot.

He was good chums with Billy Drake as well I think. Billy used to work for him.
I saw Billy yesterday. He’s quite chipper.

I spoke to him at length about North Africa and also I did a film a few years ago about the end of the war and he witnessed the initial surrender when Yodel turned up at Eisenhower’s HQ – he saw it all.

We seldom speak except lightly and the night before last was the first time I’d heard him speak seriously about politics, which rather surprised me, but I like him a lot.

He’s had some tough times.

Well, he left under a bit of a cloud I am told and went to live in Portugal for 20 years.

When I went to see him he’d just moved down from wherever he was. He was clearly an amazing commander…..he’d just moved down to this place between Exeter and Torquay, mainly for ex-servicemen. He said they all talked shop all the time; banging on about the war and he couldn’t bear it and so he tried to encourage them to talk about other things.

He’s had his wings clipped a bit because it’s a long hike from the West Country to Duxford.

At these Duxford do’s, do you get to see planes fly?

Oh Christ yes! In fact I was driven mad with aircraft yesterday. They’ve got the complete spectrum of aircraft – everything including the Fortresses and there are only a few left.

Do you think it’s surprising that so many people are so interested?

I can’t understand it.

But then when you were a boy you were absolutely avid about it; it’s the same thing.

People come up and insist on giving me things; books and all sorts and there was a chap there who followed me around for hours and I tried to get away from him. I almost said “For Christ sake, go away!” You sign things and so on and they think you’re a hero. I don’t consider myself a hero at all. It’s really rather pathetic. A couple of weeks ago I went down to North Weald; they’ve built a Hurricane out of fibre glass. There were thousands of people and I had to give a little speech. They gave me this plat except they’d spelt my name wrong so that’s had to back.

It must be gratifying isn’t it?

It goes in peaks and troughs. There are fallow periods when people aren’t at all interested and then there’s an upsurge of interest. There are so many enthusiasts. They make Spitfires and Hurricanes! God knows how much it costs to refurbish these things. During the war, we had aluminium rivets.

Did you go to Malta for the big reunion?


Presumably you saw the Hurricane they’ve been re-building? It’s amazing! This chap machine building every little bit.

During the war, if you broke a propeller you went down to the dockyard at Slima and they’d make you one with a Phoenician (?) type tool. Wonderful workmen. ?? have no regard for them at all. They are not a military race….

But they have ingenuity.

Indeed they have but they are very much wog. Their language is Libyan rather than Arabic.

You were quite lucky I think in that you had quite a long lead up before you were flung into action in 1940. You had quite a lot on type too.

I had never flown a low wing monoplane when I got to 249 squadron. I got there on 5th or 15th May 1940; in fact I was the first officer on the squadron and we were designated as a Hurricane squadron and then these 18 Spitfires turned up but that was a stop gap so to speak. I did a month on Spitfires; I did a hundred hours in 4 weeks.

That’s really amazing. When I saw Pete Brothers, he made a very interesting point. In 32 squadron, not one of the pre-war squadron was killed in the Battle of Britain. Some bailed out, but not one was killed. The guys who were killed were the guys who came in later on. I guess the problem was not that their training was cut short particularly but it was that conversion onto type. The operational training unit was cut……

There was no operational training units….well, there was one; 52 squadron…..but no, I went straight to Spitfires from Hawker Harts. I got all tied up in the straps on time and I realised I didn’t know how to start the engine and each plane had a fitter and a rigger, 20 year olds like me and there was a sergeant there as well and I beckoned to him and he came over and I whispered, “How do you start it?” He said “If you pull that out, it’ll start.” The only instruction I got from my flight commander was “Don’t bend the bloody thing!” They were child’s play to fly; it’s a bit disconcerting to have been flying around at 120 mph and to suddenly be able to fly at 420 mph.

It must be a rather breath taking increase in power.

Yes; the aeroplane flies itself if you don’t do anything silly. This is all part of the mythology; prior to the war in the late 30’s there was this wonderful aeroplane called the Hurricane. 111 squadron got the first Hurricanes and the squadron commander there who was very interested in promotion, got himself a ?? and  waited for the jet stream to come from the north. He took off in his Hurricane it was at night I think. The jet stream was 120 miles an hour and the papers said ‘Hurricanes fly between Turnhouse and London at 420 miles an hour!’ It only went 300; 120 down wind. Everybody who knew about these things knew what a load of boloney it was and the Germans knew too. The mythology was “Our aircraft are so much better than everybody else’s.”

