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Veteran's reflections of a job well done

PUBLISHED: 11:50 09 April 2010 | UPDATED: 17:23 30 June 2010

Alex Flett has spoken of his days in the RAF

Alex Flett has spoken of his days in the RAF

Spending their days quietly living in our towns and villages there are men and women who have had experiences the younger generation cannot imagine. One such man is Alex Flett who spoke to John Kenny about his days in the RAF during the second world war.

Spending their days quietly living in our towns and villages there are men and women who have had experiences the younger generation cannot imagine. One such man is Alex Flett who spoke to John Kenny about his days in the RAF during the second world war.

AS Alex Flett, DFC and Bar, QPM, sits in his study he exudes the confidence and leadership of someone who knows they've done their best in life and in return feels life has been good to them. It is easy to see why he attained the rank of Squadron Leader in the RAF and Commander in the police.

Today he lives quietly in Acle reflectin on his achievements and the many friendships he has built up over the years, many locally - until recently he gave talks to various clubs and societies about the North Sea Herring Industry when boats were packed so closely together at the docks during a depression that you could walk across the river from boat to boat.

In 1938, Alex joined the Metropolitan Police in London and was there serving as a constable during the Blitz in 1939 and 1940, enduring each and every night the hell the Luftwaffe onslaught brought with it.

Alex's father had been the skipper of a minesweeper in the first world war and later became a herring fisherman. As such he had made friends with people in both Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft and when Alex's leave application from the Met for two weeks in Scotland was turned down, Alex instead spent the fortnight in Lowestoft with some of his father's friends. It was while there he went to a dance in Lowestoft and met his future wife, Catherine May, to whom he was married in 1941.

In March of that year, the Police and Fire Services Act allowed police officers to volunteer for Air Crew Duties and in just one night alone half of Alex's station had applied for duty in the RAF.

The next month Alex had a day off from police duties and took his entrance exams. Having passed, he promptly took the oath and the King's shilling, and found him self reciting the national anthem.

August 1941 saw Alex, at the age of 24, joining the RAF at Lords cricket ground as a Leading Air Craftsman and off he went to Newquay, Cornwall for his basic training. From Newquay, Alex went on to Halifax in Canada and then down to Montgomery in Alabama, USA for pilot training.

It was while at Montgomery that, on a Sunday morning, Pearl Harbour was attacked. As Alex says, everything changed from that day onwards. The day before Pearl Harbour, Alex's USAF Training Lieutenant was wearing no ribbons or medals, the day after he was suddenly adorning two rows of medals.

After just a few weeks, Alex moved from Montgomery to Albany in Georgia to carry on his pilot training. Unfortunately he and five other British trainees were assigned to an instructor who happened to be a civilian bush pilot who enjoyed his drink just a bit too much. It wasn't too long before the instructor was sacked and Alex and his trainee colleagues were put with other instructors. As a result Alex had had just six hours pilot training and failed to make the grade required.

Alex then returned to Halifax and re-mustered as a navigator. In April 1942 he went to Pensicola in Florida, USA and joined up with the US Navy to do his training. September 2 saw him return to England to a place called Bobbington. The Americans however had difficulty distinquishing the pronunciation between this and Bovington and mistakes were being made so Bobbington was renamed Half Penny Green.

In October 1942 Alex completed his training and whilst at Bobbington was commissioned from Leading Air Craftsman to Pilot Officer and posted to Litchfield. Here he joined up with his first crew, an Australian training unit. The crew comprised of Alex as navigator, the pilot, a bomb aimer and a wireless operator. It was while with this crew that Alex flew on his first operation over enemy territory, a leaflet drop over Lille in France on March 4, 1943.

Alex went on to train on Wellington aircraft where he picked up further crew, a mid upper gunner and a flight engineer. In April 1943 they were all posted to 460 Squadron RAAF (Royal Australian Air Force) at Breighton in Yorkshire, his first operational station. Indeed his first operation came soon after arriving and Alex flew his first operation when he went mine laying over Biaritz.

This was in a Lancaster and took eight hours 15 minutes. The flight path was over England and then over France down to Biaritz.

As navigator, it was Alex's job to get them there and back again. He operated from a small office in the aircraft and made an entry in his log every six minutes, zigzagging through the air according to the wind strength and direction. The mission was laying mines in the mouth of the river at Biaritz whilst flying at a height of just 500ft - known in the RAF as "gardening".

Between April 27 1943 and August 31 1943 Alex flew 26 operations, including a bombing mission over Essen in German. Bombing operations followed on a regular basis over such places as Dortmund, Dusseldorf, Woopataal, Bocham, Eberfeld, Kolsenkurkan, Koln, Hamburg and even Turin in Italy.

