On the history trail: Bomber Command hero Harry tells tale of WWII adventures
The last event from this year's Flying Man Festival was a talk in Pocklington All Saints' Church from one of the few surviving bomber crew that flew off from Pocklington Airfield during the dark days of World War Two.
Harry Hughes (DFC DFM AE and Bar FICS) was a navigator on one of the Halifax bombers that flew regular missions over Germany during his time at the airfield in 1943. For this year’s Flying Man, Harry came to Pocklington All Saints’ Church from his home in St Ives and was helped in the journey by his lifelong friend Simon Whittaker who asked questions to Harry and kept him on track. The intention was for him to fly from Cornwall to Elvington, but fog in the Midlands forced an unscheduled landing at Peterborough and he had to change plans and continue the journey by train from Peterborough to York before being picked up by friends from York station. His determination to get to Pocklington at the age of 94 was admirable.
Harry arrived in Pocklington in 1943 when the war in the air over Germany was at its most intense and 102 Squadron had the second highest losses in Bomber Command during this period. His stories were vivid and yet full of humour, a typical story he told was on his nights off in Pocklington he would visit The Station Hotel and they would drink six pints in an hour of Tetley nut brown beer. I asked him if he went to the Feathers and he replied “No - the Feathers were for Officers!”.
Another story he told was about leading a conga in the Oak House dance hall, including twice going upstairs and jumping off the balcony, breaking his foot the second time around. He was taken to hospital in York but persuaded the doctors to let him out to take part in a raid, then was driven back to hospital by the Commanding Officer Gus Walker himself to continue his treatment as soon as he landed back safely in Pocklington.
He also told the tale of his station commanders bravery. Before joining Pocklington, Gus Walker was commanding officer at RAF Syerston in Nottinghamshire. In December 1942, he was preparing to take off on a night raid over Turin. All were fully armed, many with l,000lb bombs, and fuelled for the punishing raid over Italy. While taxiing to take off, Grp. Capt. Walker saw something fall from the bomb bay of one of the heavy bombers and, thinking it might have been a bomb, instinctively rushed across the airfield to warn the crew to abandon the sortie. Suddenly there was an explosion. He was within a few metres of the aircraft and was thrown nearly 80 metres by the blast, severing his right arm. Incredibly, as he was being taken to hospital he asked one of his staff to telephone the RAF top brass to ask if they would take back a one-armed station commander in two months’ time. Just over two months later, he was back on duty as commanding officer of Pocklington. Harry said he had also told his staff to recover his lost arm as he had just bought a brand new pair of leather gloves!
Harry told the story of one of the raids encountering heavy flak and damaged the rudders and aileron controls of the Halifax which Harry said were shot to pieces. As they were trying to fly back to Pocklington, the crew had to emergency land at Harwell. There were no ground crew available so they took a few hours to do their own repairs. They took off again and landed very late in Pocklington only to find the sergeant’s mess was closed for food. The sergeant there obviously did not know they were on an operation and said “what time do you call this for coming for a meal - the problem with you people is you don’t know there is a war on”, after which one of the crew grabbed the sergeant by the neck and was quickly pulled off him by the others.
On another occasion he related the story of flying into a heavy thunderstorm at 18,000 feet and the plane flipping over upside down, dropping rapidly to 4,000 ft. and the crew were told to abandon the aircraft.
Harry was just about to jump when someone shouted “don’t jump - Sam has got it back under control”. The problem was all his charts and navigation equipment had been jettisoned. Harry said they made it back to Pocklington by him remembering all the course figures in his head.
In Harry’s book ‘Five of the Many’, written by Steve Darlow, Harry outlined an example of a mission on 28 May 1943, a raid on Essen from RAF Pocklington: “At 0207 hours Halifax ‘D’ of 102 sqdn. was returning from a raid on Dusseldorf, two single engine enemy aircraft were seen by the rear gunner at a range of 600 yards. One enemy aircraft (Me109) turned to attack and the gunner instructed the Halifax pilot to turn and dive to port. Enemy aircraft opened fire with four machine guns and the rear gunner replied with 400 rounds.” On the following raid over Essen 23 aircraft were lost out of an attacking force of 518. Their rear gunner shot down a Me110 and Harry admitted that combats were quite scary. Harry’s crew was Sam Hartley (pilot), Harry (Chubby) Hughes (navigator), Tommy Thompson (wireless operator), Harry Hooper (bomb aimer), Ken Lazenby (rear gunner) and Canadian ‘Red’ Flannery (flight engineer).
Harry is the president of the 102 Squadron Association which holds its annual reunion in Pocklington to coincide with the Flying Man Festival, and the audience for his talk included relatives of other war-time personnel from RAF Pocklington. A unique evening that may never be repeated, we owe these brave men such a debt of gratitude.