Interview with Arthur Atkins


Interview with Arthur Atkins


Arthur Atkins grew up in Melbourne, Australia. As a Boy Scout, he experienced a flight in an aircraft and knew he wanted to be a pilot. He transferred from the army to the Royal Australian Air Force and started pilot training in Australia. He travelled to Britain in 1943, via New Zealand and the United States of America. After further training at various stations, he was posted to 625 Squadron at RAF Kelstern. Among the operations he describes are leaflet drops over Chartres, the bombing of the Opel factory at Rüsselsheim, the Gironde Estuary, Le Havre, Frankfurt, Cologne and Stettin. He completed 32 operations. While stationed at RAF Kelstern he often visited the Plough Inn at Binbrook.




Temporal Coverage




02:13:42 audio recording


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AP: So this interview for the International Bomber Command Centre’s Digital Archive is with Arthur Atkins, a 625 squadron Lancaster pilot during the Second World War. The interview is taking place at Arthur’s house in Kew in Melbourne. My name’s Adam Purcell. It’s the 21st of November 2015. Arthur we’ll start from the beginning if you don’t mind.
AA: Right.
AP: Tell us something of your early life, what you were doing growing up, and what you did before the war.
AA: Yeah well I was born at 212 Prospect Hill Road in, Prospect Hill Road oh what was the suburb? Surrey Hills, Surrey Hills. Then we moved to Canterbury when I was about eight or nine and I attended the Canterbury state school up to grade six. Then the equivalent of grade seven I started Scotch College. I was there for six years and I mainly concentrated on business subjects because that’s what I thought I would be going into and I did. I worked in an insurance company for about three or four years. I didn’t do any flying then but I, when I was a small boy and I was in the Cubs, you know, the junior Boy Scouts, they, one Saturday afternoon, we went down to the old airfield on Coode Island and I had my first flight in an aeroplane at about the age of nine, I should think. Eight or nine. Two cubs in the one cockpit. I don’t know who sat on whose knee. I can’t remember that but we were both in the cockpit half standing looking out over each side I should imagine but that was my first experience of flying and then I entered the Sun News Pictorial’s competition for someone most likely to fly, be able to fly an aeroplane and they’d get a free instruction to pilot licence but I didn’t, I didn’t win. There was, I think there was about a hundred people went for it and I was just one of them. I flew the aeroplane, an old Avro Avian I think it was. Single engine thing. I flew it for a little while because I’d flown model planes a lot and I knew exactly what it should do. I thought I did alright but no, I didn’t win it but then in my last year at Scotch I went in, tried to get in to the Point Cook pilot’s training system. I think there was about twenty vacancies or something and I think there was about two thousand people volunteered for it so I didn’t get that one either. However, when the war broke out I got in to the army militia I think in the middle of 1944. Well, that was alright. I didn’t mind it. September ‘44 it was and I had three months. September, October, November. I decided I’d get out so one day when I was on leave I called in to the recruiting office in Russell Street, for the Air Force that is, and they immediately signed me up. Gave me a piece of paper showing that I was a member of the RAAF and my rank was AC2. Aircraftman class 2. And then I had to attend about three times a week at various places to fit me for going into the initial training school. Mathematics and so on. Anyway, I got in and I, that was in nineteen, but the thing was going on to the reserve where I had to do these exercises and so on, lectures, about a fortnight before Pearl Harbour. This. About two weeks before that and the date of that is, December the 7th. I think it was about November the 20th or something that I enlisted in the Air Force. Just as well because I wouldn’t have been able to get out of the, the army as easily as I did and I was unfortunately of course it was mid-winter at Somers. Coldest place I’ve been in my life and some people used to wear their pyjamas under everything else because they only gave us very sort of flimsy one-piece overalls to wear in the midwinter at Somers. By September things were looking up a bit and I finished the course then and they called me in to tell me where I’d be going to next as everyone had depending on your results and they said, ‘We want to make you a navigator,’ because I was very good at mathematics at that stage and I was also a qualified accountant at that stage but I said, ‘No. I don’t want to be a navigator. I want to fly the aeroplanes. Thanks.’ And they said, ‘Well, you came top of your course.’ Course number 28 at Somers. ‘So you actually have a choice of what you’re going to do.’ They didn’t tell me that at first. Only when I objected to being a navigator. And they said well seeing you came top you can choose to train as a pilot and I went up to Benalla and flew Tiger Moths. I was there for two or three months. It’s all there in the logbook but Benalla was good fun flying the Tigers. I never broke one or landed one badly or anything like that and I came out of that alright and they sent me then after about three months, around about Christmastime ’44, ‘44 I suppose it would have been. No, no, would have been Christmas, Christmas ‘43 because I got to England in, in ‘43. Yeah, it would have been ’42. Yeah. Christmas ‘42 would have been the date I finished at Benalla and went to Mallala, South Australia about forty miles north of Adelaide. Looked like the desert and felt like it. I think it was a hundred and eight degrees for three or four days on one occasion and the beds inside the iron huts were that hot you couldn’t sit on the iron bedsteads because they were too hot to be comfortable. But anyway that was, it was quite good. I was there for, until about April or May. Mallala, South Australia, yeah, I’ll put my glasses on. I can read what I’ve written. Yeah. Yeah so I left Mallala on the, in April ‘43 and went to Ascot Vale showgrounds and I was there, only there for two or three weeks with, and fortunately I had a friend I was with, a fella named David Browne and we used to just wander around the city for a while doing nothing just waiting for something to happen and then finally in May, about the middle of April, 25th of April I was sent to Point Cook to do a course on blind approach. That is flying the beam in to land and had quite a bit of other, other work too. In fact, for about ten days I was in charge of the control tower at Point Cook. Not that any accidents ever happened so I wasn’t tested there. I just looked out the window and talked to the, the blokes from the fire cart and the ambulance from down below the control tower and I remember saying, ‘What happens if something goes wrong? What am I supposed to do?’ They said, ‘Send a signal.’ ‘Signal?’ I said. ‘What’s a signal?’ Apparently they meant send some sort of a telegram to, to someone or other. The boss of the group, of that particular group. Anyway, that only lasted a little while and then I was on flying there on Oxfords. Airspeed Oxfords. Mostly under the hood, you know, blind flying on the beam. After that I went to Bradfield Park in Sydney just prior to catching a boat to San Francisco and they put us on a, an American, converted to troopship so a small, sort of, it had been a coastal [trader] I think or something like that. Proper steam steamship called the Mount Vernon which was something to do with George Washington’s home town or something like that and we headed out across towards New Zealand. I was seasick but my friend David Browne wasn’t. I was a bit envious of him. He could still eat these rather sickly, sickly looking thick drinks that he used to get from the canteen while I was chuntering out over the rail. And we got in, finally we got in to New Zealand on the North Island. Auckland. And that was quite interesting. We got off the ship. We were allowed to stay to see New Zealand in four hours so we did that and two or three, there was a group of two or three of us just walking along in Auckland somewhere and we got picked up by a couple of girls who said, ‘Come home and have dinner with us.’ You know, and being generous to the troops so we followed them and went home and spoke to all their family and had a very nice dinner, the three of us, for nothing, you know, just because we happened to be in navy blue uniforms and the New Zealanders had the grey blue uniform of the RAF. But a funny thing happened. While we were just lolling around after dinner the fiancé or boyfriend of one of the girls arrived at the front door and everyone was a little bit embarrassed about that, picking up strange troops, you know, foreign troops, on in the street. So we said, ‘Oh well, we’re off now anyway. Thank you very much,’ we went back to the boat but the bloke who came to the front door was wearing a New Zealand Air Force uniform. He’d been on some island, I think, just north of New Zealand somewhere on duty and he’d just got some leave to come back to Auckland. Anyway, we got back on the boat and then the next thing we knew we’d, we were pulling into San Francisco harbour and sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge escorted in the last part of the trip to there by a blimp and we also saw a submarine. And there was a bloke working on a ship unloading it or loading it. An American ship alongside where we were and a couple of blokes sang out to him, ‘What are you doing sport?’ or something like that. He said, ‘Go home limey.’ [laughs] He thought we were British. He’d probably never heard of Australia. And while we were, we had about a month in America which was one of the most delightful times of my whole life because the Americans were very generous at handing out food, lifts here and there. We went down to New York on one occasion and we had a weekend in New York, in New York in 1943 which not many people from Australia ever experienced. And up, up the, up all the skyscrapers, the Empire State, and we went around to the theatre where the Rockets were dancing around the stage, about a dozen of them, high kicking on the stage. That that was sort of interesting. But then we, we found out that we could go in to any of the night clubs and just have a drink at the bar, and pay for it but you couldn’t sit down. You didn’t have to pay fifty dollars like the Yanks had to, to go in and sit down at a table. We could just go in and stand at the, at the bar and have a drink and watch what was going on and at one stage we were in the Astor Roof Nightclub and the band leader who was Harry, someone or other. Betty Grable, his girlfriend or wife, was sitting in the front row near the band. We were in the table a bit further back. We’d been, we were standing at the bar, a couple of friends and myself, air force people, and this bloke came over and said, ‘Would you like to sit at our table.’ I think there must have been just the two of us by that stage. One of them had gone off somewhere else and I said, ‘Yeah, that’s alright,’ and he sat us down at a table. He had his wife and two women. Married women probably. And we made up a nice party of six people all at his expense. Very good. Then we went back to his hotel afterwards and had a few whiskies I think, if I remember rightly. But that was how the Americans were with us. They asked some funny questions like, ‘Where did you learn to speak English?’ at times. I think they thought we came from Austria or something. Confused Austria with Australia. So, they didn’t know much about Australia, the Americans but we had, in New York, we had all the, comforts like free food, free breakfasts and so on that they had. Then a little later we got on to the Queen Elizabeth which was to take us to England or Scotland actually and it set off and I think there was a half a dozen of us together got into the, into the cabin which was allocated to us. Seven of us got into the cabin but there were only four, four, four bunks in it but fortunately I was one of the early ones getting in. I got one of the bunks. The last man in got the floor. Four days. The Queen Elizabeth mark one it was of course at that stage zigzagged all the way across the Pacific, the, sorry, the Atlantic to Scotland, one way, alternate turning movements you know with not all exactly the same but, so that was to fool any submarines that were watching and I think they, they said the speed they were doing at one stage was forty knots, the Queen Elizabeth. Well that’s about what forty five miles an hour or something like that. Not bad for a big boat like that. Anyway, nothing happened to us. We didn’t even see any submarines. Oh but yes that boat we travelled to in New Zealand and San Francisco on got sunk about three trips later by a Japanese torpedo so I’m lucky to be here. Anyway, the boat pulled in and then we went down to Brighton on the train. The same day the boat pulled in in the morning we got, all climbed on a train and went straight to Brighton in Sussex on the south coast. That was a beautiful time too. I liked Brighton. I could have stayed there for years but they only left us there for weeks and sent us to an RAF station at Andover. There wasn’t much flying going on there. I didn’t notice any. We were only there for, what, a couple of weeks doing ground subjects. Learning the way the RAF worked but the one thing I did notice we had a very nice room to sleep in and we had, we were all sergeants then by the way. The RAF conditions were way and above anything the Australian Air Force had ever thought of and you know we had people to clean the huts, sweep the floors out, make the beds and it was just like officers would have got in Australia if they were lucky and then and weren’t living in New Guinea or something like that but that was okay and then the next move was to Greenham Common where we were once again flying Airspeed Oxfords and an interesting thing happened the first day we were there. We got there in the afternoon and a couple of us, a couple of other fellas and myself walked out across the airfield the airfield a bit. Down one end of it where they, and they weren’t flying at the time we walked there. Must have been late in the afternoon. Anyway, we got to the runway and there was a big black patch about fifty or sixty feet across and we went and had a look at the black patch and we could see someone’s braces ends here and a bit of red meat there and so on. Someone had crashed an Oxford the night before and had burned out and they hadn’t scraped everything off the runway. They’d got most of him but they probably put a few bricks in the coffin because I was detailed because my name started with A and I was just taken off the top of the list and told, ‘You’re going to carry this coffin and load it on the train this morning.’ And that was my introduction to RAF flying, carrying what remained of the pilot to the local railway station where we shoved it into the guards van and said, ‘Goodbye Sport,’ and that was it. After that there was no accidents that I can remember at Greenham Common. We were flying, practicing flying on Oxfords and I got a, above average rating for flying Oxfords there because I’d had all that practice flying them at Point Cook. A bit unfair but I didn’t knock it back but then we went to a little place from Greenham to an airfield called Long Newnton. Long Newnton N E W N T O N. A pilots’ advanced flying unit. Well so was Greenham Common. That was 15 PAFU. They moved out, moved them all out because the Americans wanted somewhere to land, to store their invasion gliders so they shifted us from Greenham Common to Long Newnton and I remember we all got loaded into a bus or train or something and got out at the local station or was dumped off at the airfield at Long Newnton. Of course we didn’t hang around there. We thought we’d wander down and have a beer at the local pub. It wasn’t very far from the airfield. We walked in to the pub in the Cotswolds it was. The Cotswolds. And as we, we went into the bar and there was a couple of blokes in there. They must have been farmers. They were wearing just ordinary clothes which was a bit unusual in England at that time to find ordinary civilians in odd little clubs, they were mostly in uniform of some sort. And one of them said to me, ‘What do you think of the Cotswolds?’ I said, ‘Cotswolds? Is that where we are?’ And we were in the Cotswolds. I’d heard of them of course. I knew almost as much about the geography of England as I did of Victoria because I’d, you know, been buying books when I was a kid. All English comics and so on and a book called “Modern Boy” or something which consisted mostly of aeroplanes and steam trains and so on and we found it was quite a pleasant place, Long Newnton and we just continued to fly our Airspeed Oxfords there and train on them but we had one bad experience. We had to do night flying. Night, night cross-countries. A triangular course. You’d fly north, then northwest, then south west and bring yourself back to the, to the base. Navigating in the dark. Just flying on instruments and if you missed, missed one of the beacons, they had beacons were flashing lights like A for one of, one of the turning points and perhaps F or something for the next turning points. You had to know your Morse code so you knew where you were and then you knew where you were and one of our blokes didn’t come back. You know, it was all at night. Black as night. And England was black as pitch most of the places except for the odd airfields and the beacons, air force beacons like that. I think they were red but I can’t quite remember. There were two types. There was red beacons and white beacons and we were flying on the, I think the red beacons but he didn’t come back and we were just waiting around. Waited around for about another hour or so and someone came out and said, ‘You can all go home now. We’re cancelling the, the, the rest of the exercise tonight. That bloke’s crashed his Oxford and killed himself and we won’t be doing any more flying tonight.’ But it didn’t stop all the flying the next day. But after we’d spent a fair bit of time flying Oxfords we were put on to Wellingtons at um where was it? Lichfield, in the Midlands. 27 OTU. We never flew them. They, some, they split this particular group I was in into two parts. One of them, one part stayed at Lichfield and did all the practising on Wellingtons and the rest and the other half of the group did the Wellington flying at a place called Church Broughton. Church Broughton. And that was where I had my experience with one engine and when we were doing practicing circuits and bumps on approaches on one engine. Then you’d fire both of them up together and not actually land. Just practicing flying around on the one engine on the port engine. The starboard engine was, let me see, no, I think we had to, yeah, we had to power off on the port engine and just use the starboard engine for getting around. On the Wellington you weren’t supposed to fly against the good engine because, I don’t know, there was some reason for it. The Wellington didn’t have enough spare [?] in it to just fly very well on one engine and if you flew against the good engine you could be giving yourself a bit of bother. You mightn’t be able to control it. So, when the starboard engine went out and I was doing a left hand circuit as usual I didn’t quite know what to do and because, according to the rules we should have done a very big circuit around to starboard and landed and done a clockwise circuit. It was always anti-clockwise normal landing circuits in the RAF except on special occasions when the airfield mightn’t have suited a clock, an anti-clockwise approach. After that, well I was on Halifaxes. Halifaxes. Yeah, I haven’t got a picture of one of those here. They, they were quite good. We were flying Halifaxes for a month and, oh yes because I, with this engine off getting back to the Wellington with the crook starboard engine it was still giving some half power but there were sparks and things and black smoke coming out the back of it from somewhere and it had it there. We knew the engine had had it but I just, because it was giving us a little bit of power, I kept going on the anti-clockwise circuit and landed. Did a quite good landing too. Smooth landing but when we came to a stop on the runway and I tried to fire the engines up to taxi back to our parking spot I couldn’t do that. It just kept going around in circuits on the, on the good engine so we had to, we were all fitted with radio of course so I called up the control tower and said, ‘Send us out a tractor. You’re going to have to drag us in. We can’t taxi,’ and I got into trouble for not bailing the crew out which I’d never heard of them doing just because they had lost an engine and what else didn’t I do right? Oh I should have feathered the, feathered the propeller on the starboard engine. All good experience and I said, ‘Well it was still giving me a bit of power so I used it to pull us around into, into the landing, landing position.’ They said, ‘Oh that’s no good. You should have, you should have bailed the crew out and feathered the engine.’ Well I’d never had those instructions. I didn’t argue after that because he was, Australian he was the flight commander. He was a sour puss, I noticed, always. He got sourer than ever when I came back next day and he found the engine had to be changed but at least he didn’t have to change the bloody Wellington and he didn’t have to change the crew. They, we wouldn’t if I had bailed them out by the time they all got out I don’t think all their parachutes would have held them, held them up off, would have opened quickly enough to save them but that didn’t oh worry him. He just didn’t like, didn’t like the rest of us I think for coming in safely and not feathering one engine but I’ve read a lot of stories about Wellingtons trying to land on one engine and about fifty percent of them crashed and killed the crew. It’s probably through the wrong engine going or something like that. I don’t know. Anyway, after that we were on the Halifaxes. They were alright but we had a few worrying moments. The Halifax had four engines of course and there were a lot of Halifax squadrons flying at that time but they were mostly flying on the radial engine Halifaxes. What, we were training on the ones that had been rejected for operations and had the old early model Merlin V12 engines, you know and they had various faults. The Halifax used to have a bad habit of swinging to the left when you landed it. I was warned about that. Then I found out afterwards that they ran out of brakes. If you did, if you did a fair bit of taxiing you found you couldn’t, your brakes had ran out of air or vacuum or something. I don’t know whether they were vacuum brakes or air brakes but the brakes didn’t work if you’d run out of certain, certain distance. Anyway, the first landing I did in a Halifax, they were still using it for bombing here and there, the first landing I did in a Halifax I did a very smooth landing. I always did smooth landings and I was very pleased with myself. We just coasted down the runway just about, you know, ready to turn off in a cross runway and back to the parking area and suddenly the Halifax, I was quite relaxed, suddenly it swung around to the left like I’d been warned about, ‘Don’t let it swing on you.’ Well, I took that with a grain of salt and didn’t take a great deal of notice but fortunately, the, er the instructor who’d actually had done a couple of circuits with me on this practising single engine flying had got out and he wasn’t watching us. He saw us come in to land and he thought that was very good, got on his bike and rode off to the mess and then by the time the, the Halifax swung around to the left and did a circle, a half a circle on the grass he was in the mess on his pushbike, with his pushbike and no one in the control tower said a word to us about it afterwards. Anyway, it swung so far we went down the runaway and swung right around and was facing the way we came, on the grass. It swung to the left. The, I think the Lancasters had a, a tendency to swing to the right. You had to, when you, when you flew a Lancaster with the four throttles in your hand you had to push one further forward to, to stop the thing turning or running off the runway. When you were taking off that was. They were alright when you were landing her but they had a little tendency when you put the full power on to go one way or the other so you had the four throttles in one hand. You pushed one throttle ahead of the other. I don’t know whether it was the little finger or the first finger. I think the Lancaster tended to swing to the right. Well if it did you’d have to put a bit more power on the, on the outer, starboard outer engine to prevent that swing. But anyway, I, I just taxied the Halifax which was on the grass facing the way we’d come in, taxied on, got it back on the runway, took it down to where we parked it, got the truck back to the or our bikes probably at that stage, bikes back to the mess and nothing was said by anyone. Not even flying control. They hadn’t seen it and the instructor hadn’t seen it so we didn’t say anything to anyone about it but it was good experience though and I never did it again. I landed Halifaxes practically every day for the next month but I never swung off the runway again. I was watching it. You couldn’t relax until the thing had stopped, stopped rolling at your, at your parking spot. Then we went to a place called, I was commissioned by that time. I, I started off as a flight sergeant at, on the Halifaxes at, at Blyton which is in Lincolnshire and I was a sergeant pilot for a couple of weeks and then I was, I went to London and got my uniform as a pilot officer and lived in the officers’ mess which was not, nothing very special but it was better than, better than the sergeants’ mess but not much. Not much better but I liked that and I didn’t have to hand in my old uniform either. I’ve still got it. I think it’s in a trunk upstairs in the roof, roof space with a couple of officers’ uniforms. But I did alright with Halifaxes and the next move was to Lancasters at what was known as Number 1 Lancaster Finishing School at, at, Hemswell, Hemswell in Lincolnshire and we had about a fortnight there I think at Hemswell and then we were given a bit of a run-around at various holding units for a couple of days until we were, we’d finished our ten-day course at at Hemswell. Eleven days to be precise. Number 1 Lancaster Finishing School. No problems there at all. I’d had my problems with the Halifax and the Wellington. Hemswell was a piece of cake until we got to our operational station called erm Kelstern. I should remember that. It’s on the front of the house. Kelstern. And we were immediately given leave to go to London. You know, they probably had their hands full at the time. It was a busy station so we had a week in London on leave. Of course all this other stuff we had, weeks in London or the countryside and I went, used to get a ticket to Scotland, the northernmost railway station in Scotland so I could go anywhere between Lincolnshire or wherever I was. I wasn’t necessarily even in Lincolnshire. I could have been in the Midlands and I would just get a train. I think it was third class while I was a sergeant and first class when I was a pilot officer but I normally travelled third class because I found there were more interesting people to talk to in third class than in first class on those trains. And, um where was I? Oh yes when we finished our London, London leave on Kelstern which was 625 squadron they sent me up on a flying, on a, just a flight around the local neighbourhood to get used to the area and the approach to landing and so on. In a Lancaster of course because I was fully qualified Lancaster pilot by that time. Ten days at the Number 1 Lancaster Finishing School. Ten days instruction on Lancasters and low and behold we were just flying around the countryside admiring the scenery and then the flight engineer says to me. ‘The starboard outer engine is overheating.’ Cheers. [laughs] I’d learned my lesson so I just said, ‘Well feather the engine. Feather the prop. Turn it off and feather it.’ So we continued our flying on three engines, two on the left side and one on the starboard side and I had flown them on three engines. In fact I’d flown them at LFS on two engines and I knew they handled perfectly well on three engines so I didn’t hesitate to feather the, to shut that starboard engine down and feather the props so we just landed and I can remember the Lanc flew almost exactly the same on three engines, two on one side and one on the other, you know, on the approach to the strip, to the runway and just did a normal landing, and we just taxied it on the two inner engines to its parking spot and I, I said to the flight sergeant in charge, ‘You’d better have a look at that engine. It’s not working.’ He said, ‘Ok.’ The next day I went out to see how he’d got on with it and he said, ‘Oh there was nothing wrong with the engine. It was just the sender on the, and it wasn’t overheating it was just a sender on the, on the engine itself was faulty and it was sending out the wrong message to the gauge on the, the, um flight engineers panel.’ He had, he had the gauges in front of him. He could, he used to watch. And then I knew I’d got on to a good aeroplane. A couple of days later we were on our first operation because we’d had our leave. It didn’t take long for them to put us on to ops and about half of our crew flew with the remains of another crew piloted by a bloke called Flight Officer Slade and flight officer is not an RAF rank. It’s an American Air Force rank and he was an American and he wore a khaki uniform, the American flying uniform and when he was around in the mess or something he had on the American officer’s uniform. A flight officer, an American flight officer, was the equivalent of a pilot officer in the RAF. But that, that trip, oh when we were flying Wellingtons of course we did a lot of night flying too and we did fly over, over France one night with a load of leaflets and this was in the Wellington and that was all we carried. We had two cans. Two small bomb container cans which were about six foot long by eighteen inches high and wide packed tight with leaflets and when you got to the correct spot the bomb aimer who was down in the nose pressed the right button and the bottom of the canister after he’d opened the bomb doors of course and all the leaflets fluttered down below. Well, for some reason or other he had a nervous attack just before he, he had to release the leaflets over Chartres was the town about forty miles south, southwest of France. Anyway, we got to Chartres alright or the bomb aimer reckoned we were over Chartres so he pressed the button and in his haste he pressed the wrong button and this great canister, six foot long canister packed tight with leaflets hanging on a bomb hook disappeared from the aeroplane and went down with all its leaflets packed tight. When we got back they wanted to know where the, where the other canister was. I mean it could have killed someone, that canister, if it had landed on someone or put a big hole in the roof of the Chartres cathedral. I believe they have a cathedral in Chartres but we never heard any more about that apart from the bombing, bombing leader quizzing the, our bomb aimer as to why he’d just come back with one empty container and he had to explain what had happened. One of the reasons it might have happened because when we were crossing just before we were crossing the French coast heading for Chartres, this was at night of course, someone in the crew said, ‘There’s a searchlight on us.’ Well of course that rattled everyone including the bomb aimer. Searchlights. And after a while we found the searchlight was following us. Well searchlights are not mobile. Not that mobile.
AP: [not that fast] anyway.
