Archive for the 'Interviews' Category

IBCC Interview #11: Jack Bell, 216 Squadron Wireless Operator and PoW

You wouldn’t pick it from looking at him or talking to him, but Jack Bell was born in 1917. “I’ll be 100 next year,” he said when I interviewed him for the International Bomber Command Centre’s Digital Archive in 2016. “Gawd, that’s a terrifying thought!”

Terrifying it might be for Jack, but I reckon it’s an astonishing achievement, particularly after hearing the story of what happened to him during WWII. Jack Bell had a long war, and it was not an easy one.

A child of the Depression, Jack decided in 1935 that he was sick of working in an accountant’s office, and joined the military. As a gun sergeant with the Australian Militia, he says, “I could hit an anthill at a range of 3,000 yards – over a hill!” War came in 1939 and Jack immediately went into camp for a month in Caloundra with his unit. It was during this time that he had a critical realisation. If he could hit an anthill at 3,000 yards, someone else over that hill could probably hit him too. “That’s it,” he thought. “I’m going to get up in the air where it’s more difficult to get hit…” So in November 1939, Jack put his name down for the Royal Australian Air Force.

He was called up in May 1940 – too early for the ITS at Bradfield Park, which wouldn’t open for another month. Jack instead did his early training at Ballarat Showgrounds. His cohort moved to the Ballarat aerodrome for a wireless course after construction of the Air Force station there was completed that August. Next came Evans Head for gunnery training. And suddenly he was qualified. By the beginning of February 1941, Jack was on his way overseas.

Jack disembarked at Port Tawfik in Egypt. At an aerodrome at Heliopolis, just outside of Cairo, he completed a cypher course, then waited for posting orders. Three months later someone finally realised that 216 Squadron was looking for him. It turned out the Squadron was based on the other side of the same aerodrome. Jack had not received his posting orders because he was already at Heliopolis.

While nominally a bomber unit, 216 Squadron was engaged on transport and support operations. They assisted the North African campaign by ferrying supplies and fuel and occasionally dropping people behind enemy lines. There were so many primitive airfields in the desert that they were given numbers instead of names.

Jack Bell, at ‘Kilo 40’ outside Cairo, 1941

Jack’s first steed for this flying was the alarmingly obsolete twin-engine Vickers Valentia. The Valentia was a strengthened and re-engined version of the Vickers Victoria, a big British aircraft designed in 1922. While the Valentia was marginally more capable than its regally-named predecessor, its genesis in the design offices of the 1920s was embarrassingly clear. “It was like a bus,” Jack said. The Valentia was a canvas-covered biplane with huge, draggy fixed undercarriage and, almost unbelievably for an operational multi-engined aeroplane of WWII, its pilot and navigator sat in an open cockpit at the front of the aircraft, wearing pith helmets and peering through a low windscreen. It carried a fitter as part of the crew, whose sole job was to wind up the big inertial starters to get the engines going at the beginning of every flight. On a good day, the Valentia topped out at 82 miles an hour. “One day we were overtaken by a truck on the ground below us,” Jack remembered wryly.

Western Desert 1941

Happily for Jack’s continued existence, in October 1941, 216 Squadron got rid of its last Valentia. Not so happily, its replacement was the equally uninspiring Bristol Bombay. The squadron had been using Bombays solely as bombers since the beginning of the war, and the aircraft took on the transport duties of the now-superseded Valentias. “They were just useless, absolutely useless,” Jack reckoned. The type was a step up from the old Vickers aircraft inasmuch as it was now a monoplane, and the cockpit was enclosed. But it was a huge, slow thing, its undercarriage was still firmly bolted down and it was grossly underpowered. As a bomber it was more or less ineffective: it could carry just eight 250lb bombs and its bomb aiming apparatus was so old it could not drop them with any degree of accuracy. In an attempt to supplement the feeble punch packed by the official bomb load, “the air gunners and the fitters used to throw 25-pound anti-personnel bombs out of the flare chute.” Reassuring? Not at all. But it was an aeroplane, and it was all that was available.

Like its aircraft, life at 216 Squadron was fairly primitive. For meals, the aircrew ate bully beef and biscuits, or canned herring in tomato sauce. To pass the time they played cricket or poker. There were “probably a million flies per square foot.” But it was, Jack reckoned, “a wonderful experience for a young fella like me.”

216 Squadron Mess, Libya

For Jack it came to an abrupt end, however, on 23 January 1942. “I’ll never forget it,” Jack said soberly. The plan was to fly to a place called Msus, southeast of Benghazi in Libya, taking up replacement pilots and medical supplies and returning with elements of a Brigade Headquarters. All went well until they were flying down an escarpment near the town of Derna, which was then under attack by Rommel’s Afrika Korps. Down below, suddenly, was an echelon of the 15th Panzer Division. They could hardly miss the big Bombay.

“The second pilot categorically stated that we were shot down by a tank,” Jack said, “which I never ever believed… the shells, to me, were more like point fives.” Whatever they were, they “rattled across the mainplane and down the centre of the aircraft.” Jack’s mate, Tony Carter, was the navigator. He was killed immediately. The pilot was wounded (he would ultimately lose a leg), as was one of the passengers. Jack received a nasty abdominal wound. Only the second pilot escaped unscathed.

Jack can’t remember much of what happened next. Rescued, and captured, by the troops who had just shot them down, he was operated on by a German doctor who happened to have been a Harley Street abdominal specialist. The doctor had been sent to England as part of Germany’s reparations after the First World War. He had returned to Germany in August 1939 and hadn’t been allowed back to England.

The man saved Jack’s life. After eight or nine days of being fed intravenously, Jack was transferred on the back of a three-tonne truck to Tripoli with other wounded prisoners, a journey of some 40 miles. It was not a pleasant trip. The friendly doctor gave him several phials of morphine and told him to jab one in his leg each morning and night. “Well, the next three days I can’t remember,” Jack said – which is lucky, because the combination of unmade roads, wartime conditions and rough handling on the part of those who loaded and unloaded the truck each night broke the stitches that were literally holding Jack together. “My abdominals – skin and stomach – were wide open,” he said with a shudder. Jack overheard a doctor telling a nurse that they would simply let nature take its course. The nurse refused to allow that to happen and convinced Jack to eat, cooking up a quince with sugar especially for him. “She was the enemy,” Jack said in wonder, “but she fed me that sweetened quince and that’s how I started to eat again.”

Jack was moved to Italy on a hospital ship, and then stayed in a hospital in Caserta until he was eventually interned at Parma, outside Milan. He sold his wristwatch for two blocks of chocolate to give to an officer making an escape attempt – but when the plot was discovered, for his part in it he was sent to the “punishment” camp at Gravina.

It’s perhaps not surprising that from this point, food – or more precisely, the lack of it – becomes a dominating theme of Jack’s story. Prisoners at Gravina were fed, but only just. “They weighed me at the end of February,” Jack said. “I weighed six stone four pounds” – about 40kg. At one stage, he was made “catering officer”. To feed 600 men for two days, he was provided with exactly twelve broccoli, eleven cabbages and a bunch of fennel. The cooks just bashed it up, roots and all, heated it in a big copper pot and served it as a brew.

“We were starving,” Jack said of his time at Gravina. On average, six prisoners a week were dying of malnutrition. The situation improved at his next camp, near Trieste, but not until the middle of 1943 once it became clear that Italy was nearing capitulation. On 23 September, their jailors left. “The British sent messages saying ‘stay where you are, you’ll be relieved in the next 24 hours.’” So Jack and his comrades stayed in the camp and waited for rescue. But in a cruel twist, overnight the camp was surrounded by German forces and the prisoners were loaded onto cattle trains and sent deep into Germany. It would be nearly two years before they were free.

