Interview with John Charles McAllister


Interview with John Charles McAllister


John McAllister tells the story of his family connection with Bomber Command through his uncle who was killed on operations. John is a musician and movingly explains how, through writing songs and putting them on the internet about his uncle and the crew, he made many connections with other families of this crew all around the world. The interview talks of the many connections Bomber Command has with people in so many places and how they are not always discussed, but are of such interest to a wide audience.




Temporal Coverage




00:45:42 Audio Recording


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AMcAllisterJC180212, PMcAllisterJC1801


HH: Okay, it’s the 12th of February 2018 and I’m Heather Hughes for the International Bomber Command Centre Digital Archive and I’m sitting, talking at Riseholme Hall to John McAllister who’s kindly agreed to be interviewed for the project. Welcome John and thank you very much for agreeing to be interviewed.
JM: Okay.
HH: I wonder if we could start off by asking you just to talk about your own life and upbringing, and then we’ll get around to discussing why the story of your uncle has meant so much to you.
JM: Okay. Well, I was born in London in ’49. My mother married my father after the war, they were both here during the war, my mother worked for British Celanese, as did her brother John, the younger brother, who was killed in the Lancaster. They were children of my grandparents who were dispensary doctors in Dublin and they both died in 1918 in the flu epidemic so John Doyle was one year old when his parents died. My mother was four, and they were brought up by my great grandmother Byrne in Ireland. Now with the Irish troubles of the War of Independence which ended in ‘21 then the ’22 Civil War, there was an economic war between Ireland and England which meant that an awful lot of Irish people emigrated looking for work. My mother and two of her brothers came to England and lived in Pinner and worked at various things, like my Uncle Jim was a quantity surveyor. He did his qualifications in the Polytechnic in Central London, and funnily enough when the war broke out he was conscripted to build prisoner of war camps around England, [laugh] which he didn’t like doing and he skedaddled back to Ireland because his brother Paddy, who was working for the power company, had found him a job. After the war, the same brother, Paddy, found a job for my father in the power station in Country Kildare, so we moved from Lambeth in London, to County Kildare, Naas, Country Kildare, into a works estate and that’s where I was brought up. Now, as I grew up my mother, who was deeply [emphasis] devoted to her brother, had kept all the letters that he had written to her and [pause] yeah, it was very emotional, because my parents warred a lot, they, he would be out down the pub or something and she would be reading the letters to us kids. So from that, you get a sense of what a funny guy he was.
HH: Where are those letters now?
JM: My dad destroyed them. When my mother died of cancer in ’76 he threw everything out. I managed to save the telegram that my mum had, sent to her, which is on the back of the album, I’ve got his cigarette case which I’m going to donate to the museum, and they had his buttons from his uniform and stuff and they all got thrown out because my dad, ah, [pause] he was a man of, yes, he was pretty violent man at times, in his illness: he was a manic depressive, and I’m a manic hypomanic, so lots of emotions in the family and stuff, which gives me my creative urge.
HH: Yeah. Gives you your talent.
JM: Yeah, it does, but anyway, digressing here, but when I grew up listening to my mum reading these letters it was good for her to read them out, but she was trying to recreate something she’d lost and deeply felt, and in Ireland it wasn’t politically correct to remember people who fought for Crown Services, to so it was -
HH: Did your father feel a bit like that?
