Ron Warburton: Life with Bomber Command
Published 6th October 2015
My father was a seaman, working on coal ships, so we were very much a working class family. My mum would take lodgers in for a little extra money because the old man didn't give her much.
I passed an examination to go to Cantonian High School in Cardiff. Unfortunately, the Germans got nasty and they bombed my school. One day, I went to school as usual and there was just a huge pile of bricks and the glass had been blown out of the windows. The headmaster was shouting at us to keep off the rubble!
I used to spend a lot of time at my aunt's house, as her house backed on to Cardiff Airport. I would watch planes landing and it was my favourite spot. One day, I talked to a lodger who worked at the airport and told him my school had been bombed. The next day, he took me to the airport for an interview.
I was offered an apprenticeship when I was 15. I was fascinated by all aspects of aviation and gradually worked my way up to the drawing office. I stayed there until I responded to the call to join the RAF. I didn't talk to my father unless I had to, but my mother was very proud of her little Ronnie!
We were living on Penarth Road in Cardiff and the aircrew selection board was based in Penarth. They said I was too young and immature to be a pilot, but was ideal for a flight engineer position. They gave me the most
extensive medical examination you could imagine and then training began.
I went to St Athan airport for training, working on a Lancaster. There were seven people in every Lancaster crew - the pilot, navigator, bomb aimer, flight engineer, wireless operator, mid gunner and rear gunner. Usually, they would all live together in Nissen huts, but our pilot was an officer so he was in the Officers' Mess.
He was an Australian officer called Alf Cowley. I am eternally grateful that he selected me to be his engineer. He stood out as he wore an Australian navy blue uniform and most pilots were sergeants. He was walking around with a piece of paper, carefully selecting his crew, and came to the engineers. He said 'Sgt Warburton? Would you like to fly with me?' I said 'Yes please' and that was it. He had taken a list of people who were top of their course and I was top of the engineers.
I was a lot younger than the rest of the crew. Many years later, I discovered that one of our gunners and the navigator both married whilst we were training. Alf was the Best Man at one wedding, but the rest of us didn't even know about it! There was no camaraderie whatsoever. Those with wives would disappear the moment we landed and we'd see only them again on our next operation. But we were a very good crew.
I flew with Bomber Command 218 Squadron and ours was the lead plane in the formation, identified by the white stripes on the tail. We went on 30 operations before Jerry capitulated. Our first mission was to Cologne in 1943 and our last was two days before VE Day.
We always had an egg before we flew. If you were flying in the morning, you would have breakfast with an egg and if it was a night raid, you might have roast beef and mashed potato with egg on top!
Initially, we were just bombing towns without having specific targets. They didn't usually say 'aim for this factory here' so the bombers would fly to places like Cologne or Regensburg and just drop bombs. Later, we had 'master bombers' who flew low and would lay down flares for us to aim for. But at night, there really wasn't much control over where bombs were dropped.
It was a near certainty that you would come under fire. When France was occupied, the Germans had trains with guns on top of carriages and they would let fly when we flew over. There were aerodromes where they had fighters too, and they were a bigger problem. If you were attacked, it was all down to our lonely little boys in the turret, who would sit there for seven hours straight, watching out for the enemy.
Then there was Dresden. Oh, Dresden...
On VE Day, our crew alone flew three high ranking Air Force personnel on a tour of German cities to show them the damage. As we approached Cologne, I could see that beautiful cathedral still standing with hardly a scratch on it. The rest of the town had been completely flattened. That sight has stayed with me. We couldn't believe we had all missed the cathedral, as we had three or four goes at it.
We considered the bombing raids a great success. Churchill said Spitfire won the Battle of Britain and Bomber Command won the war. I don't think about it as much as I used to, but when I first came home, I thought about the bombing raids a lot.
We had a couple of close shaves. Once, we were leading a formation of bombers when a twin-engine Messerschmitt 110 came down in a straight line and suddenly started firing on us. Most of the shells passed between the wing and the fuselage but two shells hit an engine. I pressed the fire extinguisher button, but the engine was still on fire. I pressed it again, but it only works once...
Alf said to me 'What are we going to do?' There was only one thing we could do, and why I should be the only one to think about it when I was the youngest on board, I don't know. I said 'Stick the nose down, dive steeply at maximum speed and turn the aircraft to bring the engine into the wind.' Alf said 'Sounds good to me!' and we flew almost vertically down from 20,000 feet to 10,000 feet. It didn't work, and we were getting worried. The crew were getting rough with me, as though it was my fault that the extinguisher only worked once. 'I can't go out there with a bucket of water!' I shouted.
