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

Two plates, a bowl, and a chicken parmigiana

When I’m not researching the story of B for Baker, I’m an air traffic controller based in Melbourne. After almost a decade as what we call an ‘enroute’ or area controller working regional airspace, in recent months I’ve begun training with an approach unit serving a major capital city airport.

In my so-far limited experience, the primary task of approach control – apart from keeping everyone safely separated – is to take arriving aircraft from all points of the compass and organise them into that nice, evenly-spaced line of aeroplanes that you might see flying down the approach to the runway at any major airport around the world. A big part of the job revolves around managing this ‘arrivals sequence,’ using vectors – directed turns to delay aircraft by increasing the distance that they must fly before they reach the runway – or speed control instructions. There’s less space to work with than in the enroute world, and everything is either climbing (on departure from the runway) or descending (to land on the runway), so everything happens a lot quicker than I’ve been used to. Learning all of this stuff, and integrating it all into the local procedures and rules I need to learn, has been quite a challenge.

 With all the technology that we’ve got at our disposal, in good weather conditions the maximum rate of arrivals that we can accept to the airport I’ll be working is 24 every hour. That spacing, admittedly, also allows the tower controllers to get departures away, off the same runway, in the gaps between arrivals. But even so, when I was looking at 467 and 463 Squadron operational records recently, I was staggered to find examples where in 1944, aircraft landed at RAF Waddington after operations at a much higher rate than we achieve today.

Take, for example, the operation on Frankfurt on the night of 18/19 March 1944. Forty bombers took off from Waddington, 22 of which were from 467 Squadron (“Considering our establishment is 16+4 aircraft,” the Operational Record Book boasted, “tonight […] should be nearly a record for a two-flight Squadron”). One returned early, one failed to return at all and the landing time of a third is illegible in my copy of the documents, but the first of the aircraft for which I have a landing time touched down at 00:38, and the final one at 01:44.

That’s 37 aircraft in 66 minutes: one every minute and three-quarters, which works out to a landing rate of a little over 33 landings an hour, to a single runway, under wartime conditions and with 1940s technology.

Not a bad effort at all, I reckon. But how on earth did they achieve it? I’ve learnt a little bit previously about the system that was used, particularly the so-called ‘Quick Landing Scheme’ in use at 5 Group airfields like Waddington. But given I recently had lunch with a former bomber pilot, I figured it was a good opportunity to ask him about what he could remember.

Don McDonald has appeared in these pages before (here, here and, in most detail, here). He turned 100 in October last year. Sadly the coronavirus pandemic robbed him of the big party he’d been looking forward to for a long time, though a bagpiper visiting his care home in his honour and a personal phone call from a former Chief of Defence went a little way towards making up for it. This week my partner and I decided it was time for a catch-up, so we arranged to pick Don up and go to the local RSL for lunch.

He’s visibly aged since we last saw him and these days gets around with a walking frame, but he’s still the same old Don and he still has that twinkle in his eye. We spent nearly three hours with him, Don tucking into a big plate of oysters (a bowl nearby for the shells), Rach with a ginormous chicken parma and myself hoeing into a thick and fancy steak sandwich.

The time flew by, as it often does with Don. Among other things he told us about how he’s been invited to lay a wreath at the Sorrento-Portsea RSL on Anzac Day and asked how Rachel’s PhD research was going. We told him about our visit to the Nhill Aviation Heritage Centre. The mention of the Link Trainer we found there got Don chuckling; he told us about a prank that un-named members of his initial flying training course pulled on a disliked drill instructor. Apparently they convinced the man to sit inside the trainer and close the hatch – whereupon someone set fire to a copy of The Age newspaper and held it under the air vent in the front of the machine, while two burly members of the course held the lid down so he couldn’t escape.

“There was hell to pay after that,” Don remembered.

Later on, I was telling him about how my approach training was going. And that’s what brought me to ask Don what he could remember about the way bombers were organised when they arrived back at base after an operation.

