Interview with Francis Neville Selwood


Interview with Francis Neville Selwood


Francis Neville Selwood of Invercargill, New Zealand was fascinated with aeroplanes in his youth and lived near an airfield where he could go and watch the aircraft. He was keen to volunteer as a pilot but an early rugby injury made that impossible. He trained as a navigator and was posted to 75 Squadron in RAF Mepal. On one flight he and the flight engineer put out a fire on their aircraft with fire extinguishers. On their next flight the Gee broke down and he had to navigate to/from Munich by dead reckoning. On the way back they were attacked by two night fighters. Neville and his crew took part in Operation Manna. They also brought civilians home to their countries after spending the war as refugees in England and so had the experience of seeing prams and suitcases in the bomb bay. In later years Neville was inspired to write a song in memory of the crews of Bomber Command which he named, “Men of Air” and set to the tune of Melita.







01:53:56 audio recording


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GT: This is Saturday the 13th of January 2018 and I’m in the home of Mr Francis Neville Selwood, known as Neville, NZ 4215756 of Dunedin, New Zealand. Neville was born 12 June 1924 in Invercargill, New Zealand. Neville joined the RNZAF in 1942, trained as a navigator in Canada and joined 75 New Zealand Squadron at RAF Station Mepal 31st December 1944 completing twenty four war ops, two Manna drops and numerous Exodus flights in Lancaster Marks 1 and 3. Neville’s crew were stood down in late June and he arrived back in to New Zealand October 1945. Neville, thank you for allowing me to interview you. Please begin by telling us your story. Where you were born, grew up and went to school.
NT: Ok, Glen. I was born in Invercargill. I went to Middle School. When I was about five or six Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm flew over Invercargill and landed and my dad took me along to see the plane coming in and saw it on the ground. Having seen it in the air I thought my gosh I’d love to be able to do that. Well, in 1931 the Depression came along. My dad had to change what he was doing and bought a little farm out of Invercargill at Myross Bush. And we lived on the same road as the Southland Aero Club operated from three miles further along the road and I became a school mate of the boy that lived on the farm so I spent a lot of time there and watching the little planes from the Club take off and fly around. And a few others went with me but we were never offered a flight or anything. I always longed that someone would take pity on us and say, ‘Jump in.’ It never happened. There was an Air Pageant I do remember. It would be a bit after 1931 and bit before the Second World War. I’m not sure which year but planes flew in from all over New Zealand including the RNZAF planes. There was a Bristol fighter and there was a big Wildebeest, and had the roundels on them and that and these airmen there in their kit and that further reinforced my idea that this was where my future should be. Anyway, I went to Southland Boy’s High School and one day I got laid out in a rugby match and had to retire from the field and was sent home. I had to ride seven miles on a bike and I found I couldn’t manage it at all and I ended up walking bit by bit all the way home taking frequent rests on the way. My mother put me to bed for about a week and I went back to school and they decided I couldn’t play rugby any longer and told me to join the Harriers which I did. I eventually turned eighteen and as everybody had to register at the age of eighteen I registered of course and I had already spent about two year in the Air Training Corps. Number 12 Group in Invercargill. So I put down a preference for the Air Force and a few months later I joined a boy from, another boy from Invercargill. We travelled on the train, picked up another young fellow at Mosgiel and ended up in Christchurch for a medical exam which we all passed. Then we went home and waited to be called up, which happened to be December 1942. So I was really eighteen and a half when I officially joined the RNZAF as a prospective for air crew. Had a bit of difficulty getting my mother’s signature to the forms that you had to get parent’s permission to get in to aircrew. My dad wasn’t too difficult to get because he had medically been unfit for the First World War and his brothers in law had great war histories and what not, and my brother was already away in the Army. So dad signed the papers alright but mum, I just couldn’t crack her into doing it but I nagged and nagged at her and one night in a moment she decided to sign the papers. Well, that was great and we had a rural delivery box outside the house and the envelope to the right place with my enlistment papers was posted in the mailbox and we all went off to bed. I didn’t go to sleep. I had a sneaking suspicion mum would change her mind overnight. So I got up and in my pyjamas, rode my bike about a mile up the road and put the envelope in another farmer’s letterbox. And sure I enough I had to face up to a very angry mother in the morning. She had done exactly what I had thought she would do. She’d changed her mind and decided she wasn’t going to send those papers forth. But they were on their way and I duly got called up and was up in Levin in December before Christmas and got my first leave home at Christmas after just getting all the inoculations and injections. And I was at Levin in the Aerodrome Defence Unit, the ADU. Went back there for a while and ended up at Taieri near Dunedin in the Aerodrome Defence Unit again. A lot of military drill and so on. The first station I went to of course was Levin, near Wellington and we did the bayonet course and yelled out all sorts of profanities at the hay-made bodies that were supposed to be Japanese that we were bayoneting and climbing over these things. So that’s how that all began. And when we got to Taieri it was more route marching and drill with the rifle and so on and keeping our huts clean and tidy. And eventually, early in the 1943 was off to Rotorua for Initial Training School there and I already knew a bit about aircraft recognition and oh quite a few little things about navigating and airmanship and so forth, and eventually went before a selection board and was apparently found to have the right aptitude to be a pilot. And to my great relief and surprise I ended up down at down at Taieri training on Tiger Moths. Well, that soon turned out to be a disaster. I was quite hopeless in the air. Disorientated, giddy, got a supreme headache and when I’d get out of the Tiger Moth I couldn’t sort of balance right. Staggered around. After about three sessions they had very little time at all. Possibly up one and a half to two hours. The instructor said, ‘There’s something not quite right about your health situation,’ and he said, ‘I’m going to recommend that you go and see the medical officer.’ Which I did and he duly put me in the base hospital. I was there for two or three nights and he managed to wheedle out of me that I had had rather bad knock at rugby and he said I was suffering still from concussion and that Tiger Moths weren’t doing me much good with their propellers whizzing around and the noise and what not. So he, he grounded me and put a medical certificate on the top of my file so I had to remuster to ground crew. So very shortly after that I found myself being taken into Dunedin to catch a train to Lyttelton and I met a fella who was also a grounded trainee pilot by the name of Jim Freestone who hadn’t managed to go solo in the allotted time and we ended up at Rongotai. And there were quite a lot of fellas there called Grey Wolves who had failed in their initial pilot training and were being held until some other aircrew occupation came up for them. It was mainly dependant on what shipping there was to Canada. But anyway I had to go before a selection board to decide what ground crew trade I had taken on. Fortunately, I ended up with a one man selection board and he was a flight lieutenant who had done either one or two tours of duty in England in Bomber Command early on and was back working in Air Ministry in Wellington. He had a look at my file and said, ‘Now, what are you going to do in ground crew?’ I said, ‘Well, I’m not interested in ground crew.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘You’re in the Air Force now and you can’t get out of it so I’m afraid you’ve got to choose something. So tell me what you’d prefer to do.’ He said, ‘I see you’ve had a bit of office background here.’ So he said, ‘You could probably get into the accounting section.’ And I said I wasn’t interested in that. So he said, ‘What would you be interested in?’ I said the only thing that would interest me would be crewing on an air sea rescue craft up in the Pacific. I’d read about them in the Air Training Corps Magazine, “Contact.” And he said, ‘Oh, you like a bit of speed and whatnot. Why did you actually join the Air Force anyway?’ I said, ‘Well, it was to fly a Spitfire.’ Which he laughed and said, ‘And so did I,’ and he said, ‘And I ended up in a slow old — ’ I’m not sure if it was a Whitley or Hampden to start off. So he said, ‘You don’t always get what you want.’ So he said, ‘But you sound a keen type.’ And he had a look at my file and said, ‘Amazing how many papers mount up on your file once you join the services. One here for this and that. Every inoculation you get and everything that shifts around,’ he said, ‘Here it is on your file.’ He said, ‘On the top of it is this medical report saying that you’re not fit for aircrew.’ He said, ‘I think maybe there’s still a place for you on aircrew. I’ll just take this medical report off the top of your file. I’ll put it about third from the bottom and,’ he said, ‘I guess it’ll never be noticed again. Stay with the aircrew boys and we’ll see what happens.’ Well, we all got sent off to Rukuhia near Hamilton on the North Island by the river there in the winter. And we weren’t there very long before quite an influx of fellas came down from Roturua that had been selected to go to Canada for training other than as pilots. They lorded it over us because they regarded us as utter failures and we should be sweeping hangars and so on. That made us pretty keen I think to show that we still had some use and the commanding officer there anyway there sort of knew there was disruption. We were all waiting for shipping and word came through that an American ship was coming in to Auckland and could take I think it was a hundred and twenty of us and he decided to hold an examination and I did pretty well in it. And because I did pretty well in it they decided I should be a navigator. My friend Jim Freestone didn’t do quite so well. They decided he should be a bomb aimer and so on. The next group of marks went to wireless operator/air gunners. And that’s how it came about that I was selected to be a navigator. And in August ’43 we joined this little freighter from the President Line having been told we’d have a very comfortable journey on a ship of the President Line. And my mate Jim Freestone said, ‘That’s wonderful. The President Coolidge is a great ship.’ And we eventually got a great meal in a restaurant and taken down to the docks on a Saturday night and duly formed up and of course I was in the S to Z flight and he was in the first flight being a Freestone. And we had a bit of free time in between and he came along and said to me, ‘It might take a while to find each other on the, on this big President ship,’ he said, ‘The first time we get any free time,’ he said, ‘Make, make your way to the Purser’s Office and I’ll do the same and we’ll meet there.’ They got marched off into the gloomy night. There were just little lights here, there and everywhere illuminating things. And eventually the S to Zs were called to attention and we marched by several outlines of big ships and then we were halted outside a thing that looked about a quarter of the size of the ones we’d walked by. There was a little gangway and there was a Yank with this little doughboy cap on, as grubby as anything with a fag hanging out of his mouth alight and he just sort of grunted and moved his arm to climb up the stairway. And I had these two kitbags. I understood one was to go in the hold and the other one went with you in the cabin because a couple of years earlier my school mate from the one teacher school had gone away and in his letter home to his mother he’d told her about the wonderful journey he’d had to Canada and how a steward took one kit bag from him when he boarded and another one took him to a cabin and another one told him when his bath was drawn and they had a menu to eat from. It was on a ship that was on its last trip before it was converted to a full trooper. So I very naively expected someone was going to take one of my kit bags. One had a blue band around it and one had two. But nobody did. And I could hardly see the fellow in front of me but we went down another gangway. Another fella sort of beckoned us on and I went down another one. And I thought ah well the war has gone on a bit obviously you take your kit bag down to the hold yourself. Then we wandered through. We went through a smelly big room with a lot of fellas moaning and groaning and they were being attended to by orderlies and they were marines being invalided home from the Islands. And we went through them in to the very bow of the ship. The fo’c’sle. And there’s my mate Jim Freestone standing there looking aghast and said, ‘It didn’t take long to find each other did it?’ There were six bunks. I think there was six along the side of these steel plates straight up in the bow of the ship down the bottom of it and that’s where we were. And every time we came out we had to go through this sick room. Some fellas were more or less in cages. Others were dying, and as they died their bodies were put in a cover and put in the freezer room. Well, we stayed tied up in Auckland all Sunday morning. We went for our first meal. Queued up and we had the steel plate given to us with the divisions in it and then some pretty scruffy fellas. One ladled come cold beans in one part and someone ladled a bit of bread in another part and another friend of mine three in front of us suddenly put his hand over his mouth and disappeared. Later on we found him standing and leaning over the railing vomiting into Auckland harbour. The smell and the sight of what we were going to eat had been so dreadful I think. So we took our plate in the afternoon about 3.30 and I never thought I’d made such a bigger mistake in my life. I thought my gosh I wish I was home with you. I just saw the coast line of New Zealand gradually getting harder and harder to see and eventually it disappeared and we were on this boat. Had two so called meals a day which most of us just couldn’t stomach. And it was a ship of the President Line but it was built to carry coal down to South America. We didn’t find out for many, many months that the President Coolidge had been torpedoed or something and run aground on the islands out in the Pacific. So, we were on our way to San Francisco. It had a canteen on board. It had taken no fresh milk or vegetables or anything like that on in Auckland. It was under charter. And the canteen had liver salts and cool cigarettes, mentholated ones. And the only other thing it had was salt water soap. They had showers up on a sort of temporary arrangement up on deck and the salt water soap was supposed to lather but it didn’t. And so we set off. Took us about fourteen days to get to San Francisco. We encountered intense fog as we went into the harbour and all we could hear was the sort of fog horns tooting off, coming from all directions. Eventually saw about three foot of the Golden Gate Bridge and we eventually docked. Got loaded on to tracks and went over the bridge. And we got some wonderful food from the Red Cross, American Red Cross ladies there. And these older ladies looked like really princesses when we saw them [laughs] I think we’d all fallen in love with them on sight but they came out with what they called cookies and whatnot and fresh milk and we, we got a lovely feed and we were soon on our way up to the coast through Oregon. A beautiful train trip with, supremely comfortable. Went up through, eventually got to Vancouver. And then we went across Canada and we had a, a sleeper type accommodation on that with dark stewards that turned your seats into bunks and that. Were extremely good and wonderful food. And eventually got as far as Edmonton where we got off the train and we stayed in what had been sort of a race course place and the grandstand as far as I can remember had been converted into accommodation. There were quite a lot of Australians there who were real hard cases and we were there about a month and then we were moved on to a place out of Winnipeg. What’s the name of it? It’s there in my logbook. In Canada. Number 7 AOS. Just shows you your memory lets you down. 7 AOS. Air Observer School. Portage la Prairie and, that’s right it was right in the middle of the Prairies but it was wonderful train trip over there. We were just late Autumn when we got there and the winter soon came and we began training in the SDRs, the little things that they set up. And they set up the whole trip and they had a clock that ran fast and you had to try and keep up with it and sort out wind changes and things that they put up in front of you. Eventually they let us into Anson aircraft. They were run by civilian pilots who flew from one town to the other. There was no black out and we usually seemed to fly along the border with the USA from one town to the other. Eventually we did a lot of star shots from the ground. Got to use sextants, and we went out on our first training on the navigating by the stars which we could identify. They were all these northern hemisphere stars. We came back over triangles. They called them cocked hats. They were huge. Just about put about half of Canada in most of them and your plane was supposed to be in the middle of that triangle. Well, the instructor, an Australian by the name of Flying Officer Sheridan, he was a very good fella. He said, ‘Well, that’s not too bad for your first effort but,’ he said, ‘I think I’ll have to try and do a bit better than that.’ And then there was a chap by the name of Glen Garry who’d been held back from an earlier course because of illness and he’d joined our course. And he said, ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘You idiots. You don’t need to stand out there with your shoulders and neck and head out of there in icy weather and these big gloves on trying to handle a sextant.’ He said, ‘You know exactly where you are. The pilots just fly from one border town to another,’ he said, ‘You can soon identify where you are. So,’ he said, ‘You just work backwards through your star tables. You know where you are on the ground. Now, you just find the right stars to get star tables and you’ll end up with a much smaller triangle.’ But he didn’t tell us to make them as small as, you know your thumbnail or anything like that but that’s about what we did. And Sheridan came around after a first effort at this. He gave a little grunt at each little disc he went by. Then he went up front and said, ‘I want to congratulate you fellas,’ he said. ‘I think this must be the best navigation course I’ve lectured to,’ he said. ‘When I went out,’ he said, ‘You could put the whole of Manitoba in the best cocked hat I ever got my sextant shots.’ And he said, ‘You’ve remarkably got very small cocked hats here and,’ he said, ‘The other interesting thing is they always seem to be over a little town.’ So we sort of all got our heads together and the next night we went out we decided well we’ll take them somewhere between towns. Some will do them about a quarter of a way around, some of them half way and some three quarters and we’ll make the cocked hats much bigger. I’m sure he knew what we were doing. I suspect he’d done the same thing himself because he did say when we finished, ‘You certainly know how to use your star table book.’ I eventually graduated as a navigator. We had one interesting trip one day. We were sent out to do a square search and we were quite a long way from Portage la Prairie and we lost an engine on the old Anson and the instructor decided that we would make for the nearest field he could find. I think it was Brandon. And you had to wind the undercart down on it and if you put the undercart down on an Anson with only one engine she didn’t seem to behave very well. So as my part of the journey was the homeward journey it was my turn to wind the undercart down. So he said, ‘I’ll tell you when to start underwinding. Winding it as we are approaching our landing place.’ He said, ‘Don’t start any sooner ‘til I give you the signal,’ and he said, ‘Wind like hell and get it down in time for me to touch down.’ And we did. And there we were, it was about tea time and the fella who was flying, I think it was Derek de [Journay] he had had infantile paralysis and he dragged both legs along behind him. And neither of us had caps on or anything and a smartly dressed Canadian officer came out and remanded us and he said to this fella, ‘Who do you think you are? Do you think you’re Billy Bishop? Scruffing along our base like you are,’ he said, ‘You’re a disgrace.’ And I said, ‘Wait on a minute,’ I said, ‘This young man’s suffered from poliomyelitis but,’ I said, ‘He’s been passed medically fit to, for aircrew.’ But anyway we were told that they would quickly fly us back to our own station. Leave our Anson where it was. And they wanted rid of two unruly rough looking fellas as quick as they could and we flew back to Portage la Prairie and left our old Anson behind us. That was just one of the little incidents at Portage la Prairie. Eventually we got some leave over Christmas, New Year and I had relatives in Toronto and Ottawa. And we arrived there, four of us on leave, and on New Year’s Eve and we weren’t allowed in until they answered the door and saw what colour our hair was. There was some tradition about the first footer into the house on New Year’s Day had to have dark hair I think it was. And anyway one of us passed the test and we were all allowed in and we were made very welcome. We actually, two of us, Claude Greenhowe and I, we crossed over into the United States to, we wanted to have a look at the waterfall, Niagara. And we found ourselves just out of Buffalo. We tried to cross over and we needed a permit. They gave us, I think told us to get it signed by some superior officer. So we took the permit back and one of us signed the two forms and put a rank beside it and took it back and that was ok. We were allowed over in to Buffalo and so we could get into the United States. I also had a pen pal who lived in Lancaster County, not all that far from New York and we got, eventually our final leave in Canada we all ended up in New York and we went to the Stage Door Canteen. Went to see Sonja Henie in an ice skating review at a wonderful stadium there and I thought I’d better go and, I’d been in touched by letter with this girl and she said, “You’re getting closer and closer as you move across Canada.” And I thought well I’d better go down so I said to my mates, ‘I’d better go down and say hello and I’ll be right back,’ because New York was so attractive. But anyway when I got down there and was met they’d never seen a bloke with a, “New Zealand,” on his arm before and I was absolutely overwhelmed by hospitality and she was a beautiful young girl too, and so I spent the rest of my leave down there. She lived at home with her, with her widowed mother and auntie and there was snow. Snow time. Snow falls predicted. And her mother said, ‘Maybe Nev would like to go to an ice hockey match. There’s one on at Hershey Park tomorrow night.’ So they asked me had I been to ice hockey. I said, ‘Yes.’ I’d been to one in Toronto and I had enjoyed it very much. So her mother said, ‘Well, take Neville over to Hershey tomorrow night Evelyn,’ which was her name and she had her own Plymouth car. Her father had died some years before when she was twelve years old. I’d been writing to her since she’d been eleven. That was the thing that schools did. Mainly for stamps and whatnot. And anyway her mother said, ‘You might get held up in the snow. You mightn’t get back tonight so put some blankets in the car. You can always sleep in the car.’ Well, they didn’t even know me. Only through the letters that I’d written. And I was a naïve, innocent young man anyway, brought up in a strict Presbyterian way. And we went off and had, saw a great match of ice hockey at Hershey. The snow wasn’t too bad and we drove straight home. So I’ve often thought we were, really we were innocent young people. And this young American girl was just as innocent as I was. And I remember I didn’t even give her a hug or a kiss when we finally said goodbye. But we kept writing to each other for quite some time after that. Eventually we left from Halifax on the Nieuw Amsterdam, a big Dutch ship and I’d got commissioned of course in Canada with a few others and had a cabin which was meant for two but had six in it so there was very little room in it. And it was very, very crowded with loads of people going back to the UK plus a lot of airmen. And, but we commissioned fellas did eat in the main dining room and we met an interesting fella there who was a passenger. An Englishman going back and this Nieuw Amsterdam changed course every four minutes. It did a zigzag course. It had no escort because it was quite a fast ship. And he’d suddenly pause with his fork and said, ‘It’s about to turn to starboard,’ and then four minutes later he’d say, ‘It’s about to turn to port.’ And this was the conversation right through the meal really. It sort of happened in four minute sections when the Nieuw Amsterdam changed course. We eventually docked at Gourock up in Scotland and went straight on a train down in Brighton where we, I was billeted in a small hotel with another small hotel nearby. One was the Albion. I can’t remember the name of the other. And we were there about a month. Given one or two duties to man a machine gun, sandbag things on the foreshore because there were a few sneak raids by German planes just coming in and shooting the place up now and then. And little by little one or two would be called away to go away to some training camp. And eventually it came my turn and Randall Hewitt, Derek de [Journay], the fella who had the polio and the chap, Hills from Marlborough, the four of us were posted over to Anglesey. To Mona. M O N A. And we did a flying course there on the sturdy old Ansons without the astrodome on them. We were flying across well away from the operational side of things. Our main flights were around the Irish Sea. We’d fly over to Ireland and then up to a point in Scotland and back again. We learned how to use the astrocompass mainly and we eventually were passed on from there to go and learn on how to work on a Wellington.
GT: Now, from there Neville then if I can, I’m just looking at your logbook. So just to, just to put the perspective of your, the time that you spent training and the first entry in your logbook is the 12th of October 1943 in an Anson in Canada.
NT: Yeah.
GT: So October ’43.
NT: It was Autumn. Yeah.
GT: And you flew and trained right through until February 1944. February 25th navigation course for air navigators and air bomb aimers. Number 7 AOS, Royal Canadian Air Force, Portage la Prairie. So you finished your training there February ’44. And your next entry goes through to Anglesey Number 80 AFU and that was during the month of May 1944. And then your next entries list you at RAF Westcott in July ’44. So please tell us about your time with RAF Westcott onwards.
NT: Well, we arrived at Westcott and we had to crew up as, with a crew of six. We were put in a huge hangar and they were a certain number of probably about a hundred or so navigators, pilots, wireless operators, bomb aimers and gunners and we were told to find ourselves a crew. Victor Hendry from Wellington, and I found each other. He was a bomb aimer. He was commissioned as I was. We looked around for a New Zealand pilot. There seemed to be only two there and the first one, a commissioned officer with the name of Hanna, he already had a navigator and the only other pilot we found a New Zealand flash on was Wyn Russell from Wellington and he was a flight sergeant. He said, ‘Would you fellas fly with me?’ And we rather liked the look of him. He was a bit older than us. We thought he’d probably be a sensible sort of pilot so we said we would. And then an Englishman from the north of England came up and said he was rear gunner. Did we have one? We said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Well, I’ve got a mate who’s a mid-upper gunner. I’ll go and find him.’ And so we had two gunners. And then a smallish fella turned up from Kent and said he was a wireless operator could he join us? And that’s how we became a crew of six.
GT: So, so that was why did you specifically ask for a New Zealand pilot? Or look for them.
NT: Well, I think we just felt we would be more at home with another Kiwi. And I think in the back of our minds was we hoped we would eventually end up with a New Zealand squadron. So —
GT: And which New Zealand squadrons were an option?
NT: Well, the only one was 75.
GT: My leading question. Ok. So, so our discussion today has been that 75 New Zealand squadron was known as the chop squadron by many because of the mass of losses. So you’d heard that there were several people that had deliberately tried not to have a Kiwi pilot because they hadn’t wanted to go to 75. Can you remember anything of that?
NT: I I heard, heard a bit about it but we didn’t sort of take much heed of it and thought that was probably a sort of a fairy tale. It didn’t put us off anyway. But the commanding officer at Westcott wasn’t very happy about us having a sergeant, a flight sergeant as our pilot. He was an Englishman and he wasn’t used to that sort of thing and he said, ‘I think you’d better find someone of the same rank or higher rank.’ But we said, ‘No. No. We want to stick together.’ And I seem to remember him muttering something like, ‘You’re a stubborn lot you colonials. Oh well. I suppose it will work out. But you remember the pilot’s always going to be the boss of the outfit.’
GT: So you were a pilot officer at the time.
NT: Yes. I was a pilot officer then.
GT: And the rest of your crew? What ranks were they?
NT: Sergeants. Apart the pilot who was a flight sergeant. And of course the bomb aimer was a pilot officer. Shortly to become a flying officer.
GT: So they would prefer to have all the pilots to have been officers even at that time.
NT: No. They were quite happy with sergeant pilots, and flight sergeant pilots. But they weren’t happy with two commissioned fellas having to submit to someone of lower rank.
GT: But the ultimate was skippers were always the man in charge. No matter what rank on the aircraft.
NT: Yeah.
GT: It didn’t matter. Right.
NT: Yeah. Absolutely. We were prepared to accept that but the English didn’t think that was the proper way for things to be. But that’s how we went anyway.
GT: So, you had your crew of six.
NT: Yeah.
GT: You still had to find a flight engineer. Was that right?
NT: That didn’t happen until we got posted on from Westcott. Oakley to Wratting Common and went on to Stirlings and had to have a seventh man. A flight engineer.
GT: So, so we’ll just go back to finish Westcott please Neville. What did you fly at Westcott and how long did you spend there?
NT: We weren’t there very long. I’d have to get you to look at my logbook there. We flew mainly from Oakley. The satellite station from Westcott.
GT: All Wellingtons.
NT: We did one.
GT: Twelve hours. Eighteen hours.
NT: One trip Windowing in August. We flew over to Caen and Bayeaux and when the German night fighters came up we high tailed it back to, to England. They were sort of little feint attacks while the main Bomber Command crossed the coast at some further point. The effort was partly to block out the radar and partly to try to draw up the German night fighters.
GT: You have one entry here on the 18th of August. Diversion crew Bayeaux. Night bombing. Three hours forty. So —
NT: Oh yeah.
GT: So effectively you went on an op that wasn’t an op.
NT: That’s right.
GT: [unclear] those on ops.
NT: Yeah. Well, a lot of OTU people went on the thousand bomber raid actually. Bomber Harris was determined to try and get a thousand bombers so he had to resort to taking a lot of crews from OTUs. So you actually did some early flights from an OTU.
GT: But they never credited you even with a third.
NT: No.
GT: For that particular trip.
NT: No. No.
GT: All right. So your logbook says 11 OTU Westcott July 27th to August 21st. And then you moved to 1651 Conversion Unit at Wratting Common. And what did you work on there?
