It was an unfortunate fact that the Bomber Command Commemorative Day ceremonies were on the same day this year in both Canberra and Melbourne. While in previous years I have prioritised travelling to the nation’s capital, in part because it has tended to attract Sydney-based Bomber Command types who I count as friends, with the recent incorporation of the Bomber Command Commemorative Association Victoria and my deeper involvement with that group in Melbourne, I needed to be in the southern capital on Sunday. But neither that nor the big rain band that’s been chucking it down at the entire east coast of Australia all weekend stopped me making a flying visit to Canberra last Saturday.
While it was only a short visit, I made sure it would be well and truly worthwhile by arranging an early flight on Saturday morning and doing a sneaky IBCC interview with 466 Squadron bomb aimer and prisoner of war Keith Campbell. I’ll get around to writing about Keith’s story in more detail one of these days (I’m afraid there’s a six-month backlog on that series of posts at the moment!), but at this point I must acknowledge the superb support cheerfully given by the staff of the Australian War Memorial in arranging a suitable venue for the recording. We’d hoped to be able to get an early check-in at the hotel but as this could not be confirmed until very late in the piece I thought I’d ask a contact at the AWM about the possibility of finding an appropriate spot somewhere in the building.
To AWM Events and Ceremonies Coordinator Pam Tapia, Media Relations Manager Greg Kimball, Duty Manager Richard Cruise and the staff at the front desk go my grateful thanks. We had the use of the Memorial’s BAE Systems Theatre for a couple of hours and it made for a very comfortable and appropriate location. Keith was the only survivor of a mid-air collision over Stuttgart in July 1944 – he still doesn’t know how his parachute was clipped on or how it opened – and it was wonderful to listen to him telling his story in detail, and get it on tape.
The prize for ingenuity goes to Adam, the AWM’s Theatre Manager who, noticing my struggles with the low light in the room, suggested, supplied and operated a theatre spotlight for the traditional photo:
After all that excitement we had a brief respite at the hotel (back at the QT again after last year’s experiment further down Northbourne Ave), and then it was back to the War Memorial for the evening’s cocktail party. This has always been my favourite part of this weekend: the atmosphere provided by Lancaster G for George is second to none. There was a reasonable crowd, though veteran numbers were somewhat lower than we have seen in recent years with eight present.
A notable absence was Don Southwell, who had been taken to hospital on Friday with a mild infection. Long a stalwart of the organising committee of this weekend, Don was devastated at missing the event, and he was certainly missed both at the AWM and at the post-function drinks back at the hotel. Apparently he’d been on the phone to his son David every three hours to make sure everything was going smoothly in Canberra, so we hope to see him back on his feet soon.
Geoff Ingram provided MC services on the night and the guest speaker was Air Vice Marshal Kim Osley. He hit precisely the right note with a short address that was informal enough for the social nature of the occasion yet thoughtful enough to touch on some important issues. He started on a humorous note, telling the crowd that his father had been German. “So I’d like to thank those of you who attacked Stuttgart,” he said, pausing for effect, “…and missed!”
The airmen of Bomber Command, Air Vice Marshal Osley said, were to the modern Royal Australian Air Force role models, leaving a legacy of moral courage in adversity and professional mastery. “Bomber Command shortened the war – end of story,” he declared, and no-one in the crowd could possibly argue with that.
I was happy to renew acquaintances with some veterans I know well: Tommy Knox, Bill Purdy, Tom Hopkinson, Ray Merrill and Jim Clayton (who claimed after AVM Osley’s Stuttgart quip that “we didn’t [miss]!”). And I managed to meet a new one too: Les Davies, a 466 Squadron mid-upper gunner, a lovely bloke who I found sitting under G for George.
The night ended with the return of the Striking by Night sound and light show, which finished things off with a nice little punctuation mark.
There were a small band of people in the QT hotel bar when we got back to the hotel for a nightcap or three. That distinctly Huxtable-shaped hole in proceedings again made its presence felt, but there were some passionate and very useful conversations in progress as the night wore on.
And then the next morning I got up early, Geoff Ingram drove me to the airport and I flew, in cloud the whole way, back to Melbourne. The next part of the Bomber Command Commemoration Day events was about to begin.
