The Royal Air Force
During World War II
By Katy Harrison
American History Profile
United States History
Scotts Valley Middle School
Scotts Valley, Ca
Many people could hear the airplanes roar overhead, getting louder and louder, but not a person saw them. When the pilots looked down at the town, all they saw were deserted streets, with empty cars parked anywhere along the side of the road, and a couple of bikes, with the pedals still going around. One pilot thought he even saw a loose dog running alone. Under the roads, sat huddled children, parents, grandparents, doctors, teachers, and grocers, all waiting and hoping. Hoping it is not their house bombed, waiting for the war to end. World War II was one of the worst wars ever. Many people lost their lives all around the world, and a lot of people suffered.
This war was very different from World War I, in that the first war was mainly fought on land with guns and bayonets. The second war started and ended with bombs from airplanes. It was more of an air war.
There were many causes for World War II. In the 1930s, Hitler was building up armed forces in Germany. France and Britain were in disagreement and the US had an isolation policy. Germany wanted to restore the land taken away from them in World War I. Fascism (a system of extreme right wing and authoritarian views) was popular in Germany and Italy.
Great Britain was not planning for the war very well. They were hoping that the war would not happen, so they would not have problems. When the war did occur, England only had a few plans, and did not start out well in the war, but did enter when Poland was being attacked, because Poland was an ally.
Britain used the airforce a lot in World War II, because they did not want their armies to be killed like they were in World War I. They wanted the war to be more of machines, and not as much fighting on land. They decided to play defensively, and stay safe behind the English Channel. They wanted to bomb the enemy until it surrendered. The plan took time, and was played defensively. This strategy worked eventually.
This strategy was more economic for Britain and helped save many lives. This is one of the reasons the RAF was so important in World War II. They also had very good planes.
Some were the Spitfire fighter planes. The Germans flew Messerschmitt 109, and Fockewolfe. All the planes were good fighters, but as they could not escort bombers for more than 250 miles, they could only defend. The British planes were stronger, although both countries wanted to design a plane that could be an escort for 500-600 miles then help the bombers get back to safety again. The twin engine fighters could hold enough gas, but could not stand up to the fast single jet ones. In the 1940s, the British got the new Mustang planes that were made in California. These planes were considered the best American built fighter planes available then, because they could go a long distance fairly fast.
The bombers flown by the British were the Halifax, Sterling, and Lancasters. They were new in 1942. These planes were slow and had few guns, with little armor plating to protect the crew, but could fly into Germany and dump up to seven tons of bombs. Most of the time they flew in the cover of night, because it was safer as they couldnt be seen.
The RAF (Royal Air Force) helped out a lot in the fight against Germany. Most of the time they had great plans. They saved England in the Battle of Britain in the 1940. They beat the Luftwaffe who were trying to take over Britain. The RAF used Spitfires and Hurricanes in that war.
After the Battle of Britain, the British army was very badly hurt economically, so the Americans and British decided that the only way to conquer Germany was to bomb them. This made a little problem, though, because the RAF wanted long-range escorts for daytime bombing, but neither America nor Britain had this. The U.S. wanted daytime bombing without an escort, and wanted to bomb with B-17 Flying Fortresses at pin point (specific) targets. As Britain could not have long-range escorts, they decided they wanted to use their Halifaxes and Lancasters at night, and bomb areas, not pin pointed targets. This disagreement caused the allies to do round-the-clock bombing, which meant that they each let their own nation make up its own offensive plan and this caused Germany to be bombed all the time, day and night.
The RAF trained their pilots in parts of the world, which was not affected by the war much. New Zealand, Canada and the Bahamas are some of the places they trained in.
When Germany shot down British planes, the crew was taken to Prisoner Of War camps. These camps were divided up into what service you were in. The air force went to one camp, the army in another. The prisoners usually stayed in the camps until the war was over, unless they died or escaped, or got shot escaping.
My Grandfather, Douglas Harrison, was a navigator in the RAF. He joined at age 18; a year after the war began. During his service, Grandpa went to many countries, New Zealand, Germany, England, Scotland, and an Island off Scotland, Benbecula. As well as just fighting in the war, he also was a flying instructor, and a prisoner of war. While interviewing him, I learned many things I did not know about him or the war.
Before the war, Grandpa was at Newcastle University, and studying metallurgy, the study of metals. He had only been there a year, when he decided to join the air force. He chose the air force over the army, because some of his friends were in the army, and he "didnt want to walk around a lot." Though he had never flown a plane, he thought it would be fun to fly one. He thought he would rather fly a plane than get shot on the ground, around hundreds of men.
When Grandpa went into the war in 1940, he was assigned to go to New Zealand to be a flying instructor. This was "Great fun" and his most favorite part of the war. During the 18 months teaching people how to fly, he learned how to fly better also. He flew Halifaxs mainly during this time in 1941 and 1942.
In 1942, Grandpa was ordered to go back to Britain, and fight in the war as a navigator. During these years, he flew in many bomber planes including Halifaxes, and Wellingtons. Grandpa bombed Germany many times, until April 1944. This was when he crash-landed onto an island, Benbecula.
Grandpa was in a Wellington plane out over the north Atlantic. He was supposed to go back to the base in England, Yorkshire, but could not hold his height. He had to land somewhere soon, and the only place close enough was a tiny island off Scotland.
This island was a weather station, where people used to fly planes out of to see the weather in the Atlantic Ocean. This place had a very short runway, which was just like a field. The Wellington airplane was too big to land on the runway, so the 6 members of the crew, and Grandpa had to crash-land the plane. "Because my plane was so big, and the runway so small, we landed without our wheels down, we flopped down, and the plane was rather damaged." When they landed, they were able to radio for help, and have a rescue team come and get them the next day. The plane, which was by then just a pile of smashed up metal, had to be left, and picked up another time.
