Archive for November, 2015

IBCC Interview #3: John McCredie, 99 Squadron Liberator pilot

This is the vital thing in war, to have good fortune. – John McCredie

John McCredie’s story started off in a reasonably familiar fashion. “My military career was a bit frustrated by having a mother whose brother had had his face shot away in World War One,” he said. “She didn’t want me to have anything to do with the military.”

Until John’s 18th birthday in August 1939, that is, when he took the liberty of enrolling in the Militia – specifically, the Melbourne University Rifles.

War broke out three weeks later.

The third of my interview subjects for the International Bomber Command Centre’s Digital Archive, John is a tall and distinguished-looking fellow who was wearing a natty neck scarf when I went to his home in very swish multi-storey retirement complex in Melbourne’s inner south-east. As we walked through the lobby I thought it looked less like an aged care facility and more like a rather exclusive hotel, except that all the guests I could see were over 80. We settled in his unit and he poured some pre-prepared coffee while I set up my recording equipment. And then he began telling me his remarkable story.

John didn’t last too long in the Militia, despite (or perhaps because of) at one point being offered a commission in the regular Army. “If you took a commission in the Commandos it tended to be considered a one-way ticket”, he explained. Besides, like many of his generation he was inspired by the stories of Kingsford-Smith, Bert Hinkler, Amy Johnson, the Centenary Air Race and then, of course, the Battle of Britain. So once the Army let him he transferred to the Air Force.

We all probably wanted to be fighter pilots but you had to show that aptitude and I don’t think I quite had it as a flyer, so I was put on twins.

John learnt to fly at Temora and Point Cook and was then sent to England. Flying an Oxford at an Advanced Flying Unit at South Cerney one night, that good fortune he spoke about played its part for the first time. “I had an instructor who saw the crash coming before I did,” he said.

… dived and we just missed a crash at night, in mid-air… that was a lesson in alertness.

At the Casablanca Conference in early 1943, Churchill and Roosevelt discussed, among other things, the question of supply and demand for aircrew. The Empire Air Training Scheme had been in existence for several years and was churning out trained aircrew faster than even Bomber Command could use them. Meanwhile the Americans had lots of aircraft in the Far East but not enough crews to fly them. So it was decided, John said, to send a number of Commonwealth aircrew to India. He long believed that he had been given no choice in the matter but only a few years ago discovered, on reading some of his old letters, that he had in fact volunteered to be one of them. He was posted to 15 Operational Training Unit at Harwell, a unit which had become focused on providing those crews for the Far East.

Flying from Harwell was the closest to Bomber Command that John got in his career. Here he carried out what he called “two little flights over France”, dropping leaflets. The first went more or less uneventfully, but on the second one the Wellington iced up and could not climb above 8,000 feet. Then his navigator, struggling a bit, took them over the defended town of Lisieux.

“I don’t know if as a small boy you ever ran along a picket fence with a stick making a noise?” John asked.

Well that’s exactly what it’s like listening to the flak hitting a canvas-covered aircraft.

They escaped with a couple of holes.

John’s good fortune again came to the fore during his time at Harwell. John having in his words given his Flight Commander “some cheek” at some point, the senior officer decided to get his own back at briefing one day when he picked on John to refresh the crews on the emergency fire drill for a Wellington.

He said, ‘McCredie, you tell us what you’d do in fire drill’, and McCredie got up and stuttered and stammered…

After he mucked it up, John was made to repeat the correct procedure, word for word, in front of everyone. And then, not very long after he had been singled out in briefing, John had an engine fire for real – and, having been so recently and embarrassingly reminded of the correct procedure, was able to carry it out in a timely manner and allow his crew to bale out before making an emergency landing at Silverstone.

John eventually got to India where his good fortune continued. On a ‘show-the-flag’ formation flight (called a ‘Glaxo’) over one of the big cities in India in a 99 Squadron Liberator, he had a runaway propeller. This necessitated three or four hours flying on three engines – which proved very useful experience when, a couple of months later, he was attacking a ship near Kaligauk Island and was hit by anti-aircraft gunfire.

We moved quickly enough, we had a fire… the boys reported the fire to me and I boldly told them to put it out!

They returned without further incident.

Prior to this, though, John was flying as second pilot with 355 Squadron based at a place called Salbani. Here there was apparently an issue with morale and, as it was difficult to keep the squadrons supplied with fuel because they were at the end of a very long supply chain, there was a certain amount of pressure to reduce fuel consumption. John’s Flight Commander and skipper, a man named Joe Morphett, advocated flying “on the step”, a method of reducing engine power slightly in the cruise that was reputed to reduce drag. This led directly to what was one of the closest calls that John had in an eventful Air Force career.

