Interview with Bernard Walter Culpin


Interview with Bernard Walter Culpin
Interview with Bob Culpin


Bob Culpin worked for the civil service before joining the RAF in 1941. He was posted to Alabama for pilot training but was remustered and instead, completed a navigation course in Miami. When he returned to Great Britain, Culpin formed a mixed-nationality crew and trained on Wellingtons and Halifaxes. After joining 405 Squadron, they undertook coastal command patrols from RAF Beaulieu, before moving to RAF Gransden Lodge in 1943. He describes their role as ‘backers-up’ and ‘recentres’ during Pathfinder operations, the circumstances surrounding his promotion to navigation leader, and difficult trips to Hamburg and Peenemünde. Culpin's operational flying ended after he was injured in a car accident. After the war, he briefly returned to the civil service before re-joining the RAF until his retirement in 1976.




Temporal Coverage




01:22:35 audio recording


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ACulpinBW180530, PCulpinBW1801


RP: This interview is being conducted on behalf of the International Bomber Command Centre. The interviewer is Rod Pickles, the interviewee is Bob Culpin. The interview is taking place at the home of Mr Culpin’s daughter in Devon, on the 30th of May 2018, also present is Heather Culpin. Well good afternoon Bob, and many thanks for inviting me for this interview, I’m delighted to be here. If we could start by giving me a little bit of your background, when and where you were born and what lead you to join the RAF?
BC: Right, I was at school in Yorkshire, a mining village called Swanton, (not many people know it) I took scholarship exam, passed that, went to secondary school. I was very young, only just under ten when I went so, I was one of the youngest in the form, about a year younger than the others. I never did have any writing lessons which was why my writings so awful these days, and went to the secondary school. My father was a railway driver, locomotive driver, he passed away when I was four years old. He was coming back from a shift on the railway, walking at night, on a Saturday evening. He was a very religious man, he used to preach in the local parish, not the parish church, the chapel, and we think he was mentally composing his sermon as he’s walking back, didn’t realise there was a train coming up behind and he hit him and broke his arm and various other injuries, he didn’t seem to badly hurt I gather, but he developed pneumonia and passed away in hospital a couple of weeks later. So, my mum had then had three children, myself, my brother was three years older, my sister was three years older than him. My sister was at secondary school at that time, or nearly there, my brother and I were at the local council school. He passed the scholarship, went to the secondary school, I followed and did the same, so three of us went to the same school. It had been a grammar school, they downgraded to secondary school, luckily, we had a headmaster who was grammar school inclined so he kept that sort of atmosphere going. So, we all enjoyed the school. Then the war loomed up later, when I was just about the leave the school, I was going to join a bank, but I’d taken a civil service exam and passed that so I switched to going to join the civil service. My sister meanwhile was teaching [unclear] and had married, my brother, being three years older was nineteen, he’d been called up before the war started and was one of the Z reserves, I think they called them, and I was still at school. No, sorry I’d left school, I was back in the civil service, in the civil service there. So, it came to the stage where gradually the men left the office where I was in and they were all- Nearly all the girls and me and a couple of old First World War veterans [unclear] and somebody else. [Unclear] was the sort of chap who used the say to the girls, ‘It was too big to throw itself on the parish,’ and he used to love frightening them talking about First World War and, ‘They don’t like it up ‘em,’ that sort of thing, you know, [chuckles], typical [unclear]. Anyway, it came to the stage where I was the only bloke and- No there was myself and one other, a youngster, and I decided to join the service, what did I want to do? I want to fly, everybody wanted to fly in those days. My brother meantime, was- Had finished his training and he went over to France for the first batch of people who went to France. So, I decided- I joined the air force, went down to the station to catch the train to Cardington because I’d had- On my medical I'd been train sick oddly enough, and the doc who was doing the medical interview said, ‘I’ll have to do an air test, is that alright?’, I said, ‘Yes, I don’t mind, I think I’ll enjoy it’. Anyway, I went down to Cardington, they gave a little ride in it- A little light aircraft and did loops and all sorts of things and I thoroughly enjoyed it, and when I went back, they said, ‘Right, you’re fit to fly.’
RP: So, what year was this then Bob, what year was?
BC: That would be 1942.
RP: Ok.
BC: No earlier than that. 1941, let me just have a look.
RP: 1941.
BC: So-
HC: Yep, January 1941.
RP: That would be 1941, ok. So, you’ve gone- You’re at Cardington, what happens next then?
BC: I was cleared to fly so I went back and eventually got my calling up papers. Went down to the station and met another young bloke who’d been in the same form with me before we joined the civil service, and he was going off to the same thing, so we travelled by train to ACRC in London, where we got fed in the Lords Cricket Ground and in the zoo [chuckles] all over the place in London, and eventually did IT (initial training) which was just marching and drill, getting uniforms and stuff. Finished that, and went to (that was initial training) OTU, where we learnt a little bit more about flying and aircraft recognition and that sort of stuff, and eventually went to a unit to select a crew, all turned up in a hanger and that’s where I met Ron. Must tell you, before the OTU, I did my training in America, I’d been selected to be a pilot. So, we went on the Arnold draft on the good ship Highland Princess. Mainly aircrew going across in a convoy to start with, we all had a job as lookouts or U-Boat searchers or looking for anything unusual. We had a nice calm day to start with and we got- About the second day out when we saw- Somebody identified as a Condor overhead a German ship. So, all the U-Boats in the [unclear] there sorting us out. So, whoever was in charge of the convoy took the decision that the Highland Princess, with one destroyer would leave the convoy and shoot off for America or Canada. So, we left the convoy and then we had rough weather the next day, the destroyer kept going out of sight, under the waves sort of thing. The Captain didn’t come and do his parade in the morning, he was too sick they said [laughs]. Anyway, that went on for a couple of days and then we got mid-Atlantic, got better and then we hit Fogo[?] off Newfoundland, and- So it took us about ten days altogether to cross the Atlantic. Anyway, we got off at Brunswick[?], New- Nova Scotia up there, took a train down to Toronto and there we were reselected sort of thing to various measured training units, they were just starting this, it was the Arnold draft, it was just that they were American teaching English pilots I think, and my destination was Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
RP: Gosh [both laugh]
BC: And I had a wonderful time there, the Americans didn’t quite know how to take it at first, and at Christmas we were annoyed because the- They’d had another little base alert [unclear], the Japs were coming sort of thing.
