Interview with Bert Mason

Title

Interview with Bert Mason

Description

Bert Mason was born in Germany and worked in light engineering and driving ambulances before joining the RAF in 1942. He started training as a navigator before joining a crew and became an air gunner on 195 Squadron at Wratting Common. He tells of operations: preparing, flying, escaping searchlights and fighters and then debriefing. At the end of the war he went to India and Ceylon, working for Lord Mountbatten. After the war Bert went back to engineering, travelling all over the world.

Creator

Date

2018-10-23

Temporal Coverage

Language

Type

Format

01:09:22 audio recording

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Publisher

IBCC Digital Archive

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This content is available under a CC BY-NC 4.0 International license (Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0). It has been published ‘as is’ and may contain inaccuracies or culturally inappropriate references that do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Lincoln or the International Bomber Command Centre. For more information, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/ and https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/legal.

Contributor

Identifier

AMasonAE181023, PMasonAE1801

Transcription

DK: This is David Kavanagh for the International Bomber Command Centre interviewing – do you like to be known as Bert?
BM: Bert.
DK: Can I call you Bert? Bert Mason at his home on the 23rd of October 2018. So if I just put that down there. I might keep looking over. I’m just making sure it’s still going in case, the batteries don’t run out or anything.
BM: So it’s operating.
DK: It’s operating, yeah.
[Other]: Would you like a table or something?
DK: No, no I think it’ll be all right.
BM: I’ll just move some things over.
DK: It might be better if I just sort of point it at you. What I wanted to do is just move that as it’s electrical and might interfere. Okay, if I could start then Bert, what were you doing immediately before the war?
BM: Well, I joined at seventeen and three months so there wasn’t a lot to do. In actual fact the history of it is interesting. I applied for a place in the local grammar school, called you know, King John’s College, and I passed. And then the Luftwaffe came along and demolished it. So at that point I thought well what do I do now? So I then went to work for a light engineering company in Southsea, a company called, I’ve forgotten what they were called, [additional words in room indecipherable] Eldon Brothers I think they’re called and they were specialists in motorcycles and they were commissioned by the Ministry of Supply to collect motorcycles, make sure they were refurbished right standard and supply them of course for dispatch riders and believe it or not, is that still running?
DK: Yes, we’re okay.
BM: Believe it or not that became a reserved occupation would you believe, for a couple of years or more, so that’s basically what I was doing. I got a bit cheesed off with that after a while. I might say while I was doing that, I was big for my age and at fifteen I was driving ambulances you know, for Portsmouth, you know, what was then because the National Health thing, there wasn’t the National Heath then, but anyway I did that for a while and then I volunteered for the RAF at seventeen and three months, that was in July 1942, but they had a scheme running, if I go too fast for that thing -
DK: No, that’s okay, don’t worry.
BM: They had a scheme running called the Preliminary Aircrew Training Course. You may have heard of it, you may not, it was quite unique. Their idea was that people like myself, whose education was interrupted, had an opportunity to go to a technical college or some advanced form of education throughout the country, prior to actually going into the RAF itself. So I went to Rotherham, I was there for about six months, then after that I joined the RAF proper on, in July 12th, a date we remember cause we got married on that date, [cough] July 12th 1943, and then went to, I think it was St Andrews first off.
DK: Just going back a bit, was there a particular reason why you chose the RAF?
BM: Yes, there was. When I was dragging people out of bomb damaged buildings it sort of came to me, how do you strike back, you know, this sort of situation? And I thought well the only force, the only one of the forces at that point that was in a position to strike back was the RAF. So I shot off, put my name down. My father, who was a staunch Army man, was horrified, because he had it all worked out I would join his old regiment, you know. But that, that didn’t come to anything.
DK: Had your father served in the First World War then?
BM: Yes, he had. In fact I was born in Germany, in Cologne. My father was part of the Army of Occupation on the Rhine. So that was near Cologne. I was there for, I’m jumping around a bit here I’m sorry, but you can analyse it, I’m sure. But I was there for the first five years, you know, living in Cologne, in fact the first language I ever spoke was German. I had a German nanny and she and I used to prattle on in German and my mother and father didn’t have a clue what we were talking about.
DK: Can you still speak German or have you?
BM: Yes, yes, up to a point. I’m not as fluent, obviously as I was. And that came, well, we’re jumping a bit. I’ll come back to that later, So I joined the RAF under the category of PNB which you know is the pilot, navigator, bomb aimer, and then of course had the initial training at St Andrews, which we were talking about just now, then went from there to Bruntingthorpe for the OTU, and then from there to place called Wigsley, you’d know it, because it’s in Lincolnshire, for the Heavy Con Unit.
DK: Can you remember which OTU it was?
BM: Yes, Number 8.
DK: Number 8, and that was at Bruntingthorpe.
BM: That was at Bruntingthorpe, near Rugby.
DK: And the number of the Heavy Conversion Unit.
BM: Yes, I remember that, number 16. HCU. That was at Wigsley.
DK: Number sixteen Heavy Conversion Unit, at Wigsley.
BM: And that was Wigsley, okay.
DK: Was the OTU then your first experience of seeing aircraft close up? Had you flown before then?
BM: No, I had no experience really of flying and certainly not in military aircraft or any form of aircraft for that matter, so yes, it was my first experience. It gets very involved after this and I have to stop and think. The, after, yes, after the Heavy Con Unit, there came, as I said, I was in the category of navigator, I was trained as a navigator but along came the RAF and said you are now in to the tail end of ’43, going in to ’44, the RAF came along and said if you chaps want to be in the big show – this was the big sell, you know – you better think about remustering, because if you remuster, you know, we can get you in fairly quickly, but you have to take a different category, otherwise you’re going to Canada or South Africa, you know, for the navigational training, and it might be eighteen months and by the time you come back from that, the war will be over. That was true enough, the war would have been over. But a lot of us, myself included, in our crew, we had a flight engineer who was an ex pilot, we had a wireless operator who was, well the Aussie crew consisted of the wireless operator, the pilot and the bomb aimer. And the rest of it was made up of Brits, so we were four Brits, three Aussies.
