Interview with Ernest Cutts


Interview with Ernest Cutts


Ernest Cutts was born in Mallee in Victoria and, at the age of 15, he passed the Commonwealth Public Service Exam, joining the Military Post Office as a civilian junior postal officer. Aged 18, he enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force and went to 1 Recruit Training School at Summers and then to 3 Bombing and Gunnery School at West Sale, training as a rear gunner. He then sailed from Sydney to Great Britain, landing in Scotland and travelling to Brighton. He was posted to 27 Operational Training Unit and then to RAF Driffield, flying Halifaxes. He took part in 34 operations over Germany. During one operation, his aircraft was so badly damaged by anti-aircraft fire that it was unable to return to its own station. In September 1945 he took part in Operation Spasm and Operation Dodge, repatriating prisoners of war from Europe and the Middle East. Subsequently, he returned to Brighton enroute to Australia. He remembers that the British people treated the personnel of Bomber Command very well and he felt proud to have been part of it.




Temporal Coverage




01:16:59 audio recording


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AP: This interview for the Bomber Command the International Bomber Command Centre is with Mr. Ern Cutts who is a 466 and 467 Squadron rear gunner, the interview is taking place at Mr. Cutts’s home in Doncaster, Eastern Victoria on 1st October 2015. Ern we might start at the beginning tell me something about your early life growing up, farm, family that sort of thing?
EC: I was born in the Mallee in Victoria I was born in Birchip um very proud of that I’m a Mallee boy and um still very fond of the country up there. Then I went to school in Birchip and at the age of um be about fifteen there was an advertisement in the local paper for the, from the Postmaster General’s Department advertising for staff and for young people to sit for the Commonwealth Public Service Exam which I did. I passed the exam and was then posted um straight from the the Mallee in Birchip which is quite a cultural shock and the next thing I knew I was living in a boarding house in or just off Fitzroy Street, St. Kilda so I don’t know how I actually handled it but I suppose the resilience of youth, um and I had various postings then err military post office as a civilian. I was a junior postal officer, in other words a glorified telegram boy really, um my first posting was the telephone exchange in Lonsdale Street, Melbourne from there I went to the St. Kilda Post Office, from there I went to the Military Post Office in Rowville outside Dandenong and the Military Post Office in Mount Martha outside um Frankston. By this time of course I was starting to become of the age where I could sign up and like all young blokes I couldn’t wait to join one of the services, right from the start I had um I am the youngest or was and am the youngest of seven children um of my mother and father’s and of the seven children five of us all enlisted um and we enlisted across various services. Um two of us enlisted in the Air Force I was aircrew my brother Ron was ground crew or ground staff as they were known then, er one of my sisters was um an RAAF nursing sister, two of my brothers joined the AIF and the remaining two girls of the family were wireless service people so I had a fairly interesting service life. By this time of course I’d have been eighteen as I just mentioned before and I had already decided that I want to be in aircrew and aircrew after a lot of hassle with my father he didn’t want me to go aircrew because he felt that five out of the seven of his children were already occupied in the forces and he thought that I perhaps could go into something less less strenuous or whatever I wanted to join aircrew and I did it.
AP: Did you have any family history in the First World War perhaps, did you know of anyone who was in the First World War and had they?
EC: Well I know one of my uncles er my father’s brothers on my father’s side Aubrey, Aubrey Cutts I know he was in the war and another brother who lived in Sydney I can’t I’m not hundred per cent where Aubrey lived but I think he was um after the First World War I think he was a blockie in other words a farmer a soldier settler allocated a fruit growing block, um the other brother the only other one that I know of that was in the services was employed by the Sydney municipal council and he was um his name was Ray but I I really didn’t know either of them.
AP: So there wasn’t any sort of influencing you all joining up it was more, there’s another war let’s go?
EC: No no.
AP: Okay.
EC: My father was one of eleven or twelve children I think like they all were in those days and um by the time I came on the scene they were all well scattered all over the Commonwealth so I didn’t even know them except that one uncle, Uncle Ray in Sydney and the only reason I knew him was that um we embarked from Sydney on the troop ship New Amsterdam um to go overseas and of course he had me at his house and all that you know all that company and looking after me and all that business.
AP: You specifically chose the Air Force or were you open to any service?
EC: No I think now I can’t remember but looking back I think I wanted to be aircrew.
AP: Specifically aircrew well you got there.
EC: Specifically aircrew and I wanted to be aircrew and, and I was.
AP: Can you remember much of the actual enlistment process you know you go and you put your name down somewhere can you remember that that process where and how did that happen?
EC: I can’t remember, I can’t remember the actual, I can remember going to a big building on the corner of I think it was the Main Road and St. Kilda Road and that was commandeered I think would be the word it was taken over by the Air Force as their recruitment centre and it was called Kellow-Falkiner, any people of my age would know Kellow-Falkiner for it was a very big motor company selling motor cars, servicing motor cars and very big I think it was either on the corner of St. Kilda Road and the Main Road or St. Kilda Road and Commercial Road but I feel pretty sure it was the Main Road in fact I think the building is still there today.
