Interview with John Henry Thomas


Interview with John Henry Thomas


John Thomas was born in Australia and joined the RAF in 1943. After doing his initial training in Australia he travelled to the UK via America. Further training, including an accident and night vision tests, led to 102 Squadron and a full tour of operational sorties. He tells tales of avoiding anti-aircraft fire, fighter support, being coned by searchlights, V3, crew antics and rum rations. On return to his homeland he became a quantity surveyor then a farmer before a TPI award as a result of his earlier accident, in 1989. John also shares his views on wartime aircraft and policy.







01:53:00 audio recording


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JH: Good morning, this is John Horsburgh and today I’m interviewing John Thomas. John was a pilot with 102 Squadron, Ceylon Squadron, flying Halifax heavy bombers 1944 1945. So this is one of the interviews for the, being conducted for the International Bomber Command Centre in Lincoln, in UK, which is being opened this year, incidentally, and it’s part of the oral history project. We are at Foster in New South Wales, at John’s home. [Tone] Good morning John, thank you for being available for the interview.
JT: That’s fine.
JH: And perhaps we can start, as we always do in these, when you were born, your birthdate and where, and something about your childhood, your parents and schooling, and then we’ll talk about when you came to join up. So when were you born?
JT: 14th September, 1923, at Waverley, in Sydney.
JH: And so your parents, I gather your, your father came out from England originally.
JT: Yes, that’s right, in 1910, as a twenty one year old.
JH: Did he, did he see any service in the first world war?
JT: No, no, but his father had served in the Royal Navy and his grandfather had served in the British Army.
JH: So you were born in Waverley and were you brought up there?
JT: No, we lived in Woollahra, initially, until I was nine years old and then we moved to Bondi. And lived in Bondi until I was fifteen and then moved to North Bondi, into a larger house and I went to school initially at Woollahra to the Holy Cross Convent primary school,then at St. Anne’s Bondi Beach primary school, and then to St. Charles Waverley, Christian Brothers Primary School and then went to St Mary’s College in the city for high school.
JH: So a real Sydney-sider.
JT: Yes.
JH: And so when you left school what did you do?
JT: I was apprenticed as a cabinet maker to a firm called Ricketson Thorpe. At this stage, it was the start of 1940 and I left school in fourth year. And somebody had decided I should get some experience, they possibly foresaw that I’d be going into the services and instead of doing the final year at school they put me in amongst men to get some real experience. Unfortunately, when it came to joining up, enlisting, Ricketson Thorpe had become a reserved industry because they were making parts for aircraft. However, the foreman, who was a World War One Digger, said ‘Ignore that, if you want to go, go and enlist’. Which I did. But this brought me in to conflict with the commissioner for manpower, a Mr Bella, Bellmore, B e l l e m o r e, but because he was fat everyone referred to him as Mr Bellymore! [Laugh] He, he must have taken an instant dislike to me, I’m joking, he realised no doubt that an apprentice position was not being filled, so he was looking for an apprentice who would be full time there and of all places he sent me to was the taxation department where I got shuffled from branch to branch. But then the Army called me up, which they shouldn’t have done ‘cause I was on the air force reserve and I finished up in Ciara, and well the showground to start with Ciara, and then Albury. I missed two air force call up because of a cranky Army major who reckoned I was in the Army for keeps. But eventually a recruiting flight lieutenant came round and he had me on the train to Sydney the following morning.
JH: What was it that, early on, that you decided to sign up for the air force?
JT: The, I thought initially, the in time, no doubt, I’d be conscripted and I, it was going to be my choice not theirs and the best way that I could do the most was to, if I was fit enough, to join aircrew. It turned out I was fit enough, and that was the reason: it was I felt I could do the most there.
JH: So your training started at Bradfield Park I believe.
JT: Number two initial training unit. Three months there, or twelve weeks actually. And then in February, in January, sorry, in December, early December went to Narrandera, eight weeks at Narrandera on the BFTS on Tiger Moths, seventy hours flying time, and in early February went to Point Cook which was an eighteen week course, finishing in, on the, received my wings on 25th of June 1943, went on embarkation leave, went to, then went to Brisbane by train, embarked on the, an American transport ship the Nordern, eleven thousand ton ship, which made a eighteen day non-stop trip to San Francisco. Disembarked there, and went to Angel Island, an American Army base in San Francisco Bay, four days there, with trips into San Francisco, then went up to Oakland, got on the train and went across America, and the transport was far superior to anything in Australia. Got to New York, went aboard the Aquitania, two days later it sailed for Greenock, a five and a half day trip, solo, with four thousand aircrew and I think it was seven thousand, seven thousand eight hundred American troops on board. Two meals a day, rather cramped, but quite an experience. Landed in Greenock, overnight trip to Brighton. We were, went on leave, disembarkation leave, went over to Wales for seven days, came back and another chap and I by the name of Ken Jagger, who incidentally I had gone to primary school at Waverley with, we were sent to Hullavington, the Central Flying School, for testing, this was testing the standard of training throughout the Empire Air Scheme. So we flew there with squadron leaders and wing commanders. And that station had ninety six types of aircraft on it and we went, crawled over every one of them! Went back to Brighton and from there was posted to Church Lawford in, what county was that? I can’t remember the name of the country, anyway it was near Rugby, and did three months there, including a BAT course, where instead of flying under the hood flew normally because it was in fog and rain all the time, perfect conditions, did twenty hours on the BAT course, then was sent to a holding depot, drome course at Snettersfield, which we spent three weeks there, couldn’t fly because the weather kept getting, cancelling flying. From there went to Acast, went to Moreton in the Marsh and did a nine week course, Operational Training Unit on Wellingtons and it was there my instructor, Flying Officer Duncan Dobbie, known as Drunken Duncan, on one occasion we went over to the satellite to pick up an aircraft, arriving back at Moreton, on a wet, windless day, on the shortest runway, pointing towards the six hundred foot hill, says do a flapless landing. I objected, but under instruction, I took the order, under protest, did the flapless, flapless landing, and we aquaplaned all the way down the runway, ran into a ploughed field, furrows at right angles, aircraft stood on its nose, my harness was perished, safety harness was snapped, I was flung into, headfirst into the windscreen. Didn’t know it at the time, but suffered total spinal compression, for which later I became a TPI.
JH: Jack, what type of aircraft was that?
JT: That was a Wellington.
JH: The Wellington. Yes.
JT: I was taken up to the hospital, the young doctor dressed, put a field dressing on the cut on my hand, and gave me some headache tablets.
JH: A TPI for those who don’t know what a TPI -
JT: Totally and Permanently Incapacitated, the, which I got in, I received that in 1989. It took them all that time to find out what the problem was, with my spinal problem. So from Moreton in the Marsh we went to an aerodrome in Yorkshire, called Acaster Melbis which was a -
JH: Had you crewed up at this stage?
JT: Yes, we crewed up at Moreton in Marsh.
JH: Okay. Tell me a little about how that happened, and how you all came together and a bit about your crew.
JT: Well, the, you’re just all put in a room of all the different categories and it’s up to you to sort yourself out.
JH: Yeah. And you had some mates there already?
JT: No.
JH: Or you didn’t know these people, other pilots.
JT: I only knew other pilots.
JH: Other pilots. You didn’t know -
JT: No. I didn’t know any of the other people. Ross was the first one, Ross Pearson was the first one. I thought he looks a likely looking lad. And then the, flight, we picked up our bomb aimer who’d been older than us, twenty eight year old, Jack White, had done his bomb aiming, he was a scrubbed pilot, he had done the bomb aiming course in Canada and had been an instructor there on the bomb aiming for some seven months, so we thought we had an experienced bomb aimer, which he was. Then we, sorry, I’m wrong there. The first bomb aimer we picked up was a Polish, and we picked him up, then we picked up the rear gunner, then the navigator, then the mid upper gunner. But there was no sort of order to it, you sort of, you were grabbing people in case there, no one else was left. We only did a couple of flights when the Polish bomb aimer decided that he wasn’t, didn’t want to stay with a non-Polish crew, he wanted to go to a Polish squadron. He went and saw the Chief Ground Instructor who bowed to his wishes, and we stood around then for the next month, waiting for the next intake.