DK: And did you first meet your crew at the OTU?
BM: Yes, that’s when they put us together.
DK: And how did that work then? How did you get your crew together?
BM: Well what happened of course, they had all these loose bods flying about, not flying about, moving about, they put them all up at this one station, and left it to them to organise themselves into crews. Didn’t, didn’t sort of delegate, you had to sort yourselves out.
DK: And do you think that worked quite well?
BM: I think in our case it worked admirably, we’re still here! [Chuckle] Yes it worked very well. The bomb aimer, chap called Doolan, you know, sought out me first, I don’t know why, I was probably the tallest in the room, sought me out first and said my skipper is an ex flying instructor, chap called Phil Gavins, great pilot.
DK: Phil Evans?
BM: No, Gavin.
[Other]: Phil Gavins.
BM: Phil Gavins. That’s my prompt over there! Phil Gavins, and what, it’s worthwhile just to spend a moment on that. He came over to the UK in the early days of the war, thinking that he was going straight into ops thinking that was his thing, but he was so good that they immediately made him an instructor, and for two years he was an instructor. At the end of those two years he said to the RAF, either you put me on ops or I’m going home!
DK: And he was Australian?
BM: He was Australian. Flight Lieutenant. Wonderful chap. Anyway, they realised he meant it, so they promptly put him on ops. He then sought out an Aussie who was a bomb aimer and said go and find us a crew. So that brings us back to where Doolan, Tim Doolan was his job was to find the crew, so he came to me first, said come and join us, I said sounds good, he took me, he introduced me to Phil Gavins, we got on like a house on fire: no problems.
DK: And had you already been trained as an air gunner at this point?
BM: Not at this point. Not at this point. This is where it gets you know, sort of, a little bit messy because once we had sorted ourselves into crews, I won’t go into how the others were selected, but once we got the crews sorted, then it became a case of categories, and the categories came into it, and it then became obvious that we had too many of the PNB characters and not enough, you might say, of air gunners, wireless ops and flight engineers. So we spent the next three months getting ourselves sorted into the right categories.
DK: Oh right. So it was sort of done rather oddly the other way round, instead of training for one of the categories and then going to the crew, you got into the crew and then trained into the categories.
BM: Crew first. That’s how it worked.
DK: I’ve never heard of that happening before.
BM: No. Well I said it was unique and it was unique. I think the influence of Phil Gavins probably played its part. He was quite a senior bloke in the RAF and he was also a buddy of Wing Commander Kingsford Smith, now Kingsford Smith was an Aussie and great reputation et cetera and those two were quite pally, because they were Aussies and came from, both, Melbourne and that’s how it happened. And I think it was a case of Phil Gavins stood back in the wings for a while, you know, I think he went to Wigsley, ahead of us, to get familiar, at that time it was Stirlings, when we went to Wigsley initially it was Stirlings.
DK: At the OTU, what type of aircraft was it?
BM: At the OTU it was Wellingtons.
DK: Wellingtons. So your first flight then was in a Wellington was it?
BM: Yes.
DK: And what did you think of the Wellington then, as an aircraft?
BM: Thought it was wonderful. It was great. You could stand in the astrodome and watch the wings in that. Virtually you could.
DK: Not sure I’d want to do that!
BM: At first you’re worried about, but then you got used to the idea; it was a unique construction as well, as you know, no we liked the Wellingtons. We didn’t like the Stirlings so much because after we finished our OTU we then, we finished on Stirlings, we were given a week’s leave and when we came back - Lancasters were in their place. We didn’t know anything about it, we thought come back to the Stirlings, but no, Stirlings had gone and Lancasters were there.
DK: And did you have any flight in the Stirlings before they went?
BM: Oh yes, yes. We did, two ops, three ops I think, on Stirlings.
DK: On the Heavy Conversion Unit?
BM: That’s right. But they were practice and training flights than anything else.
DK: And where were these operations to on the Stirlings?
BM: Mostly just on the Ruhr, I think from memory Dusseldorf was one, I can’t remember the others but, they were, because they were the Stirlings you didn’t pay too much attention to them, you’re just happy to get back, you know, because the Stirling, mind you, you could get shot up remarkably well and still come back. Probably more than the Lancaster actually, but that’s by the way. When we came back, we only had three ops on the Stirlings, so when we came back we were the Lancasters.
DK: And your ops in the Stirlings you’re the rear gunner are you or the?
BM: No, mid upper.
DK: Mid upper gunner, right.
BM: In between, I skipped that of course, I went down to Stormy Down, Stormy Down the air gunner training school, and trained there as an air gunner, so I was almost [emphasis] qualified as a navigator, so I was, on our flight we had two navigators, two air gunners, two of everything it seemed. Because Phil Gavins was a great person for everyone needs to know everyone else’s job, and he insisted on that, and I had some flights, not operationally, but some flights in training where I was actually at the controls and not just me, that applied to the crew.
DK: And just going back to your air gunnery training, is it something you took to was it?
BM: Well remarkably, I mean you know, air gunners are trained with shotguns as well, you know, to get them to feature in allowing for firing in advance of the target and things like, familiarisation, that’s what it came down to. Surprisingly I came top of the class, you know, because my, out of I think, thirty six points that you could get, I got thirty five. So I was pretty good with a shotgun.
DK: Wow! Crack shot.
[Other]: Still are, he still can!
BM: Then we got down to the real business where we came from Heavy Con Unit, we did lots of training flights on Heavy Con Unit, I think we were there in total about six weeks.
DK: And these were sort of cross country?
