Humour and Humanity: a day with 100 RAF veterans at Project Propeller
2 August 2018
‘When women pilots cease to become news, the battle of equality will have been won’, the British ATA pilot Mary Ellis wrote in her memoirs, published last year. Mary died in late July, aged 101, the last female Spitfire pilot who flew in the Second World War. I was among those honouring her, talking to Sky News, as her name rightly made headlines once again. I had had the privilege to meet Mary at the Project Propeller annual air veterans’ reunion last year where she told me stories of having been shot at twice in one day by anti-aircraft guns mistaking her for an enemy bomber, and of once being ‘stalked’ through the air by a Luftwaffe pilot who cheekily waved to her before ‘suddenly he was gone’. It was ‘all part of the job’ she told me in her matter of fact way, before striding over to chat with her fellow former ATA pilot Joyce Lofthouse and some of the male veterans at the reunion.
Mary had joined the women’s section of the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) in 1941, the same year that C.G. Grey, editor of Aeroplane magazine wrote that ‘the menace is the woman who thinks she ought to be flying a high-speed bomber when really she has not the intelligence to scrub the floor of a hospital properly’. In those early days the ATA women earned 20% less than the men and were expected to fly in skirts, even in freezing conditions. By the end of the war 166 women had enrolled, working alongside 1,152 men on equal pay and in uniform trousers. Last year the RAF became the first branch of the British military to accept women for service in any role, including close combat. The battle for equality is still being fought, but it is worth both remembering that we have come a long way, and the pioneers like Mary and Joyce who helped make the diversity of today’s RAF possible.
Joyce passed away last year, and Spitfire pilots Tom Neil and Geoffrey Wellum both died just a few weeks before Mary this July. As we remember these extraordinary men and women, wish them ‘blue skies’ and imagine a wonderful reunion in the clouds, we must also pay attention to those veterans still with us, keeping the Second World War within living memory.
Project Propeller 2018, Halfpenny Green
This year’s Project Propeller reunion was held at Halfpenny Green, Wolverhampton. Although most World War Two veterans are now in their early 90s, guest numbers have been rising as word of the annual event spreads. It now takes a team of volunteers to not only liaise with the host airfields and ATC cadets, make cakes and sandwiches and book the 1940s singers, but also coordinate a growing crew of volunteer light-aircraft pilots who fly the veterans over from their nearest airfield. This year I arrived in a little Cirrus SR20 piloted by Mark Williams and Nick Snow. Setting off from North Weald, we went first to Elstree to collect veteran Spitfire pilot Geoff Hulett.
Geoff Hulett with me, and Cirrus pilots Mark Williams and Nick Snow
Geoff was waiting for us in Elstree airfield’s Wings Café, wearing his RAF tie, good aviation sunglasses, and only a slight air of impatience. At ninety-five, he was up on the wing and kindly offering me his hand before I had time to turn around. A quick evaluation of the relative merits of the Spitfire and Cirrus ensued… The Cirrus won on comfort. Geoff, a recipient of the Burma Cross, had been a ferry pilot, delivering Spitfires, Hurricanes and P-47 Thunderbolts in Egypt and the Far East. He remembered his machines getting so hot that when he stopped to refuel he could barely touch the metal harness to lock himself back in, and sometimes oil would slip out onto the floor adding hot fumes to the already heavy air in the cockpit.
Perhaps unsurprisingly however, the Spitfire cleaned up in other respects. ‘We didn’t have this problem’, Geoff told me cheerfully when the warm engine of our Cirrus had second thoughts about firing as we waited to take off from Elstree. ‘If there were two aircraft, we would park one in front of the other, so that the slip-stream of one would keep the other cool, then reverse the order. That would keep them going.’ Then, once we were up in the air and Nick showed off his GPS navigation systems, Geoff simply pointed out the window saying, ‘that’s the best way actually.’ In Burma he had had no radar to guide him, only maps and a compass. ‘Monsoon season was awkward’, he admitted, ‘though low-flying on clouds is always fun’. Two minutes later Geoff had taken the controls, and we were ‘cloud surfing’ over to Wolverhampton in the very safe hands of a Second World War Spitfire pilot.
Spitfire pilot Geoff Hulett at the controls
Geoff disappeared as soon as we landed at Halfpenny Green. Many of the veterans I spoke with were keen to meet up with old friends, and I was also glad to see a number of familiar faces such as RAF Flying Officer John Alan Ottewell who advised me on my research for my last book, The Women Who Flew for Hitler.
With Flying Officer John Alan Ottewell
Like most of the veterans I spoke with this summer, John had flown with Bomber Command. Every one of these men had an incredible story to tell.
