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What was it like to be an airman in World War Two?

Gordon Ford
Gordon Ford

The RAF (Royal Air Force) played an important part in the war with Germany. In 1940, Britain was the only country left to fight Germany. Prime Minister Winston Churchill refused to give in when Germany started to attack Britain in July. The RAF helped protect Britain from German fighter aircraft. This huge air battle was called 'The Battle of Britain'.

The Luftwaffe (German Air Force) bombed many of Britain's towns and cities from 7 September 1940. They wanted to destroy as many factories, railways, ports and people's homes as possible. This was known as the 'Blitz' which lasted until May 1941.

Fighting between the two air forces carried on until the end of the war. The RAF dropped bombs on German towns and cities. At the time, this was the main type of fighting between the two countries.

Men and women joined the Royal Air Force. It was divided into different groups (squadrons). There were also pilots from New Zealand, Canada, Australia and South America. Women were not allowed to fly but they worked in the RAF control centres.

Gordon Ford was a member of New Zealand Squadron 75. In his squadron many of the airmen came from New Zealand. They lived at Feltwell in Norfolk whilst they carried out their flying missions.

Gordon Ford was lucky to be able to tell his story. From 1940 to 1945, over 47,000 airmen were killed on bombing missions and almost 8,500 were injured.

Tasks

    1. Read Source 1 and answer the questions.

    • Can you find Gordon Ford's name?
    • What rank (position) was he?
    • What is the date of the flight mission (job)?
    • Where was he flying to?
    • What kind of plane did he use?
    • How many men were in his crew?
    • Why do you think the squadron kept a book like this?

    2. Play Clip 1 and answer the questions.

    • What happened when Gordon Ford first saw the German fighter plane?
    • Why did this happen?

    3. Play Clips 2 and 3 and answer the questions.

    • What did Gordon Ford think had happened to him and how did he feel?
    • What did he later find out about his injury?
    • Why had he mistaken the coffee for blood?

    4. Play Clips 4 and 5 and answer the questions.

    • What happened to the pilot?
    • Why were the crew so worried about this?
    • How do you think Gordon Ford felt about the whole mission? Why do you think he felt this way?

    5. Look at Sources 2 and 3 and answer the questions.

    • What can you see in the picture of Hamburg before it was bombed?
    • Why do you think that the Royal Air Force decided to bomb this city?
    • What changes can you see in the city after it was bombed?

Background

Gordon Ford was a wireless operator in New Zealand Squadron 75. It was the first Commonwealth squadron. Their motto was 'Ake Ake Kia Kaha' which means 'forever and ever be strong'.

Squadron 75 was a bomber unit within RAF Bomber Command. Airmen flying for the squadron were expected to live for only six weeks. The squadron carried out bombing missions over Germany and Italy in the early years of the war. At this time they flew Wellington aeroplanes.

At the end of 1942, Squadron 75 started flying Stirling aeroplanes. The squadron took part in the Battle of the Ruhr, the bombing of Hamburg and an attack on the German V-weapon station at Peenemunde where new kinds of ballistic missile (including the V-2 rocket) were developed and tested.

By 1944, Squadron 75 began to take part in attacks against German factories, railways and bridges. They now used Lancaster aircraft because they were faster and could carry more bombs. The squadron also helped to lay mines. To help the people of Holland, they dropped food parcels to starving people in the Hague.

Gordon Ford joined the RAF when he was 18 years old and trained as a pilot. He was declared unfit for pilot duties when he broke his wrist and trained as a wireless operator instead. He was 19 years old when he flew his first mission and he always made sure he had his lucky mascot with him - a doll of a little Scotty dog called 'Whisky'.

Gordon Ford later became a member of the Air Training Corps and the Home Guard. He was also a firewatcher during the air raids on his hometown of Sunderland.

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Teacher's notes

Key Stage 2

This lesson looks at the experiences of Gordon Ford, a pilot in New Zealand Squadron 75 and how he fought for his country during the Second World War. It can be used with pupils at key stage 2 for the History National Curriculum in year 4 and could also be adapted to use with year 3 pupils.

Sources

Source 1 provides evidence of Gordon Ford's rank of Flight Sergeant and his duty of Wireless Officer on his flying mission to Dortmund, 3 February 1945.

Source 2 consists of five short video clips from an interview given by Gordon Ford in June 2005, where he talked about what he remembered and felt on his bombing mission to Dortmund.

Source 3a shows Hamburg as a busy, industrial port, with grand buildings before it was bombed.

Source 3b shows Hamburg with ruined buildings and bomb damage.

More Activities

The lesson could be extended to set pupils a piece of descriptive writing based on the photographs of Hamburg.

Pupils could take part in role-play or freeze-framing of Gordon Ford's experiences.

Pupils could discuss what they think is more useful as evidence for the historian: Gordon Ford's oral account or the written document held here at The National Archives.

The class could prepare for an interview with a local veteran to find out about their experiences during the Second World War.

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