Their destination was Stalag Luft IVb at Mühlberg, near the Elbe river. “It was probably at that stage the worst prison camp in Germany,” Jack reckoned. It was overcrowded. Some 35,000 prisoners squished in an area of about 32 acres, and for the first three months Jack’s group had to sleep in tents on the parade ground while waiting for more huts to be built. Food was adequate, “according to the Germans” – in reality it was barely a subsistence diet and things were grim until Red Cross parcels could supplement the rations.

The Red Cross parcels that made the diet survivable also served another purpose. “Some of the parcels had particular marks on them,” Jack said. “We – the average prisoner – didn’t know that these were sent out by MI5.” The marked parcels contained maps, hidden under labels, and other useful items for escapers. There was an Escape Committee, presided over by the Man of Confidence (who officially was the contact between the Detaining Power and the rest of the British prisoners), and all potential escapers had to be approved by the Committee to preserve the secrecy of the clandestine Red Cross supply lines. As far as escaping activity went, Jack himself was unable to physically help digging tunnels because of the injuries he sustained in the crash, but he would act as lookout if someone was stealing coal from the brazier, for example. He also has many stories of some of the escape attempts made while he was a prisoner: tunnels under vegetable gardens that collapsed on the diggers, for example (“a tomato plant with all the soil dropped down on top of him…”), or hiding a newly arrived man with the assistance of a uniform provided by the French prisoners (who had relatively more freedom than the Commonwealth troops).

After enduring the extreme cold of the winter of 1944-45, and after seeing the glow of the fires at Dresden (less than 60km away), on 4 May 1945 the German commandant simply notified the British senior officer that they would be leaving, wished everybody good luck, and took off with all the guards. The next day the Russian Army arrived – and Jack and the other prisoners were, in his words, “recaptured.” This was to ensure that the Russians had a bargaining chip, he reckons. After three days at Muhlberg the Russians marched everyone to Riga, just short of the Elbe. Jack and a few comrades took off and spent the next few days foraging for food. Eventually they crossed the fragile bridge over the Elbe and were in American hands.

Jack returned to the UK by air. All his clothes were taken on arrival and he was fumigated – and then issued with a complete new uniform. He was bitterly disappointed at losing his faithful RAF battledress jacket, which he had been wearing on that fateful operation in January 1942, and subsequently continued to wear throughout his captivity. “It still had the holes in it from the shellfire”, he said ruefully.

Jack told me of some overwhelming kindness from the British public on his arrival after his release. Staying with a friend in Brighton, for example, he went out grocery shopping with the man’s wife. Jack’s shiny new uniform stood out in the queue at the fishmongers. When the man behind the counter found out that Jack was a returned prisoner, he gave them double rations for free. “And the people clapped me, you know,” Jack recalled. “They were really wonderful people.”

His arrival in Australia was a different story, however. Japan surrendered while Jack was mid-Pacific. By the time he got home he had been out of captivity and relatively well-fed for three months. He didn’t look like the emaciated prisoners of the Japanese, who began arriving in Australia shortly afterwards. So instead of thanking him for his service, people would ask why he had gone to Europe at all. “The bloody war with Japan hadn’t even started when I left!” he says incredulously. “The reception wasn’t too great.” Even the RSL wouldn’t accept him as a member, saying he would have to go onto a waiting list.

There were personal effects too. “At night time I didn’t know what I was doing – I was thrashing around, kicking and rolling… it took a long, long time to get back to normal.”

The hardest thing he ever had to do, Jack says, was visiting the mother of his friend Tony Carter, the navigator who was killed when Jack’s Bombay crashed in Libya. “He was an only son, and I can still see his mother looking at me with the question in her eyes, why was it my son and not you… I can never forget it.”

Until the late 1980s, Jack didn’t much talk about the war. But then he wrote, for the benefit of his family, a 30-page document that told something of his story. “It was the greatest thing I ever did,” he says now. “It released me… it was out in the world somewhere and it enabled me to talk to people that weren’t old enough to go to the war and who wanted to know what happened.” Now he talks to many people about his experiences – indeed, I first encountered Jack, doing exactly that, at a large public event at the Shrine in 2013.

In wartime particularly, you never can tell quite where fortune might take you. Luck plays such an important role in where you are sent, in when you serve, in which aeroplane you fly. “It’s an experience that I would never ever do without,” Jack says of his wartime service, “but I wouldn’t wish it upon anybody.”

“The strange thing about it,” he says thoughtfully, “is that all my mates who stayed in the artillery came back, and I got shot down…”

Jack Bell in his back garden after the interview

Jack was interviewed in January 2016.

Text and colour photo (c) 2017 Adam Purcell. Wartime photos courtesy Jack Bell.

IBCC Interview #10: Allan Couper, 75 (NZ) Squadron Bomb Aimer

In early 1944, a young Australian airman on board the Ille de France preparing to depart New York for England and an operational career with Bomber Command, listened to the BBC radio news over the ship’s Tannoy system: “The RAF mounted big attacks on German cities last night,” it said. “Sixty-nine of our aircraft are missing.”

“My God,” he thought. “What are we letting ourselves in for?”

Allan Couper was in the middle of a long stay in hospital after a fall when I interviewed him for the International Bomber Command Centre’s Digital Archive last year. Despite the boredom, he was in good spirits and willingly told me his story in between nurses interrupting or telephones ringing.

Allan was working for the State Electricity Commission in Victoria in late 1941 when he saw an advertisement to join the Air Training Corps as a cadet. It was therefore natural that Allan would join the Royal Australian Air Force proper when he turned 18. “One of the first things I remember that happened at Somers,” he said of his arrival at Initial Training School, “they pointed to a pile of hessian bags and then a pile of hay and they said, that’ll be your bedding for tonight.”

The next three months passed in a blur of lectures (some of which repeated material Allan had already learned in his time with the Air Training Corps), drill, exercise and tests. At the end of the course, Allan was selected as a pilot and sent to 7 Elementary Flying Training School at Western Junction, Tasmania, flying Tiger Moths. But after twelve hours of instruction, before he had the chance to go solo, he was scrubbed because he couldn’t judge landings properly.

Remustered as an observer, Allan was sent to Cootamundra in NSW. Flying in Ansons with two trainees and a staff pilot, they would “stooge around,” navigating to various places and drawing a quick sketch of the townships to prove they’d got there. “You had to be pretty quick,” he said

Further training took place at West Sale, where they did bombing training in Oxfords and gunnery in Fairey Battles. “After the exercise was over,” he said of the gunnery sorties, “the staff pilots would do a few aerobatics… well, I’m afraid I didn’t enjoy that!”

Accidents were common in training. Allan remembered one trainee who needed to bail out of his Anson when it got into trouble. “But he forgot to do up the straps between his legs, fell out of his harness and was killed.”

Like many Australians, Allan enjoyed the hospitality of local families while he was in transit through America. On arrival in the UK, it immediately became clear that they were now in a war zone. “The place was absolutely over-run with troops,” he remembered of Brighton, his first stop. “There was food rationing, the roads were chockers with tanks and that sort of thing, there were a lot of women in uniform… every day a formation of Fortresses or Liberators would be coming back and other aircraft would be coming and going all the time.”