NT: Stirlings. Mainly the pilot getting used to four engines and us getting used to having a flight engineer. From memory he was just allotted to us. We didn’t choose him. Turned out to be a good fella and a good flight engineer and fitted in well. And we did a lot of circuits and bumps there. And one the thing about landing in a Stirling was the, you had to, every time you landed someone had to go out and chalk the wheel to show the creep from the valve. And if it got to a certain stage too far you had to stop flying circuits and bumps for that period ‘til they corrected things again. We managed to ground loop a Stirling early on and it was rather scary. Turning around a great big circle and managing to avoid hitting anything. But —
GT: Wow. Well, you, you 1651 arrived October 30 and finished 29 December 1944.
NT: Yes. And then we —
GT: And that was a bunch of hours. Daylight hours are twenty three forty and night time hours seventeen and ten. And then you moved to?
NT: Woolfox Lodge in the tiny county of Rutland as it was. A few miles from Stamford. And Vic and I and the pilot had each in the meantime bought a little car each. He had a little baby Austin. We had a little Austin too. A little two seater. It turned out to be a disaster. It kept running down the batteries and needed rewiring. But eventually [unclear] bought it off us and he got it fixed up and he drove it around Mepal eventually in it quite a bit. I can’t remember what happened with Russell’s little Austin but by the time we got to the squadron we didn’t have a car anyway. It was a job getting petrol anyway. So —
GT: Best to have a bicycle right.
NT: Yeah. Went back to bicycles [laughs]
GT: So did you take your bicycle when you moved next to 75 squadron?
NT: No. No. You just picked up another bicycle. There just seemed to be an abundance.
GT: Did you have to sign a chit for one?
NT: I don’t remember ever signing for one.
GT: Fabulous. Ok. Well, your logbook says that you arrived on the 31st of December.
NT: Late on the 31st.
GT: 1944.
NT: And I had been invited to the Duke of Rutland’s New Year’s Eve Ball by a little girl I’d met in Stamford. Her father was a doctor and he was the lieutenant to the Duke of Rutland. His wife was, according to one of the English magazines considered the most beautiful woman in Britain and the [unclear] were sort of a posh family and I didn’t quite fit in but they seemed to want me to take their daughter out and about. And I remember going to, with her mother and herself to watch her young brother playing rugby one day I had some leave. A Saturday. And I’d had four lovely Nestles chocolate bars sent from home by my mum and I remember taking a couple of them to the rugby match intending them to be eaten at the rugby match and intending to eat a fair bit of it myself. So I duly handed them over and her mother thanked me gratefully for these chocolates and put them in her handbag and they went home. So I didn’t get my chocolate that day. But she was a lovely girl. She had an Australian boyfriend too and just another girl like the American. She was nothing forward about her at that but a very lovely girl and I was rather sad. I was on a train going down to 75 Squadron when I could have been at the Duke of Rutland’s Ball. Although I wasn’t much of a dancer so it was probably just as well I wasn’t at it.
GT: She liked the ANZACs [laughs] Very good. So your logbook then shows your first operation on 75 was January the 5th but you you had a bit of an introduction to 75 which, which was rather sad.
NT: That was our second trip but our first night trip. Yes.
GT: But when you arrived though.
NT: Oh yes.
GT: Yes.
NT: Yes. Wing Commander Newton who had done a tour much earlier on 75 had just replaced Wing Commander Leslie about a week before we arrived. And they were having a big party on the night of our arrival, a New Year’s Eve party and apparently he was accused of shooting a line from his earlier days at Mepal and all we were told by the orderly officer was that we would meet up Wing Commander Newton in a couple of days time. Unfortunately, he flew off with a new crew, I think it was on the 1st of January and they just didn’t return. We later learned they’d been shot down and they were [pause] the navigator was said to have been a long way off track and they were all killed. So we lost our wing commander, yes. Before we’d met him and before we’d flown at 75.
GT: His replacement was?
NT: Well, took a wee while to get a replacement. The officer in charge of B Flight, I think his name was Rogers, he was acting wing commander. We did a day and our pilot of course did a second pilot, a second dickie course. A night trip with another crew so he’d been on an op before any of the rest of us. Our first op was a daylight. I think it was probably Saarbücken was it? I remember the flak was rather heavy.
GT: January the 5th Flight Sergeant Russell at that time. War ops — Ludwigshaven.
NT: Ludwigshaven. Yeah. It was said to be very heavy flak. We thought it was anyway. I do remember when we came back Jim Freestone caught up with me when we were, you know getting out of all our gear and whatnot and he said, ‘What did you think of that?’ I said, ‘I think we’re in a job with no future, Jim.’ And he said, ‘I think you’re right.’
GT: That’s a very good impression after your first flight wasn’t it? Wow. So now you were mentioning as to one of your earlier flights that you had problems and you had to jettison. Can you explain about that flight?
NT: Yes. Well, our next flight was, what date was it? It was. The target was Neuss, which was an inlet port on the Rhine.
GT: January the 6th.
NT: That was said to be probably an easy, easy trip but there was icing about and we, all the squadrons were having to climb to height, mainly over Reading. And we were orbiting around there getting up to twelve thousand or fourteen thousand feet and a pretty thick concentration, just a few squadrons there and I just said to the pilot, getting ready to set course and suddenly the plane lurched away to port and all my navigation stuff shot to the floor. And when I bent down to pick it up I found flames leaping up from the bottom of the [unclear] wall of communication gear between me and the wireless operator, and I shouted out, ‘We’re on fire.’ And immediately of course went to get an extinguisher from the wall behind me. That took me off intercom. As far as I remember the pilot switched off the oxygen and took the plane down a bit and the flight engineer joined me. He got another extinguisher. He was off intercom too and there was smoke everywhere. All I remember is that we were spraying all around the wireless operator who was sitting there frozen white, unable to move, just as though he was a dead man. And we eventually got the fire out and got back on the intercom and just in time because the pilot had just told them to get ready to bale out and the bomb aimer had already lifted the front hatch out. Another moment they would have been gone. The outfit was full of smoke and with no connection with the engineer and myself and the radio operator not responding he thought the three of us must have succumbed. By the time I got this sorted out all the flames had disappeared and we’d not long come down from Lancaster Finishing School up there at Woolfox Lodge and we were filled up with information from there. What you did and what you didn’t do on the squadron. And one of the things was if you lost all your communication gear you shouldn’t proceed with your operation because you might muck it up because of some directions being sent out and you didn’t pick them up, and I’d lost my Gee connection as well. And so the pilot said, ‘Well, we’re not allowed, as a new crew we’re not allowed to land back at base with the bombs on board. So find me the jettison area, Nev.’ And I did that by DR, direct, [pause] DR. Using winds anyway. It took quite a wee while to get to the area in the North Sea where we jettisoned these bombs which were an the area free from shipping. And we eventually found our way back to base by dead reckoning which was what DR was. Using Met information that we’d been given we found our base and got permission to join the circuit and land and the undercarriage wouldn’t come down. So they told us to orbit around for a while they saw if they could direct us how. There was some way, some manual operation from memory that you could use and they ended up having to get the engineer officer out and he was in bed and he wasn’t very happy. And eventually he gave our flight engineer some instructions and the undercart did come down. We came in and landed to find that we were being followed by a fire engine and an ambulance and a little Humber car. And as we eventually got out of the Lancaster all these various ones turned out and of course our Acting Wing Commander Rogers was there in the little Humber car and our rear gunner, a bit of a wag from the north of England got out and said, ‘Well, that’s a jolly good way to do ops. Just fly out over the sea and jettison your bombs and come back again.’ It wasn’t very well received and we were told, ‘You be in my office at eight in the morning and I’ll deal with you then.’ So we turned up at eight in the morning and found two other crews had turned up as well. The whole three crews were in trouble. One had come back because the hydraulics had failed and they couldn’t operate their turrets. I forget what the trouble was with the third one. Something to do with the engines. So they had two early returns on his first night as acting wing commander and they hadn’t had any early returns for a wee while and he wasn’t very happy. So he said, ‘The first city trip that comes up you three crews will be top of the Battle Order.’ That very night we went in and saw a Battle Order up with just eight crews on it. We were just making up the numbers for other squadrons and sure enough ours was the first one on the list and the other two were there and the other five crews were sort of miscreants in lesser ways too. So we set off for Munich. The Met officer said, ‘I don’t think you can rely on anything I give you tonight. All we know is that there are three fronts coming in at varying time. You’ll meet them going and coming back and I don’t think you’ll find my predictions would be much use to you. I can’t tell you just where you’ll meet them.’ So anyway we set off and by the time we reached the French coast the Gee had packed up and we didn’t have a clue how to get it going again. And I reported to the pilot that I’d lost my Gee and he said, ‘Well, we’ll just have to press on with DR,’ he said, ‘We certainly can’t go back to base.’ [laughs] So we pressed on and I flew all the way there by dead reckoning and there was cloud everywhere up quite high. Eighteen thousand feet and still in cloud and eventually I said to the pilot, ‘Target coming up in a few minutes,’ and a while later he said, ‘You’d better come and have a look around Nev.’ He said, ‘I don’t think we’re anywhere near a target.’ There was supposed to be some marking done by Pathfinders and we couldn’t see a thing. The rear gunner said, ‘I think I see a glow away over to starboard there.’ So I said, ‘Well, we may as well go over there.’ So we flew in that direction but it had disappeared so we decided to let our bombs go anyway and of course they automatically take a photo and the blooming thing was developed the next day and it showed that we’d bombed an area which had bush around a bit of water and no one could work out quite what it was except that it looked like the edge of a lake. But they were trying to work out just exactly where it was. Took some days on it. I think it was Air Ministry that finally plotted out what it was. We’d apparently flown about forty miles past Munich and if we’d just gone a little further we’d have taken out a lakeside retreat for the SS. People used to go for rest periods. But we flew all the way back still on dead reckoning. I hadn’t long set course for home and we got the call to, ‘Starboard go, skip.’ And we were attacked by two night fighters. The rear gunner had reported seeing a light and the skipper said, ‘Keep an eye on it,’ and this one was following us but then the mid-upper gunner saw this other plane coming in firing at us from our starboard side. So, anyway we flung ourselves on this corkscrew. The gunners reckoned the one attacking from the starboard side and he withdrew but the other one tried to follow us but we, he must have given it up because we didn’t hear any more fire from him. And we stayed in that cloud for quite some time before we dared come out of it. I was getting a bit jittery because I wasn’t, didn’t really have any idea just where we were. So I gave the pilot a course for 275 to fly to and we shared the coffee flasks around, relaxed a bit and then I had a look at my repeater for the compass course and find it’s showing 075 instead of 275. So I quickly got the skipper to correct things. I said, ‘We’re going to take us back to the Ruhr or somewhere like that,’ so I said, ‘Get back to 275. We’ll head in the general direction of the UK.’ And eventually as night began to give way to an early dawn I said to the bomber, ‘Now, I’m going to rely on you to tell me what’s coming up.’ And he eventually said, ‘There’s a river coming up,’ and I said, ‘Well, we should find another river. I think that’s where we are within so many minutes.’ And sure enough another river came up and we found we were way down the south of France. And so we kept on this heading of 275 and eventually found the English coast, fired off the colours of the day. Found the Wash and then there was a bit of a canal that down towards Mepal and we found my way home there. And of course the Cathedral was a great sighting point too and landed and, but they were but we didn’t actually land at Mepal. We were told to divert to Waterbeach because one of the eight planes had run off the runway with its bomb load on and had blocked the runway and they weren’t able to shift it before we’d got back. So we, the seven crews that had taken off for Munich all went to Waterbeach and we ended up in a couple of trucks and were taken back to Mepal, and we realised that the attack had been pretty hopeless. Nobody was enthusiastic about what had happened at all and we didn’t feel too bad. Nobody seemed to have found Munich that night and we were just unlucky enough to find a wee hole through the cloud that showed this bit of lake and bush. But in a way it served us well because we felt that we were not very highly thought of for that early return. Anyway, the nav officer congratulated us on a pretty good effort on DR navigation and doing what we had done and from then on we were, we thought we were ok as a crew.
GT: Was that the only time you were attacked by aircraft?
NT: Yes. It was actually. Mainly flak was our biggest problem.
GT: And for any of the two gunners and then, did you ever have the aircraft fire the front guns?
NT: No. Never.
GT: No. Ok. Did you have any German aircraft come up underneath you to try and fire?
NT: No. We managed to miss out on that fortunately. We were briefed about these Scarecrows that the Germans were sending up. Great pyrotechnic displays and they were to knock our morale and make us think they were part of the aircraft exploding. As it turned out they were Lancasters just blowing up in flames. Shot down by these schrage musik upper firing guns. They used to come in underneath you where we had no vision and fire into the petrol tanks in the wing and dive away to get out of the way of the resulting explosion. But we were told they were simply German fireworks made to appear like aircraft exploding. It wasn’t until very close to the end of the war that we actually found out what they really were but we managed to escape those.
GT: Did you know of any aircraft that had any eventual belly guns on 75 squadron?
NT: Yeah. Well, we were given an old aircraft one time when ours was in for some maintenance and we had an extra man on board. And this aircraft was equipped with as far as I can remember a .5 gun that fired underneath. And as far as I can remember his name was Yates. Must look through those Battle Orders and see if you can find the name of Yates there. And we only flew the once. I think it was on a daylight actually and that’s all I can tell you. There was one Lanc that we knew.
GT: So you were never briefed. You were never briefed to say you were going to have an eighth man on board.
NT: No. No.
GT: Yeah. Well, I’ve met an under gunner and he said only three aircraft. And he was assigned. Went away, trained for a week, came back and they flew for a while towards the end of the war. So —
NT: Well, we picked one of those three obviously.
GT: Yeah. Yeah. Really awesome there. I can see from your logbook you did a mixture of days and nights.
NT: Yes.
GT: War operations. Which did you prefer?
NT: Well, I preferred the daylights actually. I think the whole crew preferred daylights.
GT: You were saying that as a navigator though your job was rather easier during the day.
NT: Well it was. In a way you wondered why you needed a navigator because you could, there were several planes you could follow. But on the other hand you could get lost or lose an engine, [unclear] it kept us up to speed anyway. We were expected to do the same sort of navigation on a daylight as you would on a night trip and take your position at the same frequencies and change courses and that lot. It seemed to work out that everything you did everybody else was doing exactly the same thing. So in a way it was just keeping on our training for night trips I guess.
GT: But, but all aircraft didn’t, were not equipped with the same equipment like Oboe and Gee.
NT: No.
GT: And H2S. So you found that a little bit of a problem?
NT: Yes. Well, quite a few aircraft when we joined 75 didn’t have H2S. Probably the majority did, but our plane didn’t get H2S until probably, probably about March or something.
GT: March 1945. And H2S, and yet every other squadron pretty much had an aircraft with H2S.
NT: Yeah. Yeah.
GT: Boy, boy. Ok. And what other equipment were you lacking on our Lancasters?
NT: Well, I took a funeral for a friend a while back and he flew with an English squadron. They had .5 guns and a new turret back in 1944 and he found it hard to believe we were still firing 303s with these old turrets.
GT: 75 Squadron didn’t change from Stirlings in to Lancasters until mid-‘44 so —
NT: Yeah. That was awfully late, wasn’t it?
GT: Very late compared to other operational squadrons. Yeah. Yeah. I understand the New Zealand person from London intervened.
NT: The High Commissioner.
GT: High Commissioner.
NT: Jordon.
GT: Jordon. Yeah. So from that equipment then and of course entering into doing Operation Manna food drops. So, so please tell us about your experience with those.
NT: I probably should mention that I was one of those fellas accused of being a terrorist for navigating a Lancaster to Dresden on the 2nd raid of the night.
GT: Now, that particular, if we can just avoid the Operation Manna for a moment but your raid on, what particular night was that?
NT: That’s February. About the 13th of February I think.
GT: Dresden definitely is the 13th of February 1945, and you did nine hours ten as a night operation for that. Four thousand pound Cookie and incendiaries. And the target was Dresden.
NT: Yes.
GT: And, and its well documented that Dresden was a huge question mark as to ethics and to why and how. So could you talk about what your feelings were for that raid? Personally being on it and then all the controversy afterwards perhaps.
NT: Well, at briefing we were told we were assisting the Russians who had requested the bombing of Dresden because their lines of provisions had got too long and their troops were advancing fast to the Eastern Front and they couldn’t get the supplies up to them and Dresden was getting fresh troops brought in by frequent trains running in there. They withdrew a lot of divisions from Italy and from Norway and they were taking them through to Dresden. That was the drop off point and a lot of armaments and, and men going up and being dropped off at Dresden to go up to try and quell the Russian advance.
GT: So the main push was because of the German troops going in. Not civilians.
NT: No.
GT: This was what you were told.
NT: That’s what we were told and in subsequent reading I’ve discovered that Dresden was not full of refugees. They found them just too much trouble. They shoved them straight on the trains returning from Dresden to get them away from the area. And the trains that brought troops up took refugees back out. So where the truth lies is hard to say but I was greatly helped eventually by reading Frederick Taylor’s book just simply called, “Dresden.” And that’s written with, after he managed to get hold of the German archives from the Russians after the breakdown of the Russian states and they make, his book makes very interesting reading and did me a lot of good to read it. Because I had written, I had read those earlier books about the destruction of Dresden and the devils inferno and I was made to feel like an absolute terrorist. And it stayed with me for years actually and all the publicity we got. The House of Lords didn’t help us much in allowing, and I know I’m still a licenced Anglican priest I look back and think some of those Anglican bishops in the House of Lords didn’t really quite understand what war is all about and they created a bit of havoc there. And Winston Churchill seemed to just want to back off and leave Sir Arthur Harris to take the blame. Now, all he was doing was carrying out orders from War Command Headquarters and that Yalta Conference with Roosevelt and Stalin was held over that same period of time as we attacked Dresden. And I think it’s rather tragic that Sir Arthur Harris has been left with a tarnished record over Dresden and in many ways Dresden suffered as much as quite a lot of the other cities that were bombed in Germany and had quite a larger percentage of losses. And I’d recommend that book, “Dresden,” by Frederick Taylor to anybody to read who has troubles over Dresden.
GT: So you were on the second raid of that night.
NT: That’s right.
