Talk for Oxcot Branch MVT
At our meeting on Thursday 30 May we were extremely privileged to have a most evocative talk from Mr Bill Holmes DFC (ex- Flight Lieutenant RAF) about his experiences as a member of RAF Bomber Command during WW2. Bill, now aged 91, told us how he joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve (the equivalent of the Army TA) in early 1939 at the age of 17. Turning up for parades at evenings and weekends, Bill received training in the Theory of Flight and Principles of Air Navigation but spent a lot of time doing Drill. When war was declared in September 1939, Bill joined the RAF and in late 1940 was selected for aircrew training. After some basic flying training on Tiger Moths, Bill was sent to Canada together with a draft of potential aircrew for pilot training under the Commonwealth Air Training Plan. During his training in Canada, Bill gained his wings flying Boeing Kaydet /Stearman PT-17 single engined and Airspeed Oxford and Avro Anson twin engined aircraft. Bill returned to England on board RMS Queen Mary which sailed with a load including some 15000 US Troops. After a short leave he was sent to an Operational Training Unit for training to fly the four engined Stirling Heavy Bomber which at that time was the mainstay of the RAF heavy bomber force. He joined 149 Squadron RAF flying Stirlings on main bomber force operations. Bill thought the Stirling to be a wonderful aircraft which was extremely powerful and highly manoeuvrable. It was a huge aircraft, much larger than the Lancaster and the pilot's seat was 29 feet from the ground. The aircrafts performance was constrained by its' short wingspan which limited the altitude at which it could operate. This meant that on main bomber force operations the Stirlings would be operating at a much lower altitude than the Halifaxes and Lancasters which were coming into operation in increasing numbers. Operating at lower altitude meant that the Stirlings were vulnerable to the effective German Flak defences. As a result casualty rates among Stirling crews were proportionately much higher than in the other major bomber types.
Bill told us that eventually the role of the Stirling was relegated to low level operations including attacking railway marshalling yards and enemy naval targets such as the bombing of submarine pens and 'Gardening' operations laying sea mines near targets such as Brest, Lorient and St Nazaire. Another task was that of 'Special Operations' dropping Agents and supplies to the Resistance movements in occupied Europe. These operations were conducted at periods of full moon, flown at low level and by dead reckoning navigation looking for light signals from the dropping zones which were sometimes interdicted by the enemy. Bill recounted his last operation when during a low level bombing mission his aircraft was heavily damaged by Flak which took out the two port engines and affected the performance of the starboard outer. A fuel tank had been punctured and the aircraft was awash with fuel. Bill headed the aircraft for home across the widest part of the Channel. The starboard outer had stopped leaving the Stirling flying on one engine at 2800 rpm and losing height. Approaching the south coast he saw the airfield at Thorney Island and tried to bring the aircraft in. With almost no power the aircraft crashed and the flooded fuel ignited. The aircraft burned and Bill tried to get out. He was saved by being pushed out from behind by his Navigator. Bill's face and hands were severely burned. The Navigator died. Bill told us of how he was taken to the specialised burns unit at East Grinstead where Sir Archibald McIndoe carried out a course of plastic surgery. He told us of how Sir Archibald inspired his patients and how the local population at East Grinstead responded by treating the patients as 'normal' in spite of their disfiguring injuries. 'Sir Archie' insisted that the hospital regime continued with as few constraints as possible and that since continual hydration helped the burned, grafted areas to heal, a barrel of beer was present in every ward. Because of the innovative nature of the treatments being applied Bill and his fellow patients were known as 'Guinea Pigs' and became members of the Sir Archibald McIndoe's famous 'Guinea Pig Club'.
Bill never returned to flying duties but continued his service career in administrative roles. At the end of his talk Bill answered questions and signed books brought by our members and autographed a print which was raffled. The proceeds of the raffle (£102) he requested to be donated to Banbury RAFA Club of which he was a founding member. We consider ourselves to be greatly privileged to have had this interesting and evocative talk from a true hero. Bill King June 2013