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.

IBCC Interview #5: Joe Shuttleworth, 50 Squadron Rear Gunner

You had to be lucky to survive a tour in Bomber Command at any time during WWII. But you had to be really lucky to survive a tour if you were operating in the winter of 1943-44, when the Battle of Berlin was at its height and the RAF were losing upwards of 30 or 40 aircraft a night.

A 21-year-old Australian named Joe Shuttleworth got lucky while heading to Berlin in the rear turret of a 50 Squadron Lancaster on 15 February 1944. It’s fair to say it would not have felt much like a stroke of luck at the time. “There was a flash about 11 o’clock high,” he told me when I interviewed him for the International Bomber Command Centre’s Digital Archive late last year. “I felt immediate pain…”

That was some time off, however, when a very young Joe Shuttleworth saw Bert Hinkler land at Brisbane’s Eagle Farm racecourse in 1930. Like many of his generation, that inspired an interest in flying so it was only natural that he would join the Royal Australian Air Force when war broke out. Unfortunately Joe had a deficiency in one eye which precluded him from becoming a pilot, but he was accepted as a Wireless Air Gunner and after training and receiving his gunner’s brevet in Australia he embarked for war.

Joe Shuttleworth in Brisbane pre-embarkation

Joe travelled across the Pacific Ocean, then across the US by train. He was very impressed with the trip. The scenery on the way was very nice, and he had “the biggest icecream of my life” in Salt Lake City. England was pretty alright too. “Lovely country”, he said.

“Lots of beautiful girls, lots of warm beer – it was pretty hard to get cold beer in those days – but the countryside was absolutely beautiful.”

Joe completed further training at 29 Operational Training Unit at Bruntingthorpe, where he survived a crash in a Wellington after a tyre burst on take-off. But something else happened while he was at Bruntingthorpe: something with far further-reaching consequences for Joe’s life.

Nearby the airfield was the village of Lutterworth. Having been to a party in the village one night, Joe was walking around the town when two girls came up. One of them asked if Joe had any change. He was able to oblige her, but it was the other girl, named Freda, who caught Joe’s eye.

“Of late I have been going out on a few occasions with a Lands Army girl (and very nice too I may mention)”, he subsequently wrote home in July 1943. “And here’s another tip, don’t jump to all kinds of conclusions!”

I know this because Joe let me borrow, to scan for the Archive, a wonderful collection of letters from his time overseas. There’s more than 40 all up, and in letters from the second half of 1943 there are plenty of mentions of “my little Lands Army girl friend.” So any conclusions to which his family may have jumped actually turned out to be correct: Joe and Freda became engaged during a leave in November and, on 30 December 1943, they married. I asked Joe what a wartime wedding was like. “We toasted with a bottle of Australian wine”, he said. “How it happened to be there I’m not quite sure, but it was there!”

Portrait Front copy

Joe and his crew were posted to Skellingthorpe on 15 January 1944. Over the next month the 50 Squadron Operational Record Book records Joe’s name against five operational flights. All five of them were against the same target.


“We’d be sending out about 750 aircraft [a night”, he said. “We’d generally lose about 50. So on a tour of 30, statistically it’s impossible to get through.” For Joe and his crew, though, things went relatively smoothly. After each raid they landed successfully at Skellingthorpe, feeling very relieved and thinking, “there’s another one towards the 30.” Everything went smoothly, that is, until that fateful night in February 1944 when Joe met his Waterloo.

The flash he saw in his turret on the way to Berlin was, Joe now thinks, the result of an attack by a nightfighter equipped with the as-yet-unsuspected upwards-firing Schrage Musik cannon. His turret was wrecked and he was badly wounded. “I think one of the crew dragged me out of the turret”, he told me, though there is a letter in the collection that suggests he actually insisted that he remained in the turret until they returned to Skellingthorpe. He did not lose consciousness until he arrived at the RAF hospital at Rauceby.

So what were Joe’s injuries? At this point, I’ll quote from what is probably the most poignant letter amongst the collection, written by Joe’s new wife Freda to his cousin Keith, who was serving in the Royal Australian Navy in London at the time. Understandably, Freda beats around the bush for a page and a half first.

Excuse me Keith for going all round to get to the point, but you see, I just can’t put into words the thing that is so hard to grasp. I hope it won’t give you too much of a shock Keith – he has had his right eye out and has also fractured his right arm.”