JH: Yes.
JT: And that’s when Jack White came along and we grabbed, as soon as we saw him we grabbed him straight away. So we did our training there in Moreton in the Marsh, went on to Acaster Melbis which was a ground training establishment there run by the Kings Royal Rifle Corps and the Grenadier Guards. And we had simulated parachute training, unarmed combat, and all sort of things went on there. And it was there that we did the, a test, a night flying, a night eyesight test, which was a four day thing where you wore these extra dark glasses all the time. I’m just going to get [paper shuffling].
JH: Just pausing for a short break here. Back again.
JT: Yes. We’re back at this point where we’re doing this night eyesight testing for night vision. It’s a four day course, you wear these extra dark glasses, where you can only see a metre and a half in front of you at the most, and you go through all these exercises, training exercises and tests, but also a physical test which is carried out in the gym, and you play a form of hockey, but instead of a puck you’ve got a rope figure eight. I believe its an Irish game, but in the RAF they called it shinty for obvious reasons. Hacked on the shins! People used to come from far and wide on the station to watch these matches ‘cause they were so comical. Because of your lack of vision, often you lost contact with where the figure eight was and you had a couple of blokes hacking away and then nothing there! It was comic to watch. People would hit go to follow it and they’d be running in the wrong direction! It was entertainment and but quite unexpected. However this was a very effective programme because the improvement in night vision could be anything up to four hundred per cent. Quite remarkable.
JH: Yeah. My dad told me once they used to eat carrots. They used to think eating carrots all the time would improve night vision. Did you do that?
JT: Yes, and the reason given later on was that the Ministry of Agriculture Production because they were growing such huge quantities of carrots in England, in Britain, they were encouraging people to eat them and so they put out this story that it was good for the night vision. However, in recent years research by food scientists has revealed that it does [emphasis] help night vision! Haha! Yes. So that was Acaster Melbis. From there we went to Riccall, 16 58 Heavy Conversion Unit.
JH: And by, by now you were becoming a crew, getting to know each other.
JT: This is where we picked up the flight engineer.
JH: The flight engineer, yes.
JT: And I had as my flying instructor there, Squadron, my rear gunner was John Williamson, and my English flying instructor at Riccall was Squadron Leader John Williamson, and one of the finest gentlemen I’ve ever met in my life. Wonderful man; wonderful instructor. And I had never liked the Wellington, I considered it, because of its geodic construction, because it wallowed and mushed a bit in the air. It was a pleasure to get on, back to an aircraft that was directing its controls. I took the Halifax like a duck to water and it, it was a very pleasant time there at Riccall, except for something we witnessed, an episode there that was quite frightening. We were marching back to lunch one day and, this was a number of aircrews, we, marching along, and in comes a Mosquito, making an emergency landing, and his problem, it was a night flying Mosquito, with Polish pilot and navigator, they’d been up for a test flight, the undercarriage had failed to come down properly, one leg had come down and locked, the other leg had come down half way, couldn’t, and neither could be retracted. So after some violent aerobatics to try and shake it down, it was decided he’d make a landing, and he came in, fire wagons and ambulance were waiting at the ready at the end of the runway, he came in, landed hard [emphasis] which snapped the leg that was down, it went up through the wing, he went into the belly landing position, but when it went through the wing it set the fuel tank on fire. Here it is scooting along the runway, and by the time it got down to about thirty mile an hour, they jettisoned their hood, were both out running along the starboard wing and jumped off.
JH: Still going along.
JT: And rolled on the grass safely. The aircraft burnt out, and the following, when the following day, they pushed the engines to the side, and the following day there were these two little molten masses that had been the merlin engines and they filled a hole in the runway that was about six hundred by six hundred and about eight hundred mils deep caused by the fire. So that was quite a thing to watch, but while it was scooting along the runway, it also, the fire had set the ammunition off and the twenty millimetre cannons and 303s were shooting straight ahead, which happened to be a railway line at right angles to the end of the runway and there was a train going past.
JH: Oh!
JT: And all the people were watching the, this display, until the guard ran along and told them there was ammunition and then the train appeared to be empty. However, nobody was hit, fortunately.
JH: That’s an amazing story.
JT: Yeah. So from Riccall, we went to Pocklington, to 102 Squadron and that’s when I converted there, in the first week, on to the mark three, which was noticeably, outperformed the twos that I’d trained on at Riccall, and from there we started our operations.
JH: So your first, I’m sure you’ll never forget your first operations.
JT: My first operation was unsuccessful. The first operation was a flying bomb site in France and -
JH: Poisson.
JT: It was a night trip, it was, the only night that I can remember the sky being totally black, because there was a layer of cloud at about four thousand feet, we were flying south at two thousand feet and shortly after take off, the Gee packed up. So when we got down to where the point where the point was where we turn eastwards towards the French coast and the bomb site, we were well west of where we should have been, in fact I think we may have been over London as we were lucky we weren’t fired upon. So when we turned east, suddenly the target area was all lit up and it was so far away, the raid was all over, we were still headed towards it, so all we could do was head back to base, which we did. And when we got back to base, the, er I, on the way back we asked Darky for guidance, and Darky guided us to base, but unfortunately being a first time operation pilot I was very green, I never thought to ask the controller should I go and drop the bombs out in the safety zone, and he never suggested it, he also was a beginner. So we landed with our full bomb load. Safely. Fortunately. But I got a bit of a bollocking from the Wing Commander. This was before Wing Commander Wilson had arrived. This was the earlier Wing Commander whose name I can’t remember.
JH: Wow! And I suppose if you return early you, you get an extra grilling at the debriefing to show why you, you turned back. Is that correct?
JT: Yeah, well we turned back, as I explained to them, we couldn’t find the target, and when we sighted the target it was all over, was too late to go there. We couldn’t find it anyway, by that time.
JH: So the next raid you did, the next raids I believe were daylight raids.
JT: Yes, day light raids.
JH: Yes. What was the target on those?
JT: Those were, if I remember correctly were -
JH: In Paris.
JT: The next one, that’s right, no, the second one was a bomb site, flying bomb site, and the third one was, Paris, the railway yards in Villiers, and that was a daylight.
JH: So what was, this is in 84, what was the morale like on the station? D-Day had happened, things were, the tide was turning.
JT: Well we were at Riccall. Ah, well this is interesting. We were at Riccall when D-Day occurred. We were in the hut getting ready to go to breakfast. And a chap, one Canadian had a radio, and suddenly we heard the announcer, he’s yelling and saying ‘D-Day, D-Day!’; we hear the announcement that troops had fought and landed on the coast of France. It was a vile day with south west winds and low cloud at, on the French coast, but at Riccall it was a lovely sunny day, very pleasant with a light wind blowing. Totally opposite to what was happening where the troops were. So when we got, by the time we got to the squadron yes, morale was quite good on the squadron. But we still had quite considerable losses. What, in my time on the squadron we lost thirty three aircraft. The worst being one time we were on leave, we were on our six day leave and on the Monday night the squadron lost five aircraft, on the Tuesday night the squadron lost five aircraft, and on the Wednesday night they lost three. They lost thirteen aircraft in three nights. And practically all of them were pilots, crews on their first trip.
JH: Hmm. People have told me that the crews tended to bond together quite a bit and not, not generally making friends with other crews so much.
JT: We did there.
JH: We did there, yeah, yeah. So, then, looking at the sorties looked like you were quite busy August, September, October. Perhaps you’d like to mention, you’d like to single out any particular raids there, in that period?
JT: The Duisburg raid. But before I get to Duisburg, 8th of August.
JH: Here we are, Belle Croix. Ah, yes! What about talking about the Falaise Gap.
JT: Yes. That’s it. This was the episode, the Falaise Gap. This was the British Army and the Canadian First Army were held up because the ground in between them and the town of Caen was so bomb cratered that the tanks couldn’t travel there. So it was decided we’d carry out a raid with thousand pound bombs which would level the whole area and we were carrying twelve one thousand pounders, flying at twelve thousand feet, there two hundred and thirty aircraft on the raid and we were in the first wave, and very much up towards the front of the first wave.
JH: How were the targets marked, Jack, on that?
