Interview with Bill Macrae

Title

Interview with Bill Macrae

Description

Bill McRae’s earliest memories were of the end of the First World War. He worked for a major bank during the Depression and was fortunate to be amongst a group of Australians who were sent to work in London. He volunteered at Australia House and was posted to the British Army for officer training during the summer of 1940. He later transferred to the RAF and after training as a pilot at RAF Cranwell was posted on to Malta and Cairo for the Middle East campaign. He later returned to the UK as an instructor at RAF Lossiemouth.

Creator

Publisher

IBCC Digital Archive

Date

2016-11-16

Contributor

Julie Williams

Rights

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

Format

01:26:12 audio recording

Language

Type

Identifier

AMacraeWM161116

Temporal Coverage

Transcription

JH: This interview is being conducted for the International Bomber Command Centre in Lincolnshire, UK and it’s part of the Oral History Programme. I’m the interviewer. I’m John Horsburgh and today I’m interviewing Bill Macrae. Bill was a pilot and he served with 104 Squadron RAF and he was flying Wellington bombers. And he was part of the Desert Air Force. North Africa and Italy campaigns. So, it’s a very interesting story. The interview is at Bill’s home in Chatswood in New South Wales and today is the 16th of November 2016. So, good afternoon Bill. I’m very pleased to be interviewing you for this. Why don’t we start at the start? The, your date of birth and where you were born and we’ll take it from there.
BM: I was born on the 14th of January 1913 at a place called Coraki which is up the far north coast near Lismore. On a farm. And my earliest memory was of the end of the First World War when late one evening a man came galloping down the main road singing out, “The war is over. The war is over.” And I remember very well also when all the soldiers came back where they put on a big return party at the local showground. And I remember there one of them picked me up and threw me up in the air and I boasted about that ever since. That’s the first time I was ever airborne. After that I went to a local school. About ten pupils in it I think, and teaching was rather elementary I suppose but we got the basics. And from there we moved to another farm up at Kyogle which is about, a town about thirty miles further north. And I was there until we came to Sydney in about 1923 and I went to school in Sydney. And at that time in 1926 or ‘7 the Depression came along and that’s one of my main regrets in life that my father lost his money and he had to go back to the bush and start again. And I had to get a job which I was very fortunate. I had an old uncle who had been in the Bank of New South Wales and he got me a job there. And none of my friends had a job. And people don’t realise how dire the straits of everyone else was in the workforce. I think unemployment was about twenty, twenty five percent. And in those day there were very few women working. But I remember the, I started work in Sydney in March 1929 in a two storey building in George Street with a wooden wire cage lift with a bit of rope used as a thing to lower it up and down. And I worked there for about three or four or five years and in 1937 the bank decided to send me to London for three years. Which was one of the greatest breaks I’ve had in life. And the general manager of the bank was Sir Alfred Davidson and he had the idea I think that the, a lot of young fellows in the bank were hillbillies. It would be a good thing if they had a bit of overseas experience. So he sent quite a few of us over there which I think was a very expensive exercise and which rather got him out of favour with the directors. He was wasting money on us really because we went over there completely unsupervised and we sort of had a tourist time. Not having to do much hard work.
JH: Meanwhile Bill was there a sense that there was trouble? When you went over there there was trouble brewing in Germany?
BM: Oh yes. Yes. Yes. I realised that the, there would be a war and I decided at that stage to learn a bit of German. So I went along at night to learn German. And I got to the stage I could understood Hitler’s ravings. And I also went over to Germany on holidays in 1939 and lived with a German family in Munich. And I gathered there that the Germans were right behind Hitler because he gave them hope. As the lady of the house where I was boarding said, ‘Well, he gave us hope,’ and said, ‘Otherwise we were completely —’ the biggest mistake of the war was the Germans were treated very harshly in the Treaty of Versailles. And they were a very proud race and they had no future. And she said, ‘Hitler gave us a future,’ she said, ‘We didn’t agree with him. And we didn’t like Goering. We thought he was a joke. But he gave our kids Hitler Youth ideology.’ Which was very, very good. The young Germans really impressed me. I mean as a tourist they’d see, if you asked them anywhere they’d not only point it out to you but they’d go with you. And very, very well mannered. And the Hitler Youth I think were completely mislead and indoctrinated by Hitler which was very, very unfortunate. But I liked the young Germans and I loved their singing. I loved their music. And I loved their general method of morality which was very high. Which I’m afraid at that time in England you had the shocker yobbos and the young people there didn’t impress you as opposed to the young Germans. At any rate I backed the wrong horse. I got back to England and a bit later on of course war broke out in September ’39. And I was very sympathetic to the German cause and I very easily could have become indoctrinated by the German ideals I think. At any rate. I decided that war might be over by Christmas so I thought I’d better sort of do something about it. I went along to Australia House and I was very fortunate there to have met a military man. Captain Pollard. He later became quite a good, he later got a knighthood and he later became a general but at that stage he was just a captain in the army.
JH: An Australian.
BM: And he said to me —
JH: Australian army or British army?
BM: Australian army.
JH: Australian army. Yeah.
BM: He was attached temporarily on a course with the British army.
JH: Yes.
BM: At any rate he said there was no Australian army starting up in London, ‘You’ll have to go back to Australia.’ And he said, ‘But I can get you into the, New Zealand has started a little army. Either that or the British army.’ At any rate I said, ‘You’d better make it the British army,’ because New Zealanders didn’t like Australians very much in those days. And, I don’t know. I don’t think that persists but then I think they regarded us as the descendants of convicts [laughs] They thought they were a bit superior to Australians I think. So, I decided not to join the New Zealand Army. They started an anti-tank regiment there and I saw them in training later on. But I was very amazed then within a matter of two weeks I suddenly got a notice, call up notice to report to Woolwich. The headquarters of the artillery and to join an officer training course for the artillery which, back to when I’d left Australia as I said if I’d ever join the British army and become an officer was completely out of my mind. But at any rate I joined the British Army. Trained with them at Aldershot. South of London there. And graduated as a lieutenant, Royal Artillery in March 1940 and was posted back to Woolwich to go to France. And at that stage we sat at Woolwich for about a month and that was when the Germans attacked in France. And that’s when the Germans sort of over ran the British Army in France.
JH: So you could have ended up on the beach.
BM: Yeah. So I never —
JH: Yeah.
BM: I never got to France. Which was a bit fortunate. But I got posted to a British artillery regiment between Canterbury and Dover. And I was down there during the Battle of Britain and wonderful front line seats of the battles that raged overhead in the air. And that gave me a yearning to get into the air force I’m afraid. And a notice came around in the artillery regiment. They’d decided to start up a thing called a flying OP. Operational Post training for directing gunfire from the air. Then I put my name in and as a result of that I got posted to an air force station at Woodley.
JH: Woodley.
BM: Which was west of London. I remember —
JH: Was that an —
BM: On the day that I —
JH: Yeah.
BM: That day up there it took me all day to get through London. It had been damaged by bombing. But I got to Woodley about dusk. And as I was walking across the aerodrome to go to the mess hut there which was an inn on the edge of the aerodrome a Hurricane was circling around at zero feet. And it finally landed and almost ran into a hedge. And I hurried across and the pilot clambered out and a very strange language, ‘Where am I? Where am I?’ And he was a Pole. He’d been up fighting the Germans and got lost. And as a result of that he stayed with us that night.
JH: Yes.
BM: You can imagine. We heard his whole life story.
JH: Yes.
BM: And he was really angry with the Germans. Really, really angry. And his history was that he’d been in the Polish Air Force and they were knocked out of the war more or less overnight. First when war was first declared.
