Interview with Les Davies


Interview with Les Davies


Les Davies grew up in Australia and worked as a railway porter before joining the Royal Australian Air Force. After initially training as a pilot he flew 34 operations as a mid upper gunner with 466 Squadron from RAF Driffield. He had been forced to leave school at fifteen and so one of the first things he did on his return to Australia was to enrol at the University of Queensland to continue his education.




Temporal Coverage




00:42:21 audio recording

Conforms To


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DG: This interview is being conducted for the International Bomber Command Centre. My name is Donald Gould and I’m interviewing Les Davies at his home in French’s Forest. A suburb of Sydney. Les, how old you are you please?
LD: I’m going on ninety two at the moment going on, they tell me, ninety three. Hopefully. And —
DG: Well you’re going jolly well. Even at seventy, seventy three I don’t know if I’m going to get that far.
LD: I’m sure you will.
DG: Where were you born?
LD: I was born in Gympie in Queensland, Australia and I started off as a porter in the railways actually. But I had to leave school early, at fifteen because of the — I came from a big family of nine children. It was the Depression years. And anyway that’s what happened. And I performed various things in the railways but all the time I had my eye on joining the air force because I had seen such things as Errol Flynn in “Dawn Patrol” and there was a Moth that used to fly, a Tiger Moth that used to fly over our the top of our house in Gympie. I longed to be in the cockpit of it. To cut a long story short I, I finally was admitted in to the air force but as a trainee. As a — what would you call me? An air crew guard. As an air crew guard you wore a white flash in your cap waiting for an opening to come whereby you could be inducted into the air crew instead of on the temporary ground staff. So I went before the categorisation board and they categorised me to be trained as a pilot. And so when that opportunity came around I grabbed it of course and learned to fly a Tiger Moth and went on to fly Avro Ansons. But unfortunately I had a couple of mishaps. Careless perhaps. I took it too close to the wind. I was too close to a tree in the training and I had an instructor with me and as a result of that damage that I could have done to the aircraft and myself they took me off for training for a pilot and I thought well if I can’t get into the war in the front of plane I’m going to jolly well get in at the back. So I volunteered to become an air gunner.
DG: How old? How old were you when you, when you started to do this training?
LD: Eighteen. Eighteen.
DG: Eighteen.
LD: Yes.
DG: And what, what age were you, did you say when you left school?
LD: Oh, I was fifteen.
DG: Fifteen.
LD: Yes.
DG: Did you, did you do — go to work? Were you working.
LD: I was working as a porter initially in the railways. In fact as a kitchen boy initially and then they gave me the job of being a sort of a guard on a diesel locomotive that went between various towns in Queensland. And that was a lot of fun.
DG: And so you were doing that for a few years until you were —
LD: Until, until I was eighteen So — yes.
DG: Right. And so after that, after those mishaps what, what happened then?
LD: Well I was posted to Evans Head Gunnery School which is in Northern New South Wales in Australia. And I was put through the course there for about six weeks. And after six weeks I was qualified as an air gunner with the rank of sergeant and with a number of friends who were in the same boat who’d been scrubbed as pilots. I sort of well left Evans Head and went and embarked on a ship to England.
DG: How [pause] you were, you were eighteen when you, when you started this training.
LD: Yes. Yes.
DG: And what year would have been? What — ?
LD: Well I was —
DG: Had the war had started then?
LD: Yes. Oh yes. October ’42.
DG: Ok. So the war, so the war was going and you, and you, was it your idea to go? You wanted to go to the war.
LD: Well the Japanese were starting to look longingly at the Australian mainland and that was an incentive. Because you know, you didn’t want to see anything nasty happen there. One of my things I had to do while I was waiting to be called up in to aircrew was to man a petrol dump site in Evans Head and that was pretty scary in the dead of night. We used to camp out in canvas tents. And these great drums of petrol or whatever it was used to explode next to you and you’d swear that the Japanese had landed, you know. But anyway, that was just for a period of months and then I was sort of taken off that.
DG: So at that stage, you, you thought you may have been fighting the Japanese?
LD: Yes. Exactly.
DG: Right. So after you’d got, you’d got scrubbed from pilot training and you were training as an air gunner — where did you do that training?