Fortunately, we dived again, and at about 2,500 feet the fire went out. Now, we had three engines and a full bomb load so we had to get rid of them. We saw a town and what looked like a factory, dropped everything on it and flew home.
We were summoned to the Wing Commander's office. A Mosquito plane was sent out to investigate our incident and it transpired we had destroyed a large factory. They announced our crew would receive a DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross) but they only had one medal! Alf insisted that it should not be him that took it, but one of our gunners as he was on his second tour. That was typical of Alf.
There is a sequel to this story. Many years later, I was asked to read the story of the fallen at a local church. I agreed, but my medals were in a terrible state so I called up the medal office and they said they would clean them. They came back to say that they had investigated my service history and discovered that all seven men in 218 Squadron should have received a medal. Eventually, three of the crew received a DFC and four a DFM (Distinguished Flying Medal). All because my medals needed cleaning!
I have written a book about my war years. At the Records Office and I was able to find details of every operation our squadron flew for my book.
218 Squadron did food drops after the war, which I have much pride about. Dutch people were starving and were digging up raw potatoes as they needed food so desperately. We led close to 1,000 planes for three food drops.
When the war ended, about 100 men from aircrew were sent to a farm in Yorkshire. We had to crawl on our hands and knees digging potatoes in the furrows. The heroes of the war...
I met Margaret on 10 November 1945. I used to dance because it was the best way to pick up ladies, and when I saw this young lady dancing very well at the Celtic ballroom in Cardiff, I pushed my way in! The next day we went to the Cenotaph as Margaret's brother died in the war. We have four children, nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
In 1947, they sent me and about 20 aircrew to Burma on RMS Empress of Scotland. We stayed in 'bashers' in the jungle, huts made from bamboo poles and thatched roofs. There were all kinds of creepy crawlies and you would often hear somebody screaming "Get it off me!" We did nothing in Burma, other than play cards and football against the Army boys. They were so bored that they used to put scorpions up on the dartboard.
I came home with no money and no job, and when we married all I had was my demob suit. We lived with Margaret's parents before renting a flat at £2.10 a week - exactly what I was earning as a sheet metal worker. Eventually, I was as a draughtsman for Fairholme Caravans.
I was elected as a councillor on Cardiff City Council, for the Liberal Party. We held the balance of power as there was an even split of Tories and Socialists, so I was involved in the fate of a number of key projects.
I started running my own business, fitting out shops. I found men who would work over the weekend, fitting out at minimal inconvenience. The business was successful until one day three key employees said they were leaving. They had approached my regular customers and said they could save them money. We went bankrupt and bought smaller house. But my incredible wife went straight out and found work.
I spent ten years managing a beautiful sports club for a large corporation, before we bought a sports shop in Oxted, Surrey, in 1974. Initially, it was half sports shop, half ironmonger, but I sold the ironmongery stock and we started selling trophies and tankards. We sold the business and it was transformed into a Chinese restaurant!
I kept in touch with Alf Cowley and we spoke on the phone at Christmas time in 1990. He invited me and Margaret to stay with him in Australia and incredibly my son Roger, who lives in America, offered to pay for our flights. So we went to see Alf. We flew to Sydney, but the town where Alf lived was like something from a Western movie!
When we arrived, the wardrobe in our room must have been a thousand years old, and we were in a dreadful old bed. Primitive was not the word! It was as though the family were poverty stricken and yet Alf was as a successful farmer and businessman, with a vast area of land. We wanted to come home immediately, but our children had all contributed to this 'trip of a lifetime' so we stuck it out. We ended up having a wonderful time.
We went to a huge reservoir near town, and I said, 'I'll buy some fresh trout and cook us all dinner.' Alf couldn't believe a man was cooking and called me all kinds of names! Margaret and I loved square dancing and we had taken matching outfits. When Alf found out I liked dressing and cooking, he joked 'Well, there's no way you're straight, mate!"
We made a big life choice in 1991 and moved to Florida, in a newly built complex within a golf course. We had a bungalow, communal swimming pool and large clubhouse where everyone met up. I didn't play golf, but played tennis all day and cards in the evening. There were dances, concerts, tea parties and I loved it. But Margaret missed home. I didn't want to come home and it was probably the biggest test in our lives. But we returned, and eventually moved to Warnham five years ago. I recently celebrated my 90th birthday, surrounded by all of my family.
Margaret reminds me sometimes that the Germans bombed us first, because I still feel guilty about it. Regensburg was just the most gorgeous, colourful place and look at the mess we made of it. It is hard to live with but at the time, we just focused on destroying buildings and bridges. It was our job.
You can find out more about No. 218 Squadron at www.raf.mod.uk