JT: Oh, there was a sodium line of flares in front of the army which was called the bombing line which we had to be beyond and we were to be six hundred yards beyond that before any bombs were dropped. We had just released our bombs when there was a huge [emphasis] explosion in the forest the best of half a mile to the left of us. And as it turned out subsequent, there was a seven thousand pound bomb dump plus a Panzer bivouacked in the forest. The blast, the explosions of the seven thousand ton dump set fire to the forest and the Panzer was virtually destroyed and the personnel, for the most part, about two thirds apparently, and a lot of them were burnt to death. The raid was immediately cancelled because of the, the effects of this huge explosion of the bomb dump, and we thought we’d been hit by flak because we, I lost contro,l the air started to flutter down but it was the blast causing it and we flew out of it and we were safe. It took me years later to figure and I think I have figured it out that the aircraft that dropped its bombs on the bomb dump, at the moment that the bomb aimer was dropping his bombs, I think he hit the slipstream of the aircraft in front of him, it tilted the aircraft to about a forty five degree angle which skewed the bombs into the forest. And that’s my reading, understanding and reading of it anyway.
JH: Hmm. What was the, the outcome on the ground? Were they, they made rapid progress I presume.
JT: No, they, the raid was cancelled, see.
JH: Yes.
JT: No, what happened was, it was replanned for another day.
JH: Yeah. They still couldn’t get through.
JT: Still couldn’t get through.
JH: The bad ground.
JT: So the, another raid was planned on which Halifaxes and Lancs went in again, but we weren’t on it, and they cleared the ground and the troops were able to go through and capture Caen.
JH: Hmm. It’s an amazing story. What about, you were telling me about a near miss. Was that on one of these raids?
JT: No, Duisburg is the next one.
JH: Yes, let’s talk about that. Yeah.
JT: Duisburg, it was a, yes, October, 14th of October ‘44. Was a lovely sunny day, we were due on target at 10am. This was a massive [emphasis] raid, it was the ten thousand ton raid on Duisburg. Bomber Command in the morning at 10am, USAAF at around midday or a little later, and then Bomber Command back at eleven o’clock that night. We were on the 10am one and about twenty minutes before, we were on the approach to Duisburg, about twenty minutes before the target, looked across to, down to the right and here we could see five V2s on a hardstanding and just one of them, one of them took off but, and it headed towards England. Then a little later they fired a second one which took on a distorted path and flew away as though it was headed towards Sweden. Then the third one fired, and it went towards, right back out of control and headed toward Russia, the eastern front. Then the fourth one, by this time we were up level with them, the fourth one took off, rose about three hundred feet in the air, fell back and blew the whole place to pieces.
JH: My goodness.
JT: We applauded.
JH: My goodness. Yeah. Completely unexpected that incident, yeah. Hmm. Yes. Well, that, that’s an interesting one.
JT: Yes.
JH: You were telling me also, before we were chatting, um, a Halifax from 35 Squadron came up.
JT: That was on Kiel, not me. Back there on Kiel.
JH: Ah. You got a good tip on night flying.
JT: On night flying. How to avoid the night fighters.
JH: Perhaps you’d like to tell me a bit.
JT: Yes, I’ll go back to that one, that date there, which was the Kiel raid. There, there it, yes.
JH: Kiel, yes, August 1944.
JT: Yes. The Kiel raid was a night raid. It was a strange night, it was misty, but visibility was about half a mile, I think it, maybe there was moonlight, and it could have been moonlight. Anyway, we were flying through this, straight and level, along this there not an aircraft in sight anywhere, none of ours, couldn’t see any other bombers, then the rear gunner reported an aircraft behind us and coming up astern. He wasn’t sure what it was until it got a bit closer and then he said oh it’s another Halifax. This Halifax came up and overtook us and it was weaving all the time, weaving, weaving and undulating in flight, and I realised what it was, it was a Pathfinder flying up through the main force and he gave, I took the tip: do not [emphasis] ever fly straight and level because you’re a sitting duck target. Keep moving, skid, undulate up and do everything unexpected and that way you were a difficult target. Which I proceeded to do on the rest of my tour. I think that has a lot to do with me being here today.
JH: It’s a good story Jack. So, tell me a little about life on the base by then, Pocklington.
JT: Oh, Pocklington. A wonderful base. A very good, good mix of, very [emphasis] mixed crowd. The most mixed crowd of any outfit I’ve ever been with. I think I’ve a note of it here in one of. Now where is it. Where is it, I can’t find it. Anyway, I’ll do it from memory.
JH: Yes, that’s fine. Oh dear! The wind!
JT: The wind. I hope this, the wind isn’t interfering with your sound.
JH: I think it’ll be okay.
JT: Anyway, there were English, when I say English, they were Scot, there were Welsh, there were Irish, there were Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians, one American, one from Trinidad, who, a black man who was a dentist: a navigator, South Africans, one Rhodesian. One Rhodesian, can’t think of any others.
JH: I think you’ve covered – quite a few countries!
JT: That’s an amazing mix and they got on very, very well, the silly jokes: the Rhodesian was Vernon Fitt, Flying Officer Fitt so they all asked him if his sister was Miss Fitt [laughter]. The Canadians called us the bike troops, we called them the redskins, we all called the New Zealanders the mud islanders, the and the showers was called the Commonwealth Club and, because no Englishmen went there, [laugh] we’re a bit derogatory and of course we called the Englishmen pongos in those days. But everybody did it in good spirits.
JH: Good spirit.
JT: And it was all a big laugh. And we had some extraordinary characters, there was Warrant Officer Dixon was a Canadian bomb aimer, a man of great wit and charm, and when he went up for his commission the Group Captain said to him, ‘I see you’ve done four years of university but you’ve only passed two years of arts. And I see on the record that your father is a doctor and your four brothers and a sister are doctors. How do you explain your situation?’ He said, ‘Sir, I am the white sheep of the family!’ It didn’t stop him getting his commission. [Laughter] And another episode, this was our first day, the first morning we woke up on the squadron and it gives you an idea of the humour and wit that was all the time there. The tannoy would go, the tannoy would go and play the bugle. Chief Engineering Officer, he was a world war one man, and one of his duties was, he was the officer in charge against black marketeering within the RAF, and associated, tradesmen associated with this. So, whenever he found any evidence of it, the black market items were confiscated. In some cases these were chicken, which we dined on in the officers mess. [laughter]
JH: Yeah, of course!
JT: So, he was a very useful man, this Wing Commander Hill.
JH: I’m sure he was.
JT: And most likeable with it. The Group Captain was a real character too, and I used to look at this old, old elderly man who would listen to our, come and sit down and listen to our debriefings, and as a twenty year old, of course I thought this, what I figured to be a fifty six year old man or thereabouts, you know, this is an old fuddy duddy, no doubt he was world war one. But I found out later that this Group Captain used to get in his car with a flying suit on, and a parachute, and drive out to the runway where the aircraft were taxying out towards take off point, and Ron Horton got signalled to a stop, and the Group Captain climbed aboard, and sat behind, beside him the whole trip, never said a word, thanked him when they got back and got out, and got in his car.
JH: Thanks for the lift!
JT: Shortly after the aircraft turned off the runway and went back so that he was in the debriefing room when the crews came in.
JH: How about that.
JT: What a character!
JH: Yes. And very popular by the sound of it. Yeah.
JT: Oh, and the, we were a base so we had a Air Commodore. Our Air Commodore was Air Commodore Gus Walker, later Air Vice Marshal Sir [emphasis] Gus Walker. He, he was an Air Commodore at twenty seven years of age, the reason being he was a Group Captain at twenty four and CO of a Lancaster squadron airfield, and the spare aircraft one night, the, the incendiaries dropped out of the aircraft and were burning on the ground, under the cookie. And he jumped in his car and raced towards it, got out and was running, his idea is he’s going to run and start up the engine and taxi it clear, but when he was a certain distance from the aircraft the cookie went off and it blew his arm off, at the elbow. Lucky it didn’t kill him.
JH: Could have been worse, yeah.
JT: Yes. But when he, when they came to, he was such a cool customer, when the ambulance arrived he said, ‘Find that arm, it’s got a perfectly good glove on it.’ That’s the sort of man he was. He was a most interesting character, and again, one of nature’s gentleman.
