I felt very fortunate to have met with both Fred and Sid, I felt the need to find one more personto learn of the personal stories of WW2 from the air. Whilst running a small photography workshop at Walmer Castle for English Heritage I got talking to one of the attendees about the project, she warmly smiled about her uncle, a gent called Ben May who was living in Canterbury at the time. Ben had served in the RAF during the end of the war and she kindly arranged for us all to meet at Ben’s home in Canterbury, I am thankful to her for assisting in arranging the meeting with this remarkable man.
My wife Emma visited with me, it was a very pleasant day heading down the motorway to the beautiful city of Canterbury. We arrived at Ben’s house parked the car with all the camera and lighting equipment and were warmly welcomed in. We were met by Ben’s wife who invited us in and showed us into the living room, Ben came in a couple of minutes later, boxes and papers under his arms. “Hello Lewis I’m Ben” he said, a very tall and extremely pleasant chap were my first thoughts, and as I was to find out Ben had also been a professional photographer in his day, both during and after the war.
Ben was born in 1925 in a pleasant village called Crossroad, he then spent a long period of his life in Birchington, not to far from Manston in Kent. Ben said his life was pretty ordinary, he went to Peltman School near the seaside town of Margate where he passed all his exams. Ben explained that after his schooling at 17 he joined the air crew allocation centre in Manston, then at the age of 18 he wassummoned to the Lords Cricket Ground which was one of the recruitment offices for the war.
Ben was sent to Cornwall on a six week training course where he was trained in morse code and signals training, after the course he joined the RAF as a flight engineer. Ben was posted to RCAF 420 who were based in Yorkshire where he flew in a number of missions under SL Jonny Johnson. “ I was based on the Halifax aircraft, it was a busy job as there were far more fuel tanks to deal with than on the Lancaster’s, I was constantly logging the fuel when we were in the air to make sure we had enough to get home when on a mission”. A place Ben did speak about was a town called Holbeach in Lincolnshire, this was a place I knew well having spent hours upon hours roaming the Wash. The Wash was a practice area for the bombers, a place they could turn easily and drop markers, i I am not so sure what the wading birds would have been thinking though when roosting below. “When we took off for a mission we would meet up in groups of thirty aircraft, then these groups would form with others, there were hundreds of us together in the air at once.
One story that Ben recollected “We were over Hamburg dropping “windows” out of the shoot, we had a strong wind blowing into the shoot and it got blocked. I hurriedly tried to unblock the shoot but then the windows ended up all over the aircraft, it was chaos. It caused all of our instruments to not work correctly, we were chucking them out of the plane , anywhere where we could just get them out from inside of the plane. The bombs we were carrying were covered in these windows, they looked like Christmas bombs.”
For those like me who had no idea what windows were, Ben explained that windows were actually strips of aluminium covered in paper, these were then pushed into shoots and sent from the aircraft falling to the ground. The reason for this was that the windows would reflect signals and jam the radars below, and hence the reason for all the instruments to jam when they came back into the aircraft. Part of his role was also to peep through the bomb site, this was to make sure they had left, at times when they were stuck Ben had to release them himself, and like the other two gentlemen I had spoken to Ben explained how Hamburg was just a huge fireball.
Another story was during a mission he heard the most horrific screaming from the mid upper gunner, “ I thought he had been shot by a night fighter but when I arrived I could see his GE electric suit had fused, his feet and socks were on fire.
The one thing that stuck out to me was when he said “ If you were not nervous when heading out you were already dead, or lying, my heart was always racing and the nerves were always jangling.
After The War.
Ben enjoyed flying the Halifax, in fact he just loved flying in general, “At the end of the war I was asked to fly a Halifax back to Birkenhead. This was the resting place for hundreds of these planes where they were all dismantled for scrap, a little sad I felt for a machine that had done so much for us.
Once the war had finished Ben returned to Rochester in Kent where he became a full time freelance photographer for over 50 years, he used a 5 by 4 speed graphic large format camera and a Mamiya medium format for wedding commission’s and even taking images of people sunbathing on Margate beach. I think Bens highlight was being asked to photograph Concords first ever take off with passengers, “ I was really nervous, we never had digital in those days but once I got the negatives back and they had been exposed correctly I breathed a big sigh of relief.”
Unlike Fred Crawley and Sid Beaver who I had met and spent many times with, I only spent the one occasion with Ben May, but just like the others the passion, courage and pain was clear to see. Ben and his wife were delightful people enjoying the comfort of Canterbury, and like the other two gents who had served, no one would have ever imagined what Ben had been through if they had seen him walking down the street or met him briefly. Ben May he was a lovely gent, I am truly greatful to have spent time with him.