JH: Well they had cavalry charges, didn’t they?
BM: And he went down. Got out through Italy.
JH: Yes.
BM: To Gibraltar. Then got up back to England. And he trained then with the RAF. And I might say they were a gallant mob the Polish aircrew. Very gallant.
JH: Yes.
BM: They were I’d say better lot of aeroplanes and I remember my rear gunner who had earlier on been posted to a Polish fighter squadron as a gunner in a Boulton Paul Defiant, that was a single engine fighter with a turret just behind the pilot. And he said the pilot there said, ‘If you don’t shoot them down I’ll ram them.’ And he said, ‘He meant it.’ At any rate the rear gunner was very happy to train with a timid pilot like me, I think.
JH: So, Bill, just, just run me through the type of aircraft you flew during training. Did you start with the, for example Tiger Moth?
BM: I trained on a single engine Miles Magister. I remember the first couple of flights very well because it was December then and there was a frost on the ground. You could see the River Thames below. You could see a village there with smoke coming up and you could see Windsor Castle in the background. I said to the, I was flying at the time, he was sitting in front and you communicated by a speaking tube.
JH: Yes.
BM: And I said to him, ‘What a marvellous sight this is.’ I was completely wrapped up in the view. He said, ‘I’ve got it,’ he took over the ruddy plane and put into a dive. Straight down to the village below and said, he said, ‘Do you see that church down there? Do you see the graveyard? If you don’t watch your airspeed that’s where you’ll finish up.’ [laughs] That’s when I found the number one in flying is your airspeed. You’ve got to watch it. Watch it. Watch it. Coming in to land. Taking off. All the time.
JH: Yeah. Yeah.
BM: That was my first. And that was the approach I used when I was instructing people flying. That’s the approach I used with them too later on.
JH: It sounds like a very good tip you got there. It stood you in good stead.
BM: At any rate I didn’t, didn’t, wasn’t posted back then to my original place. I was posted back to Woolwich. And I sat there for a couple of weeks. At that stage there were quite a few air raids on London.
JH: Yes.
BM: And I remember there was an unexploded bomb landed on the Woolwich College. We were all evacuated while they dealt with it. They dealt with it by boring a hole in it both sides with a drill clamped to the thing. And then they squirted water in to sort of do the — get rid of the explosive. I remember that quite well.
JH: Yes.
BM: But then I got a posted from there down to the mouth of the Thames to Shoeburyness which was a medium and heavy artillery training regiment. And I trained people there.
JH: Yes.
BM: And got very friendly with the colonel in charge of the place and I told him how I’d love to get in to the bloody air force. I’d already done some flying.
JH: Yes.
BM: And he said, ‘Well, I’ve got a friend at the war house.’
JH: Yeah.
BM: And he said, ‘If you like I’ll give you a letter of introduction to him.’ And he gave me a couple of days off to go up to the war house which had been evacuated to Cheltenham.
JH: Yes.
BM: And he was there. A series of big huts. They kept all the army records there.
JH: Yes.
BM: But at any rate I went up there and I went out and I met the major man. His friend. And as a result of that I got a transfer to the air force.
JH: That’s marvellous. So did you then —
BM: I must say —
JH: Go to an OTU? Officer training unit in the air force.
BM: No. That was [pause] they sent me to another Elementary Flying Course.
JH: Oh yes. Of course.
BM: Yeah.
JH: Yeah.
BM: But I might say the reason I was popular with the man at Shoeburyness was, well it was on the shore there it was set right the tide would go out over the sand and mud flats as far as the eye could see and then the tide would come in lapping. And I realised no one had been fishing there for years. And there was a boat shed there with a little rowing boat.
JH: Yes.
BM: I got the rowing boat out at the right tide. I went out and I caught flounder by the dozen.
JH: Good Lord.
BM: I was feeding the bloody mess with fish. Rationing was on but not very severe.
JH: Yeah.
BM: I was very popular with the CO as a result of it. That’s how I got into the air force [laughs]
JH: That’s an amazing —
BM: That’s when I got posted to a —
JH: Amazing story. Yeah.
BM: Posted from the place by the sea to, to a college at Cambridge.
JH: Cambridge.
BM: Another. Yes.
JH: In Cambridge or —
BM: In Cambridge. Yeah.
JH: Oh right. Yeah.
BM: Not the airfield.
JH: Yeah.
BM: It was an initial training place where they were marching people around who had just joined the air force.
JH: Yes. A bit of square bashing.
BM: I explained to the man in charge and as a result of that he got me moved from there after a couple of weeks.
JH: Yeah.
BM: But it was a very pleasant interlude. I joined with the elders at the dining mess and I had a very pleasant couple of weeks at Cambridge.
JH: Yes.
BM: Went punting on the Backs and it was very pleasant. At any rate I got posted then to another Elementary Flying School at Peterborough.
JH: Yes.
BM: I went there for another couple of months and from there I was posted to the next stage which was Flying Training School. Elementary to begin with. Then you went to a flying training. If you were going in to bombers you went over, the training place was twin engine planes which — that’s where I got posted.
JH: Yes.
BM: Cranwell had twin-engined Oxfords.
JH: Yes.
BM: Airspeed Oxfords. Which is a very pleasant aeroplane to fly.
JH: Yes.
BM: And I trained on that and a couple of things there that come to mind. When I arrived in 1941, about a week before Whittle’s jet had been flying there for the first time. It was the talk of the station. Highly secret of course. You were told not on any account to mention this but I heard all about it but I actually didn’t see it flying. But that’s where it first flew. It was housed in a hangar away at the far end of the aerodrome and guarded by civilian police apparently. They wouldn’t trust the air force guards for the secrecy angle.
JH: Yes.
BM: But at any rate it took a couple of years for that to be developed. If you read Whittle’s book I think they got the Rover people to start trying to develop it. They didn’t do much and then they handed it over to Rolls Royce and it got going within about twelve months after that. But of course the Germans had a jet flying in 1938 and they had the same experience. They realised that it would take a couple of years to develop and Hitler decided to adapt the scientific wing when it was flying because it would take a couple of years before it could. But as it turned out it took about three years before the Germans were able to develop it. And it took the British about three years too.
JH: So it became operational during.
BM: Before they got [unclear] Yes. Yes.
JH: I didn’t know that. It’s interesting.
BM: But that was one of the highlights of my flying training. Another highlight was I wore the King’s uniform there. The main building at Cranwell, a very long building with a big tower in the middle and a small tower on the two wings either side. We were in the cinema one night and suddenly the whole building shook. Someone said, ‘Oh, we’ve been bombed,’ but we hadn’t been bombed. An old Whitley on night flying had landed and hit one of the little towers at the end of the long building. And the building was on fire. And we all raced out of course and they said, ‘Get the pictures out.’ In the corridors there they had a lot of very valuable pictures which had been evacuated from the National Gallery in London.
JH: Some old Masters.
BM: Yes. Priceless pictures. We carted the pictures from that wing of the building and in the main entrance to the building was the King’s uniform in a glass case. Well, the glass case, we got that open and after the fire was put out we each wore the King’s uniform and saluted each other [laughs]
JH: Well deserved.
BM: But the only survivor of the crash was the rear gunner. The rest of the crew bought it. And the Whitley of course was completely burned out.
JH: Yes. So, Bill, at this stage were you earmarked as a pilot or —
BM: Yes.
JH: Could have been a navigator.
BM: You were earmarked when you went to Cranwell as a bomber pilot. Twin engine training.
JH: Yeah. So you passed all the aptitude and —
BM: Oh yes. Yes. Yes.
JH: You were heading in that direction.
BM: Yeah.
JH: Yeah.
BM: And you did a bit of night flying there but you more or less did about fifty or sixty hour a day flying.
JH: Yes.
BM: Instructing. And then you did about ten hours night flying.
JH: Yes.
BM: Which wasn’t a lot.
JH: Yes.
BM: And you didn’t know much about night flying really. And another thing at Cranwell when I was there when they were experimenting with a flare path called sodium flares. Which were a flare path for these I don’t know what sodium meant but there was a thing where you put on goggles and you could see the flares, but you had dark glasses. You couldn’t see anything else. But they never, I had a couple of hours trying to learn night flying on that.
JH: Yes.