Joe was the only man on his crew to be injured in the attack, and his turret was the only part of the Lancaster to be damaged. This probably felt like some rather bad luck at the time. But as it turned out, the eye that Joe lost was the bodgy one that had precluded him from pilot training. And with Keith’s support Freda remained relatively upbeat. Even though the surviving letters tell a tale of grief and uncertainty they also reveal a determination to keep positive about the future. As Freda wrote at one point, “From all the horror of this, I have one great consolation, this is, he will not be flying again.”

She was right. Once he had left hospital, Joe spent some months working in the office at RAAF Headquarters in Kodak House, London, before he came home via the United States towards the end of 1944. Freda followed him to Australia a year later.

As we approached the end of the interview I asked Joe what he thought about his time in Bomber Command. “Great experience,” he said without hesitation. “Great experience. I had a world trip… I saw places I’ve never been back to.” Indeed, since he returned from the war he has not once left Australia.

After Joe was removed from operational flying, the rest of his crew carried on. On 3 May 1944, they were in one of 42 aircraft that failed to return from the disastrous attack on the German Panzer depot at Mailly-le-Camp[1].

“I was one of the lucky ones,” Joe said, very quietly.

50 Squadron rear gunner Joe Shuttleworth at home in Melbourne
Joe Shuttleworth following the interview

Text and colour photograph © 2016 Adam Purcell. Wartime images used courtesy Joe Shuttleworth





[1] Thanks to Mike Connock of the 50 Squadron Association for copies of the Squadron’s Operational Record Books

IBCC Interview #4: Don McDonald, 578 and 466 Squadron Halifax pilot

I first met 578 and 466 Squadron Halifax skipper Don McDonald when he emerged from the shadows of the mighty Lancaster G for George on the Saturday evening of the Bomber Command Commemorative Weekend in Canberra in June 2012. When he discovered I had recently moved to Melbourne, he and his wife Ailsa promptly invited my partner and I to their house for dinner if we ever felt like what he called “grandparent time”. We took them up on their invitation and spent several riotous evenings with them over the next couple of years.

And while I know Don because he is a veteran, in all the times I’ve spoken to him we’d never really gone into much detail about his Bomber Command experiences. Until, that is, he recently became my fourth interview subject for the International Bomber Command Centre’s Digital Archive – and the first who I already knew before turning up with my laptop and a couple of microphones.

I knew Don can talk. But I wasn’t expecting that our interview would go for quite as long as it did!

Money was tight growing up in Koo-Wee-Rup in country Victoria, so Don left school aged 14 to work in the local general store. Shortly afterwards, having won a job in the Public Service, he moved to Melbourne to live with an aunt. “By the time I’d paid fares plus board and lodging there was no money left for anything else”, he said. A mate, equally short on funds, suggested that they apply to join the part-time Militia, specifically the 4th Division Signals.

One night on parade earned each of them five shillings every week, which in 1937 was a pretty good deal. And so Don enlisted in the military. “There was no war, there was no ‘your country needs you’, no call on loyalty, no drums banging, and cymbals playing to get you to enlist,” he said of his recruitment. “It was pure economic necessity.”

Unfortunately Don was, in his words, “a terrible soldier… I didn’t think much of the Army and I didn’t give the Army any reason to think much of me.” When war broke out in September 1939, Don’s one-night-a-week became a full-time training camp at Mount Martha. The encampment was so new it was still being built, and the WWI-era tents in which Don and his mates lived leaked. This was no way to fight a war.

So, like so many others, Don applied for aircrew. Having left school so early the initial study – at 1 Initial Training School, Somers – was challenging. But with the help of his classmates, he got through it all and was selected for pilot training, on the venerable Tiger Moth at Western Junction (what is now Launceston Airport in Tasmania). The little yellow biplane was “said to be unprangable”, Don reckoned…. except that he managed to prang one, approaching the airfield too low on his second solo and hitting a fence. On the subsequent ‘scrubbo’ test, Don did “probably the best landing of my career.”

Years later when I would try to relate this story about the perfect touch-down to my crew on a squadron, they would all laugh like hell because they couldn’t believe I could ever have done a decent landing.”

I got the distinct impression that Don has told many of these stories before. His delivery was clear and logical and he peppered his memories with sometimes hilarious asides (“To me, life in the Air Force is very much like life in marriage”, he said at one point. “Best you do what you’re told, most times, the quicker the better.”).

