RAF veteran was VIP at historic race

Geoff Payne.Geoff Payne.
Geoff Payne.
Seven decades have passed since Cumbernauld man Geoff Payne (originally from down south) witnessed the most eccentric and gloriously defiant boat race in British history.

Given the circumstances it’s hardly surprising the details are indelibly etched in his mind.

Geoff, now aged 89, was a 19-year-old RAF sergeant in 1944, a time when the Allies were pulverising German cities in massive night-time bombing raids.

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He was rear gunner in his Lancaster bomber, with an unfamiliar crew and on his very first mission.

Geoff said: “It was a very long, cold trip, deep into Southern Germany to Augsburg.

“The action became frantic as 304 second-phase aircraft approached the aiming point.

“Our plane was being buffeted in the slipstream of those ahead and my legs began to shake in reaction to this frightening experience.

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“ Looking down on the target the fires were bubbling up - it seemed like a giant caldron.”

The attack by a total of 595 allied aircraft destroyed large parts of the city centre of Augsburg, caused horrific casualties and made 85,000 people homeless.

Early next morning, once his plane was safely back in England, Geoff ate a hearty breakfast, which included a mug of warm rum, but was unsettled and unable to sleep.

He decided to walk the three miles to the Cambridgeshire town of Ely on the River Ouse - where he was amazed to find a large crowd gathered on the bank.

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The young airman had stumbled upon the third wartime Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race - moved from the Thames to an obscure secret location for obvious safety reasons.

There were around 5,000 spectators, instead of the millions who would normally line the banks of the Thames during peacetime.

Ten years ago Geoff returned to Ely for Diamond celebrations of the 1944 race.

And this time round - the 70th anniversary - he was treated to a VIP cruise to the finish line, and attended the post race dinner with the veteran crews.

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The dinner was hosted by The Lord Lieutenant of Cambridgeshire and the guest speaker was 2002 Olympic gold medal winner Tim Foster.

A little later, Ely Rowing Club vice-president Jack Waterfall, a longstanding friend, paid a special visit to Cumbernauld to see Geoff - and to present him with a book about the war years of Witchford Air Base.

By the end of the war Geoff had flown a scarcely credible 30 missions - far more than the number thought to be possible.

His memory of that 1944 race was one to be cherished amid the trauma and hardship of the Second World War.

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