BM: But it was abandoned because the main problem as I saw it your goggles fogged up.
JH: Yes.
BM: You were sweating with. And if you tried to land looking —
JH: Yes.
BM: Seeing the flarepath ready for, you were sweating profusely and your goggles fogged up very quickly.
JH: Yes.
BM: But at any rate —
JH: Yes.
BM: I got passed out of that without much trouble.
JH: Yes.
BM: And I was still then in the army. Still wearing the army uniform.
JH: Really.
BM: And I had the job of marching the bloody cadet trainees around. But as a result I was, dined with the officers.
JH: Yes.
BM: And got to know the chief flying instructor very well. And he was going to get me posted on to Stirlings. They were the buzz thing then. An enormous aircraft.
JH: Yes.
BM: Just coming in to service and everyone thought that, you know the war winner. As it turned out the Stirlings were a dead loss.
JH: They were short lived weren’t they?
BM: Short lived.
JH: Yeah.
BM: They took them off operations.
JH: Yeah.
BM: Put them on glider towing and on training. And as an operational plane they had no height. I think they could only get above about twelve thousand feet.
JH: Yes.
BM: They were slow and cumbersome and the losses were very heavy.
JH: Yes. Yes.
BM: At any rate from there I got posted to an operational training place. Fortunately it wasn’t a Stirling one.
JH: Where was that?
BM: It was a Wellington one.
JH: Where was that?
BM: At Harwell.
JH: Harwell. Yes. In Essex.
BM: About fifty miles west of London I suppose.
JH: Yes. Harwell.
BM: Very pleasant. It was a grass. No fixed firm runway. It had been a peacetime station. And very pleasant place.
JH: Yeah.
BM: A very pleasant place to live.
JH: Yes.
BM: And the countryside was very pleasant indeed. From there you crewed up. You got your crew there.
JH: You crewed. Tell me about your, your crewing up. How did that happen?
BM: Just put in a big assembly room. They put about a half dozen pilots, about a dozen front gunners, a dozen rear gunners and a dozen navigators, a dozen wireless operators. They let you sort yourselves out and you formed your own crew. I don’t know how. But it wasn’t a very efficient system I think. But I got lumbered — no I wasn’t lumbered. But we got together with a very good navigator. Had been a student, a university student. He was good. We’d got a very good wireless operator. He’d been a boy apprentice in the air force. He was the only sort of skilled member of our crew I’d say. And the two gunners. Front gunner, he was a lorry driver but very little education. But the rear gunner was a very decent English chap. He was well educated and had been working as a welder and his family were, and a reserved occupation but he’d joined up and his family were very annoyed with him for joining the air force. He’d joined up and he’d got posted as a gunner to a Polish squadron where he served for a while and then he got posted to our crowd. That was our crew. They were all English.
JH: Yes.
BM: Yeah.
JH: Would I, would I be right in thinking you were the most senior?
BM: I was the most senior.
JH: In terms of age.
BM: Yes.
JH: Yeah
BM: Both in age. They were all about nineteen or twenty.
JH: Yes.
BM: And I was known as the old man. And we had a second pilot too but —
JH: Yeah.
BM: He was a bit dumb I’m afraid.
JH: Yes.
BM: He was the only chap in the crew that I was a bit worried about. The second pilot.
JH: Your co-pilot. Yeah.
BM: Yes. Yes. Yes.
JH: Was he also the flight engineer in a, on a Wellington?
BM: No. That was later.
JH: Yes. Ok.
BM: That happened when you went to four engines.
JH: Right. Yeah.
BM: But —
JH: Yes.
BM: We trained there and as I say we did day flying. Day flying was very pleasant.
JH: Yeah.
BM: The syllabus was you did five day cross-country flights.
JH: Yes.
BM: And the first one you went with an instructor. The next —
JH: Yes.
BM: Four you did on your own. But you flew across to Northern Ireland, up the west of England. Up the coast.
JH: Yes.
BM: Up around the top of Scotland and down the east coast of England.
JH: Yes.
BM: When the weather was good — very pleasant.
JH: Yes.
BM: And at that early stage of the war you weren’t that well supervised. Later on you had to fly strictly according to time and had to log everything in.
JH: Yes.
BM: You couldn’t deviate or fly low as you could in the days we did.
JH: Yes.
BM: I remember I got a very, very bad sort of introduction to flying with the first cross-country. I went with an operational pilot. He’d just come off operations.
JH: Yeah.
BM: And I remember we flew across the north of Wales there at Northfleet and I remember horses bolting sheds and he said, ‘Make sure if you’re low flying,’ the advice he gave me, ‘Reel in your trailing aerial.’ The wireless op had let out a trailing aerial which was trailing behind about fifty or a hundred feet of wire with lead weights on it to keep it below.
JH: Yes.
BM: He said, ‘If you fly low and you break tiles on a roof with your trailing aerial,’ he said, ‘You’re gone,’ he said, ‘You’re court martialled.’ Low flying was a court martial offence.
JH: Yes.
BM: Quite rightly. It was completely stupid.
JH: Yes.
BM: That was a very, very bad example to give the crew.
JH: Yeah.
BM: Because I’m very sure we saw the result of that at night when you came off the day flying and had a drink with the rest of the crew who’d been flying. I remember one crew reckoned, ‘Oh our pilot flew that low over the sea he was able to stir up the water with his prop tips.’ And a couple of days later they were never heard of again. I’m very sure he hit the water. I don’t know.
JH: Yes.
BM: But that —
JH: Yeah.
BM: A very very bad example.
JH: Yeah.
BM: But quite rightly low flying was a court martial offence.
JH: Yes.
BM: And if you got court martialled and got sent to the Glasshouse it was very hard.
JH: Yeah. You —
BM: Very hard.
JH: Yes. You obviously paid heed to that.
BM: Yeah. Yeah.
JH: Part of your training operations, of your training flights did you do any of these nickel raids?
BM: No. We didn’t do. We didn’t do any nickels.
JH: In Europe where they were dropping pamphlets and that kind of thing
BM: Almost did. I think the weather was bad.
JH: Yes.
BM: That’s why we didn’t get sent on it.
JH: Yes.
BM: But I remember we, we dropped live bombs at that early stage of the war.
JH: Yes.
BM: Later on you only dropped twelve and a half pound practice bombs.
JH: Yes.
BM: We dropped about half a dozen fifty pound bombs.
JH: Yes.
BM: Out in the Bristol Channel.
JH: Yes.
BM: Now, I remember well the take off with that. It was very calm day and they said, grass aerodrome and they were doubtful whether we should go.
JH: Yes.
BM: And the engines were de-rated a bit on the Wellingtons and there was a line of trees at the other end of the aerodrome. At any rate they finally said, ‘Make sure you get off, lift off early and run up your aircraft back to the hedge at the far end of the field.’ At any rate we had no trouble in getting off the ground.
JH: Yes.
BM: No trouble clearing the tree.
JH: Yes.
BM: Then we weren’t climbing. I suddenly realised I hadn’t raised the bloody undercarriage. That’s when I found out — I thought the second pilot should have picked that up.
JH: Yes.
BM: He should have known that.
JH: Ok. Yeah.
BM: And he should have been checking on everything.
JH: Yeah.
BM: But a couple of other things like that happened without, I never really trusted him.
JH: Yes. Ok. Shall we talk about how you were posted to, to Malta.
BM: Yeah.
JH: Would that fit in now?
BM: Well, then we were —
JH: Yeah.
BM: Finished our training there after our night flying.
JH: Yeah.
BM: We just missed out on that thousand bomber raid. We were only half way through our night flying. And that thousand bomber, about a third of the planes there were Training Command. About four or five went from our place.
JH: Yes.
BM: Flown by an operational pilot and instructor with a pupil crew. But the pupil crew were almost finished their night flying.
JH: Yes.
BM: Which we hadn’t done.
JH: Yeah.
BM: So as a result of that I missed that raid.
JH: Can you remember the — I’ll note the date of that? Can you remember the year and date of that bomber, thousand bomber raid?
BM: It was [pause] April. April or May. 1942.
JH: ’42.
BM: Yeah.
JH: Yeah.
BM: Very good propaganda value.
Other: Hitler’s birthday.
JH: Yes.
BM: But then when we finished our training we expected to be posted then to an operational squadron in England. But at that stage Rommel had broken through and was hammering on the gates of Cairo. And they suddenly decided to send a couple of Wellington squadrons out to Cairo. And they gave us a brand new aircraft. And that was the most pleasant flying I’ve ever had. The aircraft was a highly secret one with radar aerials all over it.
JH: Are they the Stickleback?
BM: Stickleback ones.
JH: That’s it. I’ve read about them.
BM: The Mark 8s.
JH: Mark 8.
BM: Mark 8. It was to pick up submarines. Or ships at night. We didn’t know how to operate the radar but at any rate they —
JH: Yeah.
BM: We spent twelve hours flying in the new aircraft. We flew all around England in the brand new aircraft. Very pleasant.
JH: Yes.
BM: And then we got the final word to go to Malta. And we flew down to Portreath down near the south, South West area of London there. The station right on the coast.