Completing his flying training to wings standard at Point Cook, Don stayed at the Melbourne Showgrounds for several weeks before boarding a ship to war. At this point, their destination was unknown. After a quick stop in New Zealand (where they were not allowed to leave the ship) they went in a generally north-easterly direction.

…After a certain time we realised, no, we’re not going around the Cape, we’re too far north… it was guesswork, where the heck are we going?”

And then, one bright, sunny Saturday morning, Don climbed up on deck to find the ship underneath the Golden Gate Bridge. No time for any leave, though. They were bundled straight on to a train which took them clear across the States. Billeted near Boston at Camp Myles Standish for a couple of week, Don and four mates realised that they were relatively close to New York. But they had been given no leave.

“Fancy being within a few hours of the Big Apple and not getting there,” they lamented. The temptation proved too great, so the five of them slipped under a fence and went AWL for a few days. Crucially, they bought return train tickets. Over the next four days they had a great time (“the Australian Air Force uniform stood out fairly well”, Don said with a knowing nod) and spent all their money. “The Australian pound didn’t go very far in New York at a sergeant’s pay!” Having no money left at all, the return tickets they’d so shrewdly bought on the way down allowed them to get back to camp where at 2am they slipped in undetected and collapsed into bed – to be awoken a couple of hours later and loaded onto a train to continue their journey.

The airmen sailed across the Atlantic on the Louis Pasteur, with some 14,000 troops, in five days. They disembarked in Liverpool and went to Brighton by train.

Next morning, Don suddenly realised “boy oh boy, this is a war zone.” It was a Sunday and the airmen had just come out of Church Parade, having been in England for less than 12 hours. All of a sudden “there was a clatter clatter clatter clatter… it was machine gun fire.” The guns were firing at a German ‘tip and run’ raider, which caused little damage but much disruption.

Apart from this initiation, the main thing that struck Don was how green it was in England. Having left Australia right in the middle of a harsh summer, they’d arrived in England in the northern spring. “The various shades of green on the trees [were] such a contrast to what we’d left back home.” That, and the food rationing. “Two ounces, per person, per week, of meat, two ounces of either butter or margarine per person per week, one egg per person per week, perhaps…”

He crewed up at OTU (“like picking numbers out of a hat, really”), and here, flying the pedestrian-at-best Armstrong Whitworth Whitley twin-engined bomber, Don was involved in a nasty incident when he was detailed for a cross-country flight on a night on which poor weather had already delayed take-off several times. Five aircraft were scheduled to go. Of these, one had engine trouble and didn’t take off. The second lost a crew member to illness and didn’t go either. The third crew got airborne but turned back with a faulty engine.

Don’s crew was the fourth. Not long after take-off he could hear something hitting the fuselage. It was ice being flung off the rotating propellers. Then the pitot head iced up, and the airspeed indicator failed. The aircraft was icing up badly and was even heavier on the controls than was the norm for a Whitley. They somehow managed to complete the navigation exercise and, on return to base, Don radioed to ask for assistance. He was told to land “high and fast”. He successfully did so, but much further down the runway than normal and going far too fast. Then the brakes started to overheat.

(As Don reached this part of the story he started squeezing an imaginary brake lever on an imaginary set of controls in front of him).

Screaming down the runway, suddenly he remembered… there was a newly-dug excavation at the end of the strip.

“…so I jammed on hard left rudder, going quite fast, and we went into a magnificent bloody groundloop and ultimately shuddered to a halt.”

The next day the crew drove out to the runway to have a look at their valiant steed. On the runway were some “bloody great slabs of rubber” which had been ripped out of the tyres in the groundloop. “But we were by no means the main topic of conversation that day.”

The fifth crew which had been detailed for the night cross-country had become so iced up in flight that the pilot had lost control. Three men got out – including the pilot – but the bomb aimer and rear gunner were killed when the aircraft crashed.

On completion of their Heavy Conversion Unit course the crew was posted to the Middle East. Before they went, though, they were given leave. Don started by visiting some aunts and cousins of his in Scotland before going on to London. “There won’t be much to spend my money on in the Middle East”, he thought, “so I may as well have a good time… there was no show I couldn’t afford to go to, there was no pub I couldn’t afford to drink at and I had an absolute ball… and a la New York, I was stone motherless broke [by the end].” He returned to his station to find that his crew had been re-posted to 578 Squadron at Burn instead of the Middle East, and were already there waiting for him. The signal recalling him from leave had failed to get through to him.