RP: Oh yes, yeah.
BC: And we were confined to barracks, we’d all got Christmas destination in Birmingham, Alabama, with families and they kept us in. So, after a few hours we thought, ‘No,’ and we quietly dispersed and went to our Christmas place. When we came back, some of them came back a bit early and they got American civil service[?] guarding us then, guarding the camp, and when they got back there was a [unclear] fight immediately, the Americans rushed in with guns [unclear], and eventually [unclear], and left us alone but one chap has been fired upon the boundary, or fired towards we never knew what- I don’t think they fired at him but he always said, ‘Yeah, they tried to shoot me’ [laughs].
RP: Well, it’s a good story isn’t it.
BC: Yeah. Anyway, when we’d- Christmas over, we started our flying on Stearmans, a heavy version of the Tiger Moth but much heavier, and we started with American civil instructors. We had all our air flight [unclear] with us, and the American instructors each had about three students on average, some two, some three. Mine had three and he wasn’t bloke I liked at all which was a pity, and he didn’t like me very much. He was shocked that people could be learning to fly when they couldn’t even drive a car, never mind, he couldn’t even ride a bike and never driven a car and they tried to teach him to fly fighters, and instead of taking the view that we’re just teaching them to fly, so he decided I was landing too near the fence, a bit too low, I was always skimming the fence by the hut you see, but he didn’t- He wanted more than this, on a [unclear] and eventually he put me up for suspension and I was sculpt[?] by the senior instructor. Oh no, before I was sculpt[?], I was passed to another instructor, he’d already sculpted[?] his three, so I was his fourth and he didn’t keep me long before he put me up for suspension, so they got rid of me, and- I went on the train back to Moncton, to Canada, lovely East Coast train, I think [unclear] stopping off at little towns and getting out, having a meal, getting back on the train, it was a lovely outing. Up to Moncton, and in the order room, three of us had got together and we learnt there’s a navigation course in Miami, and we thought that’s better than going home having done nothing, having been to America. So, we nipped down to the order room and said, ‘Is there a navigation course in Miami?’ said, ‘Yeah, they’re going to start one up, it’s not started yet, they’ll be going down soon’. I said, ‘Anymore vacancies?’ and, ‘Oh no, no I don’t think so’. Anyway, the other two piped up and said, ‘Oh yeah, you can fit us in in time, just pop the names on the train,’ and so he said, ‘Yes, alright’. So, he put the tree of us on it and we all went down to Miami, and we were training in the university there, which was a wonderful atmosphere, not like a British university in those days. The lecturers were very informal, one of them took us [unclear] through the grounds one morning, and the girls were saying ‘Hi Reg, hi [unclear]’ to the senior supervisor, which wouldn’t in a British university in those days, it might now. Anyway, flying training was on Commodore, which was the prototype Catalina
RP: Oh yeah.
BC: So, we had to get on a little boat to go out to the things and when we came back, we landed on the water with a splash, and it was lovely, we enjoyed it, and we got to know a very good family there, who entertained us, they had a house on the beach. She called herself Lady Merrio[?] and she got a title from somewhere, Spanish I think, but she also had marvellous soirée’s, and the three of us used to go along. One bloke who- Paddy who could play the piano and she used to get people down from New York to sing. Lovely stuff and weekends we’d spend there, there was a queue of cars always outside university on a Friday evening to take kids around all over the place. Anyway, finally finished the course [unclear] you weren’t commissioned or anything, [unclear] can have flying badges, they hadn’t. But went back from there, eventually Moncton and back to the UK and that’s when we went to Bobbington, which was a- Well a familiarisation place ‘cause we’d been flying in blue sky all the time. So, we had some flying at night in bad weather just to get used to, then we went OTU, to sort the crews out and as I say we joined- I mated up with Ron Mill, Ron, the New Zealander, he’d seen Harry Young the only engineering pilot on this [unclear] OTU, so we joined him. Then I’d had a chat with one of the wireless ops, he was a Welshman, Danny Langley, so we found him and he joined us. We went to see Harry Gowan and- Who else was there? Anyway, we went to see Harry Gowan and he was quite happy, he liked this mixed bunch he’d got in front of him, so we joined up with him and so we just went off and registered and they put us as a crew together. So, it was a New Zealander, a Canadian pilot, a Yorkshire navigator- Oh the rear gunner, they joined us later, the gunners. Anyway, this was at OTU and we were- While we were there, about a couple of weeks, they lost a lot of the instructors because we had one the thousand-bomber raids, quite a few of their instructors were lost on these. We were meantime, going to the local pub and we found out there that Ron- Freddie Mace[?] was the other, the rear gunner, he was a cockney, and we found out that he was a News of the World darts champion and Danny Langley was also a good darts player, and we found that they locals were taking the Americans who were billeted there for a ride by saying, ‘Oh let's play for a barrel of beer,’ or ‘Let’s play for a round’, and so Danny and Freddie Mace, his name was [unclear] though we always called him Freddie. Danny and Freddie decided they’d get a bit of revenge for the Americans, so they went and played a board very badly, well not too badly, and then did another one and managed to lose that between them, and one of the locals suggested they play- We play for pints and Danny Langley said, ‘No let’s play for a round for the whole pub,’ and, ‘Oh sure,’ and they then just played for, sixty, hundred-and-twenty, oh it was marvellous to watch and the faces of the locals fell [chuckles] and they bought the round for the whole lot, but we’d done our little bit for the Americans there [chuckles].
RP: Did they ever find out he was a darts champion?
BC: I don’t think so ‘cause we weren’t there very long, but it was only the local News of The World champion and- But it was quite a fair feet.
RP: Well yes.
BC: Anyway- OTU we left there, were posted to a heavy con unit, yes to a- Oh, went to Wellingtons first, we’d been flying Wellingtons at the OTU and then we went to Halifaxes and- At the con unit which we converted to four engine bombers. That’s where we picked up our engineer who was a Canadian, who’d been everything, a [unclear], garage attendant-
RP: Gosh.
