Ipswich: Emotional reunion stirs memories for war hero

Eric King

Eric King - Credit: Contributed

ERIC King is an aviation veteran who flew for his country. And he has celebrated his 90th birthday by climbing aboard the bomber he knew so well.

Eric King - sole survivor of crew that named Friday the 13th.

Eric King - sole survivor of crew that named Friday the 13th. - Credit: Contributed

They were on the run by 1944. The Germans were losing the war, D-Day was imminent, Britain and her allies were assembling the largest armada ever known to sweep the tyranny that had overrun and dominated continental Europe.

Eric King

Eric King - Credit: Contributed

But there was still a war to be won and, with his comrades, Flight Sergeant Eric King was part of the crew of a Halifax bomber.

And as Eric reached the milestone of his 90th birthday on Wednesday, he has been reunited with the very plane in which he served his king and his country.

The Yorkshire Air Museum’s internationally-renowned Halifax bomber restoration is named after the legendary Halifax Friday the 13th, which flew with 158 Squadron from RAF Lissett, East Yorkshire.

The aircraft completed 128 missions, the highest tally of any Halifax, and was one of Bomber Command’s most successful aircraft.

On Saturday, March 16, Mr King, the sole surviving member of the crew that gave the illustrious aircraft its distinctive name, visited the Yorkshire Air Museum with members of his family, to once again climb aboard his aircraft.

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The emotional tour had been arranged as a treat to mark his 90th birthday and it proved to be a poignant occasion for the Ipswich man and his family.

As he climbed into the Halifax’s wireless operator’s position – which was his war-time station – Mr King said: “It has been 70 years, but I have been longing to do this. The space is smaller than I remember it but the Morse key is exactly the same.

“I used to call this my office. It is very emotional, but good to be back. On some missions, I used to sit here for over eight hours – Stuttgart was eight hours 40 minutes. It was bloody cold and very noisy.”

“I recall looking out the window on early missions, looking at the exhaust pipe, glowing red hot. It was worrying at first, but actually normal. It was the cold inside that worried us most.

“We almost wished something would happen so we could get out.”

On the naming of the aircraft, Mr King recalled that not everyone was happy with it.

He said: “I think we were all a bit superstitious. I used to tap the side as I went in. The ground crew had bets on which would be the first aircraft back. I heard someone say ‘it won’t be a case of who is first back, but who is coming back.’ I thought, God almighty.”

158 Squadron lost a total of 851 men and women during its time at Lissett.

Mr King added: “Some days, you would go in the mess and realise there was only half the people that were there a couple of days before.”

He lost a good friend, Len Dwane, another wireless operator, with another crew.

“I heard that he had been injured and bailed out, and presumed he had died, but could not find out much information about it,” said Mr King.

“On visiting the 158 Squadron memorial near Lissett, their old base, it really upset me when I saw his name on the memorial – very emotional.”

“On our first ‘ops’, we were just like kids and enthusiastic, but then we became a bit more sensible. My first ‘op’ was Berlin. As we got over the target there was anti-aircraft fire – I had never seen a sight like it. It was terrible, and also for those on the ground.”

He confirmed that Friday the 13th completed all of her ‘ops’ – she never had to turn back because of a malfunction or any other reason.

There was a general consensus among those who flew in her that they somehow felt safe in her, as she just “flew right” as a later pilot, “Doc” Gordon had commented.

The symbolism of the aircraft did prove to be lucky and the aircraft carried a number of crews during its operational life, and indeed Mr King completed 29 missions aboard Friday the 13th, gaining the DFM on his 28th outing.

In all, Mr King completed 39 operations.