LD: All at Evans Head. Yes. I’d say most, well practically all of it at Evans Head Gunnery School.
DG: And you joined in about ’42. So, when did you, you finished that training. What happened after that?
LD: I was posted to Melbourne. I’m sorry — to Sydney. And after a week or so of being fitted out with uniforms and all that stuff I was put on a ship with five hundred other guys to England. And once in England we were posted to Brighton. We were given a little bit of pay. And then we were, we were sent to Lichfield. I should say to you that on the way over from Australia via the United States we were subject to inspections by the Customs Authority in the United States. And there was five hundred of us and our commanding officer was told afterwards that they were the fittest young fellas that the authorities had ever seen in San Francisco.
DG: Right.
LD: Yes. So that was pretty good too. And if I could just continue —
DG: Yes.
LD: With travelling across the United States. It was beautiful Pullman cars and all that stuff. And I remember we called in to Chicago South and the first thing we saw were these paper boys who were singing out something. And the next thing I saw the hoarding and it was, “Fats Waller dead.” Fats Waller was, of course a great icon in the jazz field.
DG: Yeah.
LD: So we were in New York for some time before being put on board the Queen Elizabeth. There was five hundred Aussie airmen and we were about to take off across the Atlantic and thousands of GIs landed on the ship as well. And of course we had managed our sea legs before arriving in to the States but these poor guys. Once we got on the Atlantic in the Queen Elizabeth they were sick as dogs and we had to drink, had to drink all their Coca Cola and eat all their ice cream and all their goodies [laughs] Someone had to do it.
DG: That must have been hard. Was that sort of thing in short supply for you people or in Australia?
LD: It hadn’t got to that stage. No.
DG: Really .
LD: No. But the Americans were very lavish with the catering for their troops.
DG: Yeah. Well did they eat better than the Australians? Or on the ship I suppose you would because [unclear].
LD: We ate it all because they were, you know, so sick.
DG: Oh yes. Yes. Yeah.
LD: But the Queen Elizabeth itself it was a very rough ride across the Atlantic. And of course it was by itself. It wasn’t in convoy. It was too fast for that. It went almost up to the North Pole before coming down into, into Scotland to disembark us.
DG: Why did it head so far north? To keep away from the —
LD: U-boats.
DG: U-boats? Yes. Yeah. Right. And so you arrived. Where did you land in England?
LD: Greenock. Greenock. In Scotland.
DG: In Scotland and then down to Brighton.
LD: Down to Brighton.
DG: And then?
LD: Up to Lichfield then.
DG: Whereabouts is Lichfield?
LD: Leicestershire I think.
DG: Oh right. Right.
LD: In the Midlands. Yeah.
DG: Ok. And how —
LD: Well it’s interesting because we arrived there and one of the first things they said to us was, ‘Ok. Get yourselves a crew together.’ They didn’t say to us, ‘You, Davies will go to such and such a crew,’ and, ‘You, O’Neil you’ll be over there.’ They left it up to the airmen themselves to crew up. And Brian and I who were good mates. Gunners also were were tramping along around the station one day and Brian spied this chap coming towards us. A flying officer. A pilot. And it turned out to be someone — a very close friend. So he became our skipper. And before very long we had the required seven people. And we went all through the war together and it’s a long story but unfortunately three of them got killed. And we had good comeraderie in the crew. Six Australians and one Englishman. They sent us — the flight engineer was from England.
DG: Yes. Well they would be familiar with Rolls Royce.
LD: Rolls Royce yeah.
DG: The aircraft. Would get their aircraft wouldn’t they? You said three of your crew were killed.
LD: Yeah.
DG: You obviously didn’t go — did they get killed on one of the missions?
LD: No. What happened was, Don was we’d finished our tour of operations. We did thirty four ops. And of course because the war was getting close to ending, it was January ’44, they started training people to take Liberator aircraft over to the continent and pick up POWs and people like that. And that’s exactly what happened to our crew. Brian, the other gunner, and myself — we were no longer required there. The flight engineer — he was required. The navigator was required. The pilot, of course, McNulty was required. And, but unfortunately, unfortunately during training when Pat was being trained to fly these Liberators to the Continent one of the operations was to shut down more than one engine. Whether it was required I’m not, I’m not sure but that’s what happened. And they shut a couple of engines down on one side I’m told and when it came to start up again they couldn’t start it. Something to do with the petrol cocks, you know, couldn’t, instead of, instead of organising themselves with the rich mixture of fuel it wasn’t enough to start the engine. So Pat was killed and so was Tex Potter our wireless operator and also killed was our flight engineer.