BC: But he knew all about engines.
RP: Which is the main thing [chuckles]
BC: Great thing, yeah, and that’s where we picked up a-
RP: So, from the OTU, what was your first actual RAF station that you- When you flew your first sortie?
BC: Yes, after we [unclear] done the conversion unit, we were posted 405 Squadron.
RP: Right
BC: And that was [unclear] from 6 Group. So, we went up there and we learnt almost straight away that instead of being in bomber command, the squadron was going to detach to coastal command to cover the Bay of Biscay patrols and the Atlantic patrols, while coastal command was looking after the North Africa landings.
RP: Right [chuckles].
BC: So, we had a change of scenery and we went and joined- We were posted out of Beaulieu in the-
RP: Oh right, was that in the Halifax?
BC: In the Halifax, yes, yeah.
RP: Ok.
BC: And we did these sorties, they were quite long sorties, eight hours and ten hours some of them, at low level because you couldn’t do a sub patrol without being low. I suppose hundred feet, something like that. Navigating was difficult because we’d got no navigation aids, they [unclear] just flew in lanes, good old-fashioned minus method of flying in the wind, the wind drift and the direction of the white chaps[?]. I forget the system but if you worked out what the local wind was at low level, and it was always great when after eight or ten hours we came back and hit Bishop Rock[?] lighthouse right on the nose, you think, ‘Oh it wasn’t bad’ [chuckles].
RP: That’s very good.
BC: And we never had any excitement. Oh, just one occasion when Ron Mill would say, ‘Oh, hi, bomb doors open,’ and opened bomb doors, I say, ‘Well there’s a convoy just ahead.’ But luckily this- The convoy started firing the colours of the day, on our colours of the day, not the Germans. So, Ron said, ‘Oh, close bomb doors’ [chuckles] and meantime the destroyers on the convoy were coming nearer to get a better shot at us. So, we head off as fast as we could. We later did a wee check, and the convoy shouldn’t of been where it was, it wasn’t our fault that we didn’t know about this convoy, it was only a small convoy but, several destroyers with some ships. Anyway, all the time we were there, I think the crews- We only had submarine attack that wasn’t very successful it [unclear] and then we were back in 6 Group again. So, we went up to Topcliffe and Leeming. They couldn’t decide which one we wanted to be at so some aircraft at Topcliffe, some at Leeming and some down at Beaulieu. My twenty-first birthday was down at Beaulieu in a mud hut with- When we first went down, an empty landscape, mud and a little sergeant’s mess, we went and got a little thing of beer, carried it through the hut and that was my-
RP: That was your twenty-first birthday.
BC: Twenty-first birthday.
RP: Oh dear [both laugh].
BC: Anyway, when we were back at Topcliffe, they finally decided that this was going to be the 6 Group squadron that was going to join the pathfinders. So, before we did any flying, we knew we were going to move again, and eventually we did move to Gransden Lodge, near Cambridge and we started flying from there.
RP: So, your first op from Gransden Lodge was what date then, Bob?
BC: Well on the 27th of April 1943, and its ops on Duisburg, and it was a good one for us to train in because we got coned by searchlights on the first run, and we didn’t- We never saw or got near searchlights before, never been cordoned by them. My little office was all lit up bright, and Harry Gowan, we called him Harry Ousley[?] but, Harry said, ‘What the hell do I do?’ and luckily the flight engineer said, ‘Kick the ruddy nose down Harry,’ [chuckles] which Harry duly did, and we eventually emerged from this searchlight cone, but of course taking a nosedive, everything on my table got airborne, I got airborne, pencils and things, catalogue on the floor, I thought, ‘Christ.’ [chuckles]
RP: Making it a steep dive, was he?
BC: And, everything, I hit the roof in the head.
RP: Really?
BC: Yep, anyway that was good training we thought-
RP: Didn’t know what to do next?
BC: Get out of it quickly before the get you-
RP: I think that was the secret wasn’t it? To get out of it quickly?
BC: Yep, and then we did- Oh we, in that process we got several holes, fifty-three holes, our ground crew always loved counting how many flak holes we got, or [unclear].
RP: Dear, fifty-three?
BC: Fifty-three on that-
RP: And this was on Halifax, yes?
BC: Yeah, the bomb that- Fourteen-thousand, or eight-thousand instead of eighteen-thousand, once we got down, we couldn’t get back up again.
RP: Oh right [chuckles].
BC: Then we did a series of Essen ones, Dortmund and Bochum, lots of searchlights, only one hole at Dortmund. Duisburg that was only our third op, so we were still beginners really. We had at tragedy, our bomb aimer Ron, couldn’t for some reason be with us, we got another bomb aimer who was new on the squadron, and soon after we left the British coast, he started saying he didn’t feel well. Anyway eventually, we couldn’t get a reply from him, then I went down to have a look at him, I thought his oxygen mask must be loose, but he was out cold, unconscious and I tried to get him to come round. So, I told Harry, I said, ‘Look, this chap,’ (I didn’t even know his name then) ‘is unconscious, I think it’s probably a sort of fear thing that he’s got but I can’t get him round, what to do?’ Well, we’d only just left the English coast, long way to go to the target, long way back again, he’ll be dead by the time we get back if we don’t do anything. So, I said, ‘I think, and the CO won’t like it, but I think we take him back’. So, we turned round and brought him back, and we did get a [unclear] but, said, ‘Yeah, it was the right thing to do really,’ because you couldn’t take him there and back again, and we hadn’t-
RP: Did he survive?
BC: We were only a straight-forward bomber, weren’t doing pathfinder stuff then.
RP: Did the chap survive?
BC: Oh yes, well he was sent straight back to 6 Group and back to Canada.
RP: Oh right.
BC: So, we never did know any more about him. Then bottom searchlights, Dortmund, little opposition, started being PFF backers-up then. Backers-up went in with the early markers so they weren’t alone and we went-
RP: So, being part of the pathfinders group, you weren’t actually- You were behind the people doing the marking? You did the bombing?
