By Lee Gale
A long time ago, I used to work for Jack magazine which, at the time, was by far the finest men’s title money could buy. Sadly, not many people agreed with that statement and Jack closed in 2004. Nevertheless, each issue would have articles that were lovingly crafted by writers with massive interests in male culture – namely football, World War II, decent comedy, obscure music and old-men’s pubs. You’d come in with an idea and it would be given the green light without question. It was an incredible environment to work in. I loved the Avro Lancaster and set about writing a long-form magazine article about its history as soon as I’d got my feet under the desk. This inevitably led to interviews with wartime RAF bomber crews.
I visited squadron leader Tony Iveson of 617 Squadron at his home in Tunbridge Wells in summer 2003. On the walls of his spotless home were paintings of Lancasters on various missions, and I seem to recall one was of 617 Squadron’s successful raid sinking the Tirpitz in 1944. Iveson was involved in three missions to sink the bothersome German battleship. I’ll put a few of my other interviews on British Ideas Corporation over the next few weeks. I’ve just read that Iveson died in November 2013 at the age of 94, so he would have been 83 when I interviewed him. He was perfectly lucid and a riveting storyteller.
Did you fly Manchesters or Hampdens before the Lancaster, or did you join the RAF and go straight onto Lancs?
Well, I flew in the VR [Volunteer Reserve] before the War, and learnt to fly at Brough in Yorkshire, then I flew Masters and went onto Spitfires in 1940. In 1941, I was sent to Central Flying School, became a flying instructor and had two years instructing in what was southern Rhodesia. I came back in late 1943 and they sent me to Bomber Command. At Lancaster Finishing School, I was asked if I’d like to go to 617 [Squadron], much to my surprise. I went to 617 in July 1944.
You must have been a hell of a good pilot to have been considered for 617 Squadron.
Well, by then I had over 2,000 hours. I think you learn to fly when you are an instructor because if you say the aeroplane is going to do something, it has to do it, otherwise the pupil doesn’t get any benefit.
Do you remember seeing a Lancaster for the first time?
Err, yes… but when…? It was the one thing we wanted to fly. I think I saw it when I was at Market Harborough and I was flying Wellingtons, and one came in and we were all mightily impressed. That was probably late ’43.
How did you find the handling of the Lancaster?
The Lancaster was a very easy aeroplane to fly. It was a pilot’s aeroplane. Well, I thought it was, until that recent programme where they simulated the attack on the dams. Those jockeys found it heavy. All I remember about the Lancaster was that it was a lovely aeroplane to fly. I felt very comfortable in it the whole time.
What did you expect to have to do when you joined 617 Squadron?
Expected to be an operational pilot.
Did you have any missions in mind that you knew you’d probably have to do at some stage?
No. I must say that before, during the run-through into 617, we all knew about 617. I think that we had in our minds that it was a bit of a suicide squadron. We knew there were special duties. Certainly, I never thought I’d get anywhere near it, not until I’d done a tour in Bomber Command.
What was wing commander Willie Tait like, who was in charge of 617 Squadron when you were there?
I’d call him one of the most reserved, shy men I’ve ever met. I was one of his flight commanders. He had a tremendous record. He was at Cranwell before the War. I think he probably started operations in 1940, and I think by the end he’d done very nearly 100 operations. He was unflappable. He was a good leader. And today, still – I talked to him about a month ago – he is a very reserved man. He hasn’t been to any of our events for a number of years. Perhaps he hasn’t been 100 per cent. But he’s a very intelligent man, a very good speaker, but he’s got this very shy personality. Tait retired as a group captain.
Which was the most dangerous mission you took part in?
I suppose it was the one in January 1945, when I got into trouble over Bergen [bombing U-boat pens] with Focke-Wulf 190s. But the most dangerous could have been the Tirpitz because the Germans had moved a fighter squadron to an airfield about 40 miles south of Tromso. I’ve since met one of their 109 pilots and we were damn lucky. We got away with it by just a few minutes.
Was it the case that the Luftwaffe thought they were under attack themselves and stayed put?