GT: And did you notice any difference? Was there fires burning already? Or —
NT: Yeah well, I think we’d be about a hundred and fifty miles away from Dresden and the pilot said to me, ‘I don’t think you’re going to need to do much navigation, Nev. Come up here and have a look.’ And you could see fire from a long, long way back. Well over a hundred miles. And according to the book, “Dresden”’ quite a few crews deliberately didn’t drop their bombs in to the flames. We did. But the book also says that the Jewish slave population that worked in Dresden had to walk in several miles every day to go to work and they, they saw it all from a safe distance and they rejoiced to see it happening. And it also turns out there were about a hundred and fifty war production factories in Dresden. They were told there were no, nothing like that. You know the people that grumbled about what we did to Dresden. And it had been a city of clockmakers and they were famous for this. Dresden China wasn’t made in Dresden. It was made further out in another town but sold under the name of Dresden and these clockmaking factories became the main source of the instruments, that tanks and naval ships and aircraft used. Instrument makers. So it really was quite a war target really. But it had never been one before because it was so far out of range. It was only after we advanced into Europe after D-Day that we could get. Take on those further targets really.
GT: But you were still flying operations from England though so it didn’t —
NT: Pardon?
GT: You were still fling operations from England.
NT: Yeah.
GT: In the same Lancasters that were dropping —
NT: Yeah.
GT: Earlier.
NT: The next night we went to Chemnitz. It turned out it wasn’t a very successful raid. Mainly through weather and bad marking. And we were told we had to do three in a row but the weather broke. Bad weather came. The upper and the House of Lords the third attack never took place. I’ve heard since that the third one was to be Potsdam and the thought was that Dresden, Chemnitz and Potsdam taken out in three nights immediately there was the possibility of the war finishing at that stage in early February. But as it turned out it didn’t.
GT: Right. So, you mentioned also the Americans did a raid on Dresden at the same time.
NT: Well, I learned from this book that it was agreed that the Americans would be the first to attack Dresden. They were to attack it in the morning and of course they prepared very early in the morning, from about 4 o’clock when they were going on a long inland raid. And the weather was terrible so they cancelled it so the RAF were called to make the first attack which was what half past tennish or something and ours was more like after midnight. So the American attack took place next morning and the book tells us that the weather was bad. There was a big front of weather and there were two groups of American bombers took off to bomb Dresden unaware that just how much damage had already been done. And one group contacted the other and said, ‘We’re going to fly to the north of this front and the other one said, we’ll get around south and we’ll end up over Dresden.’ Apparently the, one of the groups flew out of clouds, saw a big city on a river, dropped their bombs and it turned out to be Prague not Dresden. That’s according to the book called, “Dresden.” And I’ve never seen it denied but I don’t think they did a hell of lot of damage to Prague all the same.
GT: Now, you also, one target. Was it Wesel?
NT: Yes. We attacked Wesel twice and we attacked it late in the afternoon of the eve of Montgomery crossing the Rhine there. My understanding is that a force of eighty of which 75 were the leading group with a group of eight. GH equipped, two GH equipped planes of which I was one. I’d been trained in GH. This was accurate bombing through cloud when you couldn’t see the target, and the aircraft sent out signals which were received back to England. Sort of the reverse of Oboe and very accurate. And the navigator actually did the lead in, you know, ‘Left. Left. Steady. Hold it, skipper,’ and what not and actually pressed the button that released the bombs. And we, we led a group of three. That was the normal way. One GH leader, two, one on each side and one coming up from the back in a little diamond and according to that first history book of 75 Squadron we were at the last attack on Wesel and got congratulations from Montgomery for the accuracy of our bombing. But then I’ve read another book since that said at midnight there was a Pathfinder force of seventy nine planes that bombed Wesel. And I do know that our group was one of eighty and 75 had eight planes leading it and it was a very successful raid so whether that other story about it a midnight attack on Wesel is right or not, I don’t know.
GT: Ok. So if we move to the Manna ops. Once you’d completed war ops and you were detailed to drop food parcels how did that prepare for you guys and what were told? Were you told to remove guns? What was the [unclear]
NT: No. We weren’t told to remove guns but we were told in no way to start firing. We didn’t go on the first day. I think the 29th was the first day I went. The first drop was the 28th from memory.
GT: 30th there was Rotterdam.
NT: Yes.
GT: The 7th of May was the Hague.
NT: Yes. So, yes we went to Rotterdam I remember them loading the food and they had a lot of men from the base down below. Some of them on steps and pushing food up into the bomb bays which just were slightly open and they were pushing food up in there. And we just flew over, went in very low, told to be no higher than five hundred feet but most went in much lower than that. We were told to be careful not to be the first to fire a gun. We didn’t know whether the Germans would fire on us or not. We had seen plenty of anti-aircraft guns around and some of them deliberately being sort of aimed at you but apparently a local German commander was a compassionate man and he’d given orders in no way were these food planes to be fired on. One or two planes, oh I don’t know how many but some did report being fired on but not over the drop zones. They were fired on I think by ordinary soldiers away from the area where the food drops were. They just saw these planes flying low and took pot shots at them. My friend Bill Hall tells me they came back with one of the turrets on fire and the rear gunner a bit the worse for wear but it didn’t happen to us. We didn’t fire anything. Didn’t remove our guns. We were ready to fire back if they fired at us but they didn’t. And they were, some days later we did get an assurance from German High Command that we wouldn’t be fired on provided we flew in these narrow —
GT: Flying corridors. Yeah.
NT: Yeah. And specified drop zones. And it all went pretty well according to plan. Incidentally, I just met a Dutchman. We were both in hospital recently getting some radiotherapy treatment for skin cancers and he, I happened to say to him, ‘Do you mind me asking where your home town really was.’ I knew he wasn’t a Kiwi. He said, ‘Yes. I’m from the Netherlands.’ And I said, ‘I flew over there a few times.’ ‘Oh, did you? What did you fly?’ ‘Lancasters.’ ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘We knew when it was Lancasters. We could tell the different engine sound to those other four engine ones.’ I think he was referring to Stirlings. He said, ‘We used to hear them going over and we were pleased to hear them. I was just a young boy but,’ he said, ‘I remember I hadn’t seen bread for long enough and,’ he said, ‘Mother got some flour and some other stuff and she made some bread.’ And he said, ‘It was just wonderful.’ And he said, ‘I want to give you a gift.’ I said, ‘I don’t want any gifts.’ ‘Oh, no. No.’ he said, ‘I can’t forget what you fellas did for us.’ He said, ‘I want to give you a gift but,’ he said, ‘I don’t know if you really want it or not.’ I said, ‘You’ll have to tell me what it is.’ I said, ‘I don’t want any gifts but if you insist I have one and you don’t know whether I’d like it or not you’d better tell me what it is.’ So he said, ‘Well, I’ve got a lot of half [unclear] timber at home from the old Burnside freezing works and,’ he said, ‘I like doing a bit of woodwork,’ and he said, ‘I make little Dutch milking stools,’ he said, ‘Would you like one?’ I said, ‘Well, yes. That would be rather wonderful.’ I said, ‘I milked cows by hand. We didn’t get the machines until shortly before I went into the Air Force,’ and I said, ‘Well, our family had to do the hand milking,’ I said, ‘So I had a little stool to do my four cows that I milked night and morning.’ And so I said, ‘I know what a milking stool is like.’ He said, ‘Now, I can make a round one, a square one or an oblong one.’ I said, ‘Oh, well, how about a round one?’ He said, ‘Right.’ A few days later he phoned me up and said, ‘I’ve made you a stool,’ he said ‘I hope you like it,’ he said, ‘It’s not round, it’s not square, it’s not oblong.’ He said, ‘I’ve decided on a different shape.’ So he said, ‘When can I bring it and deliver it?’ So we made a date and he brought it around and I’ve just shown it to you over there. It’s quite a delightful little thing with, what has it got? Six sides to it and joined and beautifully made and also he and his son made a doorstop out of this [unclear] timber too. This is a thank you for what we did for dropping food so long ago. I had met other Dutchmen who knew about it and a Dutch woman years ago but this, I was the first fella that had dropped food that this man had met me and he, he was so emotional.
GT: It was in a Lancaster, wasn’t it?
NT: And thankful.
GT: Yeah. Yeah, I too have met many and they are very thankful of what you did for them then, for that. Phenomenal. And of course there was Chowhound as well as Manna.
NT: Yeah.
GT: So there were numerous RAF Squadrons as well as Americans as well.
NT: That’s right.
GT: B17s as well. So that’s fabulous. So besides the Manna trips your Manna trip shows that you obviously worked at Juvencourt repatriation flights.
NT: Yes.
GT: Exodus.
NT: Before that we actually did a trip to Brussels. We took some Dutch civilians who had been sort of in civic government. Had taken refuge in England during the war. And they were being taken back to Brussels to try and get some form of you know, local government going again. So we had wives and some babies, we had a pram and a perambulator in the bomb bay and landed in Brussels on a very large airstrip that the Germans had been operating from for years. And these Belgians were absolutely overwhelmed at getting home again, and it was rather lovely seeing prams and perambulators and suitcases now in the bomb bay and these civilians and young children including babies on board. But there was a slight mishap on that trip. It was a beautiful day and the bomb aimer and I sort of changed occupations and we found Brussels fine, got the call sign right and got permission to land. The pilot said, ‘Oh yes. I can see,’ and we put down on a very short air, air strip and had to brake heavily to avoid running into a blooming fence at the end of it and a fella came out and looked at us in amazement and said, What the hell are you doing here? He said we’ve never had a four engine plane down here before.’ And we’d been talking to the right place but landed at the wrong one [laughs] Failed to identify it. And we didn’t tell the Dutch we’d made a hash of things. They just thought this was part of what we had to do. And —
GT: That was the Belgian.