BC: No, yeah, at this stage we were- Somewhere in this is a period where we didn’t do any ops for a week or two, and we did pathfinder training, marking and that sort of thing, and we quickly became- Initially you became backers-up, you went in early with the first markers.
RP: Oh right.
BC: Then later on you’d be backing up any other new markers if they want a visual resetting. So that went on, and we quickly became professional as the- Oh visual markers, Harry Gowan- Ron who was an excellent bomb aimer said to him on one occasion, it was on a Berlin flight, bit later than this, when we were doing the running to the target, and Ron was doing his normal, ‘Left, left, left two degrees, steady, bomb doors open, left, steady, oh, gee Harry I'm sorry we’ve overshot’ [laughs].
RP: So, you have to go all the way around again?
BC: We had to go-
RP: Oh dear
BC: And it was twenty minutes later we, we bombed the second time.
RP: Was it cloudy or something or did he just miss it?
BC: It just- Well it was smoky down below and he just missed it, misty and smoky.
RP: Oh dear.
BC: And somehow, he just missed it.
RP: Yeah [chuckles].
BC: Anyway, we went on to do, [unclear], Cologne, Aachen, then Hamburg, this was in July ‘43, we did the four ops on Hamburg, it was on the 24th of July, 22nd of August-
RP: And this was still in the Halifax then, yeah, you’re still flying the Halifax?
BC: I’ve turned over two pages, yeah, still flying the Halifax on the 24th of July, on the 27th of July, on the 29th of July. But on the first of these, the night- A couple of nights before we’d done Aachen, we got holes in the main plane and the bomb bay. That was a scary one, because the piece of flak- I was sort of sitting doing my charts here, Ron was sitting there with the radar- I’m just thinking of that, I’ll tell you what Ron’s habit used to be. As we took off, Ron and I would be at my table and Ron, New Zealander, would always turn round to me and say, with his mic off say, ‘Hello [emphasis] death,’ and eventually I joined him. We both did this ritual, habit it were, until one day [laughing] when Ron left his mic on and the rest of the crew heard ‘Hello death’ which didn’t please them at all [chuckles]. Anyway, we stopped it when- On the first Hamburg trip, Mac the mid-upper gunner, the French-Canadian got a piece of flak in his stomach, and Danny had to look after him. He wouldn’t have any morphine, he was taken to hospital as soon as we landed, but he died eight days later. So, we stopped that ritual then, it hadn’t worked sort of thing.
RP: So you got another crew member coming in then?
BC: Yeah, and it was a pity because Mac was a lovely, contrast to Ron, Ron who was a quiet New Zealander, whereas Mac was a noisy French-Canadian, and Mac was very loyal, he was always very loyal, he was a royalist, royal family couldn’t do wrong. Mac used to, being French, used to take the micky out of Ron and his royalty, ‘Who elected them then?’ [laughs]. They used to fight, but they always went on leave together and I used to join them, so we used to go down to London for the weekend very often, and once we had a stand there, and where’d I got to with- Yeah, the first of those Hamburg trips we were badly holed. The second Hamburg trip the port outer engine caught fire, it was feathered over the target. The third trip we were coned on the first run in and had a couple of wee holes in the aircraft from flak, and on the last Hamburg trip, which was only a few days later, a thunderstorm iced up, was losing height, couldn’t make the height, and eventually had to jettison before the target, otherwise we wouldn’t of stayed above ground. So, that was the fourth Hamburg, Hamburg wasn’t a good place for us. Then we went on a longer distance, [unclear] and then eventually Peenemünde where we had an interesting role, the way they shifted the aiming point from the first group aircraft, first few-hundred aircraft, the second few-hundred and the third few-hundred, up the side of this- Well then, where the sea started, on the coast, and all the buildings were that way, and the earliest ones should’ve got the west attack from the first lot, then we came in as recentres and by using a false setting on the bomb site, they’d worked out that it was above aiming point just enough to get the next lot of serious buildings, and then after that there was another five, ten minutes, whatever, and another set of recentres would come in and they’d do the same and have a third aiming point. As it worked out, we could tell from the photograph it worked out not badly, but unfortunately the very first flock on the first target before any recentrering or anything came in was- Had taken the data of wrong H2S point, so that was out and the other west wing [unclear] saw the bombs going in the sea.
RP: Oh dear, they missed.
BC: So, as we had to take the centre of the next lot, whatever we did was tenfold a bit, wouldn’t saw it wasn’t too fierce but it did mean we killed a lot of civilian workers instead of German technicians and we missed some of the main development plants. But on the whole it was quite a-
RP: So, were you still flying the Halifax then?
BC: Yes, I think so, yes Halifax
RP: How soon before you took on the Lancaster then? Did you change to Lancasters that year?
BC: Halifax on the 17th August Peenemünde 27th of August, 22nd of August, Lancaster.
RP: Oh, so did you not go for any further training on the Lancaster then?
BC: We had a couple of days.
RP: Just a couple of days [chuckles]
BC: We went out as a crew, and Harry got his handbook out, read all about it, we did, I think it was-
RP: So, didn’t go away to an OCU for Lancasters then?
BC: No.
RP: Goodness me.
BC: No, we just straight into them.
RP: Gosh.
BC: It was a Halifax on the 22nd of August, on the same day we flew a Lancaster, and then the next day we did Lancaster to Berlin, and it was Lancasters from then on. So, we only had a couple of days to get used to the Lancaster, but it was so much better. Just reverting, if I may?
RP: Yes certainly.
BC: What I was talking about being air sick on the thing at the beginning of my training. When I first- We first started flying ops, the instruction was to barrel roll all the way to the target, doing that. That made me as sick as a pig, and the ground force left a little bunch of sick bags on my nav table-
RP: You had a reputation then [chuckles]?
BC: Yeah, and I couldn’t help it, but it made it messy, you tried to be sick and tried to work out-
RP: I can imagine.
BC: But anyway once we were pathfinders, qualified medic said, ‘Don’t muck around with this [unclear] straight to the target.’
RP: Straight there, yeah.
BC: ‘Or straight to the training point, straight back, fast as you can,’ and I was not air sick seriously after that at all.
RP: So, if you’re flying straight and level, no problem.