Don found the relaxed discipline on a squadron refreshing. No bulldust, no drill, you just had to do what was required of you: flying on operations. Don’s first was as a second dickie to Berlin, sitting on a little wooden seat dangling his feet “like a very small kid in a church pew.” Over France on the way back they were attacked by a nightfighter, which knocked out one engine. Don then got a demonstration of just how much a Halifax could be thrown around. Gus Stephens, the first pilot, threw the aircraft into such a steep and violent dive that the fuel intakes in the tanks were uncovered and the engines stopped.

There was almost like a deadly silence, just the air swishing around…”

At the bottom of the dive the fuel started flowing again and the engines came back with a roar and a terrible vibration. “I didn’t realise what punishment a Hally could take until that moment,” Don said. “I thought I’d done some pretty rough and tough stuff when we were doing fighter affiliation but nothing like this…”

Don’s tour proceeded mostly without incident, though he did mention that Karlsruhe and Essen were two particularly “hot” targets, and D-Day was very memorable. “All those watercraft,” he said, “God, it was an unbelievable sight.”

On completion of his tour, Don was posted to 21 OTU at Moreton-in-Marsh as an instructor on Wellingtons. This proved almost as dangerous as ops. The Wellington was a “lovely kite to fly”, but Don endured three single-engine landings in them in five weeks. The first two, he told me, were highly successful. But he was very lucky to walk away from the third one. He finished up in an ambulance but was released and decided, seeing as he’d been told his flying was done for the day, that a beer at lunch would be in order.

I was just about to have my first sip of it when the Medical Officer came up to me and said, ‘well I think you can put that down and you’d better come with me.’”

It turned out that Don shouldn’t have been released by the medical orderlies who had checked him out after the crash: he had concussion and spent the next few nights in the station sick quarters.

Some miserable sod got that pint of beer and drunk it and never owned up to me!”

“Looking back”, he reflected, “I think that possibly we were pretty much at the stage if eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you may die, and I think that did tend to take over…”

After his stint as an instructor ended, Don was posted to 466 Squadron for a second tour, but after just one trip the war ended and he came home to Australia.

At this point in the interview I think Don was the most thoughtful I’d seen him, as he told me that he took a year’s leave without pay from his old Public Service job to try and readjust to civilian life. He returned to the family farm in Koo-Wee-Rup and for the first three weeks, he would get up early to help with the milking, and then spend the rest of the day just sitting under a big pine tree.

“I’ve got no idea what I would have been thinking…”

Perhaps realising what Don was going through, the owner of the general store in which he had worked before he left home offered him his old job back, and Don jumped at the chance. “It meant I had to be meeting people, getting out amongst them,” he said. “I think that was a good move.” He would resign from the Public Service at the end of his year off without ever actually returning to work there before he went into business himself.

I asked Don my final question more than two hours after we had started the tape. What legacy did Bomber Command leave?

“The legacy of Bomber Command?” he said. “If they hadn’t done the things they were called upon to do, the ruddy war might still be going on!”

And that, I thought, was a very appropriate note to finish on.

Don McDonald was my interview subject #4 for the International Bomber Command Centre's Digital Archive, and the first of those I've interviewed so far who I already knew beforehand. In fact we are quite good friends, and Don and his wife Ailsa have entertained my partner Rachel and I for dinner on a number of occasions. We spent the afternoon visiting them today only this time I had the laptop and microphones handy... And boy oh boy can he talk! The interview recording goes for more than two hours, by far the longest of those I've collected so far. And there is never a dull moment in it.  Don's war followed much of the "standard" path for Australians in Bomber Command: he was in the Militia when war was declared, transferring to the Royal Australian Air Force a few months later. He completed his pilot training in Australia before going to the UK via the USA. He went through a further succession of training units before being posted to 578 Squadron on Halifaxes at RAF Burn, North Yorkshire, from which he completed his first tour of operations. After a stint as an instructor pilot at an Operational Training Unit he went to 466 Squadron, where he'd done one trip when the war in Europe ended. Don told me of some amazing experiences: crashing a Tiger Moth on his second solo, a close call in a Whitley, and seeing the invasion fleet below on the morning of D-Day. And then there was the lighter side of life: absconding from a transit camp in the USA to visit New York, serving Christmas lunch at RAF Moreton-in-Marsh in 1944 and a particularly memorable leave in London where he met the Queen at a theatre show, queue-jumped a group of American GIs at a hotel and ending up with the crystal glass he's holding in this photo, purloined from the famous Strand Palace hotel. Don finished the war with a Distinguished Flying Cross (he still has the invitation letter from the Investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace) and earlier this year was awarded a French Legion of Honour. He's als
Don McDonald with his recently-awarded Legion of Honour

(c) 2015 Adam Purcell

IBCC Interview #3: John McCredie, 99 Squadron Liberator pilot

This is the vital thing in war, to have good fortune. – John McCredie

John McCredie’s story started off in a reasonably familiar fashion. “My military career was a bit frustrated by having a mother whose brother had had his face shot away in World War One,” he said. “She didn’t want me to have anything to do with the military.”

