I collected my first oral history for the International Bomber Command Centre’s Digital Archive in October 2015. Interview Number One was with a man named Ern Cutts, a 466 Squadron Halifax rear gunner, and at the time I was one of just two volunteer interviewers for the project in Australia, and the only one in Melbourne.
A little over two years later, the Archive is close to being launched. It is well on the way to being an extremely significant collection of original Bomber Command stories, containing over 700 interviews and tens of thousands of scanned documents. These come from a wide variety of participants: both aircrew and ground crew, civilians who were in some way affected by Bomber Command or its legacy, and even a sizeable collection of material from German and Italian sources.
I’ve now taken a step back from actively seeking out further people to interview, partly to give some attention to other somewhat neglected projects and partly to give someone else a go, but I thought I’d share something of my experiences from the 27 interviews I contributed to the project.
My collection of subjects included nine pilots, seven navigators, four wireless operators, two bomb aimers, one mid-upper gunner, three rear gunners and a single WAAF. To my eternal disappointment, I wasn’t able to find a flight engineer to interview, otherwise I’d have collected an entire crew. In their ‘main’ postings, these 27 individuals represented three Heavy Conversion Units, one Operational Training Unit, and 18 Squadrons. Four of them held a Distinguished Flying Cross. One held a DFC and Bar. There were three members of the Caterpillar Club, four prisoners of war and one evader. 15 flew in Lancasters and eight in Halifaxes. One man flew both. Two flew in Liberators, one in Mosquitos and one poor soul flew in, and was shot down in, something called a Bristol Bombay.
I interviewed four people who were at Heavy Conversion Units when the war ended (two of them on the same crew). At the other end of the experience scale, one man completed 68 operational trips, ending up as a Pathfinder Master Bomber. At the time of interview, they ranged in age from a few months past 90 to more than one hundred. At least five of them have died since I interviewed them.
I interviewed two people in Sydney, one in Canberra and three on a single particularly intense weekend in Adelaide. The rest have all been in and around Melbourne (if, that is, you count as Melbourne the Mornington Peninsula in the south, Warragul in the east and Ballarat in the north-west). I’ve calculated that I have spent almost 250 hours directly working on this project, resulting in about 40 hours of actual taped interviews and more than 50 hours of travel time. I’ve travelled by car, motorbike, train, plane, bus, taxi and on my own two feet. The furthest I travelled for an interview was more than 800km to Sydney, and the shortest a walk of less than two kilometres from my home.
I’ve met some lovely people through this project. The vast majority have been extremely generous with their time, their tea and their stories. I knew seven before I interviewed them – indeed, I could even claim three or four as close friends – but for the vast majority of the rest, the first time I met them was when I turned up on their doorstep carrying my laptop, microphones and camera. I’ve found it quite amazing how open some of these people have been, how willing they’ve been to dive straight into some pretty personal stories within minutes of meeting me.
And some of those stories are genuinely astonishing. Like the navigator who went through all the training only to be shot down on his first trip—by another Lancaster. Or the pilot who went to the UK expecting to go to Bomber Command, but was instead posted to India where he flew a distinguished tour on Liberators. Then there was the pilot who flew for a Special Duties squadron whose operations were so secret he still doesn’t know exactly what he was doing. The Mosquito nightfighter navigator who chased doodlebugs through the skies of south-eastern England. The man who went from Flight Sergeant to Squadron Leader in six weeks, such was the rate of casualties in his squadron, then flew two full tours – all before his 21st birthday. The wireless operator who was shot down over France and spent three months with the Resistance before being rescued by Patton’s tanks. The bomb aimer who was the only survivor from both crews involved in a mid-air collision over Stuttgart. The gunner who still thinks – every day – about his pilot, who was the only member of his crew who died when they were shot down over Germany.
Time, certainly, has dulled some of the memories. But as we’ve gone deeper into the interviews, memories have been unlocked and some long-forgotten details have been pulled to the surface. It was not uncommon to be told afterwards that I’d just heard things that even their closest family members didn’t know. That, in itself, has made this an extremely worthwhile project to be a part of, and the archive is developing into a very valuable collection of original Bomber Command stories.
But I’ve found another happy effect from collecting all of these interviews. I’ve been able to talk with some very interesting people, and several friendships have developed as a result. And in many cases, I’ve been able to ring them up again and even go back to visit them – for nothing so formal as a follow-up interview, simply for a social chat.
I reckon that’s one of the best things that we can do to show our respect for these people: just be friendly, show interest in them as people, not only in their stories. To listen to them, give them some of our time. They deserve that much from us all.
(c) 2017 Adam Purcell