Interview with Bruce Cunningham


Interview with Bruce Cunningham


Bruce Cunningham was born in New Zealand. After initial training as a pilot he was posted to RAF Wescott Operational Training Unit and flew operations with 514 Squadron at RAF Waterbeach. His first operation was over Berlin. On one operation they were shot down and as he landed on the roof of the house he looked up at the sky as the other aircraft were heading for home. One lady from the village used the parachute silk for her wedding dress. He became a prisoner of war and was sent to Stalag Luft 3.




Temporal Coverage




02:02:42 audio recording


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GT: It is the 4th of November 2017 and today I’m interviewing Mr Argyle Bruce Cunningham at his residence in [long beep] in Kilbirnie, Wellington, New Zealand. With me is the New Zealand Returned Servicemen’s Welfare Advisor Kaye Pointon. And Kaye has introduced me to Bruce, Bruce Chapman err Bruce Cunningham and Bruce has agreed that I can interview him today for the IBCC Digital Archives. Mr Argyle Bruce Cunningham was a pilot for the Royal New Zealand Air Force, and he flew on 514 Squadron as a pilot in Bomber Command, England. So, Bruce can you please tell me a little bit about where you were born and when and therefore your age? And how you got to join the New Zealand Air Force. Please.
BC: I was, I was born in Marsden. 1920. And then I, I left school when I was thirteen and a half. I worked for a firm for four or five years and then I decided to go back to school. To short trousers and a school cap and so forth. Taken two years instead of three. When I was, the last year I was at school the school children came back from the town saying the head prefect’s name’s in the ballot. And the principal called me in and said, ‘I believe your name’s in the ballot. I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Well you’re not going on any ballot. You’re sitting matriculation.’ He used to be a lieutenant colonel in the army. But just after I sat I did go into the Territorials and I spent my time digging holes in the sand and so forth. And I decided that there are other better things to do than that so I decided that I would join the, something else. I then applied. Made enquiries about the Navy. And then on second thoughts I thought no. I’d spend years being seasick so I’d better go in to the air force. So, off I went into the air force. Up at Rosewood they said, ‘We’re short in the course before. Is there anybody, would anybody like to go out of this place in half time?’ And I thought — no. I’ll leave that to the boys who’ve got all the brains. But they didn’t do it that way. They set some navigation exercises and it was decided on your results on those whether you went out of Rosewood in half time or not. And I scored, believe me it was 98.5 or something. So I was assisted to get out of the place. But I wanted to get out because I’d developed impetigo and then I used to go to the doctors. [unclear] they’d paint me with green paint. They ran out of green paint and started painting me purple. So I walked around Rosewood looking like a Red Indian looking for my lecture places which had been changed. And I was very pleased to get out of Rosewood.
GT: So, so Bruce you, joining the air force they assigned you your service number of NZ424433.
BC: Yes.
GT: Is that correct?
BC: That’s right.
GT: So what, what did you go on to do then to end up being a pilot?
BC: Yes. I went down. First of all went to Bell Brock and New Plymouth and did eighty hours there on Tiger Moths. And then I went to Wigram and got my wings in Wigram. Not in Canada. I got my wings in Wigram.
GT: Yeah. What year was that please Bruce?
BC: That would be in [pause] was it ’43? Was it? It was ’43. I didn’t wait a long time to get into the air force. I was, I knew I had to go to a war but I wasn’t particularly keen on getting into the air straight away. It got to the stage where I waited far too long. In the finish I had to ring up Wellington and say, ‘Goodness gracious me. How much longer?’ But finally I got in and I went to Wigram and got my wings. And then we had, we did the final leave and went up to Auckland and I thought I will probably get on a big boat. Walk up the stairs onto this boat that would be so big. But when I got there I got the impression that the boat was so small I walked down the thing instead of up. When we, before this, before the boat took off we were speaking to one boy on the staff there and then we were asking him about going to England by boat. And he said this is the third sister ship. The name was the Empire Grace, I think. And he said, ‘This is the third sister ship.’ And we said, ‘What about the other ships?’ ‘Well, they all went on their third trip. They were sunk.’ And I was, so of course someone asked the question, ‘What trip is this?’ Of course the answer was, ‘This is the third trip.’ [laughs] Well, as the lights of Auckland disappeared I thought well that’s the last you’ll see of her [laughs] But first of all we didn’t go straight to Panama. We went south. Went down the Southern Ocean and that. It had the largest consignment of cheese that had ever left New Zealand. And they’d built some bunks in it and took about fifteen air force crew over then. But then, and then we went to Panama and we had leave on Panama and we went into town. Pitch black. 10 o’clock the lights turned on all over the town and then to it. That was a big night in Panama for everybody. A strange place.
GT: So, how long did it take you to sail to England then Bruce? How long did it take you to get there?
BC: From memory I think it must have taken about five weeks. I can’t recall back then. I remember going across the Atlantic. We, we were on our own. We weren’t escorted. We got nearer to England and we had to do drills and all sorts of things. Quite a long way. German aeroplanes coming out to bomb us. We went out over the top of Ireland and down. Right down to Avonmouth where we finally disembarked.
GT: Was that Southampton?
BC: Avonmouth. Yeah.
GT: Ok.
BC: Yeah. Avonmouth.
GT: So once you got to England then where did they send you? What, what OTU and bases did you go to?
BC: Well, we went to, New Zealand troops in those days were sent to Bournemouth. It was very good at Bournemouth. But later on they decided to send us to Brighton which wasn’t so good. But Bournemouth was a lovely place. Also, my first introduction to Bournemouth was on Sunday afternoon a Focke Wulf came over from Germany and blasted the place. Sunday afternoon. And we were crouching down on the floor and I thought afterwards what’s the good of that? I remember they bombed a, a Bobbies café and a woman who used to watch us drilling every morning she stopped a bullet from that trip. They came over very low level and frightened everybody. Then I went to several stations flying Oxfords at that. And then after we finished Oxfords we then went on to Wellingtons. Flying Wellington. Wellington 1Cs.
GT: What station was that at Bruce? Can you remember?
BC: That was at OTU at Westcott. And to me I always look back and think that station was more, it was more dangerous being there than being on operations. The aeroplanes used to remind me of old, old rental car. If you got there you were lucky. The chance of getting there without a breakdown were pretty remote. And, and I had the diciest do ever in my life was at Westcott. And how I survived I’ll never know. But it is, it was a very dicey business Westcott. If you got out of Westcott there was a fair show you’d live. But most of New Zealanders must have gone through Westcott. Bomber Command. 11 OTU. And then I left that station with good marks, but boy was I ever lucky. I learned to listen. Never be first off in training. Never, never do that again. Never be first off. That’s because leave it for someone else to do the finding out. I took off and I wasn’t far up in the air before an aeroplane in the [pause] flew over the top of us and ruined all our radio equipment including the artificial horizon at night time. And then, and I couldn’t see the ‘drome. That was, we should never have taken off. So I had to do what I thought was a circuit. No artificial horizon. All that missing. Did a circuit and land only to find the runway was over there. So I do an overshoot. In those aeroplanes the 1C’s you didn’t do an overshoot in the middle of the day let alone at midnight. Green as the grass surviving then. So do another circuit. Just one. The runway’s over there. So I kept on doing these circuits. That’s right. I found out later on that they could hear me but I couldn’t hear them or the other way around. Something right. So they turned on lights to tell me where the front of the runway was. After all the lights all they did was lit up the air but I’ve forgotten the colour that I could see. And I, somehow or other made a landing. When I landed the official procedure was to ring up and say you’d landed. The whole damn ‘drome knew I’d landed but the RAF says you ring up and say you’ve landed. That’s what you did. So I picked up to ring up but my tongue wouldn’t work. My tongue wouldn’t work [laughs] and boy was I lucky to get down. But everybody else was sitting down there waiting for me to land. And that’s when I learned never be first off in future. Someone else had got to find out what the weather was like. But it wasn’t made any better by someone flying over the top of me ruining all my radio and [pause] and radio, and. I was lucky to get out of Westcott alive. After that I, they put me sent me off to fly Stirlings and Stirlings were very big and you were about twenty feet up in the air. And when you started to fly that you were never knew whether you were two feet above the ground or two feet under.
GT: So, so Bruce, was it at Westcott you formed up with your crew? Did you get crewed?
BC: At Westcott we signed up with five of them and subsequently we got the other two. But it was amazing you should mention that because how you got crewed up was a great way. It worked for some reason or other. It’s a thing that you wouldn’t want to do a second time. Like getting married. You’re just shoved into a room and something happened made you. And here you see I picked on a fellow who finished up boss or second boss of [unclear] of Great Britain. You could drop a bomb behind him and he wouldn’t shake. He was a wonderful fellow.
GT: Can you tell us their names please?
BC: Eh?
GT: Can you tell us their names?
BC: Yes. I could.
GT: Bruce is opening his very well-worn diary. It’s an awesome piece of history.
