Alan Gilbert admits to having had a “colourful” life but won’t elaborate on that.
Yet he almost began to doubt one of the most colourful episodes of his life: witnessing the bombing of the wartime airfield at Sutton Bridge.
Alan (88) was just 14 when he was caught up in the German attack, so when people expressed doubt that it ever happened, it was so long ago he started to believe them.
But Spalding’s military historian and author Alastair Goodrum has corroborated the 1942 attack, one of around ten occasions when the site was targeted because of its function as a training ground for pilots.
Alan, of Moulton, actually began his adult life at 14 when he left Gedney school – the only school he attended – and started a career that has been varied. His first job though was with Fletcher Brothers, working in the “big house” at Gedney, essentially as a shoe-shine boy for the visiting airmen.
Alan says two of the Fletcher boys were killed in the war, and adds: “Quite a few boys from large families were pilots because they had their own plane before the war, like A H Worth.”
It was boys like those Alan knew who volunteered to fly and might have been sent to RAF Sutton Bridge to learn to fly Hurricane fighters.
Alastair Goodrum estimates that about 380 pilots who flew Hawker Hurricanes in the Battle of Britain were trained there. He says it was because of its important role that the station was targeted, with one big raid in 1940 or 1941 and another in 1942, the one witnessed by Alan.
Alan had accompanied the Fletcher’s daughter Madge as she delivered hot drinks in her Naafi van to forces personnel stationed around Gedney and Gedney Fen as well as RAF Sutton Bridge.
One the day of the attack, they were on the base when they heard the siren and the shouted instruction to “get behind that wall!”
A few seconds later a German bomber came up the river and straight towards Alan and Madge.
Alan says: “I saw the bombs drop and ‘whom, whom’, eight or nine of them were coming straight at me. Then he flew up and banked and I could see his eyes. The last bomb was 100 yards from me.
“It didn’t scare me. I was a lad, wasn’t I, and I wanted excitement.”
Alan says Hurricanes took off in pursuit and although he hoped they would “shoot him down” the German was escorted back to base and taken as a prisoner of war.
Alan still remembers the moment when, much to his disgust, the German pilot simply opened his cockpit, removed his helmet and slid down the wing – to shake hands with Sutton Bridge’s commanding officer.