At this point, Allan was a fully-trained Observer. But in June 1942 Bomber Command had split that category of aircrew into two specialist roles: those of the bomb aimer and the navigator. And up to this stage in his training, Allan could have been either. Many chose their preference for themselves – but for Allan, the decision was made for him. At the Operational Training Unit in Westcott, the Navigation Leader said to Allan and a group of other Observers, “You shouldn’t have an O on your brevet, you should be wearing a B.” And so Allan became a bomb aimer.

Eventually Allan was posted to 75 (NZ) Squadron at Mepal – the only Australian there. “My crew were allocated a hut,” he remembered, “we went out on a few training exercises to start with – and then we went on our first trip.”

In the first days of autumn in 1944, the German forces in Holland were in retreat but still holding out in places. A major airborne operation to force a resolution, code-named Market Garden, was just weeks away. In this context, the German-held Gilze-Rijen airfield, just outside of Eindhoven, was attacked by a large force of bombers in daylight on 3 September. It was Allan Couper’s baptism of fire, and it didn’t start well. “About a minute and a half after we started on track, the navigator announced that we were doing the reciprocal of what we should have been doing…. That meant that we were four or five minutes late.”

By the time they got over enemy territory, Allan and his crew were now so late that they appeared to be the only aeroplane in the sky – a scary prospect for a crew on their first operation. They were engaged by anti-aircraft fire but escaped and, alone over their target, dropped their bombs into the smoke clouds below. They returned safely to Mepal, to much relief all round. “It was said,” Allan told me, “that if you managed to survive the first three trips you had a fair chance of surviving a tour… that [first trip] was a fair illustration of what those first three trips were all about.”

Happily for Allan and his crew, they learnt from that early experience and managed to complete 32 operations in all. It was not exactly uneventful – on one occasion they lost an engine on take-off, with a full bomb load, but carried on to successfully bomb the target regardless. On another trip an engine failed at low level over the sea on the way out to bomb the dykes at Wangerooge. “Of course, that wasn’t the best…”, Allan said thoughtfully. And on another flight the pilot needed to go and use the Elsan, so Allan’s very limited flying experience was called upon. “We were in formation,” he said, “and in cloud… that was an experience, for everybody!”

On completing his tour, Allan was posted to a unit which was engaged in checking navigation installations at airfields all around the UK. Each day they would fly out to another aerodrome and spend the day checking the accuracy of the beam approach system. The next day they’d go to another airfield. Allan enjoyed the camaraderie at this unit: “The people at this station were all very experienced crews who had been all over the world – they’d done everything.”

And then the war ended, and Allan came home – straight back into his old job at the State Electricity Commission. He would stay with that organisation, in progressively more senior roles, for the rest of his working life.

“None of us knew what we were getting ourselves in for,” he said, reflecting on his service at the end of the interview. “[Bomber Command] was a marvellous, well-organised organisation that achieved great things against great odds… it was a very big contribution that kinda got lost in the upset after the war.”

I looked back as I walked out of the hospital room. There was Allan, eyes closed, lost in his memories.

© 2017 Adam Purcell

Behind the Wire – Photographic Exhibition at the Shrine

I went down to the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne recently to see their current exhibition, a photographic project by Australian documentary photographer Susan Gordon-Brown called Behind the Wire. It is a collection of some 50 portraits of Australian veterans of the Vietnam War, presented together with a short blurb from interviews completed with each veteran over a three-year period. There are cooks, dentists, drivers, gunners, infantrymen, pilots and civilian nurses, among other trades, in the collection.

Some of the portraits are beautiful. They’re not particularly flashy, taken with natural light in most cases, but it’s in part their simplicity that appeals. It’s clear to see that these faces have seen some terrible things – and, sadly, in one way or another, these people are all still coping with their experiences many decades later.

Indeed, part of why I wanted to see the exhibition was because of the parallels with my own post-interview photos of Bomber Command veterans. At the local Keilor East ceremony a week before Anzac Day in April I met a Vietnam veteran named Bill, a local man who was there with his grand-daughter. And that made me realise that there are parallels between the men of Bomber Command and the men who served in Vietnam. Both fought in campaigns that have become controversial. Once they came home, there was no official support – no counselling, no recognition. And both sets of veterans have only started talking about their experiences in much later years.

I spent a couple of hours soaking the whole exhibition in. Highly recommended.

The exhibition is on at the Shrine until 23 October at the Shrine of Remembrance, Melbourne. Further information can be found on the Behind the Wire website

Incidentally, wandering around the grounds outside the Shrine I finally discovered that there is, in fact, a plaque dedicated to 467 and 463 Squadrons. It’s on the southern edge, in what I’d call prime position – under the first tree on the right when you’re looking down from the Shrine’s southern steps. It’s a simple memorial, but it’s nice to have found a focal point for remembering the two Squadrons in Melbourne.

1609-shrine-003

1609-shrine-001

(c) 2016 Adam Purcell

IBCC Interview #9: Denis Kelly – 467 Squadron Wireless Operator and Evader

denis-kelly-copy

“I thought, I’m done, I can’t get out of this ditch, I’m gunna die here. And that was frightening.”

When I rang 467 Squadron wireless operator Denis Kelly to arrange an interview for the International Bomber Command Centre’s Digital Archive, he told me that he’d almost completed his tour of operations when he was shot down over France in July 1944. I was excited when I hung up the phone: no doubt this would be a good story for me to capture for the Archive.

But when I set up my microphones in his little retirement unit in Melbourne’s far south-east on one warm December morning, what he told me was more than just a good story. It turned out, without exception and without exaggeration, to be the most astonishing tale I have ever had the privilege of hearing first-hand.

And it goes something like this.

Denis Kelly was already married with an infant son when he joined the Air Force at 19, wanting to be a fighter pilot. A lack of depth perception discovered at Initial Training School in Victor Harbour saw him chosen instead for wireless training, which he completed at Ballarat. He sailed to war via the USA (including an unauthorised couple of days in New York), did some more flying at Llandwrog in north-west Wales and crewed up at RAF Lichfield with an Australian pilot named Tom Davis.

Posted to 467 Squadron at Waddington, Denis and his crew began flying operations in late April 1944. They were on many of the same trips as the crew of B for Baker, including Mailly-le-Camp on 3 May (though not the fateful Lille raid a week later). Life on operations was a continual strain, broken only by wild parties in the Mess or short periods of leave. Denis was convinced that with each trip, his supply of luck was steadily being used up. “Every op you completed brought you one closer to the one that would get you.”

On 18 July 1944 the crew attacked Revigny, in France. Close to the end of their tour, this one would indeed turn out to be the one that got them. “We had dropped our bombs,” Denis recalled, “and we’d just turned round and [were] making for home and then BANG, we were hit.” His radios exploded as the aircraft started to burn. The pilot yelled to bale out. Denis immediately clipped on his parachute and went down to the door at the back of the aircraft, pulling on the mid-upper gunner’s legs as he went past to signal that he was about to go. He opened the doors to the rear turret to help the 19-year-old gunner inside to escape, to be confronted by a shocking sight.

“His head was… well, he was dead.”

Denis’ parachute pack and battledress was beginning to smoulder by this time, and the pilot was still yelling to get out.

“So I went to step out – and then I remembered, never step out of a Lanc, you gotta dive.”

Denis dived.

“Next thing I know, I was falling, I was smoking, so I pulled the ripcord at the exact second I hit the ground.”

The impact caused him severe injuries: he later discovered that it had compacted his legs and spine so much that he was a full three inches shorter afterwards. “I thought I broke my spine,” he said. More immediately, his legs simply refused to work.

