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