JM: Yeah. He resented, in a way, my mother bringing up the memory of her brother, in ways, yeah, not, anyway it sort of, it makes you mix what you grow up in, you take what you need, you leave the rest sort of thing, you take what means something to you. But anyway, how this whole album started was, some friends of mine, their marriage broke up and I was in a pub with Alan, and saying he had just had twins but his wife had run off with his best friend, and you think ooh, what can you do about that. So I wrote a song called ‘True Believers’, and I cried when I wrote it, and it was very, very personal, but it got a lot of my feeling about the whole thing out of the way, and then I wrote another song for her side of it – ‘Free Now Its Over’, so I liked both of them. But anyway I was standing playing blue grass in a pub in South Essex, in Ingatestone, which I used to do on a Monday night, get drunk and play music, or play music and get drunk at the same time, whatever, and one night there was this woman standing by the piano and she had really big glasses, with like bottle stop glass in them, you know, really, really thick lenses, and I didn’t realise she was blind, cause she’s asking me who wrote that song, and I said well I did, and she’s not looking at me, she’s looking into the distance and I said well I did. Do you like it? Ah, I like it a lot, do you want to record it? Record, yeah, you can have my arm back, you know. So she was round to my house the next week and she said have you got any more songs, oh lots of songs you know, which I didn’t have, I had snippets of songs, so I had this snippet and only the chorus – ‘I Guess About Half a Million’ – and so we spent the afternoon drinking Jamieson’s and talking music and talking various things, and she said well, I want a song by you by tomorrow, with this ‘I Guess About Half a Million’. I liked the chord structure but, and I liked the air, can I have a song? So I thought okay, put it up to me and she left and because I was a bit maudlin and stuff it suddenly came to me that I could see this whole story, which I didn’t realise that my uncle, I thought he was shot down by a German flyer, which is what my mother had told me, but in fact he was brought down by radar guided ack-ack, and the first plane to be shot down. Now there’s a whole ream about them in Middlebrook’s book, ‘The Nuremburg Raid’, which I then got, after I’d written the song, I got the book and found out the true story, but I wrote the song first. So there was me with a telephone stuck in my earhole, trying to play the guitar down the telephone, bit drunk, to this woman saying, with my wife saying the children are trying to sleep, it’s late at night, will you shut up! And Annabel at the other end saying I like that, that’s good, we’ll record that. Now in the meantime I was working as a programmer in Maldon, in Essex, for a print works, and a type setter there called Rod Sandys, that I got friendly with and I told him was playing music down in this pub, and he said well I used to play he said, and he was ten years older than me, and he was a scoutmaster and stuff and his wife had always had him doing scouts for years and he really wanted to play music again. He used to play with a sixties band, oh, ‘Shivers Down my Backbone’, er, Johnny Kid and the Pirates, he was briefly with that band, but he got married so he had to give it up and conformed and everything. He loved scouting, but he was a scout master for forty years for goodness’ sake but he always wanted to play music, so he ended up coming down to the sessions in Ingatestone and I played him this John Doyle song and he said I like that, we can arrange that. So when we went and did a recording session Rod had it all in his head how to arrange this song and how to play accordion in it and how to put a hum in it and whatever: he was an arranger. And that’s how the song became what it was, because of him, because of Annabel and because of a song about other friends.
HH: How long ago did this all happen, John?
