Vale Ralph White

I remember it was very wet the day I interviewed Ralph White.

You can even see it in the photo I took after we finished the recording: so heavy was the rain that it seemed to bounce off the pavement onto the outside of the window.

Ralph White following our interview, June 2016

Also visible in the photo is a little model aeroplane built from Lego. And what you can’t see in the photo is the pair of socks that Ralph was wearing that he cheekily flashed me, decorated with pictures of aeroplanes.

Clearly, I thought, here was a man who just wanted to fly.

Ralph certainly got his wish. During WWII he was a pilot, flying Halifaxes with 192 Squadron.

That’s 192 (Special Duties) Squadron, to you.

That made him something of a rarity. Ralph, who died earlier this month, was the only person I knew who, though he flew heavy bombers on operations with Bomber Command, never once dropped a bomb on the enemy. Instead, his job was to go out with (or sometimes not with) the bomber stream, often with an eighth crew member who operated special secret equipment installed in the aircraft, as part of the great radio countermeasure battle against the German Nachtjagd. They’d just fly around on specified flightpaths designed to maximise the effectiveness of whatever secret squirrel stuff they were supporting. Ask Ralph, though, and right to the day he died he couldn’t tell you exactly what they were doing. “They just told us to fly ‘that way,’” he said, “so we did!”

Ralph was a junior clerk at Melbourne City Council before the war. He wanted to join the Royal Australian Air Force as soon as he turned 18, but his parents wouldn’t sign the necessary forms. “So I then made a very silly mistake,” Ralph said, “and joined the army.”

Eighteen unhappy months in an infantry battalion followed, during which he eventually made it to Geraldton in Western Australia. Clearly aware of the prevailing attitude towards army service, the Air Force cunningly sent a recruiting train there. Ralph did not hesitate to jump ship, as it were. Soon he was at Pearce, near Perth, filling time as an aircrew guard, before initial training at Victor Harbor, South Australia, and elementary flying training on Tiger Moths at Benalla, Victoria.

Ralph White

After getting his wings, Ralph travelled to the UK via the familiar route through the US, landing in Greenock in Scotland. And straight away Ralph could tell that things were different. “I read a notice in the train,” he said thoughtfully. “It didn’t say if there’s an air raid. It said when there’s an air raid, these are the things you have to do…” During a short stay in Brighton, Ralph remembered the German ‘tip and run’ raiders coming across. “People would be queuing up for something – old ladies, blokes going to the pubs – and as the warning came out that [the raider] was coming again, people would just drop to the ground. Once he flew over, they’d all stand up again. That took a bit of getting used to.”

By the time Ralph arrived in the UK there was a backlog in the training units for Bomber Command so he endured a few postings to use up a bit of time, including a short period at an Advanced Flying Unit, flying Tiger Moths from a grass strip at Windsor Castle. During this posting, Ralph told me, on one Sunday he attended Chapel in the castle with the King, Queen and the two Princesses present.

The day I met Ralph White – EATS Lunch, Caulfield RSL. May 2015

Then, finally to the Operational Training Unit, for crewing up and flying on the Wellington. There was one incident here that bears repeating. Ralph and his new crew were due to do a ‘Bullseye’ training flight – a practice bombing trip, over friendly territory, where a designated town was ‘bombed’ and searchlights and fighters simulated enemy defences – but the first Wellington they’d been allocated was not serviceable. They swapped to a second one, but this meant they were late, and so copped the full force of the ‘defences’ during the exercise. Then there was a fire in the wireless operator’s compartment. It was safely extinguished, but shortly after that one of the engines failed when a throttle connection vibrated loose. At that point, Ralph decided to give up and go home. They returned safely, and Ralph “came in on one [engine] and put it down perfectly […] the crew reckoned it was the only perfect one I ever did!”

The interview’s full of amusing, self-deprecating comments like this one. I suspect his entire life was full of them, too. With his big white moustache he always reminded me of a big friendly teddy bear. Ralph told stories well and always included a touch of humour.

Perhaps that humour was to soften the blow a bit: that Wellington story’s got a tragic kicker. Ten days later, Ralph told me, after the engine was repaired, the same aircraft went out on a daytime cross-country with another crew and crashed, killing everyone on board. It’s likely that the same fault – vibrations that disconnected the throttle cable – struck again.      

The Wellingtons were clapped-out, but Ralph had a much higher opinion of the aircraft he would fly on operations. “I loved the Hali,” he said. “She was good to fly, she was responsive.” They served him well, too. Ralph and his crew had a mostly uneventful tour – except for one moment of inattention over Tonsberg in Norway. It was a quiet night and the crew were all distracted by the lights of Stockholm, in Sweden. Perhaps fantasising about parachuting into the neutral country to see out the rest of the war in peace and safety, they were surprised by a Ju-88 nightfighter that suddenly flew over the top of the Halifax. Evidently the German pilot was distracted by the same thing. Ralph ducked as it flew past. “I can still see the dirt on his belly to this day!”

