Interview with Edward Robert McRae


Interview with Edward Robert McRae


Ted McRae volunteered for aircrew and trained as a gunner. He was usually in the mid-upper turret but would sometimes swap places with the rear gunner. On one trip repatriating ex-prisoners of war his aircraft crashed. He and the other gunner were the only survivors. He then flew as a 'spare bod'. He completed his career in the RAF at Chittagong in India.




Temporal Coverage




00:26:23 audio recording


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AMcRaeER170727, PMcRaeER1701


DM: This interview is being conducted for the International Bomber Command Centre. The interviewer is David Meanwell. The interviewee is Ted McRae and the interview is taking place at Mr McRae’s home in Warlingham in Surrey on the 27th of July 2017. Ok. Ted, perhaps you could start off by sort of telling me when and where you were born and a bit about your growing up.
TM: Well, I was born in Croydon. 1926.
Other: ‘5.
TM: Grew up mainly in Croydon and then when I was ten we moved to Caterham and I’ve been in this area ever since.
DM: Did you go to school in Croydon or Caterham?
TM: Part of my school in Croydon. Up until I was ten. Then I finished all my schooling in Caterham. At the Central School there. Oh, there was always, well since the war started my ambition was to go in to the Air Force of course.
DM: Did you have any work before you went into the Air Force?
TM: Oh yes. Yes. I was working for an aircraft firm actually as a storeman.
DM: Which firm?
TM: Surrey Flying Services actually I started out with. I stayed with them for quite a long time actually until I actually joined up. On and off. But —
DM: How old were you when you joined up?
TM: Seventeen and a half. Well, I got called up because although I volunteered I wasn’t accepted then. They had the choice. They could please themselves. So they said when they wanted you. And you didn’t go in and train as anything in particular. You went in as aircrew and they sorted you out depending on what they wanted at the time. So, you know, you went in and you did the training and that was it.
DM: So this would have been what? Around the end of 1942, I suppose.
TM: No. It was later on than that because I wasn’t old enough to go in until, forty — I think I joined up in ’44. Yeah. I think it was January. About January the 3rd ’44.
DM: Right.
TM: When I went into the service. But I was on their books a couple of years before that. It was just when I was old enough. And started, where did I go first? Well, of course joined up at the Aircrew Centre in London and then [pause] yeah, one of those places. The first place was Bridgnorth.
DM: In Shropshire.
TM: Yeah. And then we, up on the coast of Yorkshire and had other training. I can’t remember the names of places these days. From there we came back down in to the Lincolnshire area where [pause] Lincoln. Oh no. The Oxfordshire area, because we stayed down there for a while and then mainly most of my training was done in the Lincolnshire area anyway.
DM: So, you ended up as a gunner.
TM: As a gunner. Yes. Even then you didn’t know what you were going to be [laughs] You went in for the training. You trained as aircrew and whatever they wanted that was what you were going in as.
DM: Do you remember much about crewing up? What happened when you found your crew?
TM: Oh yeah. Well, that part of the training came from Abingdon. The, I finished the [pause] other gunners. Yeah, it’s wrong. No. Get crewed up. It just happened. The chap who was turned out to be the rear gunner. He, he happened to be standing there when I walked past, ‘Do you want to join our crew?’ And his name was Phillip. He only lived over at Banstead actually and yes, that was the start of it. The next thing I found myself with four new Zealanders [laughs] And later on a Nottinghamshire engineer. And that was our crew. And we stayed that way until, until they were all killed in a crash and I survived.
DM: So, do you have any particular memories of any operations before that one?
TM: Not really. They were tied. All sort of tied, running one into the other really. I mean we was on the first thousand bomber. Not. No. The first, when they’d started bombing targets that had never been touched during the war and the first one was Dresden. I was on that one. And of course they wanted to know all your, all your bombs. How many bombs you dropped and what size they were and all the rest of it when you come back. But of course you didn’t, you didn’t always get in on these briefings. They didn’t have a lot to hear [laughs]
DM: So, were you the rear gunner?
TM: No. I was the mid-upper gunner actually.
DM: Right.
