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.

Interviewing 466 Squadron rear gunner Ern Cutts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ern actually shot down an enemy aircraft.

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

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

Ern Cutts and his Halifax rear turret

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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