Ralph White is on the far right of this group of Halifax pilots

“That’s about all the excitement I can give you, Adam,” Ralph said apologetically after he related the Tonsberg story. That didn’t mean that his tour was easy, though. Ralph drew a distinction between the “joyful flying” of the various training units and life on operations. “Once you went over the enemy coast, instead of relaxing you really would hang on and I presume stress was what it was. […] As the captain of the aircraft you’re inclined to get a bit snappy with people […] you can get a bit crusty with them. I think I was [under tension]. I think it probably caught up with me later in life.”

I missed this last comment at the time, and that’s a shame because I’d have liked to dive deeper into it.

“I started off as an office boy in the Melbourne City Council,” Ralph said, telling me he returned to his old job after the war. “And you know, it was a pretty dead sort of existence after the flying days.”

This is a part of the bomber war that isn’t spoken about often: the aftermath. It was a little insight into the post-war world, and how wartime experiences continued to affect veterans for the rest of their lives. I’m forever grateful to Ralph for sharing a little bit of what was clearly a painful period for him.

The day Ralph was presented with a French Legion of Honour. Melbourne, November 2019

I’m also grateful for the friendship that we struck up over the last few years of his life. I visited he and his wife Marie a couple of times and always looked forward to catching up at lunches and ceremonies around Melbourne.

It was raining the day of Ralph’s funeral, too. I made sure I was wearing my best pair of aeroplane socks, in memory of the man who just wanted to fly.

Hear my interview with Ralph at the International Bomber Command Centre’s Digital Archive.

©2021 Adam Purcell

10 May 1944

My imagined view of the start of the Lille raid on 10 May 1944 – 77 years ago tonight. This post was published at 21:57, the time that B for Baker took off from Waddington.

“Righto, chaps.” Squadron Leader Phil Smith said, standing up. “Let’s go.”

The slim, nuggetty Australian pilot watched as his flying jacket-clad crew got up. At 27 years of age, with short dark wavy hair and a calm, matter-of-fact way of speaking, Phil was a highly experienced and respected airman, the only man among his crew to be on his second tour of operations.

He watched the other six men as they climbed the short metal ladder into the fuselage of the great black-painted bomber. They were a good crew, he thought to himself. He had been a little worried about how they’d receive him when he had first joined them at the conversion unit. They had already been together for several months and had developed into a tight little group. They had met at an operational training unit and had trained together before eventually being posted to their first operational squadron. But before they’d had a chance to start their own tours, their original pilot went on a familiarisation flight to Berlin and didn’t come back. So they’d been sent back to a conversion unit. There, they were a crew looking for a pilot, and he was a pilot looking for a crew. It was inevitable, really, that they’d be allocated to each other. Luckily, Phil thought as he climbed the short ladder into the fuselage of the bomber, they turned out to be a good bunch of chaps and had quickly accepted him as the leader of the crew. He’d now been flying with them for almost six months, and he was proud of how they’d developed.

Phil took a small step up onto the catwalk on top of the roof of the aircraft’s cavernous bomb bay, then squeezed past the machinery of the mid-upper turret, stooping slightly as he climbed the slight incline. Then he clambered over the spars, the two massive steel structures that ran across the fuselage and into each wing to carry the heavy loads imposed on the structures during flight.

He squeezed down the tight passageway along the side of the fuselage, the dangling parachute pack hanging from his harness and banging against the backs of his thighs as he went. He straightened up as he emerged into the great Perspex glasshouse of the Lancaster’s cockpit, the instrument panel glowing in the last rays of the setting sun. In front and to his left, mounted on a slightly raised platform, was the single pilot’s seat.

Reaching for a yellow-painted handle on the top of the windscreen frame, he pulled himself up and into the seat. It had armrests that folded down and a little cushioning on the backrest, but otherwise the seat was completely devoid of creature comforts. It didn’t even have a cushion to sit on. Instead, the parachute pack – which hung behind Phil’s thighs when he was standing – nestled into a deep metal bucket at the base of the seat when he sat down. They didn’t design these things for comfort, he thought to himself as he settled in.

The parachute pack on which he was now perched included an emergency dinghy that had a metal compressed gas bottle for inflation in case of a water landing. No matter how much he squirmed during a flight, that gas bottle always found its way precisely under Phil’s tailbone. He remembered how it felt a few weeks ago when they returned from an operation to Munich. On that occasion he’d been strapped tightly to that blessed gas bottle for more than ten hours.

Luckily tonight’s trip was only short, he thought. Just three and a half hours out and back.

A piece of cake.