The average operation took about four and three-quarter hours to complete, although the mission to Turin took almost 11 hours.

And the mission to Hamburg on July 24 was particularly poignant as it marked the start of the Hamburg Raids with more than 700 planes in the operation.

At the end of August 1943 Alex was made into a navigational instructor, however it wasn't long before he was being asked to take over in charge of the navigator officers for a brand new squadron being formed at Kelstern in Lincolnshire. 625 Squadron.

He was posted there in October and just did some local flying. However, he soon found himself being used as a spare navigator as navigators could not fly if they had so much as a cold.

So on February 19 1944 Alex resumed operations and began with a mission over Leipzig. It was his next mission though that Alex really remembers when on March 13 he was part of an operation that flew over Nuremburg.

Alex recalls how they lost 96 heavy aircraft that night and 700 men lost their lives in Lancasters, Halifax's and Mosquitos.

Also still a very vivid memory was a bombing mission on the night of June 5 1944, the night before D-Day. They flew to St Martin De Yarvalle on the coast of France where they were bombing German fortifications. They took off at 21.35 hours that evening and returned between 0200 and 0300 hours. As they flew back, the sun was coming up and Alex recalls seeing hundreds of craft below, the invasion fleet. He had no idea what was happening, to him he had just been on another bombing mission.

Over the next couple of months Alex flew on many more missions over France, Germany and Holland. On August 26, on a mission to Kiel, Alex's plane was hit by flack. He can still remember the prickling feeling on his face where the flack had penetrated the perspex in holes the size of pin heads and he had been hit. The smell of the flack still lives with him.

Five days later though, came his most frightening experience in the sky. Alex and his crew were on a mission to Reinburd. They took off at 12.35 hours and while over the south of England not far from Croydon they had reached a height of about 15,000ft. Alex was sat at his table when for no apparent reason the plane stalled and immediately went into a nose dive.

Alex had a parachute on the rear of his chair but the sheer force working against him prevented him from even being able to turn around to get it. From where he sat, Alex could see both the pilot and flight engineer with their feet on the dashboard, both with their hands wrapped around the flight column, literally pulling it as hard as they possibly could. The plane was carrying a full bomb load and the consequences of crashing were unthinkable.

Then, at 5000ft the engine fired back up, and the pilot and engineer pulled the plane back out of the nose dive and they continued to complete their mission. It is believed the tail may have had ice on it and had frozen causing the plane to stall.

Alex's last mission as a flight lieutenant navigator came just three days later on September 3 1944 and was to Gilze Rijen in Holland.

After that he was promoted to Squadron Leader and had complete responsibility for the navigation of the squadron. In 1945, Alex found himself on a 3 month junior commanders course at RAF Cranwell in Lincolnshire before returning to Kelstern.

From here he was posted to Koblenz and moved from bombing command to transport command. However this posting never happened and on V.E. Day Alex found himself leaving the RAFVR, the Royal Air Force Voluntary Reserve, and returning to the police.

As Alex says, it was somewhat strange to go from one day being a Squadron Leader, to the next day returning as a bobby on the beat in London.

He has various medals as a result of his RAF days. These include the Air Crew Europe Star and Bar (France and Germany), The victory medal, The defence medal, The 1939-1945 Star and the DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross) and Bar.

The DFC and Bar were awarded for devotion to duty and for accompanying young navigators. In 1945 Alex was called to Buckingham Palace to receive both his DFC and Bar at the same time. On receiving them King George VI said to him: "Thank you for helping save my people".

But there were the lighter moments, which recalls with affection. One day he and his six crew were on an escape and evasion exercise at Binbrook. They were dumped in the middle of nowhere with just a map to aid their successful return to camp. After being dropped off they walked no more than 400 yards to a main road when a bus with "Binbrook" on it came along.

All seven climbed on board and soon were in the local pub. Within half an hour, in came the RAF Officer who had dropped them off. With a look of astonishment on his face he asked how they had got back so quickly. True to form Alex would only give his name rank and number to the officer. That is until they were all promised a pint. Alex told the officer what had happened and it is believed that no one on an escape and evasion exercise ever caught that bus again. Alex and his crew didn't mind, they all got their free pint!

Alex's study is full of his memories; medals close to hand, alongside police memorabilia and a small Scottish flag. His bookcase typifies his life with such titles as Observers and Navigators, The Bomber Command War Diaries and a very special book, The DFC and how it was won.

Very special memories of a job well done.


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