JH: Yes. So that, you were telling me before about a very near miss. Which raid was that on? Was that your first tour or the second tour?
JT: No, that was, I was just one tour. This was Hannover,
JH: Yes.
JT: If you turn up Hannover.
JH: Let me have a look here.
JT: It’s near the end.
JH: Okay, just looking through the list here. Here’s Hannover, in January, a night raid, near collision. 5th of January ‘45.
JT: 5th of January, ’45. Yes. It was a clear night, no moon, starlit. We were travelling on our way in to Hannover, and I think it was about ten minutes or so before the target, suddenly out of the corner of my right eye I caught sight of a fighter, of a, and it was an FW190 went straight across in front of us, travelling slightly [emphasis] down, and in that instant you, you’re not sure whether you saw it or not, but you know you did, but it’s happened so fast, it’s, everything is in recollection. And I though, goodness me, that was an FW190, painted black, shiny black, his canopy was open and I could see the pilot, I could see his oxygen mask, I could see his shiny black leather jacket, I could see the crease of the shoulder. And then I thought, how close was that, how far, that was a cricket pitch, no more. So when I, later on, on the ground I started putting it all together and figured it out there was point two of a second, and worked out the closing speed was roughly three hundred and eighty mile an hour. He didn’t see us, and when I, at debriefing when I went to the, said to the, told the story to the debriefing officer and said he was flying with his canopy open, ‘That’s impossible,’ he said, ‘no one could fly it’s too cold because it was minus forty five degrees.’ However, the following day in the mess, he came up to me at lunchtime and said, ‘you were right about that FW190. I’ve been in touch with headquarters in London and that you cannot fly a 190 at night with the canopy closed because the glare from the exhaust dazzles you, dazzles on the windscreen, and you can’t see.’ I said so they fly freezing. However, I was glad he was point two of a second ahead because if we’d have collided, he’d have killed the, immediately killed the flight engineer and myself no doubt about it, and no doubt about himself, and the others would have had to find their way out.
JH: I’m assuming most of the crew blissfully unaware!
JT: Totally unaware, I was the only one who saw him.
JH: Yes, so did you go down the pub that night and explain it with the crew?
JT: I explained it to them, I didn’t explain until the following day and the, and they were quite shocked by it.
JH: Incredible. And I believe you’ve, you’ve done a painting of it.
JT: I’ve done a painting of that.
JH: From memory obviously.
JT: Yes. And one, John, John, oh he was a geologist. John, a member of 466 Squadron, you’d know him. John Mac, I can’t think of his surname.
JH: Oh well, I’m sure we’ll find out later. Yeah.
JT: Yes. Anyway, what was I going to mention about him?
JH: About the painting.
JT: Oh yes, he got me to do, to get a print, a photo print of it, which he kept for some time and then sent on to the War Memorial in Canberra.
JH: Oh fantastic!
JT: Yeah, and I’ve shown John here a copy of it and shown the original that’s hanging in the hallway.
JH: Well, I’d like to see that after the interview.
JT: I’m going to rework it so it can be viewed without having to put a torch on it.
JH: Yes. That’s excellent. Well, we’re scanning through, we’re sort of coming, coming to the end of some of the raids here, are there any, any particular ones in the second, the later part of the tour you’d like to bring to mind?
JT: There was the, the one that, the last daylight on Gelsenkirchen.
JH: Yes.
JT: That’s a night.
JH: Do you realise that was the same day, seventy three years ago. 22nd of January.
JT: Oh right, right.
JH: How about that.
JT: Yeah. Now -
JH: Seventy three years.
JT: Seventy three years ago. Turn over to the next page, the Gelsenkirchen was one of our last. Is it there? Is it not.
JH: Well it’s here, it’s written down there, but just, there’s no details.
JT: No, that’s a night raid.
JH: Night raid.
JT: No, we went to Gelsenkirchen, that was earlier.
JH: Okay, let’s look back. Just looking back here. Here we are. The 11th of September, 1944. Gelsenkirchen, daylight raid on the oil refinery. Yes.
JT: The, this was the one, that we were approaching the target, this is a target which twelve hundred yards long, by I think it was eight hundred yards wide. Very small target, very [emphasis] heavily defended: eighty eight guns, eighty eight millimetre, ack ack everywhere. As we are approaching the target, we, we came up, and turned on to the target, so as we’re coming up I’m looking across at the target at about forty five degrees, and the flak is enormous, it’s just like patches everywhere in the sky. And at this stage Ross Pearson looks out the window and sees it and says to the navigator sitting alongside in front of him, ‘look at that, some poor bugger’s have got to face that,’ and the navigator said to him ‘we turn on to that target in three minutes time.’ Scared the daylights out of Ross. I turned on to the target and looked at it, and I thought we’ll never get through this, this is it, where we finish. However, when we got into the target area it, I realised this was a box barrage which was not aimed at any particular aircraft, and what we were seeing was all the puffs that had been fired at the earlier aircraft and when we got through it, when we got into the zone, it wasn’t that intense, but we heaved a sigh of relief when we got out of it.
JH: Was, were there any night fighters?
JT: No, that was a daylight.
JH: Oh, this was a daylight. Yeah, yeah.
JT: And of course we had fighter escort.
JH: Yeah. Which was the raid you mentioned you had heavy fighter support? Like four hundred.
JT: That was that Falaise Gap.
JH: That was the Falaise Gap. Four hundred fighters.
JT: Yeah, two hundred, two hundred Mustangs and two hundred Spitfires.
JH: Yes.
JT: But one other one, I’ve forgotten which one it was, it could well have been either that -
JH: Have a look through.
JT: I’ll tell you which one it was. It was a daylight. Ah yes, it was probably this one: Cleve.
JH Cleve, this is 7th October 1944, daylight raid.
JT: And our escort that day was two hundred plus Mustangs, basically American. So we’re on our way into the target in this great bomber stream, and suddenly the rear gunner said, ‘fighter four o’clock low’. So I look back and I can see this fighter coming round, and he said, the rear gunner says, ‘it looks like a FW109,’ then he said, as it got a bit closer he said, ‘oh no it’s a Mustang,’ and the mid upper gunner joined in and said ‘yes it’s a Mustang.’ So, but he kept coming, and I said if he gets too close, just fire a warning burst, I said to the mid upper gunner, ‘fire a warning burst, not at him, but just fire a warning burst.’ However, when he got to a certain distance he did a, he came right up like that, and did a barrel roll and went off. [Laughter] So he was a, some light-hearted, cheeky American fighter pilot who was having his, probably his first close look at a Halifax.
JH: That is interesting. So normally, you know, when you have a huge fighter escort like that for the raid on Falaise. How would they deploy? Were they to one side?
JT: You didn’t se. No. You didn’t see much of them because most of them were up high.
JH: They’re up high. Yes.
JT: Or way out to the left, way out to the right, or ahead or behind. He was the closest we ever saw. We saw, we did see them up high, quite a number, but, you know, they were probably six or seven thousand feet at least above us.
JH: Yes.
JT: Very interesting thing comes out of that, I picked up two: the FW190 which is a much-feared fighter, met its match in a very unusual way. The Thunderbolts, and this is interesting, the RAF tend to sneer a bit at the Thunderbolt because it was so heavy, but do you know they turned out fourteen thousand Thunderbolts, Republic, and the Americans were very happy with them, for good reason. On those massive Fortress and Liberator raids over Germany, the absolute top cover were Thunderbolts because if a Mustangs or others down lower got jumped by a 190 it would be a Thunderbolt come to the rescue because it was the only aircraft that could overtake a 190 in a dive, and a 190 knew once a Thunderbolt it got on his tail in a dive it was curtains.
JH: Yes, and the higher ceiling for the Thunderbolt. So they were sitting up there.
JT: Yes. It was up high, they flew top cover all the time.
JH: That’s an interesting comment, yeah. Okay, well, any more raids to talk about? Did you engage any fighters on any of these?