NT: Yeah. The Belgian. That’s right.
GT: Yeah.
NT: And the trick was to take off again from it. So they got a tractor out and helped tow us right to the very end of this little short runway, and of course you didn’t have much of a load on it at all. It took off alright and we found this other place on the other side of Brussels which is quite a huge city actually, and we landed there and these people embraced us and thanked us and we didn’t tell them we’d given them an extra little landing and take-off. It didn’t seem to upset them anyway. They were so glad to be home. We thought we’d stay the night in Brussels and, but we had trouble with our plane and I think it was magneto trouble and our wing commander decided it wasn’t a good idea to leave this crew in Brussels overnight just after VE Day and he sent a plane out to pick us up and leave our plane there to be attended to and eventually another crew was flown out to bring it home again from my memory. But we did go and have a beer at a sort of a tavern place. We traded some cigarettes for some rather watery beer and that’s all we knew about Brussels.
GT: Fabulous.
NT: These people had been refugees to England.
GT: Ok.
NT: They got away before the German occupation. Now we’d taken them home. But it was quite wonderful to bring the prisoners of war home from Juvencourt. On our first trip there from, if my memory is right and I’m pretty sure it is we also took some French civilians over to Juvencourt and brought prisoners of war returning home back. Some were in pretty pitiful conditions. They’d been force marched for many, many miles over a long period of time. Footwear worn out. A lot had died on the way and a lot were in pretty poor condition. We, I think we put twenty four on board and brought them back to Ford. And I remember the first thing they did was come down and kiss the ground and then they marched them off to the delousing tents. But they were extremely grateful to, to us for bringing them back.
GT: Your logbook describes further that you completed your last flying on the 29th of June 1945, and if I can just finish your little story here of your wartime operations stuff off the summary and you’ve got completed in your logbook that you, with your crew day ops war fifteen, night ops war seven. Abortive op, the one you had to jettison times one. Manna Operation flying times two. Exodus four. And Baedekers two. Night operational hours fifty two hours and day operational hours one hundred and ten. And you’ve also here a total weight of bombs dropped twenty two four one thousand three hundred and eighty four bombs. Pounds. Two four one thousand three hundred and eighty four pounds. So your crew phenomenally did a wonderful job that you were called upon to do and one last couple of mentions there of your Manna ops you’ve listed the 30th of April three thousand six hundred pounds of food. And the trip you did to the Hague on the 7th of May ’45 six thousand two hundred and seventy pounds of food.
NT: Yeah. We’d learned how to load a bit more in.
GT: Yeah.
NT: As time went on.
GT: Yeah. That was fascinating. So, so during that earlier time of 1945 there, 75 New Zealand Squadron RAF, I’ve got to mention it wasn’t a Royal New Zealand Air Force Squadron.
NT: That’s right.
GT: It was an RAF squadron with a whole bunch of Kiwis. But during that time and the loss of Wing Commander Newton the replacement CO was Wing Commander Cyril Baigent.
NT: That’s right.
GT: How did you get on with him and how did you find him as a CO?
NT: Oh, very, very good. Yeah. He was very young. Very pleasant. Quite boyish features but a real leader. My pilot and him didn’t get along very well. That was through an unfortunate incident, it wasn’t anything to do with the wing commander but my pilot’s best friend Mel Thorpe on a daylight trip which we were on they got home just minutes ahead of us and were in the circuit waiting to land and they lost an engine. And apparently the last order picked up given was to feather the, feather the engine and anyway they, they crashed and they were all killed. And we don’t really know what happened. It was very close to Mepal. They’d done the trip and there they were back over the Mepal really in the circuit and it crashed and burned. Our engineer thinks that their engineer feathered another engine and they had two dud engines then on one side and just lost control. Whether that’s true or not I don’t know but our pilot, we, we were told to go and fly around and see what was happening. They knew it had crashed and knew it was burning. Our pilot was so upset when we landed he personally sort of accused our wing commander of pushing this fella too hard which probably was quite untrue but it was an emotional outburst and our pilot didn’t like Wing Commander Baigent very much. And probably Wing Commander Baigent didn’t like him very much. But actually as a crew we found him a very good wing commander.
GT: Well, he finished with 75 New Zealand Squadron and then went on up to Spilsby after the war had completely finished and they started training for Tiger Force. Now, were you asked to stay on for Tiger Force?
NT: No. The wing commander had a look at our record and said, ‘You’ve done over twenty. There’s a huge influx of fellas here that have hardly had hardly any flying operational time at all. We’re going to have stacks of men to train for Tiger Force. Consider yourselves as tour expired although you haven’t officially done your thirty ops.’
GT: So you weren’t given an option.
NT: Not really.
GT: Ok. So you were allowed to go.
NT: I guess we could have overridden and said, ‘No. We want to go to Tiger Force,’ but we decided we were happy to let it go.
GT: What were you told about what Tiger Force was about?
NT: Well, we weren’t really told anything as our crew. Possibly those who were going to Spilsby were. I don’t know. All we knew was that we were supposed to be going out to help in the war in the east with Japan. That’s about all I knew about it.
GT: And you were told it was going to be Lancasters or Lincolns. They didn’t mention anything to you?
NT: Yeah. I think we were told it would be Lincolns.
GT: Because by, by the end of in this case VJ Day 75 New Zealand Squadron at Spilsby only received three Lincolns so they certainly took a while to dial up. So that’s when they kind of finished. So when you finished with 75 New Zealand Squadron it was at Mepal. Did, what were the pubs that you guys used to, used to frequent? Can you remember which ones around the Mepal area? Or —
NT: I’ve got a vague, I think it was called the Chequers down in Sutton.
GT: Yeah. They’ve, they’ve got a lot of photographs around the wall of the, of the squadron [unclear] but Ely on the other side. There were several around that area.
NT: Yes. There were. Chequers seemed to be the favoured one.
GT: Yeah. What flight did you fly on 75 Squadron?
NT: A flight. And our flight commander was Squadron Leader Jack Wright who came to a rather tragic end later on.
GT: Yes. I visited Jack Wright’s grave in Lower Hutt, New Zealand. Yes. It was very unfortunate.
NT: We like him as a flight commander but he did look to have done too much. His eyes were sort of, something strange about his eyes. He just looked over, over worked I think. But he was a hell of a nice fella and a very good flight commander and that’s —
GT: Yeah. I think he only lasted until the early 70s when he got back home. He suffered a lot obviously.
NT: Yeah.
GT: From traumas of the war. So now. When you came back to New Zealand what ship did you come back on?
NT: Andes.
GT: Andes. I think that was the one they used the most I think to, to bring back a lot of them.
NT: Yeah.
GT: The New Zealanders. So I understand you met your then to become wife. How did that work?
NT: Well, my wife was a WAAF at Mepal and she and I shouldn’t have been consorting at all because she was just an ACW and I was by now a flying officer. But she was sort of in charge of the mess. Well, not really in charge. There was real officer above her but she was very senior and she had a beautiful smile and a lovely little lass and I thought I’d like to get to know her. And my friend Ray Tait knew a friend of hers and he told her that I would like to say hello to Betty Box. And it was arranged that if I turned up at, I think it was 8.30 one night I could be smuggled into their rest room behind the kitchen and, and meet Betty Box. And we did. And we met surreptitiously when off and on when I wasn’t flying and she was off duty. Used to manage to use the orderly officers, no the intelligence officer’s phone. He had a room to himself next to the place I was assigned to sleep in which was next to Ray Tait in what seemed to have been a billiard room. Looked as though there had been a double up of buildings at Mepal and one set that looked very much like our mess and the billiard room was used for accommodation. The intelligence officer had a telephone and I’m sure he knew we used it and we used to communicate by telephone to find out when she might be off shift. Sometimes we would meet, arrange to meet in Sutton or catch the bus into Ely and go and have French Rarebit. Cheese on toast or Smith’s potato chips and lemonade and get to know each other that way. And sometimes we would eat our potato chips and drink our lemonade in the grounds of Ely Cathedral. Never ventured into it but knew it’s grounds pretty well.
GT: So you arrived back in New Zealand October ’45.
NT: Yeah.
GT: And when did Bett come out from England?
NT: She came out in January ’46. Pregnant.
GT: And the war, the war brides, that was pretty much the war brides ship was it? They had a lot of —
NT: She came out on a troop ship. Mainly with soldiers on it. The Otranto. But there were a lot of war brides on it. And a fella, Ivan Elder, who never got to the squadron was an instructor on, a pilot he went up to Lyttelton to meet his wife off the ship as I did, Bett. We didn’t know each other and didn’t meet each other. A photographer from the Weekly News saw the two of us. We weren’t even together. The four of us. He said, ‘Oh, you four get together. I want to take your photo.’ And it got in that publication. The Weekly News that came out in 1946.