BC: I was alright, it was when we were barrel rolling that my stomach didn’t have a hold of its own, but luckily that didn’t last too long, and as we were pathfinders most of the time, it was alright.
RP: So were you with the pathfinders from then till the end of the war, was that your last-
BC: I was with the same squadron, yeah.
RP: Same squadron, ok.
BC: Anyway, we went on [unclear]. There was only one- I did quite a few, sixteen Berlin trips-
RP: Gosh.
BC: - and they were long ones.
RP: Was that the longest trip was it? Berlin?
BC: Yeah, seven and eight hours forty, eight hours forty, seven fifteen, eight forty, six fifteen, quite long trips.
RP: That’s a long trip
BC: There was only once in the whole time I flew with Harry Gowan that we came- Nearly came to blows or, cross purposes. We were coming back from bombing Berlin, having always thought it was, and the H2S wasn’t working, Ron couldn’t get anything out of it, and I was coming back on after [unclear] gave me latitude line and [unclear] from the probable air speed, I can work out a probable position, and I just had this feeling we’re getting a bit north of that[?] although the flight shots[?] were putting us more that, but it was only minus, I wasn’t too worried about it then. Suddenly, out of the blue Harry piped up the, ‘Look there’s a searchlight ahead, I’m going to alter course,’ I said, ‘Which way?’ he said, ‘Left,’ I said, ‘No, I think we’re all right here, the searchlight will be heading straight forward if we keep going.’ And then Ron gave me a nudge and said, ‘Look,’ and he’d got a picture and it showed that there was a big built-up area right ahead, a city. So, I said, ‘Harry, you can’t alter course that way, stay as you are and you’ll be all right,’ said, ‘No, no I’m not going into that searchlight,’ I said, ‘Well it’s only one, there’ll be a lot more if we turn and go into.’ He said, ‘No, I'm going to miss this one,’ I said, ‘Right Harry,’ I didn’t know what to say, I said, ‘Look there’s, just had a picture this big city, you’ll be a lot more safe coming up soon,’ and he said, ‘Well, there’s another one I can see now as well,’ I said, ‘Yeah there will be, they’ll be a lot more soon.’ ‘Well, no it’s clear down to the left,’ so I said, ‘Ok Harry, you take over the navigation, I'm just nipping back to get my parachute’ [chuckles] and that made him think I was a bit serious, and Ron then piped out ‘I’ve got it again look, Harry you’re heading for another great city.’ ‘Oh,’ and he was quite for a bit and said, ‘Which way do you want me to go?’. [Unclear] I had a heading that took us clear, this- Quite a drastic one, you know a right angle, and luckily at that time the city started opening up in searchlights, so Harry could see on his right searchlights opening up and we were heading away from them now. That was awfully poor, and we took a day or two to get over that one because it’s the first time he’d queried our advice from the office
RP: So, what, do you know what the city was? What city it was, did you know?
BC: I don’t remember, I often wonder, I must get my log book out and work it out.
RP: Ok, so, one thing while you were obviously being posted around, what rank were you by the time you got to Lancs? What rank was-
BC: At this stage- Harry’s was amazing, I’ll just tell you his. Yeah, the squadron lost most of its senior staff on one of the raids, and as a result Harry Gowan became a flight commander, he was a sergeant in December ‘42. Still sergeant in December, yep, this is where it gets interesting. A sergeant in March ‘43, a pilot officer in May ‘43. Pilot officer continued all through that time, and that’s where the squadron lost a lot of crews, in October ‘43 Harry was a pilot officer, 7th of October flight lieutenant.
RP: Oh right.
BC: By November he was a squadron leader.
RP: Gosh, what about yourself?
BC: Myself, I- I was commissioned sometime after Harry, and then the Canadians had a policy that all their crew should be commissioned, so gradually- I was next after Harry and I became- It’s a long story, I’d been nav leader when I first- When we first lost this group of senior men, including the nav officer, and I'd been nav leader as an Englishman, but the Canadians in 6 Group, the [unclear] at 6 Group decided that it’s time the Canadian’s had Canadian squadron commanders, Canadian flight commanders and Canadian section leaders, because until then all the wheels had been English, and this edict came down, so I had to hand over as nav leader to Glen Ode[?] who was the CO’s navigator. But we, between ourselves sorted out that we don’t need to be on ops the same night, let’s take it in turns reasonably, you be the main one, but I can take over some of the nights and do some of the briefings, and some of the [unclear]. ‘Cause the navigators job was busy and then you have an op, you got the- According to the op, you eventually found out where the target was, what the route was, what the timing was, so then I had to sit down and work out a flight plan on the best available wind, which would give a time of start, we allowed about five ten minutes to make up time in case the wind was adverse, and work out a flight plan, from that the squadron commander could work out start up time, taxi time, take off time, that sort of thing, and all of this of course flying meals, the time of those. So it meant I was busy straight away, as soon as we knew what the target was and what the timing was, oh and the route, that came from Group as well. So, it took you a bit and if you’d- Yourself, you had your own log to do, flight plan as well as this one for the whole squadron, and then at the end of it you might have interrogation to do, find out how things had gone and that sort of thing. So, it was quite a busy time as nav leader, so Glen Ode[?] and myself decided that we’d split this a bit between us. I stayed on the squadron, by then my pilot had gone, by then Millwood[?] was nearly going, he was the wing commander who’d come down from 6 Group to take my pilot’s, Harry Gowan’s place. He had one of the most exciting moments there, you were always getting fighter types, we had I think three that were all in Milwoods[?] time, I’ve got the paperwork on them here somewhere, and on one night we came back and he was groaning about being in pain, stomach pain, and I said, ‘Not been hit by anything?’, ‘No, no, no it’s just indigestion sort of pain.’ And when we got back to base, we started landed, he was saying to the engineer, I don’t know what the engineer history was, ‘Come and help me push this stick down, I can’t get it down.’ So, this engineer was helping him push the stick forward, we landed, bit of a bump, landed, and only then the engineer said, ‘You’ve still got the George in,’ the artificial automatic pilot, and he’d still got the automatic pilot on, that was trying to keep everything level, he was trying to push it down. So, lucky we got away with that because usually that leads to trouble. Anyway, he’d got appendicitis and he was at hospital for a week after that.