AP: What happened when you went there?
EC: Well the rest is a bit of a blank it was I can’t really remember, I remember we had to go in and I suppose we were interviewed and I think we were given a quick medical and signed this piece of paper and then that was it and I think we went on our various ways home and all that sort of thing and waited to be called up.
AP: How long did it take from that until you were called up?
EC: I can’t remember.
AP: Oh right.
EC: I can’t remember I really can’t remember er um and during that time while I was waiting for my call up I just went back as a junior post office as a junior postal officer at St. Kilda Post Office.
AP: Did you already know Morse code out of interest doing that job?
EC: Yeah well sort but I was never as good at it as I would have liked er and I, I regretted that very very much because I should have been a wireless air gunner which was I wanted to be a wireless air gunner but I wasn’t good enough at Morse code.
AP: Despite the prior experience?
EC: Beg your pardon?
AP: Despite the prior experience?
EC: Yeah but I never, I didn’t really have enough experience.
AP: Fair enough.
EC: Some of those, those in the days of telegraphy some of those telegraphers were absolutely brilliant, brilliant you had to be you had to be brilliant to be a telegraphist.
AP: Fair enough. Your ITS training your initial training where was that and what did you do?
EC: One in that logbook here somewhere.
AP: There it is.
EC: Yeah over there well when I first ITC initial training see that would be initial training centre that won’t be in here.
AP: I don’t think you would have done any flying there.
EC: No, no you don’t that was the [looking through book] initial training ITC [pause] I just saw the photo a minute a go here but which side I was, there it is there. First posting was to Number 1 Recruit Training School at Summers, Victoria for six weeks. From Summers I proceeded to West Sale, Victoria with the 3 BAGS, which is bombing and gunnery school for three weeks, this is a part of the course thirty nine gunners at Sale and yours truly, yours truly is um somewhere there.
AP: Hopefully we will scan this photo later.
EC: Er just trying to see which is me . . . there!
AP: Back there, excellent. So at, at West Sale you were flying in Fairey Battles according to your logbook, what memories of that if any do you have?
EC: I don’t want memories of that.
AP: You don’t want memories of that [laughs].
EC: I don’t memories of that [background noise] that was the most, that was bloody hideous things they were, they were glycol-cooled engines, inline engines, Fairey Battles and I’ve never smelt glycol like that. They, they sort of make you sick before you took off, the smell of the hot glycol which was a cooling agent and um beside that they were old they were rickety there was only you and the pilot in them and to step out on the first day for your first time in your life of ever being airborne to step out of one of those Fairey Battles really was asking really asking too much. But that’s how they did the gunnery schools because they were very reliable aircraft, very reliable aircraft. They had to tow drogues which were really targets like a like an air sock on an airfield the drogue. One Fairey Battle would drag the drogue and then you would be in the other one and you’d practice all that you put into practice all that you’d learned in theory that day, but they were awful, it was awful I hated every minute of it, hated. Beside being violently airsick all the time which you were because the pilot had to do manoeuvring and they were er well we just weren’t prepared for it just not prepared for it. We were young blokes who’d who’d never even seen an aircraft before and um plonked in this awful aircraft the Fairey Battle then and er you just had to cope the best you could.
AP: And so after something like ten hours in your logbook your next step is embarkation depot and a boat presumably to er?
EC: No then.
AP: After BAGS.
EC: 3 BAGS, which is bomber and gunnery school oh and I see it will be initial training was learning to be a discipline, discipline you know that was here initial training and then 3 BAGS bomber, bombers and air gunners school, then I went to now in that one we flew Oxford aircraft which were comparatively luxurious I mean they had two engines for a start off that were pretty hard and clamped down but at least they had two engines and um you weren’t out in the elements like you were in the Fairey Battles I think I might have a photo of one.
AP: So in the Oxford you were bombing training or was that in gunnery?
EC: Gunnery.
AP: Gunnery training as well.
EC: Yes.
AP: How did they do that in an Oxford? Was there a turret or just a hole with a gun? Where did you do your– ?
EC: You had to know how to stand in the turret there it is there 3 BAGS, West Sale gunnery there it is there as I said yeah Oxford that one’s Fairey Battle, Fairey Battle, Fairey Battle [examining photographs].
AP: Ah so you flew both of them?
EC: Yeah Battle, Battle, Battle, but mostly it was um.
AP: Now we’re at Lichfield? So how did you get from West Sale to Lichfield?