GT: Yeah.
NT: And we’ve still got the book there with the photo and I think you’ve still got the photo ourself.
GT: So how many children then did you have throughout your time?
NT: Eventually five. Yeah.
GT: And you lived here in Dunedin, New Zealand all the time.
NT: No. We went back and lived with my parents Myross Bush farms about seven miles out of Invercargill. She was greatly received by my family and the neighbourhood actually. It was just wonderful really. We got our, the master bedroom was given to us and eventually when the baby was born he would be a honeymoon baby because he arrived nine months after our marriage and we were given the main bedroom in the house that mum and dad had occupied for years and life was good.
GT: Nice.
NT: But we eventually, they sold the farm and moved in to a smaller house in Invercargill. We still lived with them. We were rather overcrowded with my brother and sister there too in a two bedroom house. Used the lounge as a bedroom too. It was pretty, pretty overcrowded but we eventually got a state rental house and after about two years we bought our first house.
GT: Life still was pretty difficult after the war wasn’t it then?
NT: It was. Yeah.
GT: And how did you find it when you came back from the war? Did people want to know what happened? Did they discuss with you?
NT: No.
GT: Or was it just got on with life.
NT: Just got on with life. I worked in the Public Trust Office. I was a junior clerk when I went away and I was, the district public trustee wasn’t pleased at me being married because he had to pay me a bit more because I was married and he wasn’t a happy man [laughs]
GT: So, so —
NT: Nobody wanted to know what you’d done. No. You just had to get down to the work you’d been doing.
GT: Because many New Zealanders not that remained in this country and whilst you guys went away to Europe and the UK for the war they, they seemed not to understand or appreciate what Britain and you guys had gone through.
NT: That’s true.
GT: And therefore when you came back here in your thousands, obviously thousands didn’t come back but the thousands that did, they didn’t want to know. They didn’t want them to tell them what was going on. They clammed up and did you find that many of the airmen that came back who did that suffered in the ongoing years after that?
NT: Oh yes. Well, very much so. It affected me I’m quite sure. I think it had a lot to do with me deciding to give up the accountancy side of life. I was a qualified registered accountant and I ended up training for the Anglican ministry at age of thirty seven with five kids. Which wasn’t really fair on them when I think about it. We moved from Invercargill to Dunedin and I think in many ways you know cause a guy to strange sort of things. Looking back now it was maybe an act of atonement on my part.
GT: And you took on the title of, was it reverend?
NT: Yeah.
GT: For you.
NT: And I eventually became Archdeacon of Dunedin. Vicar General for ten years. That’s the next rank to the Bishop in charge of administration when he’s out of the diocese. And I was made an Archdeacon Emeritus which still held the title. There’s only two of us in the diocese, Archdeacon Emeritus. I’m still a licensed as a officiating priest in the church but I don’t do very much but I do for family marriages. Married two granddaughters earlier this year. I’m marrying one in February up in Arrowtown too so —
GT: Nice. Yeah.
NT: In recent years I’ve taken several funerals for airmen but our Brevet Club which had a hundred and fifty members in it after the war which was formed actually to try and help fellas in difficulties just develop a fellowship and mutual help for one another. We had a hundred and fifty. I’m the only one left now. Two died just last month. And I’m the last survivor of the Otago Brevet Club.
GT: So, the calling and your eventual reverend and then for the church there.
NT: Yeah. I become a venerable from reverend. Ven Nev.
GT: A good play on words there. So but, but what happened in the ensuing years that may have changed your mind as to, as to whether that was the right calling for you and what you’ve seen and decided on?
NT: Oh. Well, the disasters in the world. We used to be able to say man causes all these things. Well, he does cause a lot of the evil things, but you know plates that move under creation and earthquakes and tsunamis and that. I don’t think man causes them. There’s something wrong about the creation system somehow, and the creator doesn’t seem to intervene in any way. Well, of course —
GT: Still be [unclear] yeah.
NT: The stock answer I give is of course God only works through people. He’s got no hands but our hands and no feet but our feet and no hearts but ours. But it doesn’t seem to satisfy me quite. I’m struggling a bit.
GT: You’ve for a long time been the representative for the New Zealand Bomber Command Association and taken many services for them and I’ve been secretary for ten years but I know before I joined the 75 Squadron Association you were also known as the Association’s Reverend. So you did spend a lot of time working back not only in the community but with your fellow airmen.
NT: That’s right.
GT: Yeah.
NT: I wrote a little song about it. I’ve called it, “Man of Air,” that’s based on a title from one of the books I’ve read, “Men of Air,” which was a wonderful book really. So I’ve written this little song called “Men of Air,” and it touches upon the things that men went through that flew, and those that come home came home with a few wounds unhealed and wounds and griefs. Griefs and that. And it’s set to the metre that can by sung to the tune Melita, which is so well known. JB Dykes, wrote the tune way back in the 1700s to 1800s. It’s the one that the Naval men sing, “Eternal Father, Strong to Save.” So I’ve usurped it and got an airmen’s song to it now. And I don’t even mention God in it and that probably upset some people. But I’ve come to realise that a lot of men lost what faith they had in God through war. Some discovered it. I discovered it I suppose but I’m not sure that I discovered it properly.
GT: Yeah.
NT: Although people tell me that I had a great ministry I think my family suffered a bit through it. I was awfully busy looking after everybody else but my own. They don’t blame me but I sometimes —
GT: On reflection.
NT: Have regrets about it.
GT: You can see that, yeah.
NT: I’m still a chartered accountant by the way.
GT: Well, I’m sure you’d be able to take the books up. You’ve welcomed me in to your home this weekend so I certainly thank you for that. We’ve known each other for quite some time but it’s been fascinating listening to your story. I know the International Bomber Command Centre will relish your views, your experience and what the sacrifices you went through for king and country at the time. One of the last things recently is from your medals group. You have been awarded the Legion of Honour from the French and that was a bit of a surprise to you was it not?
NT: Yes. Very much of a surprise and I just, I’ve got mixed feelings about it. It seems rather an undeserved thing. Unearned in a way but anyway it’s been given to me and I suppose I should accept it and wear it with pride.
GT: The, the irony for many of us, and I know yourself has been very strong is the non-issue of a Bomber Command campaign medal and, and yet the English didn’t bestow that upon you, or for you guys and yet the French are willing to acknowledge that you guys helped to liberate France for their freedom.
NT: Yes. It is ironic, isn’t it? Yes. So, you know in a way got to say thank you France.
GT: But perhaps with the EU situation and the Brexit thing now perhaps they’re not being very thankful. So that’s a shame for, for what the Commonwealth did for Europe to make sure they were saved from the Nazi regime that was —
NT: Yeah.
GT: Sweeping through there. So how about yourself though? Is there one last thing you’d like you’d like to, like to mention for us on recording here?
NT: Well, I would just like to say it was wonderful to know so many men in 75 Squadron. I’m very proud to have belonged to it and I’m mindful that I through age only was there in the latter months of its operations from the beginning of January to VE day really and conscious of the huge loss that that squadron suffered so much earlier. And other squadrons too. You think of that night on Nuremberg when ninety eight planes were, were lost to German flak and fighters and then a few more crashed returning to the UK and more crews wiped out. And it’s always been sad for me that Bomber Command was never acknowledged so much and Fighter Command was. I know it did a wonderful job in the Battle of Britain but Bomber Command was pretty active in the Battle of Britain too and had pretty huge losses at the time and every time a bomber went down seven men that got killed. That night in Nuremberg there were more airmen lost than were lost in the whole total Battle of Britain. Those are just some of the misgivings but I’ve got great honour for those men who did fly fighters in the Battle of Britain. And you know you get mixed feelings about a lot of things. So, yeah. It’s an honour to have served and I don’t regret having been part of Bomber Command.
GT: Fascinating. Thank you, Neville. Well, we’ve spoken nearly two hours and it’s nearly 1am and it’s, it’s been fascinating as we’ve talked a lot today on our trip through to Alexandra to, to be at the committal of another famous 75 squadron pilot. An aircrewman named Artie Ashworth. So it’s been, it’s been awesome having the day with you. I’m going to submit this to the IBCC Archives very soon and this will be put in there with your record of your service. So I thank you for your service and sacrifice for King and Queen and Country and I know there are a lot of people out there that will say thank you too. So —
NT: Thank you, Glen it’s been a wonderful day. You’ve taken me to Alexandra to share in that wonderful service for a great airman with a tremendous record of bravery and sacrifice and I’ve enjoyed having you here. I wonder if I can ask you if you might send my little effort on, “Men of Air,’ over to the International Bomber Command. They can do what they like with it. Whatever they want to do with it.
GT: It will be on their Facebook page. I promise you that.
NT: Thank you.
GT: Ok, Neville. We’ll sign off now. So, thank you very much, sir. And this is Glen Turner signing off from Mr Neville Selwood’s house in Dunedin, New Zealand. Thank you. And this was Neville Selwood’s story.


Glen Turner, “Interview with Francis Neville Selwood,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 12, 2024,

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