Alan Cunliffe risked his life in the skies bombing enemy territory over Europe during World War II. As he appeals a decision denying his wartime honour, he tells his story to Rebecca Draper.
“When I joined the RAF I was a big, soft lad who had never cleaned his own shoes. When I came out I was a tough young man who was frightened of nothing.”
It is no surprise Alan Cunliffe is fearless.
He faced death almost every other night when he was just 21 as enemy fighters tried to shoot the plane he was navigating out of the air while it dropped bombs over occupied Europe.
“Every time I wondered if it was the last one I would survive,” he said.
It was only much later the former World War II Flying Officer discovered bombing squads completed an average of seven missions before they were shot down.
His crew with the 37 Squadron completed 36 in Wellington and Liberator jets.
He said: “We did it because we were told to do it and it didn’t worry me.
“There were one or two near misses, of course, but we always got by because I was good at navigating. We were attacked by fighters and anti-aircraft fire in some places and I lost my best friend at a ball bearings works which was heavily defended in Czechoslovakia.
“There were quite a few who deserted, I knew of two.”
Alan volunteered for the RAF, against the wishes of his parents, aged 18 in 1941 to avoid being called up for the army or the navy.
Around half of the air crew deployed in RAF Bomber Command operations died during missions.
Alan, 90, said: “Bomber Command made up only seven per cent of the forces fielded by Britain and its empire, yet it suffered the highest death rate of any section of the military. Most of those who lost their lives were under 25, and many of them were teenagers.”
One of the more famous missions Alan was involved in was the bombing of the Ploesti Oil Fields in Romania, used to produce oil and petrol for the German forces.
After his 36th mission and once the war was declared over, Alan and his crew, based in Tortorella, Italy, volunteered to go to the Far East via Israel to fly soldiers back to Italy.
Eventually, in November 1945, Alan flew all the way back to England carrying 30 troops.
It was on his landing back in England that he says he came his closest to death.
“None of us had flown before since learning to fly and it was very misty in England,” he said.
“We couldn’t find the aerodrome and we finally found a runway in the Midlands – it was at an American Aerodrome.
“Once we had landed and taxied on the runway all four engines stopped. That was the nearest I was to being killed in the whole war, if they had gone just minutes before.”
Alan was given three weeks leave on his return to England, and it was in those weeks he met the woman who would become his wife.
It was on meeting Margaret, in the New Year of 1946, that Alan decided he wanted to leave the service.
He said: “I had always wanted to stay in the RAF, but as soon as I met my wife, I wanted to get out of it as quickly as possible.”
But it was the following June before he was demobbed at Oxbridge. Until then he was the mess secretary at York.
His return to civilian life was a shock to Alan’s wallet. He had been used to earning £14 a week in the RAF, but out of the services he was on just five pounds and 15 shillings a week. He went back to the place he left five years earlier – administrative training with Lancashire County Council at Brockhall Hospital, near Blackburn.
Throughout his career he worked at Preston Royal Infirmary, was chief executive at Prestwich mental hospital in Manchester and was the chief executive of all the hospitals in Southport when he retired, aged 59.
Margaret sadly died in 1980, and Alan now lives with his second wife Hilary in Wrea Green.
The veteran admits there are holes in his memories, but a stark reminder comes every November, with the smell of fireworks.
“They smell of the explosives used in anti-aircraft fire,” he said.
“When I smell a firework it reminds me of the interior of a Wellington or a Liberator after passing through smoke from an exploded flak shell. Looking at the holes in the wings and fuselage in daylight made us wonder how we had not been injured or killed.”