RP: Yeah, so we’ll go back to- What rank were you at this time then?
BC: I was, no idea here-
HC: You could say that story about how you got promoted when you were in the pub?
BC: What?
HC: That story about when he got promoted from being in the pub, when you were having whisky?
BC: Oh yeah, I've mentioned that slightly, shall we do that in full?
HC: Yeah
BC: Oh, yeah, when I’d said that they’d lost a lot on one of the wheels, we’d been- We’d had our thing, we were having our six weeks leave and it was due to start on the Saturday. On the Friday, quite late in the morning, we had a squadron stand down, so as always happened we decided that’s it, leave starts. It was normal practice if you were stood down for the day. So, we went off, usually, Ron, Mill (New Zealander), Mac the mid-upper who died, and myself would got to London. Danny Langley had a wife in London, he would either go there or he and his very understanding wife, had an arrangement that he had a girlfriend up near Gransden, yet she didn’t mind if he went to see because this girlfriend's husband was in hospital with, used to be a dangerous disease but it’s gone now, anyway he was dying, and so Danny Langley’s wife didn’t mind him going and comforting her if they were stood down. Just on one occasion, Danny had gone, not on this occasion, on the one occasion he’d go before time and he’d been sent to the- It was like a prison almost, detention centre for a week, just to get his- Stop him leaving early and that sort of thing. Anyway, on this occasion we decided we’d all go on leave, so Danny went off to see his girlfriend, Harry Gowan who was very religious, had a girlfriend in Wales, and he [unclear] girlfriend, a very nice girl, so he went off to see her, and the three of us would head to Cambridge, have a drink and go and get a train to London. So, we went to Cambridge, a little pub, the landlady came out, it was nearly closing time then, landlady came out and said, ‘Oh boys I've got a lovely scotch liqueur, scotch, beautiful, come look in the back room and have a drink.’ So, we went back with her, she had this little tub of a liqueur, it was a scotch [unclear], I think that’s what it was, it was beautiful, smooth, lovely. So, we had several of these, and then we thought, well we better get the train, and we went and got the train to London, had our leave, came back, ‘CO wants to see you first thing in the morning.’ I thought, ‘What have we done? Was it because we went away early?’ We found out there that they’d lost- They had to make up a crew to make up our crew. The stand down had been cancelled which was very rare, and they’d got our squadron on again, and it was [unclear] a little French-Canadian man who was our CO, and he had it all in standing at attention in front of him and he said, ‘You went away on your leave early, didn’t you?’ and we said, ‘Well, it was a stand down,’ ‘Aha but you’re not on leave until the day of your leave, which was Saturday,’ and he argued the point a bit. Anyway, he said, ‘That’s beside the point, we’ve lost our nav leader, our [unclear] leader, our flight commander, we had to make a crew and they all went. So unfortunately, Gowan, you have to be a squadron, you’ll be flight commander, Culpin you be nav leader, Mill bombing leader’ - And I don’t think it matters as Langley [unclear], I don’t remember whether he was leader or not. Anyway, we all got new responsibility, promotion in rank because we’d gone on leave early. I thought it was ironic but unfortunate for the chaps who’d had to make up a scratch crew, because we didn’t like strangers in the crew. I think I was the only one on the squadron that nobody minded having in the crew as a stand-by ‘cause I always got away with it, I was always lucky. So that was how that came about, the thing that Heather was mentioning, and- Oh and then this order came down, we took it in turns to.
RP: So, as nav leader then, what happened after that then? You mentioned that you had to swap?
BC: Yeah, well we shared the duty, and I used to hate being in the ops room the way it turned out sometimes because there was the morning room and they put the times of arrival on the board, and then one of the ops girls, I got to know very well, but she had an Australian boyfriend who was a pilot on the squadron, and I was in the ops room with her who was in the cabinet looking at the board, watching the aircraft come in, and Bill Chase this, Australian’s aircraft number didn’t appear, and didn’t appear, and it became clear that he wasn’t going to return, and she was very upset. But one of the quietest, happiest moments I'd known on the squadron, a few weeks later she- We were in the ops room (she was sergeant by the way) I said, ‘Why don’t we cycle out to Eltisley and have an egg on toast?’ There was a little private house in Eltisley, little village near us, where the lady had access to eggs, and for aircrew she would always produce poached egg on toast.
RP: Oh right.
BC: So, I said, ‘Oh yes,’ so we [phone rings].
RP: So, in August 1944, obviously things were starting to change, when did that sort of feeling that the war was being won come to you? Did people start to realise that you were winning?
BC: I think to us it was when we saw the shipping in the channel, we’re off on a- Attacking a target in the [unclear] or whatever it is there, [unclear] bomb site, something like that, and everywhere we saw lots of shipping sightings, along the radar we could see the shipping. So we knew that at last the moving forward is on, and the next night we had the target of a gun battery on the coast, a German gun battery. I was flying then with an American chap [unclear] and he was the only Canad- Only American on the Canadian squadron, he joined the Canadian air force initially but now reverted back to the American air force, and that was when we realised that it was definitely on, and from there on it was-
HC: That was D-Day?
BC: What?
HC: That was D-Day?
BC: D-Day, yes.
RP: So, from D-Day onwards, you were still flying a fair number of sorties though, yeah?
BC: No, I was- I forget the exact date, but towards the end of the war, I’d been flying with most anybody who needed a few sorties to get their forty-five, you see, and several flight commanders say who just needed another half-dozen sorties so I flew with them, another one came and said, ‘Would I,’ oh yeah- I- Let me explain, I had a garage that had lots of petrol coupons for lorry drivers. We had a WAAF section that ran the MT, and in the MT we had the big tank of [unclear] stuff, and then a smaller tank of low [unclear] fuel for light aircraft that never came to see us. So, if you left your can in a certain place near the MT section, went back the next day, you would find it was full of petrol by a chance, only- Nearly caught out once, when as I got my can in my green- Had green [unclear] bags in those days, and it just fitted a nice can of petrol. We got it on the handle bars driving up to, up to the mess, and the barrier was down, and the policeman on the barrier was a bit slow moving himself, so I had to break hard and there was a clang [emphasis].