BC: Incidentally, I drew that myself. I couldn’t do that now. The navigator was Bob Ramsay. The bomb aimer was Brailsford. Reg Brailsford. Radio operator Sergeant Stone. The rear gunner Sergeant Roberts and the mid-upper gunner Fred Brown. And then the engineer would have been [pause] But Roberts was a, he swore that we were shot down by another Lancaster. And he wouldn’t take no for an answer. I was just reading before you came in here how I went over to Wales after I came back from the war and Taff was in the same pew in the church that we’d had sat in before I went missing. And then he and his family told me that he wouldn’t budge. Budge from that.
[Telephone ringing. Recording paused]
KP: The war —
GT: Ok.
KP: Again.
GT: Right. I’ve just had to turn that off. That was Bruce’s daughter just ringing on the phone.
BC: Yeah.
GT: So, so, Bruce if, if we could —
BC: Go back to —
GT: If we could just go back to the point where —
BC: Fair enough.
GT: Now, you’ve just named your crew and I need to point out that Bruce has read all the names in his diary on pencil without glasses. So for a ninety six, ninety seven year old man that’s pretty awesome that you’re doing that without your, without any reading glasses. So, so Bruce, now you moved on to your Stirlings. Who else did you pick up for your Stirling crew? And where did you fly and learn to fly the Stirlings?
BC: I picked up the crew and joined up with the mid-upper gunner and the engineer, at [pause] I’ll tell, I’ll tell you later. It wasn’t the engineer that we were shot down with. That, our own engineer was injured.
GT: So you learned to fly the Stirling. What station were you at for that?
BC: I can’t remember. Stradishall was it?
GT: Stradishall. Could have done. Yeah. Ok.
BC: It’ll come to me.
GT: And that was, that was a Heavy Conversion Unit.
BC: Yeah. That’s right. Yeah. Yeah.
GT: Do you remember the number of the HCU? 1685 maybe?
BC: I can get it if you want it.
GT: Alright. Yeah. Well, we can, we can add that in later on. That’s fair. So how long did you spend on Stirlings? And was it then you were sent to a Lancaster squadron was it?
BC: Yeah. When I was, they were going to, they were going to send us to 75 but then they changed their minds and sent us to 514 and we went on to Stirlings. Mark 2s. On to Mark 2 Lancasters. And they were a wonderful thing to change there. It reminded me of an old Vauxhall motor car. Mass produced but wonderful. And I was flying again, and I seemed to recall I went, the bloke said to me, ‘Well, you can go solo now.’ And I said, ‘I think I’d like one more circuit.’ And he said, ‘Ok,’ but even after that I think I was first off with all the [unclear] I took to those. They were good. They were very good indeed.
GT: So, you, you flew Lancaster Mark 2s. Did you ever fly a Merlin powered Lancaster?
BC: No. No. No. But when I got back to England after the war they were on Merlins. They built three hundred Hercules motored Mark 2 and it was the number three hundredth that we got out of.
GT: So, now how many sorties did you manage at 514? How long were you on 514?
BC: Oh, I was only there for a couple of months at that and I did about ten or a dozen at that. But I got about three weeks before the invasion we were sent over to France and Belgium and Holland to smash up all the railway yards and so forth.
GT: So, this was about May. June.
BC: Just before the invasion.
GT: 1944. Yeah.
BC: And that’s when I got caught.
GT: So what base were you at? What station were you at?
BC: Waterbeach.
GT: Waterbeach on 514.
BC: Yeah. Just out of Cambridge.
GT: Ok.
BC: Peacetime ‘drome and we [unclear].
GT: And, and you got to your twelfth or thirteenth operation.
BC: About ten or a dozen. I can’t remember. A couple of boomerangs. I can remember one boomerang. We got a half way across the North Sea. Sparks were coming out of the motor. And that’s not nice being up there in the middle of the night. You don’t know what to do or what’s going to happen. That was most annoying to have that. Another time we hadn’t been going long before we were sent in immediately after the Pathfinders which I thought was very good for a green crew. I was sat in the aeroplane, revving it up and a great big magneto drop. And I tried all I could do to clear that magneto run but I couldn’t do it. So I had to turn the motors off and I called up. You weren’t allowed to speak just before you took off because they knew you were, people were listening to you in Germany. Call up, ‘M-Mother, engineer,’ and out came a squadron leader, ‘Start the motors up. You pilots are all the same.’ So [laughs] so started the motors up and he started to run the motors up. And he ran and he ran and he ran and my engineer was telling him the cylinder head temperatures were way above what it should be. And he kept on trying to clear this magneto drop and at first couldn’t do it at all. He had to turn the motors off. But he never apologised. Nowadays, of course you’d, you’d get stuck in to him but in those days you couldn’t start to, telling a squadron leader what to do or you’d be on the outer for some time.
GT: So what rank were you at Waterbeach?
BC: I was a, I was a, when that happened I was probably a flight sergeant. And you didn’t, you didn’t tell the squadron leader because — especially an English one.
GT: So on the sorties you did they were all night operations.
BC: Every one. Yeah.
GT: Every one. And did you manage to engage any night fighters? Do any corkscrewing? That kind of stuff.
BC: No. No. No. We didn’t. On the night we were shot down we were just left the target and then something came through the mid-upper. The, the starboard inner. If I had trouble with the aeroplane it was always the starboard inner. Always. And the starboard inner ran a lot of the things all over the aeroplane. That’s where the source of power came from. And I can remember the tracer bullets coming through like that. Power over the ground. And when I became a prisoner of war the interrogator was trying to find out all sort of things from me. He said, ‘You were shot down by flak.’ Now, I wasn’t shot down by flak. I was shot down by something in the air. And Taffy reckoned it was another, another Lancaster but over the years I’ve seen all sorts of reasons why I was shot down. I was shot down by — somebody claimed me, flying a Focke Wulf. Another one claimed me, flying I think it was a 109. And somebody else claimed me. It was the old story. Someone was trying to jack up their shooting downs and they were all claiming me.
GT: Enemy kills. So, so you saw tracer coming through your aircraft.
BC: Yeah.
GT: Straight and level. Or —
BC: Yeah. Yeah.
GT: Horizontal and level.
BC: Yeah. It come from the back. Yeah.
GT: Yeah. So could it have been machine guns or cannons?
BC: Yeah. It couldn’t have been anything from the ground.
GT: Ok. But the cannons were a lot larger mass —
BC: Yeah. Yeah.
GT: Of incendiary coming through. Whereas the bullets, 303s in calibre are smaller.
BC: The poor, the poor rear gunner. He he he was one of three who got home. Managed to get home. And he went on operations again. First operation with a pilot called Gilchrist. Flight Sergeant Gilchrist. Blown to smithereens. And that —
KP: It’s ok [pause] It’s alright. Keep talking. Glen just went to answer the door.
BC: Who was that? Who was that? Yeah. He was blown to smithereens. Do you know what it was? Bombs from a Lancaster up above him. Poor old chap. He was coming out to live in New Zealand after the war. But he, he used to be a, well he was an orphan. And the week before, the Sunday before he was shot down I was over Wales. I went to this small church in Blaenau Ffestiniog. And I said to Taffy after the service, ‘Taffy, that preacher was talking about you and me in your lingo. What was he saying?’ He said. ‘Yeah, he was.’ Yeah.
GT: Bruce, can you describe the night you were shot down then? That was about your twelfth. On your twelfth operation thereabouts you were saying. So, how? And you described that you were shot down possibly by enemy aircraft. More than likely. So, so what happened then? Did the crew bale out? Run us through what happened.
BC: They, I — the thing was on fire and the fire was spreading. I asked the engineer to push the graviner switch in. I’m not sure what happened after that. I think he, he was a bit worried that after the war too he was in England. He was an Englishman. He went up to Lincoln and sat in the aircraft to try and recall had happened on the night. He was very worried about it. And I can remember a friend of mine connected with gliding in England and he wrote and said, “I see your name in the “Aeroplane” or “Flypast” or something in England. And this is what it said — ”. And I said, ‘Well, that’s wrong. That’s not true.’ My mid-upper gunner in Adelaide, he read it too. He said, ‘I’m not putting up with that.’ So he started looking for him in Adelaide. That took him a day. He found this bloke. He said, ‘You’d better retract that mate. It’s not good what you said in that.’ But then —
GT: So the graviner you mentioned there. The graviner switches.
BC: Yeah. Yeah.
GT: The graviners were the fire extinguishers. Is that right?
BC: I don’t know what happened about that. What he did about the graviner switches but on one trip we went to Karlsruhe. We went to the briefing and, you know sort of from memory the Met man waved his hand from Spain to Sweden and said, ‘There’s a cold front there. It’ll be gone when you get there.’ Of course the damn cold thing wasn’t gone at all. There was a cold front as soon as we got into France and we spent most of the time flying to Karlsruhe in, in, in ice and so forth. I see on that something happened a few minutes ago when there was no stuff on the wings to stop the icing. And we were flying in pitch black and then bang. What had happened is ice came off the propeller through the Perspex and laid the engineer out. He got up to have a look around and so help me another lot came through and hit him and he finished up in hospital. They thought he was going to lose his sight, but he didn’t lose his sight. He certainly wasn’t a POW either. He got out. We got another engineer who was a, who was a, whose pilot was in hospital. I think they shifted him from ‘drome to ‘drome and they came cropper on a motorbike and the pilot finished up in hospital. But then —
GT: So, when, when you gave the order to bale out once the aircraft was on fire.