They were returning from bombing Mandalay, needing to cross the 10,000-foot Mt Victoria to get home. Flying ‘on the step’ had resulted in a gradual and unnoticed loss of altitude, until Morphett saw the mountain looming large in his windscreen. He poured on the power to climb, and they made it over the terrain. But the emergency climb had cost them too much fuel. Some time later, an engine faltered and stopped. John immediately turned on the emergency pump and it came back to life. But then it failed again, and this time the other three went with it. They had run the tanks dry. Somewhere over Bengal, Morphett held his aircraft steady while the rest of his crew, including John, baled out into the bright moonlight (the flight engineer needing some ‘encouragement’ courtesy of the wireless operator’s boot in his backside on the way). They got out at “God knows what height, because we were within very short walking distance of Joe’s crashed aircraft,” John said. With the help of some villagers they proceeded to the aircraft to find Morphett laid out under a mango tree, with half his scalp peeled back. “I couldn’t eat mangoes for years after that.”

Morphett survived and would be given a bar to his DFC for his efforts.

Interviewing John was an absolute pleasure. The bombing war in the Far East is a story seldom told and he is one of the most erudite and eloquent people I have ever met. John tells his stories with good humour, his face crinkling into a grin at frequent intervals. Before I’d even arrived home after our interview he had sent me an email correcting one or two facts.

The third of my interview subjects for the International Bomber Command Centre's Digital Archive, I spoke to John this morning. He served in the Australian Militia for the first few years of the war before joining the RAAF and training as a pilot. He was sent to the UK for further training and flew two "Nickels" over France before then being posted to India where he flew Liberators on operations. He crash landed in a Wellington at OTU in England, bailed out of his Liberator (as a second pilot) after it ran out of fuel returning from an operation and was badly shot up on another operation, for which he was awarded a DFC. He finished the war flying transports. Quite an eventful war, then. John's extremely well-spoken and the three and a half hours I spent with him flew by. John McCredie at home in Melbourne

John McCredie at home in Melbourne

It’s no wonder John was a career diplomat after the war, having taken advantage of the Australian government’s offer of a university education on his return. “The first year at university was very difficult because I had all sorts of unfulfilled ambitions… it was very much a party year, first year back, so I had a bit of trouble settling down and it wasn’t until I saw myself on the brink of being thrown off the course that I could really get down to applying myself full-time to study.”

What struck me most of all, though, apart from the extraordinary good fortune that seemed to follow him around the world, were the people John spoke of who made the stories come to life. He encountered a range of colourful characters throughout his Air Force career, and indeed would run into many of them years later. Men like Hubert Opperman, the Australian cyclist known as ‘Oppy’ who was his Flight Commander at Initial Training School and later went into politics, and to whom John would later sell a car. Like Lionel Watters, the ex-Broken Hill tin miner who, as a “rough diamond” of a flight instructor, had such an effect on John’s early flying training. Like Brian Inglis, a close friend with whom John shared many adventures. (Inglis would go on to become the CEO of Ford Australia). And there was Major Crennan, the overly-enthusiastic disciplinarian whose antics on the ship to the US earned him a poem in the on-board newsletter.

Perhaps the man who John most respected, though, was his 99 Squadron Commanding Officer Lucien Ercolani, who he called “an outstanding man by any classification”. Ercolani had turned morale at the squadron around by sheer force of leadership, John said, and the results in terms of aircraft serviceability spoke for themselves.

Ercolani interrupted a successful career in the furniture business to serve in the Air Force. After the war, when John was serving as a diplomat in Holland, he encountered his old Commanding Officer, who gave him a striking mid-century coffee table.

The table was between us as we did the interview.

 

Two months after this interview I visited John for lunch, where he presented me with a copy of the book he wrote about 10 years ago called ‘Survival of the Fortunate’. It’s a beautifully-written book and I could hear his voice as I read it. Sadly I never got a chance to discuss it with him. Six weeks after our lunch meeting John died, on 29 January 2016.

© 2015 Adam Purcell

 

Interviewing 460 Squadron navigator Max Spence

It started with a very cryptic email.

I may have some items of interest for you. Max Spence, Former 460 Squadron.

And that, word for word, was it.

And when I rang Max to arrange a time for our International Bomber Command Centre interview (my second), he answered in what I discovered was typical economical fashion.

Hello.

Again, word for word, that was it.

A man of few words, then, I thought.

Until I turned up to Max’s house in a north-eastern suburb of Melbourne recently, one very hot and extraordinarily windy afternoon.

Once I’d set up the recording equipment I asked my standard opener. “Can you tell me something of your early life, what you did before the war?”

“Well… I grew up in Briar Hill”, he began… and then he was off. A full eight minutes later, it seemed like he finally drew a breath and finished with the words, “And then I came home and the war ended in Japan and I was discharged and I went back to work… and that’s about it.”

Not so much a man of few words, it seemed. We backed up a bit and went over his story in more detail, and over the next three quarters of an hour Max told me some very interesting stuff. I would eventually have to work harder to bring it out though.

“We knew in 1938 that a war was going to start soon”, Max said.

Before it broke out, Max and a mate resolved to join the Royal Scottish Regiment. But in those pre-war days, recruits had to cough up £12 of their own money for the uniform. That was the equivalent of three months’ wages for the average man. Not particularly enamoured with that idea, Max and his mate withdrew their applications.