After this crash, Grandpa bombed some more places, and flew Halifaxes and Wellingtons, until Oct 1944. By this time it was considered safer because the war was coming to an end and they did daytime bombings. In October, while Grandpa and the six other members of the four engine Halifax were doing a day-time bombing over Germany, he got shot by an anti-aircraft gun. The town he was flying over, Essen, was a heavily defended town, and shot many shells at the airplane, one of which knocked three engines out. The plane still had one engine working, so it didnt fall to the ground straight away, but was falling rapidly. My grandpa had to bail out, along with the rest of the crew. "All I could do was hope that my parachute would open."
Grandpa, and the rest of the crew, parachuted into a little town called Kleve about 4:30pm. (This town was the same town that Anne of Kleve came from, who married King Henry VIII) When Grandpa hit the ground, he was in the middle of the town. About five German soldiers jumped on him and knocked the wind out of him. Grandpa obeyed, as "There wasnt much point in doing anything, I just had to let them get on with it." Because Grandpa did not speak German, and the Germans did not speak English very well, they tried to communicate with hand signals, but "as they were pointing a lot guns at me, my hands were mostly in the air". The Germans took grandpa to a prisoner of war camp, called Sagan, named after the village it was in. This camp was just meant for the airmen, so it was called Stalag-luft III, (airforce three). The Germans called the prisoners Kreigsgefangenen, so the prisoners called each other Kriegies. Everyone was numbered, Grandpa was number 8707.
The camp was "very unpleasant". Grandpa just sat in a room about 15 by 15 feet, with thirteen other soldiers, and talked. The other people were American, Australian, and New Zealanders. The meals were very meager, one meal a day. Grandpa lost 42 pounds during the 10 months there. "I was hungry every day, all day." My grandpa said the prison camps were the worst part of the war. They were monotonous, cold, and uncomfortable. To make tea, grandpa and the rest of the prisoners invented a smokey joe. This was made out of the tin cans, which the soldiers got their food in. It made the water boil in three minutes, using only one coal.
Before Grandpa got there, some of the other prisoners built a tunnel to escape out of. The tunnel was very nice, it even had electric lights! Though they had this tunnel, and 70 men tried to escape, only few made it out of the camp alive, as most of them got shot. There was a movie made about this- The Great Escape. Because the prisoners who escaped built their tunnel through the bottom of their cell, the Germans built a new camp on top of a hill, called Belaria. The huts were built on stilts so that the prisoners could not escape through the ground, and at night, the guards would leave guard dogs roaming around, under the cells, to make it even harder to escape. (One of the people in the plane with Grandpa was in tried to escape, and got shot in the process.) The RAF offered a standard issue escape map, which was a cloth map sown into the lining of the jackets. These maps had most of Germany on them, so that the airmen could know where they were. The Germans did not know about them, and Grandpa still has his.
Around Christmas time, 1944, the people in my grandpas room started saving all the food they had, so that on Christmas they could have a nice dinner. Grandpa was the officer in charge and one of the men made a menu with a picture of Grandpa on the front. He got signatures of everyone in his hut, and menu that someone made for him. On Christmas, they had a feast, compared to what they usually had.
In January 1945, he, and the rest of the camp had to move from one camp to another one, because the Russians were taking over Germany. They had to march in the snow for days, and Grandpa kept a journal in the back of his bible. Jan. 28- "1500 prisoners began marching westwards. Bitterly cold day, snow falling, penetrating wind" Feb. 2- "Feet became very sore and the last 2km of our 25km track were agony." Feb. 3- "Couldnt get boots on this morning the 7km walk to Spremberg was grim." They eventually got put in cattle wagons, 45 men per wagon. They finally reached a dirty World War I camp, called Luckenwalde. When Grandpa got to the new camp, he was very cold, tired and hungry, with no food. In the next compound, there were some Norwegian Generals who had been in the camps since Germany invaded Norway. These people did not have much food, but gave it to Grandpa and the rest of the new prisoners. Grandpa thought, "this was a very brave thing to do." At the new camp, the prisoners had a secret radio. They could get the daily news on it, so were very well informed about what was happening in the outside world.
Grandpa stayed in prison until after the war was over. He heard it was over by the radio, but could not leave. This was because the Russians had surrounded the camp, and would not let any of the prisoners go, even though the war was over. My Grandpa did not like this, so he and a friend decided to leave the camp. They sneaked out, and walked about six miles until they came across an American truck along the road. He and his friend got on the truck, and drove over the river Oder, and "we were free." Grandpa went home, to his family, and then about two weeks later, the rest of the camp were released.
After the war, my grandpa went back to college, and graduated in 1948. He thinks that the war did more positive things to him, than negative. "It is more easier being a student when you are five years older." After college, he got married to Sheila Grant, and had four children and seven grandchildren. He now lives in north England, with his wife.
Harrison, Douglas, Telephone Interview, Leeds, England, December 27, 1997 9:00pm (British time)
Marrin, Albert, The Airmans War-World War II in the Sky McClelland & Steward, Ltd. New York, 1982
Snyder, Louis L., World War II, Franklin Watts, New York, 1981
"World War II", Encarta 95 edition
I would like to thank my mom, Wendy Harrison for editing my rough draft, and letting me call my Grandpa in England.
I would like to thank my dad, Brian Harrison for letting me type my AHP on his computer, and for helping get ideas for what to write.
I want to thank Douglas Harrison for using his time to share his experiences with me.
Scotts Valley Historical Society Civic Center Drive; Scotts Valley, CA 95066