AA: And I found someone had knocked the switch. It could have been me. It could have been anyone else on the crew. It could have been the ground staff left it switched on and knocked the switch that turned the landing lights on. Well, in the Wellington the landing light normally, not being used, points straight down. When you want to use it you pull a lever and it swings the landing light forward on a hinge so that it points forward where you’re going to land. We never used it, we never used landing lights all the time, the RAF weren’t using them at the time because they had such good flare paths. Electric flare paths. Anyway, this light followed us and it wasn’t until we were well over the coast, flying over German occupied France with this bright light shining straight down and all I can think was the Germans must have looked at that and said, ‘Oh well that’s someone practicing. It wouldn’t be a foreign plane you know, flying with a light like, on like that,’ so they didn’t bother sending anyone up to investigate. I was lucky. Every now and again someone got shot down on those exploits. They called them nickels. N I C K E L S. Nickels. Dropping leaflets and practically everyone had to do a nickel as part of their course on the Wellingtons so we did ours. Anyway, we, he got the right switch for the second one, he didn’t drop that. He just opened the bottom and all the leaflets went flutter, flutter, flutter down to, down to the cathedral underneath, hopefully. Or just the town of Chartres, I don’t know where they went. Might have all gone down on someone’s farm. That was a bit nerve-wracking especially when we found the searchlight was on us. The next time I found a searchlight was on us when we were bombing um a town in Germany. It was the, er, near Frankfurt, just a little town southwest of Frankfurt where there was a General Motors factory. General Motors, USA. Opel. It was just described as an Opel factory which was still a General Motors subsidiary at that, well it was had been a subsidiary of German motors for some time. The Opels. Opel cars. And we had to do a turn on a town south, south of Frankfurt. It turned out to be a fairly hot town because approaching this town of, let’s see. I’ll just um [shuffling of papers] yeah I started my tour on Bomber Command in, in July. On the 4th of July, that was my first, with Flight Officer Slade. There, just trying to work oh Russelsheim. The Opel works at Russelsheim. That’s where the factory was and we had a turning point of probably about sixty or eighty miles south of Rüsselsheim. We were flying eastward. Basically directly east and then we had to turn north and fly north to Rüsselsheim. That’s right. Rüsselsheim and the turning point was over a town called Mannheim. Now, it was a stupid place to have a turning point because that had been bombed quite a few times and it was full of anti-aircraft guns and searchlights and we could see the searchlights and we could see anti-aircraft fire bursting in front of us as we approached, approached Mannheim and it wasn’t very long before we got picked up by a blue tinged searchlight, radar controlled from what we were told. We’d heard about these blue tinged searchlights, blue lights, and they were directly controlled by radar from the ground and if the radar picked up a Lancaster flying they could just about pinpoint it with the searchlights but they would have needed about five, about five hundred radar controllers down below to pick up every one but they used to pick out one and have a go at it. Well, instead of everything being black we got his blinding light lighting up the whole plane. I could hardly see the instruments because I was blinded. I had, you know, flying through the night to get your night vision then suddenly a thousand candle power light’s shining in your face practically and I remember thinking, ‘Jesus I’ve done all this training and now I’m going to be killed,’ I thought to myself. I pushed the stick forward fortunately and she dived quickly and I immediately lost the blue tinged searchlights. You see, when they, when they put that blue tinged light had about another half a dozen focussed on you. They could see the blue light and they, they, we had about six searchlights altogether lighting us up but we lost the light. Immediately black as pitch. And we went into a manoeuvre called the corkscrew and you sort of fly in a down to your left. Then when you are half way down to where you’re going you turn to the right and keep diving. You’re diving. You’re going very fast and then when you get down over to the right you swing it to the left and come up again and do two or three of those. Well, we were basically told that they were, you know, to evade, avoid if you get a fighter behind you if you get the words from the rear gunner, ‘There’s a fighter on you. Go into a corkscrew,’ at night and mostly we flew at night anyway. Half the time we flew at night and half the time I flew in daylight. That was, that was a different thing altogether but and you could go into the corkscrew. That was all I could think to do and I looked at the instrument panel, the airspeed indicator, just as we got near the bottom of where I was going to pull out and I think I was doing four hundred miles an hour. The top diving speed of a Lancaster at that time was three hundred and sixty miles an hour. So we were doing four hundred miles an hour. Actually, it was calibrated in knots. I’ve converted it to miles an hour and we had a full bomb load on. Rüsselheim, yeah we had a four thousand pound bomb on. That’s the high explosive one. What did they call that? They used to have a nickname for that one. Blockbuster or something like that and I don’t know what the other ones were but um oh yes we had just one high explosive bomb, one four thousand and the rest were incendiaries. It made a nasty mess if it landed on you. Anyway, it was a total of, oh I don’t know what it would be, about six or seven thousand pounds sitting underneath us so I was very careful to pull out gently from the bottom of the dive. I didn’t want to leave the wings behind which could have happened to us if you did it quickly. I think on that same raid I saw a picture of a Lancaster that came back with, with both of its ailerons useless. He’d dived too fast and pulled out to fast like the same thing I did but I pulled out fairly gently. I knew quite a bit about flying aeroplanes theoretically as well as, as well as practically and I knew you couldn’t pull out quickly ‘cause I knew what could happen but it didn’t so we just carried on and bombed the, bombed the General Motors plant and then came home again. That was one of the most interesting ones. Another interesting trip I did much later though. We did, did this trip out over the Bay of Biscay. There was an estuary, the Gironde Estuary not far from the, what would have been the Spanish border of Spain and, and the Bay of Biscay, French coast but anyway this Gironde Estuary, oh there’s some wineries up there, up the Gironde. Someone heard I’d bombed near the wineries. He said, ‘Well you’re lucky you didn’t bomb the wineries because I wouldn’t be speaking to you if you’d spoilt my, spilt my wine.’ But we didn’t. We flew from Kelstern almost due south right down to the south coast, then turned right, south, just before the south coast and flew down out to Lands End and at that stage flying to Lands End we took it down to fifty feet going over Lands End and we flew all the way around out into the Atlantic at fifty feet. Fortunately, it was a very fine day and not much wind and round in a big wide circle fifty feet all the way. I think we had four hundred Lancasters on that one. Something like that. And we had an escort though to fly over the Bay of Biscay, escorted of long range Mosquitos, fighters, in case some German type decided to have a go at us but, no one, no one showed up because we were flying at fifty feet. That was to be under the German radar of course and they never spotted us till us we were over, over the river and then they didn’t have time to get, get there and do anything. We’d gone by the time they woke up to what happened but I remember we did this two days running. We did it was the same, same town almost, almost the same spot in the Gironde Estuary. We came hammering over the Bay of Biscay at fifty feet. As we got to the coast we had to rise up a bit because there was about a thirty foot lump of hillocks and trees and stuff there so we went up a bit and as we crossed the beach I looked down and there was an old horse. You could see it was an old horse because we were only fifty or thirty feet from him looking down. It was slightly to my left just plodding along. An old draft horse it was and the driver was sitting up on the cart. He didn’t look up and the horse didn’t look up. No one, neither of them looked up. We just shot over the top of them at about thirty feet above them because they had come up on this slight rise, this twenty foot rise from the, from the sand where the estuary started and I don’t know what happened to them afterwards. We didn’t drop anything or do anything nasty to them. They were probably French anyway. Not that that would have stopped me if I’d, if I’d had to bomb them but we didn’t have to bomb them. We just went along the estuary until we found the fuel oil tanks that we were going to do a bit of damage to. They were, they were used from time to time by submarines that’d sail up this estuary at night and fill up there. We were, this flight was in daylight of course. Beautiful day. No wind hardly. Blue skies. Not a cloud in the sky. A delightful day. I think I had my twenty sixth birthday that day so I got a nice birthday present. A nice trip to southern of France to the Gironde Estuary at fifty feet over the Bay of Biscay and we dropped bombs on it and I’ve got photographs of the, of the target area with a ship lying on its side. It wouldn’t have been our bomb because it was someone in front of me rolled the ship over with a bomb. He was supposed to bomb the tanks but he might have just bombed the ship instead. Now that was, that was August the 5th. I know that because it was my birthday the next day. No. August the 4th that’s right. August the 5th was my birthday. The second, the next day we, we did exactly the same route. Flew down to the south coast of England, turned right, almost to the south coast, and went down through Somerset and all those places to Lands End and off the end of Lands End at fifty feet, gradually taking it down to fifty feet as we got near Lands End. And this was the second day and we were all going hell for leather towards the er the Gironde Estuary as usual at a little town call Pauillac. P A U I L L A C. Pauillac. This was the second day and they were both, both in Pauillac but slightly different positions in Pauillac and we had ten thousand pounds of bombs on board approximately. Ten thousand five hundred pounds of bombs carrying on that one and it took us seven hours fifty five minutes altogether but as we were approaching the estuary out over the bay the rear gunner called up, ‘Someone’s going in.’ I looked around and there was a great splash of water still hanging in the air. One of the Lancs had dived into the, into the water but what had happened he’d collided with one of his friends from the same squadron. They were showing how close they could fly together which was the last thing they ever did. One of them survived but one didn’t. Anyway, on that, that, that occasion we, we didn’t go back to Kelstern because there was something wrong with the weather by the time we’d gone. To have two bright, sunny days over England in a row was a bit unusual and it was just the usual thing you know. It had clouded over or something. This was August. Well August can be cloudy or it can be very nice in England. Yeah but anyway it was too cloudy or foggy or something to land there so we landed at a different airfield, a place called Gamston. Gamston. That was a Wellington training base I think, at the time. Gamston. So they had a nice, nice long runway. One interesting thing happened with that. We had to just fly back to our base next door. We just had one night there sitting in chairs, sleeping in chairs, in the mess. Well the next day we returned, the weather cleared at Kelstern. Took us fifteen minutes to get from Gamston in the Midlands, more or less, to Kelstern in Lincolnshire and I remember taking off. I didn’t think, didn’t think of it at the time but we didn’t need to take off like we had nine thousand pounds of bombs on board at all. You know, we had very little fuel. See, that trip was a fairly long trip. Took us almost eight hours in the air and we didn’t have much petrol left when we got back and they didn’t fill it up. They said, ‘Oh you’ve got enough fuel to get back to’ [Gamston], or to ‘Kelstern alright.’ I just took off as usual and as usual was I usually took off in a Lancaster with about fifteen thousand pounds of bombs on it something like that and about two thousand gallons of petrol which I carried on a short trip and I just opened the throttles up and she lifted off, off the ground in about two hundred yards or less, a hundred and seventy, a hundred and eighty yards or something. Just floated up in to the air. I realised then that I didn’t need to open it up to full bore really. I could have probably opened up and we’d never been trained to take off a Lancaster when it was a light load. You were always shown how to take off in a Lancaster as fast as possible with the load that you’d got but of course I flew it a few times with only a light load and I knew what I was doing but the excitement of the trip and seeing the Lancasters behind us causing a great splash in the Bay of Biscay had changed, took my mind off what I was doing I suppose but up she went and we were home in about ten minutes or fifteen minutes I put down here I think. Fifteen minutes trip back to Kelstern. That includes landing it too. And that was about halfway through my tour but we kept going various places. Le Havre, that’s right on the French coast when they, they were trying to get Germans out of the forts that they had or buildings they had taken over in Le Havre which is on the coast of France opposite England. We bombed them in daylight of course. Half of my trips were in daylight. Sixteen. I did thirty two altogether. I did one more than I really needed to so sixteen night and fifteen day or something like that and I used to like the daylight ones because you’d look up and you’d see about two hundred spitfires and about a hundred something else, American fighters, sitting above you, about one or two thousand feet just above where you were flying so we mostly did our, our operations at about fifteen thousand feet. Frankfurt for instance. We did that at about seventeen thousand eight hundred feet. That was a good one. I liked Frankfurt. That was the night one of my best friends on 467 squadron, which is an Australian squadron near, near the town of Lincoln. Just south, south east I think of Lincoln. 467 squadron. I think you mentioned you had a friend in 467 squadron. Yeah, Bomber Command, 467 squadron crew. A relative of yours -
AP: Correct
AA: Flew. Right?