JM: That happened in 1996. Now, in 2015, I was making another album, a rock and roll one called ‘Harwich Sound’, it was going to be a rock and roll record and I had one song done, so it was going to be a rock and roll record because I’d written a rock and roll song, and suddenly I got a hit on my web site, because I’ve got a web site and I got a hit from a guy called Mike Barber who says, “John I’ve seen your song ‘Ballad of John Doyle’, my name is Mike Barber, I’m the nephew of Sergeant Frank Fealey, the sole survivor of your uncle’s aircraft, please contact me.” Well, hairs down the back of your neck. So, got in touch with him, and he said, I’ve got, I’m making a DVD and I’ve got all these letters and all these photographs of the crew, which I hadn’t seen before. So he sent me the DVD and of course I went through it like a dose of salts, and looked at the letters, looked at the photographs, read the stories, about everybody, and I suddenly had this sort of flash and in an afternoon I sketched out seven songs, one after the other, five of which are on the album, two of which my best mate Paul said were crap he said they’re really ridiculous songs and you could write much better than that. So I did, and I did and the songs I wrote were ‘Gwynne’s Song’ and ‘Radio Op’. Now, for the next year then, my time was taken up making this album. So I wrote the songs in November, had them sketched out, started playing them in folk sessions that I go to, to try them out and then I had a gig in Colchester playing Labour’s Got Talent, for the Labour Party fundraiser and there I saw Nancy Hughes playing her autoharp and she was singing ‘Brothers in Arms’ and I was sitting in the audience and thought wow! I want that voice, I need that woman to be on my album, and so then I contacted the guy who organised the concert and said can you give me her phone number or address? Nope, we can’t do that. I said well okay, can you tell her I’ve got a project in mind and here are some of the songs that I want her to do, would she be interested in doing it? Oh, I’m not sure I can do that. I said well, could you just, just do it? So he did and she came back and said yeah, she was interested in this, so she arranged, she came round to our house and I ran through a few things with her, and she was at the start only going to do ‘Ducharme’s Lost Love’, that’s the one I wanted her to do, and then I said well, while you’re here, there’s another one called, um, ‘Honey Don’t Make Me Cry’, which is a rag tune and would you like to do that, and she liked that, so we arranged and then we had practices and then we went backwards and forward, because she lives in Withenhoe and I live in Ramsay so it’s about twenty miles between the two, so I was over at her house and she was over at my house, and then I introduced her to this studio just down the street from me, The Early Bird, and we recorded a track and then I showed her ones I’d already recorded and then for the year after then she got involved with more tracks and she had ideas about ‘Radio Op’ when we were doing that she said if I go fade in, fade out and come behind you, then that will sound like a radio transmission that’s like an accordion going in and out and that was a good idea and on that one we, I said I want to put some Morse signal at the end of the track and she said what are you going to do? And I said I’m going to put the motto of the squadron which is Noli Me Tangere, Touch Me Not. So that’s in Morse, at the end of that track as it fades out, that Morse comes out and it works, you know, as a track.
HH: It does.
JM: So the other tracks then were evolving, and I was in contact with some of the relatives, my relatives in Ireland, my cousin Paddy Doyle, and I looked him up on the internet cause he used to be a karate teacher, and eventually it turns out he’s in a home in County Carlow with Alzheimer’s. I didn’t realise this, but I managed to get the number for him and rang him up on a Sunday morning, had a conversation with him, and the next minute I’m being contacted by his daughter, Evelyn, who said well dad’s not very well but you’ve been in contact with him and all this, and she became my main contact then, and I said Mike Barber wants a picture of the medals cause you’ve got them in your house, or Paddy did, and she said sure I can send him those pictures of the medals and so that went off to Mike Barber and, in the meantime, I was sending drafts to Mike of what I was doing, and then I got in touch, through him, with his cousin Brenda Fealey. She had been married but she got divorced so she went back to being Fealey and, in Leeds, and sent her rushes of what I was going to write about her dad and then I would have to wait a few days wondering, she hasn’t replied. Does she like it? Doesn’t she like it? And then she comes back and says I really like it though – great! That’s okay, it’s a result, so then I, when I would record them I would send them to people, to say Mike Barber, my relatives and my brother and sister, the Doyles in Ireland and in the middle of all this a lady contacted me from Scotland saying I was looking on Bomber Command