Denis dragged himself painfully over to a nearby tree. “I thought, ‘my wife’s not going to know I’m here, she’ll think I’m dead. She’ll get the telegram, I can’t do anything about it…’”

Two other members of his crew had landed nearby, and all three held a council of war to decide what to do next. Unable to walk, Denis decided he would be a liability and convinced the others to go on without him. They left – and Denis began a courageous attempt to crawl his way across France. “It was marshy ground, fortunately,” he said.

For the next two days, Denis dragged himself laboriously along on his elbows, moving about “50 yards every three hours.” At one point he slithered into a canal and swam, until he came to a bridge that had German guards on it. In the water he beat a cautious retreat. Getting out of the canal was difficult without the use of his legs, but after several attempts he managed and continued on his slow, determined but excruciating way. He came to a road, started crawling across it – and mercifully passed out.

Evidently deciding he was safe enough, Denis’ mind simply shut his body down. “The Harley St people said it was mind over matter, [my] mind said ‘you’re safe there,’ so…” The next thing he knew, he was being prodded by the boot of a curious French civilian. Lying there, Denis croaked the only French he knew: “Je suis Anglais parachutist – soif.” – “I am an English parachutist – thirsty.” The Frenchman produced a full bottle of beer, and Denis gulped the lot. Then the Frenchman rolled Denis into the ditch at the side of the road – and left him there.

“I thought, I’m done, I can’t get out of this ditch, I’m gunna die here. And that was frightening.”

After Denis spent a terrible day in the ditch thinking the worst, that night the Frenchman returned. He brought with him two others, some spare civilian clothes and a bicycle. Dressing Denis in the clothes, they propped him up on the bicycle, legs hanging below, and took him just a little further downstream from where Denis had scrabbled out of the canal to the house of a lock-keeper named Victor.

Denis stayed here for several weeks while his immediate injuries healed and while he figured out how to walk again. At one point he was taken to see two other members of his crew, in another safe house nearby. This happened to be on Denis’ 21st birthday. Unbelievably, when Denis informed one of the Frenchmen of that fact he produced a bottle of Moet champagne, and all present enjoyed a glass.

After leaving Victor’s care, Denis was hidden, guarded by a gigantic and fierce dog, in the locked room of an unknown house, and later in the attic of a hospital. A little later Denis was picked up again, by a pair of Resistance fighters driving a car fuelled by a charcoal-burning contraption bolted to the back of it. They informed him that a British aeroplane was coming to pick him up that night, and that they were taking him to the landing ground. But on the way there, they saw an identical little car being towed by some German soldiers. The Frenchmen, recognising the car as belonging to one of their comrades, panicked. Clearly the operation had been compromised. The car stopped, the Frenchmen jumped out and urgently knocked on the door of the nearest house, and Denis was unceremoniously pushed inside. (Denis was later told that a British aircraft did indeed land to pick up a whole bunch of evaders, and that the Germans waited until it was loaded and had taken off before shooting it down in cold blood.)

Denis’ new host was not enamoured with the idea of involuntarily sheltering an Allied airman, and by the third day, despite not sharing a common language, he made it clear that he was not welcome. So Denis left.

He was now alone in occupied France.

For the next little while (he isn’t certain how long), Denis wandered between farmhouses scrounging for food. It was at one of these places that he met an American airman, a Thunderbolt pilot who he knew only as ‘Tex’ who had been shot down some nine months previously. They decided to join forces. For a while all was ok, but scrounging sufficient food for two was even harder than it had been when they were on their own. As they got hungrier they started to take more risks, and one day it all came unstuck.

They were in a café and the plan was for Tex to cause a distraction at the counter while Denis pinched a loaf of bread. Unfortunately, two German soldiers walked in at the exact moment that Tex began talking, in his broad Texan accent, to the girl behind the counter. The game was up. The two unfortunate airmen were handcuffed and taken away.

Interrogated half-heartedly by an elderly German soldier who reminded him of a nice old school teacher, Denis was informed that as they had been caught in civilian clothes it was being presumed that they were spies. They were to be taken to Berlin for further interrogation by the Gestapo. “I’d visions of my fingernails being pulled out,” Denis said with a shudder. Sure enough, the next night Denis and Tex were taken to the station, handcuffed together, and were on the point of being bundled onto the train when one of their two guards ducked around the corner to answer a call of nature.

“Tex looked at me,” Denis recalled. “He didn’t say anything but I knew he was going to [do something].” Denis watched wide-eyed as Tex kicked the remaining guard in the groin, stole his gun and shot him in the head. Predictably the other guard then stuck his head around the corner to see what the fuss was about, and Tex shot him too. And then, still handcuffed together, the two airmen ran. Amazingly they were not chased. They spent the next few nights in several barns until they managed to convince one of the farmers to remove their handcuffs with a cold chisel.

Despite their shared perils, however, Denis and Tex went their separate ways shortly afterwards. And here’s where Denis’ story gets truly bizarre. He was just outside a forest one day, foraging for food, when he heard some tanks approaching. So he high-tailed it into the forest and up a tree – then watched in horror as the tanks, which were German, stopped and proceeded to set up their own camp directly underneath his tree.

They stayed there for four days.

FOUR DAYS.

For all of that time, Denis remained in the tree, having used a piece of his parachute which he had been carrying to tie himself to the branch so he could sleep. He sucked the dew off the leaves to survive. The hardest part, he told me, was smelling the aromas when the troops were cooking their rations. The tanks eventually packed up camp and left – and not once had anyone looked up.

Denis crawled down from his tree, very stiff, very sore, very hungry and very thirsty. He had a drink from a nearby stream and, stumbling across a calf, hacked a piece of flesh out of the unfortunate beast’s side. Suddenly beset by terrible stomach cramps from the unaccustomed nutrition, he drifted into an uneasy sleep just outside the forest. He awoke the next night to the sound of a big aeroplane circling very low nearby.

It was a lone Shorts Stirling bomber, and it dropped something big on the end of a parachute. Denis watched as the parachute descended and was making his way over to investigate when suddenly he heard a deep, threatening and unmistakably British voice. “You German bastard,” it growled, “you stop where you are!” Denis turned around, very slowly, to find a mean-looking soldier levelling an equally mean-looking submachine gun in his direction.

“I’m not a German,” Denis squeaked. “I’m an Aussie!”

It turned out that he had blundered into a small platoon of SAS commandos, operating from a well-hidden base behind the lines. The Stirling had been dropping them a Jeep. Denis would stay with the commandos for several days. At one point while they were out on an operation he snuck into their camp, found their radio and tapped out a desperate message to England. “They never answered and I never knew if it had been received,” he told me, “but I found out later from my wife that the federal police came to her [at home] and told her that I was safe at that time, but still behind enemy lines.”

Some time afterwards the commandos handed Denis back to the Resistance who placed him in yet another safe house – where he found Tex and several of his own crew waiting. Knowing that the fighting front was getting closer, the French were collecting their fugitive airmen in one place to wait for liberation.

It was not long coming. “We heard guns,” Denis recalled, “and thought, that’s real firing. So we went up the road, and it was General Patton’s mob, so we waved them down.”

Once they had convinced the Americans that they were Allied airmen who had been in hiding, the Yanks invited them into their tanks, and Denis had the surreal experience of standing in the gun turret, being handed bottles of wine from the grateful inhabitants of several villages as they were liberated.

Denis was sent back to Paris and eventually flown back to England in early September 1944. He had been on the run behind enemy lines for nearly three months. He eventually returned to Australia and his family.

