Archive for the 'IBCC' Category



Interviewing 460 Squadron navigator Max Spence

It started with a very cryptic email.

I may have some items of interest for you. Max Spence, Former 460 Squadron.

And that, word for word, was it.

And when I rang Max to arrange a time for our International Bomber Command Centre interview (my second), he answered in what I discovered was typical economical fashion.

Hello.

Again, word for word, that was it.

A man of few words, then, I thought.

Until I turned up to Max’s house in a north-eastern suburb of Melbourne recently, one very hot and extraordinarily windy afternoon.

Once I’d set up the recording equipment I asked my standard opener. “Can you tell me something of your early life, what you did before the war?”

“Well… I grew up in Briar Hill”, he began… and then he was off. A full eight minutes later, it seemed like he finally drew a breath and finished with the words, “And then I came home and the war ended in Japan and I was discharged and I went back to work… and that’s about it.”

Not so much a man of few words, it seemed. We backed up a bit and went over his story in more detail, and over the next three quarters of an hour Max told me some very interesting stuff. I would eventually have to work harder to bring it out though.

“We knew in 1938 that a war was going to start soon”, Max said.

Before it broke out, Max and a mate resolved to join the Royal Scottish Regiment. But in those pre-war days, recruits had to cough up £12 of their own money for the uniform. That was the equivalent of three months’ wages for the average man. Not particularly enamoured with that idea, Max and his mate withdrew their applications.

War came, of course, in September 1939. Max’s father was a Gallipoli veteran and Max was an only child, so gaining parental permission to enlist was difficult. But suddenly his father changed his mind – and so Max applied to join the Royal Australian Air Force. Initially he wanted to be ground staff, but the recruiter convinced him to try for aircrew. All went well until it was time to sign the enlistment papers, in front of a panel of officers. He picked up a pen and was hovering over the paper, just about to sign away his life for the duration of the War and a period of twelve months thereafter, when one of the officers stopped him. “You’re no good to us”, he said, “you’re left-handed! You’ll never be able to handle a Morse key!”

Such was the competition for places in the Royal Australian Air Force in the early years that the Air Force could afford to be very choosy. Fuming at the rejection, Max says that at that point he altogether lost interest in the war.

They could run it without me!

Having decided that, naturally he was called up a few months later for Army service. And in one of those ironies of war, he was trained as a signaller, which included using Morse code. Transferred to the 19th Machine Gun Regiment he arrived in Darwin in time to endure some of the Japanese air raids on that city.

Which was a bit… you know… ordinary…

Then the RAAF Recruiting train rolled into town. 54 members of Max’s Regiment applied for a transfer – just 18 were accepted. Max was accepted as a navigator – with no word said about his kack-handedness this time – and was quickly on a ship to Canada for a five-month training course. On completion of that he had an 11-day leave in Chicago, and then Max crossed the Atlantic on the Andes and was in wartime Britain.

Max Spence

And what struck him most about wartime Britain, I asked? “The women all smoked!” he said incredulously. That and the food. It was, he said, pretty frugal.

We were ok in the services, got fed pretty well. Ordinary food, but it was food, a lot more of it than the general public got.

What about English beer, I wondered?

First time I went to Tommy Farr’s bar (he was the British Empire heavyweight champion), I ordered a beer, it tasted like tar and water! It was mild beer, so I talked to a couple of other blokes who’d been there for a while and they said oh no, start off with bottled beer, and then gradually move over to bitter… which we did.

Once he got there, Max reckoned life on 460 Squadron was pretty good. As well as a good amount of food, accommodation at Binbrook wasn’t bad:

We lived in a house actually, all in a unit, but we were all together in one big room. We had comfortable beds and then we used to go to the Sergeants’ Mess for meals.

The pilot was the only commissioned officer in the crew, though, so he went off to the Officer’s Mess alone. “For an organisation fighting for democracy”, Max reckons, “the services weren’t very democratic!”

Max began operations with a trip to Mannheim on 1 February 1945. He was on the Dresden operation nearly two weeks later – at 9 hours 45 minutes it’s the longest flight in his logbook, but according to Max he has “no particular memories of it… it was just another flight.” He reckoned that as a navigator he had the best job. “All the documentaries… sort of emphasise the drama, but largely it was just hard work. I had to fix my position every six minutes and then dead reckon ahead another six minutes, so I was like a one-armed paper hanger.”