– Eric Bogle, And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda
Once again Anzac Day approaches. Once again I will board an aeroplane and fly to Sydney. Once again I will pin my great uncle Jack’s medals to the right side of my chest. Once again I will hoist the 463-467 Squadron banner high, and once again I will march.
But for how much longer?
I’ve been struggling to write about the future of the Anzac Day march – or specifically the future of my part in it – for several years now. At around this time each year I’ve grappled with it, starting something but failing to come up with a coherent argument. So I’ve put it off. Chickened out. Relegated it to the ‘too hard’ basket. But sure as eggs, once again here I am. And the question has become more urgent. So this year I’m going to finish it.
I’ve been involved with the 463-467 Squadrons Association in Sydney for about a decade now. Long enough that I now consider friends many of the veterans, friends and family that make up the group. This is why, despite living in Melbourne for the last five or so years, I still prefer to go to Sydney for Anzac Day: it’s one of only a handful of chances I have each year to catch up with them.
As time has passed, so too has a fair number of veterans I knew. Men like Reg Boys, Rollo Kingsford-Smith and David Walter, among several others, have all gone to the Great Crew-Room in the Sky. In the last year or two however, as those who are left have grown very very old indeed and as age wearied them more and more, the trickle has turned into a flood: George Douglass. Harry Brown. Hugh McLeod. Albert Wallace. And now Don Huxtable. And these are just Sydney-based 463-467 Squadron Association veterans I knew personally.
As year follows year, more old men disappear.
In 2014 just three veterans started the Anzac Day march with the 463-467 Squadron banner. That was the first point at which I began actively wondering about the future of the Squadron banner in the march. One of the three that year was unable to complete the course – and the other two have since died. Improbably in 2015 numbers actually grew to eight, including two riding in trucks and two in wheelchairs, but given the numbers who have died in the intervening year that is likely to have been an aberration. Don Huxtable’s recent passing has further focused minds on a difficult but inevitable truth.
There are now very few 463-467 Squadron veterans left who remain capable of marching behind the banner on Anzac Day. One day, sooner than we all would like, they too will pass.
Someday no-one will march there at all.
And what then?
There’s been a fair bit of controversy in recent years about marching on Anzac Day, and specifically how descendants of veterans, such as myself, fit into it. Originally, of course, it was only the veterans themselves who were allowed to march – and that was highly appropriate. But those were the days when there were a significant proportion of veterans of conflicts like WWI still alive. Those first Diggers are long gone now, and descendants have begun marching in their place. But as the WWII Diggers now slowly fade away, the few who remain sometimes seem in danger of being swamped by the ever-increasing crowds of descendants.
In 2008 it all got too much for the RSL in Sydney. They began politely suggesting that descendants go to the back of the parade instead of marching with their ancestors’ units. In more recent years that polite suggestion has become more assertive, and changes have been made to the traditional format so that WWII veterans are given more prominence at the front of the march (with a strict limit of one carer each allowed with them). Instead of the WWI banners leading the march, they now bring up the rear. This year it’s spread to Melbourne, with similar adjustments on the cards for the southern capital’s march.
Far be it, of course, for me to criticise the involvement of descendants in the Anzac Day march. I have, after all, been one of them for several years now. There’s no doubt that it’s been a special experience. The noise made by the crowds that lined George St during last year’s march during the Centenary of Anzac was, genuinely, quite exhilarating. But at the same time I’ve felt a little uneasy. The applause and the cheering from the crowd is for those original veterans we have marching with us. Once they can no longer march, then what?
The answer, I think, is that once we no longer have any originals capable or willing to march, the time has come to bring down the curtain. The fellowship evident at the 463-467 Squadrons Association luncheon each year – and indeed the increasing numbers seen at that and other functions in the last few years – shows that there remains a place for events of that type. And of course other Anzac Day traditions such as the Dawn Service must also continue. But the March should be for the veterans themselves. While we still have veterans marching with us, I’m very happy to carry the banner for them.
But on the day the last 463-467 Squadron veteran in Sydney dies, it’s time to retire the banner.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.”
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 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!”
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.
“I was one of the lucky ones,” Joe said, very quietly.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
B+W photo courtesy Max Spence. Colour photo and text (c) Adam Purcell 2015
Ern Cutts was (and still is) the youngest of seven children in his family. One brother was ground staff in the Royal Australian Air Force. Two other brothers were in the AIF. A sister was a RAAF nurse. His other two sisters were married to servicemen. So it was just about inevitable, as soon as he turned 18, that Ern would himself enlist.