EC: From West Sale to Lichfield, I can’t remember a great amount about it except that when we finished 3 BAGS we would have been sent on pre-embarkation leave and I think we perhaps had ten days perhaps three weeks of pre-embarkation leave and we were er towards the end of that we were in Brad I think it was the suburb of Bradfield or Bradfield Park in Sydney and it was there that I contacted the brother of my father’s Ray that’s how I came to know him and um I suppose we did whatever young blokes did while we were sitting in the embarkation you know perhaps went down for a few beers went out perhaps saw all the pretty girls and did all those things and um then that was time say for the embarkation actual embarkation and we were then bussed along with hundreds and hundreds of others down to the troop ship which was um commandeered by the British navy and was a liner, pre-war liner and it was the flagship of the Dutch merchant navy, the Royal Dutch Merchant Navy and it was the New Amsterdam and in those days it was not quite to the standard of the Queen Mary but going that way which to be the flagship of the Dutch merchant navy pre-war well it had to be it had to be a beautiful liner and then from there we went overseas.
AP: Can you remember which direction you went?
EC: Yes we went from um Sydney and one of the most one of the most beautiful sights I ever saw in my life was um we didn’t, we didn’t come down to Melbourne we left Sydney and but we came down in the Bass Strait and then across to Perth. One of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen in my life was a late afternoon we passed um Wilsons Promontory and the sun was setting and this it was and I’ve never never, never ever forgot it was the most beautiful thing I ever saw in my life, I was a young eighteen year old bloke very impressionable and um I’ve never forgotten that, then um we went direct then to Cape Town in South Africa. Now we were in Cape Town for a while I distinctly remember going ashore and with all the boys and we used to go down to the canteen and have a few beers and um I remember I remember distinctly Cape Town, and from there we went round to Freetown, which is the capital of Sierra Leone and is still the capital today er I’ve got an idea we went to another place not too sure and all this time of course if there were in the big shipping lanes all over the world and they didn’t like calling in and embarking and disembarking too much because the German submarines were really, really, on the ball and um it was better that you were at sea and under convoy protection and big liners like the New Amsterdam we didn’t we had protection but that was only to keep us with the rest of the convoy didn’t really need the protection because the New Amsterdam could outrun German submarines and so we went from Cape Town round to Freetown the capital of Sierra Leone oh yeah that’s right then we went up to the Gold the Gold Coast could it be called the Gold Coast?
AP: The Ivory Coast?
EC: The Ivory Coast yes that’s the next one up I think from Sierra Leone [pause] and from there we went we must have picked up I remember distinctly remember picking up hundreds of Italian prisoners of war and we learnt later that they were from the Italian cruiser the Bartolliomi Colomanie, Bartolomeo Colleoni, which had just been sunk over Sydney and they had all the prisoners, all the Italian naval prisoners of war and we loaded them they were loaded on pretty quickly and then we set sail and went straight up to um Firth of Forth, which is in Scotland, Grannick is it Grannick [?Greenock], all the Scotch [sic] people that’s all they ever talk about the Firth of Forth so that’s where they’ll know it, beautiful part of the world, from there like all Australians we were um we disembarked and joined the troop train which took us directly to Brighton, um in Sussex?
AP: England, over in England, South of England.
EC: Yes and so that’s my tale of how I got to England.
AP: Can you remember much of Brighton, were you there for long was there much to do did you see any enemy activity or anything like that?
EC: No there was not a lot to do and um it was and still is er where most English people spend some holiday sometime because you haven’t been anywhere as an English person if you hadn’t been to Brighton. Even today it’s, it’s um a mecca for those that come, it’s a beautiful place. We expected to see being on the sea like that we expected the sea and perhaps swim on nice beaches but there is no beaches there, it’s on the sea alright, but no beaches so we were quite disappointed [laughs] they just had all pebbles and they don’t sort of have beaches.
AP: Did you see much um sign of the war when you had just arrived in England?
EC: Yeah, yeah well we um Brighton itself wasn’t bombed much, least I don’t think it was and if it was it wasn’t when I was there it was never bombed while I was there, but London was still being bombed while I was there and um yeah and things were pretty crook, pretty crook um but we were treated like kings you know because the English people were so pleased any, anyone in Bomber Command were treated with the utmost respect, treated like kings because the only people in the war in those days, until D-Day was Bomber Command there was no other um and in the Middle East of course but in Europe there was no war on Europe it was only air war because it was only Bomber Command and going over every night and doing what we had to do it every night [phone ringing], but I remember something stuck in my mind I remember when I was a young a bloke at this time and I was pretty keen on a young English girl and I noticed I’d been invited to her home quite a few times and I noticed that she and I always got fed, Cassandra she was the only daughter so there was no one other than her mother and her and myself and mother said she and I always got fed but the mother never ate anything and I said to her one day and I questioned her about it one day she said ‘no, no, no, no, no’ she got very embarrassed and I said ‘why you know are, are you so embarrassed? Is it illegal food or something?’ she said ‘no it’s actually my mother’s ration she’s giving it to you’.
AP: Wow.