[phone ringing]
DG: Just pausing for a moment.
[recording paused]
DG: So you, that was that. The crew that were killed. All those other members of your crew. When you were crewing up in — was that in Lichfield that you were crewing up?
LD: We were crewing up in Lichfield.
DG: Yes.
LD: And it was before we embarked on operations.
DG: And how did, how did you find that system where they got you to select your own crews? How did you find? Did that work?
LD: I think it worked pretty, pretty well. Other crews that we met seemed to get on very well together. There were also a few hiccups from time to time too. You know where people didn’t fit in but it would have been very rare.
DG: Yes. And after, after your training in Lichfield, what? What happened then?
LD: We moved up to Marston Moor. In Lichfield we were flying Wellingtons and then we moved up to Marston Moor for conversion to Halifax 2s.
DG: Yes.
LD: They had Halifax 2s and we were quite amazed at the versatility of the Halifax to tell you the honest truth. And it wasn’t very long before we were out of there and down to Driffield where 466 Squadron was operating from. And we were there for the rest of our tour.
DG: So, you were, you started on Wellingtons but then went straight to the Halifax.
LD: Wellingtons at Lichfield.
DG: Right.
LD: And Halifaxes at Marston Moor.
DG: And how long were you at Marston Moor?
LD: Oh. I’d have to consult my —
DG: Oh no. Just a short time?
LD: Would have been only a week or two.
DG: Oh I see.
LD: Something like that.
DG: Right. Right. Ok. And then, then you were at Driffield.
LD: Yes.
DG: And did you remain there for the duration of the war?
LD: I was there for the duration of the war. Yes.
DG: And what were the, what was daily life like on the base? What was, what was your routine?
LD: Well there was a billiard table out in the middle of the concourse there. As far as I recall. Not that I played a lot of it. We — that’s a very good question Don actually. We had lectures still. In the gunnery section for example we used to convene down there most mornings when we weren’t flying. Or if we weren’t flying sometimes we’d visit the pub in the appropriate hours and — yes.
DG: You were at, so you were at the local pub in town.
LD: Yeah. In the village.
DG: How far, the village yeah, how far was the village from you?
LD: I think it was pretty close but I didn’t spend as much time there as a lot. It was called The Black Swan. I think it was called The Black Swan. And the Australians christened it The Mucky Duck or something like that as they do, you know.
DG: I think, I think I might have heard that. Yes. Yes.
LD: And —
DG: Carry on —
LD: I really can’t answer that question all that well. Perhaps we might come back to that.
DG: Yeah. Yeah. Well what was it — if you were, if you were going to be flying that night what was the, what was the routine? On a day like that.
LD: Well they’d, they’d ground you of course.
DG: When would you find, would you find out the night before you were flying the next day or you would just?
LD: Not the next day. Probably just when —
DG: On the day you were flying.
LD: Very short notice. I think from memory.
DG: Yes.
LD: Very short notice And, but one thing I must be thankful for was the American Forces Radio. All the latest tunes were broadcast. I’m still trying to work out where the heck I got my radio from but Frank Sinatra and all these guys were — we used to listen to them sometimes to get to sleep, you know.
DG: Right. Right.
LD: We lived in — we were all NCOs at that stage. We lived in quite a large hut which had a, which had a utensil in the middle of it which took wood or coal I think it was. And it was for, we used to use it for frying our eggs and that which — we used to visit farms around the place and the farmers would give us eggs and we’d toast them or cook them on these — what would you call them? I need some help here.
DG: An Combustion heater of some sort.
LD: Combustion A heater. That’s what it was.
DG: Right.
LD: And it was, you know, we enjoyed ourselves when we weren’t flying.
DG: You did some cooking yourself?
LD: Yes. Yes.
DG: Oh right. What about the mess?