In terms of the cockpit layout……

Exactly the same as a Spitfire.

If you can fly a Hurricane, you can fly a Spitfire?

Yes; in fact the Hurricane was easier to fly than the Spitfire. The undercarriage was narrow and (there is some crackling here so a bit difficult to make out) it overheated because the radiator was one side out to the slipstream.

Curiously, the Germans were rather baffled when I mentioned the narrow undercarriage. I said “Did you not have any prang? Can you remember people crashing?” They said “Not really; we thought it was great.”

We did have a lot of trouble with the narrow undercarriage. It had many serious faults as an aircraft but it had two overwhelming plusses.

If I was a fighter pilot I would have wanted cannon amongst my armour.

Yes; our cannon was absolutely brutal; 63 inches long and carried 60 rounds.

The Mark 5 and Mark 9 Spitfires were pretty good weren’t they?

Well, we got them to work. We had cannons in the Mark 1. At Duxford I think 19 squadron had the first cannon Spits but they had terrible problems stopping they didn’t fly them. Then we got them in Mark 2 Hurricanes and they were fine as long as ??? then they slewed sideways. But like everything else you got it sorted out after a time. They were affected by high altitude and freezing and only carried 60 rounds each.

Which is not a lot is it?

Particularly if you don’t hit. They didn’t have tracer in those cannons in the Hurricanes so you couldn’t see what you were doing. But if you hit the guy in front my goodness me  – it was horrifying. I would have hated to have been hit by one of our cannons.

Yes, you see the differences….they did all these experiments not all that long ago when they put up targets and shot at them with a .303 and then with 20mm cannons and the difference was quite remarkable. I went to the small arms unit at Shrivenham and saw all the different small arms and you’ve only got to look at them up against a wall to know the 20mm is a big old beast.

We have periods of insanity in the Air Force – it was at one time the done thing to have head on attacks and I said to the air marshal, David Attlee,  “You are out of your mind.” You know, the time you’ve got to sight the enemy when you are doing 300 miles an hour in opposite directions; you’ve got just a second. Unless you get absolutely in the right position…….unless you’ve got a really big gun…..the Germans used 30mm; a really big cannon. They could hit a fortress and if they only had one shot at it, the aircraft was destroyed. You could destroy a train with cannon fire provided you hit it in the boiler but the Germans would repair their train boilers within 3 weeks. We used to hit a lot of trains during the run up to the invasion and during the invasion. A glorious sight; all steam…… but you couldn’t destroy a tank. You could inconvenience thin skinned vehicles but in order to destroy a tank, not only would you have to hit them with 60 pound heads on the rockets – 60lbs was a 6 inch naval shell – converted; they used to take a 6 inch naval shell and tie them on a rocket launcher.

That must have added some weight to the plane.

Well, we had 8 of them. It was fine but the sighting of them, we didn’t have special gun sights; we had to use our own gun sights and most of the rockets missed. We used to frighten the life out of tank crews because the noise they made was terrifying and they used to get out of their tanks and run, but in order to destroy a tank you’d have to hit it with 25 solid shot. With a 60lb head, 25 solid shot, that’s the only thing that would go through a tank. Alternatively, you’d have to hit the tank with a direct hit with 60lb heads. Even a near miss 6 or 8 feet away – pointless.

Going back to your point about pilots being bad shots, the fact remains that we shot down a lot of aircraft.

Indeed but the only way to hit the bloke in front was to get as close as you could. We used to have our guns at 250 yards. I used to have mine, in so far as I could, harmonised (?) at 150 yards.

Did you just work that out for yourself?

Yes; it was on a suck it see basis.

Did you have discussions with other pilots when you sat around and said “Look, I’ve been thinking chaps……”

Yes, in the bar but you could what you liked in your own aircraft. The greatest error in air firing is people being out of range because people look as though they are 250 yards away when in fact they are 500. you’ve got to be very close indeed.

Because of rate of fall and a smaller target.

You’ve seen a gun sight?

Yes, in fact I’ve got one.

You twiddle the things in and out and up and down but in order to get the aircraft in front of you completely in your own gun sight lines, you look as though you are very close indeed but in order to get really effective, you had to fire from a 100 yards or less and even then you’d miss. It was very difficult.