JH: In Cornwall.
BM: Cornwall. Yes.
JH: Cornwall. Yes.
BM: Yes.
JH: Yeah.
BM: We took off from there and they told us to keep well out to sea. Not to get anywhere near the French coast. And to come in late in the day. We took off about seven in the morning I think.
JH: Yes.
BM: And we had no trouble at all. We didn’t sight anything. We kept relatively low. About the best cruising height was about six thousand feet.
JH: Yes.
BM: Which we were at. And the only danger would have been to run into a German aircraft patrol which was very very remote.
JH: Yes. Did you have any fighter escort going out?
BM: No. No. No.
JH: For a while?
BM: We just kept out to sea.
JH: Yeah. So what was the flying time to — it was —
BM: We got there about —
JH: To Malta wasn’t it?
BM: About, yeah about ten hours.
JH: Ten hours. Yeah.
BM: Yeah.
JH: Yeah.
BM: We came in close to the coast of Portugal about three in the afternoon.
JH: Yes.
BM: And we hugged the coast there down to the big bay there where the Battle of Trafalgar took place.
JH: Yes.
BM: And from there suddenly we saw the Rock of Gibraltar looming out of the afternoon sun.
JH: Yes.
BM: And there we had a, a very frightening incident happened.
JH: Really?
BM: I called up the pilots to, ‘Come up and have a look and see the result of your labour,’ and called up the navigator.
JH: Yes.
BM: He came out of his office. And he came up and he was leaning over my shoulder looking out at the Rock of Gibraltar. He put his hand down and turned on the full bloody flaps. Which I didn’t realise.
JH: By mistake.
BM: Suddenly the aircraft’s speed fell away. I didn’t know what had happened. And I had to put the bloody nose down and open the throttles. And I was thinking about getting the, I thought something had gone wrong with the engines or —
JH: Yeah.
BM: I didn’t understand.
JH: Yeah. Loss of airspeed.
BM: I had to tell the wireless operator to send out an SOS. So I was getting prepared to land in the bloody sea and I don’t know how but it occurred to me that the flaps were down. I didn’t realise. I put them up.
JH: Yes. Yeah
BM: Came around and landed [laughs]
JH: Exchanged a few pleasantries no doubt.
BM: So I had a complete sweat. Yeah.
JH: So —
BM: At any rate we spent the night in Gibraltar. Very pleasant. And didn’t get any sleep that night.
JH: Yes.
BM: Didn’t get much sleep the night before in England of course either. And we spent the night there they were blasting into the rock. We were in a Nissen hut at the base of the rock and the blasting was going on all night. And they were also practicing deck landings next door.
JH: Yeah.
BM: So we didn’t get a lot of sleep that night either.
JH: Yeah.
BM: But we took off for Malta the next day at 4 o’clock. Four in the afternoon.
JH: Yeah.
BM: And another aircraft. We decided, a friend of mine had also landed and two of us flew together in formation for a while.
JH: Yes.
BM: On the way to Malta. And suddenly he turned and went back and I didn’t find out ‘til much later in the war.
JH: Yeah.
BM: What had happened. Someone had opened the hatch above the pilot which opened it. You couldn’t close it in flight.
JH: Yeah.
BM: Someone apparently had. I don’t know the second pilot had grabbed the lever there.
JH: Yeah.
BM: The hatch had come open to he had to go back and start afresh. And he didn’t arrive in Malta until we’d left the next day.
JH: Yes.
BM: And I found out later the big danger with landing at Malta too was that the man in charge in Malta was, could keep you there and he could hand your aircraft over to someone else.
JH: Yeah.
BM: And he could keep you there to do operations from Malta which were very unfriendly of course.
JH: Yes.
BM: So Malta was a place you didn’t want to stay at. At any rate we got to Malta about ten or eleven at night and they’d warned us that, before we left that, be careful. You’re not very far from Sicily there.
JH: Yeah.
BM: Which was German controlled. And the wireless operator would have to contact Malta and get a thing called a QDM. That’s a direction.
JH: Yeah.
BM: To fly to Malta. So we’d check up. It was just about a thousand miles journey.
JH: Yeah.
BM: He had to, that wireless operator had to check up that you were at Malta. And they said be careful the Germans could send you a message directing you to Sicily.
JH: Yes.
BM: At any right the flight there was very pleasant. We were flying at about six thousand feet.
JH: Yes.
BM: And my heart sank when we were about half an hour from Malta and the whole of the sea below clouded over. And they’d told us when we got to Malta they’d put a couple of searchlights when we got there about ten or eleven at night. And when we got to Malta the whole place was clouded over and I was circling around for about five minutes ‘til I finally saw the searchlights through the cloud. And I came down and the, there was high ground in Malta. About eight hundred feet I think.
JH: Yeah.
BM: And got under the cloud at about a thousand feet and there was the runway. I came around and landed there and very gratefully. And the landing wasn’t bad which I was very much afraid of. And we taxied around. We were met by the ground crew. They were in military uniform. Not the air force blue. I thought, God we’re at the wrong [laughs] we’re at the German aerodrome but it wasn’t of course. But they were mainly interested if we had any sandwiches left which we had, and any, or and any cigarettes. I’d taken the trouble of buying a thousand cigarettes when I left to hand out when we got to Malta. And I told them that in Gibraltar, would I take more cigarettes? They said no the crew that takes those generally doesn’t get to Malta. Apparently there was a bit of a hoodoo about anyone carting stuff to Malta.
JH: Yes.
BM: Bad luck evidently.
JH: Bad luck.
BM: So, I only took about a thousand cigarettes to give to the mess when we got there.
JH: Yes. Yeah.
BM: There’s a, we got to the air, they told us, ‘When we get there on no account,’ they said, ‘Your path on the aerodrome is at daybreak but don’t leave the aerodrome unattended err your aircraft unattended. You might find all your parachutes have disappeared if you do.’ They said, ‘We haven’t got guards on the aerodrome.’ Guards were on, they had bay, sort of shelters for the aeroplanes off the aerodrome. Horse shoe shaped construction of sandbags. Well, you taxied your aeroplane off and they pushed it into these shelters. And they said, ‘Stay with the aircraft. Get someone to stay with the aerodrome err the aeroplane until daybreak and then they’ll come out and you’ll have to taxi into a shelter.’ But navigator and I then went in to have a bit to eat at the mess there and when we got there, there was a bloody party going on. Incredible thing. And all the pilots and we were welcomed in because we’d just arrived in our flying suits. They came around. The pilots were all fighter pilots and the reason they were there was a crew in a Beaufort that day had been shot down and been taken prisoner on a Greek island and it had been there for about a week and the Germans, an Italian seaplane called to pick them up to fly them back to Italy. And when they were in the air the three people from, the captives overcame the bloody guards in the aeroplane and made it fly to Malta. And we saw it in the harbour the next day. A float plane. And that was the party.
JH: What a story.
BM: Yeah. I think the pilot, the captive pilot was a South African. And there was an Australian among them. And there were two or three others. But they were having this party. And the story goes with one of them said, evidently when they were captives the food there was much better at Malta. One said, ‘The food there was good. We must do this again.’
JH: Yeah. I like that.
BM: But we saw the plane the next day.
JH: Yeah.
BM: In the harbour there. But it was pure bloody Hollywood. The whole thing.
JH: Yeah. So, what, what was it like on, on Malta? Was Malta, was the feeling of this is an outpost. Heavily defended.
BM: Yeah. We were only there. We stayed the night then. We went back to the aeroplane and slept in it. In the plane. At daybreak then taxied in to the shelter.
JH: Because you were heading for Egypt wasn’t it?
BM: We were heading for Egypt.
JH: Yes.
BM: We were only there a stop off. For a refuel stop. So they came and collected us at daybreak and very foolishly we spent the bloody day bloody sightseeing around the Malta instead of having a sleep.
JH: Yes.
BM: Bloody crazy.
JH: Yes.
BM: But it was too good an opportunity. We actually got a taxi there which was a horse drawn vehicle. And there were two or three air raids during the day. You could hear the machine guns going up in the air and this fellow driving around in this horse drawn taxi. But at any rate we reported back to the aerodrome about 4 o’clock and they briefed us then and said, ‘Well, the weather’s good. Nothing to worry about there. The only danger is units of the Italian fleet might be somewhere on your route when you fly from here to Cairo.’ And it was just as we get a thousand miles from Cairo, a thousand from Gib. At any rate we, they said come back, and just get aboard the aircraft and taxi it out.
JH: Yeah.
