Arthur Atkins had a fascination with flight that started very early. He built and flew model planes. He was a member of the Cub Scouts. He was lucky enough to take his first flight aged 8 or 9, when two Cubs at a time squeezed in together in the open cockpit of an Avro Avian flying from the old Coote Island aerodrome just west of Melbourne. Arthur really wanted to be a pilot. But in the early 1930s, how on Earth could a lad from Surrey Hills in Melbourne ever afford flying lessons?
By winning them, of course. So Arthur entered a competition run by the Sun News Pictorial newspaper. The prize was enough flying tuition to get a pilot licence. “But I didn’t win!”
Maybe the Air Force would pay instead, he thought, and tried to enlist in his final year at school. But the inter-war Air Force was not very big, and there were lots of other people who also dreamed about becoming a pilot. 2,000 people applied for just 20 positions.
“So I didn’t get that one either.”
Putting his dreams aside for a moment, Arthur qualified and found work as an accountant.
And then the Second World War broke out, and he got his chance.
When I arrived at Arthur’s house for our interview, the gates were closed and I was initially not sure that I had found the right place. But any doubts were dispelled, after I’d parked the motorbike and walked up to the door, as soon as I saw the nameplate on the wall.
I’d seen that name before. RAF Kelstern, in the Lincolnshire Wolds, was the wartime home of 625 Squadron, Royal Air Force, with which Arthur had flown 31 operations. He earned a Distinguished Flying Cross in the process. I was definitely at the right house.
Arthur came out of the front door, a fit and distinguished-looking gentleman, and immediately wanted to talk about my bike. “Oof” he said, giving it a curious push. “It’s a bit heavier than mine was.” He was referring to a 350cc Calthorpe motorcycle that he used to hoon around on in the years immediately before the war.
This was my first clue that Arthur was quite a technical person. The next one followed soon after, as we walked into his old-fashioned study, with an Anglepoise lamp and one of those big green banker’s desk lights over the desk. As I set up my laptop among the model planes and boats and piles of motorbike and aviation magazines, I remarked on a big picture of a Wellington that was hanging among dozens of photos of cars, boats and aeroplanes on the walls. Arthur immediately launched into a highly detailed explanation of why sleeve valves in the Wellington’s engines made them so complex and therefore unreliable, especially as they got older. This set the tone for the next couple of hours.
Interviewing Arthur was easy. I kicked off with my standard opener about what he was doing before the war, and he was off. He used his meticulous logbook as a memory prompt. Moving through it, he would announce the name of a place or a unit (“then we went to Mallala”) and then he’d lean back, take off his reading glasses, and proceed to tell me a story about that place.
At the end of the story, the glasses went back on and he picked up the logbook to read the next place name. And off we went again.
The stories he told were sometimes serious, sometimes funny and sometimes gory. But they were always interesting. He told me of his first solo at Benalla, and of the desert heat at Mallala. He told me about a weekend spent on leave in New York on his way to war. Of arriving at an Advanced Flying Unit at Greening Common in the UK and going for a walk onto the airfield with a few mates. They found a big black patch, about 50 or 60 feet across, the scene of an Oxford crash the night before. “They hadn’t scraped everything off the runway,” Arthur said of the ghastly scene. The next day he was chosen to be one of the pallbearers for the dead pilot. “We carried the coffin to the local train station,” he said, “where we shoved it into the guard’s van and said ‘goodbye sport’ – and that was it…”
He told me of landing a Wellington at his Operational Training Unit at Church Broughton on one engine, and of a Nickel leafletting raid on Chartres in France that was almost comedic. First, the bomb aimer pressed the wrong button over the target, so instead of opening to scatter leaflets in the slipstream, one of the two six-foot-long canisters in the bomb bay was jettisoned entirely. It disappeared from the aircraft with all the leaflets still tightly packed inside. Then, when they were approaching the French coast, someone in the crew said “there’s a searchlight on us!”
“Well, that of course rattled everyone… and after a while we found that the searchlight was following us!”