Only eleven at the start of the war, Ron Applegate joined the ATC in 1942. Although he flew with trainee pilots doing what he called ‘circuits and bumps’, one of his most vivid memories was when he was out blackberrying with his brother. ‘All of a sudden there was a tremendous roar. It was Lancasters, flying at rooftop level… coming at us!’ Only later did Ron learn that they were practising low-level flying and flights over water in preparation for dropping the ‘bouncing bomb’, designed to destroy German dams.
Radar specialist Stan Forsyth flew with heavy radar equipment, locating enemy radar stations to be bombed, and sometimes accompanying raids up above the bombers, trying to catch the frequency of enemy fighters to warn the crews below. In 1944 Stan was given a different target to locate: the German Navy’s mighty 42,900 ton battleship, the Tirpitz. ‘Five aircraft went out, and I found it in the fjords’, Stan told me with understandable pride. ‘I didn’t see it, except on the radar, but I knew it was him. They sent the bombers in, and I got the DFC for finding it.’
Pilot and Warrant Officer Peter Holloway flew over 150 operations in Burma in what he called ‘Hurricanes and Hurribombers.’ Some ops only lasted ten minutes, he told me, as his airfield was right at the edge of the Japanese lines. ‘We were so close you just took off, lifted the wheels, dropped the bombs, and landed again.’
John Whitworth remembered being exhausted, flying a Mosquito back from a Hamburg bombing raid, when suddenly he felt his unflappable navigator, Canadian Bill Tulloch, nudging him hard with his elbow. ‘We were doing 400mph, and I was asleep!’
Several of the crew flying on long distance raids had been shot down. Wireless Operator and Gunner Fred Hooker’s first operation was on 3 September 1944, a bombing raid over Venlo in Holland. Bad weather forced them to land away from their base and they only returned on 10 September. The following night they flew to the Ruhr ‘which was hell’. On 12 September their aircraft was shot down on an operation to Munster.
‘We were on a bombing run, when suddenly I was sitting in fresh air,’ Fred remembered. ‘No Perspex. No guns. In fact the guns were hanging from the tower turret.’ With no intercom, Fred moved down into the damaged aircraft. ‘The rear was full of flames, and in the portside was a bloody large hole.’ Seeing one of the crew bail out of the front hatch spurred him into action but the parachute he grabbed was already on fire. The last thing Fred saw before blacking out was the flight engineer who strode over, picked up a chute, put his arm round Fred, clipped on and pushed him out.
Fred’s pilot and the tail gunner both lost their lives in the burning bomber, but the rest of the crew landed in a field of sugar-beet near Munster. Immediately caught, they were searched and put on a truck into the city. Walking past burning houses in the streets they had been bombing just an hour earlier was sobering. Some civilians tried to attack them and Fred believes his life was saved a second time that night, but this time by their two German guards.
Like several of the veterans at the reunion, Fred had brought along some papers. Among them was his German prisoner-of-war ID card, with photo showing a ruggedly handsome but stoney-faced young man. When I asked what was in his mind when it was taken, he laughed, ‘Blue murder… I hadn’t had a wash for two weeks!’ He would spend most of the rest of the war as a POW, long months whose progress he recorded in pencil on brown paper ripped from a Red Cross parcel.
Wireless operator and gunner Fred Hooker with his papers
Welshman Harry Winter was also shot down over Germany. Harry flew Wellingtons and Halifaxes with the 427 Royal Canadian Air Force, known as the ‘Lion Squadron’ and adopted by MGM because of their rampant lion insignia. In October 1943 Harry was in the second wave of the bombing run over Kassell, when German flares lit up the sky until it was like ‘going down a high street with the lights on’. Night-fighters proceeded to shoot down twenty-five bombers within five miles.
Having been caught with his parachute still attached after baling out, Harry was taken to Luft 7. Later he would join the forced march to Stalag IIIA, south of Berlin, a camp that was eventually liberated by the Russians. Even then Harry was detained for a POW swap. Allowed to walk under guard into East Berlin, he knocked on doors asking for food. ‘Two girls saw my uniform was different and, when they found out I was British, they asked me to stay and protect them’, he told me. The women feared being raped by Russian soldiers. Harry was more than happy to swap the hard floor at the camp for a settee in Berlin, and eventually managed to flag down a US army truck and get sent home. When he finally got back to Cardiff, Harry found that his girlfriend had married another chap. ‘It was ok, I had disappeared I guess,’ he told me wistfully, before his eyes lit up again. ‘I got a London girl.’
All the veterans I spoke with this summer were pleased to share their time and memories, and some have published their memoirs, listed below. Ivan ‘Lucky’ Pottereven signed a copy of his for me. None glorified war in any way, although most spoke warmly about the comradeship they found, and lit up at recalling their better memories.
