In 1939 I was working for an insurance company. A middle-distance runner with the Belgrave Harriers, my sights were set on running for Great Britain at the 1940 Helsinki Olympics – but the war put paid to all that.
After I was called up, I told the medical examiner that I wanted to fly, and he said I never would because I had an enlarged heart, but I explained that was common in middle-distance runners, so I was passed fit.
By the start of June 1941, I was at Lossiemouth, converting from training aircraft to the Vickers Wellington bomber, and in August 1941, I joined 9 Squadron at Honington.
I flew my first operational mission (as second pilot) on 26 August 1941 in a Wellington to Cologne. It was a bit scary – I didn’t know what I was up against. I worked with a very accomplished pilot, Sergeant Baker: I did two or three flights with him as the pilot, me as the second pilot. It all fell into place.
My first operational mission as an aircraft captain (again in a Wellington R1707) was against the docks at Boulogne a couple of weeks later. In all, I flew a dozen operational missions in that Wellington.
In November, I began my conversion onto the four-engined Short Stirling bomber, posted to A Flight of 15 Squadron at Wyton but not flying my first operational mission until March 1942. We laid mines off the French port of Lorient, landing back at Predannack in Cornwall.
Thousand bomber raid
The operation that stays with me was the Thousand Bomber Raid on Cologne on 30 May 1942 – my eighth Stirling mission.
We took off as night was falling and we were able to see quite a few other aircraft. The opposition was mainly flak because we were too much in bulk for a lot of night fighter action.
We were attacked once and my rear gunner decided he’d shot the fighter down but he never got a claim for it. I flew my 18th and last Stirling mission – to Wilhelmshaven – on 8 July 1942.
“After Hitler stopped me running in the 1940 and 1944 Olympic Games, I’d bombed him in retaliation”
By August of that year, I had joined an Operational Training Unit at Kinloss in Moray, Scotland. This was where I met up with Group Captain Hamish Mahaddie who, by 1944, was “talent spotting” aircrew to join the Pathfinder Force.
He invited me to join the Pathfinders – quite a surprise actually – and I arrived at Warboys for Mosquito training. I had an intensive introduction to the Mosquito, making my first solo on 8 November 1944 after only two previous flights with my instructor, Flight Lieutenant Kerr, earlier the same day.
I joined 162 Squadron at Bourn a month later, and flew my first operational sortie on 21 December – a raid to Cologne. The Pathfinders were target-marking squadrons, we located targets and marked them with flares which a following bomber force could aim at, increasing their accuracy.
All told I would fly 34 operational Pathfinder missions, many of them over Berlin. I flew my last wartime mission, in a Mosquito, to Kiel in April 1945.
After hostilities ceased, the squadron relocated to Blackbushe in Hampshire, where I got my ‘scraper’ – promotion to Acting Squadron Leader. From this base, we flew a number of sorties dropping leaflets over PoW camps in Germany.
Distinguished Flying Cross
I can’t recall any specific reason why they awarded me the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) – surviving three operational tours, I suppose.
From left to right: Bill's DFC; 1939-45 Star with Bomber Command clasp; Aircrew Europe Star with France and Germany clasp; Defence Medal; and 1939-45 War Medal with Mentioned in Despatches Oak Leaf
My last flight with the RAF was on 18 February 1946, taking a Mosquito XVI from Upwood to Hatfield. I was demobbed shortly afterwards, and returned to my previous employment with the London and Lancashire Insurance Company in the City of London.
After demob, I resumed my athletic pursuits with the Belgrave Harriers. I was chosen to represent my country in the 5,000 metres at the 1948 London Olympics. After Hitler stopped me running in the 1940 and 1944 Olympic Games, I’d bombed him in retaliation. It was very gratifying.
Bill (213) competing in the 1948 Olympics
I’m frequently asked what was my favourite aircraft – in my time in the RAF I’d flown a Miles Magister, a Miles Master, a Wellington bomber, a Short Stirling bomber, an Armstrong-Whitworth Whitley bomber, a Whitley V, and finally, a Mosquito – to which my answer has always been “every one of them”... they all got me back safely.
On Remembrance Sunday, I remember all the people I’ve served with in my time in the RAF, and watch the Cenotaph ceremony avidly. I always consider myself as being very, very lucky to have survived.”