It was actually their own landing light, which when not in use was supposed to be retracted flush against the wing and pointing straight down, that had been mysteriously switched on.
“We were flying over German-occupied France with this bright light shining straight down…”
Of his time at Blyton, a Heavy Conversion Unit, Arthur told me how, rolling out after his first landing in command of a Halifax, he relaxed a tiny bit too early and the big bomber swung violently. They ended up on the grass facing the way they’d come. But the control tower frequency stayed silent. No-one had seen the grassy excursion. So Arthur innocently taxied back to his dispersal. “I never did it again – you couldn’t relax until the thing had stopped rolling at your parking spot!”
Most of his stories, though, come from the seven months that he was at 625 Squadron, Kelstern, from June 1944. Like the time they were coned over Mannheim, on the way to Russelsheim to attack the Opel works there. They got picked up by a blue “master” searchlight:
“I could hardly see the instruments because I was blinded… I remember thinking, ‘Geezus, I’ve done all this training and now I’m gunna be killed’… I pushed the stick forward and immediately lost the searchlight…”
(While he was telling me this he grabbed an imaginary control column and shoved it forward to illustrate. It might be decades since Arthur flew an aeroplane, but the instinct has never left him.)
Then there were a pair of low-level daylight operations on consecutive days over the Bay of Biscay to attack the Gironde Estuary in France. The first trip happened to be on Arthur’s birthday. “Beautiful day,” he recalled, “no wind, blue skies, not a cloud in the sky. A delightful day… so I got a nice birthday present, a nice trip to southern France, at 50 feet across the Bay of Biscay – and we dropped bombs on it.” He remembers roaring over an old horse and cart in the dunes on the way in to the target.
On the second one, they were all hurtling “hell for leather” over the water when Arthur’s rear gunner called up.
“Someone’s gone in!”
Two other Lancasters had collided. Arthur looked around in his seat, and:
“There’s this great splash of water still hanging in the air…”
One aircraft survived the collision. The second did not.
Another trip that stuck in Arthur’s mind was a night raid on Frankfurt in September 1944. “That was a good one,” he said. “I liked Frankfurt.” From 17,800 feet in the cockpit of his Lancaster, Arthur looked down on the great city. “It looked just like Melbourne would from the air at night, with the streets all lit up… but it wasn’t lights, it was the burning buildings on each side of the street.” Arthur lost a close friend on the same night, a Flight Lieutenant named Dave Browne who died attacking Stuttgart with 467 Squadron.
Incidentally, in the early 1990s Arthur went to Germany with a group of old bomber aircrew organised by the Royal Australian Air Force Association. Among the places they visited, in a bus driven by two German Air Force pilots, was Frankfurt. “They’ve got a big new wide boulevard through the centre,” Arthur said “Well they can thank me for putting that there – I removed a whole heap of scruffy old houses from a great strip in the middle of Frankfurt!” The bomber boys were subsequently guests of honour at a dinner held by the German Ex-Fighter Pilots Association, where the Germans perhaps got a little of their own back. “They had these long tables in the room, with the big pots of beer, and they were singing songs… stamping their feet and banging their pots on the table… I spoke to the bloke next to me (they speak a lot of English in Germany), and said “what are they singing now?”
It was the old battle song: “Wir fahren gegen Engeland!”
“I said, oh, that’s interesting!”
Arthur reckons he flew over about eight European countries in his Lancaster, including Sweden and Switzerland, Norway and Denmark. “I’ve been around in that Lancaster. It was a beautiful thing to fly.”
More than two hours had passed from the time Arthur first picked up his logbook to the time I asked my final question. How will Bomber Command be remembered, I wanted to know?
“I think it’ll be remembered by the people that were in it, alright,” he said. “It was the best job I ever had in my life.”
And he has left his own little piece of remembrance too. Several years ago Arthur sponsored a racing boat for his rowing club. As sponsor he was allowed to choose the name of the vessel.
After his much-missed good mate, he called it “David Browne”.
Text (c) 2016 Adam Purcell
Wartime photos courtesy Arthur Atkins. Colour photo by Adam Purcell