Interview with Charles McNally


Interview with Charles McNally


Charles McNally spent his childhood in Dundee and Airdrie, Scotland. He began work at the Post Office as a Telegram Boy before joining the engineering department. This meant he now worked in a Reserved Occupation and he struggled to get permission to volunteer for the RAF. He eventually secured his release but had an unusual route to securing his posting. He began training as an observer radio. He then went on to train as a pilot. He eventually became a flight engineer and was posted to 101 Squadron at RAF Ludford Magna dealing with electronic counter measures. Charles married while he was still on operational flying. On honeymoon he was walking through the village with his new wife when he was collected for an operation that night and effectively left his wife at the roadside not knowing if she would soon be a widow.




Temporal Coverage




00:41:43 audio recording


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AMcNallyC171005, PMcNallyC1701


JS: This interview is being conducted for the International Bomber Command Centre. The interviewer is Jim Sheach. The interviewee is Charles McNally. The interview is taking place at Mr McNally’s home in Broughty Ferry on the 5th of October 2017. Charles, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. Could you tell me a little about your life before you joined the RAF?
CM: I was a boy who was born in Dundee but at two year old went to Airdrie because my father was an Airdrionian. My mother was a Dundonian. At eleven we came, I came back to Dundee and went to school in Dundee. And at fourteen, having left the school with six day school Highers which was quite unusual at that time I then joined the Post Office as a telegram boy. That was in August 1933. In June 1936 I applied to become a telephone engineer and was accepted for, in, as a youth in training apprentice with the Post Office Engineering Department in June 1936 as I’ve said. I spent the next three years up to the, up to the start of the war working on Post Office engineering work which at that time was Reserved Occupation and more likely required as a civilian than as a member of the armed forces. I was the only son of Thomas and Margaret McNally and we lived at that time Perrie Street in Dundee. My father who wore glasses and was a grade four [pause] grade four soldier was in the RAMC in the First War but no more than a private. So we had, we’d no real history of of wartime activity. And it was only when the war started and things got a bit difficult in Britain that the thoughts turned to well, why don’t I join the forces and see if I can do my bit for Britain. And that’s exactly where we are up ‘til 1941. And in 1941, at the age of nineteen I applied to be enlisted in, in one of His Majesty’s Forces. Preferably the Navy because I enjoyed, I enjoyed living beside the sea and I enjoyed the sea. But as at that time, as at that time being in a Reserved Occupation I have documentary proof that they refused to allow me to go into the Armed Forces and that’s the way it stood for some time until in 1941 they came out with the [pause] what would be the word? Came out, came out with an instruction that people in Reserved Occupations could apply to be in the Air Force but only as pilot or navigator and in the event of not being able to succeed in any of these two posts would be returned to their, to their job. And I have all the documentation to prove that. So eventually I was, in 1941 allowed to join the Air Force and in September 1941 I had my original exams and medication in Dundee and then following that with a further examination in Edinburgh. The, again I passed a grade one and I also passed to be fairly high marks I think because I was passed as an observer radio/pilot. Observer radio being the number one choice because of the, partly apparently because of the interview that I had it was more acceptable for me to go in to that particular post which was very difficult. A very difficult one. A very, a very what would be the word? A very prestigious post because I think navigator observer radios were navigators. They were also wireless operators and in some cases they were bomb aimers as well. And eventually I think that the observer radio eventually became navigator bomber wireless. However, I was put on, put on deferred service then and I was enlisted as 15660 Charles McNally in the [pause] Friday the 30th of January 1942, and given an RAF VR badge 69510 which, to put in your jacket to let people know that you were then a member of the Royal Air Force but on deferred service. And that’s how it stood until I was eventually recruited in nineteen, later in 1942 and joined up the 19th of October 1942 as, for training as, as a pilot. Clearly, they didn’t require any more observer radios. Now, do you want me to go on from there?