Perhaps unsurprisingly after his experiences, Denis is still coping with the effects of his war. He still occasionally suffers nightmares – “it’s horrifying how realistic it is” – and he said he’d told me things during the interview that he never told his wife (who died about fifteen years ago). It’s clearly hard for him to talk about. But a decade or so ago, his son sat him down and said, “look Dad, you’ve got grandchildren and great grandchildren now – you should leave your story.”

And so Denis wrote. Only ten copies of the resulting manuscript were ever printed. The book includes his whole story, from enlistment to demob and beyond, and it’s uncompromising in its detail. It’s in need of a good edit but its raw honesty, and the astonishing story it tells, makes it one of the more remarkable aircrew memoirs that I’ve read.

As well as setting the incredible tale onto paper, the act of writing the book, I suspect, helped Denis to in some way cope with the demons he’s carried for so long. But something else helped too. There’s a photo on Denis’ wall of him with his son at the Bomber Command memorial in London. It was taken in 2014 when they went on a pilgrimage to Europe.

As well as England, they went across the Channel to France. They visited the lock keeper’s house where Denis had been hidden. They attended receptions in town halls with ceremonies and local dignitaries. They even found a woman who, as a young girl, had been present at the impromptu party when Denis celebrated his 21st birthday behind enemy lines. But most important of all, they visited two lone war graves in two separate churchyards: those of rear gunner Sgt Col Allen and pilot P/O Tom Davis, the two members of Denis’ crew who did not survive the crash.

Standing next to the grave of his brave pilot, Denis broke down in tears. “I bless all of you for coming here today in memory of my comrade,” he told the gathering of local townsfolk. “But also a very important agenda on my plate today is to say thank you, thank you, thank you.”

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See a video of Denis’ trip to Europe on the ABC 7.30 website

© 2016 Adam Purcell

 

 

IBCC Interview #8: Arthur Atkins, 625 Squadron Lancaster Pilot

Arthur Atkins had a fascination with flight that started very early. He built and flew model planes. He was a member of the Cub Scouts. He was lucky enough to take his first flight aged 8 or 9, when two Cubs at a time squeezed in together in the open cockpit of an Avro Avian flying from the old Coote Island aerodrome just west of Melbourne. Arthur really wanted to be a pilot. But in the early 1930s, how on Earth could a lad from Surrey Hills in Melbourne ever afford flying lessons?

By winning them, of course. So Arthur entered a competition run by the Sun News Pictorial newspaper. The prize was enough flying tuition to get a pilot licence. “But I didn’t win!”

Maybe the Air Force would pay instead, he thought, and tried to enlist in his final year at school. But the inter-war Air Force was not very big, and there were lots of other people who also dreamed about becoming a pilot. 2,000 people applied for just 20 positions.

“So I didn’t get that one either.”

Putting his dreams aside for a moment, Arthur qualified and found work as an accountant.

And then the Second World War broke out, and he got his chance.

Two photos of Arthur Atkins as trainee aircrew copy

When I arrived at Arthur’s house for our interview, the gates were closed and I was initially not sure that I had found the right place. But any doubts were dispelled, after I’d parked the motorbike and walked up to the door, as soon as I saw the nameplate on the wall.

‘KELSTERN’

I’d seen that name before. RAF Kelstern, in the Lincolnshire Wolds, was the wartime home of 625 Squadron, Royal Air Force, with which Arthur had flown 31 operations. He earned a Distinguished Flying Cross in the process. I was definitely at the right house.

Arthur came out of the front door, a fit and distinguished-looking gentleman, and immediately wanted to talk about my bike. “Oof” he said, giving it a curious push. “It’s a bit heavier than mine was.” He was referring to a 350cc Calthorpe motorcycle that he used to hoon around on in the years immediately before the war.

Arthur Atkins and his 350cc Calthorpe motorcycle copy

This was my first clue that Arthur was quite a technical person. The next one followed soon after, as we walked into his old-fashioned study, with an Anglepoise lamp and one of those big green banker’s desk lights over the desk. As I set up my laptop among the model planes and boats and piles of motorbike and aviation magazines, I remarked on a big picture of a Wellington that was hanging among dozens of photos of cars, boats and aeroplanes on the walls. Arthur immediately launched into a highly detailed explanation of why sleeve valves in the Wellington’s engines made them so complex and therefore unreliable, especially as they got older. This set the tone for the next couple of hours.

Interviewing Arthur was easy. I kicked off with my standard opener about what he was doing before the war, and he was off. He used his meticulous logbook as a memory prompt. Moving through it, he would announce the name of a place or a unit (“then we went to Mallala”) and then he’d lean back, take off his reading glasses, and proceed to tell me a story about that place.

At the end of the story, the glasses went back on and he picked up the logbook to read the next place name. And off we went again.

Ansons over Mallala, early 1943 copy

A very rare air-to-air photo, taken by Arthur, of another Anson as he flew over Mallala

The stories he told were sometimes serious, sometimes funny and sometimes gory. But they were always interesting. He told me of his first solo at Benalla, and of the desert heat at Mallala. He told me about a weekend spent on leave in New York on his way to war. Of arriving at an Advanced Flying Unit at Greening Common in the UK and going for a walk onto the airfield with a few mates. They found a big black patch, about 50 or 60 feet across, the scene of an Oxford crash the night before. “They hadn’t scraped everything off the runway,” Arthur said of the ghastly scene. The next day he was chosen to be one of the pallbearers for the dead pilot. “We carried the coffin to the local train station,” he said, “where we shoved it into the guard’s van and said ‘goodbye sport’ – and that was it…”

He told me of landing a Wellington at his Operational Training Unit at Church Broughton on one engine, and of a Nickel leafletting raid on Chartres in France that was almost comedic. First, the bomb aimer pressed the wrong button over the target, so instead of opening to scatter leaflets in the slipstream, one of the two six-foot-long canisters in the bomb bay was jettisoned entirely. It disappeared from the aircraft with all the leaflets still tightly packed inside. Then, when they were approaching the French coast, someone in the crew said “there’s a searchlight on us!”

“Well, that of course rattled everyone… and after a while we found that the searchlight was following us!”

It was actually their own landing light, which when not in use was supposed to be retracted flush against the wing and pointing straight down, that had been mysteriously switched on.

“We were flying over German-occupied France with this bright light shining straight down…”

Of his time at Blyton, a Heavy Conversion Unit, Arthur told me how, rolling out after his first landing in command of a Halifax, he relaxed a tiny bit too early and the big bomber swung violently. They ended up on the grass facing the way they’d come. But the control tower frequency stayed silent. No-one had seen the grassy excursion. So Arthur innocently taxied back to his dispersal. “I never did it again – you couldn’t relax until the thing had stopped rolling at your parking spot!”

Most of his stories, though, come from the seven months that he was at 625 Squadron, Kelstern, from June 1944. Like the time they were coned over Mannheim, on the way to Russelsheim to attack the Opel works there. They got picked up by a blue “master” searchlight:

“I could hardly see the instruments because I was blinded… I remember thinking, ‘Geezus, I’ve done all this training and now I’m gunna be killed’… I pushed the stick forward and immediately lost the searchlight…”

(While he was telling me this he grabbed an imaginary control column and shoved it forward to illustrate. It might be decades since Arthur flew an aeroplane, but the instinct has never left him.)

