Rear gunner: Sgt Harold Simmonds

Harold Thomas Simmonds was born on Christmas Day 1921, the only son of Thomas and Elizabeth Simmonds. Their only daughter, Grace, was some five years younger. His parents were both from Burgess Hill in East Sussex, and they settled in the town after they had married. They had met while they were both working in service, Thomas as a gardener.

Burgess Hill has expanded hugely since the 1920s, and is now firmly within the London commuter area, but when Harold and Grace were growing up, it only had a population of a few thousand.

Harold went to London Road School and later worked in a government job. Soon after the war started, Harold volunteered for the RAF. He started his service in groundcrew, serving at Kemble in Gloucestershire and Mount Batten near Plymouth. However, he had always wanted to fly, and eventually he was selected for aircrew training, going to the No.2 Air Gunners School in Dalcross, near Inverness.

The training for gunnery took less time than for any of the specialist jobs in a Lancaster, but the trainees still had to spend up to 13 weeks firing guns on the ground and later at drogues towed by aircraft. They also had to learn how to fix faults, strip their guns down and maintain them – essential skills if they were to keep them working while up in the air. Sometimes they were blindfolded when practicing these skills, just to make the conditions more difficult.

The training system meant that gunners and flight engineers only joined up with navigators, bomb aimers and wireless operators on the final stage of the process, in the Conversion Unit. Thus it was that Harold Simmonds first met Vivian Nicholson, John Fort and Antony Stone at 1660 Conversion Unit at Swinderby, when they were all posted there on 5 January 1943.

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Harold Simmonds, photographed in 1942, with his girlfriend Phyllis. Picture: Grace Blackburn.