I know that air warfare was developing and was still pretty new in the 1930’s but when I was doing the North Africa book I spoke to guys from the Desert Air Force, 57 Fighter Group or something like that and they were training in 1942 and I said “Were you studying tactics from the ETO?” “NO!” “Didn’t you think about getting a toured out RAF fighter pilot to come and talk to you?” “No!” I think that did happen actually but the people I spoke to had no idea of tactics……

Right at the end of the war, one or two Spitfires had gyro gun sights. In effect, all you had to do is out the dot on the other aeroplane and the deflection sorted out itself but you had to keep changing the range all the time and you have to do two things at the same time. I commanded 208 squadron, which the jet squadron in 1953 to 1956 and we were the champion squadron in the Middle East with the best air firing results. We used to do air firing with a towed target at 10,000 feet, all doing quarter attacks and we got very proficient. We were the top squadron and our average was 20%; in other words, 80% of the bullets missed. We got the prize. If we went up to 20,000 feet, we went down to about 2%. As you get higher, the question of turning on your cone of pursuit (?); your aircraft stalling and what have you; it’s much more difficult. And to hit anything at 20,000 feet, you have to be deal line astern – within 20 yards almost….well, not quite strictly but……

One thing that occurs to me is that there must have been a lot of bullets spraying around the place and a lot of them are presumably lucky or unlucky hits, depending on whether you are the pilot or not. Also, you hadn’t heard of this propeller rod thing but I haven’t heard a pilot ever say a bad word against his ground crew, but there must have been the odd wrench left in the engine and that sort of thing.

The only occasion I heard of propeller failure was with Tony Lovell of 41 squadron before the war when we’d just got Spitfires. He was flying a circuit and suddenly there was a hell of a clunk up front and the propeller stopped; the crank shaft had broken and he landed…

I suppose what I am trying to say is that even now, with the amount of man hours and health and safety laws there are, people still have mechanical failures in Spitfires, flying them at air shows and things. In war time when you’ve got people working round the clock and getting over tired there must have been mistakes made and some planes must have fallen out of the sky because they’ve had engine failure or the crank shaft’s gone or there is a wrench somewhere it shouldn’t be. But what you see is someone trailing down to the ground and you think he’s been shot down, when in fact he hasn’t.

Let me put it in perspective – the life of an engine, first life, was 240 hours and that equates roughly to the engine in your car doing 10,000 miles – you’d never think of changing your engine at 10,000 miles. With the fighters it was a life of 240 hours and the aeroplane was then taken out of service and refurbished and that engine became a second life engine. With a first life engine, very seldom anything happened to it. You could do what you liked but it wasn’t really taxed. We only had superchargers giving us a 6 and a quarter pound boost; an emergency was 12lbs boost. Later, we went onto 18lbs boost and sometimes we had 24lbs in doodle bugs and so on. Eventually we ran them at 100lbs boost – that sort of thing, so we could tax the engine far in excess of what we normally did. The only engines that gave us trouble were the Merlin 45’s on the Mark 5’s. The Merlin 45 would be flying along at tree top height and suddenly the engine would stop, absolutely. Nobody knew because usually the pilot was killed or injured very badly and the plane was damaged very badly and it was scooped up and taken back to Rolls Royce so they could decide what had happened to it. They didn’t know; here was this Merlin engine which was a very reliable engine and all of a sudden it would just stop and nobody knew anything about it. Then suddenly one of the engineers had a eureka moment and realised that the worm gear that went from the back of the crank shaft worked the timing system and every now an again the crank shaft used to move a millimetre out of plumb which meant the worm gear ground itself off. The timing then disappeared and the engine stopped. We had a spate of those in Merlin 45’s and if you read Alex Henshaw’s book you’ll find out that he had some horrible crashes because of that. Two or 3 happened in my squadron and I remember a sergeant pilot saying “Can’t understand it; I was flying at tree top height and suddenly the engine stopped.” The Merlin engine had between one and two thousand moving parts. The thing we used to have on second life engines was that the ancillaries used to get trouble. You had the basic engine which works everything and then the thing that works the undercarriage and the thing that works the generator and you have a block – the main part of the engine and then a seal between the 2 blocks and you used to get an internal leak there and you couldn’t see it on a Merlin and then the engine begins to overheat. Occasionally we used to get that, but it was rare. Second life yes, there were problems. They’d done their 240 hours and were on the second 240 hours and they’d always give trouble.