Centre for my uncle, Sergeant William Gwynne, and I understand you’re doing an album about his crew. And I said yeah, you know I am, and I sent her a copy of ‘Gwynne’, one that I’d done and I was making little videos of all of these as I did them and put them up on youtube, which had the letters and had his picture and stuff, and she said that I wept because we had no picture of him. We’d lost all photographs and It was so good to see my grandparents’ letters to the Fealey family. Because Sergeant Fealey survived, and everybody knew he’d survived, all [emphasis] the other relatives wrote to his parents looking for information and the Fealey’s kept all the letters. So that was one of the things Mike had told me about in Jean Andre Ducharme, who was twenty five when he was killed, he was a French Canadian navigator and he had an Irish girlfriend, she went back to County Mayo after he was killed, married, had a family, 1969 she died of cancer and then her daughter found all these love letters to this guy she’d never known [emphasis] about, so I mean for a songwriter that became ‘Ducharme’s Lost Love’, you know, gold mine! Well it took me about thirty two times to get the lyric right and of course when we did that we were discussing how we would record it, so I thought I will sing a verse, you’ll sing a verse, we’ll sing a verse together, we’ll tell the story and I’ve got to get the surprise into it, where’s the letter about her finding the poems, realising her mother had a life before her, and you have to get that into the song, life before me [emphasis] you know, sort of to get that inflection in the song which is sort of telling the story songwriter, storyteller you get this stuff out and I was, cause I’d written the song about my uncle all those years ago, I always felt I hadn’t known anything about the rest of the crew. So finding out about the rest of the crew, then you think, well they all deserve a song, so to write a song for each one of them and one of the things was, the radio op, which was in the lyric of the song, that he was orphaned, he was an orphan like my uncle was an orphan, so they had that in common, and he was from Belton Bowland and there was a sort of mis-match of whether that was in Yorkshire or not in Yorkshire, you know, well a sort of border dispute, so I have in the song saying that he’s Yorkshire and really proud of it. In the [indecipherable] I’m from Yorkshire and I’m a proud Yorkshireman! So, that’s gonna stick, and we had him, he was twenty two, so we thought maybe he was getting married, maybe not, but we’ll put it in the story, cause it’s telling a story that he’s got a girl and to make him more human, that he’s got things besides flying, and he’s listening to the beam and he’s dedicated to doing the thing. And the other Irish connections, the captain, Captain Johnston, was originally from Derry, from County, or Londonderry, depending on, probably his family was County Londonderry, to me it would be Derry, but he, Elginton, which where the airport is, he must have learnt his flying as a young man, now his father was a police inspector and they had moved to Dunbar in Edinburgh, so letters from his father, asking for information and saying he could stick it if his boy was dead, but he was hoping for the best, but by that stage they were, whatever, giving up hope, but they’re all heart wrenching letters, so I had him. He’s the captain so he’s got to address his crew so I thought of him as doing a name call on all the guys, with function, so it’s look after your turret, look after your guns, keep on the beam, check if there’s a noise, take the controls just to feel that she’s okay, and the reason as I say, were taking her up for a test, they had bombed Dusseldorf, or tried to bomb Dusseldorf on the previous operation, had been damaged and came back, just limped home, so they’d had turrets replaced and their aeroplane was a really old aeroplane for a long history, over two hundred hours, flying hours, so it was an old style one which is why when it got hit it had fuel lines that burst into flames so when Sergeant Fealey who was the mid turret gunner got out, he came out through a ball of flame and was badly burnt as he came out as it disintegrated and that’s all in the book, in Middlebrook’s book about how he escaped, but his boots flew off in the airstream, he was wearing civvies under his uniform because he was so cold. I got that in one of the songs as well, I like to move about a bit for Gwynne because it’s really cold, twenty thousand feet with no heating: they were freezing.
HH: Indeed.
