At 94, John Hall knows he’s lucky to be alive.
However, it’s not his advancing years that make him feel so fortunate, it was his role in a bomber squadron during the Second World War as a flight lieutenant.
One of the most hazardous places to be during the conflict was in the crew of the bombers which flew countless missions over Europe, braving lethal fighters and an0ti-aircraft batteries.
They had a worse chance of survival than frontline troops serving in the First World War.
And the most dangerous role on these aircraft was the tail gunner, which enemy fighter planes mercilessly targeted as the most vulnerable spot on them. They had an estimated survival rate of 40 hours flight time – around four missions.
Yet, astonishingly, John, originally from Sunderland, a tail gunner – or “tail-end Charlie” – on a Lancaster bomber, flew 60 missions over two tours of duty from 1940 to 1944.
During that time he was shot down three times and, miraculously, lived to tell his story, unlike countless numbers of colleagues who perished.
Not surprisingly, John, now living in a care home in Consett, said: “I’m lucky to be alive.”
He took part in the infamous Nuremberg raid on March 30, 1944.
As part of Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris’s plan to bring the war to an end, the RAF decided to attack Nuremberg – the spiritual home of the Nazi Party.
More Allied aircrew died in that single night than the total RAF losses during the whole of the summer-long Battle of Britain. Nuremberg suffered relatively minor damage and the raid has come to be seen by some historians as a comparative failure.
For John, 70 years on, the memory is still as vivid today as it was then – the one mission where he admitted to being “bloody frightened”.
It was a night of a full moon when the bombers were clearly picked out by searchlights for the anti-aircraft batteries and German fighters.
“In all, 800 aircraft went out in four steps and 96 aircraft didn’t come back. There was 700 men lost on that trip. I’ll never forget it – God, no.
“Aircraft blew up on one side, men fell out on fire themselves on the other, there was even two “Jerry” fighters having a go at each other. Bullets were flying over the top of you. All hell let loose.
“When I got back, the AVM (air vice-marshall) wanted to speak to the lads, I was second back. I said it was bloody rough.
“I’ve never seen anything like it. There, I was bloody frightened. But you pulled your backside together and got on with it. I got hardened to it, you learned the hard way to put it to the back of your mind – you had to. If you started worrying, you were a goner. We got hammered a few times.”
He spoke of another terrifying incident when two German fighters latched onto them during another mission.
“They knocked hell out of us and we knocked hell out of them.”
They were about 15 miles from the coast of France and in serious trouble.
“We got a fire in the hold. We had no bombs left but there was the petrol fuel.”
The fire meant they couldn’t bail out. “We would have had to go through the flames and the parachutes would have gone up,” he said.
“The best thing was to hang on to see what happened.”
Their only chance was for the pilot to crash land the plane into the sea below. They were 22,000 feet up.
“We were scared to bloody death. Two of them were crying for their mum, which you can expect. We touched speeds of up to 120mph. It didn’t take long for it to drop, four or five minutes, you can imagine how quickly a bomb drops. The Lancaster itself weighed 20 tons or more, she had no drag, no thrust, we went straight down.”
The aircraft hit the water, drenching the flames and for the moment they were saved.
However, they were adrift in their dinghy and the pilot hadn’t had chance to put out a Mayday call. Their odds were left to the remote chance someone might see the their tiny craft, a tiny speck bobbing up and down in a vast sea.
But luck was with John – and his crew – again. On the fourth night, when John admitted they had “really given up”, by astonishing luck they were saved.
A man in a small vessel, who had lost his bearings and was in the wrong place at the right time, spotted them in the distance. He alerted the naval base and an air sea rescue craft picked them up about three hours later.
They were told they had been drifting out of the Channel tide towards the Atlantic tide just 15 minutes away.
“They would never have found us,” he said.
Back home, his wife Gladys had been unaware of the danger facing her husband until she was put through the most horrific ordeal by what John through gritted teeth labelled a “nosy neighbour”.
A telegram sent to their home about him being “missing, presumed dead” in action, ended up in the neighbour’s hands and she opened it. When she saw Gladys returning from the shops she ran up to her, brandishing the telegram, saying: “You’re husband’s gone, he’s dead,” said John.
He said it left his wife traumatised for five years. If I could have got hold of that woman...,” said John, his voice trailing off.
The fickle hand of fate was revealed in the way John lost his best friend James “Hank” Hancock, a navigator.
They were in the same crew and, in the first tour, flew 28 of the 30 missions, after which they would be rested together.
After the 28th, Hank developed a sore throat and was grounded and was replaced with another navigator.
“This meant that Hank missed our 29th and 30th raids. When he recovered, Hank was then put with a different crew to complete his last two missions. I approached Wing Commander Guy Gibson and asked if we could fly another two raids with Hank so that he’d be with us for his last two missions. We were like a family.
“He said that he couldn’t allow it as we had completed 30 and had to rest.
“I watched Hank fly out on his 29th trip and saw him back. But he never returned from his 30th.”
Tragically, in June 1943, he crashed into the sea off the coast of Holland.
It was Wing Commander Gibson – who was to later find fame for the Dam Busters raid – who broke the tragic news to him.
“I cried my eyes out when it happened. Even talking about it today makes me choke up as he was such a great fellow.
“He kept the crew alive and he was full of fun.
“He took good care of everyone in the crew as we were all younger. I used to call him ‘dad’.”
For years, he tried in vain to find his best friend’s grave, receiving little official assistance.
Then by chance in an internet search a member of his family tracked Hank’s grave.
It turned out that, after the aircraft came down, the crew’s bodies had been washed up on a Dutch beach and were buried by locals before being re-interred in Hardewojk General Cemetery about 30 miles from Amsterdam,
Last December, at the conclusion of a 65-year search for his pal, John laid a poppy wreath there with the message: “Been a long time Hank but we finally meet again. God be with you always. John Hall.”
He said: “I’ll never forget him. Never.”
For his wartime heroics, John received a Distinguished Flying Cross which was pinned on his chest by King George VI, who showed signs of his famous stammer.
Ever the gent, John said: “He spoke to me afterwards and stammered a bit.
“When he got stuck on a word, I’d say ‘Oh yes sir, I know exactly what you mean’, to save him embarrassment and he looked quite grateful for that.”