Until John’s 18th birthday in August 1939, that is, when he took the liberty of enrolling in the Militia – specifically, the Melbourne University Rifles.

War broke out three weeks later.

The third of my interview subjects for the International Bomber Command Centre’s Digital Archive, John is a tall and distinguished-looking fellow who was wearing a natty neck scarf when I went to his home in very swish multi-storey retirement complex in Melbourne’s inner south-east. As we walked through the lobby I thought it looked less like an aged care facility and more like a rather exclusive hotel, except that all the guests I could see were over 80. We settled in his unit and he poured some pre-prepared coffee while I set up my recording equipment. And then he began telling me his remarkable story.

John didn’t last too long in the Militia, despite (or perhaps because of) at one point being offered a commission in the regular Army. “If you took a commission in the Commandos it tended to be considered a one-way ticket”, he explained. Besides, like many of his generation he was inspired by the stories of Kingsford-Smith, Bert Hinkler, Amy Johnson, the Centenary Air Race and then, of course, the Battle of Britain. So once the Army let him he transferred to the Air Force.

We all probably wanted to be fighter pilots but you had to show that aptitude and I don’t think I quite had it as a flyer, so I was put on twins.

John learnt to fly at Temora and Point Cook and was then sent to England. Flying an Oxford at an Advanced Flying Unit at South Cerney one night, that good fortune he spoke about played its part for the first time. “I had an instructor who saw the crash coming before I did,” he said.

… dived and we just missed a crash at night, in mid-air… that was a lesson in alertness.

At the Casablanca Conference in early 1943, Churchill and Roosevelt discussed, among other things, the question of supply and demand for aircrew. The Empire Air Training Scheme had been in existence for several years and was churning out trained aircrew faster than even Bomber Command could use them. Meanwhile the Americans had lots of aircraft in the Far East but not enough crews to fly them. So it was decided, John said, to send a number of Commonwealth aircrew to India. He long believed that he had been given no choice in the matter but only a few years ago discovered, on reading some of his old letters, that he had in fact volunteered to be one of them. He was posted to 15 Operational Training Unit at Harwell, a unit which had become focused on providing those crews for the Far East.

Flying from Harwell was the closest to Bomber Command that John got in his career. Here he carried out what he called “two little flights over France”, dropping leaflets. The first went more or less uneventfully, but on the second one the Wellington iced up and could not climb above 8,000 feet. Then his navigator, struggling a bit, took them over the defended town of Lisieux.

“I don’t know if as a small boy you ever ran along a picket fence with a stick making a noise?” John asked.

Well that’s exactly what it’s like listening to the flak hitting a canvas-covered aircraft.

They escaped with a couple of holes.

John’s good fortune again came to the fore during his time at Harwell. John having in his words given his Flight Commander “some cheek” at some point, the senior officer decided to get his own back at briefing one day when he picked on John to refresh the crews on the emergency fire drill for a Wellington.

He said, ‘McCredie, you tell us what you’d do in fire drill’, and McCredie got up and stuttered and stammered…

After he mucked it up, John was made to repeat the correct procedure, word for word, in front of everyone. And then, not very long after he had been singled out in briefing, John had an engine fire for real – and, having been so recently and embarrassingly reminded of the correct procedure, was able to carry it out in a timely manner and allow his crew to bale out before making an emergency landing at Silverstone.

John eventually got to India where his good fortune continued. On a ‘show-the-flag’ formation flight (called a ‘Glaxo’) over one of the big cities in India in a 99 Squadron Liberator, he had a runaway propeller. This necessitated three or four hours flying on three engines – which proved very useful experience when, a couple of months later, he was attacking a ship near Kaligauk Island and was hit by anti-aircraft gunfire.

We moved quickly enough, we had a fire… the boys reported the fire to me and I boldly told them to put it out!

They returned without further incident.

