Interview with Jeff Mackay


Interview with Jeff Mackay


Jeff Mackay was born in 1922 in Ballarat, Australia and was working as a cadet engineer. He joined the Army but decided to join the RAAF when the Japanese entered the war in 1941. After boarding a ship he trained as a navigator in Canada and then went to the UK to commence operational training. After flying training at RAF Llandwrog, he was sent to RAF Hixon where he was crewed up. At a local pub he and his crew met and befriended a gentleman wearing a bowler hat; the singer of the crew would borrow his hat to sing songs. When they announced that they were being posted away he gave them the bowler hat, and his skipper would wear the hat on operations. He and his crew were posted to 460 Squadron at RAF Binbrook flying Lancasters and flew eleven operations, the last being on Nuremburg.




Temporal Coverage




00:34:45 Audio Recording


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AMackayWJ150527, PMackayWJ1501


My, my name is Jeff Mackay. William Jeffery actually and I was born in 1922 in Ballarat, Victoria in Australia. My parents were Australian although my father was of Scottish ancestry and my mother English ancestry and we, born in Ballarat but I really grew up in suburban Melbourne, a suburb known as Caulfield where I went through the normal education process. I went to the local state school and later to Melbourne High School and at the age of sixteen I started working as a cadet engineer in a local suburban council as a, as a cadet engineer. By the, the war broke out in 1939 after I’d been working about six months and the, after a few months I joined the Army and found myself driving trucks in Southern Victoria until the Japanese entered the war in nineteen, on December the 7th 1941 when the situation in Australia changed and people who were, went in to the Army and Navy et cetera voluntarily it became more of a compulsory effort because of the threat of the Japanese. So, after a short break I joined the RAAF and found myself being trained for aircrew although at the time a cousin, a New Zealand cousin of mine who was in Britain wrote to my mother and said, ‘I’ve heard that Jeff has joined the Air Force. Tell him on no account to get in to Bomber Command if he can help it.’ But of course, once I was in the Air Force I I had no option. I had to go where I was sent. The, so we trained at the, in Sydney and at the end of our training they split the number of trainees in to, some were being sent to fly in northern Australia and the other fifty percent were sent to Canada to train to fly in Europe. So as, as it happened I was in the section to go to Europe and before long I found myself in a boat called the, I’ve forgotten temporarily the name of the boat but it was loaded with German Afrika Korps troops in the holds who’d been captured at El Alemein and were taken to prison camps in America to be incarcerated for the rest of the war. We had been sailing out of New Zealand away across the Pacific. It wasn’t long before the German Africa Korps members who were being led, led up on deck morning and afternoon for a period for air began jumping overboard and this was a cause of concern. I suppose in total there were probably about a dozen of these troops who didn’t, who were reluctant to go to America. Probably because of their Nazi training. But the German commandant approached the captain of the ship and asked if anything could be done to stop this. So it was the advice to, the idea was that they’d have a concert in the holds of the ship and the call went out to the Australian recruits who were being taken to Canada to be trained. The call went out did anyone have musical instruments they could lend to the Germans to put on this concert? As it happened, I had been learning the steel guitar shortly before I left, I joined the Air Force and I was taking along this steel guitar with me so I I said yes. Well, they could borrow my steel guitar and there were several other members amongst the Aussies who had different musical instruments. They offered to make these available. So in due course the Germans arranged the concert and they invited any, anyone who had lent them a musical instrument to come along as guests. Well, this was early in 1943 at a time when the German, the German enemy was regarded as such and the five or six other blokes who came with me to the concert which was in the bowels of the ship we went down and the Germans had arranged a raised stand for us to stand on at the back of the, the back of all the troops. There must have been in all about three or four thousand who were closely guarded. But the, the concert went on. One song I remember was Lily, “Lily Marlene”, which was played and sung by some of the German troops and it was remarkably good quality. It stuck in my mind for a while. But at any rate we, at that time as the German was the enemy a few of them were turning around and looking at us and funny looks, a few of them grinned at us because the, I suppose they were glad to have us. It was a change from just being locked up. But the concert passed without them bashing us up and we were glad to get back to our, our end of the ship. But it was an interesting little incident on the way over. Another, another incident that happened with the German prisoners while we were sailing across the Pacific was the British troops who