BM: Yeah. Mostly. And I was appalled at the number of aircraft we lost on cross country training too, fog and everything else, it had the knack of sending out in weather which I don’t think you would ever be sent out on the squadron. We lost too many aircraft in training, in my view, that’s me there. Then off to Wratting Common. Do you know the name?
DK: I know the name, yes.
BM: You’re one of the few people who do!
DK: Is it Cambridgeshire?
BM: Yes. It’s on the border of Cambridgeshire and Suffolk isn’t it.
DK: [Indecipherable]
BM: I was 195 Squadron. You’ve got a note of that haven’t you.
DK: Yes.
BM: 195 Squadron, 3 Group of course. Then we got into operations proper.
DK: And what did you think when you arrived on your operational squadron, at the base itself. What did you see when you turned up there?
BM: Well it was all exciting, I was what, then eighteen I think, yes, just, so for us it was a case of: we were in the big show, you know, let’s get up type of thing. And of course we did. So it was very exciting indeed. But what we learned from it very quickly, we were in a nissen hut, and three crews in a nissen hut and of course during the course of the time we were there, there were seven changes, in other words we lost seven crews from, we were the only one, the original crew, that still remained in that nissen hut. And we lost South Africans, Rhodesians, Canadian and of course Brits, naturally, and that was it really. So what we learned, a point to make here, what we learned is don’t get involved because you just couldn’t get too involved with people because if you did, you never knew if they’d be there when you got back. A typical thing would be go on a raid and when you got back, you’d go to bed and somewhere during the night, about three o’clock in the morning or even later, the SPs would come and in start picking up peoples’ kits from around you and taking the kits in to, you know, personal control, personal kit, and they were the people who weren’t coming back. And that, initially that got to you, as you can imagine, but after a while, you became, funnily enough, you became immune to it.
DK: Yeah. Can you remember your first actual operation on the squadron?
BM: Yes, I can cause I can always remember the Intelligence Officer, you know, making a funny, that he thought was a funny. It was a marshalling yard, and it was called Bad Oldesfloe, I’ll say it slowly: Bad Oldesfloe. So when he got up there and having given us all the spiel about targets, weather and everything else involved, he said right chaps, I want you to come back and tell me it’s now Bad old and very slow! That was his joke, but I always remember it because it was so corny. [Chuckles]
DK: Didn’t go down well then.
BM: No, it got a titter, but it didn’t get anything beyond that.
DK: So, on your operations then you were the mid upper gunner again were you?
BM: Yes.
DK: So can you just talk a little bit about how an operation would work? What you did when you got up in the morning sort of thing.
BM: Yeah, well obviously the ops, the briefings were different, you know the air gunners and flight engineers sometimes, [indecipherable], but the air gunners and wireless ops were briefed separately. And so you got up in the morning and you’d really no great demands on you, except to make sure that your guns were working et cetera and everything was okay in that respect. Then more or less you’re at a loose end, if you’re lucky you could get two or three hours of shuteye, but the navigators and the rest of the crew would go to the separate briefing where they would be briefed on waypoints and things of this nature, [indecipherable] at the target, what to look out for in terms of opposition, where to expect flak, where to expect searchlights and things like this. So our day, compared with their day, was relatively slack, But because you’re all keyed up anyway, excited, we used to go and perhaps kick a football about, you know, or play squash – in my case I played squash - and basically that was about the strength of it. But all the excitement was there, until of course it came time for you all to go for the final briefing where you were all briefed together and that usually, would be about, depends where you’re going, usually that would be about six or seven o’clock. So you all get briefed together, then go back and get kitted out, pick up parachutes and everything else involved and then you went to the aircraft, sometimes you sat in the aircraft for a couple of hours and that was a very harrowing time. Because you’re virtually biting your nails you know, because nothing much was happening. Because often, according to weather the actual op would be cancelled and that was bad too, because having got all keyed up for it, then you’d go back, relieved in one sense but at the same time, you know, sort of thinking oh, what was that all about.
DK: And are you sat in your gun turret at take off?
BM: Yes.
DK: And you’d remain there for the whole operation probably?
BM: Yes. Yes.
DK: This might sound like an obvious question but what was your role as an air gunner?
BM: Well if you’re the mid upper gunner, you had the role of, if you like, weapons controller because you can see, from the mid upper turret, you can see virtually three hundred and sixty degrees; tail gunner can’t. He can only see about a hundred and eighty degrees. So if you’re over a target or reaching a target your job naturally is to look out for enemy fighters and if you saw enemy fighters you would control the flight as it started. So a typical – funny how you remember these things – the typical thing might be, if you spotted a fighter, you know, you’d go through to the skipper straight away. [Operational voice] “Skipper, fighter fighter, port quarter up, or down, whichever, usually up, port quarter up, range six hundred”. You’d wait a little, “attack commencing, corkscrew port – go!” So you control the corkscrew. That was your job. The tail gunner didn’t because he couldn’t see enough, and you were the person one who could, so you used to control the corkscrew. But once the corkscrew started then the pilot took over.
DK: Did you practice this procedure of corkscrew?
BM: Yes.
DK Did you ever have to use it while in an attack?
BM: We used it over Kiel with good effect, we used it over Berlin with good effect, and we used it over, I was going to say Peenemunde, but we didn’t do that, there was a third occasion we used it. We didn’t do Dresden, we didn’t do Hamburg, I’m pleased to say, and we didn’t do Cologne. Funnily enough I was pleased about that cause I was born there and I didn’t want to be bombing where I was born. I’m trying to think the third place we used it; doesn’t matter.
DK: And can you remember actually seeing these German aircraft attacking you then?
BM: Yes, you can.
DK: And do you know what they were?