TM: But we used to swap over on various occasions. On operations we stuck to sit in our own. You know, our own turret. But on the ones later like when we was bringing back ex-prisoners of war we swapped over. As happened on this particular day. I rode, yes I rode in the mid-upper turret the first part of the journey back because I had ex-prisoners in there and I don’t think my other gunner would know anything about that job because he was [pause] and to be quite honest we were ordered to take a revolver and ammunition with strict orders that if there was any problems on there to shoot the person. Because you were doing something that hadn’t been tried before. Which was taking twenty six ex-prisoners as passengers in a Lancaster. Well, there’s very little room in a Lancaster when you get inside. And strict orders that if there was any panicking shoot first and that’s it. Not that I would have done because I never even put the bullets in the gun. They stayed in my pocket. But, you know, but that was ordered because of the thing. And the rear gunner and myself, well he decided he would fly in the rear turret going out because we’d got people in there. Passengers, sort of thing. But when we were coming back part of the way I would be, I could fly in this mid-upper turret. But when we picked up this other lot of repatriates he was going back in, he was going back in the tail turret. [laughs] Yeah. That was that sort of thing going on all the time.
DM: When you were on operations —
TM: Yeah.
DM: Before the time when —
TM: Yeah.
DM: The time the plane was shot down. What, what was life like on the base between operations? What did you get up to?
TM: Oh. Didn’t have time to get up to a lot because when there was flying on that was it. That was the top thing. And as soon as operations and all that sort of thing stopped. You did the operation. So that took up all the time. And more than likely the time you came back there was a new bombing list up for the next day. So you didn’t get a chance to do anything else. You were preparing for that one. Otherwise, you know they would say well as soon as they knew there was nothing on you could stand down but you couldn’t go anywhere.
DM: You had to stay on the base or around about.
TM: Stay on the base. They’d tell when you could go. It was clear because stand down didn’t mean you were free. You always had to be on stand-by. And that happened for three months at a stretch.
DM: And this was at Scunthorpe? Was it?
Other: Skellingthorpe.
TM: At Skellingthorpe. Yeah.
DM: Skellingthorpe. Sorry. Skellingthorpe. Yes. So if we turn now to the fatal day. Literally.
TM: Yes.
DM: The fatal day. What, what operation was it? Where were you going?
TM: We went out to France. Picked up twenty six ex-prisoners of war. Fitted them in the, in the aircraft. That’s something I hadn’t ever worked out when you had space what, a bigger square than this table, I suppose. Where you had to get all these people in and yourself.
DM: So that’s about, I suppose this table is about sort of what? Six foot by two foot something like that.
TM: Yes. Six. Yeah.
DM: Three foot. Something like that.
TM: Well, it was only just that area beneath the turret of the Lancaster actually.
DM: So you were like sardines.
TM: Yeah. And under strict orders that all the mid-uppers had to go and draw a revolver and ammunition and carry it along with them with strict orders that if there was any panicking to shoot. So whether that would have happened or not I don’t know. Not in my aircraft because I never took the [laughs] the bullets stayed in my pocket all the time. But that, that was it. That was how you flew and —
DM: So you went and you picked these twenty six people up and got them in the aircraft.
TM: Yeah. Got them in. Flew them back to this country and dropped them off at a station I forget. I couldn’t tell you what the station was. And unloaded them. And then we used to have, had to head back to our own base and it was on that trip that we crashed. I don’t know what happened I must admit actually because that morning we had been up. Well, we’d been a duty crew all night so it meant we didn’t get into bed until about 11 o’clock, twelve, close on 12 o’clock at night. We was called again at 3 o’clock in the morning because we were due to be the crew to get everything ready for the people coming back who were flying that night. But at the last minute that got cancelled. Get ready to fly because there was another raid coming up and we were due. They’d decided we were going to take off at 7 o’clock in the morning which didn’t happen. We didn’t actually take off ‘til about 10 o’clock in the morning and we flew out to France. Did what business we had to do and come, come back and it was by that time we went out there picked these prisoners up, brought them up and dropped them off at another station. Then we was flying back to our own base when something went wrong and we just crashed.
DM: So, did, did anybody say anything? Did the pilot say anything? Do you remember?
TM: He didn’t have much chance to say anything.
DM: No.