EC: Well that’s, that’s, that’s the English people you know they were really tops.
AP: Wow . . . all right we’ll move on a bit tell me how you met your crew, how did you meet the people that you flew with?
EC: Well that was at 27 OTU and we were all um we’d have been taken there by by rail or road motor, would have been transported there from Brighton to Lichfield anyhow, somehow maybe by train um and then taken out to the station, out to Driffield and I think they gave us a couple of days to acclimatise and [coughs] wander round and see what was what and just sort of filled in to I don’t remember, all I remember is I met a guy his name was Gordon Dalton and he was born and bred in Nilma which is outside of Warragul and I think Gordon’s now dead but I remember he and I got along particularly well and he always looked for a mate so you had someone to talk to and I remember him saying to me one day ‘they’re looking for crews they want a gunner’ I said ‘yeah but we gotta get a pilot’ I said ‘it takes a week to find this’ he said ‘no we’ve got a half-filled now’ I think we only wanted a navigator and two gunners something like that and he said ‘now are you interested?’ I said ‘course I’m interested that’s what we are here for [phone ringing] let’s get into a crew and get this thing [unclear]’ that’s how it happened he said ‘OK I’ve got the pilot‘ Alan McKellem and the rest of the blokes from there on I don’t know, I don’t remember how we all gelled then [unclear].
AP: So it wasn’t like everyone in one big room and pick your room it sort of happened naturally?
EC: Naturally, yeah yeah.
AP: Suddenly you were flying?
EC: I was yes I mentioned that Gordon Dalton actually I made a mistake there, that’s how I was paired up on the second crew the first crew um I think it was the bomb aimer, Brian Seaton from Sydney, I think it was him that mentioned one day he said this ‘Cuttsy we are looking for a gunner if we get two gunners and a navigator’ or it might have been a flight engineer he was looking for but he said ‘we’ve got the crew mate will you be in ours?’ I said ‘yeah gotta be in [unclear] that’s what we are here for’ and that’s how that happened.
AP: What um what sort of things happened at OTU at Lichfield what were you actually doing in the aeroplanes and what were you doing on the ground?
EC: Operational Training Unit 27 OTU now at Lichfield. 27 OTU was at Lichfield Operational Training Unit that was switching over to what you called today medium bombers, in those days they were heavy bombers but they were Wellingtons, two engine radial cooled and we went across and we learnt cross country navigation, we practiced bombing, we practiced gunnery um that was all down there, cine camera gun exercise, a lot of that was gunners doing their training we had cine cameras attached to the um machine guns and when you fired they would sort of um show where you were going so they could check up on you the instructors could check up on you so there I’ve done about one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, nine flights [looking at his logbook] there all of them averaging um an hour and a half er and that was on cine camera gun exercise, now down here still in 27 OTU solo cross country that would have been the first time that our skipper would have flown with his crew at night, solo bombing runs, solo cross country, solo cross country, dual circuits and landing, dual circuits and landing.
AP: You even had gunners for circuits?
EC: So that the aircraft was fully loaded.
AP: Ah of course.
EC: And so that you got used to you know circuits and bumps we you used to call it circuits and landing.
AP: It would have been quite bumpy in rear turret I imagine?
EC: [Laughs] No actually the rear turret was quite okay um um but this was really for the skipper circuits and landing it’s all for the skipper here’s it well here [unclear] air test self-towed drogue in other words the aircraft that I was in had a towed drogue and we towed that, a number of rounds fired fifty two, cross country, all those things, so still still on Operational Training Unit, solo bombing, um simulated fighter attacks using your own fighter aircraft using Mosquitoes no it wouldn’t have been Mosquitoes um Spitfires or Hurricanes and they would come in and attack us no, no firing or anything but they would come in and attack us we would fire at them with the cine cameras and then they’d be taken away by the instructors if you weren’t hitting them they’d put you back to school [laughs].
AP: What sort of ground training was involved at OTU for you guys if any?
EC: Um aircraft recognition er there was never any, except for initial training, there was never any um training like the army those you know army drill and backpacks we didn’t have to be we all were particularly fit young blokes but we didn’t have to be super fit like the young infantry blokes because we never walked anywhere we were driven everywhere.
AP: Having someone say you sat down to go to war?
EC: Yeah well that’s right yeah I mean we were, well the aircraft were always parked out on the aprons of the airfields and they’d always be in those times say three quarters of a mile away well we’d all be bussed out there because you couldn’t go out there with your flying gear on and your and your parachute harness you just couldn’t do it and your Mae West you could hardly walk let alone go out there so we were always picked up and driven driven to the aircraft, we got out and the ground crew had the aircraft all ready for us the ladders would be in the position we’d climb up the ladders and get inside, the ground crews were absolutely fantastic blokes typical Australian servicemen you know really top blokes looked after us like spoiled us they did.
AP: What did you think of the Wellington as an aircraft?