LD: [laughs] well that’s a good question. We used to, we used to eat out. We had pushbikes too. We used to go around the villages on our pushbikes. Sometimes if you’d had a few bottles of beer, Aston Worthington or something like that in your jacket and you fell over or if your bike collided with something you were lucky not to get speared by the fragments of glass that came out of the bottle of course. But I think our whole focus was on trying to put behind us the immediacy of what we were about to be embarking on.
DG: You were sort of trying to keep that at the back of your mind were you?
LD: Yes.
DG: Just keeping about your daily life.
LD: That’s right.
DG: And exclude the rest.
LD: That’s right. And you looked forward to mail from home of course. And I think, from memory, at that stage the NAAFI trucks used to come around and you’d get tea and they’d give you bread and all sorts of things. Anyway, they used to cater for us. Something like a coffee shop in these except that it was on wheels.
DG: What — sorry. No, go on.
LD: I think we, once we started operations it became a little more grim. You know. I remember the first time I was on an operation. We were somewhere. Flying to the Ruhr I think in daylight and we were at twenty thousand feet or so. There might have been thirty or so aircraft around you at roughly the same height. And suddenly the big Halifax next to you was upside down with little discs, parachutes falling out of it. And I think then I thought to myself, Les, this is, this is no joke. This is, this is what’s happening. You’re in the air force now. All the fun of training and enjoying life and being looked after. You were on your own virtually up there. And I think that’s, that’s when I started to get, you know, ill. It was a serious business we were engaged in really.
DG: You said that you would, you’d be involved in these activities. Go off on your bicycle and you might go in to the pub and you’d try to keep the thoughts of flying out of your head.
LD: Yeah.
DG: When you were, when you were going on a mission that morning, well once you knew you were going and I suppose had briefing. How did you feel then? Course you’d be thinking about that sort of thing then wouldn’t you?
LD: Yes. You would be Don but you’d also be busy. You know. You had to sort of get your kit ready and get your parachute and all that stuff. But let me tell you about the night we arrived at Driffield from Marston Moor. We had three or four other crews that we were very friendly with and we arrived at Driffield this evening, for the first time and we went to the sergeants mess. And sitting in front of the fire was Terry Kenyon and his crew. We were very close to them. And they had a couple of nights before been on their first mission to a place called Sterkrade in the Ruhr. And they were telling us the most horrendous stories about how terrible it was. The flak, you know, all that stuff. And so that was our baptism there. But within a week or two the squadron was ordered to fly to, fly to the same target — Sterkrade. And they were shot down.
DG: Oh right.
LD: [unclear] well the [unclear] part of that was that they were all killed except the flight engineer who, who became a prisoner of war. But when they were describing their first target that had been so horrendous we put some of it down to bravado and stuff like that but when they failed to return, within a couple of weeks from bombing the same target we realised that this was really serious stuff, you know.
DG: Yes. Yes. And what, what were some of the targets that you bombed?
LD: Mostly in the Ruhr valley. The one that I just mentioned Sterkrade, Essen. Cologne. Gelsenkirchen and other places.
DG: Some of these targets no doubt there would have been civilians around who would naturally get killed with bombing. How did you feel about that?
LD: Well you’re always, I always went back to the briefing before the flight and invariably our targets were industrial sites. Factories etcetera. And I was aware of the fact that we were contributing to the war effort by attacking these targets. And I guess it’s pretty hard to turn back all these years Don and remember what exactly your state of mind was.
DG: Yes. Yes.
LD: Of course, don’t forget we were constantly on the defensive for being shot down.
DG: Oh most certainly. Yes.
LD: Very much so.
DG: Yes.
LD: And I know from my position as mid-upper gunner it was, there was some pretty horrendous things going on. And you, that concentrated your mind marvellously, you know. When we came out of the targets the Captain, Captain McNulty used to always say, ‘Are you alright Les?’ ‘You alright Brian?’ And he’d go around the aircraft just to check that everyone was safe and sound. What else can I tell you about that?
DG: No. That’s fine. What do, what do you — there’s been a bit of talk about Dresden and some of those sort of places. Having been in Bomber Command how do you feel about some, not just Dresden but some of these? How do you feel about that sort of thing now?