BM: We were credited with a kill over Kiel. Because, well the rear gunner and myself happened to psyche in on, well I think it was a raw [emphasis] German pilot, because the pilots, the idea of the corkscrew do you? You do. Well the idea of the corkscrew course is that you turn in to the attack and then you turn and go down again the opposite direction and then you start to come up. Now if the German behind you comes in he’ll follow you, theory wise, he’ll follow you in to the first turn and then he’ll pull up as you’re going into the second turn because he’d overshoot you. And this particular pilot pulled up too soon and he exposed himself to the rear gunner and myself and all we saw was lots of flame, lots of smoke and spiralling, so presumably it was a kill.
DK: And can you remember what type of German aircraft it was?
BM: Fokker 190. Yeah. They were pretty deadly, you know.
D: And you think it was, a lot of it was down to the inexperience of the German pilot?
BM: I think it was because by this time, don’t forget we were into ’44 now and because by this time they were running out of experienced pilots. So, I think it was a trainee pilot who just didn’t realise that was the wrong thing to do. And whether it cost him his life or not I can’t be sure.
DK: And so how many operations did you actually fly all together then?
BM: With Stirlings? Did you say three?
[Other]: All together.
DK: All together.
BM: All together.
[Other]: Twenty nine.
BM: Twenty nine.
DK: Twenty nine. So that was twenty six.
BM: Plus three.
DK: With 195 Squadron and three with the Stirlings.
BM: That’s right, yes. Yeah.
DK: And what was it like then, coming back, no, no, I’ll just go back a bit there.
BM: Certainly David.
DK: What was it like first of all being over the targets? You’ve reached the target, you’ve been attacked by a night fighter, what was it like, did you see over the targets themselves.
BM: Well, over the target you had so much flak, that you actually didn’t have fighter attacks over the Target. Why? Because they were scared of being shot down by their own ack-ack, as you can imagine, but over the target the flak was, you know, was horrendous, you had these crunches of shells bursting right and left of you and on you; that was you know, pretty terrible, I must say. And you can smell, you know, the cordite, it, and, not could you smell it then, when you got back into your base it was still in your coats, the smell of the cordite. But the flak was intense and that was as deadly as the night fighters frankly in my view.
DK: And could you remember the searchlights?
BM: Yes, we were one, two, three, four times we were coned. Berlin twice, murderous over Berlin, but four times we were coned, and again the experience of our pilot, if it hadn’t been for Phil Gavins I don’t think we’d be having this conversation quite frankly. You know, he managed to, he kept going straight at the deck and we thought god the wings are going to come off and all credit to the Lancaster, it’s amazing the punishment they could take in evasive actions like that, and he’d be zig-zagging as well at the same time. Once you got coned, you were lucky if you got out of it. He developed a technique for searchlights: he’d dive for so long, bank first quite sharply to starboard and then dive again, and bank quite sharply, port, about this time the searchlights were weaving about trying to pick him up again and he found, and he only did it by experience, he found that that was the most, the safest way of being able to get out of it. And we did obviously. We’re here.
DK: Could you, during your operations, see other aircraft or were you very much alone?
BM: Oh yes. Oh very much so. One of the biggest fears was being, having bombs being dropped on you. We were lucky, we had a new Lancaster which was capable of getting up to about twenty four thousand feet. I say capable, that’s with a full bomb load. Because if you’re at twenty four thousand feet you’re reasonably secure, that people weren’t going to drop their bombs on you. But I shudder to think how many people were lost, you know, because of being, friendly fire we call it these days.
DK: Can you remember how many times you actually went to Berlin then?
BM: Three times.
DK: Three times. And what was the feeling then as, pull the curtain across and you see how far east you’re going?
BM: Well, the weather of course has a lot to do with it as you can imagine and the number of times that we went and it was bright moonlight, and why they sent us out in bright moonlight. I wasn’t on this trip, but a good example is Nuremberg, you know the story of Nuremburg, bright moonlight.
DK: I’ve spoken to a couple of aircrew flying that.
BM: We were lucky, one of our crew had appendicitis and we couldn’t go or something. Otherwise we would have gone to Nuremburg. But it was fatal, it was [emphasis] fatal to go out in bright moonlight; they called it a Fighter’s Moon.
DK: So, you want weather, you don’t want the weather too bad, but you don’t want the weather too good either, do you.
BM: If you’ve got thick cloud there’s always a danger that you’re going to have a collision, you know because by this time you start out stragglers and all close up at the target, and as they all close up of course airspace becomes a bit congested and the number of times that I’ve looked out and found a Lancaster doing this within, you know, sort of within feet of you, type thing. Halifax as well.
DK: Bit scary then was it, somebody looking.
BM: You needed your wits about you the whole time.
DK: So was your aircraft ever damaged at all?
BM: Yes, shot up quite a bit, but because like all Lancs, they got patched up very quickly.
DK: Was the damage serious on any occasion?
BM: Yeah, Kiel, in Kiel we were shot up and when we got back and walked round the aircraft and had a look we couldn’t believe it. You know, bits were missing, big chunks were missing and you thought how on earth did it keep flying?
DK: I was going to say that, coming back to your operation’s finished and you’re flying back. How did that feel as you left the target and on the way home?
BM: Well at one time you’d think that’s it chaps, it’s all over, we’re home, safe and sound and the Luftwaffe got this trick of waiting at your base for you, you know. In fact, our daughter lives in Silverstone, and she lives there because she’s a motor fanatic. Formula One fanatic et cetera. But I had to tell her once, she kept on about Silverstone, and I said look, you don’t realise, I found Silverstone long before you did because I was diverted to it in 1944, early on, and the reason is, coming back to what I was saying, there was a gaggle of night fighters at our base and we’d already had three Lancs who thought they were safe that had been shot down and we were diverted to Silverstone. So we stayed Silverstone overnight and I had to tell her you aren’t the first person at Silverstone!
DK: And what would happen then, at the end of an operation as you get out the aircraft?