War came, of course, in September 1939. Max’s father was a Gallipoli veteran and Max was an only child, so gaining parental permission to enlist was difficult. But suddenly his father changed his mind – and so Max applied to join the Royal Australian Air Force. Initially he wanted to be ground staff, but the recruiter convinced him to try for aircrew. All went well until it was time to sign the enlistment papers, in front of a panel of officers. He picked up a pen and was hovering over the paper, just about to sign away his life for the duration of the War and a period of twelve months thereafter, when one of the officers stopped him. “You’re no good to us”, he said, “you’re left-handed! You’ll never be able to handle a Morse key!”

Such was the competition for places in the Royal Australian Air Force in the early years that the Air Force could afford to be very choosy. Fuming at the rejection, Max says that at that point he altogether lost interest in the war.

They could run it without me!

Having decided that, naturally he was called up a few months later for Army service. And in one of those ironies of war, he was trained as a signaller, which included using Morse code. Transferred to the 19th Machine Gun Regiment he arrived in Darwin in time to endure some of the Japanese air raids on that city.

Which was a bit… you know… ordinary…

Then the RAAF Recruiting train rolled into town. 54 members of Max’s Regiment applied for a transfer – just 18 were accepted. Max was accepted as a navigator – with no word said about his kack-handedness this time – and was quickly on a ship to Canada for a five-month training course. On completion of that he had an 11-day leave in Chicago, and then Max crossed the Atlantic on the Andes and was in wartime Britain.

Max Spence

And what struck him most about wartime Britain, I asked? “The women all smoked!” he said incredulously. That and the food. It was, he said, pretty frugal.

We were ok in the services, got fed pretty well. Ordinary food, but it was food, a lot more of it than the general public got.

What about English beer, I wondered?

First time I went to Tommy Farr’s bar (he was the British Empire heavyweight champion), I ordered a beer, it tasted like tar and water! It was mild beer, so I talked to a couple of other blokes who’d been there for a while and they said oh no, start off with bottled beer, and then gradually move over to bitter… which we did.

Once he got there, Max reckoned life on 460 Squadron was pretty good. As well as a good amount of food, accommodation at Binbrook wasn’t bad:

We lived in a house actually, all in a unit, but we were all together in one big room. We had comfortable beds and then we used to go to the Sergeants’ Mess for meals.

The pilot was the only commissioned officer in the crew, though, so he went off to the Officer’s Mess alone. “For an organisation fighting for democracy”, Max reckons, “the services weren’t very democratic!”

Max began operations with a trip to Mannheim on 1 February 1945. He was on the Dresden operation nearly two weeks later – at 9 hours 45 minutes it’s the longest flight in his logbook, but according to Max he has “no particular memories of it… it was just another flight.” He reckoned that as a navigator he had the best job. “All the documentaries… sort of emphasise the drama, but largely it was just hard work. I had to fix my position every six minutes and then dead reckon ahead another six minutes, so I was like a one-armed paper hanger.”

I asked Max what would have happened when a gunner spotted a fighter. He had a story about that. Coming back from a target one night, Max heard the intercom crackle into life. It was the rear gunner.

Enemy fighter. Skip – prepare to corkscrew left! … no na na no prepare to corkscrew right… no no no it doesn’t matter, he’s gone past!

After 18 operations, Max’s crew was posted for Pathfinder training early in April 1945. The war in Europe ended before they could go back on operations and he was back in Australia by September 1945. I asked him how he readjusted to civilian life. “One of my mates had a breakdown and a few of them have suffered Post Traumatic Stress as they call it, but I didn’t think I had worries… used to drink too much, that was the main problem.”

I sensed a story in that last comment, but I couldn’t quite draw it out of him. “I don’t think about it much at all”, he said of his wartime service. “It was just a job, and I did it the best I could. Doesn’t have any special place in me memory.”

But maybe it does. Max admitted to being annoyed at documentaries about Bomber Command “because they emphasise the dramatic,” and still seems bitter about the way that some Bomber Command aircrew received an Air Crew Europe Star but any survivors who did not operate before D-Day did not. He’s not at all happy about the recently-awarded Bomber Command Clasp, calling it “a piddly little thing… a sort of second prize.” He also revealed that he’d once taken a journalist to the Press Council about a newspaper article that spread what he perceived as misinformation about Dresden. So it’s clear that he still maintains very strong feelings about his experiences and about Bomber Command’s place in history.

I found this interview quite challenging. Where my first interview with Ern was very easy – I’d ask one question, he answered it and then kept riffing on about anything else that came to mind – with Max I had to work a lot harder to keep things moving. Consequently, it was the shortest out of the IBCC interviews that I’ve conducted. But we covered some interesting ground and I’m very pleased that I was able to record it for the Archive.

Bomber Command veteran Max Spence, a 460 Squadron navigator, at

B+W photo courtesy Max Spence. Colour photo and text (c) Adam Purcell 2015