There was just one small hurdle to jump first. His father.
Think about it for a second. Four of seven children were already in the services. Two others married to servicemen. Surely that was enough?
Well, maybe. But Ern was made of sterner stuff. There was what he called “trouble” involved, but eventually Ern managed to convince his father to sign his enlistment papers and went off to the recruitment centre in Melbourne. “I wanted to be aircrew”, he said. “And I was!”
Ern had the doubtful honour of being my first victim interview subject for the International Bomber Command Centre’s Digital Archive. My first sight of him was of an older but still fit-looking gent waving his arm at me as, about 10 minutes late, I sailed straight past the entry to his retirement complex on my motorbike. I turned around and rumbled up the path towards him, and he warmly shook my hand, grinning, and led me to the unit where he and his wife Beryl live.
I’ve been visiting veterans much like Ern for a number of years now, but the IBCC project is the first time I’ve done formal, recorded interviews with them. Perhaps I looked a little nervous as I grappled with my recording equipment. “Take your time”, Ern said. It was one of the first beautiful spring days in Melbourne this year and the birds were twittering outside as, opening the front door (“to shed some light on the subject,” he said with a chuckle), with everything ready and Beryl sitting quietly on the other side of the room listening in, we began.
It was a very entertaining interview. Ern is an easy person to talk to, and there were plenty of laughs. I asked him at one point what memories he has of the Fairey Battle. “I don’t want memories of Fairey Battles!” he said of the single-engined aircraft laughably called fighter-bombers at the beginning of the war that were hopelessly outclassed, shot down in large numbers during the Battle of France and eventually relegated to towing targets used for gunnery training, which is where Ern encountered them. “They were bloody hideous things.” Or talking about why he wanted to join the Air Force: “We didn’t have to be super fit like the young infantry blokes because we never walked anywhere – we were always driven!”
Ern was full of praise for the British people he encountered while he was overseas. “We were treated like kings”, he said more than once. He often wondered why, when he was visiting the home of a particular girl he was keen on, he and she would eat very well but the girl’s mother wouldn’t be eating. He asked his girlfriend – who said that his mother was giving up her own rations for Ern. “That’s English people for you”, he said, shaking his head. “Really tops.”
Ern was posted to 466 Squadron, flying in Halifaxes. I asked him if he did any particularly memorable ops. “My first trip”, he said instantly. It was a daylight raid to a synthetic oil plant at Sterkrade in the Ruhr Valley on 6 October 1944. “I never lived this down,” he said:
“I saw all these black puffs in the air, black things, and I said to someone, to the crew – cos everyone was excited, y’know, our first op, it was a daylight op which was good, because they did try to give you a daylight to give you a bit of an idea of what you were going into – and I said, what’s all these black things out there, and everyone started laughing… it was bloody anti-aircraft exploding… that’s how raw [I was]… by the time I got to the 34th op I didn’t need to ask!”
Logbooks are always a favourite thing for me to look at when I’m talking to veteran aircrew because they allow me to put in some sort of context their owner’s service. Most are fairly dry, but others include comments about particularly memorable trips. Ern’s even had a number of pictures stuck to the pages, of aircraft he’d flown in.
And a Messerschmitt 410, a German nightfighter. Part of the IBCC project is to scan original documents for inclusion, along with the interview itself, in the Digital Archive, so I carry a scanner to hook up to my laptop and copy any originals on the spot. At the time I missed the significance of the ME410. But when I was at home later, reviewing the scans, there it was.
7 February 1945. Halifax III. Pilot: Flying Officer McCallum. Operation No. 24: 6:00 to Goch (Army Cooperation Target). FIRST KILL – ME410 FIGHTER CONFIRMED.
Ern actually shot down an enemy aircraft.
This is less common than you might think for a wartime gunner. British bombers at the time were armed with Browning .303 machine guns – with an effective range of some 400 yards. Nightfighters, on the other hand, usually had cannon with a maximum range of about 1,000 yards. The inevitable result was that the favoured method of attack was for a fighter to stand off, undetected, outside the range of the Brownings and fire at leisure. The best chance of escape for the bomber crew was in spotting the fighter before it saw them. Many gunners who survived a tour, then, did so without firing a gun in anger, let alone actually scoring any hits. Having a confirmed kill to his name is actually quite an achievement.
