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.
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.
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.
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!”
“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.
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