TM: He was, he was heavily banking around to avoid something at the time and the wingtips touched the ground. That’s all I can put it down to. And the aircraft cartwheeled. Broke. Because of course I was flying in the rear turret again having swapped with the rear gunner. And the turret was blown straight off and I was straight down on to the ground like that.
DM: So you were the only survivor.
TM: No. He survived as well actually but he finished up with a badly broken leg which kept —
DM: The pilot was this?
TM: No. No.
DM: The other gunner.
TM: The other gunner.
DM: The other gunner.
TM: And he wasn’t in the turret. He got thrown out. He was out of the turret and of course when the aircraft cartwheeled he got thrown out then and he spent twelve months in hospital and he got a broken leg though but it wouldn’t heal or something.
DM: What were your injuries?
TM: Very few. I was in hospital for a week and then I was out.
DM: So, sort of cuts and bruises.
TM: Just cuts and bruises and that. Yeah. And of course by then I had no crew. So that was it. We were starting out again.
DM: So you flew again after that.
TM: Only a couple of times then. Yes. Because then they were just making all the aircrews redundant. They didn’t know what to do with them all because the war had ended during that time and I was redundant.
DM: When you were flying on operations did you ever have any contact with enemy fighters?
TM: No. We’d, a couple of times we saw them in the distance sort of thing but, I say in the distance, below us or just above but we never had any contact with them.
DM: So you got safely through all that.
TM: We sort of had seen them.
DM: Yes.
TM: And I think they probably realised that they’d been seen. Although it was at night you still get a bit of moonlight on the turrets and you could see a movement. Movement. So —
DM: So, when you, you went into hospital, you were in hospital for a week. You came out. You were sort of then I suppose a sort of a spare bod as they say.
TM: Yeah.
DM: And you did a couple of flights with other people which, were they, I assume were they repatriation flights as well?
TM: They were repatriation flights. Yes. Yeah.
DM: Yeah. So what happened when you were demobbed? I mean were you just sort of sitting around waiting for ages or did it happen quite quickly?
TM: Oh. No. No. Posted and given ground jobs ‘til the demob came up.
DM: Did you ever think about staying in?
TM: Yeah, but not when [pause] we was forced to come out really because they had so many blokes they didn’t know what to do with them. They didn’t want us in there.
DM: So demob time comes around. Did you keep in touch with the rear gunner as he was, I suppose? His official position afterwards.
TM: I did. Yes. Well, because he was, he spent the best part of the next twelve months in hospital actually. In Halton mainly. And although I wasn’t there my mother and father used to go over and visit him and they met his mother over there, you know and they became quite friendly but [pause] I always got the impression that George thought that he was a bit above everybody else.
DM: Right.
TM: And didn’t want to be seen with us sort of thing. So he never. I tried to keep in touch with him but he didn’t. Didn’t want to know. No.
DM: And was he the chap who was from Banstead?
TM: Yeah.
DM: Yeah. So not far away.
TM: Not far away. No. And as I say his mother and my mother wrote to each other quite often and met several times afterwards but no. Not George.
DM: Not you and him.
TM: No.
DM: No. Did you go back into the aircraft industry after the war?
TM: For a, for a while but I was working, you know working on the aircraft firms doing bits. But I was a storeman actually because I was, I was a trained storeman. Whether I wanted it or not.
DM: That was your — that was it.
TM: Yeah.
DM: That was what you were destined to be.
TM: Yeah. Because when I was grounded, like a lot of others they trained us to run stores as well. Actually, in civil life I had been running aircraft stores anyway. I suppose that’s what put in their mind to, you know he can go in there and yes I did a complete course on that and I spent the remaining time in the Air Force. In stores.
DM: Typecast. Do you have any brothers and sisters?
TM: Yes. Three of each.
DM: Right. So a big, big family.
TM: Yes.
DM: And did any, what did they do in the war? Your brothers and sisters.
TM: Oh, all three brothers were in different regiments.
DM: So they were in the army.
TM: Yeah.
DM: And they all survived.
TM: Oh yes. Yeah. My sisters were [pause] and they, two of them were working. The other one was married. So that was that.
DM: So, everybody came through.
TM: Yeah.
DM: What do you, looking back how do you sort of view the time that you were in the Air Force in the Second World War? I mean obviously you went in. You said you wanted to go in the Air Force. You knew that.
TM: Oh yes.
DM: Once the war broke out.
TM: Yeah.
DM: You knew that was what you wanted to volunteer to do.
TM: Oh yes.
DM: Did it live up to your expectations? Whatever they might have been.