EC: Well it was yeah it was all right but um it fitted the bill it was all right when it was being flown it really wasn’t a heavy bomber you know compared to the Halifax and the Lancaster they were good yeah the blokes that flew them did equally as good or better jobs as we did as we did with four engines the four engine Halifax and the Lancaster were superb aircraft you know so all the good things they learnt about Wellingtons they learned to drop them aside and all the good parts went into the Halifax, Handley Page Halifax and Avro Lancaster.
AP: Beautiful.
EC: It was like it was like using um it was like using a Holden or a Falcon against a Merc or a BMW both all of them beautiful cars but [telephone ringing in and slight disturbance in the background].
AP: What did you do to relax when you were in England when you weren’t on duty?
EC: Er um get on the grog [laughs].
AP: [Laughs]
EC: I hate to say.
AP: You have entered pubs a few times?
EC: I think we I think we drank more than the average young bloke um and I think we smoked more than the average young bloke none of us I’m quite sure none of us have ever touched them since because we realised that there was yeah I know what you mean [laughs].
AP: From my experience of aircrew mmm [laughs].
EC: But the smoking part anyhow we all realised that that that was no good and er I think that’s why when we go before the Appeals Board for the Department of Veterans Affairs and you mention like I did I did thirty four operations and went back as an instructor and what not, I think I knew straight away that that they’d you know that there was no that I was gonna have my appeal carried out and I was subsequently um my appeal was subsequently allowed, I appealed against my pension and then I was because they realised that aircrew was spent most of your life behind the enemy lines and um it was pretty tough going you know pretty tough I think aircrew has the highest per capita of death and injuries I think aircrew has I stand to be corrected but I’m sure that aircrew does have the highest so.
AP: So so dealing with that sort of stress you end up in the pub frequently [laughs]?
EC: More frequently than we should have.
AP: Can you -
EC: Being behind the enemy lines all the time nearly all the time you are behind except flying there and flying home but even then the German night fighters would follow you home all the time in fact at one stage of the game they had this marvellous idea and they were very very successful at it. That they didn’t attack us over the target they waited till we crossed the English Channel coming home as this is, they waited they’d be stationed in France and then take off when we passed overhead they just they wouldn’t take us they’d just wait till we got into England and then we started fanning out our squadrons to wherever you came from I you know we had to go up to Yorkshire, your grand uncle would be going down to Lincoln and that, and they’d attack then because half the aircraft were shot up and limping home I mention and half of them not flying too well and they that’s when they wait and they’d attack when we got home they fixed that up later on the R the RAF fixed that up later on they patrolled the aircraft near the aerodromes and they fixed that up but they took a lot of a hell of a beating before they really did fix it up.
AP: So when you were on squadron at um Driffield where and how did you live like what were your living arrangements?
EC: In those um I forget what they call them they still have them today those.
AP: Nissen huts.
EC: Nissen that’s the word, Nissen huts Nissen huts except on the old former RAF regular squadrons where they had proper administrative buildings you know brick buildings and all that sort of thing um but all the squadrons were Nissen huts.
AP: What was that like in the winter of 1944-45?
EC: [Laughs] Yeah it was pretty cold, bitterly cold I think I honestly can’t remember but a lot of the times we spent a lot of times in the mess or in the sergeants’ mess or the officers’ mess whichever you were in and they were all heated, I guess in those days it would have been heated but um kerosene I suppose or diesel or something I just can’t remember.
AP: Gas?
EC: Lot of that well some or most likely we kept pretty warm but we were very much looked after very much spoilt.
AP: [Laughs]. So do any of your operations stand out in your memory?
EC: The first one I ever did in my life was to Sterkrade I think which a day might have been oh there’s when I got to Driffield there’s 46 Squadron [examining logbook] see we even tried it when we got the squadron there’s mine but after Lichfield they all became 1652 Heavy Conversion Unit which was only converting us from two engine Wellingtons to four engine whatever in my case Halifaxes so that was HCU which is Heavy Conversion Unit and even then we practiced, um practiced and trained and trained but not a great amount because all we were doing all we did was change from twin engine to four engine everything else was pretty much the same you know the only person who really got the benefit out of it um Heavy Conversion Unit was the navigator and the pilot the rest of us watching one aircraft and the next except the pilots had four engines and an additional member of the crew because when it went from um two dual engine to four engine you gained an extra crew member you’d have the um flight engineer.
AP: So he had to get used to you guys as well I suppose, was the flight engineer sort of, did you choose him or was he here’s your flight engineer off you go just like that?
EC: Yeah ‘cos he was RAF all flight engineers are RAF I don’t know why that is but it is something I suppose Australia said look we you’ve asked us for say ten thousand men or something will try and train ten thousand gunners, navigators, bomb aimers and pilots and wireless operators but we we’re too small a country we just haven’t got the men to train as flight engineers so all your flight engineers were Poms.
AP: I’ve only ever met one he’s a Scotsman.