BC: Yeah.
GT: Was that how it worked?
BC: How I got out I don’t know because I said to the engineer, put my parachute, ‘Get my parachute off the ground.’ It annoyed me. The RAF did something I didn’t like. They took pilot type parachutes off us. ‘Chutes that you sat on. And gave you an observer type which you put down on the floor behind the seat. Now, that’s not good enough. But I had to say to this engineer, ‘Get me my parachute.’ So, he gets the parachute and plops it down on my knee. I said, ‘That’s no good. Put it on hooks will you.’ I’ve got, all the trims for the aeroplane are gone. And you’re holding a Lancaster there with no trim. You’ve got a problem. Your feet hard down and you’re not holding the stick like, you’re holding the stick like, like — the minute you took your hand off the aeroplane started to turn over.
GT: Yeah.
BC: Now, I knew, I knew that blokes that were near me had got out but I wasn’t sure about the two at the back. And I spent some time sitting there ringing them up saying, ‘Are you there? Can you hear me?’ They never did answer. One of them afterwards, I said to him after the war. ‘You didn’t tell me you were going. I sat here for some time in a burning aeroplane while you didn’t tell me.’ ‘Oh yes I did.’ I didn’t, no you didn’t [laughs] But he, he got hit by the tail plane when he was getting out so he had that then. And of course then after after they’d all gone there was one hook on this parachute I had to put on myself and I couldn’t spare any hand. I had to put the thing on otherwise the parachute wouldn’t work. And of course the minute I get out of the seat the aeroplane started to roll over. Now, to get out I had to virtually dive underneath the dashboard. There’s a small hole which is not as, everybody acknowledged it wasn’t big enough. Now, to get through that hole and turn the aeroplane at 1 o’clock in the morning you’re pretty lucky to get out. I think it was a jolly good dive, never mind that.
GT: So you got out the hatch in the nose. In the floor of the aircraft.
BC: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And when I got down a very stupid thought passed my mind and people can’t understand how it did but I didn’t understand it either and I was on the roof of this place, two storied roof looking up. At that stage we weren’t flying high. Five, six, seven or eight thousand feet only. And I could see the first flying home and I said to myself, ‘What the heck am I doing here when all those blokes are going home for eggs and bacon?’ And down the west coast of New Zealand they seem to enjoy that crack.
GT: Yeah. Did you lose many when you were on the squadron? Any. Many aircraft?
BC: Yeah.
GT: Had you lost quite a few as a squadron?
BC: No. All go on time.
GT: So, when, when you managed to get out of the aircraft how did you pull your parachute? You had a rip cord. A handle.
BC: A ripcord. Yeah.
GT: You managed to find —
BC: I can remember a friend of mine. I went all through the air force with him and then he got crewed up and then he went on his second dickie. You know what a second dickie is?
GT: I know but please tell people.
BC: He, he went with an experienced crew and the whole lot of them killed on the first trip. That, that was rather shaking. Ken Drummond from Lower Hutt. But then his crew crewed up with another Englishman who wanted his crew to salute him every day. And Ken, Ken’s navigator was a the fellow with some Maori blood in him and he took this pilot aside and sort of put him right. But they finished a tour. They were very lucky. They finished a tour. Yeah.
GT: Fascinating. Ok. So you managed to get your parachute open. And did you manage to steer yourself anywhere? Could you see where you were going to land?
BC: No.
GT: Or was it just pot luck that you ended up on top of a house?
BC: It was completely black. So I suppose you couldn’t see where you were landing that was probably a good thing. But I sat on the top of this roof. It was a small building with a very, very steep roof and the parachute was caught over a chimney otherwise I might have slid off the roof. And I heard a story after, after the war that I wouldn’t be, I refused to come down off the roof. Where they got that story I’m daft if I know that. But what would I want to refuse for? But finally they got me down me down through a trap door in the roof. Two stories up. And so help me there was a, oh must have been at least a dozen or eighteen young Germans and one rope. I used my French for the first time in my life. The only time I ever used my French. I wanted to find out had the aeroplane landed on houses or in the fields. I can remember that much French. I found out the aeroplane had landed in fields. That’s how I knew that I hadn’t killed anybody.
GT: So, where, where did you crash and land please?
BC: Where did I crash? I landed at a place called Rixensart at about sou’ southeast of Brussels. I always thought it was a pub I’d landed on. And I thought it was quite strange that I should land on a pub and be a teetotaller [laughs] Yeah. But it wasn’t a pub. It was a café. And I went back in 1996 to collect my beer. But only to find out the place is now a bank and the Brussels newspaper thought that was highly funny. That I came back to collect and I couldn’t [laughs]
GT: So, the Germans immediately took you as a prisoner of war.
BC: Yeah.
GT: What happened then?
BC: I became a prisoner of war and I was — the next thing I went to Frankfurt for interrogation. And I was there for several days. I don’t know. It might have been a week. And they questioned you on — they were able to tell me more about my squadron than I ever knew myself. I learned a lot from that bloke. And he surprised. He threw, he threw across the table a photograph of a Mosquito aeroplane and he said, ‘See that aeroplane?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘I flew that yesterday.’ And I said, ‘Yeah?’ ‘Yeah. What a wonderful aeroplane,’ he said, ‘Pity you can’t make more of them.’ I must have said, ‘Can’t we make more of them?’ He said, ‘No. They’re made of wood.’ And then I suppose he was a, he might have been a pilot who was resting or something and that’s they were giving him a job while he was resting. But I can remember seeing marks on the wall that people had made in there with thumbnail and fingernail. And that was the number of days they’d spent there before they got out. I can remember being on the Frankfurt Railway Station. There was a German corporal looking after about a half a dozen of us. And while we were on the station there was an air raid. And of course everybody in Frankfurt decided they’d get in to the railway station to be safe. And of course the crowd got bigger and bigger and it got more closer and closer to us. And this poor little German corporal he was dead scared that the public might tear us apart and he’d be responsible. I can remember him flapping good and hard at that. He might have been in trouble but then after we left there we were put in these sort of cattle trucks and then began the long, long trip across. Across Germany to, to Sagan. Which now is back in Polish hands. But, but it was a long, long trip and it was terrible. Terrible. I suppose we were lucky.
GT: You, you were interviewed by the Luftwaffe or by the Nazis? Or Gestapo.
BC: The Luftwaffe. Yeah.
GT: You think that was a lucky —
BC: When, when I — on my first trip the squadron said to me, the squadron commander said, ‘We’re going to Berlin tonight. If you don’t want to go just say so. No questions will be asked if you say no, that you don’t want to go.’ But that. Who? Who would want to, not want to go he said. Off we go to Berlin. And I can remember the next morning on the newspapers in England. Big headline, “RAF fools German defences.” The RAF didn’t know where it was that night. They sent out winds which were wrong. Someone going towards Berlin had to change and they, they didn’t fully accept the changes. They made some sort of amendment. And everybody of course got lost. And they went over Berlin. And then if you read in the book, “The Great Escape,” you’ll find they, they held up escaping because there was a raid on Berlin. That was my first trip. The worst Berlin trip during the whole of the war. Seventy three aeroplanes missing. So we all come back and we came back, slap bang in to the Ruhr and one of my crew said, ‘There’s more searchlights here than Berlin.’ Navigator said, ‘Oh, there’s darkness in between a couple of them.’ I said, ‘Mr Navigator, we’re flying, changing course. We’re flying due north.’ I flew due north whatever it was. And then turned west. We find out the next day some came out south of the Ruhr. And they didn’t know where they were that night. The winds got them all mucked up that was the last big trip they did on Berlin. They didn’t do any more. They couldn’t afford to lose, lose men like that. Seven in each aeroplane and seventy three aeroplanes missing. Although subsequently and I’ll always remember standing on the railway station at Waterbeach and, and I didn’t know at the time but that night they, they went to Nuremberg. And they lost ninety three in the air. That was the biggest loss of the war. I went on leave that morning otherwise I might have been there.
GT: So that would have been July 1944.
BC: That was at — no. That was before May. I went missing on the 11th of May. That was before then.
GT: Right. And the targets that you flew for what were they? Was it cities? Oil refineries?
BC: No. They were mostly cities. At Cologne and then Berlin. Karlsruhe. Just before the invasion there were, there were two or three or four stockyards. Messing up a stockyard. After we were shot down they were doing daylight raids. They were, they were mighty costly too. Very costly. But I don’t know, at night time you just flew an aeroplane. You didn’t know what was around you. You couldn’t see. You might find, shake a bit and that was someone flying across your nose. You could have hit him. You wouldn’t know. In the daytime you must have been very frightened seeing people get trapped. Night time you couldn’t care because you didn’t know. But there must have been quite a few accidents in the air. People hitting each other. So.
GT: What was your standard bomb loads? Did you have incendiaries or the high explosive. Five hundred pounders? Cookies? What was your standard bomb load you took?