LD: Well, a lot —
DG: If you don’t want to answer —
LD: Yeah. I have come to the conclusion that Dresden was a big mistake but it was understandable in so much as I understand it there were industrial targets being targeted and also they didn’t [pause] I wasn’t there by the way, they didn’t count on these firestorms that erupted and started the whole thing off because we had been to Duisburg on a thousand, on a bomber mission and it wasn’t anything like that that we could see.
DG: Yes. How many missions did you complete?
LD: Thirty four.
DG: Thirty four. And did you, did you have any memorable experiences on these? Anything. Something, you mentioned one that the Halifax that turned that upside down.
LD: Yeah. That was something. Yeah. There was a —
DG: Other things like that?
LD: There was an encounter with a Messerschmitt 410 one night when we were retuning. It was a bright moonlight night and cloud cover. Beautiful white clouds right beneath us and I looked up. My turret never stopped moving. I moved it all the time. Around in circles, up, guns up and down. I noticed this Messerschmitt sitting up behind our port bow about to attack us and I warned the skipper and he — I gave him, first time I could talk to the skipper and give him orders to corkscrew to the port and as soon as the Messerschmitt flicked up his wings and prepared to come in I gave the order to corkscrew port. And we went into this corkscrew thing and lost, lost the aircraft altogether. It disappeared into the cloud below us. On another occasion I got a very large piece of shrapnel hit within six inches I suppose, of my head. And I wasn’t very pleased about that.
DG: You said that you saw the Messerschmitt coming in on the port.
LD: Yes.
DG: On the port bow.
LD: Yes.
DG: And you told the pilot to corkscrew to port.
LD: Only when, when [pause] they had a curve of pursuit the bomber, the bomber would be there, the Messerschmitt up here and he’d come in like this to get you. The trick was as soon as he flicked up to come in you went down like this.
DG: He was coming in on your, he was coming in on your port.
LD: Yes.
DG: So you were corkscrewing to the right to try and get underneath him.
LD: Well he was up here, he flipped over and we corkscrewed down there like that.
DG: I’m just thinking the reason for going to port instead of starboard that’s if you were going to starboard he’d be able to follow you whereas if you’re going to port he’s got to go around.
LD: Crossed over.
DG: He’s got to turn again to come back at you.
LD: Yes. That’s right.
DG: Yes.
LD: And he didn’t. He didn’t.
DG: How was, how was the Halifax’s manoeuvrability?
LD: Very good. Very good. A very difficult aircraft to fly though I think. From things that have been said.
DG: How was its manoeuvrability compared with the Lancaster?
LD: I think the Lancaster might have been as well. I’m loyally showing it compared. We were very jealous about the reputation of the Halifax. The Halifax 3. And of course Lancaster squadrons got the publicity. Or a lot of it.
DG: Yes.
LD: Good luck to them.
DG: And when the, when did you finish flying?
LD: January ’44.
DG: Oh right. So —
LD: So I was —
DG: That was before D-day.
LD: After D-Day.
DG: D-day was June ’44.
LD: Was it. I think we started flying in August ’43 — ’44.
DG: Right.
LD: 1944. And finished in February.
DG: February.
LD: January. January ’45.
DG: ’45. Right. And what was your last mission? Do you remember what that was?
LD: Yes. It was to Leipzig and it took eight hours and fifty minutes or something. And it was in support of the Russians at Leipzig. In support of the Russians against the German’s military.
DG: Did you, when you, when you came back from that mission did you know at that stage that that would be your last? Or was it just another mission and you were still waiting for another one.
LD: No. I don’t think we knew that it was the last one. And in fact we volunteered to come back out in the air force to Australia because the Japanese war was going on but that didn’t eventuate.
DG: And how, how did you feel when you, when you found out that it was your last mission?
LD: I think we got on pretty good. I can’t, I can’t remember specifically what we did but [pause] and I was given a commission too at that stage because it was quite, quite acceptable.
DG: When did you achieve flying officer?
LD: I was —
DG: When did you receive that?
LD: That was when the ops ended.
DG: Oh right.
LD: Yeah.
DG: And after you’d, well when you’d finished flying what happened to you then?