And during our interview, about shooting down a nightfighter he said exactly nothing. He was similarly reticent when I enquired about an immediate DFC awarded to his pilot, the aforementioned F/O A.B. McCallum, after the aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire on a trip to Gelsenkirchen (Ern’s 9th) in November 1944. It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, Ern suggested. Otherwise it would be remarked upon in his logbook.
Most likely it’s that legendary modesty often found in veterans of Bomber Command coming through here. They didn’t think they were doing anything special: there was a job to do, and it fell on their shoulders to do it. And so their stories frequently concentrate on the lighter side of life in wartime England.
Finishing his tour in March 1945, Ern was eventually posted to 467 Squadron at Metheringham, preparing to begin training for Tiger Force to continue the war against the Japanese. After the atomic bombs ended the requirement for that he flew a couple of POW repatriation flights, taking part in Operation Spasm to Berlin and Operation Dodge to Bari in Italy in September 1945. Both trips, he told me, were completed with all non-essential equipment stripped from the Lancasters. Including all the guns and all the ammunition.
I had to ask the obvious question. If there were no guns on board, why did they need gunners?
Well, someone had to look after the repatriating POWs, many of whom had never been in an aeroplane before. “Believe it or not”, he said, “we were just air hostesses!”
The tone turned a little more serious, however, when I asked Ern how he thought Bomber Command was remembered. There was a lengthy pause before he answered.
Bomber Command, he said, was until D-Day the only organisation taking the war direct to Germany. For that reason, the English people in particular treated the men of Bomber Command with the same respect and admiration that they had for, say, the French Resistance. “If I go to an RSL,” he said,
“…and a bloke says, what were you in, Ern, were you in the Navy or Army or something, I say, no, I was in Bomber Command, and if he is an English person, ‘oh were you… oh… you blokes, gee… y’know. So it makes you kinda feel very humble, very proud and very humble.”
And that, I thought, was a beautiful way to finish our interview.
Text and colour photo (c) 2015 Adam Purcell. Wartime photo (c) Ern Cutts
It’s quite uncommon to get artwork on aeroplanes these days. ‘Nose art’ usually conjures up visions of pin-ups, bomber jackets and B-17s. Ahh yes, the old Memphis Belle effect: clearly Hollywood has a lot to answer for.
But of course, painting (usually) scantily-clad women onto aeroplanes is not the sole preserve of the USAAF or Hollywood’s interpretation of it. I once flew a light aeroplane that had some rather alarming airbrushed artwork on the tail:
VH-RWK was a somewhat older Cessna 182Q, with a great big two-bladed propeller which gave it a distinctive sound in the air. It had sheepskin seat covers and was a very comfortable aeroplane to fly. But then, one night in September 2009, for reasons that were never determined, the aeroplane caught alight and burnt to the ground. All that was left? That tail with the scary witch!
Poor old RWK was an exception though. It’s far more common to find nose art on military aircraft, and particularly vintage military aircraft. And it turns out that there’s a fair bit of interest in the phenomenon. I even found an academic paper about it: Caitlin McWilliams (2010), Camaraderie, Morale and Material Culture: Reflections on the Nose Art of No. 6 Group Royal Canadian Air Force, Canadian Military History: Vol. 19: Iss. 4, Article 3.
“Airmen were notoriously superstitious, and nose art became part a distinct “bomber culture” of good luck charms and rituals, the emblazoned designs linking the entire crew with their aircraft,” McWilliams writes. This link, she says, extended to the groundcrew assigned to each aircraft – and it was frequently the ground staff who actually got up on a ladder and did the painting. Indeed, some squadrons might have been blessed with a particularly talented artist among their ground staff who henceforth did all the nose art. 61 Squadron pilot John Boland, in an interview in the Australians at War Film Archive, described the man who painted his aircraft: a “little short artist” named Webb who created a classic nude-reclining-with-bomb in such detail that the CO “made him put a towel over her”!
“Nose art showcasing pin-up girls and other risqué subjects are most prominent, followed by designs which feature Walt Disney characters”, McWilliams writes. “More interestingly,” she continues, “many of the designs signal ties to Canada, sometimes through national symbols but also in more subtle ways.”