JT: Ah! We, we had a, we had a couple of oh yes, yes, there was, um, two, two things: there was, one of the last raids, one of our last raids was, there were that many fighters around I never stopped weaving. I was, you could see the, see aircraft being shot down, there were so many aircraft being shot down, you weren’t seeing the actual fighters, but you were seeing aircraft being hit, and you knew that they were - and they hung with us for about oh probably twenty, twenty five minutes on the return flight from the target, before we sort of flew out of it, and there was an occasion or there was an occasion when we were, oh yes, a couple of occasions, one occasion was where there was a burst of flak near us on the right, so I moved a bit further away to the left, and then there was another burst of flak much closer [emphasis] up on the right, and as I start to move away from it – tracer. 20mm tracer came through it, and unfortunately I got into a dive to the port and went over the top of us, but obviously a ME109 or FW190 had come through that flak and fired at us, and it was the flak that attracted my attention, tracer got out of the way
JH: If you hadn’t seen the tracer you wouldn’t have seen him.
JT: We’d have possibly been hit. The other one was, that on one raid, a night raid, I was asked to take Major, Major Bathgate, an artillery expert, on the flight, ‘cause he wanted, they needed to study the flak. So we were approaching the target and the flak burst over the right, he said, ‘can you go a bit closer?’ So very reluctantly I steered over towards the flak and then a burst ahead of that, another burst ahead of it. He said, ‘go closer if you can.’ So we went up two lots of flak that we went uncomfortably [emphasis] close to. I would never have done it without him on board, but it satisfied him. ‘Oh yes, its 88 mil, right we don’t need to look at any more.’ And I heaved a sigh of relief on that occasion. The other occasion that I haven’t mentioned, I don’t know which, I can’t remember.
JH: Yes. Is it Mulheim?
JT: No, that was daylight.
JH: That’s a daylight one. Yeah.
JT: No, that was a night raid with him. It was one of the late ones. It was -
JH: Have you had - we’re just looking through, um, Dusseldorf was in November.
JT: It could have been that.
JH: Or you had Wilhelmshaven.
JT: No, it could have been Dusseldorf.
JH: Yeah.
JT: Dusseldorf yeah, it was either that, either one of those.
JH: Night fighter firing and missing.
JT: Ah, that was, that, no it was Cologne was the one with Major Bathgate.
JH: Okay. Righto. You mentioned before the Mulheim raid, the daylight raid.
JT: That was the one where the air speed indicator failed on take off.
JH: Hmm. And you continued with the operation, with the raid, you were committed with the full bomb load.
JT: Yeah, we took off, it flew, the aircraft flew off fortunately, it wasn’t the engines, it was the airspeed indicator, but we, did a slow, climb slowly as a result of that, to avoid stalling, we got to operational height and of course we had no air speed indicator, no bomb sight and no Gee: navigational aid. However, because it was daylight and the bomber stream was visible, we joined it and went to the target. But when we got to the target, in order to drop our bombs I formated on another aircraft, I think he was new, and jumpy and I though he’ll be a bit early with his bombs gone, so I said to the bomb aimer, ‘I’ll count to four and then you release,’ which we did, and we got an aiming point, so he was well short with his bombs. The other occasion I haven’t mentioned, and I think this might have been, yes I think it might have been on that, on the Magdeburg raid. Pretty certain it was.
JH: Magdeburg, here we are, in January, a night raid. Yeah.
JT: It’s the only occasion which I was ever coned by searchlights. I got away from single searchlights quite easily. but this time the blue, the blue radar searchlight picked me up and it was absolutely dazzling, [emphasis] so I went into, did a couple of corkscrews, and realised how helpless that was, no help at all, hopeless. So I went to the top of the corkscrew and then suddenly went into a, almost vertical wingtip position, and put the nose right down and went into a screaming dive to port, and we lost something like six thousand feet, and got up to about well over three hundred mile an hour on the airspeed indicator, but we shed all searchlights. And thus I realised that’s the only way to get out of it, coning, was to put it into the steepest possible dive.
JH: Pretty extreme manoeuvre.
JT: Conversation with other pilots, post, after I’d been screwing, they had had the same experience and had got out of it the same way.
JH: Well Jack, that Magdeburg, that was your last but one raid, and then you, I think you did one more operation, correct? Correct, yeah. Would you like to talk about how it all wound up, that was the end of the operations. So what, what happened after your last operation?
JT: Ah, the, oh yes, this Wing Commander Barnard from Coastal Command, and the rigid disciplinarian; one of the customs when you’re on your last raid, is you don’t have to come back in your order, you can come back as fast as you like and be there as early as, home as possible. So what happened three of us were finishing on the one night. What happened was, we all called up bang bang bang I was the third one to call up.
JH: Do you call pancake? Is that the?
JT: No, the permission to land.
JH: Permission to land, yeah.
JT: And he is in the debriefing room, but they hear, can hear the, what is going on in the Tower, re broadcast. As soon as he heard me call up, ‘That man is not flying according to regulation, put him on a charge when he lands.’ The debriefing officers had considerable trouble persuading him it was a relished custom that on your last trip you come back hell for leather. So it gives an insight into the character of the man.
JH: So, you weren’t court martialled!
JT: No. So anyway you land. We were, it was quite interesting.
JH: By the way, did you know that was your last operation by the way?
JT: Oh yes. Yes, we were operating on a point system. Three points for a non-German target, four points for a German target and that took us to I think a hundred and nineteen points. And anyway, when you land -
JH: I think they call them fly-bys now – small joke, sorry!
JT: Good joke, yes, good fly-bys. When you got to the debriefing room, immediately inside was somebody with a keg of rum and coffee, and the idea was that you had a coffee royal. And the man dishing it out was always, on 102 Squadron, was Padre Paddy, gee, I’ve forgotten his name. Anyway, this was a Roman Catholic priest, a Queenslander, who’d been in Rome when Italy came into the war, and he was interned ‘cause he was living outside the Vatican, he was interned. However, later, under Red Cross, he was repatriated to England and he was sent to see a Bishop in London and he thought, ‘oh this is my, I’ll get my trip back to Australia.’ And he arrives at this Bishop, English Bishop and the English Bishop says to him, ‘right, well now, you’re going to the RAF Pocklington as the Roman Catholic Padre.’ ‘ I thought I was going back to Australia!’ ‘Well you can think again, you’re going to Pocklington.’ [Laugh] So he was, he was a character, a very fit athletic bloke, captained our football team and he was the disher out of the coffee and the rum, very heavy on the rum.
JH: That’s good to hear. I’m sure you appreciated that!
JT: Great chap. We appreciated him no end.
JH: So, that was your last operation.
JT: So having finished, you get, there’s this a great feeling of relief. You’re left four days on the, you stay there for another four days and soak it all up.
JH: Yup
JT: Take your ground staff out and to the pub and buy them beers as a thank you.
JH: Yes.
JT: And give them, as Australians we gave them tinned fruit, and tinned cake and stuff like that, on that night as well.
JH: Yes. And you had to hand over your Halifax to another crew.
JT: Crew. Which went on to do, V Victor, which I’d taken over as a new aircraft, because somebody lost the original V Victor, another crew, and then that V Victor went on and was, at the end of the war, had done fifty trips and was pensioned off.
JH: Pensioned off, yes.
JT: So we were very happy. We had a wonderful [emphasis] ground staff. The, our flight sergeant in charge of them was a terrific bloke. He was a man, I think, you know, he was no chicken, he was thirty four or thirty five. A very experienced man.
JH: Yes. Yes.
JH: Did they ever, tell me, did they ever come up on a trip?
JT: Ah yes, not on a trip, but they used to go on test flights.
JH: Test flights. Yes.
JT: Oh yes. We were always eager to have a test flight. We were always eager to invite them on a test flight.
JH: Yes. Good insurance policy.
JT: We also took them on a, on a, when we did a test bombing, you know, you’d practice bombing. We did a couple of practice bombings on the squadron, so we took along as many as we could.
JH: Yes.
JT: I enjoyed those trips.
JH: Yes.
JT: That was one of them. The one, the one trip that ended on a sour note.
JH: Really.
JT: One bombing raid. We went on this bombing raid, ‘cause at night you’re on oxygen all the time. Anyway, we’re on oxygen [sniff] – ‘oh god that tastes awful!’ Hmm, and next thing, you’re burping and then after a while you’re passing wind! And we got back, and I said to the chappie who’s looked after the oxygen, he was a, what was he? Was the electrical fitter was he? Or, anyway, he was one of the fitters, ‘What’s wrong with that oxygen?’ So he tested it; oh,’ he said, ‘its gone sour.’ ‘Oh get that out of there!’
