George Howitt 1925-2006 - War memories
My war-experience, I`ll tell you, is not all that dramatic. A lot of people had enough things to write a book about but I didn`t. I volunteered in 1943. 0bviously, we all knew when we were young that sooner or later you would get calleddup unless you were very lucky to be in a reserved occupation or something like that. If you volunteered you could choose which branch of the Services you would like to go into. Otherwise you went where you were sent. Well I knew that I wasn`t in a reserved occupation so when we were seventeen, another lad from the village, Bill Wright, and myself went to the Newport Drill Hall at Lincoln to join up. This was in 1943, the beginning of 1943, that`s when I was seventeen, although you can`t officially join the Forces until you are eighteen.
Well, we went to Newport Drill Hall, and the recruiting sergeant said, ` Now, my lads, what do you want ?` So we said we`d come to join up.`What do you want to join?`Now Bill`s dad had been been in the Navy in the Great War so Bill opted for the Navy. But my dad had been in the Army and I didn`t fancy joining the Army because I`d heard what happened in the trenches, and not being all that brave I didn`t want to get killed like that so I said I wanted to join the Air Force. `What do you want to be?`So I thought of something that was going to be nice and easy and safe, so I said, `An M.T. driver`. `We don`t want any M.T.drivers, we`ve got plenty of them.` `All right, the R.A.F. regiment.` `No, we don`t want any of them neither.` he said. ` We want Air Crew`.
So I joined Air Crew, which was rather silly really because there was rather a lot of Air Crew killed. I joined as an Air Gunner. Then I came home and I got a letter - which I`ve still got from Sir Archibald Sinclair who was the Minister of Air. He said that now you`ve joined the Air Force, look after yourself, get a job to help the War Effort and you will be called up in due course and I was. I got a letter saying to report to Doncaster first to see if I was bright enough to be in Air Crew. We did simple exams like multiply by 5/8, common multiple, that`s about all it was really. I obviously did enough so they said I was in. Some months later I got a letter to report to Lord`s Cricket ground in London. Bill had already got into the Navy though I can`t remember where he went to. I had never been to London in my life, but I went off on the train to Lord`s Cricket Ground to the buildings where the cricketers used to gather, the pavilion. There were no seats there, just big rooms like dining rooms I suppose. From there we got into some big flats in St John`s Wood and then we had three weeks of marching and saluting and getting shouted at. Then we were posted to Bridlington.
We started our actual training at Bridlington. I can remember I don`t know if this was official training or somebody`s bright idea - but one of the things we used to do at Bridlington, apart from more marching and saluting, was that they brought a flat-bed lorry onto the beach and we would all have to climb aboard. Then they would drive it along the beach, the corporal or sergeant would stand on the front and shout at you and we all had to jump off while it was going. It was supposed to be parachute training, so that you curled up and rolled over when you hit the ground. From there we went to Bridgnorth for more training and then from there to Barrow-in-Furness which was the proper Gunnery School. That was the first time we flew, in Avro-Hansons. We used to turn our guns towards a small plane which was pulling a drogue and we used to fire at the drogue. The bullets all had blue or red paint on them so they could tell how many hits you got as round your hole would be blue marks. If your mate had a go it would leave his marks red.
From there we went to Bruntingthorpe which was an Operational Training Unit that was flying Wellingtons and there we had to get crewed up. We all got into a room and suddenly there was a whole lot of other fellows came in. It so happened that I was pushed into a crowd of Australians. This is how I came to be in an Australian Squadron. You were allowed to mix and talk to each other and a pilot would say `Do you want to be my gunner?`. Then this tall fellow came up to me, not a very dashing-looking fellow because you know in those days we were always reading about daring pilots doing brave deeds and this chap didn`t look like that sort at all. He said to me `Are you fixed up?` and I said `No`, and he said `Would you be my gunner?`Well, I thought, ` Oh crikey, now I don`t know`. So I made the excuse and said `I`ll have to go and ask that fellow over there because we`ve been together and we want to keep together`. He lives in Leicester now, name of Harry Goode.
