I first met 578 and 466 Squadron Halifax skipper Don McDonald when he emerged from the shadows of the mighty Lancaster G for George on the Saturday evening of the Bomber Command Commemorative Weekend in Canberra in June 2012. When he discovered I had recently moved to Melbourne, he and his wife Ailsa promptly invited my partner and I to their house for dinner if we ever felt like what he called “grandparent time”. We took them up on their invitation and spent several riotous evenings with them over the next couple of years.
And while I know Don because he is a veteran, in all the times I’ve spoken to him we’d never really gone into much detail about his Bomber Command experiences. Until, that is, he recently became my fourth interview subject for the International Bomber Command Centre’s Digital Archive – and the first who I already knew before turning up with my laptop and a couple of microphones.
I knew Don can talk. But I wasn’t expecting that our interview would go for quite as long as it did!
Money was tight growing up in Koo-Wee-Rup in country Victoria, so Don left school aged 14 to work in the local general store. Shortly afterwards, having won a job in the Public Service, he moved to Melbourne to live with an aunt. “By the time I’d paid fares plus board and lodging there was no money left for anything else”, he said. A mate, equally short on funds, suggested that they apply to join the part-time Militia, specifically the 4th Division Signals.
One night on parade earned each of them five shillings every week, which in 1937 was a pretty good deal. And so Don enlisted in the military. “There was no war, there was no ‘your country needs you’, no call on loyalty, no drums banging, and cymbals playing to get you to enlist,” he said of his recruitment. “It was pure economic necessity.”
Unfortunately Don was, in his words, “a terrible soldier… I didn’t think much of the Army and I didn’t give the Army any reason to think much of me.” When war broke out in September 1939, Don’s one-night-a-week became a full-time training camp at Mount Martha. The encampment was so new it was still being built, and the WWI-era tents in which Don and his mates lived leaked. This was no way to fight a war.
So, like so many others, Don applied for aircrew. Having left school so early the initial study – at 1 Initial Training School, Somers – was challenging. But with the help of his classmates, he got through it all and was selected for pilot training, on the venerable Tiger Moth at Western Junction (what is now Launceston Airport in Tasmania). The little yellow biplane was “said to be unprangable”, Don reckoned…. except that he managed to prang one, approaching the airfield too low on his second solo and hitting a fence. On the subsequent ‘scrubbo’ test, Don did “probably the best landing of my career.”
Years later when I would try to relate this story about the perfect touch-down to my crew on a squadron, they would all laugh like hell because they couldn’t believe I could ever have done a decent landing.”
I got the distinct impression that Don has told many of these stories before. His delivery was clear and logical and he peppered his memories with sometimes hilarious asides (“To me, life in the Air Force is very much like life in marriage”, he said at one point. “Best you do what you’re told, most times, the quicker the better.”).
Completing his flying training to wings standard at Point Cook, Don stayed at the Melbourne Showgrounds for several weeks before boarding a ship to war. At this point, their destination was unknown. After a quick stop in New Zealand (where they were not allowed to leave the ship) they went in a generally north-easterly direction.
…After a certain time we realised, no, we’re not going around the Cape, we’re too far north… it was guesswork, where the heck are we going?”
And then, one bright, sunny Saturday morning, Don climbed up on deck to find the ship underneath the Golden Gate Bridge. No time for any leave, though. They were bundled straight on to a train which took them clear across the States. Billeted near Boston at Camp Myles Standish for a couple of week, Don and four mates realised that they were relatively close to New York. But they had been given no leave.
“Fancy being within a few hours of the Big Apple and not getting there,” they lamented. The temptation proved too great, so the five of them slipped under a fence and went AWL for a few days. Crucially, they bought return train tickets. Over the next four days they had a great time (“the Australian Air Force uniform stood out fairly well”, Don said with a knowing nod) and spent all their money. “The Australian pound didn’t go very far in New York at a sergeant’s pay!” Having no money left at all, the return tickets they’d so shrewdly bought on the way down allowed them to get back to camp where at 2am they slipped in undetected and collapsed into bed – to be awoken a couple of hours later and loaded onto a train to continue their journey.
The airmen sailed across the Atlantic on the Louis Pasteur, with some 14,000 troops, in five days. They disembarked in Liverpool and went to Brighton by train.
Next morning, Don suddenly realised “boy oh boy, this is a war zone.” It was a Sunday and the airmen had just come out of Church Parade, having been in England for less than 12 hours. All of a sudden “there was a clatter clatter clatter clatter… it was machine gun fire.” The guns were firing at a German ‘tip and run’ raider, which caused little damage but much disruption.
Apart from this initiation, the main thing that struck Don was how green it was in England. Having left Australia right in the middle of a harsh summer, they’d arrived in England in the northern spring. “The various shades of green on the trees [were] such a contrast to what we’d left back home.” That, and the food rationing. “Two ounces, per person, per week, of meat, two ounces of either butter or margarine per person per week, one egg per person per week, perhaps…”
He crewed up at OTU (“like picking numbers out of a hat, really”), and here, flying the pedestrian-at-best Armstrong Whitworth Whitley twin-engined bomber, Don was involved in a nasty incident when he was detailed for a cross-country flight on a night on which poor weather had already delayed take-off several times. Five aircraft were scheduled to go. Of these, one had engine trouble and didn’t take off. The second lost a crew member to illness and didn’t go either. The third crew got airborne but turned back with a faulty engine.