At what point would an aircraft be written off or taken back to the factory or patched up? If you’ve got a bullet in the engine, it’s going to go isn’t it?

No, you could always repair that; fairly straight forward.

I am trying to work out how so many planes came down and what proportion were shot down and how many of them came down due to mechanical failure.

Do you know what the average life of a Lancaster was?


44 hours; 7 man crew; 4 engines; average life throughout bomber command in the Second World War  was 44 hours and Spitfires were about the same. The life of a Spitfire in a squadron, maximum, was 9 months. It was programmed to do 30 hours a month. It flew for 9 months; 9 x 3 = 27. 240 hours the aeroplane would go back to the maintenance unit and refurbished. Sometimes a Spitfire would last one day or two days – anything could happen. The life of a Spitfire – there were 22,000 Spitfires – would be about 44 hours total. And Spitfires cost £5,000.

You’d say that the vast majority of Luftwaffe planes that came down were shot down?

Well, usually the reason you shot down a Messerschmitt was if you shot him in the plumbing system…..

I am thinking about Heinkels and Junkers and …..

Are yes; totally different – the Heinkel you could set the engines on fire; Dornier 17 you could set the engine on fire. As soon as you could see an aircraft streaming, you knew its number was up if it was a single engine aircraft. The Messerschmitt wouldn’t last more than 5 minutes and if you hit it anywhere outside London, it wouldn’t make the coast and if it did manage to make the coast, it usually dropped into the channel. You could always count it as destroyed if you hit it in the plumbing system. Planes like the Junkers 88 could fly just as well on one engine as two; they could even outpace the Hurricane on one engine! I have seen 88’s with billows of black smoke pouring from them and they’d still go on.

One German guy was telling me about a chap on his squadron who was obviously suffering from battle fatigue and said “My oil gauge is showing up; I’ve got to return to base” and he’d get back to base and everything would be fine and this chap got so angry with him that he, Neumann (?)  said “If you do that one more time, I am going to personally shoot you!” He was schwarm (?) commander – finger 4 – the next time they were over England, they both went down; bailed out and that was that. He thought I am not going to do this any more…..

In the Second World War a lot of people were penalised for this. People became overstressed and were labelled LMF – lack of moral fibre. In the First World War they had what they called flying sickness D – D stood for debility. You had your quota of courage and the tank empties and then you hit the bottom. Once upon a time you’d be criticised in the Air Force because you’d emptied the tank; they didn’t understand it but now they do and you are not held to account.

It was interesting hearing it from the other side. They’d come back from a mission and most of them were in tents, rather than being billeted, particularly in the Pas de Calais where they were on makeshift grass airfields; no days off apart from every so often going off to Lille. It was very, very intense. None of this 36 hours off every fortnight or whatever, and you are not fighting over your own country.
As a 19 year old in the squadron, it became obvious because we were told that we were just about to be invaded, it didn’t mean anything to me. I couldn’t imagine ever that we were going to lose. It didn’t occur to me for a second that we were going to lose and I don’t think it occurred to anyone in my squadron. We were British! We don’t lose these things! We might lose a battle here and there, but we’d win in the end. To me it was a game. It was a game of rugger. The penalty was death, not a broken leg but no one gave a hoot; it was a game. It’s only when you get to the age of 25, you begin to look at things in a different way and I began to consider things in terms of profit and loss. What am I going to do? What am I going to lose and what am I going to gain? And a lot of people in the RAF in 1942, 43 were needlessly killed by this ridiculous business of carrying the battle to the enemy – flying over enemy territory! Countless people who were absolute heroes in the Battle of Britain were killed, hit by flak and things; doing bloody stupid things they need not have done and Leigh-Mallory was one of those. In the First World War the Germans never fought over our line. The time Von Richtofen was shot down and killed was the only time he’d ever been over British lines and that was on 21st April 1918. He was following somebody else and he strayed over our lines and was shot down by machine gun from the ground.  They waited for you to come over them and if you fought over their territory, you’d lose 2 to their one. If they fight over your territory they’d lose 2 to our one; simple mathematics and we lost so many people because of this ridiculous business of carrying the battle to the enemy – Attack! Attack! Attack!

It was the same for the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain presumably? They come down and they are in the bag.