JM: So, sort of little strands that came from the archive, that all went into making the songs You want to get bits and pieces from what you glean, and as a songwriter try to distil it in to two or three minutes, to make a picture. Now Nancy couldn’t see the whole sense to all this as we were doing it, because we did them out of step as to how they are on the album, so some songs got recorded before others and whatever, and then I, I said I can see it in my head. Then the only song I’m really disappointed with is the first track, I wanted that to be more tub-thumping, like a NAAFI song, people being a bit rowdy, we’re going to do this and whatever, it sort of sets the scene it works up to a point, but it didn’t work as well as I hoped it would. That one I would like to re-record that and make it more memorable, you know, sort of a jingoistic tubthumping, we’re the boys from the Fens, we’re going to do you in, we’ll fly around, we’ll show you, Hitler and that type of thing but the rest of them do work as, they’re like chapters in the story. It starts off they’re taking off, they’re doing a test and because they wanted to test the plane was airworthy, they got bombed up, fuelled up and they took off first, so they can’t land again, so as a result they led the eight hundred people so that comes out in the song, ‘Head of the Armada’, and of course then the head of the flying the first one to get knocked out. But the next song then is ‘Gwynne the Engineer’, now he was, he worked for Rolls Royce in Glasgow and was a skilled engineer which is why he became the flight engineer on the plane, and like the guys he was a volunteer, so his parents were really cross with him for joining up – as all the parents were – they didn’t want him to join up, they knew how dangerous it was, but he went down doing his bit, so I have him talking about listening to the engine and marking in his book because that’s what they did. So they had a little log so if they heard a murmur or a piston misfiring or whatever they would make a note so they have to do this next time round, or if a turret wasn’t moving freely enough or whatever, he had to keep a record of these. And it turns out I had him ‘I like to move about a bit’ but apparently he didn’t have much chance to move about in real life, but in the song he moves about and gets to talk to the guys. And then the radio op one, as I said, we had that fading in and out a bit to make like a radio transmission and it’s a very simple song, but it works, as it had the feel for what I wanted from that. Also on ‘Captain Johnston’, when, I had various things in my head: so when he’s testing out the guns I wanted a machine gun fire which comes out on the soundtrack, briefly, and I wanted, when he calls them up they say roger skipper so the roger skipper is actually me saying roger skipper, and then it’s double tracked and it’s reverb put on it, so it sounds like an intercom. And when I did that Nancy said I can’t understand what you’re doing that for and I said it’ll work, believe me. So when we did it and she heard it and said oh it does work! I said of course it works! I can hear it in my head woman. It's a story so you have to put your audio cues in to make it work. Funnily enough when I was making that album, I was also doing a course on the history of the RAF. There was an Open University course called ‘From White Heat Technology to the end of the Cold War’, so after the war and all this, so I was interacting with a lot of people about the RAF and I happened to mention I’m making this album in just saying I’m making the album, this is what I’m doing, and I got contacted by a guy, Mike Lui, Chinese man from Singapore and I had been talking about being in the Irish Reserve Army and fighting these old World War Two ordnance, 303 rifles, bren guns, twenty five pounders guns and stuff we did and he said he had the same experience in Singapore with the Police Reserve, and then we found out we had a love of blue grass music so he sent me a video of Chinese musicians playing traditional Chinese musical instruments playing blue grass and that was great. So I sent him of a video of what I was doing on the album, so he thought that was really good, and he really liked ‘Tail Gunner Blues’. He likes sort of country and that one is in three different keys, I sort of switch keys doing it, and I had, so when I was doing it I had to double take to record it, I had to do it in several segments otherwise the voice would sound too shrill or too low, whatever, we got that in the end, and he liked that one. Then he says I’ve got a model Lancaster in my flat and I said yeah, he said yeah, I’ll send you a picture of it, so he sent me a picture of his Lancaster and I gave it to my son Colin who turned it into a graphic and that became the centre of the -
HH: How did he have a Lancaster, a model Lancaster?