JS: Yeah. So, so what happened then?
CM: Well, I was recruited in to the Air Force and joined the RAF as RAF VR as it was. You wore a VR badge even though you were in the RAF. And I was enlisted at Number 1 Royal Air Crew Centre at Lords Cricket Ground in London, 19th of October 1942. From there, after three weeks initial training, all the various jabs and inoculations, boots and all the rest of it I went to Number 1 ITW in Babbacombe. Number 1 ITW was the special place as I understood it and I was posted to A flight. And I think we were the only flight in the whole of the Training Services in the Royal Air Force that wore a white belt rather than a traditional Air Force blue belt and kind of stood out. But at the same time our drill instructor was such a hard man that he made sure we as well as having the white belt we had to be the best soldiers as well as it were and it was pretty hard going. But halfway through the course at Babbacombe there was a flight, a test coming up. It was into, immediate halfway through the course and I thought well I’m not going as I usually did for a couple of pints of scrumpy but I went to another hotel for supper. We were living in small hotels in Babbacombe. I saw a light at the, what I thought was the door and I walked towards and it wasn’t. It was a light from a window in a gunny and I fell down it. That would be in December. And I finished up with, in RAF Wroughton with two cracked transverse processes of my spine. So I spent my first Christmas lying on boards in RAF Wroughton, Swindon until I, until I recovered. And going back to, it was a bit frustrating because it hindered me a bit. It was frustrating trying to get in the Air Force and it was frustrating again to have this. So I went back and I think it was C flight I went back in to and eventually finished up ok with the exams and so on and the, was then posted to Heaton. To Manchester. And we were in digs in Manchester and went to Heaton Park for, to see how everything was going and I can remember everybody sitting in this big hotel, this big hall at Heaton Park and your names came out as Joe Smith, bomb aimer, Charlie Young, navigator and then when your name came out Charles McNally, pilot it was [laughs] hurray. You didn’t shout out but internally it was. It was hurray. And that’s how from there we were taken to Gourock, just outside Glasgow and went on the original Queen Elizabeth to Canada for training. We arrived at the transit station at Moncton in New Brunswick and from there moved on to number 535 EFTS at a place called Neepawa. N E E P A W A. About fifty miles or so outside Winnipeg in Manitoba. Successfully passed. Oh, before that I should have said, I should have said while, before going to Canada after coming out of ITW being on pilot training then I went to number 3 EFTS for a Grading School to see how I could perform as a pilot and I soloed in under nine hours there so all was well. And that was why when I got to Heaton Park I was told I was going for pilot training I was really, thought I would get it anyway. So having got that far from EFTS where we flew Tiger Moths I went to 35 SFTS at North Battleford where we flew Oxfords. Oxford 5s. Very nice aircraft. Easy to fly. No problem. You did the usual training. Daytime. Night time. And it went quite successfully. So, back to Moncton again waiting for a ship. I came back to Britain on the Nieuw Amsterdam. That was the Nieuw Amsterdam which is no longer. More or less the old Amsterdam I think has been dead for years. But it was, it was very [pause] going out on the Queen Elizabeth it was only four days to the other, it was doing over thirty knots and zigzagging so no, no escort. But coming back with the Nieuw Amsterdam it took six days in horrible weather with a Corvette escort. And the Corvette escort you could hardly see it. It was under the waves most of the time. It was shocking. It was March weather and we came back to Britain and again ran into frustrations. I was posted to Harrogate which was a transit. A transit camp. One of the hotels, the Imperial Hotel I think it was in Harrogate. And, we from there we stood around again. We were sent out on courses to, I remember one course we did was more like a commando course at a place just outside Whitley Bay. And I’ve got a picture of it with myself with a tin helmet on and a rifle with another friend of mine Jimmy Jackson, another Dundonian who was on the course with me. Again, the only help, the only positive