Then there were a pair of low-level daylight operations on consecutive days over the Bay of Biscay to attack the Gironde Estuary in France. The first trip happened to be on Arthur’s birthday. “Beautiful day,” he recalled, “no wind, blue skies, not a cloud in the sky. A delightful day… so I got a nice birthday present, a nice trip to southern France, at 50 feet across the Bay of Biscay – and we dropped bombs on it.” He remembers roaring over an old horse and cart in the dunes on the way in to the target.

On the second one, they were all hurtling “hell for leather” over the water when Arthur’s rear gunner called up.

“Someone’s gone in!”

Two other Lancasters had collided. Arthur looked around in his seat, and:

“There’s this great splash of water still hanging in the air…”

One aircraft survived the collision. The second did not.

Another trip that stuck in Arthur’s mind was a night raid on Frankfurt in September 1944. “That was a good one,” he said. “I liked Frankfurt.” From 17,800 feet in the cockpit of his Lancaster, Arthur looked down on the great city. “It looked just like Melbourne would from the air at night, with the streets all lit up… but it wasn’t lights, it was the burning buildings on each side of the street.” Arthur lost a close friend on the same night, a Flight Lieutenant named Dave Browne who died attacking Stuttgart with 467 Squadron.

Dave Browne, Chieveley copy

418804 F/L David Dorey Browne

Incidentally, in the early 1990s Arthur went to Germany with a group of old bomber aircrew organised by the Royal Australian Air Force Association. Among the places they visited, in a bus driven by two German Air Force pilots, was Frankfurt. “They’ve got a big new wide boulevard through the centre,” Arthur said “Well they can thank me for putting that there – I removed a whole heap of scruffy old houses from a great strip in the middle of Frankfurt!” The bomber boys were subsequently guests of honour at a dinner held by the German Ex-Fighter Pilots Association, where the Germans perhaps got a little of their own back. “They had these long tables in the room, with the big pots of beer, and they were singing songs… stamping their feet and banging their pots on the table… I spoke to the bloke next to me (they speak a lot of English in Germany), and said “what are they singing now?”

It was the old battle song: “Wir fahren gegen Engeland!”

“I said, oh, that’s interesting!”

Arthur reckons he flew over about eight European countries in his Lancaster, including Sweden and Switzerland, Norway and Denmark. “I’ve been around in that Lancaster. It was a beautiful thing to fly.”

More than two hours had passed from the time Arthur first picked up his logbook to the time I asked my final question. How will Bomber Command be remembered, I wanted to know?

“I think it’ll be remembered by the people that were in it, alright,” he said. “It was the best job I ever had in my life.”

And he has left his own little piece of remembrance too. Several years ago Arthur sponsored a racing boat for his rowing club. As sponsor he was allowed to choose the name of the vessel.

After his much-missed good mate, he called it “David Browne”.

Arthur Atkins

Text (c) 2016 Adam Purcell

Wartime photos courtesy Arthur Atkins. Colour photo by Adam Purcell

IBCC Interview #7: Col Fraser, 460 Squadron Lancaster Navigator

Things didn’t get off to a promising start when I met Col Fraser. It was October last year, and I was fishing for IBCC interviewees at the Empire Air Training Scheme luncheon in Melbourne.

“I was”, Col said when I asked if he had been in Bomber Command. A navigator, in fact, with 460 Squadron. But he politely declined my request for an interview, saying “I gave most of my stuff to the people in Canberra a few years ago and I think I’ve told my story enough. Besides, I didn’t do much anyway.” Disappointed but respectful of his decision, I thanked him for his time and moved on to see who I could find at the next table.

But about fifteen minutes later, when I was talking to another veteran in another corner of the room, Col came lurching up to me out of the shadows. “Adam!” he announced. “I’ve changed my mind.”

“That’s great”, I said.

“Yeah, I got shot down on Anzac Day 1945 so I thought I should say something.”

I’ll say. Anzac Day, 1945. The day of Bomber Command’s final raids of the war. And the day of Bomber Command’s final losses. Col Fraser, as it turned out, was in the second last Lancaster to be lost during WWII. And one clear spring day a few weeks later, he told me about it.

25 April 1945 was, as Col remembers it, a lovely day:

“Beautiful blue sky, no clouds, green fields and lakes and rivers down below, and on the right was the majestic Alps with snow shining on their tops. Absolute picture-book.”

Under the command of Flying Officer HG ‘Lofty’ Payne, Col and his crew were off on a daylight trip to visit ‘Hitler’s hangout’ near Berchtesgaden in the Bavarian Alps.

On a mountain overlooking the town of Berchtesgaden were mountain retreats and chalets belonging to elite members of the Nazi Party like Herman Göring, Martin Bormann and Albert Speer. Hitler’s own alpine lodge known as the Berghof was also there, and an SS barracks was nearby. While it is now known that Hitler himself was in Berlin at the time of the raid, there were very real fears that fanatical Germans would set up a mountain redoubt for a bitter and bloody last stand centred around the Berghof. So more than 300 bombers were sent to destroy it.

Approaching the target, Col got up from his navigator’s position and moved into the cockpit to have a look at the view. The flak looked light to moderate; “no worries,” he said. Then the bomb aimer took over:

“He said, ‘left, left’ and then ‘bombs gone, bomb doors closed’ – and as he finished that word we were hit.”

Something flew up past Col’s face and out over the roof, and when he looked down there was a jagged hole in the bundle of Window which was stashed under his navigator’s desk. The decision to come out of his little ‘office’ saved his life, at least for the moment – but they were not safe yet. The “light to moderate” flak had scored a direct hit, and though none of the crew were injured three of the Lancaster’s engines were destroyed. The pilot told everyone to get out.

“But we can’t do that Lofty,” said the flight engineer, “we’re over Germany!” Nobody wanted to jump while they still had a chance of making it back to the Allied lines. But then that last engine also gave up the ghost. “We were gliding”, said Col, “and we had to go.” And so out Col went.

Col Fraser always wanted to be a navigator. He reckons he’s not very good with his hands but was skilled with figures and calculations. And while actually flying an aeroplane could be “deadly” boring, as a navigator he’d be working steadily all flight. He got his wish, was selected for navigator training and earned his N brevet in Australia in February 1944. Then he went to war.

Like so many Australians Col crewed up at 27 Operational Training Unit, Lichfield. He’d run into a mate named Dan Lynch, a Tasmanian bomb aimer with whom he had been training in Australia, and they decided to fly together. “We discussed having a pilot and decided we wanted one who was big and strong, and he had to be mature – about 23 or 24 years old!” The man they chose was West Australian Harry ‘Lofty’ Payne, so-called because he was 6’3 tall. The wireless operator Bill Stanley was from Melbourne and both gunners, ‘Shorty’ Connochie and ‘Buck’ Bennett, were Sydney lads.Col Fraser and crew

After their very first flight in a Wellington, the instructor got out and told ‘Lofty’ to take it up for three more circuits. “Well we took off and landed twice,” Col recalled, “and the third time as we reached height the port engine failed.” This, I’ve learned, was not an uncommon occurrence with the battered old Wellingtons then found on OTUs. And they were in a particularly old one: when Col operated the emergency landing gear extension system it also disabled the aircraft’s hydraulics, a quirk that had been engineered out of later versions of the aeroplane. So having struggled around the circuit, when the pilot tried to lower the flaps for landing nothing happened.

“He finished up banging the aircraft down halfway down the strip, and we ran through the fence, across a road, through the fence on the other side and a bush or two, and finished up in a ditch with the [aircraft’s] back broken and up in the air.”

They all managed to walk away virtually uninjured, and the following day they were flying again. This experience left Col confident that he had made a good choice: “We’ve got a bloody good pilot who didn’t panic!”