In memory of the crew of 467 Squadron Lancaster LM475 PO-B for Baker, who failed to return from the Lille raid on 10 May 1944. Phil Smith was the crew’s only survivor.

(c) 2021 Adam Purcell

Anzac Day 2021

Everyone looked up when the jet screamed over the city.

It was Anzac Day 2021, and once again I’d returned to Sydney to mark the occasion. First order of business was the march – and for once, first order of the march was the Air Force.

The Bomber Command contingent, made up of four veterans with banner bearers and assorted supporters, made their way down the route slowly and somewhat unsteadily. While it appeared that the WWII veterans in preceding groups had been pushed along the march in wheelchairs – these fellows aren’t old any more, they’re now ancient – two of the Bomber Boys made the journey on foot. Consequently they weren’t moving particularly fast, and a fair gap opened up between them and the group in front. You could be forgiven for thinking that they were leading the entire march.

Ron Houghton waving to the crowd

It was at that moment that the jet appeared. Flying north to south over the parade, the sound of its engines growled, roared and boomed off the surrounding buildings as it whistled overhead. It was an F-35 fighter-bomber – in the long lineage of Royal Australian Air Force bombers, it’s the current holder of the role once held by the Lancasters and Halifaxes of WWII – and for just a moment it looked like it was giving Bomber Command its very own flypast.

Travelling interstate in the midst of a global pandemic, however under control it might appear in Australia at the moment, is always a somewhat fraught business. And there were certainly signs that things aren’t ‘normal’ yet. Masks on planes and trains. Helpful people dotted around the city holding QR codes for contact tracing check-ins. Overall spectator numbers looked to be a long way down on usual. But the skirl of bagpipes, the smell of horse poo and that little chinking sound made by bemedaled chests made it feel like an almost-normal Anzac Day. There was more than one moment where I felt how lucky we are to live here, when compared with the rest of the world.

It’s been a year and a half since I’ve seen most of the veterans who were present this year, and I can say most of them have aged in that time. But they were there, still pressing on regardless – like Ron Houghton who, determined not to be pushed in a wheelchair, had the assistance of two of his adult grandchildren. Matt, on the right of shot here, is an RAAF Reservist, and flew down from Brisbane to march in uniform.

Then there’s the one who, in the words of one of my lunch companions, “always looks like he’s just stepped out of the gym”: Tony Adams. A 149 Sqn wireless operator (Stirlings! Lancasters! Oh my!), Tony’s one of the more switched-on veterans you’ll find these days. He’s also a bit of a film star: just the night before Anzac Day, A Current Affair featured him (and two others who were on the march, the previously-mentioned Ron Houghton and the rather incredible Frank Dell) in a short report (see here). That’s just the latest in a long string of recent TV appearances. Tony had no trouble completing the march and, yes, looked like he’d just stepped out of the gym at the end.

Off to lunch, after all that, with the Bomber Command Association of Australia. On the way, I ducked into the Anzac Memorial with Fiona Campbell for a quick look at the new RAAF Centenary exhibition they have there, which includes a silk ‘escape map’ that belonged to Fiona’s late father Keith.

Fiona Campbell with her father’s silk map (in the display case)

Then to the Royal Automobile Club for a lunch that was up to their usual high standards. There was good food and good conversation throughout. Speeches were short and to the point and the surroundings were comfortable and classy. Five Bomber Command veterans were present: Tony Adams (complete with what seemed like the entire, er, Adams Family), Rodney Higgs, Ron Houghton, Bill Geoghegan and Bill Purdy.

In front, Rodney Higgs. Behind, L-R: Tony Adams, Bill Geoghegan, Ron Houghton. Bill Purdy managed to escape my camera for this one.

Also present was a good-sized contingent of current serving RAAF personnel, from 37 Squadron at RAAF Richmond. This was a wonderful way for members of the current Air Force to get to know some of their predecessors, and it certainly seemed like the passing on of wisdom was well underway:

As I left the lunch to catch the train to the airport and fly back to Melbourne, I saw perhaps the best example of this. Bill Geoghegan – at 101, said some wag, Bill is older than the Air Force himself – was deep in conversation with a young 37 Squadron pilot, with plenty of ‘Top Gun’ hands in evidence from both sides.

Bill Geoghegan with a 37 Squadron pilot

It would appear that Bomber Command’s legacy in Australia is in safe hands.

See my full gallery of photos from Anzac Day at Melbourne Ceili Camera.

Tony Adams before the march
Bill Purdy – a 463 Squadron skipper who is the only man I know who was flying from Waddington at the same time as the crew of B for Baker.
Bill Geoghegan after lunch. The little pin on his lapel is a ‘Lincoln Imp’, the mascot of 61 Squadron in which he served.

Text and images © 2021 Adam Purcell