AS a young pilot in the RAF, John Hall made a formidable team with his navigator James Hancock, braving the skies during the Second World War in their Lancaster bomber.
However, their partnership was torn apart in 1941 when, after illness grounded the navigator, James “Hank” Hancock was sent to join another crew and he never returned from the last flight of his tour of duty.
Now, 71 years after his death, former Fight Lieutenant Hall, 91, is finally getting the opportunity to make a commemorative trip to the Netherlands, to visit the grave of his former colleague.
“We were like brothers, like family. We couldn’t have been closer if we were twins,” said Mr Hall, a widower of Grindon, Sunderland.
“I was 20 when he died and he was 36, so he was the old man of the crew, and I still miss him.
“As a navigator he was the utmost professional and as a friend you couldn’t do without him.
“He was a good lad, the life and soul of the party. I keep a photo of him on my wall.
“We had to do 30 trips on the first tour and when we came back from our 28th raid Hank said he had an awfully sore throat, so I said he should go to the doctor first thing in the morning.
“The doc took one look at it and told him it wasn’t just a sore throat but the beginnings of quinsy, a very painful thing that causes your whole throat to swell up, so he was grounded.
“This meant that Hank missed our 29th and 30th raids. When he recovered, Hank was then put with a different crew to complete his last two missions. I asked if we could fly another two raids with Hank so that he’d be with us for his last two missions but they couldn’t allow it as we had completed 30 and had to rest.
“I watched Hank fly out on his 29th trip and saw him back. But he never returned from his 30th.
“I have never managed to get to Harderwijk General Cemetery, the civil cemetery in the Netherlands where Hank is buried, yet the Big Lottery Fund have given me a grant of £835 to pay for the trip so I will be travelling out later this month.”
The forthcoming trip will bring back many memories for Mr Hall, who survived 60 flights during the Second World War during his time with 5 Group of the RAF, based in Lincolnshire.
That’s no mean feat when you consider the average life expectancy for a flight crew was six flights.
However, he revealed he was shot down on no less than three occasions, each time plunging into the English Channel where he had to hope and pray that his dinghy was spotted.
On the third occasion he was almost cast adrift into the Atlantic and it was only thanks to another plane that had lost its bearings that he was found.
Mr Hall, who continued working with the Air Training Corps until 1983, said: “It was September 1945 and the sea was a bit rough. We were in the dinghy for four days and three nights.
“Three ships went past but they didn’t see me.
“A little chap flying a sea plane who had gone off course spotted us just as he regained his bearings. After we were rescued off the Isles of Scilly we were told that if it had been half an hour later we would have drifted into the Atlantic and never been found.
“It was a nasty thing – worse than Nuremberg.”
In March 1944 John took part in the raid on Nuremberg when 795 bombers were sent to the industrial town and 96 failed to return. More airmen were killed that night than in the entire Battle of Britain.
“Each plane had seven crew, and 96 didn’t come back,” said Mr Hall, who was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by King George VI in 1943.
“It was a full moon and you could see anti-aircraft fire, German fighters, flak all around and bombers in flames going down left, right and centre. It was hell on earth. That was the first time I ever landed, got out of the plane and got on my hands and knees and said, ‘Thank the Lord’.
“Most of the trips were bad and every time you thought, ‘When is it my turn?’ but you got used to it.
“That was the way with the war. One day you were there, the next you weren’t.”
While he “put down his tools” in 1983, Flt Lt Hall still has close connections with the RAF and attends as many commemorative events as possible, including last Thursday’s unveiling of the long-awaited memorial to Bomber Command, where he met Prince Charles.
He added: “He looked at my Distinguished Flying Cross and said, ‘I’d like one of those’ and I told him, ‘This is one you have to earn’.”
THE Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return 2 programme aims to pay for veterans to make trips like Flt Lt Hall’s.
The programme has no fixed deadline for applications.
This will ensure Second World War veterans from the UK, Channel Islands and Republic of Ireland who have yet to take advantage of the funding opportunity since the programme opened in 2009 now have more time to apply for grants to cover travel and accommodation expenses to enable them to make trips back to places across the world where they served.
Peter Wanless, chief executive of the Big Lottery Fund, said: "We owe so much to these brave airmen whose selfless and courageous service showed endurance beyond imagination.
"With over 55,000 lost in action they paid the ultimate price in their valuable contribution to bringing peace in Europe."
They can also receive funding to take part in an official commemoration in the UK.
For details contact the Heroes Return helpline on 0845 000 0121 or visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn