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The Policeman Pilot

Fred Hill kindly forwarded his book ‘The Policeman Pilot’ and consented to our reproducing extracts from it. The book is a personal memoir of Charles Ellison Hill, a policeman who trained as a pilot in the RAF and served with 44 Squadron at RAF Dunholme Lodge in 1943. This, the first extract, is taken from the book’s introduction.

The hazy, fuzzy orange glow of the late afternoon sun changes from a perfect circular disc to a shimmering crescent as it slowly dips below the flat horizon, its last pleasant, caressing rays of warmth slowly ebbing away, no longer soothing the skin. In the distance the city of Lincoln begins to get ready for the cold winter night ahead. As seven young lads are dropped off, the rapidly cooling breeze hits them as they clamber down from the relative warmth and shelter of their transport and they turn their collars against the darkening offensive skyline. The youngest of the lads is just 19 and the old one of the group is merely 29.

They huddle together beneath the huge inert, black metallic beast, chattering in low voices, some of them sparking up a quick fag and begin sucking the calming nicotine enriched smoke deep into their lungs. They look out over the field as the full bright colours of the day begin turn to the dull greys of the night. A haunting, ghoulish and eerie mist begins to swirl in from low over the field, creeping silently and stealthily towards them. In low voices, almost as if they feared of prematurely awakening the huge beast they are sheltered beneath, they chat and banter with one another, they do whatever they can to keep on top of their shattered nerves. Lack of Moral Fibre does not appear to be a problem with these boys, or perhaps they have learned to disguise it well.

Time’s up, in turn, they each grab a hand full of cold damp metal and haul themselves up the aluminium ladder hanging from the side of the huge beast and into the darkened gloom, they are now in the deepest, battle scarred interior of their ‘ship’. A familiar smell caresses their now chilled noses like a warm sweet handkerchief; yes, the reassuring aroma of hydraulic fluid mingles with that of fuel, glycol, oil and grease, for this is the scent of the life blood of the beast they are within. They are now far too occupied to allow nerves to get in the way or allow the mind to wander to those horrid places of their last journey. They need to focus hard and get into the correct mindset, as for the next few hours, their lives depend on it.

Charles Ellison Hill “Charlie” sits in his cold black metal seat, straps himself to the beast and runs his hands automatically over the familiar controls and switches. As he does so, he looks outside through the clear Perspex windows. The sky is now turning an inky blue. He sees that the haunting mists from earlier are thickening and now swirling about the beast, engulfing it in their cruel wispy grip. Are these haunting mists the lost souls of airmen past, having come to wave them off, having come to warn them of what may lay ahead? Charlie shivers and snaps out of it and back to the task in hand, he begins his checks. Down and below his right boot he sees his mate Jocko Nunn (bomb aimer) lying prone doing his own checks. The voice of Jocko soon crackles into Charlie’s ears through the intercom and over the next few moments the other 5 voices confirm they have completed their checks too and are ready to go.

Charlie looks back over his right shoulder into the dimly lit gloom to see Tommy Myerscough (wireless operator) and Jimmy Marsden (navigator) sat at their desks, dimly lit by their equipment, they are looking barely human as the shadows from the beast fall across their oxygen masks and flying helmets. They are both looking up to see Charlie give them the thumbs up; they both return the sign back to him. Further down he can just about make out the boots of Pat Kirwan (mid upper gunner) in the really darkened and unheated gloom towards the back; still farther down he cannot see but knows Ronnie Ledsham (rear gunner) is sat in his cramped and unheated seat right at the back. They are indeed ready. Charles then nods to Edric Wright (flight engineer) who is sat on the jump seat on his right. Charlie clips on his oxygen mask and pushes the four throttles fully forward, four howling, growling and snarling engines raise their crackling might of pure power as 48 pistons begin slamming up and down, the propellers slice through the cold air gripping it with their fury, they and the lads gather speed as 5,920 horses begin to propel them forward. Edric takes over the throttles and Charlie grasps the reins with both hands, he takes control of the beast, he feels it responding to his inputs and then pulls the control column back. With a final roar and groan the beast slips the surly bonds of gravity, it is now tamed and free and in its element. No longer the lumbering angry beast it was on land, the beast, now more resembles a graceful black swan in full flight, but as dangerous as any eagle on the hunt, for this swan packs a mighty punch.

The time is 17:09 hrs, the date is the 23rd of November 1943 and their ‘ship’ is Avro Lancaster DV329 (KM-W) which has just taken off from RAF Dunholme Lodge for a bombing mission to Berlin. This, however, will be the lads’ last mission. The aircraft, although fighting back, was shot down and crashed in the village of Rastdorf, in Germany, on the way to Berlin, resulting in the death of six of these brave young lads and no doubt mentally scarring Patrick Kirwan, the only survivor, who became a prisoner of War, for the rest of his life.

The title of this story was suggested by the man to whom the work is dedicated, a voice from beyond seventy years and the other side of destiny. In a letter to his Chief Constable whilst on operations at RAF Dunholme Lodge, he jocularly remarked that he could well write a book of his experiences and call it ‘Policeman Pilot’. Well, that wish is now honoured here.

It is well to remember that many of these lads had no one to whom they could tell how they really felt, no shoulder to relieve, however briefly, their fear upon. Not their parents nor wives, not their crews nor their bosses. The spectre of disgrace in the dreaded initials LMF (Lack of Moral Fibre) hung over any who cracked under the strain. In this respect Charles was fortunate, even though it no doubt cost him dear in his consciousness, he was able, just once or twice, and probably with great reluctance, tell to his Chief Constable what he dare not tell his boss, crew, or wife.

In a letter he wrote to the Chief Constable on the 10th of July 1943 he writes: “Yet it is a constant strain – this going out and never knowing which trip is likely to be the last. Although perhaps one does not fully appreciate it at the time, the tension of every mile through flak, searchlights and fighter belts is terrific; but one certainly appreciates that moment when we cross over our own coast again”.

In another letter dated the 1st of October 1943, again to the Chief Constable, he goes further and writes: “It is, however, news to know that, along with ‘littler’, I am bragged about because I am on ops. If only the people knew how god-damned scared I am every time I go out, they would probably cease bragging at once”.
I will not beat about the bush, and once you have read these pages perhaps you will agree, Charles Ellison Hill was in my eyes, a hero if ever there was one. A Lancashire lad from a humble background, he held true honest values and was a gentleman, a son, a brother, a husband and a father. His life was cut short doing a job that needed doing, but not one he necessarily had to do. As a police constable Charles was in a reserved occupation and was not subject to call up papers and war duty. As a matter of fact, police constables were initially forbidden to transfer from the police force to the armed forces in the earlier stages of World War Two. When that order was rescinded by the government of the day, many police constables, Charles included, volunteered for war duties. The RAF at this time was advertising for aircrew; however, this was not for the Boys Own stuff akin to the Battle of Britain and the glory of Fighter Command, but for our humble police constables the less glamorous role of Pilot or Navigator in Bomber Command was all that was on offer at the time.

This booklet is intended to merely shed some light on Charles’ Police career and his RAF career. It is intended for family, friends and anyone who is interested in learning a little more of the life and times of this great man and his sacrifice. I hope you enjoy reading it and discovering the life of this amazing selfless man, of how gave his life in the fight for the freedom and justice that many of us take for granted today.

My brief sweet life is over

My eyes no longer see
No Christmas trees, no summer walks,
No pretty girls for me.
I've got the chop I've had it
My nightly Ops are done
Yet in another 100 years
I'll still be twenty one.

R W Gilbert.