Col learned an important lesson on another night at OTU when the heating failed in his Wellington, forcing him to work with frozen hands. As a result his navigation log was not up to the usual standard, a judgement communicated to Col in no uncertain terms by the chief navigation instructor. Col protested that given the circumstances it wasn’t too bad. But the instructor disagreed:

“In Bomber Command there are no excuses.”

Col says this lesson stayed with him for the rest of the war.

Col enjoyed England. It was “comforting”, he said (and of course they spoke his language!). One of the great things about being an Australian airman in England was that “there were no Australian army troops to stuff it up… by and large the Australians over there were middle class and educated, and were very popular with the local girls…”, he added with a twinkle in his eye. On leave, he and a small group of friends would obtain railway warrants to either Lands End or John O’Groats, which are at the extreme opposite ends of Britain. This would enable them to get off the train, unplanned, anywhere they wished to explore.

Col flew his first operation in March 1945, attacking a place near Cologne called Brück. The flak was fairly heavy over the target, and Col gave me an impression of his bomb aimer’s reaction after his first run into a target: “Left left”, he said, “steady… steaaaady… bombs gone, bomb doors closed (and here his voice rose an octave)… LET’S GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE!!!”

“I must admit that the rest of the crew, including me, was feeling the same way that he was,” Col said. “This is no place to be, for us nice blokes!”

On the way home, over France, an ack-ack shell went straight through one wing, leaving a jagged hole but failing to explode. They returned home shaken but unharmed, feeling “a bit guilty at bringing back an aircraft with a hole in the wing… as if we’d been a bit careless about the whole thing!”

Over the next few weeks Col and his crew would fly another five operations, during which they would be coned over Potsdam and recalled while over the target but before they could drop their bombs on a trip to Bremen, necessitating a hazardous landing back at base with a full load on board. And then came Berchtesgaden – Col’s seventh trip.

After parachuting from his aircraft Col landed on a field near a couple of houses. He unbuckled his harness and left it there, attempting to hightail it into a nearby clump of trees. But the occupants of the houses had watched him come down, and pointed him out to the Volksturm. Col was arrested and taken to an Army camp, and over the next few hours the rest of the crew trickled in (except for the bomb aimer who – the first one out of the aircraft – landed in the foothills of the Alps and was captured by mountain troops).

The most amazing story, however, belongs to ‘Lofty’ Payne. After everyone else had jumped, Payne was about to leave the cockpit himself when the rear gunner appeared behind the pilot, carrying his open parachute. He had caught the ripcord on something as he came forward, and the parachute was now useless. Deciding he couldn’t leave the gunner to his fate, ‘Lofty’ made the risky decision to try to land his crippled aircraft. Fuel was sloshing over the floor as they glided down towards a cornfield. A powerline clipped the top off the rudders but they managed to crash in a more or less controlled fashion, exited smartly and ran, expecting an explosion at any moment. None came – it seems the ploughed earth had put out the flames. They were arrested shortly afterwards.

Col and his crew were taken to Stalag VIIa at Moosburg, where after perhaps the shortest time as Prisoners of War ever, on 29 April 1945 elements of the American 14th Division arrived and liberated the camp. General Patton himself arrived on the front of a truck on 1 May, where with a hundred photographers and correspondents surrounding him he promised that all the prisoners would be back in England in two or three days. In the end it took closer to a week (Col was in the camp under the Americans for longer than he was under the Germans), but eventually they were transported to the great airfield at Juvencourt to be flown home in a DC-3. Col sat up the front with the pilot – a New Zealander with whom he had trained at an Advanced Flying Unit in the UK six months before. “All the debris of war was still spread out across the countryside,” he said. “You could see what war had done…”

Col was one of the more organised of the veterans I’ve interviewed. When I’d turned on the microphones in a small sitting room in the great big old nursing home where he lives, he pulled out a thick sheaf of papers – and began reading from a prepared speech. I suppose he wanted to make sure he didn’t forget anything. It worked, because he told his remarkable story in detail and in an entertaining way.

But as happens in these sort of interviews, it’s the unscripted answers that are sometimes more revealing. “The thing that hurt most of all,” Col said when I asked him about the legacy of Bomber Command, “was Churchill deserting Bomber Command.”

“…not one word, one way or the other, was [mentioned] in Churchill’s speech of the Victory over Germany. That hurt most of all… When the war was close to finishing, all of a sudden all the … bishops were saying ‘oh we shouldn’t have bombed… bombing’s not supposed to be that, it’s only supposed to be drop a little bit in their garden or something – look at all the houses you’ve knocked down!’”

“The point is that it should always be remembered,” Col said.

And who can disagree with that?

1511 Col Fraser 08

Col Fraser

 

(c) 2016 Adam Purcell

IBCC Interview #6: Laurie Larmer, 51 Squadron Halifax Pilot

Laurie Larmer grew up in Moonee Ponds in Melbourne’s north. His family owned pubs in Melbourne and Ballarat, where he was living when war was declared on 3 September 1939. Laurie was not quite 16 at the time. “Like most people I thought or hoped that the war wouldn’t last long,” he told me. “We were so far away and it all seemed a bit remote as far as we were concerned.”

The war came a little closer to Laurie, though, when he turned 18 and received call-up papers for the Army. “I didn’t want to go into the Army”, he said. “They seemed to walk everywhere and the hand to hand fighting didn’t sort of attract me.” The only way to avoid Army service was to volunteer for the Navy or Air Force. So Laurie enlisted as aircrew.

“A lot of it seemed a waste of time”, he said of his time at Initial Training School at Somers. “We weren’t near an aircraft, they didn’t talk about aircraft, they talked about Morse code and that was terribly important… I just couldn’t get the dots from the dashes!” But somehow he must have done alright. “I’ve never been able to understand it,” he said:

…after two months at Somers they came out one day and said ‘the following will train as pilots’, and they read out a list of names. ‘The following will train as navigators’, and they read out a list of names. The following, wireless operators, and the balance were gunners. How they picked us, I don’t know.”

Laurie’s name was among the first list read out. He was going to be a pilot.

Laurie was very well prepared for his International Bomber Command Centre interview. When I walked into his house, arranged on the kitchen table were three boxes packed full of papers, photos and documents. All just sitting there, waiting for us to get stuck in.

But the first thing Laurie did was usher me into his office, where the computer was cued up with a segment that had aired on current affairs programme Today Tonight Adelaide just the week before, after Laurie recently wrote letters to the German cities he attacked during the war. “They were filming here for three hours”, he told me. And that explained his preparations: everything had already come out for the television crew a few weeks previously. As the interview went along, Laurie would occasionally pause to pull something or other of interest from one of the boxes and show me.

1511 Laurie Larmer-010

Itching to get into an aeroplane, the young Laurie was not impressed when those selected as pilots and navigators were told they would spend an additional month at Somers for extra instruction in navigation and meteorology. And even when they got to Benalla for elementary flying training, there was no flying straight away. They spent the first month as “tarmac terriers’, hand-starting the Tiger Moths for the senior courses and hanging off the wings to steady the fragile aircraft against the strong winds.

But then, finally, there they were – learning to fly. Eventually, one day Laurie flew with an instructor to the satellite aerodrome at Winton. After a couple of circuits, the instructor got out. “I thought, goodness gracious me, here I am on me own, y’know, I was about to go solo!” Laurie said.

I wasn’t nervous, it was just the excitement of it, y’know… I did three circuits and landings and went and picked him up and he said, that was good, you’re right, son… and he put me out of the aircraft and he took another student, and that was that.”