BM: Yes, well of course your legs are shaky, stiff as hell, you badly needed a pee, as you can imagine, that was important, sometimes it was just under the aircraft, sometimes you could wait till you got back to the Mess.
DK: You never used the chemical toilet on the aircraft then?
BM: Well moving around a Lancaster is very restricted space, and moving around on any aircraft but on the Lancaster in particular and you’ve got the big bulwark in the super-frame that you’d have to clamber, mid upper gunner’s up there and if you had to get to an elsan you had to go right back, you know. No, it’s better if you can hang on to it, and we did.
DK: So you got back, what happens then?
BM: Right, then you go for debriefing; that’s a very important part. As you got to the mess, firstly you had your operational breakfast. Because they didn’t debrief you until you’d had something to eat. So you had your eggs, you’re privileged to have your eggs and bacon as an operational crew.
DK That was a bit of a privilege then was it, your egg and bacon?
BM: Yes, yes, so we had our eggs and bacon, then you sat down with the intelligence officers, there’s usually more than one, usually two, sometimes three, and depending on where you went and the value of the target. Some targets they knew very little about and they wanted to learn about so they’d keep you there for ever, questions about what was the ack-ack like, what about night fighters, searchlights, everything else. All the questions kept coming and by this time you’re dead tired and all you want to do was get back and get your head down. But that was a very necessary part of it. Took about an hour and a half.
DK: So that’s an operation then. What did you and your crew do when you weren’t operating? Did you socialise?
BM: Keep fit.
DK: Ah. Right, okay.
BM: Keep fit. My skipper, Phil Gavins, was a fitness freak and he, [pause] not basketball, can’t call it basketball, what’s the, the male version of basketball?
DK: That is basketball, isn’t it, netball is the -
[Other]: Netball is the ladies.
DK: Basketball, yeah.
BM: It’s not netball. Oh dear. They have tournaments all the time now. Anyway, when we weren’t flying he’d have us doing something to keep fit. A lot of it of course was. Come on Prue, you’re supposed to prompt me. It’s not basketball.
[Other]: Sorry. Just trying to think myself.
DK: I think it is basketball. Cause netball is –
[Other]: Netball’s the ladies. That’s the only one I know!
DK: It must be basketball.
BM: Anyway, we got good at that, the squadron champions, played very well indeed. So that’s what he had us doing, why, and I was playing squash, and the two things, that and squash together kept you very fit and I think we were probably the fittest crew at the base. I’m quite sure of that.
DK: Really, so you didn’t go off base and socialise out, off the base at all?
BM: Well, towards the end of the war, you never knew when they’d suddenly declare an op, so they tended to keep you on base, you know, have you handy as much as anything else. There was a time early in the war once every two weeks but these were two nights, three nights on the trot, you know, so it was a case of Bomber Harris was determined to keep up maximum effort. And to do that you had to have the crews available.
DK: And as the war’s coming to an end then, how did you feel about that, the war’s end?
BM: Well we didn’t know it was coming to an end, obviously! As far as we’re concerned we were doing a daily job and sort of lucky in my case, came back, they weren’t so lucky so you didn’t count your chickens as it were, you were just very grateful you come back, and you became in the end almost believing that you were invincible. I know it sounds silly, but you thought to yourself crikey, I’ve done this, I’ve done that. You ticked off all the places you’d been to.
[Other]: Indestructible you mean.
BM: Sorry?
[Other]: Indestructible.
DK: Indestructible.
BM: Indestructible or invincible we thought, but indestructible will do. She’s allowed to prompt me! [Laugh] Yes, so towards the end we had our squadron commander, you know, had us build, would you believe, a swimming pool. So we created at Wratting Common a swimming pool which was about forty two feet by about thirty two feet so it was quite massive. Then we ran out of water! [Laugh] He didn’t stop to think. I’ll get them to build a pool, and we all did this, Phil Gavins incidentally was a builder, so he was more or less in charge, supervising any construction, at this stage was just the point. So that occupied him, and because it occupied him, it occupied us, you know, we were, it was immediately compulsory in that effect.
DK: So the make up of your crew then was the pilot was Australian?
BM: Yes.
DK: And the bomb aimer who was Australian.
BM: Yes. Wireless op was Australian.
DK: And can you remember his name?
BM: Phil Holden.
DK: Right. And the Flight engineer?
BM: Ah, flight engineer, Phil Richardson he was a pilot, Brit.
DK: And the wireless operator?
BM: He was an Aussie.
BM: And do you remember his name?
BM: Holden.
DK: Holden. And the rear gunner then.
BM: Jack Earnshaw, he was a Brit.
DK: He was a Brit. So that’s three British, four Australian.
BM: Yes. Then there was Shorty Brown, who took over as navigator.
DK: Right. And he was British as well then.
BM: He was British.
DK: And how did you get on then, how did you work together, was it?
BM: Well that was one of the, if you like, one of the highlights of the crew, we were just like a family, you could have said we were related almost, you know, because just talk about brotherly love, it existed in a high degree in all of us, you know, we played together, we worked together, we drank together as you can imagine and whatever we did, we did together. And it became, talk about bonding, you know, when I, we look back on it even now, I think to myself, how could seven people who’d never known each other develop such a close relationship. And they did.
DK: And presumably as the war’s ended you just got posted away.
BM: Well, the Aussies went home, you can imagine, and the rest of us went about various jobs after the war proper. Now, in my case, I, I don’t know how it happened but I got my name down for Tiger Force. Where in fact we thought that we’d done our share in Europe and that was it and we’d be demobbed and that was the end of it. Not a bit of it. No, no, I was still very young and so still had years on my side as it were, so they said oh no we’re going to put you down for Tiger Force.
DK: Did that come as a bit of a shock then at the time?