Indeed; they had a different objective in mind; they thought they were going to win. It’s a complicated business because if you have a fighter squadron, the pilots are 19, 20, 21 – it’s a very volatile organisation and you have to do something with it or their fertile minds get up to mischief. They’ve got to fly; got to shoot at something and in exactly the same way….this is probably something you won’t know – at the time of the attack of the Canadians against Dieppe – the main reason that attack was carried out was because they were fed up with the Canadians sitting on their bums for 3 years. They came over to save the Homeland in 1939 and did sod all for 3 years and got up to so much mischief and the hierarchy said “For God’s sake….”

It was also a means of proving to the Americans that they weren’t ready for a continental raid in 1942 or indeed 1943.

But let’s not detract from the Americans; when they do something, by God they do.

No, no…..but they were champing at the bit in 1942 because they’d promised Molatov that they were going to start a second front that year and everyone and the British were saying “It’s not as straight forward as that.”

In North Africa, they’d have been better on the other side. They were hopeless in North Africa.

Good by the end.

Absolutely; they had the equipment.

They did learn fast. I’ll send you my North Africa book.

The Mustang, which I flew, was the best all round armament we could have had. With those cannons and if you had lots of ammunition, you could hit them with 6.5’s and you’d really hit them.

It was really manoeuvrable wasn’t it?

It wasn’t that it was just a good aircraft. It incorporated all the good bits. The interesting thing was that when Bomber Harris and the organisation went pre-war to the USA to try to buy aircraft, they finished up with something that became ???? but they were trying to find ??? they wanted to buy P40’s – Tomahawks. They went to Curtis and said “Can you build us x number of Tomahawks?” They said “No, we’re full with orders from the American government.” They hunted around and went to North American and they told them they’d build them an aircraft in 100 days. They said “Give us a list of what you want.” Our people said “Nonsense; you can’t build an aeroplane in 100 days.” The P51 ?? it was a disaster; everything was in the wrong place….

It was called an A36 I think.

It had an Allison engine and a great deal of problems but they sorted it out eventually and they produced this aircraft in 100 days, and that was incredible.

The new Typhoon has taken 18 years or something!

Well, it’s so complicated and expensive. I explained to you that in a fighter it took 240 hours before you changed the engine. In a Lancaster, the same engine because it ran at a constant speed the whole time – high boost, low boost it didn’t matter as long as you kept it at a constant speed and they ran them for 300, 400, 500 hours – same engine but lasted twice the time. In a jet engine – a VC10 – 20,000 hours. They are so reliable. Ian, my youngest, flies for the King of Bahrain.

Has he ever flown any war planes?

No, never; to be honest he’s not really interested in aeroplanes. I persuaded him to join the Air Force, but he was reluctant but he went to Cranwell and he’s flown jets and is an instructor on jets and so on. He started off on 46 squadron – Vikings and so on. He flew 5 prime ministers and the Royals. He seldom speaks about what he does but he’d been to South Africa and I asked him which way he’d come and he told me northwards. I said “Did you cross the Sahara?” “I didn’t notice” he said!

(Mrs Neil) Well you do in fighters but you don’t in those great things; they fly themselves.

Flying is a business for him and he’s done very well out of it. He hated being a flying instructor.

You were talking about the Battle of Britain being a game and the penalty wasn’t a broken leg, it was death, but did you ever got the jitters going up?

No, the only apprehension was before you went up.

As you were waiting to scramble?

Not only that but at North Weald for example, Organisation would keep you informed of what was happening on the other side because the bombers during the Battle of Britain would take off from various places all round France and would spend an hour climbing up and we used to watch them climbing up and we got the information of 20+ there and 30+ there and so on and later the fighters would join in. They wouldn’t take off at the same time because they had very limited endurance – that was the problem they had because they all had to join up.

And once you were engaged?

Once you were engaged you didn’t have time to feel nervous.

I’ve asked everyone how they deal with losses. I asked one Luftwaffe pilot and he said “What a stupid question? How do you think we dealt with it?” I said “Well people deal with these things in different ways.”

At the dispersal hut at North Weald, the officers and sergeant slept separately and we had 24 pilots and I suppose 50 or 60 would officers and we’d sleep in this wooden hut and as the casualties occurred, the beds become vacant. But you weren’t too worried about it unless they were positively killed because many times they were actually in hospital. I didn’t get apprehensive in the air but the waiting is a bit……and of course the Germans managed to programme their raids during meal times. Fork to your lips at breakfast and suddenly “Bloody hell!” Same again at lunch time and tea time!