Well I’ve heard lots of explanations and all of them to me are a bit bogus. They made a cock of it.
Was it simply a breakdown in communication between the Tirpitz and the fighter squadron?
Yes. Their commanding officer [Heinrich Ehrler] had 199 victories, and when he took off they all expected him to come back and they were going to have a big party to celebrate his 200th. But for several reasons, I suppose a combination in the end, they missed us.
You had very little defence on your Lancasters at this time, to save weight.
We had lost our mid-upper turrets, armour plating, and we were six hours and 1,000 miles-plus away from home. The day was clear as a bell. You could see hundreds of miles. We would have been, I think, in trouble.
There were three trips to bomb the Tirpitz. Could you tell me your own experiences of this? You had to fly over Norway to the USSR for the first mission, didn’t you? You launched the initial attack from Yagodnik in northern Russia.
First we flew from Woodhall. We flew way north past the Orkneys and the Shetlands, turned in over Norway, and on the other side turned north up the Gulf of Bothnia.
And this was overnight, wasn’t it?
We took off in the early evening. I remember it well. It was my birthday, back in 1944. Then over Finland, the trouble arose when dawn came with low cloud and mist in the tops of all these millions of pine trees. No maps of any great help, no obvious landmarks.
Was there supposed to be a radio beacon in Russia you could have picked up?
There was, but I’m told that someone forgot there was a difference between the Russian and the English alphabet, so the call-signs were misinterpreted and my wireless operator got no joy whatsoever. So in the end we thought about making a forced landing. We saw a big field near a town that turned out to be Onega on the White Sea. After striking off in two or three directions while we still had fuel – in case we could pick up something – we went back there and landed.
Was it still very low cloud at that stage?
No, the airfield was pretty clear.
So it was an airfield of sorts you landed on?
A disused airfield. There were no runways. Another Lancaster arrived flown by our American, Nicky Knilans. There was a Russian major who was the boss of the town. He wanted to know where we’d come from, and when we said Lincolnshire, he couldn’t believe it. I told him we were in Lincolnshire 12-and-a-half hours earlier. He had a contact number, which he used, and discovered that we were authentic. Well, we got refuelled and flew on to Yagodnik.
How much fuel had you left before you made that landing?
Too little to go on rushing around the countryside looking for what was going to be impossible to find.
In fact, 13 Lancasters had gone astray, but all landed safely.
Well, we left six in Russia. Four from 9 Squadron and two from 617.
There’s hardly any details about this at all, but the six Lancasters that were left were used by the Soviets when you left. A glass front was put on the nose of each.
I’ve never heard any authentics, but perhaps they did.
When you attacked the Tirpitz, defensive smoke pots covered the battleship and the valley in seconds.
Yes, they had a couple of hundred on floats in the fjord or up the mountainside.
Did they really work that quickly?
I saw the battleship over the nose of the Lanc and I saw the smoke pots start up. By the time we got to bombing position, my bomber said, “I’m looking down at low cloud.”
Did you to bomb on last position?
Yes, we did. We used the flashes of the guns from the Tirpitz and that was the best we could do.
You were using the latest in bomb-aiming equipment then, SABS.
Yes, that was a splendid bombsight.
Which was accurate to within feet – perfect for the Barnes Wallis bombs, which worked better with near-misses.
Well, it depends on the crew.
Then you flew back to the USSR. How did the Soviets take it that you hadn’t actually hit the target?
I don’t remember them saying anything about it. I left the next day and flew back to England.
Did you play football while you were in Russia?
No, I watched it. I think it was 7-0 to the Russians. They had a band that played every time they scored, and we got a lot of music.
Did they offer the RAF pilots quite a lot of vodka while there?
Not a great deal, because each day we thought we might be going the next day. My memory is of playing cards.
What was the accommodation like?
Well, we were late you see. When the main force arrived there, they were received with a band, and then there was this ferry boat which was our quarters, with a banner which said “Welcome to the glorious fliers of the Royal Air Force”. We had a bit of vodka. It wasn’t a jolly time. We asked if we could have some entertainment, and in the cinema they put on newsreel films, and the Russian newsreel films were taken from the frontline, which was rather gory. Very brave people. We just sort of sat through it really until off we went.