that came out of that was apart from the work during the day was having a few beers at night. So, and then I was posted to Brough in, near Hull and I was flying Tiger Moths there with, it’s in the book, was flying Tiger Moths there taking people, sergeants, navigators on training flights. I was getting nowhere. And eventually in Autumn of 1944 I was offered my Class B release because as a volunteer it was quite easy for them to just to let me go. Well, that didn’t suit me one little bit so I thought how am I going to get into Bomber Command? Having trained in two, two engines I was quite capable of flying even four engines because it’s the same procedure. Just a couple of more engines. But you know I was getting nowhere with that so I said to them, ‘Well, I’ll retrain as a flight engineer if you wish. So they said, ‘Yes. If you want.’ So I went and did a flight engineer’s course and then was posted to the squadron as flight engineer second pilot. So although I wasn’t at the controls I, from time to time I had the feel of them and in an emergency it would have been easy for me to, to take over. But on the second flight [pause] from, the first flight was to Chemnitz as I recall it. That was the same night, February the 14th, I think that was the same night of the second raid on Dresden. Chemnitz was about forty or fifty miles south of Dresden as I recall it and the bomber force split in two. The, we went down through France and rather than straight over through Germany [pause] And the flight, the flight was a circuitous route.
[pause – pages turning]
It took eight hours fifty five minutes. All on a bar of chocolate and a flask of coffee. So it was, it was quite a long haul and, but it went without, without incident. And then on our second operation to Dortmund that was a shorter flight but regrettably coming back one of the engines packed in and we couldn’t make out what was wrong with it so decided to feather the engine and fly back on three. Which any pilot would be capable of doing in a normal circumstances. In fact, they were trained to do. To fly on three. However, coming back and almost, on on the circuit to the airfield for some unaccountable reason I recall saying to the pilot, at that time I was sitting beside him, the pilot was, sorry, Pilot Officer Kerr and he came from Arbroath. He, I said to him, I can recall at the last minute saying, ‘Jim,’ we were more or less on equal terms although he was the skipper, I said, ‘There’s nothing on the clock.’ And suddenly we hit ground. Fortunately, it was a ploughed field. I’ve got pictures of it. So on the whole we were all relatively free from accident other than the bomb aimer who was at the front got the most of the impact and he broke, he broke an ankle or leg or something. But we lost him anyway. So we got seven days leave. That was the February the 20th. We got, we got some seven days leave and I believe at that time that was about the time of the crossing of the Rhine. It was about March. March. Somewhere in March. But when we come back on March the 3rd we did three engine landings. Obviously we should have done that before. And then went on back to Chemnitz again. And then Kasel from there. That was in March. Early March. So after that it was really plain sailing. Nordhausen. Kiel. By the way the Admiral Scheer was sunk on that raid. The German battleship. And then there was [pause] near the end April the 14th I, they were short of a [pause] a the flight engineer and I volunteered to go with a Flying Officer [unclear] to Potsdam. This was eventful. Fortunately, it was near the end of the war but we were caught in searchlights. And again fortunately there was a bit of ack ack but there was no, there was no fighters in the air. So it was just a question of releasing the bombs and diving down via Leipzig to get, to get away. And as we dived down the searchlights began to just dim and forget, switched off. Following that we did Heligoland. That was the, the operation to the German I think where their submarines were under concrete hiding, you know. And that was, that was a fairly easy trip. Four hours twenty minutes. And then we went to Bremen. Now, I remember Bremen. The mission was abandoned. There was as I said cloud over the, the point of dropping but as we were told later we were too early. We were going to be bombing Bremen to make it easy for the troops to, to get in. And by the time we got there the troops had arrived. So, as we couldn’t see them —
JS: Yeah.