(Mrs Neil) Somebody asked me that the other day “How did you cope with the casualties?” The WAF officers had meals in the mess and there were just one or two or three missing but it just happened and you just got on with it, which is extraordinary really, when you think of it now.

You’d go to London at the height of the bombing and people would be walking around absolutely without a care in the world even though there were thousands killed during the bombing. You just had to get on with it.

(Mrs Neil) You just had to get on with life; you couldn’t stop and think about it.You and I were sitting on the roof at Biggin Hill watching the doodle bugs. About 20 of them went over the top of us, 1,000 feet high. Then one would stop and you’d think, is that one coming for us?

The thousands of doodle bugs that came across…..I have maps showing where they fell and with what result; it was mayhem the amount of damage they did.

I talked to Bee Beamont about them. The tipping them with a wing…..he says if you shoot them and they explode you then have to fly through them; lethal.

There was a period of about a month or so when I used to try to catch them when I was in Biggin Hill sector. It wasn’t my job to do it but I thought it would be rather fun to shoot some of these things down. I used to take off from Staplehurst and fly down to the coast. The doodle bug used to come across and you wouldn’t know anything about them because we weren’t on the right frequency and would have to sight them visually and they’d be flying anything from 310 to 350 miles an hour and you’d have to go pretty fast in a Mustang to do that speed. It wasn’t a question of you are doing 360; all you are doing is the closing speed which is 10 or 12 miles an hour, or 20 miles an hour. By the time you started chasing them over the south coast, you were over the environs of London and you couldn’t shoot them down there because they’d fall in someone’s back yard. The question always arises of whether you have an aircraft with sufficient closing speed because a closing speed of 20 miles an hour and flying at 350, you’ve done 50 miles before you’ve even caught it up.

(Mrs Neil) The whole of Biggin Hill had balloons on it; whatnot balloons and they used to stop the doodle bugs but he used to come to see me flying between the wires and landing.

I remember we were with Val (?) Hill. My parents lived at Northwick Park near Harrow School and we were on the Metropolitan train and we were all in darkness and I looked up and I saw a doodle bug flying at 100 feet on a parallel but slightly converging course and I said to Val “Don’t look now! It’s a question of when the engine’s going to stop.” And it could have stopped at any moment, right over the top of us in which case we’d be dead. It stopped about 500m yards away into a house and umpteen people were killed; chaos. We went on in the train and no one said a word.

Amazing! Do you still have your logbook?

Yes, why?

I was wondering if I could photograph the relevant bits from 1940 because then I can pin point things. Only if it’s no trouble because otherwise I can get it from the ORB.

Let me explain about the operational record book. It was made up at the end of the month. What you did when you took off on a day to day flight was you listed your thing in the authorisation book. You’d put the people and the aeroplanes and X raid and then you’d take off and do your thing and then you’d put ‘Duty carried out’ or not as the case may be and then you’d have a whole string of pages which was 30 days of flying. The ORB would not be made up then. At the end of the month you’d go into the orderly room and mostly the intelligence officer would do it. Sometimes it was a URC (?) who’d do it and who would discriminate between the operational trips that you made and the non-operational trips, or what he thought to be non-operational. Something I’d do quite frequently was try and catch what they called The Milk Man who was someone who’d come at dawn whenever they did a raid they’d send a photographic aircraft the next day and you’d try to catch him. You’d take of from Northolt in darkness and you’d go out due east and control would say “Your position is 40 miles out to sea.” I used to think 40 miles out to sea? This bugger’s never done it in his life before and I am going out ?? the reason I mention that is because is because it would be made up by the airman of the watch or someone like that who’s sometimes be ?? or a non-flying person and he’d extract from that what he considered to be the operational trips. Mostly they were correct but sometimes……they never used to include my personal, private trips because that was when I was just amusing myself. People always wanted to take off at dawn after an enemy aircraft…..

So the log book from my point of view is much better?

Oh yes; I’ll find it for you – take a photograph of the relevant part.

That’s great. Can I just ask you about those prescribed attacks?

It was all a guardsman approach – number one attack – go.

Would you already be in a line astern at that stage? Would you have manoeuvred into line astern or would that be…..number one attack go, would that be the signal to then move into line astern and then dive down?

Usually they only issued that order if there were only a small number of you – 2 or 4. They wouldn’t do it if there were 12. 12 line astern would be ridiculous. Usually……….