So I went to Harry and I said ` See that fellow over there, he`s asked me if we`ll be his gunners. What do you think?``I don`t know` said Harry. `I suppose we`ll have as much chance with him as anybody.` I mean I expect we were looking for somebody who looked as though he would bring us home safe. So I went back and said `Yes, we`ll be your gunners`. The pilot`s name was Ted Foster and I am still in touch with him. After sixty years, we still ring each other up and have a chat. As it happened, Ted Foster proved to be a first-class pilot who wasn`t one of those dashing fellows, reckless and all that, but he was steady and reliable. We always had confidence in him when we were flying. From this time we had a full crew except for an engineer. You didn`t need an engineer on Wellingtons but when we went on Stirlings we needed an engineer and we got Cliff Beighton who was with us all the time after that.
We were at Winthorpe near Newark, and then at No 5 Finishing School at Syerston this was only a three-week job- and we finished up at R.A.F.Waddington and we stayed there until the end of the War. 467 squadron came from Bottesford and it had three flights A,B,and C. C flight became 463 squadron, which was ours. Both 463 and 467 were Australian. So nearly all the pilots were Australian and other crew members as well, but there were quite a few English lads there, including me. I was very pleased to be with the Australians, and we have had some very nice reunions. One hundred and seven of them came over in 1995, and one of them, Dick Boyd, our bomb-aimer, stayed with me and my wife at our home. We started on operational flights in 1944 to various parts of Europe.
I was on the Dresden raid and I know that it must have been terrible to be in that raid, there`s no doubt about it, but we didn`t question it, to us it was a target. I did twenty-six raids. You usually do thirty and then get six months rest. Well, not rest, you do another job. We would have done thirty but unfortunately our bomb aimer was killed, the one we had before Dick Boyd came along. The one that got killed was Bert Hurst, a policeman from Liverpool and he was killed on the ground by a bomb. It happened many a time, not only to servicemen but to civilians as well, who find a bomb and mess about with it. Well, somebody had brought this small bomb back from Germany. It was only about four inches, and pointed with fins. Many people made cigarette lighters in those days as matches were in short supply. Bert said he was going to make a cigarette lighter with it. I do know he said,` That`ll look nice on my dining room table when I`ve had it chromium-plated.` I suppose being a bomb-aimer he thought he knew a bit about the mechanism of bombs. There was a screw in the end and he was going to undo the screw and empty the powder out. I was walking along one of the paths at Waddington when I saw some people running and somebody said `One of those bombs has gone off`. Now the Germans had actually been spreading anti-personel bombs around Waddington airfield the week before and I presumed it was one of those. What actually happened was that Bert got a pair of pliers, went outside the billet and they had an old car out there and he put the bomb on the wing of this car, twisted it, and as soon as he twisted it, it exploded and killed him.
I found his wife, not that many years ago, quite by accident. I had tried to find her lots of times but was unable to. He was killed in the February, and the Christmas before he was making a rocking duck for his little daughter she was about six months old and we used to pull his leg about it. About twenty years went by and I got in contact with his wife just by luck. In one conversation with her, I said` What happened to the rocking duck?` She said,` What do you know about the rocking duck?` I said,` I saw it being made` and then she told me that the baby he made it for died when she was seven years old. She said,` I kept it for another twenty years and then I gave it to an orphanage`. I do ring her up occasionally but not lately.
