The wireless operator, Douglas Radcliffe MBE
Warrant Officer Douglas Radcliffe MBE flew a full operational tour as a Wireless Operator, flying in Wellingtons with No. 425 Squadron.
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After the war he worked as a cine-technician in several film studios in London, his lifelong home. Now aged 84, he is secretary of the Bomber Command Association, based at the RAF Museum in Hendon, North London.
« I was a messenger boy at the BBC when Broadcasting House was bombed during the Blitz in October 1940, killing seven girls in the music library. I was there when they brought the bodies out and that was what made me decide to join up.
I was 17 years and 11 months old when I when I volunteered in 1941, and I persuaded my colleague Bill Wright, who later devised the TV quiz Mastermind, to join up at the same time. I chose the RAF because I wanted to fly, simple as that.
Getting in wasn’t easy – at first they didn’t want us but when we said we worked at the BBC they immediately thought « wireless » and signed us up, even though we didn’t know anything about radios.
We were trained up as wireless operators, but you had no rank as a wireless operator, so we were put on a gunnery course to get the rank of sergeant, which meant you would have some degree of protection if you were captured by the Germans.
I had told my mother I was joining up as a cook, and when I went home with my Sergeant Air Gunner’s uniform my mother took a dim view. She said I had lied to her and she wasn’t happy.
After a spell as a ground wireless operator my crew was sent to North Africa in 1943 to replenish depleted squadrons there, but on the way there we crashed, and that crash saved my life, because I was kept in hospital in Tel Aviv for a while with shoulder and back injuries, and so I was separated from the rest of my crew, who didn’t have to stay in hospital so long. By the end of the war my original pilot had been shot down and killed and, separately, the rear gunner was also shot down and killed.
When I recovered I joined a depleted French-Canadian Squadron, No. 425, flying missions over Italy after the invasion of Sicily. We were based at Kairouan in Tunisia and it was always low-level flying – I never had to wear an oxygen mask during my entire tour.
As a wireless operator my job was to receive messages – the only time you transmitted was if it was an SOS. Your main job was as the liaison officer in the aircraft. Every 15 minutes there would be a coded transmission from base, which might be information to help the navigator, or you might be told that an airfield had been put out of action and you had to land somewhere else. You could also tune in to beacons which transmitted signals to help locate your position, and I would also keep checking the rear gunner to make sure he was alright.
They always said you could tell a wireless operator by looking at his boots – the heating duct for the cockpit came out by my left foot, and it would partly melt the rubber sole of your boot. It meant I was always roasting, while the rear gunner would be freezing.
The biggest problem we had flying over Italy was the fighters. Whenever you had to join another crew you would always find that they had lost someone during a fighter attack. We got damaged once, on one of the wings, and we never knew what it was that had done it. A lot of people who got shot down never knew what hit them.
When we attacked targets it would be at such a low level that the gunners would be firing at targets on the ground. The bomb aimers, who doubled as the front gunners, had a particularly busy time.
People say to me that it must have been terrible, but it wasn’t terrible. We knew the dangers but at that age you just don’t think about it. You always convinced yourself that people who were missing would have bailed out safely.
In between ops we had a great time. We were the lucky ones in many respects. When you got back from a raid you had a clean bed to sleep in and for most people they were in the heart of the English countryside. I always tell my family I wouldn’t have swapped with sailors or soldiers, who had to put up with much worse.
After completing the equivalent in flying hours of 30 ops, which was a full tour, I returned to England and spent some time as an instructor before converting to Lancasters in anticipation of a second tour. I was due to go to the Pacific as part of Tiger Force, but the Japanese surrender meant we didn’t have to go in the end.
I didn’t like the Lancaster as much as I did the Wellington. Not many people did. I think it was probably because I was alive, and I felt I owed that, in part, to Wellingtons.
We didn’t find out until the end of the war just how many airmen had died. Mostly they were just listed at the time as missing, and it was only later that we realised what a high percentage of them had died.
Even today I’m still finding out that friends of mine didn’t survive the war. I found myself thinking a couple of weeks ago about a pilot I had greatly admired, who was one of the very best. I looked his name up in a book which lists all the casualties and found that he had been killed in a flying accident at his home base.
In a way it hits you even harder after all these years, because you suddenly find that someone who you thought might have been alive for the last 60 years has, in fact been dead since 1943 or 44. »