EC: Flight engineer?
AP: Yep yep flight engineer he was a Stirling flight engineer of all things he flew Stirlings on ops.
EC: Was he was he what nationality?
AP: Scottish.
AP: Yep yeah he came out to Australia in the 1950s.
EC: Stirlings.
AP: Did you ever fly in Stirlings?
EC: No I didn’t . . . thanks [laughs].
AP: Those who did, loved them.
EC: Yes.
AP: Tommy Toy loved them but um but those who didn’t probably way down there [unclear].
EC: I was bloody glad I never ‘cos I never liked the look of them I used to think I did, awful looking things. Here I am [unclear].
AP: Yes I think we were talking about your first operation we were going to get into that.
EC: Yes as soon as you get to the squadron you’re fighter affiliation that’s that would have been settling in, that’s the first thing you ever did.
AP: Number nine that’s further back.
EC: Yes that’s number nine op so we gotta go back oh here we are Sterkrade there you are prior to that we’d done bombing exercise, three bombing exercise, a fighter affiliation exercise, that was at night when they used to attack your own aircraft your own aircraft attack us at night so so that they test your eyes testing how you operate in the darkness you know there you are Sterkrade number one Sterkrade it was in the Ruhr valley synthetic oil and it was a day trip and took flying time was five hours so be two and a half to Sterkrade and two and a half home and I’ve never lived this down [laughs] I saw these black puffs in the air black things you know [background unassociated conversation] and I said to someone I said the crew ‘cos everyone was excited you know our first op and it was a daylight op which was good because they did try and give you a daylight give you a bit of an idea what you were going to do I said ‘what’s all those black things out there skipper what are all the black things?’ and everyone started laughing it was bloody anti-aircraft exploding that’s how raw and I by the time I got to the thirty fourth op I didn’t need to ask [laughs]. So there you are that was my first op Sterkrade and then another daylight Cologne then a night now see still look we’d done eight operations there, I went to Cologne again in the Ruhr valley six hours ten at night then the next day on the 31st we were out practising beam approach that’s the forerunner of um er you know the pilots flew on the beam.
AP: Instrument landing system is what it’s called now.
EC: It’s what?
AP: Instrument landing system ILS.
EC: That’s it yes, yes but–
AP: I see here –
EC: But you are out there doing your operations but it’s still training.
AP: Yes, yes. There’s an early return here can you remember much of that?
EC: Um early recall.
AP: Early return Essen on recall ok?
EC: Recall from Hannover that now because there’d be a few of them through here early recall from Hannover it would either be a fault in the aircraft, a fault with um pathfinders going in and couldn’t operate because it was ten tenths cloud so they’d say recall there’s no good carrying on, or um perhaps it was a wrong meteorological reading and they’ve given us two tenths cloud when we got there was ten tenths so they recalled ‘em you know, no good dropping ten thousand or two thousand tons of bombs on a city.
AP: It might not be there?
EC: Yes you can’t see it you know ‘cos all you do is spray bombs all over the countryside no one gets . . . [unclear]
AP: Um okay cool.
EC: Practice bombing detail there’s another one see in amongst all one minute I’m over Hannover and Essen both prize German things.
AP: Wondering what those black clouds are yeah.
EC: The next thing you’re gonna see one I’ve never really noticed that, number nine.
AP: With another early return as well?
EC: There’s another one there Bochum early return that was three hours forty five minutes which means we’d have been pretty close to Bochum then because Bochum’s in about um you know central Germany so it’s not it had been you know so I don’t know why we’d have been recalled then but a lot of it’s crook aircraft so not a lot of it but some of it is crook aircraft you know they’d say ’well return return’ the boys saying at the second time we’re already trying to turn round [laughs] and go back. I’m thinking [unclear]. See now started to do a lot of night ones here Duisburg, Cologne, and then after you’d done your month’s flying you had to put that in [a logbook monthly summary] and that was Noel Helpmann [?] who was a flight lieutenant um who was commanding the flight in other words that that means that that’s true we had a lot of blokes putting in things that they shouldn’t have put in.
AP: Extra ops? So I saw earlier there there’s a citation for your pilot looks like an immediate DFC?
EC: Yeah.
AP: Tell me about that trip from your perspective what do you remember of that trip?
EC: Oh no it’s not Flying Officer Alan Bircham recall the McKellam, South Lismore, New South Wales this officer [unclear] courage and determination. In November 1944 he was detailed to attack Gelsenkirchen when was that in November ‘44 there it is there the Ruhr valley, ten minutes before reaching the target the aircraft was attacked by heavy anti-aircraft fire target which wait a minute, which caused extensive damage Flying Officer McKellam flew on to the target which was attacked successfully his coolness, devotion to duty were worthy of the highest praise well um.
AP: What can you remember of that they are pretty terse words.
