Interview with Jack Robertson Millin


Interview with Jack Robertson Millin


Jack Millin was working for his father as a painter and decorator before he volunteered for the RAF. He was a Civil Defence bicycle messenger and joined the ATC. When he joined the RAF he trained as a wireless operator/air gunner and was posted to 12 Squadron, South African Air Force flying Marauders, Bostons and Marylands. He left the air force under Class B release because of his building trade experience.



IBCC Digital Archive




Julie Williams


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00:25:13 audio recording





Temporal Coverage


JM: I was born in 1924. The son of a World War One veteran who had been wounded on the Somme having joined up at eighteen to a local Manchester regiment. Transferred to the Royal Engineers because he was in the building trade and came home from the Somme via hospital in hospital blue. Instead of being shipped out to France he was part of the Balkan Expeditionary Force in Salonica in Greece. And he served there ‘til the end of the war because of course the Royal Engineers are the construction department of the army mostly. The officers were civil engineers or architects. So he was a corporal and he came out in 1919. And in 1920 he started his own business in painting and decorating. So I was born in 1924 and became his third apprentice. And I wasn’t able to go to a grammar school by passing a scholarship and he didn’t want to pay for my grammar school education so I left school at fourteen. So that was it. Evening classes. I was sent to evening classes when I was thirteen and continued doing painting and decorating evening classes until I went in the air force. Eventually, after the air force I became qualified with City and Guilds to became a part time teacher for sixteen years in painting and decorating. So that was my sort of background of how it all happened. And of course as a young boy I used to remember the KLM, or whatever it was called, the Dutch airlines aircraft coming daily into Manchester. And also an R-34 airship flying over and thinking that this must be great. I wasn’t into transport but my grandfather was a railway transport person. He was a carrier with a horse and so his job was, was as a transport person. He wasn’t involved in air or, and he worked on the railway. So that was where it happened. So when, I was fifteen when the war started. Remembering Neville Chamberlain’s broadcast that now we are at war with Germany we didn’t know what was going to happen. So all the things, we had a very quiet start with the phoney war err the phoney war until they started to drop bombs in our area. Eventually I volunteered when I was sixteen to become an ARP which was Civil Defence cyclist messenger. And I used to do duty every week on the basis of the, if the telephones went out of action we were able to take messages. So that was one of the things I did. But when I was sixteen the Air Training Corps started after the Air Defence Corps was its founder. So this was very attractive to me and joined with my future brother in law. And we attended and we were the founder members of the Air Training Corps in Ashton under Lyme. So I went through that and all the various training. Got promoted. Corporal. Sergeant. Flight sergeant. And then I volunteered for air crew as soon as I was coming up to eighteen. Of course it wasn’t the thing. You weren’t supposed to push yourself and volunteer too early. It was just wait your turn. So eventually I was called up after some delay which they called deferred service, via RAF Padgate where there was a selection of medical for aircrew. Passed fit all aircrew but because of my lack of education I didn’t qualify for the pilot navigator bomb aimer. They agreed I could be a wireless operator air gunner under training. Which I did. So there was a delay. Eventually I was called up and went to London to the Aircrew Receiving Centre. Lord’s Cricket Ground. We would go on then to Bridgnorth ITW. From there I went on to Yatesbury. Number 2 Radio School near Calne in Wiltshire. From there after long delays because of course the bad weather of the winter didn’t allow people to train or be killed so we couldn’t move forward. And eventually it was decided that in addition to signallers which was our qualification when I qualified at RAF Yatesbury as a sergeant signaller with an S brevet. There was something that was still needed as wireless operators/air gunners for Coastal Command where they had ASV training. And also for Bomber Command because sorry medium bombers because medium bombers had to be dual role people. They couldn’t be just signallers and specialists. So I was sent to a full Air Gunnery School at Evanton in Scotland. Number 8 Air Gunnery School. And I did the full training there and I remember the dates particularly because on VE Day I was just coming to the end of my training. So after we’d got another brevet, an air gunner’s brevet we were sent home on embarkation leave. No. To West Kirby on the Wirral where they sorted people out or kitted them out for overseas service [coughs] Excuse me. Then we had embarkation leave and went by Liverpool by ship. Monarch of Bermuda to Gourock in Scotland and then joined a convoy to have a week on a long sweep in the Atlantic to Gibraltar and then another week in the Atlantic err in the Mediterranean hugging the North African coast to Port Said. From there we were shipped by rail with sliding doors and spent a day in straw. And all us getting off