The second attempt on Tirpitz was too cloudy, wasn’t it?
They moved it to Tromso. They took the mid-upper turret out of the Lanc and the armour plating.
There was an extra fuel tank placed inside the body of the Lancaster.
Just an extra 250-gallon tank. From Lossiemouth, we reckoned we could make it. We went up to Lossie at the end of October and off we went early in the morning. By the time we got there, it was very thick cloud and I remember going down and down and down as all the others did, but we were beaten by the weather. It was very difficult because although we’d put a Mosquito over there, even if he’d radioed back, the weather was still going to be six or seven hours later by the time we got there. The weather up there – and I’ve been there since a couple of times – can change rapidly.
Did you get any aircraft intercepting on that second attack?
No, no, not at all. We lost one, one was hit by flak and finished up in Sweden, but no-one was killed.
And on the third attack it was very clear. Could you see Tirpitz from miles away?
I could see it from 20 miles away. We saw her open up with her big gun. She used her big 15-inch gun. It wasn’t like flak, it was a great big thing. Some years ago when I was up there, I saw one of her shells that had been fired over the mountains and landed in some very soft, marshy land and was recovered. It was 1,760lbs. It’s mounted by the side of the fjord.
Did you know Knilans very well? I read how Knilans had landed in a Russian field, refuelled and on take off shaved a 100-yard swathe through a forest. They hit a tree, which smashed the window, and Knilans had to fly covering his face due to the cold.
That was Onega. I think someone made a balls of getting the flaps up and they hit this tree. A branch came through the bomb-aimer’s department. He was a very lucky man Knilans, yes. But he’s still alive, in an old veterans’ home in Wyoming or Wisconsin. We exchange Christmas cards each year.
One of the Dam Busters died recently – Ken Brown.
Kenny Brown, yes. I went to his 80th birthday in Vancouver two years ago.
You were dropping Tallboys at this stage, six-ton bombs. Was it difficult to take-off with a Tallboy in the bomb-bay?
No. The Lanc took it in its stride, and you could land with one on.
With a Tallboy and the extra fuel for the Tirpitz missions, that was two tons over its maximum take-off weight, wasn’t it?
I think the maximum weight for the main force was 65,000lbs. With Tallboy, I think we got it to 68,000lbs. And with Grand Slam they got it to 72,000lbs. I never flew with Grand Slam, but the wings would [flaps arms like a bird]. Huh-huh-huh.
Do you remember seeing a Tallboy hit the ground?
Yes, and the sensation was similar to what happens if you drop a stone into a pond. You get rippling. These ripples of light came out in concentric circles. It was quite an amazing sight.
Could you hear it as well?
I didn’t hear it. There were four Merlins very close to me.
Did you drop any Grand Slams?
No. There’s a book just come out called A Hell Of A Bomb [by Stephen Flower, NPI Media Group, 2002] and it tells you exactly how many Tallboys were dropped – 600-and-something, and 40-odd, maybe 50, Grand Slams.
Did you ever meet Barnes Wallis?
Yes. I met him briefly once at a briefing, but then I knew him much better after the War because I was secretary of 617 Squadron Association for 24 years. We had a number of events, which he attended. I’m told by those who knew him that he’d mellowed, that he was a crusty, difficult customer in his working days, with a lot of belief in himself, which is necessary. Yes, I’ve been to his home. We organised a 90th birthday party for him. I looked at the tape of it just the other day. I was clearing out some tapes and came across it. We had Arthur Harris there, and Ralph Cochrane, and Leonard Cheshire, Eve Gibson, our chaps came from Canada and Australia – it was a great evening. I tried at a very late stage to do an interview with him for Leonard Cheshire, and we were walking in the garden, and he would start off, and I’d ask him a question about a certain period, and sooner or later he would jump ten years and go back ten years – we’d missed him. But he was very fond of 617. We thought really that he was the father of the squadron. Without his idea of the dams, we couldn’t have been formed, and he was very proud of 617.