JM: He just did. He was interested in, and he happened to have this model Lancaster and as soon as I saw it I thought well, that’s the centrepiece for the CD; it’ll fit in. And Colin can do something with it and Colin did. So that’s how that got on there. And Mike was so busy, he got the first, he got the first copy of the album, paid for it and was autographed for everybody. So he’s got that. He paid me fifty dollars or something for it, fifty quid or something for it I thought wow. I wasn’t doing it for the money because it’s one of these silly things and one of the silly things on this, things I’m so impetuous, I left off all the, the final draft to the repro people was the previous wrong one so the back cover has missed off the folk people who sang on the first track and they were really annoyed about that so, and also it says 206 instead of 2016, so deliberate mistake, collector’s items for anybody who’s got that, cause future ones will have the correct detail. So that was that, and then we had the John Doyle song. So if you think with, you’ve got them sitting in the NAAFI thinking about going off on a mission and if we don’t come back remember who we are, which is the whole thing about it: remember them. The captain, doing his name check taking off, the engineer doing his checks, the radio op doing his bit, then we have the tail gunner and he’s worried about being in the tail gunner that he’s not going to get out if something happens, which he didn’t, as it happened. But he was nineteen, from South Carolyn, in Australia, Brian Boyle, Sergeant Brian Boyle and he was friendly, best mates, with the other nineteen year old who escaped, who was Sergeant Fealey, so there’re pictures of them in the archive, best of mates, cause my uncle was the oldest, he was twenty nine when he was killed, the captain was twenty five, and so was the flight engineer, the radio op was twenty two. So I mean, what a waste. But anyway, also when I was making this I showed Mike old photographs I had, So I’ve got the reconnaissance photo of where the plane came down, so it’s like Lockerbie, it came down behind a farmhouse. So it must have been a huge shock for the people in that farmhouse: suddenly this great big bomber comes and explodes in their back garden! And also on the reconnaissance thing it has ‘rock’ where the nose of the plane is, and that’s where my uncle was. He was the bomb aimer, so he didn’t stand a chance, you know. So where we are, we’re up now, we then have ‘Ballad of John Doyle’. So John Doyle song says I’ve been killed in that one so and I wished I could have said goodbye, and then we have the song from Aunt Eileen where she doesn’t believe that he’s dead, which it comes from the letters, and we’re hoping for everything only don’t make me cry. And then we have the story that Mike told me about his uncle refusing to talk about his experiences and he was, as a young kid, was really, [emphasis] really interested in what was happening, can’t you tell me, you know, I’m really interested, let me know. Guy says sorry son, I don’t want to talk about it and so we have that in the song. Now when we do that song now, live, I do it in two voices so I have a gruff voice for the uncle and I’ve got a high pitched voice for the kid asking the questions, and Nancy suggested that, that would work and that works really well. And recently we did a concert in Colchester for an old peoples’ home and this old vet came up to me after and said that song ‘Sergeant Fealey’s Fear of Flying’, that’s a brilliant, really brilliant song my grandfather was First World War vet and after the war he refused to talk to my dad about it, but he said I was National Service in the ‘50s and was in Cyprus, the EOKA thing, and I came back in uniform then my grandfather opened up to me about the whole thing and he said it’s true, I couldn’t talk to other people about what I’d experienced, old servicemen will talk to each other, but he says you’ve got that in the song and that makes it a good song. I though ah, pretty cool. So the last song then is ‘Back in the Air’ because thirty years after he had been shot down and he didn’t want to fly again. He was flown back from Germany after the war and he became a Squadron leader, for a time, in the RAF, but then he refused to fly until 1974, and he was a salesman and [indecipherable] TV did a documentary on him, saying gunner takes his team to a raid on Germany again. So they went to Dusseldorf as a sales team and it’s the first time he’d flown again and then and after he’d flown he flew to Canada and places and looked up for the relatives of Duscharme to meet the family and talk to them. He was also instrumental in getting the two Irish guys’ names put on the memorial in Edinburgh Castle so he had Gwynne’s name put on that, Johnston was on it but Gwynne’s wasn’t. And they were recorded as Scots, in fact they were Irish, Irish extraction. So my uncle was from Dublin. We had Sergeant Gwynne was from Omagh, County Tyrone. Johnston was from Elginton, County Londonderry or Derry, take your choice.
HH: All on the same crew.
JM: On the same crew, and Fealey was of Irish extraction. I’m not sure about Thomson who was the radio op, where he came in, but Jean Andre Ducharme would have been a Catholic French Canadian, with an Irish girlfriend, so he was allowed on the crew [laugh] so I was talking with a friend of mine.
HH: Unusual.