CM: Just decided let’s not. That was some of the, some of the raids. And then after that we started dropping food to the Dutch. I’ve got, I’ve got a nice letter and a little badge. A little medal from them. And the first one of that was April the 30th. A week or two before the war finished. That was the Hague. And then we did Rotterdam twice on May the 3rd and May the 7th. And then on May the 11th we went to Brussels and brought, repatriated some ex-POWs. And that concluded that part of the operation. Well, at that time the thought was that we would have to go to Japan so there was a lot of training done. There was a lot of training done in anticipation of that. And I think, although it’s not shown here, I’m not sure I think they were going to put the Lancaster in to larger wings with bigger tanks and it was going to be called the Lincoln. But I don’t recall much about that. However, on July the 9th we went to Hamburg, Heligoland, Kasel, Dusseldorf the Möhne Dam etcetera with, with ground crew. And this was to let them see the damage that had been done. I can recall the Hamburg especially. There was nothing standing. So, I don’t know whether, there’s one here — Operation Ramrod. I can’t think what that was. So, then we went in September. In September we went to Pomigliano In Naples bringing troops back from, from Italy. We did that on one, two, three, four occasions. So that was fine. 7th 10th 21st 27th and after that, just after that I was offered my, my release because 101 Squadron disbanded on the 1st of October. And I was offered my release again. But having had, this is the important part, having had my spinal injury I thought something I should do just to make sure I’m ok before I leave the RAF. So I volunteered to become a PTI, Physical Training Instructor. So I did three weeks at Cosford and eight weeks at St Athan, and in January ’46 I was posted to RAF Hospital Northallerton as the PTI for the staff. Not so much the patients. Mainly the staff. And I was in charge of the cricket team, the football team and also cross country and so on. So it proved to me that although I’d been through all this and had the problem with my back which again, it did, it was with me for some time after the war. And my right leg. I felt the right leg wasn’t as good as the left but it did prove to me that I was capable of going back to work. And I went back to work in September to the Post Office Engineering Department and within two weeks was at the local Tech doing my night classes for promotion which came along in time. That was virtually the story of the war.
JS: Good. You mentioned when we spoke before we started the interview that, that 101 Squadron was involved in the electronic counter measures.
CM: That’s correct.
JS: Is that something that your plane did?
CM: Yes. I can recall it vividly. The thing, I think we had him twice. One of the times, the one time that stands out in my mind is we were all crewed up and suddenly this car arrives with a gentleman in it. We didn’t see who he was. It was dark. He got into the plane. Sat behind his curtain with his equipment. We never saw him. Never spoke to him. Never said a word. Did the, did the, he wasn’t with us when we crashed. It was, must have been later. He left the plane first before us before we de-crewed and went away in a car. We never ever saw him. But he had a, he sat behind a curtain underneath the mid-upper gunner with his equipment. And it was pretty cold in there. I think he must have had a flying suit on like the gunners. But we never ever saw him and, but we were pleased that when he was with us we had no incidents. No.
JS: You — how was your crew? I’ve heard stories about crews being formed by everybody just being put in a big bunch and sort of saying go sort your crew out yourself.
CM: No. We went to, after I’d finished my course at St Athan as a flight engineer we went to a place at Huntingdon [pause] Hang on [pause – pages turning ] Get it in the back here. Babbacome, Heaton Park, Ludlow, Manchester, Moncton, Harrogate. Of course was Harrogate. Harrogate. Harrogate. Tempsford. Huntingdon. AMU. A 10. No. That must have been later. Sturgate, Lindholme. Heavy Conversion Unit. Yeah. We went to a place. RAF Sturgate in Lincolnshire. Never heard of it. Now, looking back but that’s where we were all put together and we chose. We chose who we would fly with. And the pilot then was Jim Kerr from Arbroath. I think he stayed on the Air Force. Did very well. But I thought, well he’s a Scotsman. He’s just down the road from where I live. Perfect combination and that’s how I got to fly with him. And he was very good because I had the odd chance of flying the Lancaster. In any emergency I could have. I could have performed. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. That was it. And then we went to a Heavy Conversion Unit at Lindholme in January 1945. And I joined 101 Squadron, Ludford Magna on the 29th of January 1945 when I left Lindholme. And I was there on, I was there until 30th of September 1945. That’s when I went to St Athan. And then Northallerton. And I was demobbed on the 3rd of September 1946, the [pause] I remember I’ve got the, I’ve got the information here. I got a train ticket to Uxbridge. And I remember getting a lovely suit and hat and jacket and coat and so on. All very well. But that was, that was my career. It was a bit stuttered because I was frustrated from the beginning trying to get in. And then I was frustrated because I wasn’t taken up as an observer radio. And then I was frustrated having passed as a pilot that I couldn’t fly as a pilot and, although fortunately I did get the opportunity but not officially.