BC: My first trip was an eight thousand pounder. Fancy sending a green man like me with an eight thousand pounder. I took an eight thousand pounder at another aerodrome too. Used to take off with about six tons. And people say that Bomber Command didn’t do much of a job during the war but you try following six hundred people over a city. Each aeroplane’s got six tons. That’s three thousand tons of bombs on a flight. That must make some difference eh? Night after night. On my second dickie trip and that, that’s what’s on there. Always reminded me. That photo there that’s what Stuttgart looked like. It was more of a second dickie trip. They decided to go to Stuttgart and the previous losses was three aeroplanes so everybody decided it was about time they did an operation. The last time was only three. That night it was thirty two. And that was like daylight that night and that always reminds me of it.
GT: Now, your dickie trips. Did you get to know the captain and the crew very well or were you just told to stand there, shut up and don’t touch anything?
BC: Oh, the second dickie. Funny you should mention that. I’m looking around. Before we took off I’m looking around the aeroplane. Doing a sort of inspection. Casual inspection. And I see the rear gunner with an empty bottle of beer. I said, ‘What the hell is going on here mate?’ He said, ‘Oh for Lords sake don’t tell the captain.’ He said, ‘We drop one over the target.’ He said, ‘They make a terrible noise when they’re going through the air.’ But that, there’s a photo over there there’s one, there’s a book called Strike and, Strike and Sure, something like that.
GT: Yeah. Yeah. We’ll have a look at that later on.
BC: At the end. Yeah.
GT: Yeah.
BC: Now that fella’s grandfather was a rear gunner on that aeroplane which I flew.
GT: Ok.
BC: That —
GT: Yeah.
BC: That fellow who wrote that book on 514 Squadron. His grandfather was killed on an aeroplane. That one over there. Yeah.
GT: What was the side code numbers of your aircraft? Do you remember the numbers of your aircraft?
BC: Yeah. I’ve got them wrote out. JI something. 819 was one of them. And that. But I always had trouble with that, with the starboard inner. I mean one aeroplane we came home with had [pause] I was very fortunate when I got home. I was green, you know, a young pilot. Always was, the big shots won’t like my coming home early. I used to say, ‘If you’re only over the North Sea and you’ve got trouble go back home and you’ll come back tomorrow night. But if you go ahead you know you could kill yourself.’ But we got quite worried about sometimes about boomerang. But in that particular case, the flight commander’s aeroplane and they had to take the motor out. Yeah. Yeah. That pleased me [laughs]
GT: Just showed that —
BC: Yeah.
GT: Going back was the best option in this case. Yeah.
BC: Yeah.
GT: Definitely. So once you were a POW how, what happened then? You ended up in Sagan. Did you have a POW number assigned?
BC: Yeah. 5150 — my POW. I remember that number. When you got to the POW camp of course you had to be checked over. You might have been a ring-in. And that happened occasionally. Yeah. That’s true. I didn’t, I don’t think that happened in our camp but that did happen. And —
GT: So you’re meaning that there was a Nazi infiltrator. That they planted people in.
BC: Yeah. That’s right. Yeah.
GT: Yeah. Wow. And they called them ring-ins.
BC: Eh?
GT: Did they call them ring-ins?
BC: No. I called them that. I was able to tell them about a bloke there who was on the squadron before. Before I got shot down. He was able to confirm that I was quite legitimate. But, but in that POW camp of course you, you had guards inside the camp and out and, and bringing their beautiful Alsatian dogs. But the goons were interesting people. The guards would come into the camp. I remember a fella coming into camp once and he’d lost his ticket to get out. Word went around, ‘If you’ve got his ticket will you bring it to the gate so he can get out’ [laughs]. Everybody had to take, wait a damned long time before they handed that in [laughs] That’s that. That’s oh, that, yeah up to all sorts of mischief when you were a POW. They were underneath you. Underneath the floor checking up on you and crawling out on the [unclear] and they call you out to check where the radios were. We had, they had one fella who was going to, he was in our room actually. I don’t know where he was going to escape from but he was going to. He had an escape all jacked up. But I think it was called off in the finish because of some reason or other. But he was going to go down the road and steal an aeroplane. Yeah. There was, next, next door to the prisoner of war camp there was a big paddock. I’m not sure whether they used that for sport or not but I do recall a very small Welsh pilot who was a, he was a lawyer. And he went into this paddock and picked up a shovel and and a handful of wood and an old hat and decided walk out. Unfortunately [laughs] unfortunately they got him before he got very far. And I’ll never forget watching Wing Commander Tuck. As they were walking this bloke out he was dropping all the escape gear on the ground and Wing Commander Tuck was picking it up [laughs] Yeah.
GT: So Bruce, you were mentioning a Wing Commander Tuck. So, as we were talking earlier you had some very famous aircrew with you in Sagan. So, can you tell us a little about the people that were with you? And in this case Wing Commander Stanford Tuck.
BC: Wing Commander Tuck. He was a prisoner of war there and he, he — we were in a section called Tuck’s Mansions which were infected with those what do you call them? Bedbugs. And you go to bed at night, wake up in the mornings and your back was all bloody. And they tried many times to get rid of these roaches but they were, they had long lives these roaches. Yeah. There was one fellow in there they reckon at one stage he he flew an aeroplane up the streets of Berlin. I don’t know whether it was up the streets or not but I’ve a feeling he was pretty low. He was a, he was a [pause] At the prisoner of war camp I had a good record for bowling and cricket and then I quite often tell people that I had a very good record for bowling and cricket. They said, ‘Oh yeah. You must have been amongst the Sunday afternoon players.’ And I said I don’t think the Captain of Western Australia would like to be called that [laughs] The blokes from the West Indies. They wouldn’t like to be called that. We had, in my room we had a book. A line book. If you shot a line it got, it got put into the line book. Tuck was in the room one day and he made the comment, ‘All my flight commanders have become group captains and so forth since I was shot down,’ into the line book. And another squadron leader was shooting the line that he said, ‘So I pulled up, I pulled up over the hill and the flak was so and so thick you could have walked on it.’ That’s that.
GT: So Stanford Tuck was stuck down in Europe.
BC: I think he was. Yeah.
GT: Ok. And he ended up in your, in the same POW camp was it? Did he become the POW senior commander or was that someone else?
BC: No. There was a group captain there with a, a little fella with a big moustache. A groupie. And he was, he was, he was the commander. There were, there were lots of wingcos in there. It was a camp, a compound that was started off they got the ringleaders of the escape and shot them to [unclear] . That was the focus of the [unclear] compound. After that it was prisoners from recent trips and of course they were Nuremberg and Leipzig and Berlin. They were pretty heavy losses so the, you know blokes who were prisoners of war quite often didn’t have very many operations. It wasn’t their fault. I can remember one night around about 12 o’clock at night the word came out we were going to be shifted out of the camp. So, we had to, we had to move out. And that was the worst winter in Germany for eighty years. Snow outside. Marching. We marched in the snow. And then it wasn’t very pleasant at all. At the — I can remember one, one stop at, my friend I was with, a boy from Eton he could speak any old language at all. He talked to some people who lived in Germany and we got a damned good meal. I’ll always remember. Kept going back to the great big room where we were housed. It was dark and we had to crawl across all these bodies to get to where we should have been and put our knees in people’s noses, and all sorts. Frightening thought. But then we, we got out. Finally got up to a place called [pause] sou’ southwest of Berlin. A very big camp and they shifted us out of [unclear] or Sagan because they didn’t, they didn’t want the Russians to get us. Otherwise there might be, might be thousands of aircrew available to, you know, send back to England to fly again. So they didn’t want the Russians to get us. So that’s why they marched us away. But they couldn’t stop. Once we got to up south of Berlin. Couldn’t stop it. The Russians came. And they became our captors. And the Yankie, the Yanks used to send up trucks every day to cart us away. The Russians wouldn’t let them go. Wouldn’t let them go away. So they wanted, they said, ‘We’ll take the wounded and sick away.’ The Russians wouldn’t allow that either. So, I don’t know what the Russians had in mind at all but they wouldn’t let, they wouldn’t let the Yanks take us away. It was at that stage that I said to Guy one day, ‘I’ve had this place. I’m getting out of it.’ That’s when it all started again. But we got caught. Yeah. I always remember finally we got to the, we got a correspondent in a jeep picked us up. Guy and I. After we escaped.
GT: I’m sorry. Guy who?
BC: Guy Pease. And he picked, the correspondent picked us up in a jeep and he took us west to a, to a, to some trucks manned by negro drivers who then decided to take us west. And we got to the old brew hut only to find the bridge was manned by Russians who said, ‘Take them back, boy. You’re not crossing here.’ So these negro drivers said, ‘Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.’ So they turned around to go further north to find another bridge — manned by Russians. Finally get a bridge that was manned by Yanks and we got across. And I’ll always remember those front line American troops putting chewing gum and toothbrushes in to my, our pocket. And you know for years later I wouldn’t have a word said against the Americans at all. Front line troops doing that. That’s that. Yes.
GT: Many of those Americans had liberated many of those camps and must have seen some awful sights so obviously they had great compassion for you and their own boys too. They had a lot of people in POW camps themselves didn’t they? The Americans.
BC: Yeah.