BM: Wait at the end of the runway. Just before dark. And on, if there’s an air raid comes along get off the ground straight away but otherwise stand by waiting there. And if you see us flash a green get on the runway and take off straight away. We sat on the plane there and suddenly three people turned up and said, ‘We’re your passengers.’ Two of them were two Dutch seamen.
JH: Yes.
BM: And a lieutenant from submarines which were based in Malta.
JH: Yes.
BM: They were passengers to go back with us to Cairo.
JH: Yes.
BM: At any rate we were sitting there waiting and suddenly the bloody air raid siren went. And people in the control place flashed green at us to get going and —
JH: And you were on the tarmac.
BM: I was waiting at the edge of the, the edge of the runway there.
JH: Yeah.
BM: And I taxied on. At that moment two Beaufighters which had been in sandbagged shelters nearby they came out at high speed and turned on to the runway, took off and climbed at about forty five degrees
JH: Yeah.
BM: They were night fighters apparently. But any rate I got on the runway and I thought I’d do a thing that I tried to, I opened up too quickly and if you’re not careful you swing on take-off.
JH: Yeah.
BM: You’ve got to often open one throttle before the others.
JH: Yes.
BM: And I swung right off the bloody runway and I had to turn back, taxi back and start again. In the meantime the fellow was flashing a green light at me to get going. I got off the next time without any trouble. We flew out to sea. They said, ‘Fly out to sea at five hundred feet before you set course.’ You could see that air raid in progress. Quite a sight. Cannons firing and searchlights and —
JH: Yes.
BM: Oh dear.
JH: What were they targeting? The Germans.
BM: We then set course for Malta and the main problem was keeping awake.
JH: Yeah.
BM: And part of the time I had the second pilot flying. Him I was, I didn’t trust him much. So I had to try and stay awake. I remember standing up a lot of the time. And with hindsight what I should have done, bloody crazy was called up this flight lieutenant fellow to stand by to see we didn’t go to sleep.
JH: Yeah.
BM: We had a bit of a scare once when we, there was a bit of moon and there was some shadows on the ocean. We thought this is the Italian fleet.
JH: Yes.
BM: But it wasn’t.
JH: Yes.
BM: But then we didn’t have, there was no wind apparently the whole journey. I think the navigator said he was on the one course the whole way.
JH: Yes. So that air space between Malta and Egypt. Was that controlled by the Germans to a large extent?
BM: Yes. It was. The Italians.
JH: Yeah. The Italians. Yeah.
BM: The Italian fleet were in charge more or less. But they weren’t. It wasn’t the Italian fleet. They were knocked out largely by the Swordfish aircraft in that air raid.
JH: Yes.
BM: They knocked out half the bloody Italian fleet. I’ve forgotten the name of the place. The Italian port they raided. But that was the old Swordfish from an aircraft carrier. At any rate nothing happened then until we were about just at daybreak. We were about a hundred miles from Cairo and I spotted a submarine on the ocean ahead of us. You could see it in the path of light from the sun which was just appearing then and I suddenly thought it might be a bloody submarine —
JH: Friendly or otherwise.
BM: In trouble or something. It shouldn’t be on the surface. Why was it on the surface? And as we dropped near it started flashing a very fast Morse code as the Naval people did then. Flashing a message at us. I couldn’t, it was too fast for me so I called the wireless operator up, ‘Better come up and read their message they’re flashing.’ And I had visions of this crippled submarine wanting help and I thought well we’ll send a distress beacon. Tell them they’re here. But the message they sent us was, ‘Good morning.’ [laughs] From that we went on and landed in Cairo. And at that stage I was completely half drunk with fatigue. I remember when I got out of the aircraft I sat down on the ground and went to sleep. I woke up and on the ground you see beside me a fellow with a revolver around his waist, a cowboy hat on and flying boots on. It was an American fighter pilot who’d been ferrying an aircraft across Africa from the west coast of Africa. That’s the only way they got aircraft there. They took it by plane to the west of Africa then.
JH: Yes.
BM: And they flew them across Africa.
JH: Yeah.
BM: And he’d flown a, I think a, oh a fighter plane across. They flew across in formation.
JH: Yes.
BM: With an escort. But any rate from there we got down to. They woke me up and said, ‘Would you fly the aircraft down to the Suez Canal,’ which very foolishly I said yes. And I took off again and flew down to, down to the squadron. 148 Squadron. Based on the Canal.
JH: Yes.
BM: And that’s where we began operations.
JH: 104
BM: No. 148.
JH: Oh 148.
BM: 148.
JH: Yeah. Ok. Yeah. 148.
BM: Yeah.
JH: Yeah. So that’s, that’s where you started off.
BM: Yes. Yes. Yes.
JH: Yeah.
BM: And the target then was Tobruk. Tobruk was the only sort of port on the African coast which was giving supplies to the Germans who were on the outskirts of Cairo by then. At Alemein. And we were, our main target was Tobruk.
JH: Yes
BM: So far as they —
JH: Which was in German hands at that time
BM: The Germans were —
JH: Yeah
BM: Bringing in to Tobruk. Yeah.
JH: Yes. Yes. So you were targeting the supply ships coming in.
BM: Coming into Tobruk. Yeah.
JH: All the defences.
BM: The war was there too.
JH: Yeah.
BM: Yeah.
JH: Yes.
BM: To begin with I think we did about eight trips to Tobruk.
JH: Yes.
BM: Which was quite a distance. It was about six or seven hours flight.
JH: So your, tell me about your first operation. Was that one of these Tobruk raids?
BM: Yes. I remember that very well. Went as a second pilot to an experienced pilot. Flight Lieutenant Moore was our pilot.
JH: Yeah. You were the dickie.
BM: An experienced pilot.
JH: You say the dickie is it? You were the dickie.
BM: Yeah. I was second pilot. Yes.
JH: Yes. Ok.
BM: Very pleasant. You had no responsibility. You just sat there and watched everything. And when we got to Tobruk they had quite a few — they had about a dozen anti-aircraft guns there.
JH: Yeah.
BM: Which started firing at you when you got near there.
JH: Bill, tell me was this a daylight raid or night raid.
BM: Night raid. All night.
JH: All night.
BM: All night.
JH: Yeah. Yeah.
BM: At any rate I remember he was the fella who, he did the bombing run. The navigator was the bomb aimer then in those days. Navigator bomb aimer. He was down in the bomb bay to drop the bombs but the, this second, this instructor pilot he directed the run in. You know, ‘Right. Right. Left. Left. Centre.’ And then he said to the bomb aimer —
[telephone ringing]
BM: Hello. Hello. Hello. Just hold on a minute. Just tell them it’s my phone. See what they want. I can’t. I’ve got hearing aids in.
JH: Oh. Hello. This is John Horsburgh here. I’m actually interviewing Bill at the moment. Can I take a message? Yes. Yes. I’m interviewing him now. Yeah. Can I take your number and he’ll call you back? [delete] ok I’ll get, I’ll get Mr McRae to call you back.
BM: Tell him I’ll call him back
JH: Ok. Thank you, Justin.
BM: Thanks.
JH: We were, we were talking about your first operation.
BM: My first bombing run.
JH: Yeah. Your first bombing run. Yeah
BM: He called up the pilot and said, ‘I’ve done this trip three or four few times. Let me. Let me drop the bombs.’ So instead of letting the bloody navigator direct us onto the target he put the plane into a dive and roared across Tobruk at high speed, pulled the bomb toggle and dropped all the bombs in one thing.
JH: The whole lot. The whole string.
BM: The whole lot. Yeah.
JH: Yeah.
BM: Which was completely against all our instruction in training. And that sort of thing you never thought of doing. But at any rate when we got back we got debriefed at the debriefing we didn’t mention this. Had we done so he might have been in big trouble I think.
JH: Yes. Yes.
BM: But you were graded LMF if you did that sort of thing.
JH: Yes.
BM: But the navigator was very upset about it. So was I [laughs] But that was my first bombing. I did another trip with another crew another night but they did the right thing.
JH: Yes.
BM: We got caught in the searchlights that night too which was very unpleasant. But that was my first experience of a bombing raid. Which we didn’t report to the authorities.
JH: Just between you and I this is [laughs] Ok.
BM: Yeah.
JH: Yes.
BM: Yeah. Don’t mention it [laughs]
JH: No. We won’t [laughs] Tell me about the first operation when you were actually in control of the plane on the bomb run.
[phone ringing]
JH: Shall I? Hello, Bill McRae’s phone. John Horsborough. I’m actually interviewing Bill at the moment. Yeah. Yes. Will do. Ok. Righto. Ok. Bye.
BM: Who’s that?
JH: Jeannie.
BM: Oh right.
JH: Coffee tomorrow.
BM: Yeah.
JH: Anyway, back to your first operation. You’re in control.
BM: Oh yes. Yes.
JH: Yeah.
