I first got in touch with Dennis Over through the Lancaster Archive Forum a few years ago, on which he is a much-loved and highly prolific member. Dennis began the war, too young to join the forces, working on fitting out air-sea rescue launches. Once old enough he joined the RAF as aircrew, serving on 106 and 227 Squadrons as a rear gunner. Following the war he was station manager at Heathrow for first BOAC and later for British Airways. Consequently Dennis has a wealth of stories. I therefore couldn’t miss the opportunity when I was in the UK in 2010 to meet him and his wife of 66 years, Peggy, at their home in London.
We talked for hours and hours and hours. We spoke about Concordes. We spoke about Queen’s Tours, L1011s and B707s. We discussed Dennis’ unconfirmed but more or less definite claim for a nightfighter. We talked about air-sea rescue launches, Comets (exploding or otherwise), Constellations, RAF dinghies, Irish jokes, 5th pods, cheese and rocket-powered sailplanes. And of course, we told stories about Tiger Moths.
As a rear gunner, Dennis told me that he felt a real sense of isolation. He was physically removed from the rest of the crew and, of course, was the only one flying backwards. He said he never felt any panic or fear while on operations. That came either before or after. While actually flying he felt only a sense of complete concentration on his duties, for the mutual benefit of his entire crew. He did mention a feeling of unreality, almost of detachment, as if he had been viewing the events he was describing from the position of a third party. Partly at least, I imagine this was a means of dealing with the enormity of the situations he found himself in.
The conversation was wide-ranging and ever changing. At one point I used his telephone to ring the family I was staying with in London and tell them I wouldn’t be home for dinner. This discussion was far too good to cut short!
I always love talking to veteran aircrew. They are a living link to the past. While I can learn facts from official documents and get a personal picture from reading letters and diaries, oral history is far more interactive. It is subject to the limitations of memory, but when supported by other sources a witness account can add much colour to a history. Dennis has some fantastic memories and it was a real pleasure to drag the hangar doors open and listen in some awe for a few hours.
© 2012 Adam Purcell