I asked Max what would have happened when a gunner spotted a fighter. He had a story about that. Coming back from a target one night, Max heard the intercom crackle into life. It was the rear gunner.

Enemy fighter. Skip – prepare to corkscrew left! … no na na no prepare to corkscrew right… no no no it doesn’t matter, he’s gone past!

After 18 operations, Max’s crew was posted for Pathfinder training early in April 1945. The war in Europe ended before they could go back on operations and he was back in Australia by September 1945. I asked him how he readjusted to civilian life. “One of my mates had a breakdown and a few of them have suffered Post Traumatic Stress as they call it, but I didn’t think I had worries… used to drink too much, that was the main problem.”

I sensed a story in that last comment, but I couldn’t quite draw it out of him. “I don’t think about it much at all”, he said of his wartime service. “It was just a job, and I did it the best I could. Doesn’t have any special place in me memory.”

But maybe it does. Max admitted to being annoyed at documentaries about Bomber Command “because they emphasise the dramatic,” and still seems bitter about the way that some Bomber Command aircrew received an Air Crew Europe Star but any survivors who did not operate before D-Day did not. He’s not at all happy about the recently-awarded Bomber Command Clasp, calling it “a piddly little thing… a sort of second prize.” He also revealed that he’d once taken a journalist to the Press Council about a newspaper article that spread what he perceived as misinformation about Dresden. So it’s clear that he still maintains very strong feelings about his experiences and about Bomber Command’s place in history.

I found this interview quite challenging. Where my first interview with Ern was very easy – I’d ask one question, he answered it and then kept riffing on about anything else that came to mind – with Max I had to work a lot harder to keep things moving. Consequently, it was the shortest out of the IBCC interviews that I’ve conducted. But we covered some interesting ground and I’m very pleased that I was able to record it for the Archive.

Bomber Command veteran Max Spence, a 460 Squadron navigator, at

B+W photo courtesy Max Spence. Colour photo and text (c) Adam Purcell 2015

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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

Calling All Veterans!

The International Bomber Command Centre (IBCC) is a very significant project currently underway in Lincolnshire in the UK. It’s made up of multiple strands: a Memorial Spire (recently erected) and steel walls which will be engraved with the names of all Bomber Command aircrew lost flying from Lincolnshire bases in WWII, the “Chadwick Centre” to house exhibitions and education facilities, and Peace Gardens and sculpture parks.

Of most relevance to this blog, however, is the Bomber Command Digital Archive. The Archive aims to hold digitised copies of documents, photographs and stories about the people who were part of and affected by Bomber Command, bringing together things held by museums and other institutions with information in private collections. In the process it hopes to become the leading source for Bomber Command information in the world.

IBCC-WE-NEED-YOU

There are already a lot of sources of Bomber Command-related information out there. Some of them are even pretty good. So this is a very ambitious goal. But one of the most interesting parts of the Archive is a large-scale oral history project, being completed in conjunction with the University of Lincoln. And this, somewhat alarmingly, is where I come in.

In Canberra for the Bomber Command Commemorative Day event at the end of May I met Nicky Barr, who is the Director of the International Bomber Command Centre. She was there as part of a delegation from Lincolnshire who were raising awareness of the project, and recruiting people to volunteer. She was very excited when she discovered that I was from Melbourne. “We don’t have anyone there yet…” she said thoughtfully.

Well, they do now. The long and the short of it is that I’m now officially a volunteer interviewer for the IBCC’s Bomber Command Digital Archive, and I’m just about ready to begin interviewing veterans. Interviews will be recorded and the sound files sent to the UK for eventual inclusion in the Digital Archive along with a transcription and scanned copies of any other documents or photographs.

While the statistics and the overall narrative about Bomber Command is reasonably well known, it’s the personal stories that ensure that the memories of the people who contributed to it lives on. The Bomber Command Digital Archive will be a very important record of the personal stories behind the Bomber Command experience. While the focus is obviously on the veterans themselves, the Archive aims to cover anyone who was part of, or affected by Bomber Command, and that includes people from both sides.

I have a small list of veterans in and around Melbourne with whom I am already acquainted, and I will be sending them letters in the near future to invite them to take part. But if you were part of the Bomber Command story yourself, or if you know of someone else who might be interested, please get in touch.

I’d love to hear your stories.

(c) 2015 Adam Purcell


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