GT: So, they, they managed to get you across into allied lines. How did you get back to England? And when was that?
BC: That was in [pause] that must have been in May. And we were flown back from Brussels. I got flown back in a Dakota. But my rear, my mid-upper gunner he was a flight sergeant from another camp. He got to Brussels before me apparently and he, so help me got flown back by a 514 pilot. 514 aeroplane. Yeah. That’s that.
GT: So, we must, must go back then and ask you about your crew. So all your crew managed to bale out. That’s seven members.
BC: Yeah.
GT: Did they all survive the war and were they made POW or did they evade?
BC: Three of them. Three of them got back to England. The bomb aimer, the rear gunner and a radio operator. Apparently the radio operator got caught. He was two or three feet away from being caught, and he doesn’t know how he got away with it but he got home. Another two they were on the loose for six weeks before they got turned in by infiltrators. There was a group who helped prisoners of war get back but that group got infiltrated by somebody and he turned the whole damned lot in. And I think he left, he left that, what — he left somewhere but he came back. He came back and he worked in a pub in Paris. And some Yank spotted him and I think finally they got him and killed him in a chuck run. I’ve got a note of it somewhere. His name. He had several aliases. But that, but that was a bit frightening anyway to be turned in. And my navigator the Gestapo got him at night time. Very difficult if you’re — you know kids can give the giveaway you know. Get to school at that, ‘Oh we’ve got a man at home,’ and so forth. It could have been worse I suppose. When I was in Frankfurt the Germans made a comment that there are so many people on the roofs in the air force that so many people on the roofs they weren’t able to stop the population taking a, you know a pitchfork to people who landed. I suppose that happened occasionally. But in the, in the front of this book here I’ve got a note of the, the service when that, all those people were killed. Do you remember that Great Escape? Hitler said they were all to be shot. Somehow or other somebody else said half of them will be shot. At the service, I’ve got a note of the service there. Incidentally, a few years later, a few years ago I read some of that to the Girls Guides at the RSA laying of poppies at Karori. I read some of that. I don’t know. I don’t know what year it was but I’ve got a note of it here.
GT: Did you, did you know any of those prisoners of war that escaped and then were shot?
BC: No. No.
GT: You didn’t. Right.
BC: No. I didn’t know.
GT: So, when you managed to get back to England then when you flew back to England where did you land and what did they do? Did they —
BC: I can’t remember where we landed.
GT: Did they medically check you and then —
BC: I think they did. Yeah. We weren’t very, we weren’t in very good health but on the boat coming back it was a big boat. We, I think we won the tug of war on the boat and it always amazed me how underfed people like us could beat the rest of them. We didn’t cheat [laughs]
GT: And that was only a few months after the war finished. You managed to get a boat back to New Zealand.
BC: That’s right. Yeah. 1980 went to the Girl Guides. 1980.
GT: Wow. Yeah.
BC: Forty years ago.
GT: Goodness me.
BC: But you’d be very interested to read some of the comments from that.
GT: Thank you. I will do. Yeah. So, from, from that time when did you arrive back to New Zealand? Was it mid 1945? Something like that?
BC: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
GT: Yeah. And the —
BC: On the way back I think the Japanese tossed it in. I was on the boat when they tossed it in, I think.
GT: Ok. You were very lucky then.
BC: Yeah.
GT: Did you stay in the New Zealand Air Force or did you keep flying?
BC: No. I I got out. They asked me in Brussels why I didn’t stay in the air force and I made a comment and after I made it I was very frightened it would get back to my friends in the New Zealand. They said, ‘Why didn’t you stay in the air force?’ And I said, ‘I don’t want to be a taxi driver all my life.’ If that gets back to my friend in New Zealand. Of course I had a lot to do in aviation after the war.
GT: So then please tell us about that because once you arrived back did you take up a new trade? Did you carry on flying? What? Please tell us what you did there Bruce.
BC: When I came home from the war I [laughs] When I came home from the war I went to the powers that be and I said, ‘I want a bursary to go to university.’ They said, ‘What do you want to do?’ I said, ‘Commerce.’ They said, ‘There’s no bursaries for Commerce.’ It was in the rehab, opposite, upstairs opposite [unclear] and they said there’s no. I said, ‘I’m not interested in what you say. I want a bursary to go back. The war has ruined my life. I went back to school and I didn’t go back for nothing. I want a bursary.’ They said, ‘You’re not having it.’ I said, ‘I think you might be wrong mate,’ and I said, ‘Who’s above you in this joint?’ And I can remember saying, the fella said to me, ‘The lecture’s at night. What would you do in the daytime? Go around Oriental Bay?’ And I said to him, ‘You say that again and see what happens then.’ I pestered. In the finish the pushed me out. They said, ‘You’ve got a bursary for one year only.’ I said, ‘Thank you very much.’ I forgot who it was who helped me get that. A bloke. Turner I think. I’ve forgotten who. In the end I went back and I said, ‘Now, I want a bursary to go to university next year.’ They said, ‘You’ve had one for a year. You were told for one year only. You’re not having another one.’ I said, ‘Who’s above you in this joint?’ So [laughs] so, finally I enrolled at the university and I went down. By this stage I’d have got to top man in New Zealand. A fellow called Colonel Barrington. A little fellow. And thank goodness for him. He was the top man. We started [laughs] we were swearing at each other. And then, and then I said, ‘I want a bursary. I’m not clever but I’m pig headed enough to want to get somewhere.’ And then finally he said to me, ‘Ring me back at 4 o’clock. What are you doing now?’ I said, ‘I’m up, my books are on the table in the library right now. Up at the university.’ ‘Ring me at 4 o’clock.’ So he gave me a bursary for a second year. And, and I found out that’s not the way to study. It’s not the way to study. Doing a three year course in two years is no way to. It’s wrong. Fundamentally wrong. It’s very wrong. You shouldn’t do that. But I finally got my accounting work from somebody. Then went on my own. And I spent a lot of my time on aviation. I was at the aero club and I was at the aero club for, I don’t know, sixteen years. And then and then the Royal New Zealand I was up for the whole of New Zealand. And then gliding for forty five years. New Zealand Secretary of Gliding for forty five years and I’d the only aerial topdressing company in Wellington. I was the secretary of that. I used to go up to Martinborough, every month for a director’s meeting with that John Rutherford whose family owned the dominion. John with his great big moustache, his Benz car. When you closed the door you thought you were closing a strongroom door.
GT: Wow. So, so for gliding became your passion in the end. Forty. Forty five years.
BC: Captain of the secretaries. Yeah. I had another secretaryship. Sixty years. My daughter said to me one night, ‘Come into town. We’re going to have a meal.’ That happened quite often. But they put one across me. When I got into this, this restaurant I knew everybody there. It was a party for me. To give me a New Zealand life membership of the painters. The only one ever given to a bloke who’s not been on the New Zealand Executive. I got life membership with the painters after sixty years secretaryship. That’s a long time.
GT: So you were a painter and paper hanger. Or —
BC: No. I was the secretary of it.
GT: Just became the secretary of it.
BC: Yeah.
GT: Wow. Without even being in the industries per se.
BC: That’s right. I was a, I was secretary of Wellington for six years. I was a life member of Wellington and I’m a life member of the New Zealand too. In fact when I got that life membership that was my eighth. I’ve got eight of them.
GT: Fabulous.
BC: I had about forty years in the motion picture industry too. I was the auditor of the motion pictures, the cinemas for New Zealand. And then I became a secretary. And I was the secretary of the — and I used to run all the conferences up at Rotorua and Hamilton.
GT: So, this is a direct result of you pushing to get your bursaries and you did a degree in Commerce.
BC: Yeah.
GT: This is a direct result of all of that.
BC: Yeah.
GT: Yeah.
BC: I got a, I got a BComm and then I got my accountancy and then they decided that the Institute of Secretaries, there was a, I thought I might as well become, get my secretarial exam too. And they said if you sit this exam and pass it by the New Zealand you are automatically become a chartered secretary of England. So, we sat this, we sat this exam for, for the secretarial and I remember sitting in a church hall in town. I sat this exam and got it all done in about nine hours flat. Three three hours papers. Everybody, everyone was there to get in the back door. And I got home and I found out that one question I got all the, I made the list correct but I put the wrong heading on it and I thought oh, I had to finish that. But they gave me that and now I’m with the Chartered Institute of Secretaries too.
GT: What a fabulous thing. So, now tell me please about your family. You married and had children and when?
BC: Yeah. Well, when I went back to school in, in the class of a family called Derwent and I finished up by marrying her. She was a wonderful chorist. When I went back as a pupil when I was nineteen. And she was, her mother and father were, they were headmaster and headmistress of a Maori school in Turangi and it was pretty amazing rather. He was born in Scotland. A white man buried as a Maori chief. And when they buried him out came the cloak with the kiwi feather. Reserved for Maori chiefs.
GT: The rangatiras.
BC: They were around the Ataahua. All her family were, too [unclear] out. she was, she was white but a great honour for a white man to be buried as a Maori chief.
GT: So you met her before the war and when you came back you married.
BC: I married. Yeah. When I got back I married. I was twenty nine when I got married and I’ve got a wife and three children. That’s my wife there.