“The memory isn’t so strong these days,” he warned. But it was strong enough. Don said the aircraft would call the control tower on the radio as they approached the base, and the operator would give them a height to circle at, 500 feet above the highest bomber to keep them separated. (At this point the air traffic controller in me shuddered – heavy bombers vertically separated by only 500 feet?! Our current vertical standard is twice that!). As each bomber landed, it would vacate the level it had been holding at, enabling the next one to safely step down above it. In turn, each bomber would do the same, one step at a time, until everyone had landed.

Where did they circle, I asked? Over the field, or somewhere else?

Our meals were finished by this stage, but the plates hadn’t been collected yet. Don saw an opportunity for a demonstration. He picked up his small bowl, full of empty oyster shells, and placed it in the middle of the larger plate. The bowl, he explained, was the airfield. A thousand yards around the runway – the edge of the big plate – was a series of lights on poles. These were called Drem lights and, visible from the air, they marked the ‘standard’ circuit; bombers flew around from one to the next around the runway until they lined up on final approach – ‘funnels’, named after the lead-in lights that ‘funnelled’ aircraft towards the runway threshold – and landed. When they were holding in the stack, they followed the same lights, around and around, without landing.

Fair enough, I said. It’s pretty different to how it’s done now, but it seems like a reasonably safe and efficient system to recover large numbers of bombers quickly.

Don chuckled again. ‘Safe’ for the time, perhaps… but not really safe as we’d know it today. There were so many airfields in England, he said, picking up Rachel’s plate. Suddenly it was another Drem system, the remains of the parma in the middle the neighbouring airfield. Sometimes airfields were so close to each other, he told us – moving the plate into position, one edge over the top of his own – that the Drem lights, and therefore the airfield’s circuits, actually overlapped. And while there was some form of flying control for individual airfields (which is why I have the detail I have for Waddington after the Frankfurt raid), it wasn’t really coordinated with any other airfields, no matter how close they were.

We kept talking for another couple of hours before we took Don back. And as we drove home, I couldn’t stop chuckling at the memory of learning from a one-hundred-year-old about how air traffic control worked in the Second World War with the aid of two plates, a bowl and a chicken parmigiana.

Adam Purcell with Don McDonald, 17 April 2021

© 2021 Adam Purcell

Interviewing 466 Squadron rear gunner Ern Cutts

Ern Cutts was (and still is) the youngest of seven children in his family. One brother was ground staff in the Royal Australian Air Force. Two other brothers were in the AIF. A sister was a RAAF nurse. His other two sisters were married to servicemen. So it was just about inevitable, as soon as he turned 18, that Ern would himself enlist.

There was just one small hurdle to jump first. His father.

Think about it for a second. Four of seven children were already in the services. Two others married to servicemen. Surely that was enough?

Well, maybe. But Ern was made of sterner stuff. There was what he called “trouble” involved, but eventually Ern managed to convince his father to sign his enlistment papers and went off to the recruitment centre in Melbourne. “I wanted to be aircrew”, he said. “And I was!”

Ern had the doubtful honour of being my first victim interview subject for the International Bomber Command Centre’s Digital Archive. My first sight of him was of an older but still fit-looking gent waving his arm at me as, about 10 minutes late, I sailed straight past the entry to his retirement complex on my motorbike. I turned around and rumbled up the path towards him, and he warmly shook my hand, grinning, and led me to the unit where he and his wife Beryl live.

I’ve been visiting veterans much like Ern for a number of years now, but the IBCC project is the first time I’ve done formal, recorded interviews with them. Perhaps I looked a little nervous as I grappled with my recording equipment. “Take your time”, Ern said. It was one of the first beautiful spring days in Melbourne this year and the birds were twittering outside as, opening the front door (“to shed some light on the subject,” he said with a chuckle), with everything ready and Beryl sitting quietly on the other side of the room listening in, we began.

It was a very entertaining interview. Ern is an easy person to talk to, and there were plenty of laughs. I asked him at one point what memories he has of the Fairey Battle. “I don’t want memories of Fairey Battles!” he said of the single-engined aircraft laughably called fighter-bombers at the beginning of the war that were hopelessly outclassed, shot down in large numbers during the Battle of France and eventually relegated to towing targets used for gunnery training, which is where Ern encountered them. “They were bloody hideous things.” Or talking about why he wanted to join the Air Force: “We didn’t have to be super fit like the young infantry blokes because we never walked anywhere – we were always driven!”