JM: And he said that was what they did, he said, they grouped people by nationality because they were more likely to fight for each other, or bond together, whether that’s true or not I don’t know, but that’s what his theory was. Set up a few funny things, I had a boss gave me a big, big break back in the early eighties in programming, I doubled my salary by taking the job, and when I went for my interview I said well I don’t know about this system you’re talking about, he says well I think, he says, you’re the type of man who would learn very quickly and I’m impressed with you, so I’ll give you the job, so he did. Now Brian Sherwin contacted me last year, and how are things going? I’ve got four grandchildren now and how many have you got? And all this and haven’t seen you for a long, long time, so I said I’m in the middle of making, I made this album, so I sent him the album and he came back with a whole ream of letters saying I didn’t know your uncle was in the RAF, he says my uncle was in the RAF and didn’t come back, and this made me cry.
HH: Was his uncle also in Bomber Command?
JM: Yes.
HH: Goodness me!
JM: It was very cathartic, he said, to get this off my chest. He said I didn’t realise how bottled up I was, in the family, until I had that album and he said it let it all out.
HH: Amazing, yeah. Have you, what, have you had quite a lot of responses like that to the album? I mean a lot of people probably feel quite similar.
JM: Yeah. Well the relatives that I’ve been in contact with have been. for Sergeant Gwynne, some, some of the relatives are in, no, for Sergeant Fealey some of the relatives are, now live in Holland and they came back and said yeah, they really enjoyed it and it brought back stuff and because I’d sent them a copy of the archive, they said it was funny to see our grandparents’ writing, and to see all these letters that went to our grandparents. The people in Scotland, Gwynne’s relatives, are all touched by it and they were at the Elsham Wolds reunion last August when it was there, we met them, Nancy and I and we’re Facebook friends now, since. They’re, yeah, it was one of those really silly things. And of course your daughter is [laughter] involved with my son and then suddenly you download the album and I thought well, that’s the only person who’s done that off it and that’s why I immediately responded. That is really cool!
HH: The connections and the coincidences are really truly amazing about this, because I mean Christina sent me, she hadn’t known Colin very long I don’t think, and she sent me this card saying Colin’s dad has something to do with Bomber Command, you might want to get in touch with him, here’s his details. Which is when I contacted you and it, although I don’t have any, well I thought I had no personal connection with Bomber Command but I’ve subsequently discovered I do have a connection with Bomber Command in my great uncle, who was Scottish, was killed, on an op, but we didn’t know that side of the family very well. But the, the coincidences that you were talking about just happen so often in this project and the most amazing [emphasis] people sort of, and the most incredible connections have been made between families and people who thought that they had nothing to do with each other, and I’ve just watched it so often and when it happened to me, through you, and Christina and Colin, I thought [bang on table] this had to happen on this project, it had to happen through this project because it’s happened to so many other people who’ve been involved in it.
JM: Yep. That’s really cool.
HH: It is cool!
JM: Nancy and I are really chuffed to have been asked to play at this thing. We’re nervous about it, but it’s just.
HH: I am absolutely over the moon that this is going to happen, and I’m so pleased that you’re going to be able to see the Centre tomorrow, before you come to play cause I think it is going to be quite an emotional experience for you to see the Centre because there are memorial walls and your uncle’s name is on there.
JM: Right.
HH: So you’ll be able to go and see his name on the Memorial Walls, and the other crew.
JM: That’s cool.
HH: So you’ll be able to do that tomorrow.
JM: Thank you.
HH: Before we finish this John, it would be quite useful, for the purposes of the interview, if you just recall for us the actual operation and the squadron details of the crash and what the crew were involved in, that you have worked so hard to kind of commemorate. So they took off from Elsham Wolds.
JM: 30th of March 1944. They were going to bomb Nuremburg, because, as I said, they took off first, they led the eight hundred plane armada, flying. They went down an alley of radar controlled ack-ack, so it was like the Charge of the Light Brigade, they were going into the teeth of the guns. Whether they knew it or not, that’s actually what happened. So, they’re buried in Germany, I’ve never been there, to visit the grave, some of the relatives in Ireland have, my mum always wanted to got here, but I will some time. But you know, it’s, I don’t have to go there to remember him, do you know what I mean, but I would like to, at some stage; I’d like to go with my brother. But you know, it’s one of those silly things.
HH: For the future.
