Havering man recounts his memories of dodging bullets in the Second World War

As we remembered on Sunday those who lost or risked their lives in battle, Safira Ali spoke to an unsung hero of the Second World War, who risked his life and lived to tell the tale.

He became known as “the ghost” after cheating death when a German bombing raid left him covered head to foot in chalk dust and half buried in his aerodrome gun pit. But for John Harnor dodging bombs and bullets was a regular thing in his role as an RAF armourer with Number 1 Service Squadron.

John, 91, of Rush Green Road, Romford, spent part of the Second World War based at Manston, Kent, a regular target for bombing raids by the Luftwaffe and he described the day in 1940, as the battle raged to rescue troops from Dunkirk, he earned his nickname.

“I, like many others, was out on the aerodrome working. My duty was the gun pit,” he said.

“On the way there I realised a stick of bombs landed where I was going to be and I was half buried in chalk.

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“When I shook myself clear I carried on to the gun pit. They shouted at me that I was dead and hit by that bomb. As I was covered from head to foot in chalk dust I became known as the ghost.”

During the battle he used his armoury training to check the guns of the Spitfires and Hurricanes before they went out and when they were returned.

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John said: “We had worked on the Spitfires in Hornchurch so we knew what to do. Often the guns had jammed or were not working, and it was our job to sort them out, clear stoppages, and re-arm them before the pilots went back out to Dunkirk.

“We had to deal with various bombers, mostly at night time and some fleet air arm planes.

“The German air force returned on August 14 and I fired and hit one – they gave us a lot more damage. For about a fortnight they came every other day.

“A few days later when working on one of the Spitfires we noticed a formation of about 16 aircraft circling, the first two turned in and put their wheels down.

“But the next second I realised the red flashes from their wings and engines was gunfire and I was surrounded by churned up grass.

“The Spitfire behind me went up in flames. Dodging away for cover I felt something funny in my arm, not a bullet, but something from the Spitfire as it exploded. It was about half-an-inch deep.”

He and his team were also responsible for finding missing pilots at sea. He added: “We would go out after air battles to see if we could find our men. We found quite a few men that way and rescued them, including the Germans.”

Between 1941 and 1944 John was part of the Siege of Malta. He recounts on the way there, “we got bombed quite a lot. Some of the Italian aircraft carried torpedoes. But we were lucky.”

He would sit in a Bristol Beaufighter behind the pilot as a flying armourer to unjam the guns. “Sometimes we were lucky and the guns wouldn’t jam, but sometimes we had bad ammunition and it wouldn’t go into the gun properly.

“One time we were looking for some German aircraft and did not realise there was one right next to us. It was an easy mistake to make as the aircraft were similar.

“As we only had four canons, and they could only fire forward we had to drop back from the Germans before we could shoot them.”

He said his worst memory was when he was replacing the guns in his Beaufighter in Takali, Malta, in early 1943 when one of the other pilots accidentally crashed his Hurricane into his, killing his pilot. “They were going to land and lost control and hit the Beau. The man in front of me died instantly. The others had to lift me out of the hatch and throw a bucket of water over me as I was in shock.”

On Sunday John attended a service at St Augustine’s Church, Rush Green to mark Remembrance Day. He said: “For me it means remembering a lot of good men who lost their lives that shouldn’t have done.”

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