at eating points via Ismailia up to Jerusalem. I do remember Jerusalem was the first place I had seen since 1939 with street lights on and a lovely temperature. The balmy air as we arrived there. And I spent six weeks in Jerusalem. Part of them under curfew because the Jewish Stern Gang, Irgun Zvai Leumi I think they were called had killed a police commissioner. They’d assassinated him. So we were kept inside after dark. We were confined to the place we were staying. It was an ex-German hospital. From there because of my name and this was one of the, the lucks of the draw. My name was Millin and all my courses were from A to L and M to Z. So I was Millin and the first of the group who went to Jerusalem. So when I had to go to, from Jerusalem after six weeks to Shander on the Great Bitter Lake I was given the pass to take this group of people — Millin, Mullin, Pearson, Stewart, these were all my contemporaries at that time to this Shandur on the Great Bitter Lake which was a desert air force bomber base with Nissen huts sunk in the sand. So we stayed there and we were, the day we arrived after being photographed we were told to go and find a South African aircrew because they were looking for a wireless operator air gunner. So I joined this crew of five South Africans to fly an aircraft I’d never heard of. The B-26 Martin Marauder known as The Widow Maker. The Martin Murderer. The Flying Prostitute — no visible means of support. Because it was a very advanced aircraft. Very fast. Very streamlined. Straight off the production line. Never had a prototype so it had lot of accidents and things. But of course it’s teething in the air force was number, RAF Squadron, Number 14 Squadron which operated from the Middle East. From the El Alemein area. And used to do torpedoes and bombing of transport ships. German ships coming to the North Africa. They stayed there until the Italian campaign. They were, I think based in Sicily at one time. And they came back to the UK. That’s number 14 Squadron. But the South African Air Force were equipped with lease lend aircraft. They first of all converted their Junkers 86 airliners which German aircraft were designed to convert to warplanes into bombers and they went in to East Africa and operated as [coughs] Sorry about this. They eventually were, equipped with the Martin Maryland and then they had the Martin Baltimore. And they and they took these to the Middle East from East Africa. And then they had a period, one period with Bostons. But the South African Air Force eventually had four squadrons of B26 Marauders in the Desert Air Force — 12, 21, 25 and 30 all came together as 3 Wing SAAF. But in addition to that they had another squadron, Number 25 which had been on Coastal Command around South Africa on the [pause] it’ll come back to me — the name of the, the name of the aircraft. But it was originally a Lockheed Hudson that was converted. And they, they came to the Middle East but converted then to Marauders and they went to fly with Balkan Air Force. The Balkan Air Force was set up to support Yugoslavia primarily in its attacks but it also had in its air force this squadron, this Balkan Air Force, Italians who were ex-prisoners of war and people who were in the south of Italy when we invaded and were captured but volunteered for aircrew. So, they flew in Baltimores and they had various other aircraft as well to make this air force that went into Yugoslavia and part of Greece. The idea was the Italians wouldn’t have to fly against their compatriots in the north. They were flying into Greece err into Yugoslavia. So, we were based then from various places that moved up. The squadrons only joined together when they were at Pescara. That was the first base when 3 Wing operated. And then they eventually moved up to Jesi where I joined them. And after the war they moved up to Udine which was in North Italy. After the surrender of the German forces in Italy. So this was the B26 Operations. They are all historically recorded. I have got all the books and all the history of their record both in America and in, in the British use of it which was quite a, quite an aircraft in itself. Very advanced. The details were in this Winged Chariots and all the other things I’ve done for the Imperial War Museum North to talk about its aircraft. So when I arrived in the late February my first operation I think was early March. We were flying in boxes of six or boxes of four on daylight targets. I’d never flown at night except one operation at night in that OTU where we flew out to the Mediterranean and around by Cyprus and back again because we used to do — our bombing range was the Sinai desert where Sharm El Sheikh, whatever it is called, all these resorts are. We used to do all these bombing and courses there. And we flew up to the Mediterranean at that end. So that’s where we were up to there when we did our training. And I did twenty operational flights. Some to the bomb line where we were supporting the British 8th Army as they moved forward. And we used to fly and bomb ahead of T markers on the floor with anti-personnel bombs against the major part of the, when we were there the line was pretty stable where the Po River crosses was attacking that north of Italy to get into there and drive the Germans out of Italy. And we supported one day an attack by commandos. The last commando landing in Europe at Lake Comacchio, Porto Garibaldi where they used these landing craft that went in off the sea behind the Germans. And we attacked