EC: No no a lot of these blokes, a lot of it you know I’m not saying that they the thing with the Distinguished Flying Cross what it says you know Distinguished Flying but it just happened to be on that Gelsenkirchen every pilot by the time he had done thirty four ops got a DFC I shouldn’t say it, a DFM is a different medal altogether you get ten DFCs and one DFM and that was what the DFM is I always thought if I ever get a medal I hope it’s a DFM because I wouldn’t get a DFM anyhow because I was only a sergeant when I say I was only a sergeant, I was a sergeant.
AP: So what you’re saying is there was nothing particularly different about that trip compared to other ones it just happened that they’ve got to put something?
EC: Otherwise I would have had it in.
AP: Yeah that’s a fair point it’s not in the logbook, yeah that’s a fair point it’s not in the logbook.
EC: Not in mine not for Gelsenkirchen, Ruhr valley I wasn’t recalled and I haven’t got up there return to base early um because we were shot up I sound as though I am detracting I’m not I’m just saying if you did thirty four ops doesn’t matter if you were recalled fifty not thirty times um you’d get the DFC.
AP: Fair enough [laughs].
EC: DFM though you’d be lucky if you got one [pause] where shall we go [pause]. Now the last of my flying things for days [looking through logbook] I’ll show you something in a minute still I can’t Cologne, Chemnitz, now there was one perhaps where he should have got a DFC Chemnitz we landed at Benson which was not our, it was an RAF um squadron station and we landed there because we couldn’t get home because the aircraft has because we had had an um been attacked heavily and um we were ordered to go, not ordered but we had to go there because we wouldn’t have made it back to Driffield so if he should have got the DFC that’s where he should have got it.
AP: How how were you attacked there what sort of damage to you remember that?
EC: Anti-aircraft fire.
AP: Was it over the target or on the way in or on the way out?
EC: Over the target, over the target I don’t remember I remember landing at Benson and I remember Chemnitz was a very [unclear] I’ll tell you another reason why we landed at Benson I reckon. Benson to base was only one hour so if we couldn’t have made one hour extra flying must have landed it must have been fuel perhaps we might have got hit in one of the tanks and lost all the fuel and the skipper said ‘claimed from control you’ve got to let me down you’ve got to put me down because I won’t make Driffield’ so they put us down um Benson.
AP: And then the next day you fly home?
EC: Then we flew home the next day on 6th March ‘44 on 7th March ‘44 we flew home.
AP: And your last trip?
EC: Number thirty four was Bottrop the last one thirty four was daylight that was five hours thirty minutes I’ll show you something now that I haven’t mentioned before now when I got to thirty four that was it you know they pulled us off then and we all went our different ways as instructors I think the wireless operator came home but that’s another story I think one of them came home and I went to 27 OTU as a um instructor, now we went, [examines logbook] here we are Berlin now when I told you about the CO at Lichfield at the time happened to be looking for a crew to go to group five [No. 5 Group] to learn to crew Lancasters which were going to be replaced by the super Lancaster which was the Lincoln and we were all picked crews and we were to come to Australia and instruct everyone here in Australia all the all [unclear] Australia on Lincoln aircraft and luckily [laughs] they dropped the atomic bomb so that we didn’t have to come, but whilst there at at um Metheringham which I am now um it’s a place er rear gunner Operation Spasm there’s Berlin there’s Berlin there’s er I don’t know what must have landed somewhere because it’s got returned by air safely.
AP: Operation Dodge?
EC: You’re going to say what were you doing flying over Berlin when the war’s finished.
AP: What was Operation Spasm? That’s what I’m interested in.
EC: Yeah I’m just going to show you where we all I don’t know why this hasn’t got Bari in there the first one we did was um Bari in Italy, [unclear] Spasm, Gatow, Gatow in Germany is equivalent to er er what’s the big one in London the big airport?
AP: Heathrow.
EC: Heathrow, Gatow is to Germany what Heathrow is to London, here we are Operation Dodge and Operation Spasm, Operation Spasm was Germany Gatau [spells it out] and Operation Dodge was Bari [spells it out] in Italy and you’ll notice um three hours it took us to fly to Berlin where in the bombers the actual bombers during the war that was a round trip of eight nine hours because they were loaded to absolutely loaded to the hilts.
AP: And you went the long way to, to try and– ?
EC: And went there and Bari took seven hours um there again both were non-stop I’m not sure what this one um the aircraft was stripped we stripped all the aircraft and we flew the English prisoners of war when they were released from the Middle East they went to Bari in Italy we flew them home and those that were captured in Europe they went to Berlin and we flew them home.
AP: That was Dodge and Spasm?
EC: Pretty marvellous really to fly those poor prisoners of war home and er but people said ‘well how did you do it so quick?’ but we never had we had no guns no ammunition no nothing because the war was over we just flew in in beautiful super aircraft like that how and how the others felt Lancaster picked them up and brought them home and they thought it was the most marvellous thing in the world, I think I’ve got a piece of newspaper, have we got that newspaper cutting there? Just the one about . . . that looks like it.