Don’s crew was the fourth. Not long after take-off he could hear something hitting the fuselage. It was ice being flung off the rotating propellers. Then the pitot head iced up, and the airspeed indicator failed. The aircraft was icing up badly and was even heavier on the controls than was the norm for a Whitley. They somehow managed to complete the navigation exercise and, on return to base, Don radioed to ask for assistance. He was told to land “high and fast”. He successfully did so, but much further down the runway than normal and going far too fast. Then the brakes started to overheat.
(As Don reached this part of the story he started squeezing an imaginary brake lever on an imaginary set of controls in front of him).
Screaming down the runway, suddenly he remembered… there was a newly-dug excavation at the end of the strip.
“…so I jammed on hard left rudder, going quite fast, and we went into a magnificent bloody groundloop and ultimately shuddered to a halt.”
The next day the crew drove out to the runway to have a look at their valiant steed. On the runway were some “bloody great slabs of rubber” which had been ripped out of the tyres in the groundloop. “But we were by no means the main topic of conversation that day.”
The fifth crew which had been detailed for the night cross-country had become so iced up in flight that the pilot had lost control. Three men got out – including the pilot – but the bomb aimer and rear gunner were killed when the aircraft crashed.
On completion of their Heavy Conversion Unit course the crew was posted to the Middle East. Before they went, though, they were given leave. Don started by visiting some aunts and cousins of his in Scotland before going on to London. “There won’t be much to spend my money on in the Middle East”, he thought, “so I may as well have a good time… there was no show I couldn’t afford to go to, there was no pub I couldn’t afford to drink at and I had an absolute ball… and a la New York, I was stone motherless broke [by the end].” He returned to his station to find that his crew had been re-posted to 578 Squadron at Burn instead of the Middle East, and were already there waiting for him. The signal recalling him from leave had failed to get through to him.
Don found the relaxed discipline on a squadron refreshing. No bulldust, no drill, you just had to do what was required of you: flying on operations. Don’s first was as a second dickie to Berlin, sitting on a little wooden seat dangling his feet “like a very small kid in a church pew.” Over France on the way back they were attacked by a nightfighter, which knocked out one engine. Don then got a demonstration of just how much a Halifax could be thrown around. Gus Stephens, the first pilot, threw the aircraft into such a steep and violent dive that the fuel intakes in the tanks were uncovered and the engines stopped.
There was almost like a deadly silence, just the air swishing around…”
At the bottom of the dive the fuel started flowing again and the engines came back with a roar and a terrible vibration. “I didn’t realise what punishment a Hally could take until that moment,” Don said. “I thought I’d done some pretty rough and tough stuff when we were doing fighter affiliation but nothing like this…”
Don’s tour proceeded mostly without incident, though he did mention that Karlsruhe and Essen were two particularly “hot” targets, and D-Day was very memorable. “All those watercraft,” he said, “God, it was an unbelievable sight.”
On completion of his tour, Don was posted to 21 OTU at Moreton-in-Marsh as an instructor on Wellingtons. This proved almost as dangerous as ops. The Wellington was a “lovely kite to fly”, but Don endured three single-engine landings in them in five weeks. The first two, he told me, were highly successful. But he was very lucky to walk away from the third one. He finished up in an ambulance but was released and decided, seeing as he’d been told his flying was done for the day, that a beer at lunch would be in order.
I was just about to have my first sip of it when the Medical Officer came up to me and said, ‘well I think you can put that down and you’d better come with me.’”
It turned out that Don shouldn’t have been released by the medical orderlies who had checked him out after the crash: he had concussion and spent the next few nights in the station sick quarters.
Some miserable sod got that pint of beer and drunk it and never owned up to me!”
“Looking back”, he reflected, “I think that possibly we were pretty much at the stage if eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you may die, and I think that did tend to take over…”
After his stint as an instructor ended, Don was posted to 466 Squadron for a second tour, but after just one trip the war ended and he came home to Australia.
At this point in the interview I think Don was the most thoughtful I’d seen him, as he told me that he took a year’s leave without pay from his old Public Service job to try and readjust to civilian life. He returned to the family farm in Koo-Wee-Rup and for the first three weeks, he would get up early to help with the milking, and then spend the rest of the day just sitting under a big pine tree.
“I’ve got no idea what I would have been thinking…”
Perhaps realising what Don was going through, the owner of the general store in which he had worked before he left home offered him his old job back, and Don jumped at the chance. “It meant I had to be meeting people, getting out amongst them,” he said. “I think that was a good move.” He would resign from the Public Service at the end of his year off without ever actually returning to work there before he went into business himself.
I asked Don my final question more than two hours after we had started the tape. What legacy did Bomber Command leave?
“The legacy of Bomber Command?” he said. “If they hadn’t done the things they were called upon to do, the ruddy war might still be going on!”
And that, I thought, was a very appropriate note to finish on.
(c) 2015 Adam Purcell