We went on these twenty-six tours but I can`t remember all the places I went to. I know we went to Munich, Poland, Dresden, Leipzig, Sassnitz, Buhlen and Lutzkendorf twice, nearly all night raids. You didn`t go every night. There was a big blackboard where we used to hang out and they used to put on the blackboard `Ops On`. That meant you couldn`t go out, you couldn`t do anything until you got cleared. The next thing was to find the notice board to see who were actually on the ops. There`d be a notice there saying, maybe, Ted Foster and all his team and the aircraft you were flying in. If you weren`t on the list, you could go and have a couple of pints or go somewhere. But if you were you had to spend the next couple of hours getting ready for going. The next thing was to try to find out where, because some places well, all of them had a bad reputation but some were worse than others. We used to go and see the blokes refuelling the Lancs and see how much they were putting in. If it was, say, 1600 gallons, you`d think, `Oh, that`s the Ruhr`. That was bad because the Ruhr was heavily fortified. Or it might be 2164, that is 2 thousand and 164 gallons. Then you`d think, `Crikey! That`s a long way. That`s going to be an 8 or 10-hour trip,` It might even say 2164 plus top-up. That means after you`d got in the aircraft and ready to go, the skipper would test the engines. That would only use a few gallons but they would come and top up after that so that meant you were going a heck of a long way. You had to go into briefing, of course, before you climbed aboard the aircraft, and you looked where this red tape went on the map. There were all patches coloured red on this map and that was where there was a lot of anti-aircraft guns positioned so you checked if the route went through this lot or that lot.
The navigator used a pencil, paper and a watch to work out where we were. There were no computers or signals then. In fact he had two watches, a pocket and a wrist watch, in case one went wrong. He had to calculate the distance taking into account the wind speed and direction. It was a bit hit and miss. We were never exactly sure if we were in the right spot. In my case, I was sent deaf by the noise of the guns and the rest of the din. I get a pension from the Government for that. When you looked at the board, you were a bit apprehensive but so were all the others so you were not different from the Navy blokes who sailed through the U-boats or the Army blokes. In my case I had to have a lot of clothes on because I was the rear gunner. Everybody else was inside the aircraft but rear gunners had a whacking great load of perspex taken out. That was to increase your night vision. They said it increased your night vision by 20 per cent because if you are looking through perspex, the perspex tended to go a bit milky. So there was nothing instead of the perspex and it did tend to get a bit draughty, but not too bad. The turret could turn round 180 degrees and it was very small so you had a job to get in. But after you had been in for about half an hour, everything seemed to settle down and you had a bit more room. You came plugged with an electric heater which heated your suit which was all right but not that successful. The gloves were heated and a sort of slippers and the suit, which you had on underneath all your other suits, all zip-fastened. The connections to the gloves were two press studs each and two press studs on the heels for the little slippers and you could feel them keeping you warm. But if there was a bit of a hitch, say one of the press studs came undone on one hand, the opposite slipper got red hot so you had to switch it off. Otherwise you could burn your feet.
Another problem was that you always had to wear an oxygen mask after about 8000 feet because aeroplanes didn`t have pressurised cabins then. We flew at 8000 feet up to 20,000 feet and more. If you were up at 25,000 feet the temperature outside was minus 45 degrees. If you spat on your glove at that height, by the time it hit your glove it was ice. The oxygen mask used to make a sore mark on your face because of the warm condensation inside and the freezing outside. The next day, you had a red mark on your face. Usually it was cold, but not all that cold. If you were only flying at 10,000 feet, that wouldn`t be too bad at all. I was a gunner and I did shoot about a bit. It was a bit scary. You had to keep going all the time from take-off to landing. A gunner had to keep his gun and the turret and himself - swinging around from side to side all the time. If my turret stopped, Harry Gooder at the top would say, `Are you all right, George?` because there were a lot of things that could happen to you, shortage of oxygen, all sorts of things, so he would always check up on me. I couldn`t see him but sometimes when you were getting near the target area because you could listen in on the intercom to the rest of the crew - you always knew that, for instance, you were ten minutes away from the target.