RP: Oh no [chuckles]
BC: Can of petrol hit the ground, and I thought, ‘Oh this is it,’ but this SP came up and said, ‘Oh you have to be careful sir, you might damage it,’ lifted it up, put it on the handle bars and opened the gate and let me through. Thank goodness for that sensible policeman [chuckles].
RP: So, what was your- Can you remember then, what was your last sortie then, before the war ended? Where were you going on your last sortie?
BC: It was- I’ll soon see, into Yorkshire, post-war, Lancs, [unclear] U-Boat pens at La Pallice, he was the master bomber, it was small, only thirty aircraft and we were dropping bombs on the U-Boat pens in La Pallice, he was the master bomber.
RP: And what date was that then?
BC: That was on the 11th of August- I’ve not got my glasses here. I think it’s the 11th of August 1944.
RP: So after-
BC: Yeah,12th of August 1944.
RP: So, after that date what did you do between then and the end of the war then?
BC: I’ll just catch up before then.
RP: Yeah.
BC: Sometime before that, that was August ‘44, in early ‘44, in July ‘44 [pause] Yeah I left, 405 then in August ‘44, and I was sent to 11 ferry unit in transport command. The nice idea was that a few of us were going to form this ferry unit and fly all the Canadian built Lancs back the Canada.
RP: Oh right.
BC: They were nice steady job for long time, and before then I’d had- Oh yes, this was where my flight career came to an end in bomber command. One morning- One night we went to Cambridge, a group of us, in my car, a little four-eight, we had our drinks in the usual pubs, went back to the car, got in, didn’t notice anything unusual, driving along a few miles out of Cambridge where there’s a big, and one of the wheels went past us, and the apparently it was fairly common in Cambridge those days, before we got back somebody must’ve been putting a car on bricks, lifting it, and undoing the screws to take the wheel off and that must have been when we got back and so they disappeared and hadn’t screwed back the wheel anything like that, they just left them, and the wheel had just came off and went past us. It had done quite a- I think a mile or two before then. So, anyway, next morning the flight engineer I was flying with in those days, said, ‘Do you want a lift up to the flights Bob,’ I said, ‘Yes please’. So, we’re off in the car and we’re going up to the flights and on- It was winter and on the way there we went down a steep hill, then up a steep hill and that was covered in ice and the sun was shining just at the top. But, down at the bottom there was a driveway that came out of a big house which King Peter of Yugoslavia was living in with his wife, when he didn’t want it, he let the station commander have it as his residence, and apparently (I learnt this later) the station commander was coming out of his drive and we were coming down this first hill, and the driver, he was Dutch, it wasn’t [unclear], the driver didn’t see that coming down the hill was a lorry. So, although this car stopped, he pulled out a bit and we hit the lorry straight on. Now at the time I was bending forward, lighting a cigarette so my neck was placed like that, I went up and hit the ceiling. So, they came to the car, various people, and apparently, I was telling them, ‘Look, be careful of my knees, I think I've got them wedged under the dashboard, and I think they’re damaged, so be careful,’ and about then I suddenly just flaked out, and crushed the top of the vertebrae in the spinal cord, hadn’t fortunately hit the spinal cord itself, and went into- Was taken to hospital, and the doc left a message with the orderly saying, ‘If he comes round, don’t let him move it, [unclear].’ But that message got changed when I did come round, the first thing an airman sitting at the bed said to me, ‘Can you move your head sir?’
RP: Oh no.
BC: And, I said, (something told me not to try) I said, ‘No, I don’t know, I can’t,’ ‘What, not up and down?’ ‘No, no I can’t.’ This is when the doctor came in, the message got [unclear] and they finally got me to hospital, and I was in a plaster from there to there for a good six months.
RP: So that saw you the rest of the war?
BC: That was the end of- They were still operating, but I wasn’t anymore, and at the end of the thing, when I'd recovered, been to convalescence and everything else, what had been arranged that I would be transferring to British airways as a navigator there. I went for a severe medical exam for British airways.
RP: BOAC, yeah.
BC: Yeah, and they said you’re not fit to fly for another three years.
RP: Oh my goodness.
BC: So, I said, ‘Oh dear’. So, I went back and my doc says, ‘Let me get you an RAF medical.’ Took me to a medical and, ‘Yeah, be careful but you’re alright to fly’-
RP: Were you still in the RAF at this time then?
BC: Still in the RAF yeah.
RP: Ok, so where were you when the war ended then? Where were you when-
BC: I was in- Well-
RP: In May ‘45, where would you have been then?
BC: Convalescing.
RP: Still convalescing, are you? Convalescing.
BC: Convalescing because we hired a car, three of us, one had a bad leg, I had this thing on and we put the car in a ditch between us.
RP: Oh no [chuckles]
BC: But not seriously, no need- Just one of the roadsides [unclear] things.
RP: Oh dear, so did you fly again with the RAF then?
BC: Well, at that point I thought- Oh we were on for various things that the RAF phased down, I was going to be on a yacht[?] conversion flight, flying to the far east, I thought I'd bring back some carpets. But that didn’t materialise, and what happened? Yes, I got to this stage.
HC: You were still
BC: Oh yes, I decided then there was no future in the RAF, back to civil service. So, I was released from the RAF.
RP: What was that, ‘45?
BC: ‘45, yes.
HC: You were still in the RAF when you met mum in-
BC: Yes.
HC: In late ‘45.