GT: She’s got a nurses uniform there.
BC: When I married her she was a theatre sister at Wellington Hospital. Blood and guts.
GT: Fair enough too. And then you lived here in Wellington.
BC: Yeah. I’ve always been in Wellington. Yeah. Ever since the war I’ve been in Wellington. I’ve got a daughter in Wellington. A son in Wainuiomata and a son in England.
GT: So how many grandchildren have you now?
BC: I’ve got two.
GT: Two grandchildren.
BC: Two boys. My daughter’s got two boys and my son in England has got two girls. And that’s my grandson on the right there. He put in for a job in Wellington in New Zealand. Eight hundred put in for it but he got it last year. Three days after he got it he told me he didn’t want it. That, that crowd in Melbourne sent for him and he’s over there. He’s not been long there before he got, he’s got promotion already and the woman in England with that firm wants him in England, and I hear two days ago the boss in Jakarta wants him. He’s, I don’t know, he’s something. I don’t think he’ll finish up in that firm. I think he’ll finish up like John Key making his money out of money which is not good. He just, that’s his father in the centre. He’s a lawyer in Wellington. And his, his father was an All Black. That there.
GT: Really?
BC: Incidentally, do you know what that thing on the left is?
GT: I’m looking at a shield type plaque and it is [pause] it’s the Caterpillar Club.
BC: You wouldn’t credit my name’s on the back of that would you?
GT: Now, Bruce is showing me his Caterpillar Club pin and it is, his name is engraved on the back of it and he’s kept it in a ring, in a ring holder so, and it’s on a small very delicate chain. So it’s a very prestigious thing to be wearing and still have your Caterpillar Club pin. Has it got one eye or two?
BC: One.
GT: It’s got one eye. Yeah.
BC: That’s enough.
GT: Yeah.
BC: What was that?
GT: Yeah. It’s got, yeah it’s got two eyes. Two little red ruby eyes.
BC: I used to think the coloured, two different coloured eyes but that, I believe that’s not true.
GT: Yours has both red. I can see that.
BC: They used to say the, the green eyed one was if you were shot down over the sea but I believe that’s not true. Yeah.
GT: I’ll find out for you, Bruce. I don’t know about that. So, so now, I’m sorry in chatting with you earlier you mentioned your wife had had a stroke and died. And how long ago was that, Bruce? When was that? Your wife died of a stroke. Was that correct?
BC: No. She had a stroke. But she had that. When I brought her home from England they sent her up to Taihape Hospital and she was there for thirteen years. I used to see her every day. Get her out on a Friday. Take her back. But that got too much for me. I used to, she insisted I do her washing. I used to do her washing every day and then do my shopping. And then I’d, it was always late at night. Then a few years ago, three years ago I was working full time. Still working ‘til midnight every night and enjoying it.
GT: At ninety. In your early nineties you were still working.
BC: Most. Yeah. Ninety four. Most of my life I didn’t have a doctor. I went for an insurance policy once and they said to me, ‘What’s your doctor’s name? We want to check up with your doctor?’ I said, ‘I haven’t got a doctor.’ ‘What’s his telephone number?’ I said, ‘Didn’t you hear me? I can’t give you a telephone number because I haven’t got a doctor.’ So, finally I gave them the name of Bill Treadwell. That was a doctor at Wadestown. Used to be a rugby doctor. So when I went down there to be tested a woman tested me. A woman doctor. I spent most of my life without a doctor but I’m very fortunate.
GT: And you’re looking very healthy. Bruce, you also mentioned that you’ve been a very long-time member of the RSA.
BC: Yeah.
GT: And, and that includes Rose and Poppy days. Please tell me about that.
BC: Yes. All together I did a hundred collections for that. They used to have a Poppy, a Rose day which was in, on Armistice Day in November. That stopped in the early 80s but I did, between sixty four and thirty six, that made a hundred. A hundred poppies.
GT: You did thirty four Rose Days and sixty six Poppy Days.
BC: Yeah. Yeah. I did.
GT: Because in England right now, England right now many service people are collecting for poppies and donations.
BC: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
GT: I have many friends that post saying they’re doing that.
BC: Yeah.
GT: And you were also the treasurer for the RSA.
BC: I was treasurer for the RSA. Yeah. Before that. That was twenty two years. And my wife was twenty eight. That made a century. That’s a good way to have it.
GT: That’s a good way to have it.
BC: Yeah.
GT: Now, you also mentioned to me a story about someone come up to you while you were collecting.
BC: Oh yes. He said the money doesn’t go to the RSA.
GT: But the gentleman said to you the money doesn’t go to the RSA. So, he was trying to have a go at you.
BC: Right.
GT: And what was your reply?
BC: My reply was that you picked on the wrong one. Of all the collections in Wellington you picked on the wrong one. I’m the treasurer [laughs]
GT: ‘And I know where that money goes,’ you said. Right.
BC: Yeah.
GT: Yeah. and in New Zealand the value of the returned serviceman’s association in New Zealand is all about what? What does the RSA do here in New Zealand?
BC: Looking after ex-servicemen and their families. That couldn’t be much more important because after all those blokes that not only did they lose their lives but their families lives were all mucked up too. And, you know I think in Europe there must have been over fifty million people killed. And there would be another fifty million were affected. Growing up without their father or mother or brother. And the same number in the east. And, and now we have a fellow sitting up there going to drop a bomb on it. Up in North Korea. I don’t know.
GT: Yeah. Pretty, pretty strife. Now, you also mentioned you knew Phil Lamason. Can you tell me about knowing Phil Lamason because he was another famous Lancaster pilot.
BC: Yeah. Well, he was, he rolled up in the prisoner of war camp after being in, he’d got out of Buchenwald and he [pause] I think he should if ever a man should have had an award it was him. He found out that they intended doing them all in the next day. He unfortunately got caught just before the invasion and, and he was shifted in to Fresnes Jail. And the Germans decided that all those in Fresnes Jail should be sent to Buchenwald. And that’s how he got there by mistake. But when they said that when he told us that he was air force they I think they struck him. And he used to be a prize fighter himself once. In fact in the book, the book about one of those spies he’s referred to as Lamason with a, with a pugnacious nose. Yeah. Yeah.
GT: Because Phil Lamason he, he was featured in some news articles several years ago but sadly he’s since died so it was of interest to hear you mention his name.
BC: Yeah.
GT: Just recently so. And although you say you’ve been in very good health have you suffered a stroke recently yourself?
BC: No. In 1994 I was very fortunate. I’d just had breakfast and my daughter came around to my home and I said, ‘My breathing’s not working too well.’ She said, ‘I’d better take you to the doctor.’ So we went to the doctor and I finished up by being sent in to Kenepuru for about I don’t know must have been about ten or eleven weeks. But I wasn’t there very long before I was ready to run up and down the corridor. I was shown how to fix the strap. I was ready to run. And then I had a late [unclear] stroke in there. It cost me about eleven weeks at Kenepuru. I’m lucky to be here. Very very fortunate. Most amazing how that happened. Got in here so quickly. And I know somebody in St Giles, in St John’s Church they enquired about coming here and they were told eighteen months. So I was very fortunate.
GT: Certainly very fortunate because in 1996 you went back to Belgium. So, please tell us a little about your trip back to Belgium to meet the people that were in the village where you landed that night.
BC: I did. I can’t recall. All I can recall when I landed was that all these young Germans. It was 1 o’clock in the morning. That’s all I can remember at, in that place. They, they pitched. I had, for some reason or other I had my pilot’s badge was stuck on with a safety pin. Why I don’t know. But that was stolen. And then —
GT: Your pilot’s brevet you’re talking —
BC: Yeah. Yeah.
GT: Your wings.
BC: Yeah. That was stolen.
GT: And what about your parachute? Where did you parachute end up?
BC: I don’t know where my parachute ended but that one I got I think was my radio, I think it was my radio operator’s. The silk in it you see was what they wanted for her wedding dress. And —
GT: So there was a woman in the village that used the parachute for her wedding dress.
BC: She gave it. I lifted her a foot off the ground when she gave it to me.
GT: So you went back in 1996.
BC: ’96.
GT: And there’s a lovely photogaph in the Belgian paper articles you’ve shown us.
BC: Yeah.
GT: And she is showing you her gown made from the parachute —
BC: That’s right. Yeah.
GT: Of your wireless operator’s.
BC: Yeah. Yeah.
GT: And you have a piece of that leftover, of that parachute here in your possession now.
BC: That’s correct. Yeah.
GT: So you still have that. That’s fabulous. So, you were treated, treated very well when you went there. Was that right? You were treated very well, Bruce.
BC: Yeah. Yeah. When I went, when I went in I went over to London for the — incidentally at the you know in London there were about twelve members of the royal family there. Most amazing. And when the English government wouldn’t give a cent towards it. Twelve of the royal family there.
GT: Yeah. Bruce this is the next and the last thing we’re going to talk to you about. And I’d like you to check and tell us that how you managed to get to England in 2012 for the Bomber Command Memorial of London’s opening. Which I was there too and I remember you there now. Please tell us how you got there and, and what happened.
