In early 1944, a young Australian airman on board the Ille de France preparing to depart New York for England and an operational career with Bomber Command, listened to the BBC radio news over the ship’s Tannoy system: “The RAF mounted big attacks on German cities last night,” it said. “Sixty-nine of our aircraft are missing.”
“My God,” he thought. “What are we letting ourselves in for?”
Allan Couper was in the middle of a long stay in hospital after a fall when I interviewed him for the International Bomber Command Centre’s Digital Archive last year. Despite the boredom, he was in good spirits and willingly told me his story in between nurses interrupting or telephones ringing.
Allan was working for the State Electricity Commission in Victoria in late 1941 when he saw an advertisement to join the Air Training Corps as a cadet. It was therefore natural that Allan would join the Royal Australian Air Force proper when he turned 18. “One of the first things I remember that happened at Somers,” he said of his arrival at Initial Training School, “they pointed to a pile of hessian bags and then a pile of hay and they said, that’ll be your bedding for tonight.”
The next three months passed in a blur of lectures (some of which repeated material Allan had already learned in his time with the Air Training Corps), drill, exercise and tests. At the end of the course, Allan was selected as a pilot and sent to 7 Elementary Flying Training School at Western Junction, Tasmania, flying Tiger Moths. But after twelve hours of instruction, before he had the chance to go solo, he was scrubbed because he couldn’t judge landings properly.
Remustered as an observer, Allan was sent to Cootamundra in NSW. Flying in Ansons with two trainees and a staff pilot, they would “stooge around,” navigating to various places and drawing a quick sketch of the townships to prove they’d got there. “You had to be pretty quick,” he said
Further training took place at West Sale, where they did bombing training in Oxfords and gunnery in Fairey Battles. “After the exercise was over,” he said of the gunnery sorties, “the staff pilots would do a few aerobatics… well, I’m afraid I didn’t enjoy that!”
Accidents were common in training. Allan remembered one trainee who needed to bail out of his Anson when it got into trouble. “But he forgot to do up the straps between his legs, fell out of his harness and was killed.”
Like many Australians, Allan enjoyed the hospitality of local families while he was in transit through America. On arrival in the UK, it immediately became clear that they were now in a war zone. “The place was absolutely over-run with troops,” he remembered of Brighton, his first stop. “There was food rationing, the roads were chockers with tanks and that sort of thing, there were a lot of women in uniform… every day a formation of Fortresses or Liberators would be coming back and other aircraft would be coming and going all the time.”
At this point, Allan was a fully-trained Observer. But in June 1942 Bomber Command had split that category of aircrew into two specialist roles: those of the bomb aimer and the navigator. And up to this stage in his training, Allan could have been either. Many chose their preference for themselves – but for Allan, the decision was made for him. At the Operational Training Unit in Westcott, the Navigation Leader said to Allan and a group of other Observers, “You shouldn’t have an O on your brevet, you should be wearing a B.” And so Allan became a bomb aimer.
Eventually Allan was posted to 75 (NZ) Squadron at Mepal – the only Australian there. “My crew were allocated a hut,” he remembered, “we went out on a few training exercises to start with – and then we went on our first trip.”
In the first days of autumn in 1944, the German forces in Holland were in retreat but still holding out in places. A major airborne operation to force a resolution, code-named Market Garden, was just weeks away. In this context, the German-held Gilze-Rijen airfield, just outside of Eindhoven, was attacked by a large force of bombers in daylight on 3 September. It was Allan Couper’s baptism of fire, and it didn’t start well. “About a minute and a half after we started on track, the navigator announced that we were doing the reciprocal of what we should have been doing…. That meant that we were four or five minutes late.”
By the time they got over enemy territory, Allan and his crew were now so late that they appeared to be the only aeroplane in the sky – a scary prospect for a crew on their first operation. They were engaged by anti-aircraft fire but escaped and, alone over their target, dropped their bombs into the smoke clouds below. They returned safely to Mepal, to much relief all round. “It was said,” Allan told me, “that if you managed to survive the first three trips you had a fair chance of surviving a tour… that [first trip] was a fair illustration of what those first three trips were all about.”
Happily for Allan and his crew, they learnt from that early experience and managed to complete 32 operations in all. It was not exactly uneventful – on one occasion they lost an engine on take-off, with a full bomb load, but carried on to successfully bomb the target regardless. On another trip an engine failed at low level over the sea on the way out to bomb the dykes at Wangerooge. “Of course, that wasn’t the best…”, Allan said thoughtfully. And on another flight the pilot needed to go and use the Elsan, so Allan’s very limited flying experience was called upon. “We were in formation,” he said, “and in cloud… that was an experience, for everybody!”
On completing his tour, Allan was posted to a unit which was engaged in checking navigation installations at airfields all around the UK. Each day they would fly out to another aerodrome and spend the day checking the accuracy of the beam approach system. The next day they’d go to another airfield. Allan enjoyed the camaraderie at this unit: “The people at this station were all very experienced crews who had been all over the world – they’d done everything.”
And then the war ended, and Allan came home – straight back into his old job at the State Electricity Commission. He would stay with that organisation, in progressively more senior roles, for the rest of his working life.
“None of us knew what we were getting ourselves in for,” he said, reflecting on his service at the end of the interview. “[Bomber Command] was a marvellous, well-organised organisation that achieved great things against great odds… it was a very big contribution that kinda got lost in the upset after the war.”
I looked back as I walked out of the hospital room. There was Allan, eyes closed, lost in his memories.
© 2017 Adam Purcell