AP: Yeah. A few months before that but yes.
AA: Yeah. Yeah. So he was in March or April.
AP: May, it was.
AA: Yeah, 10th of May that’s right. Yeah, well I had this friend of mine in, in, in 467 squadron he was a deputy flight commander and he said they’re having a very rough time at the moment because people are getting shot down all the time including our flight commanders and they made him a deputy flight commander as a flight lieutenant which was one rank higher than I was. I was a flying officer but fortunately for us I wasn’t in a, in a squadron where they were having a lot of calamities. It was just a little less than average. I think it was because I think it was because it was a more disciplined squadron. The RAF was a lot more disciplined than the RAAF. Particularly the RAAF squadrons in England. They were noted for a bit of a lack of doing the right thing a lot of the time. I know they didn’t do the right thing by me because I visited, that Australian squadron, 460 squadron at Binbrook two or three times for various reasons. Sometimes to deliver a Lancaster there or bring one back from there. It was only about four miles from us because the, the, and the circuits interlinked so you had to be a bit careful that you didn’t fly into a 460 squadron Lancaster going in the opposite direction. But what I didn’t like about it I hung my cap, fortunately it wasn’t the round cap just the four and a half cap on the hook in the hall like I, in the, in the ante room like I did in my own squadron and I found someone had stolen it immediately. I wasn’t there that long. I just had lunch there. Took about half an hour. I thought I was doing alright. I go back and no cap. Well, I didn’t need it to fly a Lancaster because I had a flying helmet which I still had that in the, in the Lancaster or something like that but anyway you had to have a flying helmet. I hadn’t lost that. Just the ‘fore and aft’ cap. So I reckon the Australian squadron of [inclined] to be full of ill-disciplined, bloody thieves in a large, large section of them and that was, that was my opinion of the RAF as against the Australians like comparing the Australians were like a bloody Boy Scout troops except not quite so honest as the Scouts would be. And I didn’t like them. My, my old friend Dave Browne was, he had a bit of bad luck. He was, he got to his twenty sixth operation. I think they’d just made him a flight lieutenant, second in command of his flight and he did a couple of operations the same night as I did. I bombed Frankfurt September the, September the 12th 1944 Frankfurt and Dave Browne got shot down on that same night so it wasn’t much good him being a flight lieutenant and second in charge of the flight. It didn’t do him any good. Frankfurt. We bombed from seventeen thousand eight hundred feet and one thing I noticed about Frankfurt as we flew over it in a, in a sort of south easterly direction and came around, swung around to the left and flew back past it and you could look down and see Frankfurt and it looked just like Melbourne at night with the streets were all lit up but it wasn’t lights it was the burning buildings on each side of, of the street. Frankfurt was on fire that night and I set fire to most of it. Or a lot of it. Anyway, we had a good one on that. Frankfurt. Yeah. You probably think it’s a bit rough to think of burning people alive but it didn’t worry us. I’d seen, I’d seen Coventry in England. I’d seen Brighton. I’d seen a street in London where I used to go past and walk down part of. It was there from the first time I got to England in 1943, about July ‘43 and I’d seen this little street. Very attractive houses still intact and one night around about this time I happened to be in London again and it was a complete shambles. The Germans had sent up a special, special group of planes, probably not very many and bombed the hell out of it or it could have been those flying bombs I don’t know. Probably more likely to be that. The buzz bombs. They would do that. They were quite erratic. You never knew where they were going to land. I was in London when the first ones came over on leave. I looked out of the window of the hotel I was on the third floor of. A private hotel. It was the top floor and I heard this bop bopbopbopbop sound going across the sky. Just sounded just like my old motorbike. My 350 Calthorpe. Same sound except that there was this light at the back of it. My Calthorpe never had a light at the back of it. Oh it had a little red light you could hardly see but never had a big white glow at the back of it and it certainly didn’t go as fast as the buzz bombs but I can remember the anti-aircraft guns in London were firing at the thing but they never hit it and I could see what was happening. I could hear shrapnel starting from the, the exploding bomb started to land on the roof. I was up on the top floor and I could hear the things clang clanging on the top of the roof. Steel pieces from the, from the shells that they were shooting up at the flying bomb and not getting anywhere near it. I got under the bed for a while but I thought, ‘What will I do?’ There was no air raid shelter there so I just stayed under the bed till things quietened down and stopped firing. You could hear the guns going off as well as the buzz bomb flying over London. Everything went quiet after a while and I heard where it landed. It landed somewhere near a railway station up in er it would have been north east London a bit. North east somewhere. I’ve used that station afterwards when on my trips. I went, I did about half a dozen trips to, back to Europe, after the war, after I was married, with my wife and we went all over England and Scotland and Germany too. France and Germany. I liked the Germans. We got on very well with them. My last trip to Germany was in 1993, 1993 I think it was. We went with a group from the RAF association over in, it was in South Yarrow then. Frank. A bloke called Frank someone or other was the leader and apart from a lot of trips around England which we did which was very nice that included a visit to the Victory ship down on the south coast somewhere. We cruised, we visited the battle areas in France and then when we got to Germany we got to, I think we flew to Berlin and they had a, a small bus waiting for us and with two German air force pilots as drivers. One’s the driver. One’s the, one’s the navigator. Very nice blokes and they drove us all over middle Germany and East Germany, Not the north and not the very south either but the middle Germany. Berlin and then over to the French border where the southwest part of Germany is and they took it in turns to drive and navigate and when we got back to Frankfurt where I had done so much damage they’ve got a new, big new wide boulevard through the centre of Frankfurt. I knew the name of it at one stage but I can’t remember it now but they can thank me for putting that there. I removed a lot of old scruffy houses from a great strip in the middle of Frankfurt and they’ve got a big boulevard like St Kilda Road runs through it. Well, I did that, half the work for them. But anyway these two German blokes we got on very well with them and they took us to a couple of their airfields on the east border of Germany which used to be East Germany. It had just been changed, just amalgamated with West Germany in about 1995 or something like that.
AP: Before that. 1990
AA: 1990 was it?
AP: ’89 or – [? Just.]
AA: Oh that’s right ‘93 when I was there and the remains of the war were still there the West German wall but we went to the West German border somewhere near a town called Cottbus I think and there was a, air force station. They gave us a very good reception. Nice light lunch and so on and showed us the latest airplanes they had and we climbed all over the latest fighter the Germans had. In fact, the leader, the leader of the expedition Frank Wilson, that’s his name, he was a Lancaster pilot, he managed to get inside in the cockpit and wriggle the controls of one of them which was in the, in the hangar we were standing in. Then they did a bit of a demonstration flight for us. Low flying and a few aerobatics and so on.
AP: Beautiful.
AA: That was good. Then after that they drove us, the two blokes in this small bus drove us to the river which is the border I think between France and Germany on the west somewhere near the Rhine yeah it’s on the Rhine town Wesel W E S E L Wesel and we were taken as guests, honoured guests to a annual meeting of the ex-fighter pilots association.
AP: Wow.