Prior to this, though, John was flying as second pilot with 355 Squadron based at a place called Salbani. Here there was apparently an issue with morale and, as it was difficult to keep the squadrons supplied with fuel because they were at the end of a very long supply chain, there was a certain amount of pressure to reduce fuel consumption. John’s Flight Commander and skipper, a man named Joe Morphett, advocated flying “on the step”, a method of reducing engine power slightly in the cruise that was reputed to reduce drag. This led directly to what was one of the closest calls that John had in an eventful Air Force career.

They were returning from bombing Mandalay, needing to cross the 10,000-foot Mt Victoria to get home. Flying ‘on the step’ had resulted in a gradual and unnoticed loss of altitude, until Morphett saw the mountain looming large in his windscreen. He poured on the power to climb, and they made it over the terrain. But the emergency climb had cost them too much fuel. Some time later, an engine faltered and stopped. John immediately turned on the emergency pump and it came back to life. But then it failed again, and this time the other three went with it. They had run the tanks dry. Somewhere over Bengal, Morphett held his aircraft steady while the rest of his crew, including John, baled out into the bright moonlight (the flight engineer needing some ‘encouragement’ courtesy of the wireless operator’s boot in his backside on the way). They got out at “God knows what height, because we were within very short walking distance of Joe’s crashed aircraft,” John said. With the help of some villagers they proceeded to the aircraft to find Morphett laid out under a mango tree, with half his scalp peeled back. “I couldn’t eat mangoes for years after that.”

Morphett survived and would be given a bar to his DFC for his efforts.

Interviewing John was an absolute pleasure. The bombing war in the Far East is a story seldom told and he is one of the most erudite and eloquent people I have ever met. John tells his stories with good humour, his face crinkling into a grin at frequent intervals. Before I’d even arrived home after our interview he had sent me an email correcting one or two facts.

The third of my interview subjects for the International Bomber Command Centre's Digital Archive, I spoke to John this morning. He served in the Australian Militia for the first few years of the war before joining the RAAF and training as a pilot. He was sent to the UK for further training and flew two "Nickels" over France before then being posted to India where he flew Liberators on operations. He crash landed in a Wellington at OTU in England, bailed out of his Liberator (as a second pilot) after it ran out of fuel returning from an operation and was badly shot up on another operation, for which he was awarded a DFC. He finished the war flying transports. Quite an eventful war, then. John's extremely well-spoken and the three and a half hours I spent with him flew by. John McCredie at home in Melbourne
John McCredie at home in Melbourne

It’s no wonder John was a career diplomat after the war, having taken advantage of the Australian government’s offer of a university education on his return. “The first year at university was very difficult because I had all sorts of unfulfilled ambitions… it was very much a party year, first year back, so I had a bit of trouble settling down and it wasn’t until I saw myself on the brink of being thrown off the course that I could really get down to applying myself full-time to study.”

What struck me most of all, though, apart from the extraordinary good fortune that seemed to follow him around the world, were the people John spoke of who made the stories come to life. He encountered a range of colourful characters throughout his Air Force career, and indeed would run into many of them years later. Men like Hubert Opperman, the Australian cyclist known as ‘Oppy’ who was his Flight Commander at Initial Training School and later went into politics, and to whom John would later sell a car. Like Lionel Watters, the ex-Broken Hill tin miner who, as a “rough diamond” of a flight instructor, had such an effect on John’s early flying training. Like Brian Inglis, a close friend with whom John shared many adventures. (Inglis would go on to become the CEO of Ford Australia). And there was Major Crennan, the overly-enthusiastic disciplinarian whose antics on the ship to the US earned him a poem in the on-board newsletter.

Perhaps the man who John most respected, though, was his 99 Squadron Commanding Officer Lucien Ercolani, who he called “an outstanding man by any classification”. Ercolani had turned morale at the squadron around by sheer force of leadership, John said, and the results in terms of aircraft serviceability spoke for themselves.

Ercolani interrupted a successful career in the furniture business to serve in the Air Force. After the war, when John was serving as a diplomat in Holland, he encountered his old Commanding Officer, who gave him a striking mid-century coffee table.

The table was between us as we did the interview.


Two months after this interview I visited John for lunch, where he presented me with a copy of the book he wrote about 10 years ago called ‘Survival of the Fortunate’. It’s a beautifully-written book and I could hear his voice as I read it. Sadly I never got a chance to discuss it with him. Six weeks after our lunch meeting John died, on 29 January 2016.

© 2015 Adam Purcell


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.


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