JM: For the future, yeah, for the future. But on that bombing raid ninety six aircraft were lost: it was the biggest [emphasis] single operational loss in the whole war, and some people have said that perhaps details of the raid were leaked to the Germans to divert from another raid that was happening on the same night. That comes out in Middlebrook’s book as a theory, that may not have happened, but the but the upshot was that nearly seven hundred people were lost or killed.
HH: It was a huge loss that night.
JM: A huge loss. And speaking about Bomber Command, [pause] sticking my pennysworth here, some people see Bomber Command now in black and white, and they bring up Dresden, and they say oh they were all murderers, they were war criminals, they were this. They weren’t: they were volunteers who were doing a particularly dangerous, dangerous job, day after day, without flinching and they were, they had the dirt pulled on them after the war. Churchill disowned them because it was politically expedient for him to do that, and not remember them and just recently they’ve had the War Memorial in Green Park for Bomber Command which is just brilliant. And I will say the Royal Family have supported that and they all went and turned out for the opening of that Memorial. You know, it’s one of those, see this, when I sent copy of the album to Her Majesty and I got a really, really nice reply back about it, I sent a picture of her parents, presenting my mum with the DFC!
HH: How interesting. Have you got that photograph?
JM: Yep. It’s now in the Fealey archive I think, cause I sent it, well copied it to Mike, but I’ve got it. I can send you a copy of it if you. it’s one of the silly things that happen in war.
HH: I mean I think that the, the current thinking about Bomber Command, I mean I think that the Green Park Memorial, to some extent, acknowledges the role that the aircrew played and brings them into the kind of main narrative if you like. I think the feeling, generally, at the moment, is that the, it’s the high command of Bomber Command who still have quite a lot to answer for, not the aircrew who were doing what they were asked to do, under extreme difficulties, and yeah doing something which they probably themselves didn’t realise the extent of the dangers, I mean I think they had a fairly good idea that this was really dangerous even during wartime they themselves had no idea what the loss rate was, because it was hushed up, it was hushed up. So yeah, I think the aircrew who flew in Bomber Command on all those operations have been very poorly treated.
JM: Yeah, I’d go along with that.
HH: And, in a way, that’s the message that we’ve tried to convey in the exhibition that you’ll see tomorrow.
JM: Ah, so one more thing, that last song on the thing, ‘Back in the Air Again’, where it has him back flying and saying things, I sent these tracks to a pirate DJ in Ireland, friend of mine, and he was playing them on the radio in Ireland and when I did that one he had a young German girl who was in his studio at the time playing fiddle, playing Irish or playing German traditional music for Christmas, and he played that track and he asked her what did she make of that, and she said well I really liked the words our children can be friends and that really got me, that’s really cool, which was what it was meant to do, in the writing of the thing, because I also say, in that song, thing that he learnt, being a prisoner of war, that the other people felt the pain of war as well. He learnt a bit of German, could speak with them, not saying he fraternised with them, but he understood a bit more about the whole thing and how it transpired, but it’s trying to get images in without being jingoist about it, and making, without making statements about it, but making real people come to life again. I’ve got a novelist friend, Lisa Oliver, who writes racing novels, and she liked the album, she says you know what John, she says you can put in three minutes what takes me ages to put into a whole chapter! [laugh] You’ve got the whole story in three minutes! Which is good, which is cool. I was really pleased.
HH: I think it’s, I mean I think it’s a great album.
JM: Thank you.
HH: I enjoy playing it at home.
JM: I’ll give you a hard copy and I’ll also give one to Dan and your man upstairs, can’t think of his name now.
HH: Peter.
JM: Peter. Cause I’ve got a load of them in the boot of the car.
HH: Well we can, I’m sure that they’ll like them up at the Centre. Thank you John, for that interview. We’ll call it a day now, but I’m sure that there’s a lot more talking we still can do, but for the purposes of this interview, that’s it for the moment.
JM: Okay.
HH: Thank you so much.


Heather Hughes, “Interview with John Charles McAllister,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed December 4, 2023,

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