Other: Coming back in bombers?
EC: That’s right yeah give that to um thank you.
AP: Oh gold, I might scan that later too. Only fully trained crews many with one or two tours of thirty operations were picked for the job.
EC: You had to be experienced crews.
AP: So if they’ve got no guns in the aeroplane why did they have gunners?
EC: No this this now you are talking about going to.
AP: This one coming back when you are doing this operation when you are doing this Operation Dodge there are no guns.
EC: Dodge and Bari well I haven’t told you this [laughs] why did they didn’t have guns everything was stripped out of the aircraft it was filled all up with no seating because it was wartime just hundreds of pillows and blankets and anything sick POWs could use to collapse on you know and [laughs] believe it or not we were just air hostesses [laughs] someone had to, the ground crews would have all the ladders in position the ground crews helped them up when they got up the top there we’d take the poor bloke and say to them ‘well you sit there, you move up mate put someone else there’ and they used to almost fight over who got to sit in the mid upper turret and the rear turret and then there were those who kind of had never been in an aircraft before [laughs] flew like that all the way home to England you know had white knuckles so that’s why yeah.
AP: That’s why gunners were [laughs].
EC: So we came from, from glory to um nursemaid in a way [laughs].
AP: Someone had to do it.
EC: Well someone had do it yeah they were all crook you know and they’d just been taken out of prisoner of war and they’re thrust in one of these things they’d never ever been in an aircraft before they had no idea what was ahead of them.
AP: So after this is that the last flight in your logbook?
EC: Yeah Bari oh no here you are there’s one back to Waddington there.
AP: Waddington base and that’s the end of that so that’s where your logbook finishes on.
EC: Yeah.
AP: 21st September 1945. What happened next?
EC: Oh what?
AP: What happened after that?
EC: Like all RAAF aircrew went back to Brighton, everyone went back to Brighton every Australian whether ground crew, aircrew, whatever, they sail away if only all went through Brighton into England and out of England so Brighton was really an Australian town it was Brighton was just like we walking down the street in Melbourne and there would be a RAAF navy blue uniform of the war and to see any other uniform in Brighton was quite strange so we went back there and I don’t know how long I was in Brighton I can’t remember that clearly and I returned home on the um it was Athlone Castle and I can’t think what–
Other: Castle
EC: Yeah I know Athone Castle I’m just thinking it would be a commandeered liner again the Athlone Castle there was a big a big um oh line during the war and after the war and is still today such as Windsor Castle, the Athlone Castle, the Edinburgh Castle, they were all troop carriers but very top grade troop carriers not old cattle troop carriers like a lot of the poor people had to endure but none of them to the standard of the Athlone Castle very close to the standard of the Athlone Castle very close to the standard not the Athlone the New Amsterdam I mean the New Amsterdam was a beautiful ship as I said getting towards the Queen Mary stage, these Castle Lines were overseas liners but not quite as good so then we came home on the Athlone Castle and um stopped at um pulled in to Melbourne at Port Port Albert I think I might have a bill in there somewhere, so that’s about me talked out.
AP: Excellent. I still have one more question for you.
EC: Right.
AP: How do you think Bomber Command is remembered you know what sort of legacy has it left?
EC: Um I I think the British people um Churchill expressed it perfectly when he said first of all remember he said during the fighters that saved London ‘never have so many done so much for so few’ or whatever it was but then he also said of Bomber Command ‘that was the greatest force ever ever concentrated ever found’ because during all of our days right up till D-Day which was nearly all the war before D-Day um the only people active the only people affected by the enemy and affecting the enemy was Bomber Command there was no one else because all the armies were locked away I’m talking air force when I say all this not talking about the soldiers in the Middle East and all that they were still fighting their wars but when it came to Europe no one ranked with Bomber Command and I think they were respected and treated by the English people with the same admiration that they had for the um freedom fighters that’s not their name but the resistance the French resistance those French resistance behind the lines risking their lives all the time because when they were shot and found that was that was the worst thing that French and Belgian and all those other countries their resistance fighters could do was to rescue aircrew and bring them back through the underground ‘cause when they caught them if the Germans caught them they shot them straight away that was frightful so the freedom fighters so the resistance fighters not freedom fighters and the RAF the RAF call it the RAF because most of it was RAF I don’t think the English have got ever you mention we mention anyone today you know oh I go to RSL and blokes say ‘what did what were you in were you in the navy or army?’ I say ‘No I was in Bomber Command’ and if he was an English person ‘oh were you? Oh were you? Oh you blokes yeah‘, so makes you kind of feel very humble very proud and very humble.
AP: That’s a very nice note to finish on I think thank you very much.
EC: Okay, thanks Adam.



Adam Purcell, “Interview with Ernest Cutts,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed July 24, 2024,

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