AA: And they were all, had all these long tables in this room there with these pots of beer and they were singing songs, you know, bouncing these songs around. Our leader, Frank, he had to make a speech. He got up on the, on the stage and spoke to them and I suppose about three quarters of them would understand. They speak a lot of English in Germany and they were bouncing their big pots on the, on the ground and I turned back to the bloke next to me, he was German but he spoke English, they made sure we had a English speaking people sprinkled amongst our travel lot so we could ask any questions. I said, ‘What are they singing now?’ You know they were stamping their feet and banging their pots on the table, wooden tables and they said, ‘Oh that’s, “We’re marching against England.” ’ That’s what he said [laughs] and I said, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’ Yeah and oh I got that plaque there from him, yeah.
AP: Nice.
AA: I got, we got a couple of pictures from him I don’t think they’re here. No. Mind your feet. I’ll just get the plaque down show you we got from him. From the opposition. There you are. How’s your German? Any good?
AP: Fair, Fair [?] it’s like an association of um fighter flyers associations.
AA: That’s right. Fighter.
AP: Yeah.
AA: They’re called flyers.
AP: [? ]That’s fantastic. I might take a photo of that later.
AA: Yeah. Well that’s come out its plug.
AP: Yeah that’s alright. It’s coming through the internal microphone now.
AA: Oh.
AP: Yeah, I couldn’t make it work so.
AA: That’s one of my favourite aircraft.
AP: Ah that’s an Anson.
AA: I used to like, I could fly them at night. Anytime. They’re good. Avro Anson.
AP: Yeah. Fantastic.
AA: And that’s the uniform we used to wear. That round cap beret with a sort of a what we called a goon skins they were, sort of one piece overalls and they used to try and make us wear them at, in mid-summer, at that place in South Australia where it was a hundred and eight degrees three days running and it was so hot you couldn’t sit on the metal beds inside the huts because they send they heat out more than the hut itself but anyway we talked, talked the boss into letting us wear shorts and shirts after a while. So, we weren’t so bad. And what else? On my last operation was on Cologne. Ah yes I, when I finished my tour in, here you are on, as a middle multi engine and that’s -
AP: above average yeah I read that.
AA: Well I got that for the Airspeed Oxford too but that was for being a good pilot but I think if you got back from thirty two trips he reckoned you must be above the average so he always gave that to someone who finished a tour which I did. Not everyone finished the tour. Old Dave Browne didn’t.
AP: Many of them didn’t.
AA: When my last operation was October the 31st on Cologne. What did we carry there? One four thousand. One blockbuster four thousand pounder and the rest in high explosive bombs but a lot of the times we carried about fifteen thousand pounds of bombs. Here’s one. Oh that’s fourteen thousand feet. Here’s another one thirteen, thirteen thousand pound bombs plus four five hundred pounders. Well that’s fifteen thousand pounds altogether which is about six and three quarter tons isn’t it?
AP: [?] yeah
AA: Divided by 2240 you get about six tons, six and a quarter tonnes. That’s a lot of weight you’re carrying and then there’s the petrol as well as that. Course that’s, that’s fairly high loaded. That was in Calais. We took part really in the invasion of Germany, of Europe. A lot of our work was supporting the, the British army. When they came up against a rather sticky situation they’d call for help from the RAF and we’d do a daylight trip on them so we wouldn’t bomb them instead of the opposition that they were complaining about and you know you killed a lot of Germans that way without killing any British. We never killed any British. We knocked off a lot of Frogs working with the Germans. Mostly in a little town just on the invasion coast. Where was it? [shuffling papers]. I don’t know. Another interesting thing was I’d flown over about eight different countries in Europe in a Lancaster. Eight. Including Sweden and Switzerland and Norway and Denmark and of course France and Germany and England and Wales and Scotland. I’ve been around in that Lancaster and that was a beautiful thing to fly. It was like flying, driving a Mercedes Benz. Beautiful. And probably your motorbike. Get as much enjoyment out of it except that that’s got a smaller engine than I had in my 350. Oh, yes, here you are. Have a look at this. There’s my motorbike.
AP: Oh fantastic. When’s that?
AA: Er that was -
AP: July 1938.
AA: ’38. I got that bike in ‘36. 1936. I wish I still had the damned thing. I shouldn’t have sold these things but I wanted to buy a car so I got a few shekels for that when I sold it, not very many and then bought a Singer Le Mans. A 1938 Singer.
AP: Fantastic.
AA: I haven’t got a picture of that but up there see those two top pictures.
AP: Yep.
AA: They’re of a car I had in England. That’s a Singer Le Mans. A nineteen, they’re both pictures of a restored, one’s been restored perfectly and the other is a lash up job um restored 1934 model Singer. Singer Le Mans because they did a lot of racing of Singer Le Mans and had a lot of victories and beat the MGs but then the next year in 1935 and, or ‘36 or something they had a lot of trouble with their brakes and they didn’t do any good at all but that, see that little black one.
AP: Yeah.
AA: In the corner? That’s the real one. That’s the one I had.
AP: That’s the one.
AA: In England.
AP: Was? As in this is when you were serving in England?
AA: Oh yeah. Yeah.
AP: Yeah. So, how did you get that car and what happened to it?
AA: Well it cost me sixty pounds. It was in the, just advertised in the local paper in Louth which is the local town for Kelstern and I just went along and bought it for sixty pounds. I had sixty pounds. We were fairly well paid and I didn’t gamble like, like most of my crew. They seemed to lose all their money but I never lent them anything. No. I was thinking if they’re going to lose their bloody money it’s their own fault. One of the blokes in the crew wanted to get married and he sent me a telegram. Unfortunately he wanted to borrow twenty pounds off me but fortunately I was on leave at the time so I never got that telegram until I got back from leave after his marriage day so that got me out of that. But that had two exhaust pipes like, like your bike out there but they just came out of one cylinder, one 350cc cylinder. Now, that was a beauty. One of the most thrilling experiences in my whole life and that includes Lancasters and anything, any other bloody thing was when I got that bloody bike.
AP: That motorbike. Fantastic.
AA: Yeah.
AP: Carrying on for a moment with the car. How did you fuel it?
AA: Oh we got an issue of four gallons a month if you were operational air crew. Well, I was an operational aircrew for six months because I was still on the squadron and I did four months actual, four months actual flying in Lancasters but then the CO decided to keep me on the squadron because I had an above-average rating for flying Airspeed Oxfords. Well, he had an Airspeed Oxford at his disposal and he used to like to go to visit other squadrons and perhaps his girlfriend’s town, I don’t know, and he like me to come along the next day, with a navigator of course, and bring him and bring him his aeroplane back and he’d fly it back. So he’d fly it to from Kelstern to Westcott or somewhere like that get out there at that airfield and I’d fly it back until I heard from him.
AP: That’s not a bad job is it?
AA: Well, he, he kept me on the station from the end of October, November, December till about half way through January doing that and he gave me a DFC for it. For being a good boy. Actually, most skippers of Lancasters if they completed a tour successfully got a DFC but he made sure I got one and I used to fly him everywhere. I even did a couple of trips to London with him I think. Or at least one anyway. And most of that would be around Lincolnshire somewhere and oh yes I had to investigate a crash on one occasion and I was, this was the first time I’d flown his Lanc, his Airspeed Oxford. We had to go to a station on the, on the south east coast, the south east coast of England, you know, and one of our Lancasters, it was a very bad night. Where were we bombing that night? I don’t know. Anyway, we were coming back from the middle of Germany somewhere and we were all told to fly over, over the top of a cold front that was approaching to get home again. As they said, ‘You’re going out you don’t have to worry about the trip to’ wherever you’re going ‘but when you’re coming back fly at twenty three thousand feet to get over the top of this electrical storm which you’ll run into.’