BM: It did! Cause we didn’t, they were going to give us Lincolns, I say going to because it didn’t happen, going to give us Lincolns, and what they did for us is to fly us out to Mauripur in India, which is Karachi, fly us out to Mauripur, wait there for the Lincolns to arrive, and then we, as experienced crews, and they only took experienced crews [indecipherable] they didn’t take any new entrants at all. Why? Because we were gonna have to fly alongside the Americans based on Okinawa, to bomb Japan, and what they didn’t want was raw recruits, you know, showing up the RAF if you like, against experienced Americans. So that was the idea. Anyway, the Lincolns, some of them came out, not many, others didn’t.
DK: So you almost got to the Far East then.
BM: Yes.
DK: You got as far as…
BM: Do you want me to carry on? That gets interesting after that. So. Yes. Well, anyway. So we to Mauripur to wait for the Lincolns to arrive, and in the meantime, the American dropped the atom bomb. Now I think then, stupidly, okay pack up your bags and home. Not a bit of it! They said your demob number is down here, and we’ve got people who’ve been in Burma and India and else involved who’s demob number’s up here so they’re going home first and you’re going to stay out here until your demob number comes up. The only thing is they don’t know what to do with us, as you can imagine. You’re not bombing anyone, you’re not killing anyone: so they didn’t know what to do with us, so I won’t, I’ll spare you the in between bits, I spent three months in Mauripur, three months mark you, playing bridge. And I’ve never played bridge since: and I never will!
DK: Did you?
BM: Morning, breakfast: bridge. Tiffin, bridge, afternoon, dinner, bridge, evening, bridge back to eleven o’clock, eight thirty in the morning, bridge! And it went on like that for three months.
DK: Did you get quite good at it?
BM: Well I was, in fact I could probably have played for the country by the time I got back. However, I went down to Ceylon, I was posted to Columbo, to Number 4 Base Postal Unit, let it register with you, Base Postal Unit, in Columbo. Why was that? Because by this time I couldn’t stay as aircrew, so by this time I was remustered as clerk, general duties; and I was a postal clerk. This is funny now, because more interesting later. So I had, what did I have? I had civil training, you know, as a postal clerk, just three weeks, just to make sure that I knew what a postal clerk did I think, as much as anything. So while I was at Columbo, I was only at Columbo for four or five months, probably, about that. By that time the demob numbers got lower and lower and they said right anyone with a certain number is going up to, had been posted to India. And I was posted to Air Headquarters, Delhi, India. This is where it gets interesting. I was there for about two days and I had a message: Mountbatten wants to see you. I thought they’re having me on, you know, [chuckle] why would Mountbatten want to see me? Right, Mountbatten wanted to see me, I was ushered into the great presence, and there was Lord Louis, he said: “hello, I hear you got postal training.” I said, “well y-y-yes I have.” “Good, so you know all about this distribution of mail business.” I said, “well I know what should happen,” he said, “good, because it’s all a bloody mess out here,” he said, “we’ve got people at SEAC, South East Asia Command, who haven’t seen mail for about three months,” he said. “We need someone to take it over: you’re in charge.” Just like that.
DK: For the whole of South East Asia.
BM: For the whole of South East Asia Command. I had my own private Dakota, my own crew, and I could fly to all the outposts, you know, and check out their postal arrangements, and I was to do it on a non-stop basis, just to make sure that this was actually happening and I was attached to Mountbatten’s staff for the best part of fourteen months, doing this.
DK: Did you get a promotion out of it?
BM: I was acting Squadron Leader because I had people I was giving orders to: Flying Officers, Flight Lieutenants et cetera and so on, and I was going to an air base and saying to them, you’ve got to do this, that and the other and they would say who are you? I was Flight Sergeant, who are you, you know, to give us instructions? So I went back to Lord Louis. It’s not going to work. Why isn’t it going to work? Cause nothing as far as he’s concerned couldn’t work, you know, why isn’t it gonna work? I said well, I said if you, would you take orders from a Flight Sergeant? “Oh,” he said, “we’ll soon sort that out!” Press a bell, in came his, what do they call it? Well anyway.
DK: Aide
BM: Aid de Camp came in and he said Acting Squadron Leader. [Chuckles]
DK: There and then!
BM: Acting Squadron Leader posted to you know, South East Command, all these piss parting as he called it, all these piss parting post officers make sure they know that they’ve got an Acting Squadron Leader coming to see them, but I never was a squadron leader, after the war I thought it might stick, but it didn’t.
DK: So were you quite impressed by Mountbatten then?
BM: Yes. If you wanted someone to talk at length about Mountbatten, I could because he was an absolutely wonderful character.
DK: So do you, once you got this posting did you see a lot of him?
BM: Yes, daily basis. I tell you why – perhaps I shouldn’t talk like this about Mountbatten – but he was a rug collector, rug collector, you know. Course he had a private home, as we know, in Romsey, which he wanted to furnish, and he loved the Indian most miserable rugs - I became an expert in rugs - rugs which were twelve foot by eight in the old money, twelve foot by eight and he loved those, and I used to go round picking them up for him with transport of course, bring them back and then send them back to the UK in diplomatic mail. [Laughter] Great big packages, rolled up of course, as much as they could, and then sent back to the UK, diplomatic mail, Lord, Earl Mountbatten.
DK: So these, you were flying these back then were you?
BM: Of course! He had his own private aircraft, as you can imagine, transport.
DK: Did you ever fly with him at all anywhere?
BM: Never did. No, never did. No, I met him at airports and briefed him on things I was I was doing, and he actually briefed me on what he was doing as well: can’t stop, I’ve got to see these so and so’s, you know, blah, blah, blah. But I found him a great character, I enjoyed my time with Mountbatten.
DK: It must have been a shock then, when he was murdered.
BM: Oh, I think I felt it as much as anyone did. Tragic that was.
DK: So how long were you on his staff for?
BM: Fourteen months.
DK: And at that point did you come back to the UK?
BM: I came back to the UK just as the India, the parting of the ways you might say. Pakistan and India was being, you know.
DK: Partitioned.
BM: The things that I saw, I can tell you that I’ve been down to Delhi Station and I watched trains come in with four thousand mutilated bodies on board, when they’d been intercepted on the way from Pakistan to Delhi, and it was tit for tat. It worked the other way as well, you know. But the amount of massacres that there were, you know. Initially it was bandits robbing the trains, but then after that it became more partisan.