‘We were flying with a full bomb load, a Lancaster UMH2, and there was a thundercloud directly on track’, Rear Gunner Peter Potter told me, a large grin raising the curled ends of his glorious moustache. ‘It was too massive to go around, so we went up 24,000 feet to go over it.’ Soon they were caught in the turbulent centre of the dark cloud, then suddenly sucked out of it and falling 20,000 feet. The air was howling over the aircraft’s fuselage and the control panel shook so much it was hard to read the dials as they plummeted down, but somehow Peter’s pilot managed to pull the Lancaster out of their unintended dive. They had just enough power to limp back to base. ‘It tore the rivets out, its body was all twisted’, he added rather proudly. Later he got a letter from Lancaster design engineer Roy Chadwick, who had inspected the broken aircraft. ‘To have incurred this damage,’ Chadwick wrote, ‘you had to have been going at 520mph. Ps, You have probably flown the fastest bomber in the war’.
At Project Propeller 2018 with Lancaster Rear Gunner Peter Potter. Photo c. Nigel Whitmore.
There was also much moving talk about losing friends and colleagues however, the less fortunate who are also always remembered at Project Propeller reunions. ‘The worst was when we bombed Nuremberg,’ Wireless Operator and Rear Gunner Reginald Payne, now 95, recalled. ‘I have still my log-book. I did the ops without any real problems… the ground-crew found damage to the aircraft that showed we had been hit by enemy flak, but we were not aware of it… But we lost 94 airmen. We lost men in our hut. We lost a lot of friends. At night you would sleep next to another man, and you always said goodnight. Then they were gone. You would see all the empty beds, and a few days later “sprog” [newer recruits] airmen would come in.’
Wireless Operator and Rear Gunner Reginald Payne
Mary Ellis had shared similar memories with me the year before. Once, delivering a Wellington bomber, she had had to stay over at a Bomber Command airfield & enjoyed a fine meal in the mess with ‘all these lovely air crew.’ ‘The place was full of laughter and they were all such decent chaps’, she told me. The next morning there were only two or three men at breakfast, ‘solemnly drinking tea’. The others had not returned from their missions that night.
Other veterans spoke about the civilian casualties of their bombing raids. ‘At age 18/19 you don’t think’, Lawrence Rogers, now 96, told me. ‘Dropping bombs. It was our duty but so many innocent people were killed. Women and children.’
Most of the men were quick to tell me that their best moment was, in Reginald Payne’s words, ‘landing back at base after the last op.’ Reginald and his crew celebrated by going into Lincoln to have ‘a good old round of drinks, but not too much – you never knew whether, for certain, they wouldn’t want you again the next day.’ Between them, the veterans I met saw the end of the war on different dates in London, Lincoln, Berlin and Shanghai.
Pilot Eric Carter
At 98 ‘and getting on a bit’, Eric Carter, who had wangled his way into the RAF having originally been called up for the army, only to serve a gruelling year in Russia followed by postings in Egypt and the Far East, was the least sentimental about his war. ‘The best moment? I don’t think there were many… It was bloody dangerous, and it was awful.’ Like many, he had a clear message for the next generation: ‘Learn as much as you can from this period. It was not a party, not something to happen again. Make sure it does NOT happen again. Watch these politicians.’
Navigator Jim Wright greets the Lancaster bomber salute at Project Propeller 2018
A moment later our conversation was drowned out by the sound of rapidly approaching Rolls Royce Merlin engines. Eric automatically lifted his gaze, while Jim Wright in a chair beside us, a navigator who flew on 43 missions during the war, raised his hand in greeting. A Lancaster was flying low overhead in tribute to the service that these men and their colleagues, male and female, British, Poles, Czech and others, had given during the conflict.
For my daughters, the Second World War is part of the history curriculum. I felt the same at their age, but almost as much time has passed since I was at school, as between the war and my classes. My children are probably the last generation who may have the chance to talk with people who served in the conflict, men and women like Mary Ellis, Geoff Hulett, Fred Hooker and Eric Carter, whose lives were shaped not only by their service, but by the absence of those dear to them who lost their lives. Once female pilots made headlines by dint of their gender; these days the names of both male and female Second World War pilots are all too often in the papers as they leave us. Project Propeller provides a unique opportunity for many of those still with us to meet again, share their news, and retell their stories. Each passing year it feels ever more important to listen to their voices, remember the debt that we owe, and learn from their memories and insights, their humour and their humanity.
Clare with Cirrus pilot Mark Williams, Flight Engineer Harold Kirby, and Pilot Geoff Hullet.
Project Propeller depends on donations of both time and money to keep going. If you would like to contribute, or are a private light aircraft pilot who would be interested in offering to fly veterans to next year’s reunion, please get in touch through the website: http://www.projectpropeller.org/PP/index.asp