You`d probably increase your firing then, and sometimes when you were almost there, you would turn your turret round to look along the side of the aircraft to where you were heading, and you`d see the searchlights, and bangs and crashes and all the flak and huge flashes and you`d think,` Oh God! we`ll never get through that lot.` But you do because what you are looking at is a flat picture. When you are there in the middle of it, the bangs and crashes are all over the place, there, there, there. By the time you`ve got to a certain spot, the bang is somewhere else. Mind you, it didn`t miss everybody. You do see aircraft falling down. Another problem was bombs falling on the density of the aircraft. Say you get 300 aircraft flying over a small place like Grantham, in half an hour, they are quite close together. Shouts of `Look out! Look out! Set of bombers above!` and the skipper would move over a little bit and you`d see the bomb doors open and the bombs would drop out and they might go just by the side of you. Sometimes you`d see a flash or a bang and an aircraft spiralling down. You could see a bomb fall from one Lancaster and drop on another Lanc, 3 or 4 thousand feet below, so close together we were. I didn`t do anything really except listen and keep a look-out and tell the skipper if something was coming quite close to us. You might get a searchlight on you and the skipper would do a manoevre to get away. `Corkscrew port!` we used to cry out and the skipper would turn the aircraft.
When we got to the target, for about 2 minutes the bomb aimer would take charge and he`d say, `Steady, steady` and we had to keep steady no matter what happened, whether there was anybody near you or not. You had to keep absolutely steady and fly like he said because he was looking at a marker on the ground. After about a minute and a half, you`d hear him say, ` Right! Bombs gone!` and you`d hear the click, click, click , click as they fell out of the electronic hooks. The aircraft would go up a little bit as you got rid of the load and then you`d still keep steady for a further minute because the Air Force didn`t altogether trust you. You couldn`t say that you`d been there and dropped your bombs if you hadn`t been anywhere near. You had to bring a photograph back and the camera was automatic. There was a little bomb that went off and when it dropped out the flash set the camera going and it took a picture of where your bombs dropped and you looked at them the next day. After that, you would go down a couple of thousand feet quick as you could, nip round the houses somewhere and you`re back on the way home. I never stopped. Ask Harry Goode or Ted Foster and they will tell you I never stopped moving the turret gun all the way home. Of course, things weren`t quite so reliable then as they are today. Aircraft used to get things go wrong with them and we lost a lot of aircraft like that, a lot of aircraft. I did a daft thing joining the Air Gunners because we did actually lose 26,000 air gunners, twice as many as other types of air crew but that was because there was twice as many of us.
When you came back, you got eggs and bacon for breakfast and were allowed to go to bed for the rest of the day. I was told that the people of Woolsthorpe and Colsterworth used to see the bombers going over and that my mother used to watch them all go. She couldn`t sleep because she never knew which raid I was on, but she counted them out and counted them back again. She couldn`t have been anywhere near accurate as there were too many aircraft. But she counted them all the same. I remember the second time we went to Lutzkendorf, the navigator said to me, ` We`re just going over Colsterworth, George`, and I looked out and could recognise the bonfires in the allotments and I saw somebody sitting on the wall by the shop. When you fly you go in one particular aircraft. The letters on ours was JOW, so it was called Johnny Walker and it had a painting of Johnny Walker walking like in the advertisements and the words underneath, Still Going Strong. About five or six years ago, the man who serviced it met me and we had a day out at Waddington, Newton was his name. I had a picture of him but I couldn`t remember his name, so I took the photograph and said,` Is this you?` and he said,`Yes, that`s me`.
A few years ago, I was looking through a book and there was a man who was looking for someone who knew Dixie Dean. I got in touch with him because I knew Dixie Dean and this was his son looking for information about him. He came to Waddington bringing a cameraman with him and he took photographs of us all. I can remember his dad who was an officer so I didn`t know him personally (because we wouldn`t have been speaking to officers, only saluting them). But why I can remember it so well, it was a raid on Gravenhorst. Some of my friends got lost at Gravenhorst. The C.O. Wing-Commander Bill Forbes, had already done two tours of ops and I don`t know why but he thought he`d go on this one and start again. He hadn`t got a crew so he took the navigation leader, the engineering leader who was Dixie Dean, the wireless operators` leader, all the chiefs he took with him in his crew thinking well, I`ve got the best crew of all. The inevitable happened and they were lost. Bill Forbes is buried in Holland. Dixie Dean bailed out but he did not get captured, he got back all right. I know a lot of people who didn`t get captured. Though you read a lot of cloak and dagger stories about people escaping, for some it was just easy especially when the Army had taken some of France. I knew a fellow named Curly Broadhead. He got shot down and after about a week, he came walking into the billet.