Ern was full of praise for the British people he encountered while he was overseas. “We were treated like kings”, he said more than once. He often wondered why, when he was visiting the home of a particular girl he was keen on, he and she would eat very well but the girl’s mother wouldn’t be eating. He asked his girlfriend – who said that his mother was giving up her own rations for Ern. “That’s English people for you”, he said, shaking his head. “Really tops.”

Ern was posted to 466 Squadron, flying in Halifaxes. I asked him if he did any particularly memorable ops. “My first trip”, he said instantly. It was a daylight raid to a synthetic oil plant at Sterkrade in the Ruhr Valley on 6 October 1944. “I never lived this down,” he said:

“I saw all these black puffs in the air, black things, and I said to someone, to the crew – cos everyone was excited, y’know, our first op, it was a daylight op which was good, because they did try to give you a daylight to give you a bit of an idea of what you were going into – and I said, what’s all these black things out there, and everyone started laughing… it was bloody anti-aircraft exploding… that’s how raw [I was]… by the time I got to the 34th op I didn’t need to ask!”

Logbooks are always a favourite thing for me to look at when I’m talking to veteran aircrew because they allow me to put in some sort of context their owner’s service. Most are fairly dry, but others include comments about particularly memorable trips. Ern’s even had a number of pictures stuck to the pages, of aircraft he’d flown in.

And a Messerschmitt 410, a German nightfighter. Part of the IBCC project is to scan original documents for inclusion, along with the interview itself, in the Digital Archive, so I carry a scanner to hook up to my laptop and copy any originals on the spot. At the time I missed the significance of the ME410. But when I was at home later, reviewing the scans, there it was.

7 February 1945. Halifax III. Pilot: Flying Officer McCallum. Operation No. 24: 6:00 to Goch (Army Cooperation Target). FIRST KILL – ME410 FIGHTER CONFIRMED.

Ern actually shot down an enemy aircraft.

This is less common than you might think for a wartime gunner. British bombers at the time were armed with Browning .303 machine guns – with an effective range of some 400 yards. Nightfighters, on the other hand, usually had cannon with a maximum range of about 1,000 yards. The inevitable result was that the favoured method of attack was for a fighter to stand off, undetected, outside the range of the Brownings and fire at leisure. The best chance of escape for the bomber crew was in spotting the fighter before it saw them. Many gunners who survived a tour, then, did so without firing a gun in anger, let alone actually scoring any hits. Having a confirmed kill to his name is actually quite an achievement.

And during our interview, about shooting down a nightfighter he said exactly nothing. He was similarly reticent when I enquired about an immediate DFC awarded to his pilot, the aforementioned F/O A.B. McCallum, after the aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire on a trip to Gelsenkirchen (Ern’s 9th) in November 1944. It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, Ern suggested. Otherwise it would be remarked upon in his logbook.

Ern Cutts and his Halifax rear turret

Most likely it’s that legendary modesty often found in veterans of Bomber Command coming through here. They didn’t think they were doing anything special: there was a job to do, and it fell on their shoulders to do it. And so their stories frequently concentrate on the lighter side of life in wartime England.

Finishing his tour in March 1945, Ern was eventually posted to 467 Squadron at Metheringham, preparing to begin training for Tiger Force to continue the war against the Japanese. After the atomic bombs ended the requirement for that he flew a couple of POW repatriation flights, taking part in Operation Spasm to Berlin and Operation Dodge to Bari in Italy in September 1945. Both trips, he told me, were completed with all non-essential equipment stripped from the Lancasters. Including all the guns and all the ammunition.

I had to ask the obvious question. If there were no guns on board, why did they need gunners?

Well, someone had to look after the repatriating POWs, many of whom had never been in an aeroplane before. “Believe it or not”, he said, “we were just air hostesses!”

The tone turned a little more serious, however, when I asked Ern how he thought Bomber Command was remembered. There was a lengthy pause before he answered.