Laurie went to Canada for his Service Flying Training, on Cessna Cranes at Dauphin in Manitoba. He was allocated an Australian instructor called Sergeant Lawler who was a “most unfriendly fella, but I was coping with him.” But then one morning Laurie got up to discover that Lawler and another trainee had been killed the night before in a training accident. “Coulda been me…” Laurie said soberly. “That was the first experience I’d had with anybody dying – I was nineteen years of age and you’re not used to it. They gave them a full military funeral… and then I got a Canadian instructor.”

After receiving his wings Laurie travelled to the UK on the Aquitania with a large group of soldiers from the American mid-west on board. “Not only had they not been on a ship, they’d never even seen the ocean… they were sick all over the place. Oh it was awful!” They disembarked at Liverpool, to the relief of all, and after a short period at an Advanced Flying Unit at a place called Fairoaks Laurie was posted for operational training at 27 OTU, Lichfield.

OTU, of course, was where the crewing up process – that peculiarity of life in Bomber Command – took place. For Laurie it happened in almost the traditional manner. Equal numbers of each trade assembled in a large room, and all the pilots were told they had to pick a crew. But before he could embark on any ‘picking’ himself, Laurie was approached by a bomb aimer named Bill Hudson, a used car salesman from Sydney in peacetime life. It turned out that Bill had some of the personality traits common among that profession. “He had all the front in the world,” Laurie told me.

In that hangar at Lichfield, Bill gave Laurie no choice in the matter. “You don’t look like a bad sort of a bloke”, he said. “Stay here, I’ll get you a navigator.” Bill went off, returning with a navigator. “Wait there,” he said next, “I’ll get you a couple of gunners.” And he did. “Hang on,” said Laurie, “I’m supposed to be picking the crew!” “Don’t worry about it, Skipper,” said Bill as he set off to find a wireless operator, “I’ve done it for you!”

So here we were, we had a crew, and I’d had nothing to do with picking it! But it turned out they were good blokes, we all got on very well together.”

The crew got to know each other while flying Wellingtons – “big, heavy, lumbering aircraft, they really were” – and then went on to Halifaxes at 1658 Conversion Unit, Riccall. From there Laurie and his crew were posted to their first operational station to join 51 Squadron at Snaith.

51 Squadron 1945

51 Squadron 1945

Their reception was somewhat underwhelming. The Flight Commander, a Squadron Leader Lodge, met Laurie in his office, told him that there was “nothing doing” that day, and said that if Laurie’s crew was wanted for operations his name would appear on a list in the Officers’ Mess at 5 o’clock each evening. After an air test in a Halifax and a cross-country flight, two days after arrival the battle order went up.

The following crews will report to the briefing room at 0600 hours tomorrow morning… and my name was on it. And that was it – we were then ready for our first operation.”

Having spent so long in training, for aircrew the first operation could arguably be the most significant moment in their Air Force careers so far. Laurie was taken aback by the complete lack of ceremony or even recognition accompanying it. “Nobody took any notice of you, we were just another crew there – nobody sorta put their arm on your shoulder saying ‘you’ll be right, son’ – you were briefed, you had a meal and boom, off you go.”

The first trip was a daylight, to Dortmund. A second daylight trip followed, to Wuppertal the next day, and then Laurie was sent to Homburg at night as a second dickie. Another new pilot – who had come to Snaith on the same truck as Laurie and his crew – went on the same trip with another crew. Laurie’s aircraft got back alright and was taxying around to their dispersal when the aircraft with the new pilot on board arrived in the circuit. They got a bit high on their approach and Laurie heard them calling the control tower:

V-Victor, overshoot!”

On a normal approach the bomb aimer would be sitting next to the pilot, assisting with things like lowering the landing gear or holding the throttles open if an overshoot was required. The seat he would normally be sitting in was occupied on this occasion by the second dickie pilot – who apparently did not know about the assistance normally provided by the bomb aimer. The throttles fell back on the attempted go-around and the aircraft stalled and crashed, killing all eight on board. Nothing was mentioned about the accident at debriefing.

The next day about lunch time I said to somebody, ‘what are the funeral arrangements?’ He said, ‘what? There’s no funerals. There’s a war on, son.’”

I asked Laurie if there were any superstitions or lucky charms that he knew about on 51 Squadron. There was, he said. A tour of operations, of course, lasted 30 flights, and it was considered bad luck to ask someone if they were on their last trip. “I said it to one bloke and he bloody near hit me.” He also showed me this:

It’s his original Royal Australian Air Force pilots’ wings, with a tiny pin attached that is shaped like a glass of Guinness. There’s a story there, I suggested. Indeed, there was. He once spent a leave in Dublin, a sports coat provided by the RAF paired with his uniform trousers and an open-necked shirt approximating the civilian clothing required because of the South’s official neutral status. On a visit to the Guinness brewery a man gave him the badge and told him to “wear it for luck.” And so Laurie did, on his battledress, for all of his operations.

After his second dickie trip, Laurie and his crew completed five further operations before the war in Europe came to an end. Towards the end of May 1945 Laurie was posted to 466 Squadron at Driffield, where his logbook records such tasks as “bomb dropping at sea” and “European cross country.” The latter included flying over places he had bombed such as Dortmund, Heligoland and Wangerooge.

51 Squadron 1945

Laurie’s “Captain of Aircraft Map” for the Wangerooge operation

And perhaps it’s the memory of what he saw on those so-called “Cook’s Tour” flights that troubled Laurie for the next seven decades. In early 2015 he decided to do something about it. Laurie sat down and wrote letters of condolence to the people of each of the places he flew to on operations. “I cannot recall the military reason for the raid and I make no apologies for it,” each letter says. “But I deeply and truly regret that we were responsible for the deaths and injuries of so many innocent civilians… I want to take this opportunity to express my sincere sympathy to your people.”

The letters were sent, via the German Ambassador to Australia, Dr Christoph Mueller, to the Mayors of each city just before Anzac Day 2015. Laurie received five replies, all of which are extraordinarily gracious. There was this, for example, from the Lord Mayor of Dortmund, which was the target on Laurie’s first operation on 12 March 1945: “After the war we were given the opportunity to rebuild our city within a free and democratic country, which could not have happened if the Allied Forces had not defeated us. So your mission with the Bomber Command of the RAF served a good purpose even though it was unfortunately connected with civilian casualties.”

Hagen, attacked on 15 March 1945, was Laurie’s first trip after his second dickie flight. Its Lord Mayor wrote that “I consider your letter as a reminder to us and future generations to do whatever is possible in order to preserve peace.”

And the Mayor of Wangerooge, attacked on Laurie’s final operation, 25 April 1945, wrote that “Your letter made us comprehend that you… [have] been affected by the circumstances even after all these years… you still think about the evil you and your comrades brought upon this island. This raises hope that war must not happen again at any time.”

While dealing with tragic circumstances, Laurie’s letters and the replies they elicited are at heart an uplifting story. It’s this tale which was picked up by Today Tonight, among a number of other media outlets, and it is a wonderful example of the reconciliation that has taken place since the war.

As usual, after the interview finished I asked Laurie if he would allow me to take a photograph of him for the Archive. So we went into his small courtyard:

“It’s a lot of work you’re doing,” Laurie said as I packed up my light stand. “What are you getting out of this?”

“I get to talk to people like you,” I replied. “And that’s a lot more valuable than you might realise.”

Words and colour photograph © 2016 Adam Purcell. Wartime images courtesy Laurie Larmer.

View the Today Tonight video here.