`Where have you been?`, we said. We knew he had been shot down. `What did you do when you were shot down?`. So he sat on the bed and told us. `I sat down and cried.` They took the mickey out of him like young fellows do. `Sat down? Cried? ` - this sort of thing. `I sat there until it was dark and I could see a light in a house. I didn`t want to get shot, so I thought I`d go there and give myself up`. So he went and knocked on the door and then he took fright and ran away. He had Air Force trousers on but not a tunic, and an Air Force pullover, one of them white polo-neck things, and he just walked. He walked straight through the town of Bonn and nobody stopped him. He was walking across some fields and suddenly someone started firing so he put his hands up to surrender. When he got to where the gunfire was coming from, it was the Americans. They gave him a lift to some airfield near Reading and then he made his way back to Waddington. He just walked in. I do remember him, Terry Broadhead. He came from Brightside near Sheffield.
Although I was in an Australian squadron, I didn`t have Australian uniform. They all had Australian uniform but we had R.A.F. uniform. Australian uniforms were dark blue, probably a bit posher than ours. Most of the skippers well, ours did anyway bought you a little Australian badge which was unauthorised. You were not supposed to wear odd badges on Service uniform, but we all wore this little kangaroo badge. I`ve still got mine. I didn`t get Australian pay though. We got R.A.F. pay which was something like 3 per week, but we did get extra money. Lord Nuffield I don`t know why he favoured us created a fund so that aircrew when they went on leave got about 2s or 3s or whatever a day from this fund which boosted your pay. We`d get probably 1 extra that week. It was from the Nuffield Foundation. He was the boss of Morris cars at Oxford and a very generous man. They, Morris Motors were making Lancasters and much later on, in 1995, we went to West Bromwich where the first 3 Lancasters that were made actually came to our squadron, the 463. We went there for the day. It was when the Australians came over in 1995. We were in a coach tearing up the runway with a cameraman taking photos of us. They were in the papers with the headline `The Australians Return!` something like that. It was on the television at night. We didn`t know it was going to be on.
We went for some reason or other to the ops room at Waddington after the war and I saw our skipper`s address there and I thought.` I wonder if anyone would say anything if I copied it down and I glanced round and nobody was looking at me, so I put it down and wrote to him. He had lived in Melbourne when I knew him in the War, but this was a different place. I`ve forgotten the name of it now, so I wrote and he didn`t live there. But the letter did reach him. He wrote back and said. `Dear George, I was so excited to get a letter from you after all these years, I`ve been out and bought myself a new electronic typewriter, and as you can see by the mistakes, I am about as good at it as I was getting your end and my end down together.` When we were going to land coming back, very often you`d hear the tail wheel go down with a bang on the ground. They were different then, there were two wheels at the front and one at the back. It is opposite now. Sometimes I used to switch on the intercom and I`d say. `Well, I`ve got my end down all right, how`s you blokes getting on?` After 30 years he had remembered it. We still ring each other up though we are the only two who are in contact the one at the front and the one at the back!
They have a nice War Memorial in Waddington village which was paid for by the Australians. It is in the form of a cast-iron village clock and it is in the square at Waddington. There were something like 3,000 lads from Waddington alone who got killed. Multiply that by all the other R.A.F. stations in Lincolnshire and it will give some idea of the losses we sustained. In 463 squadron, we lost about 1500 and 467 just over 2000, that`s in 18 to 20 months. I was with them from mid-1944 till the war ended. I was one of the lucky ones. They didn`t get me, but we did have a few escapes, we didn`t live a charmed life. We had things happen all the time. I remember when we went to Lutzkendorf I was frightened out of my life because there was a hell of lot of banging and crashing and planes falling out of the sky. Our skipper took us out of it all when we had dropped our bombs. He dived down so steep that it nearly burst your ears. We went down at the heck of a speed. When you are diving the engineer will call out the air speed. There is a limit to what you can do. A thousand miles an hour and the wings will fall off. Lutzkendorf was terrible. When we came back we hoped we wouldn`t have to go there again. We did go again but it was not so bad the next time.