Bomber Command, he said, was until D-Day the only organisation taking the war direct to Germany. For that reason, the English people in particular treated the men of Bomber Command with the same respect and admiration that they had for, say, the French Resistance. “If I go to an RSL,” he said,

“…and a bloke says, what were you in, Ern, were you in the Navy or Army or something, I say, no, I was in Bomber Command, and if he is an English person, ‘oh were you… oh… you blokes, gee… y’know. So it makes you kinda feel very humble, very proud and very humble.”

And that, I thought, was a beautiful way to finish our interview.

Ern Cutts was a 466 and 467 Squadron rear gunner during WWII. This photo was taken after an interview with Ern at his home in Melbourne in October 2015

Text and colour photo (c) 2015 Adam Purcell. Wartime photo (c) Ern Cutts


The Halifax – that ‘other’ aeroplane in Bomber Command’s arsenal – was badly maligned for much of WWII. Leo McKinstry, for example, in his recent book Lancaster: The Second World War’s Greatest Bomber, records Sir Arthur Harris trying to close down Halifax production lines in favour of the Lancaster.

The earlier Halifaxes – Mk IIs in particular – were indeed pretty poor aeroplanes. Ron Houghton, a 102 Sqn Halifax skipper, spoke at the Royal Aeronautical Society’s Sydney Branch meeting in late August 2010. He described his first flight in a Halifax at a Heavy Conversion Unit in mid 1944. It was a B MkII series I, and was seriously underpowered and too slow for its purpose. The nose design, with a front turret, meant lots of drag. Half way down the 1100 yard runway on its take-off roll, with full power selected, the aircraft had barely reached 65 miles per hour.

“I don’t like this”, Ron said to his instructor.

“Keep going”, was the reply.

900 yards down and speed still barely above stall.

“I really don’t like this”.

“Keep going”.

They dragged the aeroplane reluctantly off the ground, just clearing the trees at the end of the runway. Climb rate was negligible. Wide-eyed, Ron asked the instructor, “How does this thing handle with a full bomb load?!?”

“DON’T ASK!!!”

Ron told us that the Mk IIs had a 99-foot wingspan and squared-off wingtips, designed like the unfortunate Short Stirling to fit inside the standard 100-foot-wide RAF hangar. This combined with the high drag from the front turret and the lack of enough power gave them a service ceiling of only around 12,000 feet – well inside range of German flak guns. They also had a nasty reputation of entering an unrecoverable spin if stalled with one engine out, caused by a faulty rudder design. No wonder, then, that Ron spoke of his delight at arriving at 102 Squadron at Pocklington to discover that the squadron had on that day received the first of their much-improved Halifax Mk IIIs. With no front turret, redesigned rudders, new slightly wider wings and vastly more powerful Bristol Hercules engines, the new generation ‘Hallybag’ had a 24,000’ ceiling and held much better survival prospects.

They were still complicated machines however. Ron related the requirement for pilots who were converting onto the Halifax to be able to draw a diagram of its fuel system from memory – all 17 tanks and many, many taps and lines and switches. There was, Ron said, “an awful lot of juggling of fuel”. The fuel tanks themselves had an ingenious system by which nitrogen was added to each one as it emptied, thus vastly reducing the risk of an explosion should a bullet or shell pierce it. There was just one piece of armour plating that Ron could remember, placed like the Lancaster on the rear of the pilot’s seat.

Ron mentioned crashed Halifaxes in Germany being recovered, restored and then flown into the bomber stream, crewed by Luftwaffe airmen, to follow and attack other bombers. This was I thought an interesting idea that I must admit I have not seen any documentary evidence of – if anyone is aware of this please get in touch!

The most important question, however, concerned the relative merits of the Halifax vs the Lancaster. The Halifax reputation suffered considerably from the faults of the earlier variants, but by war’s end the Mk III was close to the Lancaster in performance, if not in bomb-carrying capacity. Having flown both Ron was in a good position to compare ‘which one was the better’, but ever the gentleman he is he would not be drawn into judging one way or the other, saying only that the two were “pretty equal”.

So there we have it – a potted history of the Halifax, by someone who was there. Ron’s talk was fascinating. At its conclusion I got the chance to speak to him briefly and I will make sure to get in touch in the next little while to talk about it in more detail. Ron spent 35 years after the war flying for Qantas… and I’ll bet he has some stories to tell about that as well!


(c) 2010 Adam Purcell

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