And Arthur Harris loved the squadron, didn’t he? He called it the Old Lags’ Squadron.
Well… as much as Harris could. Although, I got to know him, too. And also Ralph Cochrane after the War. Yes, they were two great commanders.
Did pilots have heroes who were other pilots? Did you all look up to Guy Gibson and Leonard Cheshire?
Well, I only met Guy Gibson twice. I didn’t serve under him. Leonard I’ve known very well since the War. I’ve done some work for his foundation. My wife was a television producer and did two or three programmes with him, and he came with us to Canada. I got to know Leonard very well. I had the most tremendous admiration for Leonard Cheshire. I think he’s one of the greatest men that I’ve ever known. I feel very privileged to have known him.
And he was one of the gutsiest pilots too.
Yes, but also what he did after the War for the disabled throughout the world, that was a tremendous achievement.
Cheshire managed to borrow a Mustang off the Americans to use as a Pathfinder aircraft.
Well, I don’t think he borrowed one because it was still there when I was there, and I flew it.
That must have been amazing to fly.
Yes, apparently he’d been marking at night in a Lancaster, and it was felt that he’d be more affective with a Mosquito, so two Mosquitos were obtained, and the old story is, they weren’t easily come by, and then I’m not quite sure how the Mustang arrived.
Apparently Cheshire just drove to a nearby American air base, asked them there and then if he could borrow a Mustang, they accepted on the spot, as a loan, and he flew back in it that same day.
And flew it with American markings for a while, but just forgot to give it back.
I taught myself to fly that Mustang with a book in one hand, because I had flown Spitfires, Hurricanes and instructed on Harvards, so I reckoned I could cope. I used to enjoy myself doing fighter affiliation with the other chaps in the Lakes. Because I come from Yorkshire, I took it out to Topcliffe, a Canadian base, for a weekend. I don’t suppose I should tell you this. I had permission. And when I taxied in, the Canadians weren’t known for their deference to officers, and I was waved in to the hangar, and when I got out the airmen saluted me smartly, and I thought, “That’s a bit strange,” and then I saw Cheshire’s wing commander insignia on the side of the aircraft. I was only a squadron leader, but I had my jacket on so I kept it on, ha-ha-ha!
Would you have liked to have taken part in the Dam Busters mission?
That’s a good question. Mm. I don’t know. I’d like to think that I could have coped with it but some very experienced pilots didn’t. And I’d think the odds would have been… well, if one had been on the squadron and one had been able to reach the standards, and one was put on the battle order, one would have had to go. But given the choice, I… I’m not sure. It was a long time ago. I might have felt more gung-ho in those days, huh-huh-huh.
What has amazed me through my research is that the gunners on the ground were pretty hot. Flak was pretty accurate.
Light flak? It was bloody dangerous! They were good! They weren’t too bad with the heavy flak, too.
And the Lancaster’s guns weren’t particularly effective as defence guns, were they, compared to the B-17’s .5s?
Well, we had .303s. OK, there were four in the rear turret, two on the mid-upper, but attacking aircraft could stand off with their cannon, which was twice the range.
Did you feel vulnerable?
Well, I suppose almost all the time. To some degree, you know.
Would you be very nervous before a mission, but once you were actually in the cockpit, you just got on with the job?
Yes, er… you’ve got to remember that we were living in a very different atmosphere. We’d been at war for years, I’d been flying for five years, I’d got used to people being there and not the next. Even in training we lost a lot of friends. And we were flying every day, we were practice flying, we were living in a service atmosphere, living with all my mates on 617, who were a wonderful bunch of people from all over the world. I think when we first heard we were on [for the Tirpitz mission], as a flight commander, I knew a little more about the defences and the routes before the general briefing, more than the other chaps. And then we were getting on with flight testing, then everybody was being briefed, things loaded up. But there was always a feeling in one’s stomach. For the first two or three weeks, I didn’t really enjoy my operational meal. But you’re quite right, when you got in the aircraft and were busy, doing a job, you were fine, but one had time to contemplate on the way to a target. For instance, on the way to Tirpitz, one was wondering, “Where are these fighters?”, because we knew they were there. And when I actually got into trouble, I found that my training helped me. We just went through the motions.