LD: Well I went on leave down to my relatives in London. Where I stayed before. And I also rode a bike from London down to Cornwall. Just to see the countryside. Just waiting to be posted back. Back to Australia.
DG: And how long did it take before you were sent back here?
LD: Well I can remember celebrating the end of the European war in Brighton in May. So I was still there. I was sort of flying around between probably about between February and May. March, April, May. Plenty of leave and that sort of thing.
DG: Yes. And what happened? Where did you arrive in Australia?
LD: We arrived in Sydney. Hang on. Just let me get this straight. I shipped. It was, it was Brisbane. How did we get to Brisbane? I think we came up by train from Sydney.
DG: Right. Yes. And what, what happened? The war was still going on in Japan. So did you, did you have any thoughts that something might happen to you then? That you might be involved in that or wasn’t that a consideration?
LD: I think we picked up on the fact that the war was getting pretty close to finishing there as well. And they had plenty of facilities already out here. I think we realised that we were about to be demobbed. Which we were.
DG: And what did you do then? What happened to you after that? You left the air force.
LD: I was a bit unsettled. I had left school at fifteen so the first thing I did was enrol and matriculated to the University of Queensland. And I was there only one year and I got a bit footloose and I went and worked with my brother on the dairy farm. And that’s what happened there.
DG: Where’s his dairy farm?
LD: It was in a place called Kin Kin up in, up in Queensland.
DG: Right.
LD: And it was, he gave me a bit of land and said, ‘That’s yours for as long as you’re here.’ Because, besides having a dairy farm he cropped beans and things like that. He gave me the use of a stump jump plough for ploughing the fields. And I bought a horse named Peter for eight pounds to pull the plough.
DG: Right.
LD: Yeah.
DG: And how long were you doing that?
LD: I’d say the best part of a year doing that. Yeah.
DG: And what did you do after?
LD: I came down to Sydney and I thought I’m going to write the great Australian novel. You know. But I got sidetracked there. That sort of petered out.
DG: And what sort of work did you do?
LD: Well I went and worked in the taxation department for a year. And then the Commonwealth Bank. I went and worked for the Commonwealth Bank. But when I arrived in Sydney I didn’t know much about the place and I wanted lodgings so I went to a place called Palmer Street in East Sydney which I knew nothing about but there was an ad for a place. And I was interviewed by a landlady there and it turned out that she was the estranged wife of someone who lived in the same little village of Kin Kin that I lived in. So the odds against me arriving there from a five hundred, six hundred people village to a city of over a million must have been pretty, pretty high. But she thought I was spying on her actually [laughs] And the other thing I did was I got the typewriter thing working. I thought I’ve got to get a job. There were some ads in the paper. One was Woolworths, one was the Marine Cadets. One or two or others. I wrote off. I didn’t even get an interview and the reason why? I typed my letters up and I put on the top Palmer Street, East Sydney and it was a renowned brothel area.
DG: Oh yes. Yes. In those days it was.
LD: Yeah. So that put a stop to my [unclear]
DG: And what, what sort of work did you do then? Later on? Where did you finish?
LD: Well I finished. I’m basically a writer and I finished up working for, after the bank — I was a publicity officer for the bank for a while. And then I was head hunted by this employers group of seven thousand companies and in due course I was made a director there and I stayed there for thirty five years.
DG: Oh right. So you’re still involved in that side of it although you didn’t write the great Australian novel.
LD: [laughs] No. Well I I’ve written you know. A lot of economics and stuff you know.
DG: Right. Do you still keep in touch with some of your friends from Bomber Command?
LD: Not really. You see my, my friends were all from Queensland.
DG: Ah yeah. Yes.
LD: And after the war I sort of came down here. And I did catch up with them for a few years after the war but, you know, you sort of disconnect after a time.
DG: Yes. And how do you feel? Well how were you treated as coming from Bomber Command after the war?
LD: I don’t think I was treated any different from anyone else really.
DG: Right. Right. Well I think that just about covers it Les.
LD: Oh. Ok then.
DG: Thank you very much indeed.
LD: [unclear]
DG: No. That’s not to worry about.
LD: That’s good.



Donald Gould, “Interview with Les Davies,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed April 20, 2024,

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