TM: By and large, yes. Yes. Because I was in the air, I joined the Air Training Corps as soon as that started. So I had quite a background for the Air Force anyway. And yeah, that kept me in there actually.
DM: Did you have dreams of being a pilot like a lot of people? Or did you not care.
TM: That was my intention to going in the Air Force. To be a pilot. But when you go in there you went in as aircrew. You had no choice. Whatever they were short of at the time that’s what you was trained as.
DM: Looking back on what you did in the war and what happened in the war how do you feel about how Bomber Command had been treated in the years since? People who fought in the bomber war.
TM: Well, as far as I’m concerned most of them have tried hard to forget it. Didn’t exist.
DM: Did you ever belong to any Associations or anything like that afterwards or did you just cut the ties?
TM: No. No. Well, there weren’t any really. I mean I was passed out for the Air Training Corps. Too old for that. And there was no, nothing really else to do. Not around this area.
DM: Now going, if we go back you said when you crewed up there were, was it four new Zealanders?
TM: Yeah.
DM: And then there were three from England. One from Banstead, one from Caterham, one from Croydon, one from Nottingham.
TM: Yes.
DM: You all mixed in. All rubbed along together ok.
TM: Oh yeah. We got along well. There was no problems there.
DM: I suppose you’ve not, you didn’t have any contact with their families or anything after the crash.
TM: The only one who’s family I had anything to do with really was the engineer, Dennis. He, he came from Nottingham. But he was the, the member of the crew because he wasn’t with us for very long. But we did meet his wife. He was only just married before he came. He got called up actually. But — no.
DM: So you had, did you have you had another engineer before him, did you?
TM: No. No. That was the only engineer we had.
DM: Was added. Yeah.
TM: Yeah, because we was trained and been flying together. Then we got an engineer. Because we’d been on Whitleys and well, mainly our training was on Whitleys. I suppose we were about the last crews training on them.
DM: When you went in you were a single lad. Were you still single when you came out?
TM: Yeah. Yes. I didn’t get married until well after that. A long time after I came out of the Air Force.
DM: So there wasn’t anybody worrying about back home other than your mum and dad.
TM: Only my mum and dad. Yes.
DM: And your brothers and sisters.
TM: I suppose. They had enough worries. There were three other brothers in the services at the time.
DM: Did your mum have any thoughts on your joining the Air Force? Did she ever say anything one thing or another?
TM: No. No. No. She never made any complaint. She never said anything about it.
DM: So after you’d finished sort of flying basically. While you were waiting to come out you ended up in India.
TM: Yeah.
DM: How did that come about? Why were you sent out there?
TM: Well, it’s just a fact that all, all these redundant aircrews that they had. They had to find places for them. They couldn’t be demobbed. They had men out in places like India and Burma and all that that needed to come home because they hadn’t been out, home for four or five years. So we were all loaded on boats and sent out there. That’s all. And we took over the places as stores. They trained us all as stores. Well, mainly as store keepers. Did a few other jobs I think. But I mean that’s all they’d done.
DM: And where in India were you? Whereabouts?
TM: On the far side of it [laughs] Chittagong.
DM: Were you there for very long?
TM: I suppose about eighteen months. Might have been two years. I don’t know. It was after, the war was well over because I was still in England when the war finished. And all this training and all the rest of it that all took place after that. So I suppose well it was towards the end of that year because I didn’t spend it, in the country to spend Christmas at home but it was about November I think when we was on the boat going out there.
DM: Did you come back by boat or did they fly you back?
TM: No. Come back by boat as well. I was never lucky enough to fly back there. Fly either way.
DM: Join the Air Force and see the sea basically.
TM: Yeah.
DM: What did you think of India?
TM: Had its good points. We were living a bit in the wilds really. Because as I say I was the other side. Beyond Calcutta actually. At the top of Burma where we were stationed. It took a week to travel home from there on the train.
DM: So tough and hot I assume was it? Hot.
TM: Oh yes.
DM: Very hot.
TM: Definitely and the trains because their trains were the Indian trains. They weren’t the European ones that they had out there. And all wooden seats. All wooden slatted seats and you slept on them as well.


David Meanwell, “Interview with Edward Robert McRae,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed December 8, 2023,

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