DK: Sectarian violence.
DM: Yes. Well, is that holding up?
DK: Yep, no, we’re okay.
BM: There was one occasion where I had to go to, down to Delhi station, rail station and, oh I know what it was, one of our drivers, RAF driver, one of - Garry’s as they were called - one of the drivers had run over what we called the mefloquine boys and these were the chaps who, skin went yellow because of constantly taking you know, tablets that turned them yellow, but they were Buddhist priests, that’s what we were thinking of, memory fails you at times, Buddhist priests, and he ran him over and killed him. And this driver was trapped, and trapped is the right word, in the station master’s office and the stationmaster phoned Air Headquarters and said I don’t know what to do, there’s a mob gathering outside and if I try to get him out, you know, we’re going to have, I’m sure, a killing on our hands. And it could get very ugly can you do something about it? Now we had on our station about thirty Gurkhas, you know. And of course we had great respect for Gurkhas, and my CO there, what was the Air Headquarters Postal Unit, said, chap called Flight Lieutenant Wesley, and Paul Wesley said take a half a dozen Gurkhas in a Garry, go to the station and this is what you do, and I’m grateful to him, he said you’ll go in and get the driver and as you come out, get the Gurkhas to beat him up, you know. So I said beat him up? One of our own blokes? And Paul said it might save his life, because if the mob see him being physically beaten, of course the Gurkhas had what they called lethis l e t h i they were sticks which were copper bound, like a quarterstaff but much shorter and they had these sticks which they all carried and if they didn’t draw their knives, you know, then they used to use these sticks and they could do a lot of damage with. So we got this chap, and I said to him bite a stiff upper lip cause you’re going to take some punishment, he said I don’t mind, I don’t mind if it’s going to save my life.
DK: He understood why as well then.
BM: So we marched him out and he made a big show of shouting and yelling and screaming as it were, you know, marched him out, and he got unceremoniously pushed in the back of the truck and the Gurkhas got in, theoretically still hitting him, but they weren’t, stopping short of actually making contact where they could and so the mob cleared, you know, and we drove through the mob. It cleared reluctantly I might say, but they accepted what they were seeing as punishment, you know, so we managed to get him, he was on the next flight back to the UK. So there was no question of tales getting back, you know, to, as to what happened. So that was that.
DK: What did you think of India at that time then? It must have been quite an amazing place in some ways.
BM: Well it was a hotbed of violence, there was absolutely no doubt about that, and I must say, that there were a lot of immature British Army officers who were giving the wrong instructions and as a result a number of people, a number of Army units fired on Indians that they shouldn’t have done, or needn’t have done, let’s put it that way and all that did of course was add to the feeling.
DK: Provoked the situation.
BM: It did, and it became very ugly. And I recall, when we, I came back from Bombay, and they had a big march of the, and it was purposely chosen that the march of all the Brits who, left in India, there weren’t many of us, about four hundred of us by this time, left, the services this is, civil service as well. We all marched to the docks with the SS Mooltan, always remember the ship, the SS Mooltan was waiting for us, but lining the whole route: Gurkhas. All the way along, about every eight feet or so, there was a Gurkha, and they must have rounded up all the Gurkhas they had, you know, left in that particular territory and they lined the route, and got us safely to, you were asking about the tension like, got us safely, you were asking about what the tension was like, got us all safely to the dockside and we got on board and came home. But we could hear the crowd al swelling and Jahin, Jahin, Jahin. “India for the Indians,” you know, that type of thing.
DK: So you were one of the last to actually leave then.
BM: We were the last.
DK: The actual last.
BM: We were the last, yes. Cause the civil servants were flown out from the airports, you know. Mountbatten of course was immune. He was giving them their country so he was okay.
DK: And is that something you look back on, in India, as, with pride, or bit of a messy period?
BM: I think it was inevitable that it happened, I think it happened too soon, my own private view and after all, after the amount of time I spent there and in the situations that I spent there, I suppose my opinion was a good as anyone’s you think about it. Cause you could analyse what was happening and take stock of the situation probably more than the average person. Yes, it happened too soon, it could have waited because the carving up of the territory, in my view, was a bit messy.
DK: And that’s what led to the massacres you [indecipherable]
BM: Because it wasn’t done properly. I don’t blame Mountbatten, because he started out with a set plan, but then the government, Labour Government in this case, drafted in some civil servants to, if you like, put the civil service stamp on it and the people they drafted in had no experience of India. But the civil servants who were there had been in India for twenty years or more. Why on earth didn’t they leave it to them. You, know. To get it right. No, they brought them home and replaced them.
DK: Those already out there would have had all the local knowledge, wouldn’t they.
BM: They were, they were. But they felt, the thinking was, that they were there, and had been there during the time of the occupation, that they would have been tarred with that brush, you know, they’d have been part of the old regime. So they thought by bringing them back and replacing them with fresh people, you know, that that wouldn’t be the case, but the fresh people just didn’t understand it.
DK: No. So you’ve come back from India then, is that when you were demobbed? Finally.
BM: Yes, I was demobbed in March I think it was, 1947. Yes.
DK: And what did you do after you left the RAF?
BM: Well, I became, initially, I became a motor mechanic because I’d had some years in light engineering motorcycles and things like this and became a motor mechanic for a very short period. Then I became a salesman with automotive parts and things like this, very much uppermost and then I went on from that to engineering, I worked for a while GKN, you know, names that you’d be familiar with, people like Firth Cleveland, GKN, Boscombe Engineering and so on. A number of light engineering to heavy engineering companies, and then I went into exports, where my German came in. And so I had some twenty nine years, I’m ninety three, so I had twenty nine years in exports.