had been guarding them since they were brought round from North Africa were getting a bit sick of their job and they thought that some of the Australian trainees should have a turn at guarding the troops. So, as it happened I was given the opportunity to guard, to stand in the mess room when they came through to eat in the morning and afternoon and I was stationed up at the one end of this vast old, vast dining hall where the, where they came. Now, they gave me a sten gun which I’d never handled before. And I was standing at one end and there were several other Aussies along the walls of the hall and the, while the, when the troops were coming up the stairs and pouring in to the room I thought gee I don’t want to shoot any of them, I’d better uncock this gun which I used to do with my P rifle on the farm. But when I tried to uncock it it had a much stronger spring than the little P rifle I used to have and so the gun started going off and I I sprayed the walls and ceiling before eventually it stopped. By this time there was panic in the dining hall and the Germans, some of them had been trying to get out. But I was grabbed by the, we had, actually it was a Dutch boat, the Niew Amsterdam was the name and I was grabbed and marched off and the sten gun taken off me. Taken back to explain why the gun, why I had done this and I was put in the brig for a day in punishment. But those are the incidents which stuck in my mind and the sort of thing that happened [coughs] pardon me. When we got to America and did our, did our training as navigators in the plains of Winnipeg. Around Winnipeg and Minnesota. That was another experience. And when that was completed we were put on the ship for a quick race across the Atlantic on a ship with a name, I can’t recall that either at the moment. But we were crammed in this boat and they relied on speed to get us across so that German submarines wouldn’t get us. So [coughs] pardon me. We, by the, by the time we reached Britain we were put in, Britain was in the middle of the war. Our first impression on getting to Britain was how pale everybody was with the lack of sunshine and that’s the remaining impression I had. But it wasn’t long before we were marshalled in the, separated in to the different groups depending on what we were, we were intended, what was intended for us and we went through the process of advanced flying. Learning to fly under British conditions from a, an aerodrome in North Wales at a place called Llandwrog. From there we were processed to a place in Staffordshire called Hixon where the different category, trained as navigators, gunners who’d trained as gunners et cetera et cetera. We were all brought together at this aerodrome in, at Hixon and formed in to bomber crews. The process consisted, I was approached by a rather dapper looking fella with a, not very big in stature but very self-confident in the air and he said, he came up to me and said, ‘Are you Mackay?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Well, we’re forming a bomber crew. I’ve got a gunner, I’ve got two gunners and a wireless operator. Would you be interested in joining the crew as a navigator?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ It was a time of quick decisions. I glanced at him and the others and said, ‘Yes. Yes. I’ll, that’ll do, I’ll join.’ So he took me over and introduced me to the other members of the crew. One, one was a, one gunner, the mid-upper gunner was a thirty year old ex-taxi driver from Sydney. A tough looking bloke who played in the front line of a rugby team in his spare time and, well actually he was the mid-upper gunner. The rear gunner was a nineteen year old boy from, Snowy Johnson from Perth. The wireless operator was a, another young fella, about twenty from Sydney, Logger Dowling. The bomb aimer was a Scotsman with another little black moustache from Glasgow. And there was me. That was the six. Six of us. The captain said, ‘Right. Well, we don’t know each other. To get to know each other we’ll go down to the pub tonight.’ So, before, the taxi driver looked at me and said, oh, you know, ‘Do you drink?’ and I said, ‘No. No. I don’t drink.’ ‘Do you smoke?’ I said, ‘No. I don’t actually smoke either.’ He said, ‘How do you feel about women?’ I said, oh I could see that I was really getting the right answers as far as he was concerned, so I said, ‘Oh, I like women.’ Which I did. So with that he sort of accepted that there was no further worry. He said something like, ‘Oh we don’t want any too good fellas in the crew. They say only the good die young so we need a bit of rough stuff.’ So that was the method of forming a crew and it turned out to be a really good crew. Very laid back, very casual but very loyal to each other in the air so a good crew spirit developed. Well, we went to the pub and I thought I’ll have a drink. There was no, there was never anything really against. So, it was only a little pub in Staffordshire called the Barley Mow and there was only, it was too small place to have many people but in the corner of the, one corner of the bar there was an elderly gentleman with a bowler hat. And there was no, the entertainment, you had to entertain yourself in those days and as I remember it the, the apart from chatting to each other and telling stories the bomb aimer, the Scotsman, the Scots bomb aimer said he could sing. So, we said, ‘Righto, Jock. Well, give us a song.’ And so, Jack, err Jock approached the elderly fellow with the bowler hat and said, ‘I’m going to borrow your bowler hat to give a song.’ And his name was Jasper. I remember it well, and Jasper lent Jock the bowler hat and Jock got up on the table and sang a song. I think was called, “The Wife,” which we all applauded. It wasn’t much of a song but it was a bit of fun and [cough] pardon me. The next night, the next time we went for another drink Jasper was there again with his bowler hat and Jock again borrowed Jasper’s bowler hat to give a song. And we went several more times and each time Jasper would lend a hat and Jock would give his song about the wife and, until the day we were getting near leaving. We told Jasper, ‘Well, we won’t be borrowing Jasper, your hat soon Jasper because we’re being posted to another, another training place and the next night will be our last.’ So on our last night Jasper arrived at the pub with his hat in a brown paper bag and said, ‘Look boys,’ he said, ‘I’ve enjoyed the, your company and the singing.’ He said, ‘Would you take the bowler hat as a keepsake?’ So, the reason I’m telling this story is that that became our sort of talisman that when we were on our bombing trips when we could see the lights of the target ahead the crew would say to the skipper, ‘Have you got the hat on, Tich?’ Who was the pilot’s nickname, and Tich would say, ‘Yes, the hat is now on.’ So we, we would say hello to the target with the skipper, with the bowler hat on his head and we all felt a bit safer. So, it was something and of course we hung on to the bowler hat and it came back to Australia with the skipper who has since died but actually the hat is now in the Australian War Museum in a glass case with a little insignia below explaining the significance of it. So that’s the story of the bowler hat. The, well the, I should say something about our bombing missions that I can think of. One [pause] one occasion which was a bit embarrassing for me was when we were bombing Hamburg on a daylight raid and I had to leave to go to the toilet which was a container at the back of the aircraft. And I I told the skipper over the intercom that I’d have to go back and had to unhook the oxygen supply. I was in a flying suit which had to be lowered down when I went to the toilet and had to reconnect my intercom and when I was there and I reported to the skipper that I was back where I was suddenly the aircraft dropped in a, in a dive which they call a curve of a pursuit which was a manoeuvre that bomb, Lancs had to go in to if they were attacked by enemy aircraft. They would go down in a fast spin off course and go down and then like that and weave and then come up again to get back on course to throw, to make it difficult for the attacking aircraft to hit the bomber. In this case I didn’t know what was happening apart from the fact I was, I was rising off the seat when he went in to the dive and of course when he climbed again I sat down on the seat and stuck to it because it was about minus forty on the metal seat. I remember thinking if I get out of this I’ll never be scared of anything again [laughs] But I got out of it. And later on there were a few smirks on the face of the rest of the crew so, they said that we’d been attacked by a German aircraft but of course, I was in the dark. I couldn’t tell what was happening and I was always a bit suspicious but that was one incident I remember happening. What else should I relate at this? I’m afraid I’m running out of —
PE: If I can just ask you, you really are doing well, Jeff. Thank you for that. If I could ask you a few questions. When did you arrive at Binbrook?
JM: It would be February 1945.
PE: Right.
JM: I remember years.
PE: How many missions did you fly?
JM: Eleven. We flew eleven before the war ended. The last one was at Nuremberg.
PE: Yeah. So, I was, I was going to ask you which, you know where did you fly? Where did you go? Where were your operations?
JM: The [pause] I’m not sure if I can remember them all. The first one was Nuremberg. Hamburg.
PE: Don’t worry if you can’t remember.
JM: I’m struggling to remember at the moment.
PE: That’s alright. It’s alright.
JM: Hamburg [unclear] I’m sorry, it’s just —
PE: No. Don’t worry.
JM: It’s a bit hard to.
PE: When, when you were flying the missions were you ever frightened about what you were doing?
JM: Frightened? Not, no, not frightened although on, when we went on our first operation I remember going to the plane and saying, sort of going, ‘Oh, Nuremberg and back,’ to the rest of the crew. So I was a bit, a bit optimistic. But when the, we were approaching the target the bombs, the mid-upper gunner suddenly said, ‘Don’t look at that ahead.’ There were a couple of Lancasters, it was a night mission, blew up. Burst in to flames near us and I remember the mid-upper gunner, the tough taxi driver making the remark, and I remember I was entering my log and my hands started shaking a bit but I wasn’t scared but I just couldn’t control it for a few moments, control my hand. That’s one thing I remember distinctly. But I don’t think, I think we thought we had a feeling of resignation that if it happens it happens and the fact that we were all together gave, gave a certain amount of confidence. The fact we were together as a crew. I think we did. We tended to strengthen each other. Yeah.