JS: Yeah.
CM: But in the event of an emergency I would have quite easily flown the aircraft. There’s no difference between two and four. Just two engines. The procedure and everything else was the same. So there we are. That was it. And the Lancasters I flew were a Lancaster 1, the Lancaster 3 and the Lancaster 10. I think of the Lancaster 10 as I remember it had the number five, .5 bullets in and had they had, they had the bigger turret. Aye. So there we are. I do have, funny enough I do have [pause] Where is it? That was a, that’s an interesting picture.
JS: And who drew that?
CM: Sorry?
JS: Who? Who drew the picture of you?
CM: Now, the person that drew that was a, I was sitting in class and his name was Dougal Garden and he was an illustrator with the Courier in Dundee and he handed it to me later and said, ‘There you are.’ That was me. Yeah. I could show you a lot of other pictures if you’re keen to see them.
JS: Once we’ve finished chatting that would be really useful.
CM: Ok. Now, I also during the time, I can’t find it —
JS: Well, let’s, let’s have a look when we’ve finished chatting. You mentioned your pilot from Arbroath. You’ve mentioned your pilot from Arbroath.
CM: Ah huh.
JS: So, how, how was the rest of your crew made up?
CM: Norman Gill was the navigator. Charlie Williams was the wireless op. The two gunners were, Albert Edwardson was one of the them. The rear gunner, he was an old boy. An older boy with two children of which at the time I thought, what are you thinking about, you know, becoming an air gunner when you’ve a family, about thirty years of age. We were all in our early twenties. The bomb aimer was the fellow that got injured. His name was Francis. I can’t remember his first name now. And he was a Canadian. That was the first of it.
JS: And, and how did you get on as a crew?
CM: Oh, had no problem. Very well. Yeah. Ah huh. Och aye. Even after the incident with the flap pancaking in a ploughed field. We just went back to business again. Yeah.
JS: That’s great. You mentioned when we were chatting earlier that the base you were at was, was equipped with FIDO.
CM: Ah huh.
JS: So, how often was that used and was it in use any time that you were there?
CM: It was. It was used quite a lot actually. What it was was that two strips, two strips along the main runway with holes in them and there was petrol and they set it alight and immediately the heat from the petrol cleared, cleared the air quite considerably. It was no problem. In fact it was a dream for some aircraft that couldn’t land on their own, on their own ‘drome. Even I recall Americans come again. I can remember one of the American, an American gunner and he, he was quite adamant. He said, ‘I don’t care what was behind me,’ he said, ‘Whether it was a Lancaster, a Stirling, or whatever. If anybody got close to me they got the guns.’ They were, they were still gun happy [laughs] But it was, it was a boon. Although we were four hundred feet above sea level in the Lincolnshire Wolds the fact that these petrol jets cleared the air was, and it was quite easy to land in between them. No problem.
JS: That’s great. So after you demobbed you went back to —
CM: Yes.
JS: The Post Office. Telecoms. And there was some retraining after that. Is that right?
CM: Yes. Well, not a lot but there was a bit but I went on courses of course with the Post Office Engineering Department to a place called Stoke. No. Stone near Stoke. That’s where we spent in some cases seven or eight weeks and you never got home at weekends in those days, you know.