JH: Gone sour.
JT: Yeah, the oxygen gone sour.
JH: Really. Never heard of that.
JT: And sour oxygen is no good for the intestines, plays up with them no end. [Laughter] So that’s, as I say, that’s the one trip that ended on a sour note.
JH: Yes. Literally. So, I expect you had some leave coming.
JT: Yes. Went on, the, you go in and see the adjutant, who was another charming gentleman, a flight lieutenant Englishman who’d been in world war, decorated from world war one, Mac somebody, lovely bloke, here’s your leave pass, seven days leave, and we’ll post your log book on to you ‘cause it’s getting a green endorsement.
JH: Right.
JT: And I’ll notify when you come back. No, wait a minute, ah yes, when you come back, we notify you your posting. That’s right.
JH: Yes.
JT: So and we’ll post your log book on to you wherever you’re posted to. So I get back, I go and have the seven days leave. Get back and I’m posted back to pock, Moreton on the Marsh, which I didn’t particularly like as a station, because Group Captain Elliot, stuttering Sam, was a very unpleasant CO, disliked by everybody, ground staff, aircrew. He was a, rather unpleasant character. He, there was a seniors officers mess, was a separate building. He commandeered it, and took it over, and confiscated all the cream blankets that the officers had and that became the home of he and his paramour, he had a live in girlfriend.
JH: Oh I see.
JT: And he was a problem. For example there’s a, example quoted of an aircraftsman who’d been AWOL goes up on a charge in front of him, and he, ‘I-I-I s-sentence you to-to-to se-se-se-se,’ and the aircraftsman made the mistake: he said, ‘seven days, sir’. ‘Y-y-y-yes n-n-now its f-f-four-fourteen.’ That’s the sort of bloke he was. And I’m in my flight office in one day. There were two Moroccan pilots, they’d, they were long, warrant officers, they’d been out in the middle east and been right through that campaign, they were instructors, and their surname was Al-Azraki. So I pick up, answer the phone in the flight office: it’s Stuttering Sam. ‘W-w-will you send down w-w-warrant officers warrant officer al-alza-alza-alza, he went on, alza-alza-alza, and I was so tempted to say Raki, no I’m gone, so I waited and waited finally he got Varaki out.
JH: Yeah.
JT: Sent them down They were going for their commission interview.
JH: Yes.
JT: The, he had, the sergeant in charge of the mess was a fat creep and he was, he was his spy. He used to report back to him everything that went on in the mess.
JH: I’m sure you soon figured that out, you chaps.
JT: So they, this bloke rode a motorbike, so they used to take his motorbike and hide it! Then he, then stuttering Sam decided the mess needed repainting, which it didn’t, so he got it done. So what they did, I don’t know who did it, but they got a boot, tied it on to a long pole, dipped it in mud and put footprints right across the ceiling. [Laughter]
JH: That’s in the officers mess? Yes. Wonder if it’s still there? We could go on for hours, you know. But let’s, let’s talk about how, repatriation do you call it, isn’t it, coming back here, finishing up there, demobilisation, repatriation.
JT: Right, we, we stayed at Moreton in the Marsh till the 22nd June 45, went to Brighton holding there, transit depot and I came home on the, left, left Brighton on the 15th of September.
JH: Yes.
JT: On the, came home on the ship called the Stratheden, which had just been refurbished for passenger use again - the dining room. So the dining room was serving passenger food.
JH: I wonder if Don Browning came back on that?
JT: I don’t know. I don’t remember him being on it. Anyway the cooks were Ghanese, and they served, on their menu every day was a curry, amongst other things.
JH: Yes.
JT: I had a different curry every day,
JH: Yes.
JT: I went and had curry every day, went right through their whole list.
JH: Yes. Menu.
JT.: Whole menu of curries, before I had something else.
JH: And you still like curry?
JT: I Love curry!
JH: I bet you do!.
JT: Their curries were fantastic. The whole, the meals were absolutely terrific. Came back here, land in Sydney, Bradfield depot, Bradfield as a transit depot.
JH: Yes.
JT: Was finally discharged on the, I think it was the 9th of December 1945. And in 1946 I took the opportunity of completing my schooling. On the CRDS, did twelve months and did the Leaving Certificate, Then went to Sydney Technical College and became a Quantity Surveyor, five year course there.
JH: Oh right. Yes.
JT: They don’t call them quantity surveyors any more, they call them, they became a degree course at University of Technology at the University of New South Wales and they’re called building surveyors.
JH: Yes, yes. And so what about family? You met your wife in Sydney.
JT: Yes. The, unfortunately, I had one daughter, only had one child the first marriage, my wife, first wife died.
JH: I see. Yes.
JT: And I married Elizabeth who had three children, so we put the two families together and we were all one family, that’s how I got a son. My stepson Bruce is my son Bruce.
JH: Geologist
JT: No, no, that’s my, that was my son-in-law.
JH: Son-in-law.
JT: My daughter Kit, my own daughter Kit married Michael Bonneybrook. He was the geologist. I wish I could remember the name of that machine they were using that he few with all the time. He went all over the world, he was in the, he went to America, Canada, Peru, Brazil, China, India, various countries in Africa, all over the place, all over the world.
JH: Geology, geologist is being a paid traveller.
JT: Unfortunately, his father - incidentally who was a quantity surveyor, and actually taught quantity surveying in Queensland at the university - his father suffered from cardiomyopathy and died at about, probably seventy years of age, but Mike got it at fifty eight and died.
JH: Oh, that’s sad.
JT: Very unfortunate because he was a wonderful bloke.
JH: Yes. It sounds like you had a successful career, and now you’re up here on the coast.
JT: I was, as a quantity surveyor, I retired, they finally found something was wrong with my spine.
JH: From that compression?
JT: I retired, not, they hadn’t found the full compression. I initially I went to the repat back in 1947 I think it was, or ‘48. But I struck an unfortunate doctor there and he was not interested in pensions or treating people, he was interested only in knocking people back; that was his modus operandi. But in 1957 I found a doctor who had the sense to send me for x-rays. But he – only upper back x-rays - and they discovered I had this problem, spinal compression and so in 1957 I retired - ill health. But the doctor who discovered this, he said, ‘You’re not to sit around,’ he said. ‘Go and pick apples,’ he said, ‘what I’m saying is, do something that’s physical, you’re not sitting down, but you’re doing something, you’re moving a lot,’ he said, ‘that’ll help your condition.’
JH: Yes.
JT: So that’s how we came to, we went to Bonville and we bought this property which was running horses at the time, the previous owner, next door, one side of us was a macadamia orchard and the other side was avocados. We looked at them both and we decided avocados was the way to go. But we put avocados in on the like a slope, a hill on the back, put them in on the slope, but on the other land, we got interested in peaches and nectarines, out those in, but towards the end of our time there I took all those out, because I’d reasoned out that if you reshape the land and the hills and valleys, you could grow avocados on the flat, on the hills, which I did, put in avocados there.
JH: Yes, okay
JT: And that was successful. But at 64 I’d had enough, and by that time I’d been to another doctor who finally said we’ll have a full [emphasis] spinal x-ray and he said you’ve had total spinal x-ray and that’s when he recommended me for the full TPI. And amongst those things they send you to a to a psychiatrist. And the psychiatrist says to me, he’s a character, he said ‘Do you know why you’re here?’ I said, ‘I suppose you’re going to decide whether I’m sane or not!’ He said, ‘oh no, that’s not the reason you’re here,’ so he said, ‘tell me how your accident happened.’ I told him. And he said. And I, ‘A strange thing,’ I said, ‘that man’s name will never leave me: Flying Officer Duncan Dobbie.’ He said ‘do you know why you remember that man’s name?’ he said, ‘Because he tried to kill you: your subconscious tells you he tried to kill you that day. It was such a foolish action, that could have resulted in death. So your subconscious says: he was trying to kill that’s why you’ll never forget his name.’ Interesting wasn’t it.
JH: Isn’t that interesting.
JT: He was quite a funny man, that, it was a very funny interview.