BM: I remember that quite well because we were based on the Suez Canal and one of the things you had to be careful of you could see a ship almost at the end of the runway going across the desert. The Canal was at the far end of the runway. And you’d just see a ship there sailing across the desert. You had to be careful taking off that there weren’t any ships going through the canal because when you took off you didn’t get any height. You’d be flying for about two or three miles I’d say. You climbed very slowly. And you climbed towards, turned towards Tobruk and you climbed up as high as you could get which in those with those, planes it was about ten or twelve thousand feet. And I remember we, getting up along the coast of North Africa the navigator went down below to check the position, map reading the coast and he called me up and said, ‘Mac,’ he said, ‘We’re flying over a convoy. There are balloons down below.’ I said, ‘This is bloody crazy. There are no balloons here.’ I banked around and had a look and there were four things that looked like balloons. They were puffs of anti-aircraft fire.
JH: Heading your way.
BM: They were firing at us but about a thousand feet below us [laughs] So we immediately changed course. At any rate the, quite a lot of flak. Quite a lot of searchlights at Tobruk. The thing I remember about the searchlights they would all go out and there would be one would suddenly come on alone. A blue searchlight. And about five seconds later all the searchlights would concentrate on one plane and they’d hold that plane for quite a while.
JH: It’s coning it isn’t it? Yeah.
BM: But it didn’t come on to us. We rode it out. Do a normal bombing run. And you took photographs when you dropped your bombs too.
JH: Yes.
BM: You held course for about, I think ten or fifteen seconds till the bombs exploded and the camera took a photograph of where your bombs went.
JH: Yes.
BM: But we were bombing the wharves mainly.
JH: Yes.
BM: I don’t know whether. I don’t know whether there was anything there to bomb really.
JH: I think you told me. I think it was you told me you actually took part in the battle of El Alemein.
BM: Yes.
JH: Targeting German supply ships.
BM: Yeah.
JH: Would that be right?
BM: Well, after we were on the Canal we moved up to Kilo Forty which was forty kilos on the road from Cairo to Alexandria. Just a desert aerodrome. And from there we more or less supported the army.
JH: Yes.
BM: Bombing German airfields behind the lines.
JH: Yes.
BM: And bombing army targets which were marked by aircraft from Alexandria. Fleet Air Arm aircraft dropping flares. I don’t know how they got they got in on the act.
JH: Yes.
BM: But they’d dropped flares for us to bomb on.
JH: Yes.
BM: We did half a dozen trips on that before El Alemein.
JH: Yes.
BM: And on El Alemein night we did two bombing runs. One at about eleven at night and one about two in the morning because we were not that far from the battle front. You could hear the barrage start up at about 10 o’clock. On the 23rd of October I think it was.
JH: It’s —
BM: After El Alemein of course old Montgomery was successful but I always thought he, he was too cautious by half because he knew all the German plans because Rommel had been sending messages back to Hitler. He was short of petrol. He was short of reinforcements and pleading with Hitler to send reinforcements by way of aircraft or I think the Germans were supplying their fighters, called JU52s bringing aircraft fuel in. That’s how short of fuel they were.
JH: Yes.
BM: But Hitler of course said, ‘Don’t surrender. Fight to the last man.’ But Rommel fortunately decided that was bloody silly because he got quite a few Germans out of Africa. He retreated. Very skilfully retreated. And I think Montgomery should have thrown everything at the Germans because he had a couple of people from that Enigma machine with him relaying messages that Rommel was sending to Hitler. How desperate he was for supplies.
JH: Yes.
BM: And how desperate he was to sort of get reinforcements. But Rommel didn’t move. He had sort of absolute overpowering authority.
JH: Yes.
BM: We had about seven to one air superiority.
JH: Yes
BM: I reckon Rommel should have thrown us during the daytime. He could have had about three or four to one fighter superiority and he had about three to one, he had about seven to one bomber superiority.
JH: So, that was the feeling among the squadron that the 8th Army didn’t follow through enough.
BM: Yes. I reckon he should have. He should have thrown everything into the battle.
JH: Yes.
BM: And he would have knocked Rommel out and he would have captured an awful lot of Germans.
JH: Yes.
BM: Anyway, he was successful so —
JH: Yes. I, I read somewhere that the Desert Air Force got involved in this concept of close air support. The actual air force involving with the infantry. In fact they were forward.
BM: Ah yes.
JH: Forward scouts passing on information to, to the air force.
BM: Yeah.
JH: And I read that the desert was where the, this close air support was really initiated.
BM: Yeah. Yeah.
JH: Did you have any experience of that?
BM: No. I was a bit disappointed there. I thought we should have been kept in touch with what was going on with the army. We never were.
JH: Yeah That’s interesting with your army background.
BM: I think —
JH: Artillery background.
BM: Yes.
JH: Yeah.
BM: I thought there was a bit of, probably ill feeling between the air force and the army. I don’t know. I could be wrong there. But they sort of fought their own war as it were.
JH: Yes.
BM: At any rate we followed up the army there when the army retreated. The Germans retreated. We followed up and we got as far as Tobruk. And we were dropping bombs on the retreating Germans and then we suddenly got a move to. I think — six planes will proceed forthwith to Halfway House. By that stage we were up behind Tobruk.
JH: So you were leap frogging.
BM: Leap frogging. Yes
JH: The base as, as the front moved
BM: When the Germans were retreating we were following. Yeah.
JH: Westwards. Yeah.
BM: And there wasn’t, when the message came to have six planes would proceed to Halfway House no one knew and I had to send a message back to find Halfway House from Malta. This was about a thousand miles from Gibraltar and a thousand miles from Cairo. It was known to the Navy as Halfway House.
JH: Yes.
BM: So the middle of the afternoon we got the message we were, had to take off at dark with two ground, two supplies of ground crew. Half a dozen ground crew staff.
JH: Yes.
BM: As passengers. So we, immediately we were headed for Malta.
JH: And how long were you based in Malta then?
BM: Well, it took about four hours to get there.
JH: Yeah.
BM: I remember well when we were nearing Malta there was a bloody line of lights appeared.
JH: Yes.
BM: I thought, God, we’ve gone to Italy or Sicily or somewhere. I called up the wireless, I said get an QDM. That’s a course to steer [unclear] and it was correct. We were. A convoy had gotten in a couple of ships and all the lights were on on the wharves. That’s the lights we were seeing. And we got to Malta and one of our planes landing hit a, one of the sand bagged bays near the beginning of the runway and went up in flames. We landed with this bloody thing flaming beside us. And we taxied in and found out that I think the pilot got out of it, I think. I think he lost his legs. But he was about the only one that survived, I think. But at any rate we operated from Malta then for a couple of months. That was early December then.
JH: Yes.
BM: 1942
JH: And were you operating from Malta as far as Sicily from there?
BM: Yes. Sicily was, Sicily was a main target. And North Africa. Retreating Germans. Tripoli.
JH: Yes.
BM: And Sfax and Sous. They were in Tunisia.
JH: Yes.
BM: The Germans were retreating there.
JH: Yes.
BM: Sending ships to pick them up. Yeah.
JH: Yes. So, yeah so Tunisia I believe you were on some important raids to Tunisia and Palermo. Is that correct?
BM: That’s correct. Yes, yeah.
JH: Yes. Do you want to mention a couple of those?
BM: Yes. I remember Palermo quite well because we didn’t take off at a scheduled time. Take off was delayed because there was bad weather and the trouble at Malta they had no weather reporting process so they could never predict the weather. You know the weather was a bit doubtful. Anyway we took off. We found the target all right. I was amazed at the, the, not much flak went up as we were coming out. Normally —
JH: Yeah.
BM: When you come up to a target. You see the guns firing.
JH: Yes.
BM: But there were no guns firing as we got up to the target.
JH: Yeah.
BM: When they started shooting. And we found out later there were only two aircraft got there. The rest got a recall. The others were all recalled because of bad weather. So we were the only two aircraft that got to the target.
JH: You didn’t get the message.
BM: We didn’t get the message. No [laughs] At any rate we were flying back we had trouble with the bad weather getting back.
JH: Yeah.
BM: I remember that well. Went into a storm or something.
JH: Yeah.
BM: Because they couldn’t forecast the weather then.
JH: Yeah.
BM: That was the trouble. And apparently the weather was very changeable because the Alps weather and the desert weather meet —
JH: Yes.
BM: Over the Mediterranean there.
JH: Yes.
BM: And you got very very severe turbulence.
JH: Yes.
BM: And you got a lot of static electricity.
JH: Yeah.
BM: Laying on the guns.
JH: Really?
BM: Yeah. Well, we survived Malta.
JH: Yes. Was it that raid to Palermo, I think you told me before both engines cut out for some reason. You lost your engines.
BM: Ah yes. Yes. Yeah.