You had an autopilot on the Lancaster, didn’t you?
On the Dam Busters raid, Guy Gibson tried autopilot at 60 feet up, and it dipped down to the sea, and he just managed to regain control.
Yes, well, I don’t suppose one should use it at nought feet.
Did you ever lose an engine or have any problems?
Yes. Well, the Lanc would go pretty happily on three, even with a load. Whenever we were on a non-operational flight, when it was sensible, I’d ask my flight engineer when it got to 200 or 300 feet after take-off to shut down an engine. I’d say, “Don’t tell me which one,” and then we would go through the drill. My feeling was, if we got practice, if it ever came about, particularly on a filthy night with a full load, you wouldn’t be thinking, “What do I do next?” You just did it.
What would you do?
Well, first of all, you’re well aware an engine’s gone as the aeroplane starts to swing, so you correct that automatically.
Would anything come up on the cockpit to tell you an engine was in trouble?
It might, but you haven’t time to look. That’s a flight engineer’s job. I would say, “OK, feather,” and he would press the feathering button, having closed the throttle. And the propeller would stop, and then one would trim it out and settle down to the climbing speed. We’d get to 1,000 or 1,500 feet and re-start it. But at least we had gone through the motion. The extra thing was, if you had a fire, there was a device in the engine called Graviner, which was probably the name of the company that invented it. You’d press a button and it would release a substance into the engine that would put out the fire. And that actually happened with us over Norway.
On the Tirpitz mission?
No, no. The U-boat pens at Bergen.
I’ve read about the willingness of crews to take part in every mission, and some of these seemed certain death, but there was never any melancholy on the part of the crews. Was it really like that?
Well with 617 Squadron, when there was an operation, everybody went. In a main force squadron, it was rather different. The CO and the two or three flight commanders would have to ration their operations because you couldn’t risk losing your commanders. Forty-nine Squadron lost its CO and two flight commanders on the same mission. So they had to choose, which is rather difficult. But with 617 Squadron, if you were there, everybody flew. Willie Tait led and planned every raid. I don’t know how much leave he had, but not very much. It wasn’t a question of being up to it, in that sense. It was our job and you wouldn’t let your colleagues down. We weren’t gung-ho about it, but we were pretty confident. And we were flying sometimes two or three ops a week. If we were doing training for a special op, like the Tirpitz, you’d be in the air longer.
Did that affect you physically or mentally, having that kind of pressure?
I had a period just after the War where I had two recurring dreams. One was that I was with two or three of my crew on the ground in a German city, in the moonlight, and we were crouching in a little lane, and over a wall I saw a woman in a window pointing, saying, “They’re there, they’re there,” and that came about, I suppose, from that fear that one day you might be shot down. The other was I’d find myself waking up shouting, holding onto the stick and nothing was happening – it was still going down. My wife got fed up with this for a bit. It passed, but looking back, I had a problem settling down for a few years after the War. I didn’t know what was happening at the time.
But it’s fully understandable because of the pressure crews were put under.
Well, it’s a word we didn’t know about. It was a job. Not only in the Air Force. I had a brother in the Army who was in the Rhine crossing and he had a tough time. I had a younger brother who was 17, who was a radio operator in the merchant navy, and he did Atlantic crossings, one Russian convoy, a Malta convoy and the landings in North Africa. He was a different man after the War. It shook him. At least if we came back after an op, we were safe, but he was in the middle of the ocean. As I’ve tried to convey, there was an atmosphere that people today can’t appreciate. Go to a pub in London and they’d been bombed – they were all part of it. There was a wonderful spirit to the country. We were all part of an effort, whether you were in uniform or not, whether you were Free French, American, Canadian, Polish, whatever.
Was there a mission that gave you particular satisfaction as a Lancaster pilot, one that stands out more than any of the other?
The Tirpitz gave satisfaction. We were concerned with that ship for over two months.
Just the presence of the Tirpitz being there would divert shipping and Royal Navy manoeuvres, just in case it took to sea.