supporting that. By coincidence I met a commando some months ago who’s recently died who took part in that. I met him on the ground at a Manchester Historical Society. They got us together to talk about our — we above it and him getting wet below. So that was quite something. This Porto Garibaldi. Porto Garibaldi is named after Garibaldi and the Risorgimento where they, they came back to Italy to capture Italy again in the 1800s where Italy became reunited. And he was part of it. The Red Shirts I think they called them but that’s, you can look them up in history anyway. But that was fascinating in itself. It’s a lake, Comacchio and the Porto Garibaldi were a lot of marshes and they were attacked by commandos. They laid low. There were two VCs there during that attack. And I, first of all got the link with it at Eastleigh. The Royal Marines Museum when I went there since the war to visit and found out that one of these landings I’d done there was a VC awarded for that attack we were on. And it’s the same thing again I found that there was a second one eventually there. It was a quite a, quite a part of the war that not many people know about. This landing there. So I felt that I was doing something worthwhile. I had done something worthwhile. The other things was marshalling yards. We attacked a couple of marshalling yards in North Austria err in South Austria because we were flying over the Alps to attack these and of course we were bombing dumb bombs and we had to find the target and drop them on the leader. The bomb aimer was the leader and he dropped and we all dropped at the same time. Mostly between twelve and thirteen thousand feet. But when we went over the Alps nobody ever told, only ever told us to use oxygen then. We never used oxygen over ten thousand feet because most of the things were at ten and eleven thousand feet when we were attacking the North of Italy because these were at choke points in roads or railways we were always attacking. But one of the problems our squadron had and it lost two lots of aircraft with it was that there was a complication with the American bombs and leaving — British bombs leaving American aircraft. And those fuses were — they clashed with each other and they exploded before they left the aircraft too far and blew up other aircraft. Something I’ve only recently found out in my history. They had this. It brought other aircraft down with it. But also they lost other aircraft over one target called Udine where we were flying over predicted flak. Exploding one aircraft and took others down with it because they were in formation close together. And of course the whole thing exploded. So that was one of the things. Of the, I think five hundred odd aircraft we had a fifty percent, fifty seven percent losses by accident in the RAF’s use of B26. These figures I’m only remembering but of course I don’t have them all at my fingertips. But there were more losses with accidents than enemy action. So if you survived a B26 alone, without operations there was a high risk situation. Btu there we are. But having done all that and coming out of the air force early because of the B, of the Class B Release to come back to the building trade. Again, coincidence. I arrived back and had to register at the Employment Exchange for work of national importance to help build, re-build the country as a painter and decorator. I suppose they still wanted things finishing. I’d already escaped. Oh I haven’t told you about when I finished flying because the people in the South African Air Force who were Royal Air Force members were no longer needed. So we got, we were interviewed and offered various jobs. RAF regiment, clerks, motor transport drivers as well. As I couldn’t drive I decided I’d be a motor transport driver. So eventually I was allocated to 9 Supply and Transport Column in Naples. Their job, because during the desert you know there are no railway lines in the desert so all the bombs and all the support had to come up by road transport. There were special units set up by the Royal Air Force to transport these backwards and forwards in the deserts as the advance and retreats came. And they were 9 Supply and Transport Column and I was one of those. So they, they taught me to drive in a fifteen hundred weight truck, a three ton Dodge and a ten tonne mac diesel. So I flew, I drove these around Naples and across to Bari and Rome and different parts. So I became a motor transport driver. Whilst I was there they were advertising. The Royal Engineers. They wanted to build some accommodation and they wanted building trade members. So I was interviewed to become one of their team. And it so happened that I was due for three weeks leave. My three weeks leave was coming and then I got a call to say I was called to this support team so I ignored it and went home on leave. And then when I got back from leave they said I was going to face the consequences. They said, ‘Don’t unpack. Your release has come through. You’re going home on Class B Release.’ So I’d been home on three weeks leave via rail right from Naples. Came back again. All the way to Naples again. And then I went all the way back again to be released at RAF Hednesford with my demob suit and everything. That was early. So that, that finished my just three years in the Royal Air Force. Of course my contemporaries stayed in eighteen months to, twelve to eighteen months longer because of that and they did all sorts of things like were in charge of movements on the docks. In charge of leave centres or transport places. They were all given administrative jobs as senior NCOs but my job as a senior NCO when I was an assistant driver was to roll my sleeves up so that they couldn’t see my stripes. And I used to go in the airmen’s mess with the driver. So that was the way. But on some units they wanted us to take our stripes off you know. They didn’t want us to be sergeants although we went in the sergeant’s mess. There was a lot of, especially the regulars took a dim view of aircrew being given rapid promotion. And also when they, they started to sort out the regulars what they were doing after they didn’t want to know us. And of course that’s a bit like Churchill didn’t want to know us and neither did the Royal Air Force. There were too many of us. A glut of aircrew. And of course there was a glut of aircrew during the war because my brother in law was given labouring jobs on these things, handling bombs and things in between whilst they were waiting to be moved. And they were given a lot of labouring jobs. In fact when I went to Air Gunnery School I’d also been ill with a boil and I’d been in hospital so I missed my draft. But they sent me off on, and this was an interesting trip because I’d got my arm in a sling, sergeant’s stripes on moving on my own from RAF [pause] where was I moving from? [pause] Put it right, in the portion where it is. With an arm in a sling going through London on the rail, went to the RTO and I’d got a berth on the train. Everybody, wherever I went, because I’d got my arm in a sling and I’d sergeant’s stripes and aircrew brevet was given VIP treatment where ever I went thinking I’d been wounded [laughs] So that was quite a travel to travel with a sleeper up to Inverness. A couple of senior NCOs helped me in to my bunk each night with it. And when I got there the course had gone ahead so I had to wait two weeks whilst then so they give me a job amending all the code books. The log books and everything. And learning how to swing an aircraft around with its compass and everything like. I was a labourer. So these were various aspect things. The Royal Air Force had a glut of aircrew and they had, we had to put up with it. We were bored stiff a lot of times but I relaxed and I could, I could enjoy my life. In fact I was very comfortable in the air force because I conformed. I was smart. I was sharp. And I could have got on well. But my father persuaded me that I ought to be a partner with him in the firm. Which I did and on balance it was alright. I did sixty years part time teaching as painting and decorating until I found that I found more time keeping these day release people in evening courses after they wanted to get home. They were not interested in some respects. So when I could earn enough to do the things I wanted I did. I gave up that income. But that was the Royal Air Force summarised from 1943 ‘til 1946.
HD: Lovely Jack. Thank you very much.
JM: Put these in there. I’ve lost the thing —
[recording paused]
HD: This is a continuation of Mr Millin.
JM: Yes. One thing. On arrival at Shandur on the Great Bitter Lake I and nine other wireless operator air gunners were taken to a hangar and told of our South African Air Force crews who needed one extra crew member. The good news was that my captain was a twenty nine year old married man with a family. He’d been an instructor in South Africa. And that the observer was an ex-infantry soldier who had survived Tobruk before volunteering for aircrew. With such maturity and experience we had great assets in the survival stakes. It appears that some crew members were a bit hair raising. I remember well whilst at OTU having to squeeze through the bomb bay between the two bomb racks when approaching the target we were training to attack. This meant carrying my chest parachute whilst manoeuvring along a nine inch wide catwalk holding on to two rope hand rails. When I was right in the middle at twelve thousand feet the bombs doors were suddenly opened. A special treat for me planned by the rest of the crew. They laughed their heads off. And I recall at 5.30 in the morning calls for 6am PT sessions arranging for the time because of the high daytime temperatures in Egypt. After a while we conspired to give it a miss. At 6.15 all of us who were still abed had our names taken. On Sunday, our day off we were lectured on keeping fit and detailed to walk the two mile runway picking up empty cartridge cases and ammunition belt links which had dropped out of landing aircraft. Eventually we thought the job was completed. The South African CO inspected the runway in his jeep and sent us back again. Not, not, nor was that all. Had to walk right across a desert airfield to lunch were presented with overalls, forty five gallon drums of paraffin and long brushes and told to wash and clean our marauders. In the heat of the blazing afternoon sun no one missed PT again. That was what I’d put in there, you see.
HD: Right.
JM: And that’s it.
HD: Ok.
JM: Yeah.
HD: Apologies. I meant to put a header on the last recording and sorry it seems to have slipped my mind. The last recording is from Mr Jack Millin who was an NCO serving as a wireless operator air gunner with 12 Squadron South African Air Force in Italy. The interview was conducted at Mr Millin’s house in Stalybridge near Manchester. Thank you.


Hugh Donnelly, “Interview with Jack Robertson Millin,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed July 12, 2020,

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