JH: You probably made his day, Jack.
JT: Ah, he said, something or other, but he said, you’re lucky he said, ‘cause they, if they break a leg they shoot horses! [chortle] Character.
JH: One question I’ve got is since you’ve retired and so on, how, have you kept in touch or did you, keep in touch with your crew through the years?
JT: Yes, we kept in, Ross kept in touch with the navigator, the bomb aimer, Jack White, the Australian who went early, ill health, he disappeared because, in Sydney, he was, he was a bit of a wild man in a way, we lost track of him completely.
JH. Yes. Yeah.
JT: The, Derek Turner became a solicitor, he died at 68, in England, he was from Newcastle on Tyne.
JH: That’s early. Yes.
JT: He, Ross kept in touch with him and through Ross I kept, you know, left messages, but he died at 68, so that’s a long time ago.
JH: Yeah. 1990. Yeah.
JT: He was a wild one, English boy.
JH: RAF. John Hughes. Yes.
JT: We lost touch with him from the day we, the crew broke up. Nat, now Nat was thirty six years old when he joined us as a crewman. So, he was dead a long time ago.
JH: Yes. What was his background? That’s a German sounding name.
JT: He was Jewish.
JH: Ah!
JT: He was a brave man. He was a Jew, flying over Germany, if we’d got shot down, and he had a lot of trouble, he was an orthodox Jew, because, with his food.
JH: Yes. Because I know some, from what I’ve read, changed their names, on their log book. Or in their name and number.
JT: Yeah, well he, I tried to get special diet for him, and he said, ‘oh no don’t bother, don’t bother, I’ll manage,’ you know. But he’d been a police, a physical training instructor in the London police.
JH: This is Sergeant Nat Goldberg, we’re talking about. A mid upper gunner, RAF.
JT: Yeah. Now Flying Officer Davis was the Welshman, and he only flew five trips with us, so we lost him pretty early.
JH: Yes. You mentioned that.
JT: John Williamson became, he was a Melbourne boy, became a bricklayer, we kept in touch with him. Then he went into a nursing home and suddenly he wasn’t answering our phone calls or cards, Christmas cards, so he’d died.
JH: So how many are with us, at the moment, of the crew?
JT: I’m the sole survivor now.
JH: Really.
JT: Ross was the second last.
JH: Yes, I knew Ross. Yes, yes. Another thing I often ask, and we’re encouraged to ask, is you know, reflecting back, about the, your thoughts about the campaign: how effective it was, you know, the controversies, lack of campaign medal. I’d just like to get your thoughts on that, if, if you would like to?
JT: Yes. I’ve got a few thoughts on this.
JH: Some people haven’t talked about it.
JT: The, there’s a few little points there. One is the, [cough] I’ve mentioned already to you, about the engineer who designed the bomb platform of the Halifax, should have been sacked and someone else redesign it, and it should have been lengthened and that, the shape of the fuselage or the seat. Now, early, fairly early on, well 1943, they put that smooth rounded nose on the Halifax. I often wondered why they didn’t cut out the gun turret and do the same to the Lanc, ‘cause it would have saved them all that weight of the turret, the guns, and ammunition and given the bomb aimer a better nose to the front of the aircraft and it would have possibly added slightly to its speed. Interesting, you know, interesting little one.
JH: They fell short didn’t they, to make things safer and more efficient and better aircraft, from what you say.
JT: Now, the other one that I really [emphasis] object to, when you look at it, in the American Air Force, the Liberator and the Fortress, they only had nine cylinder engines, which turned out twelve hundred horse power each. They were turbo-charged. They, the, they performed on that horse power way [emphasis] above by comparison with our engines, because of the turbo-charging. Now there was a mark four Halifax which was going to be with turbo charged engines, but it was abandoned. Now if the Halifax had turbo-charging as well as its later on fuel injection, the performance of those engines in the aircraft would have been considerably enhanced. Why? Question why. Now these things happen, or don’t happen. I have the suspicion there were some real fuddy-duddys in Handley Page and they should have got rid of them. And I’ll be a real heretic here: I’d have brought someone in, a couple of aircraft designers from Douglas, because of the Douglas Boston, the shape from very early in the war. They could have helped out no end. But, to get them to work as a team probably was, would have been a problem. The other one, this is now criticism Bomber Command planning, and this goes right back to, up to Bomber Harris territory here. You’re going into a target, there’s heavy flak around the target. Why didn’t they bomb the flak? [emphasis] Why weren’t certain aircraft sent in to bomb the flak, also bomb the searchlights. And I feel we didn’t bomb German airfields enough. These sort of things.
JH: Yes. Well, that’s a very interesting question, and I have thought about that, about the flak, why wasn’t that a target in itself? Was it because that if they bomb the flak, then the fighters know you know what the target is right away?
JT: But you’re already at the target, you know, they already know where, they’ve already worked that out because they’ve got the fighters there and they are anyway, once you’re in the flak range.
JH: TYes. hat is an interesting question you raise.
JT: There’s another point there, as I found out, one of the on a course with at Point Cook, Malandra, Point Cook, Jeff Rees, Jeff got to England and he had exceptional sight, he and a fellow called Ross Roberts, both had exceptional eyesight. They had these violet blue eyes, and they both had, the, twenty four was the number, maximum number on the eyesight, night vision test, these blokes rattled off the twenty four first go. What happened to them, while we were at Brighton, they were sent up to a room, and an Australian Squadron leader interviewed them, decorated bloke, said how would you like to fly Mosquitos, night fighters, and they didn’t go to where we went, they went straight through on Airspeed Oxfords, into Blenheims, into something else and into the Mosquito night fighters. He’s told me subsequently that they used to fly in, used to go out and strafe the German airfields as the fighters were starting to take off, and then after they strafed the airfields they would go up and join in the bomber stream, looking for German night fighters. So they did that much, but I think they could have done more in the strafing of night fighter airfields. And certainly, the bombing of the, with the searchlights and the flak, rocket firing Mosquitos would have been the answer. More accurate.
JH: Yeah. You raise a good question there, maybe that’s a line of research to find out just why that didn’t happen. What about the, your reflections on the impact of bomber command in the war, you know, the civilian casualties, this kind of thing?
JT: Well, the, I think it became apparent with the bombing of London, that it was total war. Civilians were not going to be exempt. So, if English, if United Kingdom civilians weren’t exempt, Germans weren’t exempt. It’s as simple as that. The fact that we were killing Germans, they were going to oppress us anyway, I had no second thoughts on that, and definitely when it comes to Dresden, I got no second thoughts on that because I have what I consider to be some inside information there, and if the facts, if they are facts, certain things explain it. Now, a chappie I know was deputy, his aircraft was deputy master bomber on Dresden. They were sent to Dresden because it was a major rail centre [cough] and Joe Stalin had asked Churchill to bomb Dresden, the railway yards, because it was the place where tanks were being, going through to the eastern front. Now not far from Dresden was a prisoner of war camp. There were two Australians in the prisoner of war camp there. They were at a Bomber Command reunion, and they said, for three weeks prior to the bombing, tanks were going through on flattops, endless stream to the eastern front. Now, okay they bombed Dresden, so that part’s okay. Now what caused the firestorm, and if this information is correct, it’s self explanatory, we used to use an incendiary bombing cannister, which was about that long, like that, and weighed about a pound and a quarter, and I think there was something like a hundred and sixty pounds weight in the cannister. On Dresden I was told, I don’t know whether it’s right or not, for the first time they were using a new incendiary, a thirty five pound bomb, that went in the, there were two, there were, in the cannister, there were three, and three are six and three deep, I think it was. No: that’s right. Eighteen. Eighteen times thirty five, yeah, that’s it. Now what happened: these created a much more intense firestorm than the little ones, and instead of just burning what they aimed at it just went right through it.
JH: Yes.
JT: Now that’s an explanation. Now all these people running around: ‘They should never have bombed Dresden. It was a sacred city of pottery and antiques’. Blah, blah, blah. Those people don’t know what they, they were never there. They were never, you know, anyone who was never on a bombing raid at night, shouldn’t talk, about the bombing campaign, criticise it. Because, you’ve gotta experience it to know what it was about. I think, overall it was very effective and two instances verify it. What was his name? The German?