PE: I mean obviously a lot of your other squadron members were lost during the, during these missions. How did you feel about that? Did that affect you at all?
JM: Sort of numb really I suppose would be the expression. We would, for instance in the, in the nav, when we were plotting our course in the nav room before we went on a mission there would be, you know the fellas on the other tables that were plotting their course then on the map and then the next night the fella that was next to you at the seat there would be someone else there. And you were [pause] you were sort of aware of that. But the other, the main feeling was we can’t do much about it. We can’t do anything about it. The mid-upper gunner, the fella, over thirty year old, after the first trip said, ‘I’m going LMF,’ which was lack of moral fibre and that involved being stripped in front of the squadron on parade. Stripped of your, your insignia and then, and then being put in jail and put in the thing for a few days. And he said, ‘Well, I’ve had enough of this,’ you know. ‘I’m not doing that again.’ He said, ‘I’ve got two children at home in Sydney and I’m just, whatever I’m going to go through I will.’ But something happened when he came out after the interview with the, the senior officer that interviewed him. He said, ‘I’ve changed my mind. I’ll keep going.’ And I think because we were only in our very early twenties you tended to think I don’t think it’ll happen to me. That’s as well as I can remember. I think we were a bit resigned and you couldn’t, you couldn’t face the humility of, with the other people saying, ‘Yes, I’m not doing it any more.’ I think it did happen to odd people but not much. And so I think it’s a fairly, resignation. Well, we’re here. We’re in it. Do the best we can.
PE: How did you feel when you were bombing cities and towns in Germany knowing full well that places like London were being bombed here?
JM: Yes. Well, to be, well generally we sort of you don’t like the thought of what was happening down there but the, while you were actually, while you were doing the job your main concern was doing your job. I had to get to the target. I had to get them there on time and that was the main concern while you were doing it. Naturally, the thought of women and children, you know, in another country that really hadn’t affected you directly you didn’t like the thought of what you were doing but you didn’t think really about it. You thought, oh well, I’ve got to survive. I’ve got to. The job has got to be done. One day, one morning, early one morning we were flying back from one of our raids. I think it was one when we went to Nordhausen which was another place. The dawn was coming and there were, were flying over part of rural Germany coming back and the, the mid-upper gunner said that, ‘Look, we’ve had one or two hangups,’ Bombs that hadn’t released, ‘There’s these places there. We’ll let them have it as we go past them because we could see that they would do it to us.’ But the rest of the crew said, ‘No. No. We won’t do that at all. They, they haven’t hurt us. We’ve, we’ve done what we’ve dropped the bombs on the towns.’ So there was a bit of [unclear]. One of, one of our group would have let them have it. So I think the feeling was in the crew was that there was no real hatred or anything like that. No. It was a case we had to do the job and if possible survive. That’s as I remember it.
PE: That’s good. Can you remember when you left Binbrook?
JM: When I left Binbrook?
PE: When you left Binbrook. When did you go back to Australia?
JM: Well, when the war in Germany ended they asked for volunteers to go on in what they called Tiger Force which was they were going to reform 460 Squadron and were going to go out to Okinawa and bomb Japan and they asked for volunteers. The rest of my crew said, ‘No. We’ve had enough. We’ll go back to Australia.’ And I, for some reason decided no. Well, I was prepared to go to another crew. So they formed us in to a second crew. We started training to go. Go out. But then the war ended in, early in August and the whole thing was finished so we never had to. But that was August 1945. It was a very nice summer and we were suddenly free of the, the threat of being killed and so it was a case of just relaxing and enjoying yourself. And by this time I’d met my wife, Olive a couple of months before and so we spent a bit of time together taking her to the pictures and that sort of thing. One incident, I took her to the pictures one, one afternoon and I said, ‘I’ll get you an ice cream.’ So, well at the interval I go to get her an ice cream and the lights went out. Well, I had the two ice creams but I didn’t know where Olive was so I had to eat the two of them. When the lights came on I was sitting a few seats a few in front of her which she, she thought I’d run out on her but, one thing I remember. But then as it was September I was working with other jobs to do flying. We were flying. We were given the opportunity to fly troops back from Italy which was rather touching. They were very emotional as some of them had been away from England for ten and eleven years. And, and also we dropped, there was the Dutch were starving so we dropped food in the Operation Manna, I think. We had a few trips dropping food to the Dutch. And then that was it. [coughs] Pardon me. Sorry about that.