AP: Higher than that
AA: Well I was flying at twenty four thousand feet and it was very comfortable. We had a very nice bombing trip, killed a lot of nice Germans and we were flying back and there was no chance of the Luftwaffe chasing us at that stage because the weather down below looked pretty crook at times. It was nice and clear upside where we were until the rear gunner called out, ‘Hey skipper, my oxygen has gone out. I can’t get any oxygen.’ Well, he wanted me to say, ‘Well, oh well leave your turret and come inside,’ and I didn’t want to do that. I wanted the protection from him at the back as the most vulnerable side for us. The rear. The Germans liked to follow us up from the back. If possible shoot the rear gunner and shoot the rest of us and I said, ‘Look Ron.’ Ron smith his name was. ‘Look, I’ll take you down five thousand feet and that’ll get us down to eighteen, seventeen or eighteen thousand feet. You’ll be alright there.’ And he lived. I took it down to eighteen, seventeen thousand feet and we went through the top of this electrical storm. It worried me a little bit because it was pretty rough you know. The old Lanc was bouncing around a lot and fortunately we didn’t have any load on at this stage. We were empty. Just the petrol to get home and the four propellers each had a blue ring around the tip. You could see the big round blue circle around the tip and on the windscreen this little zigzag all over the windscreen. Sparks coming down the windscreen from the lightning. We were loaded. Loaded with lightning. However, we got past there. We got through it. It was a bit rough, you know. It was a bit bouncy but that didn’t worry me much. I was, I was more concerned about what the lightning was going to do. Whether it was going to get any worse than it was but we got back and he didn’t say much when we got back. I think he was reasonably grateful but at least he could breathe on the way home. He got out of there and plugged himself in to, no, he didn’t, he stopped in the turret. That’s right. I think what he wanted me to tell him to get out and plug himself in to one of the other outlets inside not in his, he was right in the back stuck in the glass with a big opening on the back so he could see clearly and er but he stopped there and he didn’t have to warn us that there was anyone else coming up behind us. I didn’t think there would be. Not through that storm. They would have, they would have corkscrewed into the ground I reckon if a fighter had tried to fly through there. It was bad enough in a Lancaster but that day, why I’m telling you that story, we lost a couple of Lancasters and one of them that didn’t come back they found it had dived into the sand, and into the sandy soil off the beach on the, in Norfolk somewhere and I was detailed by the CO with the knowledge that I hadn’t started flying him around to his girlfriend’s houses or anything at this stage but he’d seen the logbook. He used to read through everyone’s logbook. We had to put this in every month you see and he used to read everything in it. Better than reading the “Sporting Globe” I suppose but anyway he read that something like the same thing, you know, the competition the Germans and the British but we got, we got I was just detailed to fly this Oxford which I hadn’t forgotten how to fly to this American airfield on the, on the east, southeast coast there somewhere in Norfolk or Suffolk or, no, I think it would be Norfolk really but anyway we found the spot where the Lancaster had crashed and it had dived straight down apparently and the engines were twelve feet under the ground we estimated. Just an estimate by what was left of the Lancaster sticking up out of the back of it and as we were looking at er, looking at it a farmer wandered up and said to us, ‘Good day.’ He said, ‘There’s more remains over in the trees there.’ and I said, ‘Well, look we’re just inspecting the wreckage of the Lancaster. Someone else will be coming for the remains.’ So, I didn’t want to get stirred up with the remains of the, of the crew but that was his greeting to us, ‘there’s remains over in the trees there.’ So in, at the hit, Lancaster bits and pieces including the tree must have flown in every direction to have hit and got the engines that far underground. Must have been a bad one. It must have dived down from about ten thousand feet or something. Fifteen thousand. I don’t know. Twenty thousand. I don’t know but I was very glad we missed that thing ourselves but that was the closest thing I think we had to get into trouble. But no I’ve been to Poland twice. We went across the North Sea as usual. Across Norway. Now, this trip took about nine hours. Crossed in to Sweden which was neutral. As we got to the central of the Swedish, you know, it’s a long thing, goes up and down and I think the best parts are down low somewhere on the Baltic. Turned right there and headed south and on the way down the Swedes sent up a whole lot of Bofors shells but they only go to sixteen thousand feet. We were at about eighteen or nineteen thousand and it was a very pretty show actually. They come up in their bright colours reds and greens sometimes. Mostly reds. They used come up and you could see them coming up and bending gracefully over, starting to fall and blow up there. Bofors, 40mm but every now and again some keen type of Swede or someone who didn’t like the British, in the Swedish army, would send up a shot from a German 88mm high explosive shell but fortunately they were about four hundred yards on my left as I was flying south to Stettin in er in what is now Poland and I don’t think they hit anyone on that night but certainly I never saw them hit anyone there with their shells. I think they might have been trying though. As I say there was a keen type on the end of a German 88mm gun or a Swedish 88mm gun but that’s just the same sort of explosion as the Germans had at about, you know, we were at about eighteen thousand feet. And Bofors were 40mm guns which most of the Swedes were just sending up to let the British know that they weren’t allowed to fly over Sweden on the, in the rules, I don’t know what rules ruled most in those days but they let us know that we weren’t particularly welcome unless we had plenty of money to spend sort of thing. The Swedes used to sell steel to both the Germans and the British.
AP: But they were neutral.
AA: Well so did I. So were the Switzerland Swiss but we went over a corner of Switzerland at one stage. Where else did we go? I think they were the only neutral, neutral countries we flew over. I went to Stettin. That’s in Poland now. Used to be spelled S T E T T I N when the Germans had it. Now it’s spelt S C H E and something else, you know, Polish.
AP: A Polish name.
AA: Yeah.
AP: Makes sense.
AA: That’s about it.
AP: Were there any, I’ve got a couple, a couple more specific questions that I’d like to ask if -
AA: Yeah.
AP: If you don’t mind. Were there any hoodoos or superstitions with your squadron?
AA: No. There was no superstition. Just hope. Just hope that it doesn’t happen to you.
AP: Fair enough.
AA: Yeah. Oh no. We didn’t actually think about that much because we, when I look back I think we didn’t worry. We were used to going to town. Drink all the beer in Louth which was the local pub. I had a nice girlfriend, a WAAF, I used to go around with all the time. We used to go down to Binbrook in that black Singer. The black, the little black one in the corner there. It was the Plough Inn in Binbrook. We used to go down there and drink bottled beer. She liked bottled beer. I remember we went to, there was a dance in the sergeants’ mess. I wasn’t allowed to go. Officers weren’t allowed to go to that and I knew she was going to be there so I said, ‘Oh I think I’ll see you there.’ So, I borrowed the rear gunners, well he owed it to me for saving his life. I borrowed his, one of his spare tunics. He was a sergeant and I went along to the sergeants’ mess in it, just wearing the same blue pants that I normally had on and with his jacket on with the one wing and I’m dancing around with my girlfriend and the flight lieutenant um he was the orderly officer or something. He was, no, the squadron, the squadron something. He had some official position anyway. His job was to sort of get around and make sure everything was going all right and also collect the belongings of the people who got shot down, which happened from time to time. They used to come in at about 3am in the morning and wake me up while I was asleep and collecting all someone’s belongings. Which was, I didn’t like my sleep being disturbed like that. But what was he? Anyway, I got the job as assistant to him so that I could stay in the assistant, not orderly officer, some other name they used to use for this particular job and he used to, his main office was in the same little building as the CO’s office. And anyway, he said to me, he was allowed to be there because he’s the orderly bloke or the, what did they call him? I was, they actually made me the assistant something or other. I might think about it later. Anyway, I was being groomed to be in his, in his place when he went on leave in about three weeks’ time and we got on very well together and he looked across to me and said, ‘Ah,’ wearing my gunners uniform, ‘Ah Flying Officer Atkins,’ he says, ‘Are you enjoying the dance?’ I said, ‘Yes thanks, sir.’ ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘Oh well that’s good. I’ll see you in the morning.’ Well of course he didn’t give a damn anyway. If no one else complained he wasn’t going to complain. Fortunately, the boss, Cocky, the wing commander, wasn’t attending the dance. He was probably attending his girlfriends, girlfriend in the local pub. He used to have her stashed up in the pub at times because I, I was very friendly with one of the telephone operators and she used to tell me who he used to ring up. She just, oh that was the life. That was the one I used to take down to the Plough Inn at Binbrook and drink bottled beer with and of course it was mid-winter when I was visiting Binbrook. Very icy roads and where it went down in to a bit of a dip it was icier than ever. I remember we drifted down in to this dip, this girl and I, and only a two seater of course. There, you can see that. There’s only room for two people in those, those cars and anyway it did a complete, it slipped around did a complete circuit around this -
AP: Just like a -
AA: Black ice.
AP: Just like a Halifax.
AA: Oh yeah. Yeah but when it went right around with a Halifax I had to drive it around. This one spun around like bloody top on the ice. I must have pressed the wrong buttons or something. Anyway, we, we just drove out of it, drove out very carefully, very slowly. Drove out and parked in its usual spot outside the side of the Plough Inn in Binbrook village.
AP: Nothing happened to you.
AA: Good.
AP: You said the circuits with Binbrook and Kelstern interlinked.
AA: They crossed.
AP: Yeah.
AA: Interlinked.
AP: Were they separated in some way like levels or something like that? Or was it just a case of -
AA: No. We always used to do the circuit at a thousand feet and as far as I know no one’s ever said to me, ‘Binbrook’s going to be doing it at the same time.’
AP: Sounds a bit terrifying. I should, I should declare an interest here. I’m an air traffic controller so that sounds terrifying to me.
AA: Oh, well, if you saw a Lancaster operation that would be terrifying just to look at.
AP: I think you’re probably right. I think you’re probably right. What five miles?