BC: Well, it started off by a client of mine, I’ve still got him as a client, a few days prior said, ‘Are you going to London?’ And I said, ‘What for?’ He said, ‘The Memorial.’ I said, ‘What’s that all about?’ He told me about it so I decided to apply but unfortunately I made my application the day before they closed and they, the bloke said, ‘I’ll give you a — I’ll give you a week to get it in.’ So, finally I got it in and and and they were pretty strict with the medicals. They didn’t want anything to happen to you while you were — and one poor fella he passed all that and when he got up to Auckland just before his take-off there was another little medical. He got chucked. He got chucked altogether. And at that stage I was sitting on a stool. A three pronged stool. And I had to take, I had to take that with me. Now, at Kuala Lumpur I’m sitting on that stool talking to a doctor and then, and I — what was I talking about? I think I said, ‘We’re all in this life for some reason or other.’ The next thing I’m on the floor and they thought I’d thrown a heart attack. And I got up. I said, ‘Don’t worry about me. Have a look to see if the floor’s damaged,’ [laughs] And you wouldn’t, you wouldn’t credit it. That thing had three prongs on it and it cracked right across there. You wouldn’t believe it. How it came to crack. And my Kiwi rep said to me later on in the night, ‘I found you one of those seats.’ I said, ‘I don’t believe you.’ She said, They’re for sale in the front of this beautiful big hotel.’ I said, ‘I don’t believe you.’ So, that night we went and had a look. And they had this little shop. Only about half the size of this room. They had two of them so I bought the two of them and, but how it came to break I never. It’s unbelievable how it broke.
GT: So you nearly didn’t make it. So, so a slight bit of background for the folks listening, listening to us is that the New Zealand Bomber Command Association in 2011 got a team together to look to getting as many veterans and their families to England as possible.
BC: Yeah.
GT: For the 2012.
BC: Yeah. Yeah.
GT: And in the turn of events the New Zealand government took it off of the Bomber Command people and they organised a 757 of the Royal New Zealand Air Force and their crew. The Chief of the Air Force, Mr Peter Stockwell went as well. And there was thirty three of you chaps selected and each of you were assigned a New Zealand Veteran’s Affairs and a New Zealand Army medical staff person.
BC: Yeah. That’s right.
GT: So they looked after you to get over there. So you flew from New Zealand to England via the Middle East and on the 757 and you stayed in England for about a week or ten days. You were very well looked after. They gave you the best of hotels and you also joined in with us of the 75 Squadron Association’s New Zealand and UK.
BC: That’s right.
GT: And we had a grand day at Mepal and dinner. And also Newmarket and, and at Feltwell. So, can, can you please tell everybody because you were sitting up front next to her majesty and Prince Charles. And did you get to meet them?
BC: No I didn’t. I didn’t feel too well at that and I was sitting a bit away from the front otherwise I would have met them. I did enjoy my night at the Guildhall. And that was my, my son’s mother in law said to me, ‘The Guildhall. Not many people get into the Guildhall,’ and I said, ‘No.’ And I spent a long time speaking to the treasurer of the whole place. Yeah. I found out he was the treasurer.
GT: And you would have gone to the RAF Club as well. Did you go up in to the RAF Club?
BC: No. No.
GT: Across the road.
BC: I can, I remember the Guildhall very well. That was a great night there. When I came home they had a service at the National War Memorial for those who couldn’t go. But the odd one or two blokes who went to London did go and at the last minute I got turned up for an interview. And that, occasionally I read it on the internet and it’s —
GT: So, what did you think of the Memorial, Bruce?
BC: Oh wonderful. Wonderful. Yeah. I’ve always, the night before we went to, the day before we went to the Memorial we were driven around and we had a look also at the Memorial that was for Sir, was it Keith Park?
KP: Yeah.
BC: And I was very disappointed at that. Yeah. They didn’t give him a fair go did they? They just didn’t give him a fair go. And I thought that, I thought there’d be a big Memorial for him. You know, you go around London there’s blokes sitting on horses with spears up in the air and yet this very small thing was for Keith Park who did a wonderful job at the start of the war.
GT: He was the saviour of the Battle of Britain, wasn’t he?
BC: Yeah.
GT: Yeah.
BC: Yeah.
GT: So, so the statue of the seven airmen. Did they represent you guys do you think? Was their images awesome or —
BC: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I did. I did that. I’m very impressed with that.
GT: Did you see you up there? Because they’d got the pilot standing up front.
BC: Yeah. Yeah.
GT: Represent you alright?
BC: It cost about six or seven million. I don’t, I don’t know what it costs them every year to run. Do you know?
GT: There is an upkeep. The Benevolent Fund has the upkeep for that memorial and the 75 Squadron Association —
BC: Not far from Buckingham Palace.
GT: That’s correct.
BC: Yeah.
GT: It’s through the park. Yeah. Yeah.
BC: Yeah.
GT: So Bruce what, our interview with you today has been for the digital archives at the International Bomber Command Centre.
BC: Yeah.
GT: And they’re based in Lincoln. And early in 2018 their brand new building will be opened and that will house a lot of the Memorial and the records of you gentlemen. You, our famous Bomber Command people. And this interview that I’m recording for you and with you now will go towards that digital archive.
BC: Yeah.
GT: So, I think we’ve been speaking for well over an hour and a half so I’ve run right through a lot of the things. Is there anything else you’d like to point out or say?
BC: No. I’ll think of it later on.
GT: Yeah.
BC: I’ll think of something.
GT: You’ll think of something later on but I probably will have gone but —
BC: People say I should write a book but I don’t know. They say I should write a book but I don’t —
GT: You endured so much Bruce. What about the fact that the Bomber Command role could — could Harris have done it any other way?
BC: No. I don’t think so. Aircrew liked him. I don’t think he got a fair go. I don’t know whether he hit it off too well with Churchill. I can’t be sure about that. And I have an article somewhere in my records where that trip to Nuremberg was that it should never have happened. I’ve got that. I think they, they knew we were coming. Lamason made the comment before they went to Nuremberg on that trip he said, ‘This is suicide. We shouldn’t be going this long straight trek with no changes of course. Something fishy here.’ And I’ve seen an article where that might have been. Mind you if it is true it probably saved lives but the air force had to pay. You see, for a long time the Germans thought — they took the word of that spy who said the invasion’s coming from Calais. And they kept all the bigger German equipment around Calais waiting for the invasion. Rommel pleaded for that stuff to be sent down south so he could use it. And they said no. It’s all coming finally at Calais. Of course that was just a big hoax wasn’t it? They had no intention. That might have been the reason why we lost a lot at Nuremberg. The spy told them the route and everything. They were waiting for the RAF that night. But I don’t know whether that’s true or not.
GT: The fabulous thing is you survived.
BC: Yeah.
GT: And I’m very honoured to be talking with you here today. And we’ve got Poppy Days coming up but I know that you’ve retired from that. Yeah.
BC: That bloke who took over from me on Poppy Day he died a couple months ago.
KP: Yeah. That one.
GT: Yeah. Oh gosh. So, so the Bomber Command gentlemen, and your numbers are dwindling very quick and I’m so privileged to be able to come and talk with you today in your place and I —
BC: I don’t, I don’t think I’ll be interviewed again in my lifetime now.
GT: Well, you can be rest assured that the people listening to these recordings, this recording with you will sit back and be very honoured to listen to what you’ve had to say to us today.
BC: I bought one of these things before I came here. Never used it and it’s gone. I don’t know where it is. I asked my daughters a couple of times where it’s gone but they don’t remember.
GT: One last thing then, Bruce. What do you think of the Lancaster Mark 2?
BC: Oh marvellous. I’ve seen the fellow [unclear], an engineer on the Mark 2 said they suited him fine. They were much more powerful and they were better. Stood much more damage but they wouldn’t go up quite so high and on a long trip they couldn’t quite take so much ammunition because they needed more petrol. That’s right. They needed more petrol. But I can remember seeing a Mark 3 take off on our short runways once and when they got to the end of the, then end of the runway [unclear]. We used to take off in the middle of the night six ton of bombs aboard on those short runways. And they were much more powerful. My garage clients put a heated, about the make-up of the different engines. He said the Bristol motor was much much better. A better motor.
GT: Wow.
BC: And he’d know all about engines and that.
GT: Yeah. And your aircraft was the three hundredth off the production line.
BC: That’s right. Yeah.
GT: That you were shot down on.
BC: Yes.
GT: That was last one produced.
BC: Yeah.
GT: You were saying to me.
BC: It must have been a costly business running a war with all those aeroplanes. The cost must have been absolutely fantastic. Was that what crippled England after the war? I don’t know.
GT: It did. Well, Bruce I think it’s time that we, we sign off our recording now. And I I must thank you very much. And for Kaye who’s been sitting here listening and in awe of Bruce’s story as well. For introducing me to Bruce here. So, I’m going to say thank you very much. It’s now quarter past five on the evening of the 4th of November 2017 here at Bruce Cunningham’s place at the Rita Angus Retirement Village in Kilbirnie, New Zealand. And I’m sure that dinner awaits down below so I’m going to say thank you very much for, for chatting with us and I will make this recording —
BC: I wish as well. I don’t know that it will be. I hope it is.