PE: It’s alright.
JM: My parents, my parents were, by this time were writing saying, ‘When are you coming home? Johnny Hodson in the next street, he’s home. He’s home. Why?’ But I was having, I was enjoying England. At any rate the, the order came back. I had to go back to Australia so that’s what I did. Got on the boat with all the rest of them and came back to peaceful Australia. Landed, when we landed at the wharf there were people all waving to see us. To see you all back. Quite a quite nice seeing my mum and dad and the family were all there along with thousands of other people and it was quite a happy occasion.
PE: Did Olive go back with you at the time?
JM: I beg your pardon?
PE: Did Olive go back with you at the time?
JM: Oh, no. No. We, we wrote to each other for four years after I came back. And I I was doing a course to study civil engineering at Melbourne University and I kept thinking I’ll, I’ll go back to embarkation and propose to her. I kept writing but the bald story is my sister said, ‘What are you going to do about that girl in England?’ I said, ‘Well, I’m going back in embarkation to her.’ She oh she said, ‘Don’t be silly. You’ve waited too long. Write to her and ask if she’d like to come out and hurry. Hurry up and she can stay with me.’ It was rather intimate I suppose as a part of our life. But any rate I wrote to Olive and said will you can come out [unclear] about matrimony. She said yes. And, and that was it. That was in 1952 she arrived at, because there was a shortage of shipping space and at any rate we came out and everything’s has been pretty good since then. We’ve got three sons. They’re men now in their fifties. And we’re still getting along well together.
PE: Yeah. Yeah. So you’ve had your golden wedding.
JM: Yes. We’ve been married sixty two, sixty two years.
PE: Sixty two.
JM: Sixty two years.
PE: Right.
JM: Going on sixty three.
PE: So, what’s that? Is that, that’s diamond isn’t it?
Other: Diamond.
PE: Diamond wedding is it? Yeah.
JM: Olive’s a bit [unclear] deaf.
PE: Yeah. Congratulations.
JM: Could you hear what I said, hun?
OM: Yes. I heard you.
JM: Oh.
OM: Sixty three years.
JM: Yeah.
PE: So, is that diamond wedding is it? Sixty two.
OM: I think so. Yes.
PE: It’s in the sixties anyway. Yeah. Yeah. It’s the diamond wedding. Yeah.
JM: Yes.
PE: Well, thank you very much, Jeff.
JM: Yeah.
PE: That was really good. Have you got any questions you wanted to ask?
Other: No. I mean you’ve covered most of the questions I was after anyway.
PE: I think you got a story in there anyway.
JM: And can, can you scramble out the coughing?
PE: Yeah. Yeah. No, we’ll edit all that out.
JM: Yeah.
PE: Don’t worry about that.
JM: Yes. Yes.
PE: You did remarkably well. Can I just check one thing?
JM: Yes.
PE: You’re in your mid-nineties now.
JM: I’m ninety three.
PE: Ninety three.
JM: Yes.
PE: That’s what I thought. Yeah. Yeah. Well, you did very well to remember all that and you actually told a story which is quite unusual. One of the things that I like to do is find unusual stories in what anybody tells me. We know about your activities in 460 Squadron and the contribution that you made but the interesting thing was your voyage over to America with the German prisoners of war.
JM: Yes.
PE: Now, I’ve never heard that story before.
JM: No.
PE: And that’s very interesting in its own right. So, thank you for that.
JM: Yes. Yes. Well, that’s true. That’s, that’s how it happened.
PE: Good.
JM: Yeah.
PE: Well done. You did very well, Jeff. Thank you.
JM: Oh, thank you.
PE: Thank you. It’s been an honour to meet you. A privilege to talk to you. Thank you very much.
JM: I like to talk about myself [laughs]
PE: Most people do [laughs]
JM: Yes [laughs]
PE: Nothing wrong in that.
JM: Yes.
PE: Well, thanks a lot. That was brilliant.
JM: Yeah. Okay. My pleasure.
PE: That makes quite a good interview—



Paul Espin, “Interview with Jeff Mackay,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed July 14, 2024,

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