I was born December 1938 and lived at Great Yarmouth east Norfolk for much of WW2. Aircraft became an over-riding interest from a very early age and subsequently I went on to enjoy a 40 year career as a professional pilot, first in the Royal Air Force, and then as an airline pilot.
I have early memories of USAAF B17s Flying Fortresses that probably date from around summer 1943 – I would have been 4½ years old then. Sometimes they flew quite low. However, I had only seen B24 Liberators high up. Then one day, several Liberators flew low over the house and it was certainly exciting to see them so near. “My” Liberators that day might well have been involved in low flying training before the ill-fated Ploesti adventure. (Attack on oil refinery in Romania in August 1943)
One amusing aspect of the Liberators resulted from the pitot heads (speed sensors - but at the time, we didn’t know what they were) that were on long mounts on either side of the nose. They reminded us of a local tradesman who had long whiskers growing from his nose in a similar fashion. Poor Mr.Y was henceforth always known as “Liberator”!
Before dawn one winter’s morning – and it must be remembered that the clocks were set to GMT plus one hour so it didn’t get light until quite late – we heard but couldn’t see many large aircraft that were flying around. We were fascinated by the green and red flares that were being fired off. We had no idea at the time what was happening but mother presumed it was some sort of signalling between aircraft. The history shows that in November 1943, there was pre-dawn assembly prior to an attack on a heavy water plant in Norway. Apparently they had great difficulty in the dark getting the formation together. So I could possibly have been witnessing B24s based at Wendling near East Dereham in Norfolk that morning. All 20 aircraft returned safely.
Another day during 1943/44, my mother and I watched three B17s flying incredibly low across the countryside to the west of Yarmouth (we lived on the western outskirts of the town). Whether this was a training exercise or the crew were simply having fun I have no idea. But I do certainly remember how they flew so low that they all-but disappeared behind hedges only to pop up slightly at the next obstacle. Fun flying or training for battle, it certainly inspired a young lad.
One morning under a clear blue sky we watched a quite incredible formation of Flying Fortresses as they got themselves organised. There seemed to be literally hundreds of aircraft. Apparently Great Yarmouth was often used as an easily-identified location for assembling the formations. The sight was impressive enough but the noise lives in my memory and sends shivers up my back even now when I think about it. I cannot be certain of the exact date but a cross-check of the history and the weather records suggest 24th December 1944 as being the most likely. That day, 1,400 B17s were involved in ideal weather. I had little concept as a six-year old what destruction they were going to bring to Germany although of course I was well aware of that “nasty Hitler” who was our enemy.
Five and six year old boys often thought the war was great fun. We would play games “fighting” each other. One poor lad would be assigned the role of Hitler and had to strut around with one finger held horizontally under his nose simulating the moustache with the other arm outstretched in “Hitler salute”.
Many years later around 2005 when I was walking in a wood in Hertfordshire, I heard an unmistakeable American accent. I came across an elderly man – he was well into his 80s – talking with the gamekeeper. It seems that he had been aircrew based at Nuthampstead (B17s) and was trying to find his old airfield. He was not quite in the correct place but we soon pointed him in the right direction. I mentioned the formations of B17s that had so inspired me as a youngster and that was one of the factors that had led me to become a pilot. I had been impressed at the organisation to get those massive formations together. “It wasn’t always like that” he replied. “There was often a great deal of confusion. So you simply latched on to any formation and went along with them having little idea of your target!”
Jack Harrison, Tobermory, Isle of Mull, Argyll & Bute, PA75 6PD
dated 7th January 2015