JS: That’s great. So coming out from Bomber Command after the war how do you think as a Bomber Command veteran you were treated after the war?
CM: I think I was treated fairly well. I was never ever, never ever approached to say I’d done anything wrong. Oh, no. No. Oh, no. The, the feeling that I, the feeling was, and it was although some folk thought it was a bit immoral to go and bomb towns the feeling was for people who were in this country and had suffered with the German bombs, the V-1s, the V-2s it was a delight every time they put the news on and found there had been a thousand bomber raid the night before. It gave them heart that we were taking the war to Germany and we were getting somewhere. And that was the feeling. And it was a feeling. It was the correct feeling because Bomber Command at that time was the only force that could make any real impact in the war. Although maybe it didn’t impact tremendously on the production and all that sort of thing. Mentally. Mentally it had a tremendous achievement. Tremendous. Yeah. In fact, even now coming back at this late stage in my life if anybody you meet who knows you’ve been in the war as a pilot and as a flight engineer they’re always delighted to know you’ve done this for us. Well, in a way there’s a funny incident about that. Anyway, you’re putting your life on the life for Britain at night while other people are lying in their beds sleeping. But there was one occasion. You see in the 21st of March 1945 the lady I was due to marry was going to be posted abroad so we decided to get married. And we got married on the 21st. She was in the ATS and she was a corporal going to be promoted to sergeant and sent to Italy. So at short notice we decided we would get married when she was billeted in Carlisle. We got married and had, I got seven days notice from the Air Force for a, for a [pause] what’s the word? [pause] Seven days notice for the, for the wedding and thereafter the honeymoon and so on.
JS: Leave.
CM: Leave. That’s the word I’m looking for. But my wife, she got fourteen days. Now, for seven days she came to Ludford and I got permission to live off base and we lived in a, with a woman in a bungalow. I don’t recall it very because it was one these old fashioned ones you had to pump the water up at night to get water and so on but being off base I wasn’t too involved in anything. And I was walking in the village with my wife at that time of seven days, eight days. And suddenly the station wagon pulled up, ‘Charlie, you’re flying tonight.’ Now, I had to leave my wife in the street. At that time, in the middle of a little village and say, ‘Cheerio darling. All being well I’ll be back tomorrow.’ At the same time being a widow, being a wife one week she could quite easily have been a widow the next. But that was life as it was and that was, that’s a personal thing. Yeah. Yeah. You know. You’re leaving this lady you’ve just married. I cannot remember what the raid was but, no. Looking back it must have been hard on her.
JS: Absolutely.
CM: Sorry?
JS: Absolutely. Yeah. That’s great. Thank you very much.
CM: And when you come back really, just at the end when you come back you’re like a coal miner because you’ve had a mask on for eight hours and you’re like nothing on earth and you think as if you look terrible. To go back to my wife looking like that was [laughs] after debriefing and so on, you know. But that was, that was the story of my life really. Quite, quite eventful really. A bit stuttery and a bit frustrating because I wanted, I’ve got the documentation here from the office telling me I couldn’t join in the forces. And then the offer of getting in as a pilot or navigator. Passing as an observer radio which was a very high class pass. Finished and they didn’t need observer radios so they trained me as a pilot. Got my pilot’s and got back to Britain as a pilot and then found I wasn’t needed as a, for further training as a pilot and offered my release. Now, that was the last thing I wanted because inside in me at twenty one the only thing I wanted to do was hit the Germans. So the one way I could do it was to rebrand as a flight engineer. So I was trained in both capacities. And I suppose in a way there’s not many like that in the Air Force today. Or was at that time. I don’t recall in the class at St Athan when we did the engine, the course on engines any other pilot. I think they were all just recruits.
JS: Great.
CM: But that was it. Thank you.
JS: Thank you very much. That was magic. I really enjoyed that. That was really really good. So, I will stop this.



James Sheach, “Interview with Charles McNally,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed April 24, 2024,

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