JH: What happened there?
BM: There we were, actually it was another raid on Sicily that we had trouble with. Engine trouble. Had a thing with when we were bombing Sicily it was after we got, we came back to Cairo and they gave us one last raid. We suddenly got a message in Cairo. Take off at midnight. Return to Cairo. Which we did. And when we were there I found I’d done my tour of operations but a couple of the crew hadn’t finished and needed one more raid. And we were a bit lucky because we got the last raid was dropping supplies to people in Crete. At the western end of Crete a lot of people had escaped during the German invasion and there was a rebel force there fighting the Germans in the mountains. Very mountainous country and they came out at mid-day and loaded our aircraft with big metal containers about six feet long in the bomb bay and gave us a place to drop them at the western end of Crete. And we took off about dusk and got to Crete and they also gave us bundles of newspapers and said, ‘When you’ve dropped the bombs fly to the other side of Crete. The northern side where all the towns are.’ There were no towns in the western end.
JH: Yeah.
BM: It’s all mountainous, ‘And drop out these newspapers.’ Propaganda. German propaganda. Against the Germans for the Cretian, the Cretian people. At any rate we dropped the bombs, flew around Crete and flying along the northern side couldn’t see any land for a while and it was there that we found that we’d gone too far north.
JH: Yes.
BM: We saw a lot of bloody islands below and we knew that Crete was somewhere to the south so we went there and when we suddenly hit Crete they started firing guns at us. So you can imagine the newspapers were delivered very rapidly [laughs]
JH: Yeah.
BM: And we climbed straight away to ten thousand feet.
JH: Yeah.
BM: There were mountains in Crete up to eight thousand feet.
JH: Yes.
BM: At the western end. But we dropped the newspapers and went home. And that was our last operation.
JH: Yes. So at that stage it was the operations were coming to an end there. Did you have any idea what lay ahead of, of you and your crew? Was it going back to the UK or —
BM: No. We didn’t know.
JH: Or Italy.
BM: We went back and sat in Cairo for a couple of weeks.
JH: Yeah.
BM: And they suddenly told us to get aboard an aircraft and flew us down to Khartoum. Flying boat. And then we got another DC3 from there across the whole of Africa to the west coast of Africa.
JH: So where were you going? What was the plan?
BM: Back to England.
JH: Back to England.
BM: Yeah.
JH: Ok. Yeah.
BM: We got to —
JH: Yeah
BM: I think Takoradi, that was the place on the west coast of Africa. We sat there for about a week.
JH: That’s in Ghana I think.
BM: It was a small.
JH: Yeah.
BM: Coastal vehicle took us up to Freetown which is a main port in West Africa there.
JH: Yes.
BM: Where we got aboard [pause] what was the name of the boat? The Mauritania. An ocean liner.
JH: Yes.
BM: Bound for Liverpool. We went back unescorted. It went at high speed.
JH: Yes.
BM: It went about thirty eight knots I think. And went out in to the mid-Atlantic.
JH: With a convoy? Or —
BM: No. Alone.
JH: Solo.
BM: Just travelling at high speed. And altering course apparently every five minutes. Yeah. Zig-zagging.
JH: Zig-zagging.
BM: Went to Liverpool. So, and from there got a plane back to London.
JH: Yes. And some well-earned leave. Did you have any leave time?
BM: Went on leave there. Yes.
JH: Yeah.
BM: Yes.
JH: Yeah.
BM: Yeah. And from there got posted. Got a posting on to Training Command up in Lossiemouth. To an Operational Training Unit to instruct bomber crews.
JH: Yes.
BM: And I sat there until the, more or less the end of the war instructing people.
JH: What — is this 1944?
BM: This would be —
JH: Coming into Lossiemouth.
BM: 1943.
JH: 1943.
BM: Yeah.
JH: Yeah.
BM: It was there I found that I’d been awarded a DFC for flying in Africa and Alemein and so on.
JH: So you completed a tour.
BM: Completed a tour.
JH: And the DFC.
BM: DFC. Yes
JH: Yeah. Yeah. And your rank at that stage. Flight.
BM: I was a flight lieutenant.
JH: Yeah. Yeah.
BM: By that stage.
JH: Yes. So —
BM: And then, I was instructing there. I got posted down to the Empire Central Flying School at Hullavington in England.
JH: At where? Sorry?
BM: Empire Central Flying School.
JH: Yes.
BM: At Hullavington. Which was the main training place for bomber crews. I got trained to instruct bomber crews there. Then I went back and got on very well with the man in charge of the place at Lossiemouth wasn’t it?
JH: Yes.
BM: The instructing place. And he was the man I think that got me the Air Force Cross. I got an Air Force Cross for my instructing.
JH: Oh really. Yeah.
BM: We were the operational training instructing French crews.
JH: Yes.
BM: And as a result of that I got the French Legion d’honneur from there.
JH: Yes. I was there. I saw you. I was there when you were awarded.
BM: I tell the story how I got the AFC. When we were at Lossiemouth a bit of a surf would come in there at the right time of year. In Midsummer. The water was reasonably warm but we boys would get down for a swim in the river like this here.
JH: Yeah.
BM: And there’s a couple of reefs nearby. And I was able to catch a few waves. I’m no expert surfer but I was outstanding apparently. There were three or four English blokes. I was the talk of bloody the station, ‘You should have seen him.’ I could do a slow roll on a wave as it was coming. I could do a roll and come down right side up.
JH: Yeah.
BM: But they thought this was incredible. And the news of this got to the group captain in charge of the place and he said, ‘Well I believe that the reefs along the shore there, I believe there are lobsters there which are ready to be caught and no one has been near the place for years because mines had been laid thereabouts.’ He said, ‘We’ll go along one afternoon and might be able to get a lobster.’ So a crowd of us went along. The group captain in his car with three other fellas and myself wading around these reefs. And I was the only one that caught a bloody lobster. I moved down and threw it up on the shore. And after we got out and were drying ourselves the boys said, ‘What do you do with a lobster?’ We’ll cook it —? I said, ‘Oh no.’ I knew the group captain lived off the station. I said, ‘You have it sir.’ And the boys said, ‘You’ll get on. You’ll get on.’ And I reckon that’s how I might have got my bloody AFC [laughs]
JH: How you got your gong. Yeah. Well, what a change from operations.
BM: Yeah.
JH: Being up there.
BM: Yes.
JH: So, what happened to the rest of the crew Bill?
BM: Eh
JH: What happened to the rest of your crew?
BM: The rest of the crew. I kept in touch with the navigator. He got posted up instructing to Lossiemouth too. Lossiemouth there were three stations there. They had the main station and there were two satellite stations. I was in charge of one of the satellite stations.
JH: Yes.
BM: For a while.
JH: Yes.
BM: He was with the main station instructing other navigators.
JH: Yes.
BM: And by that time in England Gee, an operational aid had come into being.
JH: Yes.
BM: Which had more or less done away with the old plotting thing.
JH: Yes.
BM: Navigators could get a fix by operating a Gee set. Well, he was instructing on that.
JH: Yes. And was it Lancasters phasing in?
BM: No. No.
JH: And the Wellingtons phasing out at that stage?
BM: Still Wellingtons.
JH: Still Wellingtons.
BM: After they’d finished their training with us crews were posted down to England to a Conversion Unit.
JH: Conversion.
BM: On four engines.
JH: Yes.
BM: Where they spent about twelve hours I think.
JH: Yeah.
BM: And there they would pick up a mid-upper gunner and an engineer.
JH: Crew. A crew of seven. Yeah.
BM: Yeah. They had a four engine aircraft then.
JH: Yeah
BM: A four engine bomber. But with us they were still on twin engines. Which was a bit not the base.
JH: Yes. Yes. So that was, that was for you an enjoyable period.
BM: No. It wasn’t enjoyable.
JH: Or not. Or were you wanting to get back into action?
BM: It was really trying, instructing. You didn’t get a lot of sleep. You were either instructing or you were in charge of night flying. And I’ve got a good after dinner story when instructing the French. The early French were really magnificent pilots. They’d been in the French Air Force.
JH: Yes.
BM: One of them in particular had been flying with the French civil lines. And they at that stage had an airline over to, I think West Africa where they landed somewhere in mid-Atlantic. Well, one of the pilots they were training had been on that cross bloody Atlantic flight. But you couldn’t teach him anything of course. I was very —
JH: So he knew a bit about navigation obviously.
BM: I was very sort of hesitant about correcting him. He could have taught me a lot. I’m sure of that.
JH: Yeah.
BM: But the French crews. I remember the, there was an intelligence officer at every station.
JH: Yes.
BM: And there was a head of intelligence man. I suppose based at Edinburgh who would tour around visiting the stations and he came around to visit our stations. And French crews on the station would receive every couple of weeks a cask of wine sent up by General de Gaulle from London which could be issued gratis to the French aircrews. At any rate this head navigation intelligence man came visiting us and called in for lunch. And he was a First World War man. Allegedly related to the Queen. First World War medals. He liked his whisky which we gave him for lunch.