Not surprisingly similar patterns can be seen coming out of the nominally Australian units. The following images are all from The Waddington Collection, a series of photo albums which trace the ‘official’ history of RAF Waddington at war. There’s the pin-up girl:
Here’s a Disney character:
And where else could these pilots be from but Australia?
(I think my favourite part of this one is the beer mugs used to denote completed ops)
In many cases the characters used in nose art were inspired in some way by the code letters assigned to the aircraft.
Witness JO-J Jumpin’ Jive, showing a man playing a trumpet.
Or JO-N Nick the Nazi Neutralizer, with a grinning devil.
Piratical Pete, below a skull and crossbones motif, was JO-P.
All of which raises a question.
What, if any, nose art was on B for Baker?
Nose art being what it is, it is necessarily temporary. “By its nature, nose art is adaptable and accommodating, there when airmen need it but gone as soon as the conflict is finished,” says McWilliams. Many of the Lancasters depicted here were lost during the war, in action or accident. And even those that survived the conflict didn’t survive their subsequent encounters with the scrap man. And so out of all the artwork in the photos in this post, nothing – not a single bit – survives in its original form. All we have are those photographs. And, as you’ll have heard me whining about for quite some time now, of B for Baker there isn’t even one of those.
In short, there’s a reason that my painting of the aircraft shows its starboard side. Any nose art, should any have existed, would traditionally appear on the port side (under the pilot’s side window). By orienting the aircraft the way we did, we leave open the possibility that should a photograph float out of a dusty box somewhere and prove one way or the other that B for Baker did or didn’t have nose art, my painting won’t be wrong.
But it’s probably likely that, even if I do find that magical photograph one day in the future, it will show an unadorned space below the pilot’s window. Phil Smith wrote a letter to his mother in July 1942 from the Operational Training Unit in Honeybourne, Worcestershire, where he was an instructor between his operational tours. When he was second pilot during the first part of his tour on Wellingtons, he wrote, the captain, a man named Taffy Jones, had a boomerang painted on the side of the aeroplane. But…
“I never went in for emblems however, always feeling superstitious about them”
And as it would appear that it was the captain’s call about what, if anything, was painted on their aeroplanes, there’s a good chance that Phil’s superstitions carried through to his second tour and B for Baker did not have nose art.
About five years ago now, I commissioned aviation artist and friend of mine Steve Leadenham to paint me a picture of B for Baker sitting at its dispersal as its crew arrived for an operation. I’d just moved to Melbourne when it was completed and I remember driving all the way to Sydney and back one weekend to pick it up.
As well as the original oil painting (which is hanging on my living room wall as I type), this imagined image of B for Baker and her crew graces several walls around the world in the form of high-quality archival prints. It’s also available in the form of 21x15cm greeting cards. Both the prints and the cards are produced by Steve in-house.
I liked the cards so much that I ordered a small supply of them and they have been winging their way to people who have helped my research all over Australia and the world ever since. But with the number of new people I’ve met recently, I was starting to run out, so I asked Steve to send me some more. He did – and told me a nice little story to go along with them.
About a year ago he was at the Powerhouse Museum’s Discovery Centre in Castle Hill in Sydney’s north-west, exhibiting some of his work during one of the centre’s open days. Also exhibiting there were representatives from the Australian Aviation Museum at Bankstown Airport. They evidently liked Steve’s work, because they suggested putting some of his prints and cards into their shop. They preferred his historical scenes (like this one, this one and this one), and that, of course, included B for Baker.
Steve says it took a while to actually happen, but the long and the short of it is that cards and prints featuring my painting of B for Baker can now be purchased in the shop at the Australian Aviation Museum. Sales, Steve says, have been steady (though not in particularly large numbers) ever since.
Apart from the basic reason that I didn’t (and still don’t) have a confirmed photo of B for Baker, I originally commissioned the painting to act, if you like, as my own little memorial and tribute to my great uncle Jack and his Lancaster crew. So I made sure when Steve first proposed putting the image onto prints and cards that we included some information about the crew and the aircraft below the image or, in the case of the card, inside the top flap. So anyone who likes the cards or prints enough to buy one from the museum will have at least the very basic details of who the men were and what happened to them. Who knows, maybe they’ll even search online and find this little blog.
Getting the story out there.
Ensuring that those seven men – and all the rest who served with Bomber Command – are never, ever forgotten.
That’s why we do it.
These prints and cards are also available direct from the artist. Contact Steve through his website.