AA: Talk about fireworks. My first navigator, I had him until about the middle of the tour until his nerve gave out. After he, after I, after the war I met the, my wireless operator a few times. A fellow named Trevor something. Trevor Jones. A very nice bloke and an excellent wireless operator. Never missed a beat. He got all the messages out and all, sent them all back as they should have and that had a lot to do with surviving. If there was a shift in the wind he’d know that. And this navigator was very accurate. We used to, I used to time it in minutes the time arriving at the target. I used to think back, ‘Now will these bastards be asleep or will they be open or will they be up having their breakfast or what will they be doing?’ And that would depend on whether I was there three minutes before the bombing started or about two minutes after it. After they’d, after they’d dropped their first few shots off and were loading their guns again. And he told me that when we were, every target we were over instead of, he used to say, ‘Tom,’ Tom was the navigator, ‘Tom, have a look out. It’s beautiful,’ you know. ‘There’s fireworks everywhere,’ he used to say. Well there were too. You’d see them going off. Red, green, blue, black everything. Mostly, mostly red and green. And the man in charge of the operation would be circling this town. Say it’s Stuttgart or something, circling around saying, ‘Bomb the greens, bomb the greens. The reds are too far south,’ or something like that and giving us instructions. Then, ‘Go home now,’ or something or, ‘Wait,’ wait till we get to bomb the markers in or something. That didn’t, fortunately, the waiting thing didn’t happen but I used to hear him say, and sometimes he’d just tell us to take our bombs home. He said, ‘I can’t see the target. There’s too much dust and smoke. Take your bombs home and return to base.’ That was very annoying because I liked to drop the bombs. I didn’t like to land with a load of bombs on but sometimes we had to land with six and a half tonnes underneath you.
AP: Of high explosive. Thanks.
AA: Well -
AP: Question I like asking pilots. Your first solo. What happened?
AA: What the, the first solo in what?
AP: Your first ever solo. So the Tiger Moth.
AA: Oh the Tiger Moth. I did a very good landing. That’s all I can say about it. It was nice. I was, I knew a lot about aeroplanes because I used to fly, you know, model aeroplanes. Light aeroplanes. You could, you would wind the thing up, run along the concrete path and rise up in the air. Little ones. I did that for five or six years when I was a kid. I was very interested in them so I knew what they did. I knew how you bent the wings and how you bent the tail plane to make them level and that helped me a lot. A lot of these blokes had never been in an aeroplane or never seen a toy aeroplane even and had certainly never driven a car half the time. This bloke Dave Browne who was a friend of mine I was going to go and visit him and show him my, my new car, new car [laughs] a 1934 model at, at that place near Lincoln. I don’t think he had a driver’s licence. He’d never had one. He was eighteen. Just eighteen when he, he would have been when he left school. He left school and joined the air force. Got on the reserve. Nice bloke. What question did you ask me then?
AP: First solo.
AA: Oh first solo. Yeah. Well there wasn’t anything special. I liked flying. I liked, I liked flying the Tiger Moth. I knew I could fly it alright. I knew just how to fly it. So when my first solo came up he said, ‘Ok off you go.’ I just flew it up and around exactly the same as I did when I was with him. Did just the one circuit and landed it without bouncing it unduly. Some people bounced those Tigers fifteen feet into the air.
AP: I’ve done it myself.
AA: Oh have you?
AP: I have.
AA: Oh God. Well I never did. I never bounced it more than a foot or two feet at the most I don’t think.
AP: I’ve had shockers.
AA: But er I, I have flown them since the war.
AP: Yes [that was my next question]
AA: But only with an instructor. In the, in the back seat I think the instructor was. The funny thing when we were under instruction on Tigers during the war I was in the back seat and the instructor was in the front.
AP: Yeah.
AA: Well, when I flew them for a fifty dollar flight or something I was in the front seat and it was a bit unusual and the instructor was in the back. I remember on one occasion I went up in a flight in a Tiger and I was talking to the pilot and the instructor first before we went in and said, ‘I hope you’ll let me have a go at flying this thing.’ and he said, ‘Oh, yeah. Well, have you flown them before?’ I said, ‘Oh yes. Yes, I’ve flown them plenty of times.’ He said ‘Oh? Where were you flying them?’ I said, ‘Oh at Benalla.’ ‘Oh Benalla,’ he said ,’Oh.’ He didn’t seem to know what the, Benalla was the, the head office for Tiger flying in the RAF, RAAF I mean, in nineteen, what would it have been? 1942, yeah when I was flying them in Benalla.
AP: Have you flown them much?
AA: ’42 ‘43 ‘42 ‘41
AP: Have you flown much since the war?
AA: Only in passenger planes.
AP: Yeah. [?]
AA: No. I’ve never flown anything except a Tiger Moth since the war but I have flown in the Concorde from -
AP: Oh lovely.
AA: From London to, my wife too with me, Heathrow to that big airfield near New York. What is it?
AA: Hmmn?
AA: Yeah, that’s it. Yeah and we were booked to fly in a helicopter from JFK to somewhere near the centre of New York and that was because we were doing a first class trip all around the world. I didn’t intend to do it actually do it first class but the way it happened I said, ‘Oh well first class will do,’ because they said it’ll only be about, what you’ve got to pay it will only be about five hundred dollars difference from flying first class all the way from Australia to around the world. So we went first class. I think the next time I we went first class too it wasn’t that bad it wasn’t that much difference to business class really. We used to fly business class mostly. I think we did six, six trips to England. First of all cattle class and then business class and then first class but Quantas’ first class was, it was the pits.
AP: Still, still more comfortable I imagine than a Lancaster.
AA: No. The Lancaster was very comfortable. I felt more comfortable in a Lancaster than I ever felt in a Quantas first class. Do you know where they put us? As close to the toilet door as that. The two of us. Right, right opposite the toilets. The blokes used to come in and out of the toilet doing their flies up and we were sitting, sitting there. Well that was the finish. I’ve never flown in Quantas since.
AP: Oh really?
AA: That’s right.
AP: There you go.
AA: You can tell them that. You can tell them as much as you like.
AP: I have one more question for you. It’s probably the most important one.
AA: Yeah.
AP: How, what do you think Bomber Command’s legacy is and how do you want to see it remembered.
AA: I think it will all be remembered by the people who were in it alright but well I think they’ve got this new place in the Green Park. That, that does a lot for them but I can understand why the people in, up the north decided to have a memorial. They’ve probably got relatives or sons or something or fathers or grandfathers who’ve been in it and they want to make a point of it. That they get remembered for what they did and you know the fifty thousand I think RAF types who got killed in Bomber Command. I think it was a figure something like that. I think it was about three thousand Australians in Bomber Command that were killed and I’m doing something to remember them in Melbourne. I’ve organised a new boat to be built by the rowing club in the city that I’m interested in and I’m putting David Browne’s name on it.
AP: [Beautiful].
AA: Instead of mine. They usually, if someone gives them a boat, they usually put their name on it. I had, I’ve given them a boat about twenty years ago, thirty years ago with my hard earned cash and I had my name on it. Arthur Atkins, on both sides of the point. Well they’re going to put David Browne’s name on it because he was a nice bloke. Well, that’s why I think the people in Lincolnshire are doing a good thing. North Lincolnshire? Where is it again? Where are they putting this memorial? Do you know?
AP: It’s, it’s within sight of Lincoln Cathedral.
AA: Oh.
AP: It’s on a hill. I don’t know the direction. I haven’t been there myself yet unfortunately.
AA: Ah yeah.
AP: But it’s on a hill within sight of the cathedral.
AA: That’s, that’s not in the freezing north of Lincolnshire.
AP: No. I don’t think it is.
AA: No. Well that’s where I was. Lincolnshire. Well Yorkshire was worse, of course. I drove my car from, all over England. Only one thing wrong with it. Oh well no, wrong, the most, the most, the worst thing that was wrong with it was the fact that it never had a hand brake and of course on one occasion the hydraulic main operating thing busted it’s rubber washer so I had no brakes and the funniest thing was I was going along a street and you know I just used to rev the engine and drop it down a couple of cogs if I wanted to stop it. Coming around, I came down the street like I was driving the car down here with just, fairly gently and I wanted to turn right here and just as I got turning right, you know, at about ten miles an hour or something a bloke with about four, four greyhounds were walking down the street crossed right in front of me.
AP: No brakes.
AA: No brakes at all and I wasn’t in a low enough gear to make any difference and I wouldn’t have time. So do you know what I did? I put my foot out like that and dragged it along ground and that stopped it. The foot stopped it.
AP: Like a motorbike.
AA: Eh?
AP: Like a motorbike.
AA: Well I had a motorbike once. I knew how to stop that. I knew what to do with that.
AP: Very good. Well I think that’s, you’ve been talking pretty well nonstop for two and a quarter hours now.
AA: Have I?
AP: That’s a pretty good effort.
AA: I’m sorry.
AP: No. That’s excellent. There’s some really good stuff in there. This, this is one of the easiest interviews I’ve said, I’ve done because I asked you one question at the start.
AA: Yeah.
AP: And then I sat back and just listened.
AA: Yeah.
AP: And it went. I timed it. It went for an hour and fifty before you took a break.
AA: Goodness
AP: So, thank you very much.
AA: No. I’m very, very interested
AP: Very, very much.
AA: In the air force and Bomber Command. I had a, it was the best job I ever had in my life was the air force. Especially the part when I was working for the RAF.
AP: Good.
AA: They were the real air force as they said. Not the Boy Scout air force like the RAAF.
AP: Fantastic.



Adam Purcell, “Interview with Arthur Atkins,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed July 23, 2024,

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