JH: Yeah.
BM: And the bloody French crews [unclear] insisted he have some French wine too. After dinner you went and got your own coffee at the coffee thing at the entrance and he was getting his cup of coffee and he tripped over and fell and sat on the coffee cup. And he had to have half a dozen stitches put in his backside
Other: Dear. Dinnertime.
BM: It’s time. I’d better not have dinner.
Other: You don’t want to go down for dinner?
BM: No. I won’t worry about it.
JH: Bill, we can, we can probably start winding it up a bit and if so you can have your dinner.
BM: Yes. Yes.
JH: Would you —
Other: You can have [unclear] as well I think.
BM: Give me five minutes.
Other: Ok darling.
BM: Can I have five minutes?
Other: Yeah darling.
JH: Yes. Ok.
Other: Sure.
JH: Yeah.
BM: This man’s interviewing me. How I won the war [laughs]
Other: Yeah darling. Yeah.
JH: Yeah. Yeah. But you read about the training squadrons. There were quite a few casualties.
BM: Yes. Yes.
JH: Did you have experience of that at Lossiemouth?
BM: Oh yeah. We had the, we had the odd crash.
JH: Yes.
BM: And we found in the, at the station there we were the people who found that something was happening with the Wellingtons. They were developing cracks in the main spar. And we had three mysterious crashes. Now remember I was the man who discovered one of the French aircrews who crashed when they, just after they left at night. They left the east coast of Scotland and disappeared. I found the crash the next day. Cracks developed in the main spar due to heavy landings. And they were all ex-operational aircraft which in avoiding fighters and anti-aircraft fire they’d far exceed authorised speed limits. Every aircraft had a mark on the altimeter not to exceed. Well —
JH: Yeah.
BM: You’d bloody well exceed that if you got into trouble
JH: Yeah.
BM: Instead going down at three hundred miles an hour they’d be going down at three fifty and that cracked the main spar.
JH: Yes.
BM: And they developed with heavy landings. And when the training crews were doing fighter affiliation you taught them to do very steep manoeuvres.
JH: Yes.
BM: To avoid fighters. You had an aircraft acting as a fighter chasing you. That was part of your training. And we had a couple of mysterious crashes. There was nothing left when they hit the ground. But one fell into the sea and they were able to get the wreckage.
JH: Yeah.
BM: And there they discovered the cracks. I think that was one of the main reasons —
JH: Yeah.
BM: That I got a bit of a notoriety through one of the people who was discovered this crack. They grounded the Wellingtons for two or three days and strengthened the main spars.
JH: That sounds like quite a breakthrough finding that problem.
BM: Yes. It was. Yes.
JH: No doubt saved no end of lives.
BM: That would have been the reason. Heavy landings by pupils.
JH: Yes.
BM: And giving them this manoeuvre. The corkscrew manoeuvre we taught them.
JH: Yes. Yes.
BM: But after that that more or less ended my career.
JH: Yes. So, just, just to finish off. What about you were there for VE day in the UK.
BM: Yeah.
JH: Then you went back to the bank?
BM: Yeah.
JH: Or did you continue with the air force after the war for a while.
BM: I continued for about six months.
JH: Yes.
BM: The bank had no staff.
JH: Yes.
BM: They all waited to be called up.
JH: Yes.
BM: As a result they didn’t get the — I got released straight away.
JH: Yes.
BM: Having joined early. But the bank staff — we had no bloody staff
JH: Yes.
BM: And I went. I was working all sorts of bloody hours.
JH: Yes.
BM: 10 o’clock at night. I was one of the few bloody staff in London office.
JH: My father, after the war left, left the RAF. In to Barclays working long hours like you did.
BM: Yes. Yes.
JH: But there were no staff.
BM: That’s right.
JH: Now, what about family? Family life.
BM: I married my wife halfway through the war.
JH: Yes. Yes.
BM: I didn’t shoot my line about how I got my DFC. In Edinburgh.
JH: Yes.
BM: I went along to get it at the Holyrood House.
JH: Yeah.
BM: The palace there, with the [pause] And when I went I asked the girl at the desk, ‘How do I get to the Palace?’ She said, ‘You can catch a tram.’ A tram or — I got a tram and the girl came up and said, ‘There’s the Palace sir.’ It was a picture show. That’s my afternoon story.
JH: Yes.
BM: How I got my medal.
JH: Ok.
BM: I went back to Holyrood and got my medal.
JH: Yes.
BM: And that was it.
JH: Yes. Yeah. So, so you continue with the bank.
BM: Yeah.
JH: Until you retired. Did you retire?
BM: Till I retired. I retired early.
JH: Yes.
BM: Banking never pleased me anymore.
JH: Yes. Yeah.
BM: I retired as soon as I could. Aged fifty five.
JH: Yeah. Now, you could have stayed in the UK but what brought you back here?
BM: I think mainly [pause] I don’t know really. I had to retire somewhere.
JH: Yes. Yeah. Yeah.
BM: And this was one of the good places to retire.
JH: Yes. Yeah. Did you go back to New England or you came back to Sydney?
BM: I came back to Sydney.
JH: Yes. Yeah.
BM: And I went around. I finished up managing all of Sydney.
JH: Yes.
BM: And I retired from there more or less.
JH: Yes. Yeah. And I know you’ve kept in touch with veterans. You’re involved in the —
BM: Oh yeah. Yeah.
JH: Bomber Command Association and I saw you in London.
BM: Yeah.
JH: For the opening of the Memorial by the Queen.
BM: That’s right.
JH: That very hot day. You remember.
BM: Yeah. Yeah.
JH: And I’ve seen you at lots of functions.
BM: But I’m not a great medal man. I don’t believe in medals. I’ve got a couple of medals but I think I’ve always said people who got medals, should have got them are no longer with us.
JH: Yes.
BM: And I knew, during my training at Lossiemouth I knew there, fellow pilots, two VCs, very well.
JH: Yes.
BM: They went back on their second tour. Bazalgette and Palmer.
JH: Yes.
BM: Both won VCs. Posthumous of course.
JH: Yes. Yeah.
BM: But I, when I went to London for the 2012 thing I met Sir Peter Squire.
JH: Yes.
BM: I’ve got his picture over there.
JH: Yeah.
BM: Have a look at it. And that —
JH: Yeah.
BM: And that friend advising about the Legion d’honneur. I had a long talk with him when I met him at the meeting after the celebration for the monument thing. And someone wrote him a letter. I had a long talk to him. And I flattered myself he might have remembered me. I told a friend, they sent him a message I got a Legion d’Honneur and he wrote me a response. Have a look at his picture and the letter he wrote me over there.
JH: I’ll have a look afterwards.
BM: Yeah. Have a look.
JH: Yeah. Yeah.
BM: At any rate don’t mention my medals [laughs]
JH: Well, Bill —
BM: I told, I think I must have struck a sympathetic ear because he got the same medals as I have.
JH: Yes.
BM: And he got his through Falklands. His DFC. And I think he had a bit of, he thought a bloody World War Two bomber pilot was you know big time.
JH: Yes.
BM: I think he had a bit of an inferiority about his Falklands DFC.
JH: Yes.
BM: I don’t know. But I think that’s why we had a very very long talk.
JH: Yes.
BM: About — and he agreed with me about the medals.
JH: Yes.
BM: I said well I don’t know why they worried about it. I just went where I was told.
JH: Yeah.
BM: Nothing very special about it. We did what we had to do.
JH: Yes.
BM: But no reason to give us medals. And the fellas who should have got them of course got killed.
JH: Yes.
BM: And I don’t like capitalising on that.
JH: Yes.
BM: But at any rate see the letter he wrote me at the back.
JH: I’m going to have a look at that.
BM: I was quite, quite frazzled by it. Quite frazzled.
JH: Yes.
BM: And I think it might have been he might have remembered. I don’t know. But he would have met thousands of people.
JH: Bill —
BM: He was a very friendly gentleman.
JH: Yes.
BM: As I say we sort of had empathy together.
JH: I’ll have a look at that.
BM: Yeah.
JH: Bill, why don’t we wind it up. Thank you very much for the time and I feel really privileged to be the one interviewing you today. It’s a great story. It really is.
BM: Oh no.
JH: It is a good story. And so —
BM: Sheer luck.
JH: Thank you very much.
BM: Bomber Command was luck.
JH: Yes.
BM: I realised early on you were expendable. You realised that. After training you were very keen.
JH: Yes.
BM: Training you wanted to dash into it. When you got into it you realised you were bloody well expendable. You’ve only got someone to say, ‘There’s the target. Go for it.’ And you were gone.
JH: But your airspeed lesson. Dive bombing the church graveyard probably stood you in good stead.
BM: Training it did. You taught people that. Taught it.
JH: Thank you very much, Bill.
BM: Oh no. My pleasure. Sorry to have bored you.
JH: Not at all.

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John Horsburgh, “Interview with Bill Macrae,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed December 1, 2020, https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/document/11301.

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