BC: Yeah, I'd recovered from- I’d got rid of my thing, and the squadron had flown back to Canada, except for one squadron and Macdonald and myself had been left in charge of getting the- Handing Gransden Lodge over to the RAF, from the RCAF. The RCAF by the way, they went round setting fire to all the hay stacks which didn’t make them very popular with village [unclear]. The RAF paid the bill, I think. But, anyway, I was going back to the- RAF- Oh yes, and the squadron had flown back and Mac and I decided we’d have one last night in London together, go to our regulars, The Sussex, the [unclear], and the [unclear], the three pubs off Charring Cross Road. One during the war had been a Canadian mainly pub, another had been a New Zealand mainly pub, and another one was a general British, I think. Anyway, we’d go back and have a look at these pubs, last look at them, and we’d been in some pubs, we were walking back to The Cumberland where I had a room booked, and we heard dance music and Mac said, ‘Oh there’s some dancing, let’s go and find it.’ So, we- It was in Mount Street, so we went- Diverted, went down Mount Street and we found a doorway with lady sitting behind a table with a book, and we- Mac said, ‘Is there dancing? Can we join in?’ and she said, ‘I’m very sorry sir, an American officers Red Cross club, it’s for American officers only,’ and then came Mac with great presence of mind said, ‘Oh, we’re promised to meet Captain Copenhaver here,’ (he’s the last one I flew with by the way), ‘Captain Copenhaver here, would you mind paging him?’. She said, ‘Oh, no’, so she comes up to the stairs to page him and we tottled up behind her, and as she went toward the [unclear] thing, we went in, looked around and there’s a counter of there, there’s a girl with lovely sparkly eyes, serving ice cream. I thought she looks happy, so I went over and said, ‘Would you like a dance?’ and she was wearing Red Cross uniform- American Red Cross uniform, said, ‘I don’t think we’re aloud to, it’s only the American Red Cross officers who can dance,’ said, ‘Oh come on they won’t mind’. So, she says, ‘All right,’ so she took the uniform off and we had a dance and we stayed together all night. At the end of the night I said, ‘Are you hungry, let’s go and have a meal somewhere?’. So, we did go out for a meal but we couldn’t find a place that was open, it was quite late at night then, and she said, ‘Anywhere’ [unclear] she says, ‘If you’d like to come home with me, I can give you egg and bacon?’, I said, ‘Oh is it far?’ She said, ‘No, it’s only Peckham,’ I said, ‘Oh, fine’. So, I went back with her, we got a fifty-four tram to Peckham, along the embankment, and had egg and bacon and- I found out she worked in the local health centre sort of place, wasn’t a health centre in those days, whatever they called it, and I got her telephone number and I rang her the next day and she didn’t expect me to, and we lived happily ever after-
RP: I thought that was the end that was coming [laughs].
HC: And result [chuckles].
BC: She passed away about seven, years ago? Seven or eight.
HC: Yeah, twenty-
RP: Oh, that was lovely, what a lovely story.
BC: Yeah
RP: So, from that point then, you left the RAF?
BC: I left the RAF.
RP: And went back to-
BC: Went back to the civil service, they’d sent us on a PLUA course at Leeds. There was myself, an army officer and a navy officer, we started going out for lunch together, started going out for lunch and a beer together, then went for a few meals together, all decided this wasn’t right for us. I was having a lot of pain from my neck sitting at a desk in the office, it was getting- I thought i’d be better doing something active, so I'd gone back in the RAF, and stayed in for another twenty years, thirty years until 1976 when I retired.
RP: So, what were you- Still aircrew?
BC: Still aircrew, and I was flying cambers[?] for a while. They were, to me, pretty painful flying- Used to go low level flying over Scotland, over the rocks and things, and I was tall for a camber[?] and my [unclear] dome would hit the roof, and I'd have a [unclear] on my head when I got back.
RP: Yeah, there’s not a lot of space in those.
BC: Three-hour flight in that, I used to go home and lie down, ‘Oh lovely’. But [unclear] I was the flight commander on the squadron and we had some very good crews, I was with another Dutch Holland this time, pilot and he- When it came to retiring from there, been posted two and a half years, he wanted to go to the [unclear] force and said, ‘Don’t fancy another two and a half years of alerting and that sort of thing.’ So, he went [unclear] and unfortunately on one occasion in a Victor, was late getting back to a demonstration and was rushing it and broke the aircraft up and killed himself and- So I- After that I was posted various places, went to Ruislip where I was running a thing, [unclear] all the hours, documents, flight plans and low flight signals and NATO and things, sent stuff to Jeffersons[?] who did the American stuff ‘cause they liked our technique better than theirs. I had about eight teleprinters churning stuff out and the post office used to send two bags up every morning to take stuff away, and then finally, various others, the last one was Upper Heyford, which was an American base with about ten-thousand Americans and their- With wives and families. Else and I were the only British people living on the base, I was commander, it was my base technically, but there were dozen American full colonels, and half colonels and one major general, so- They were very good, I had working relationship quite good. The one I was with most was the air base commander, [unclear] whose bit like [unclear], had been a New York policeman and if I was upset about anything and I went down the corridor, his secretary would call out for him, ‘Sir, the squadron leaders coming down, I don’t think he’s very happy’ [laughs], we got on very well.
RP: On leaving the RAF then, where did you settle down? Where was your- Where did you come to rest?
BC: When I left the RAF, that was at Upper Heyford, the RAF. When I retired in 1976, we came to Bridport just down the road here.
RP: Not too far away.
BC: Heather sent us a brochure, she was at Southampton University, sent us brochure by the people there, it had some buildings in Bridport. We went down to see it on a Friday afternoon, saw the site manager, saw the plan for the [unclear], I said, ‘We’ll have it,’ and that- We bought the first thing we looked at, it was only a hole in the ground.
RP: Well, I’ll bring it to the end there, and I ask everybody the same question Bob, if you lived your life again would you join the RAF?
BC: Oh, well it would depend on the RAF, it’s changed so much-
RP: I mean going back, would you go through all that again?
BC: Going back I would, yes.
RP: You would
BC: Yes, I- It seems wrong to enjoy the war, but we made what we could of it and we were such a good mix, friendly group together. A little routine if Ron brought a parcel from New Zealand, and it had some oysters in it, one of us would go down the village and get a loaf of bread, another one would go down to our famous egg shop and get some eggs and we’d have a fry up
RP: Sounds good.
BC: And at night time when we were on ops, there were usually two crews in a hut, sometimes three, we all left money under the pillow so that if we didn’t return the rest of them could have some money and have a little party.
RP: Anyway, it’s been a privilege talking to you, and thank you very much indeed, it’s been great, thank you.


Rod Pickles, “Interview with Bernard Walter Culpin,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed March 1, 2024,

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