JH: Spiers?
JT: Spiers? Told Hitler, and Goebbels, having viewed the damage, at Cologne I think it was, or in the Ruhr, he told them straight: we can’t survive this, we can’t win the war, they’re gonna wipe us out. Now I take that of Spier before, over anyone speaking English! The second one was - which I think is a classic - we all know the V!, we all know the V2, how many people know the V3? Do you know the V3?
JH: No. No I don’t.
JT: Right. I’ll tell you the story of the V3. There’s a town called Limoges, France. PRU aircraft picked up enormous [emphasis] activity taking place. A concrete structure was being built. This huge [emphasis] enormous thing, like that, mushroom shape. And it was obviously going to be something big, enormous. And then they started: the base went in and then they started putting in these barrels, gun barrels, enormous, hundred foot long gun barrels. All set in concrete. At different, all at varying angles, very slightly different angles, very slightly different angle that way, varying slightly in elevation, lateral elevation, And at that stage, British and American intelligence had a big meeting about it, and a lot of them were: ‘lets bomb it now!’ Someone very wisely said, ‘no, let’s wait until they’ve finished the last pour, the last pour, still all wet, then we’ll hit it.’ So, in, I think it was probably November. This is V3. What it was, there were all these hundred foot long gun barrels, all pointing at London, all slightly different angles and lateral and elevation so would have wiped out the whole of London. Number one fires, number two fires, number three -
JH: Like a salvo.
JT: One after the other. By the time they get back to number one it’s cooled, they can fire again. So it’s endless barrage. Would have destroyed London. This is V3. So, came the night, or day. I don’t know whether it was day or night. But this was the, I think it’s the same squadron that bombed the Tirpitz, 617.
JH: Yes.
JT: Given the job of bombing Limoges, with twelve thousand pounders. So, in they go, you can imagine the manpower. All these, also they said, we won’t destroy the workers because they’re all forced labour, foreigners, you know, they’re not German. But you imagine the number of barrows, trucks, the amount of concrete mixing mixers, to pour all that concrete, because it’s feet deep. So it’s finished, the last pour, in goes the Lancs with the twelve thousand pounders and I don’t know, I can’t remember if it’s six or eight went into it, just blew it to blazes, distorted it: the Germans abandoned it, couldn’t do anything with it.
JH: Wow, what an impact that had!
JT: That’s V3.
JH: Yeah, yeah.
JT: All that labour, all that concrete, all those highly prized gun barrels that were built at Krupps. All wiped out. Whoever that man was that, let’s wait till the end, could have been Eisenhower.
JH: End of the argument.
JT: It could have been Eisenhower. ‘Cause he was the one who, post war, when they were sending those balloons over Europe, over Russia, at forty thousand feet, and they came to him and said we’ve got balloons that’ll go at eighty thousand feet. No, we won’t use them, because they’ll develop the counter. Let’s, let them use all their efforts on our forty thousand. And not until we are totally exhausted, do we use the eighties.
JH: That’s an amazing story.
JT: So I reckon it could have been him at Limoges: we wait until then. Because his two most famous stories that sum up Eisenhower. Churchill, ‘Ike, I wish you would not say “schedule” I wish you would say “shedule.”’ ‘I will, when you say, tell me what, “shule, shule” you went to!’ And, and the other one, the big reception in London, some English woman said to, ‘General Eisenhower did you ever meet General MacArthur?’ Of course MacArthur was being the flavour of the month. ‘Oh yes,’ he said, ‘I did dramatics under him for four years in the Philippines! I studied dramatics under him for four years in the Philippines!’ [much laughter]
JH: Well, Jack just to finish off, what about a comment on the campaign medal, the lack of campaign medal for Bomber Command?
JT: Oh, I think that was terrible and I can’t understand it, because you know, it, I think it’s because of Dresden. And unlike what he was in every other respect because he was as tough as old boots, Winnie lost his marbles on that one, he took fright at Dresden because in his victory speech he mentioned the boys of fighter command, he never mentioned bomber command.
JH: Correct. Yes.
JT: But I’ll finish with a top note with Winnie. This is a delight. He goes into a toilet somewhere in, one big club in London and he goes to the urinal, and this very posh English gentlemen comes in alongside and goes to the next urinal and Winnie turns round and just starts to walk straight out. The fellow turns round from the urinal and says,[clears throat] ‘At Eton they taught us always to wash our hands after going to the toilet.’ and Winnie’s at the door by this time, and looks back and says, ‘At Harrow, they taught us not to piss on our hands.’ Isn’t that a classic!
JH: [Laugh] That’s a classic. Well, what an incredible interview, Jack, I think on that note we’ll sign off. Oh, wait a minute.
JT: I’ve got two episodes.
JH: Oh, stop press! Hang on!
JT: Two comics. One of them: Jack White the bomb aimer was in the, as the three down the front. If they had to relieve themselves there was a flare chute in the step, you lifted a lid and urinated down the flare chute. Jack White does it and very foolishly gets too close to the metal, touched it [slap sound]. And of course at those temperatures, you freeze on. There’s an enormous scream. The bomb aimer didn’t bat an eyelid, he just picked up his, he had a coffee thermos flask, he just tipped it on him, the screams are even louder, but it released him!
JH: Oh my goodness!
JT: The other episode was, I mean this Jack, you know, he could be a pain in the neck at times see, the mid upper gunner had a quick release: he lifted his seat up and clicked it. Now if he wanted to get out in a hurry, he just hit this little lever and the seat just fell down. So if Jack White for some reason went down the back of the aircraft when we were training, walk past and [flick sound] he’d flip it and would drop poor old Ned out on the floor. He did it twice, Ned said, ‘that’s it, you do that again I’ll deal with you on the ground.’ So we, I think Munster, the first daylight on Munster, we were in the, the first time I heard flak, if you can hear flak you’re going to get hit: because it sounds like growling lions. The lions are growling and suddenly bang! We hear this, a piece of flak comes in through the starboard fin, the rudder, goes in, hits the floor, bounces up, hits the quick release on that seat, drops him on the floor. He screams out: ‘Jack you bastard!’ The bomb aimer in the nose says, ‘What did I do?’ It bounced up, hit the framework in the aircraft, hit the floor again, bounced up and in that photo I showed you, where is it? The spar, [paper shuffling] where is it? The one with the -
JH: Looking for the photo, I think you’ve got it there somewhere.
JT: Inside the aircraft. Or did you put it in the -
JH: No, I think you’ve got it there, in the pile. We’re looking for a photo. Oh, here it is, under here.
JT: Oh good.
JH: There you go. Photo is the cockpit of the Halifax.
JT: See that spar across there, it had hit the floor back here and flew up and hit the spar there, must have been very [emphasis] close to that, hit the spar there, flew back and landed on my helmet. It cut the leather, I put my hand up, in gloves, and I could feel the terrific heat through the glove, grabbed hold of it and threw it down on the floor. Put my hand up, again, felt the cut about that long in, about that long in the helmet and sort of felt inside it, and the leather shammy when I felt it, was intact. It was a piece about like that and about that thick, and it had part of the plywood floor where it had hit it embedded in it, and that’s the path.
JH: So it lost a bit of its sting by the time it hit your head.
JT: Yes. It had come to a stop by the time it hit me.
JH: Yeah yeah.
JT: But it went twang, bang, bang, BANG! I heard the bang when it hit that spar. And strangely enough it didn’t dent the spar. Which when I got on the ground later I looked up and I expected to see a dent in it. No dent. So that’s extraordinary.
JH: Yes. That’s amazing. Well, thanks very much Jack, I really enjoyed listening to this, and a really good interview.
JT: I’m now talked out.
JH: You’ll be on the records forever in Lincoln at the Bomber Command Centre now. Okay, thank you.
JT: Right, so if I am, Con, Jimmy Constaff, Jimmy, Jimmy Constaff, yeah.
JH: What’s this?
JT: I’m trying to think of a bloke’s name. I want to put it in there. So that if he’s ever, a very short Englishman, was a pilot in C flight with me, Jimmy, Constaff, if you ever, hear, listen to this Jim, my regards.
JH: Okay!



John Horsburgh, “Interview with John Henry Thomas,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed April 20, 2024,

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