DK: I was surprised that while you were in the RAF your knowledge of German wasn’t used a bit better. Did they know you spoke German?
BM: Oh yes, it was used, for instance when the wireless op was getting messages in German, he’d switch them through to me and say Bert, what’s this bugger talking about. [Laugh] And so I’d listen to it for a while, cause it’s easy to switch it through when you’re flying, I would listen to it for a while, I said he’s giving our position to an absolute n-th degree, you know, because he’s picking it up from that radar. We had an advanced for, at this time which was great, the GH it’s called, ground honing, you’ll know about it of course. GH had one great flaw, it also reversed the track so what happened was that you’d be picking up your position on the ground and the ground was relaying your position to the air, so you put night fighter, fighter squadrons were able to hone in on you because of your honing. So we stopped using that after a while.
DK: And did you remain in touch with your crew after the war?
BM: Yes, in fact we had a couple of reunions at our home, [number of comments in background] not here, but bigger house we had, they came.
[Other]: Was it Kent they came?
BM: Glenpronus Avenue
[Other]: Oh yes, they came there, yes.
BM: And we kept, of course, Christmas cards and bits of news and so on.
DK: You never got out to Australia to see them?
BM: Yes, we did, yes we did, but that’s when I was working for GKN. I was sent out there to sort out some things.
[Other]: We, they met us, didn’t they, at the airport.
BM: Yes. Gave us a conducted tour and when you’ve been flying for eighteen hours the last thing you want is a conducted tour of Sydney!
[Other]: We were dead tired, but we had to go!
DK: There’s no other members of your crew still alive then?
BM: No, I believe [emphasis] I’m still the only member alive.
DK: And all these years later, how do you look back on your time in Bomber Command? All the history and everything that’s gone on since.
BM: Well I think mixed feelings, you know, because obviously when you look back and you thought about what you did, and what it was all about, I think the mixed feelings are that war is useless, as far as I’m concerned war serves no purpose at all, all it does is set one person against the other and when you think of the carnage and everything else you only have to look around you now and see what’s happening in places like Yemen and so on, to realise: total destruction. But when you think about why we did it, we did it because there was a definite purpose: Hitler had to be stopped. And the RAF at that time, in my view, they took pride in what the RAF did. I was appalled, I didn’t know at the time, but I was appalled at the extent of our losses. I mean fifty six thousand, you know, just incredible. And the thing I think now, thinking back on it, they never told us the extent of our losses, had they have done so, I wonder if we’d have gone on as we did. I just wonder.
[Other]: We’ve got very good, two very good friends haven’t we, Germans. Two males.
BM: Yes. We’ve got some good friends, German friends.
DK: So your Germans friends then were alive during the war then?
[Other]: Was Siegfried alive then?
BM: No Siegfried’s younger than us. And Kurt was younger than us. Kurt was -
[Other]: An Austrian.
BM: He was an Austrian but he was part of Hitler Youth!
[Other]:Oh yes.
BM: He was fifteen and part of Hitler Youth.
[Other]: And he’s such a lovely fellow. We’ve got him. And then there’s’ Uta. My friend, and her father. Bert was bombing Germany, and he was bombing us. Isn’t it stupid.
BM: Yes, Coventry. We used to fly in opposite directions, you know. He was a navigator with Dornier 217s I think.
DK: And is he still alive?
[Other]: No, he isn’t. No.
BM: No, he’s dead.
DK: So you visited Germany quite a lot then did you?
BM: We have done. Well, I told you I did twenty nine years in exports and when you’re working for someone like GKN and Firth Cleveland you’re making frequent trips. I used to spend six months of the year, for one period particularly, six months of the year out of the country.
DK: When you were in Germany did the war ever get mentioned at all? Something spoken about?
BM: [Laughter] Occasionally. Yes. We had, it’s a funny and it’s not part of what you want, but we took a holiday in, where was that place in Itia?
[Other]: In where?
BM: Italy, that we use to go to?
[Other]: Sirmione.
DK: Lake Garda.
BM: Lake Garda, Sirmione, we took a holiday I Sirmione and in the same hotel was a German couple and they got to hear us talking and decided they’d like to make friends with the Brits. So it all started out we had dinner with them a couple of times, he then hired a boat and said I’m going to take a trip round the lake, do you want to join us and I said yes, certainly, that’s kind of you so we joined them. And off we went and beers on board and, you know, all sorts of refreshments et cetera, schnapps and what have you, and after a while what did you do in the war. So I said I flew in the RAF. Terror fliege! Terror fliege! That’s what they said. Terror fliege! I said no, not terror fliege, I did a job he was with ack ack as it turned out, so before long it was the ack-ack being revived against, you know, the terror flieges and that was a very short boat trip, all I can say! [Laugh]
[Other]: We never got on with them at all.
BM: No, we came back very quickly. They didn’t talk to us after that and we didn’t talk to them.
[Other]: But we’ve stayed friends with the others.
BM: But I’ve met up with engineers from places like Siemens and AEG and people like this and we’ve had these sorts of discussions, but generally speaking people said it’s history.
[Other]: Well we had to do it, didn’t we. I mean what else?
BM: I mean Siegfried’s a good example, we met him in Makrat, in Spain on holiday and we’ve known them ever since, in 1962 so we’ve kept that relationship going the whole time.
[Other]: And she saved me, Bert was putting, I was very badly burnt, we didn’t know what we were doing, and I was badly burnt on my back and Bert was putting oil on top and she came over, that’s how we met, she came over and knocked the bottle of the, bottle out of his hand and practically knocked you over!
BM: Put you under a cold shower.
[Other]: Picked me up and put me under a cold shower.
BM: She’s a big girl! [Laughter]
[Other]: So that was, you know, just to show that it’s.
DK: Okay that’s great, I think we’ll stop there.
BM: Have I talked too much?
DK:, No, that’s been absolutely marvellous,
BM: Are you sure?
DK: No, great. Thanks for that.

Collection

Citation

David Kavanagh, “Interview with Bert Mason,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed August 10, 2022, https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/document/10625.

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