GT: You can have the last word Bruce.
BC: Yeah. Yeah.
GT: Thank you very much, Bruce. Yeah.
BC: Thank you.
GT: Thank you
BC: Thank you.
GT: Alright.
BC: I have a great deal of trouble with electronics. Hunter aeroplanes.
GT: Did you? Hunters.
BC: Yeah.
GT: Yeah.
BC: And he started off to be a lawyer in New Zealand and [paused] in charge of 707s.
[recording paused]
BC: And when people ask me, when they ask me I don’t think I should say, ‘I don’t want to talk to you.’ If they ask you a question. Tell them. Get on with it.
GT: Yeah.
BC: You know in POW you didn’t even speak about what you did during the war. You didn’t know and couldn’t care. My brother he was in the army. I didn’t know what he did. He didn’t know what I did either. My family don’t know what I did. They haven’t got a clue. If they asked me I’d tell them. They don’t ask me. I don’t tell them. It doesn’t arise.
GT: Many choose not to speak so I’m honoured that you’ve spoken to me today. Thank you.
BC: Yeah.
GT: Yeah. Now, actually I’ll take a picture of you two.
KP: Oh no. Don’t take a picture of me. I don’t like being photographed. Bruce, would you like me to go out and ask them to bring your tea in here?
BC: No. No. No. I normally go out a little bit later but I’ll catch up. They’re old people. They take a while to eat and talk too much. I’m not. I’m only ninety seven.
GT: Bruce, I’m going to take a picture of you by yourself because I’ve got a picture here. Actually, if I just put that there so that’s Bruce Cunningham and you’ve got your Lancaster pictures up above you.
KP: He’s Lancaster pictures all over the place.
GT: Which is fabulous and I love that. Now similar with the other gentleman. Jack Meehan.
BC: Eh?
GT: Remember Jack Meehan who was on the trip in 2012.
BC: Oh, I remember the name. Yeah.
GT: Jack died at Christmas time. Dick Lampier. He died a couple of years ago. Dick was in the wheelchair.
BC: Oh yeah.
GT: Was he ok? Some said he wasn’t.
KP: Oh I remember. He was a Wellington man wasn’t he?
GT: No. Lancaster.
BC: Where I —
GT: Jake Wakefield.
KP: No. No. I mean Wellington. Wellington city.
GT: Oh yes. Yes. Yes.
KP: Yes. I remember. He was a very difficult man.
BC: I went to see my son and he gave me a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful photo of — what was the double VC bloke’s name?
GT: Oh Upham.
BC: Upham. Yeah.
GT: Charles Upham.
BC: Oh beautiful photo. Gold lettering, and he said, ‘Take that back to New Zealand with you.’ Big one. Great big photo. And I said, ‘I don’t know whether I can get it on the aeroplane.’ He said, ‘Take it back.’ I gave it to a doctor who was, got a very high rank in New Zealand. In the army. Oh terrific rank. Right at the top. I said this is, this is a very high rank. He said well I had to give it up to come over here. I gave it to her and she bought half, and the last I saw of it in Auckland. She waved me and went out and said here’s the picture. And I think, I think it might be in the boss’s office of the Vet’s Affairs in Wellington.
KP: Oh right.
BC: I’m not sure.
KP: Oh, I don’t think —
GT: And you haven’t seen it.
KP: I’m just going to tell them that you are late for tea. I’ll be back in a moment.
GT: And you haven’t seen it since.
BC: Yeah.
GT: Ok. Ron’s in that one. [pause] Ron was there.
BC: My crew are there somewhere.
GT: Have you still got your logbook?
BC: Eh?
GT: Have you still got your logbook?
BC: Yeah.
GT: And your medals.
BC: Yeah.
GT: Are your medals on here.
BC: Yeah. I don’t know. I never wear my — I don’t like wearing medals. I don’t like wearing them.
GT: No.
BC: I don’t. I don’t. I don’t like wearing my medals for some reason or other.
GT: Did you, did you get all your medals though?
KP: You still haven’t seen the magic book that was the start of all of this. You’ll just have to come again.
GT: Yeah. I will.
BC: At one station I was at I was quite, quite a green sort of a pilot and the flight commander called us in and said, ‘I want to do something. I want to help you people. If you mention a word about it I’ll kill you.’ I said, ‘Well, what’s the story.’ He said, ‘The wing commander wants to come for a flight tonight and I’ve been asked to give him a crew so he can test fly. But I don’t want to do it that way. I want you to draw lots as to who takes the wing commander.’ Because Joe Soap loses the, loses it, what’s the name. I had to take the wing commander. It was the best thing I ever did during my air force. I took him. We got over the place and we couldn’t bomb it because of cloud and the navigator said, ‘Oh hang on.’ — do this, do that, do that. ‘Bombs away.’ We took a photo and it was very difficult thing to get in Wales and it came out and we won the bombing competition.
GT: Oh wow.
BC: [unclear] But to have our photo taken in front of an aeroplane. And the wing commander was so full of himself he was going around the officer’s mess saying how he’d bombed this place in Wales. In Wales. ‘Well, you all you did, you were a passenger.’ They took the photo and it didn’t come out did it? The next station I said, ‘I want my photo back.’ And that’s it.
GT: That’s it there.
KP: Oh.
GT: Your crews too.
BC: That’s it.
GT: Right. Ok. So I’m going to take a shot of that but what —
BC: When we were at Kuala Lumpur we were held up for the plane to be fixed or something and I went away from the rest of the crowd and I sat on my own. And some girls came over and they were security girls at Kuala Lumpur. And I took a liking to them and they did the same for me. Finally they called us all to the aeroplane and she grabbed my arm and walked me towards the aeroplane. Now, now people on either side of the aeroplane watching. And the squadron leader called out, seen me walking with this girl arm in arm. ‘What’s going on here?’ I said, ‘Jealousy will get you nowhere, mate. I’m not going back to New Zealand.’ He said, ‘Oh you’ve got a new girlfriend have you?’ That’s them.
GT: That’s them there is it? Lovely.
KP: Oh right.
GT: I think she was blinking though.
KP: Oh, who cares.
GT: That’s right. The one behind’s even lovely.
KP: Yeah. Yeah.
GT: We did a couple of trips to Malaysia. I’ve been with the Sky Hawks.
BC: Athletic champ while I was at college.
KP: So that’s —
GT: Very nice.
BC: That’s where I [pause] that’s where I’m nineteen. Head prefect.
GT: You were destined. Now — oh is that you?
BC: Yeah.
GT: Oh gosh. I’m going to have to keep taking photographs. I wish I’d brought my scanner actually.
KP: This is a really good photo. Who are you talking to there?
BC: Oh, that’s the bloke that put me in the Wall Street Journal.
KP: Oh right.
GT: I think you like interviews.
BC: Has she finished?
KP: Isn’t that a neat photo because it’s a doing things photo. Right.
BC: She finished up in the Wall Street Journal.
GT: Leaning up against the, that’s a really good story isn’t it?
KP: Yeah. It’s just —
GT: I’m surprised you bought another couple of three legged stools after that one breaking on you.
BC: Yeah.
KP: And there’s the, yeah here’s the lady with the parachute silk.
BC: Yeah. The woman who made her wedding dress.
GT: One thing we didn’t discuss Bruce was when you took your commission.
KP: Here’s one taken here. Here by the look of it. Oh there’s another.
BC: Oh she was a —
KP: That’s a different one.
BC: She was a Countess that one. That’s in Belgium. At the reception.
KP: Oh.
GT: That was ’45. That was June ’45 as well.
BC: Yeah. One of those blokes, I’m not sure which one, air commodore. Prisoner of war.
GT: So when did you get your commission?
BC: Eh?
GT: When did you get your commission because you’ve got an officer’s —
BC: Yeah.
GT: Suit on there. You said you were a flight sergeant.
BC: I wanted to go to the New Zealand forces club and a fellow at Bennington, from Marsden said, ‘You haven’t got a commission. Why haven’t got one?’ The next time I see him he said to me, ‘Put in for it. You’ll get it straightaway.’ I said, ‘Oh you’re talking rubbish.’ He said I’d take it anyway. Next time I was in London he said, ‘Haven’t you put in for that yet? Put in. You’ll get it straight away. I’m telling you.’ I didn’t realise at the time that he must have been in the know for something. I decided yes, I’ll put in and so help me it came through straight away. They had, they had a church service on Waterbeach and I didn’t go and all those who didn’t go were given drill to do. And while I was doing it a bloke came over to me and said, ‘We can’t drill you any longer. You’re an officer.’ I thought that’s funny. After all my connection with the church I get in to trouble. I get some drill for not going to church. That’s unusual. All my connections over donkeys — a lifetime in the church. And now I’m in trouble for not going to church. But of course when I got pulled out for the drill everyone said boo hoo hoo, ‘Why are you getting off for and we’ve got to stay here and do the drill?’
GT: People are really strange, aren’t they?
KP: They are strange. Yeah.
GT: [unclear] what they do.
KP: Yeah.



Glen Turner, “Interview with Bruce Cunningham,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed April 19, 2024,

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