Picture of John Hillman (left) and a friend, taken in Calcutta, India. While on leave from their posting in Burma in 1944, they had pictures taken to send home to family.John Hillman
John Hillman (left) and friend Laurie Binns in Egypt, 1942.John Hillman
John Hillman (far left) with some of his unit in North Africa, 1943.John Hillman
John Hillman (second row, fourth from the right), with 267 Squadron, RAF, in Burma, 1944.John Hillman
John Hillman (seated, farthest right) and members of his unit, 267 Squadron, RAF, in Burma, 1945.John Hillman
"I think we all said and all understood that if Hitler had crossed the [English] Channel at that time, he could have virtually walked through Britain without any problem."
I was born in Newport Monmouthshire Wales and I joined the Air Force just under the age of 18 from there, which was in 1937. We had no armaments, our aircraft that I was trained on were old fashioned string bags, they were held together with chewing gum and string. And this was the state that we were in. The only thing that we had which was reasonably armed was the Navy. Being a serviceman, I was of course available right away from the start of the war in France. I found myself in France in August 1939, which is a little bit before it was declared. I served in France until June 1940 [in the context of the Allied defeat on the Western Front] and I got out by the skin of my teeth, I was taken out by a British destroyer from Brest in Brittany [France].
At the end of the hostilities in France, and I mean, he came through France like a dose of salts, the Panzer Division [the German armoured divisions], and they took over the whole of the northern end of France and they became a formidable force, 21 miles across the water [across the English Channel]. Well, all we could do was try and destroy the barges that he [the Germans] was building up in the channel ports, ready for the invasion of England. And it was being done all the time and we could virtually see it. And our squadrons were then involved in trying to obviate the thing. But we had no weapons, Dunkirk had taken place [the evacuation of the remaining of the British Army on continental Europe], so the British Expeditionary Force had lost all its weaponry there. The soldiers who escaped, there was something like 250,000 of them, came over without small arms, without anything and we were really down to a position of defending ourselves with pitchforks and things like that against a very modern at that time German army.
And that’s, I don’t know, well as I said, the major feeling is fear, when is it going to happen, how is it going to happen. And will it happen. That’s the word that really sums it up, it’s terrifying. But with meager resources, we managed to offset the invasion and by, I think we all said and all understood that if Hitler had crossed the [English] Channel at that time, he could have virtually walked through Britain without any problem.
Obviously, a part of my experience was during the Battle of Britain [an air campaign waged over the skies of Britain between July 10 and October 31, 1940] and so forth because it was all happening then. And at the same time, I was, as I said, instructing for the Empire Air Training Scheme [British Commonwealth Air Training Plan], who were then sending pilots, wireless operators and so forth, to go from Canada. I was with that unit for a while, probably about six months and I was seconded to a combined operations unit, which was mobile telecommunications and posted out to North Africa.
Well, fundamentally, I was a wireless electrical mechanic. I was mainly on maintenance but at the beginning of the war, there was no discrimination between maintenance and flying. That came later. In other words, being a wartime service man, I was trained as a wireless operator initially and I did a certain amount of flying. But when they discriminated between maintenance people and, in other words, the trades people were separated and I became a maintenance tradesmen rather than an air operator.
I was then posted back to Italy to join up with the squadron where I became the, the signals officer for the transport squadron. Our period of operation there was the experience of supplying the forward troops in Italy, we were based at an old Italian air force base called Bari [in southern Italy] and we was to supply the forward troops with whatever they required in the way of food, ammunition and so forth. We were a drop-in expert squadron and then we were also engaged at night flying into Yugoslavia, where we were supplying Tito [Josip Broz Tito, leader of the Yugoslavian guerilla movement, 1941-1945] and his band of Yugoslavia compatriots and also bringing out the wounded into Italy.
Well, the development of equipment over the six years of the war was tremendous. You know, from initial wireless transmitters, which were very remote I suppose. And then into much more sophisticated areas of direction finding and equipment and things like that, which not only had two way communication but were able to be used by the aircraft people to find out where they were and to find out how to get back home and things like that, you know. It was a very exacting task.