It was a menace. When I came back from Africa, I came via New York, and I came across the Atlantic on the Queen Elizabeth, which was a huge liner. And there were 16,000 American troops on board. Sixteen thousand! Eight thousand spent their day below decks, and then they changed round. There were only two meals a day. You couldn’t move for the Yanks shooting crap in the alleyways with the dice. And there was the Queen Mary, which was another big ship, and there was the Mauretania. And these ships were bringing thousands and thousands of troops and weapons and supplies over. Now if Tirpitz had have got out and knocked off a couple of those, which it could have done with its 15-inch guns, it had radar which would see over the horizon, it could have fired on them from 12, 14 miles away, just as Bismarck did to Hood. And say if a couple of those had been knocked off, even if we’d sunk Tirpitz afterwards – it took practically the whole Royal Navy to deal with Bismarck – it might have been a different story. The Yanks might have thought, “This isn’t worth a candle trying to get out, losing thousands and thousands of troops. And there might not have been a D-Day, you know. So Tirpitz, although she was sitting up there… even Harris said to the prime minister, “You know, she’s not doing any harm there in the Arctic Ocean.” But the potential was there, and Churchill said, “Harris, I want you to sink the Tirpitz.” So Harris sent the boys out, and we sank it.
If you hear the drone of a Rolls Royce Merlin, where does that take you?
Well I go out and try and see it. As you know, it had a peculiar sound.
I sometimes wonder if they worked on the sound as much as the engine itself.
Huh-huh-huh, I don’t know. But it’s very nostalgic, it is indeed.
A few Lancasters had Bristol Hercules engines, the Mark II.
Yes, there were a few, but I never saw one.
Did you think you’d make it through the War?
I don’t think I ever sat down and said, “What are your chances?” I think it was always there. Every week or so, someone might be shot down in the squadron, or you’d hear of others who you knew, because we were very frank about losses. Every morning in the ops room there was a list if there’d been an operation the night before, of the squadrons and the aircrafts and the pilots who hadn’t come back. And I went into Bomber Command as one of 14 crews and by the end, certainly by January ’45, I think there were ten of the 98 people left in the UK. The rest were either dead, missing or prisoners. It was as tough as that in those days.
Towards the end of the War, Japan was very much still a threat, and the Lincoln was built specifically to bomb Japan. Did you expect to go to the Far East?
Well, had the A-bomb not been exploded, if that hadn’t been available, then 617 would have been out there, but I wouldn’t have gone.
How many missions did you do?
I suppose with 617 about 20-odd.
Do you keep in contact with your team?
Yes, three of my crew are dead, sadly, but I see my rear gunner and my flight engineer, we’ll meet up. We had our 60th anniversary this year so I saw quite a lot of the old chaps.
Have you met any of the current 617 Squadron, the Tornado pilots?
Yes. I saw one only last week – the commanding officer who’d took them to Iraq. We met them in Lossiemouth. Over the years, we’ve kept in touch with the squadron, had reunions at Scampton, and then they moved to Marham, and Lossiemouth. Well, I’m chairman of Bomber Command Association and have been for four years. I was one of the original directors when it was formed in the early ’80s.
What did you do after the War?
I flew with BOAC. I was seconded to them on the Australia route. Then I flew with an outfit called Skyways. And I delivered a Lincoln to South America for the Argentine Air Force. Flights into Iraq and Africa. And then for the first time in my life, I listened seriously to my father who had been in the Army and the RFC, and he told me the situation of the First War, and said, “You won’t be able to fly an aeroplane for ever, you’ll be flying a desk sooner or later, the service will contract, it’ll be a different service, a peacetime service, so make up your mind if that’s the sort of life that you want, and if not, the sooner you leave the better.” So I thought very carefully and decided to retire. But since then I’ve been in, what might be called “communications”. I was with a printing company for five years – my father knew a director and got me a job. Then I went into television, and then I’ve been in corporate financial PR until I retired in 1990.
Could I ask a very rude question? How old are you?
I was 83 last September. You can’t escape that, huh-huh-huh.
OK, thanks for that, I’ve think I’ve got plenty of material here. That was very enjoyable.