When you came back you went for your eggs and bacon, and people would be coming in, some later but most at about the same time. The conversation would be.` Poor old, (say) Curly Broadhead got the chop last night`. They never got killed. They always got the chop. Of course some of them used to turn up again and some were taken prisoners. We got the odd hole or two in the aircraft and I remember once after we landed, the tyre went down. It had bits of iron or shrapnel in it, and once a couple of engines went kaput over-heating I think it was. But you could cope with that sort of thing when we were coming back and didn`t have a load on. Apart from the cold, ice used to build up on the plane. A build-up of ice can fetch you down. Another thing I have experienced a few times, you get this bluey-coloured flame flying off the aircraft, off the propeller , off the wings and that is static electricity called St Elmo`s Fire. You don`t get it every time but it is a bit unnerving when you do. Another thing, you don`t get any spare petrol. They liked to put in less petrol and more bombs. They are big engines and they use a lot of petrol so you can get half way across the North Sea and find you`re running out. I know that I`ve been sitting there and listening to what the engineer and Joe Starling ( the navigator ) said, and thinking, ` This is going to be tight`. I`d be looking round and thinking, ` I wonder how far? As far as I can reckon it has taken us ten minutes to go so far, so are we about ten minutes away from the land? There still seems to be a lot of sea! ` I used to think that sort of thing. We did not always get back to base. We went to Ford on the South Coast once, I can`t remember why except I do know we still had bombs on board. We went to a couple of places in Yorkshire too. Waddington was in fog I expect or because of a shortage of petrol.
The trips varied from about 6 hours to 10 hours. Near the Leipzig area took us about 88 hours. You never moved from your seat during this time from the moment you took off to getting out at the landing. You couldn`t take anything with you because everything is frozen. You did get 2 or 3 squares of chocolate and 2 or 3 barley sugars. I used to try to save those to take to the dances there was a shortage of sweets then. Once in February 1945, we went to Poland and for some reason we got a lemon each. Now I couldn`t eat a lemon on the ground never mind about when I was flying. Anyway it would freeze up there probably. I pushed it in my pocket. We went to Poland and back and then we went on leave for 3 or 4 days and I gave my mam this lemon. `Where have you got that from?` she said. `The Air Force gave it to me, `I said. Anyway, I didn`t think any more about this lemon and it must have been ten years afterwards, my sister said to me, ` Do you remember that lemon you gave to mam in the War? Well, she`s still got it.` I didn`t say anything to my mother and she didn`t die until she was 90. I should think it was about a year before she died, she went to the drawer and she came back and she said.` Here, you`d better have your lemon back.` I`ve still got it. I did promise I`d give it to Waddington Air Gunners` Museum but every time I go, I`ve forgot it and I`ve been there several times. I must take it.`
I was demobbed in 1947. There was a table the Government worked out. It was your age plus your length of service which determined your demob number. If you were older or had joined up earlier your number was lower. My number came up in May 1947.If I was asked if I would volunteer all over again, in the circumstances I suppose I would, yes, we all would. There was never any shortage of volunteers though people were getting killed. There was never any shortage of volunteers for anything really. There were 4 of us from Colsterworth in Air Crew, 5 counting Billy Roberts but he didn`t go in until after the War. There was C.B.Bailey`s son C.B.Bailey was the boss of the United Steel works here and James and Charlie Dove and me. But James and Charlie Dove got killed and their names are on the village War Memorial and C.B.Bailey`s son got his eye shot out. James is buried in Berlin and Charlie is in Malta, I think. In the law of averages I suppose it should have been one of them and me. I was very lucky, extremely lucky.