Interview with Steven Downes


Interview with Steven Downes


Steven Downes grew up in Australia and worked as a wages clerk before he volunteered for the Royal Australian Air Force. He arrived in the UK and after spending some time in Brighton, he was posted to Church Broughton and then RAF Bottesford. The war ended before the crew could become operational. He served as a wireless operator. While in the UK Steve loved listening to the big band music on the radio and attended as many dances as he possibly could.




Temporal Coverage




01:33:18 audio recording

Conforms To


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SD: Can I take you back to the word go. I always wanted to join the air force and at sixteen joined the Empire Training Course subsidiary. Air Training Corps it was called, at sixteen. So we stayed going to school, high school until I was eighteen. Then went into the air force and more or less did all the elementary things again back at Bradfield Park when we went there. So that’s my story starts.
AP: That’s where it starts. Alright.
SD: 1943.
AP: So this interview for the International Bomber Command Centre is with Steve Downes who was a wireless operator.
SD: Correct.
AP: In Bomber Command during World War Two. It is the 6th of August 2016. The interview is taking place in Steve’s place, at Steve’s house at Preston Bay.
SD: Thornbury.
AP: Thornbury. I was close. North. It’s all the same.
SD: North Thornbury actually.
AP: My name’s Adam Purcell and we may as well start from the beginning Steve if you don’t mind. Can you tell me something of what you were doing before the war?
SD: I was, I was working as a wages clerk at Raymond’s in Collingwood. Webbs of Abbotsford. And I was just doing the wages clerks there every, every week. [unclear] back in those days. And we had I was set up wages clerk for the whole factory. And this was a good, a pressured job. I had to get it right every every Thursday night to collect the money on the, on the Friday morning and then put it in envelopes. So that was my start as a, before that I’d been, worked in a [pause ] a roustabout boy if you like in a mercers office shop in [indecipherable] Then I went to Raymond’s. I was apprentice devil there. Ordered all the paper for the purchase and finally I got up to be the clerk in the wages department. And eventually when the men there went into the army I moved up as the chief. So that’s briefly how I started off. And from there I went to — in Sydney. I went to Bradfield Park and did a two month course there testing the [pause] the skills of of mass of aircraft reconnaissance [unclear] Drill. Lots of drill. A few games of basketball which I’ve never seen down here. Of course in New South Wales it was rugby as far as they was concerned. That didn’t grab me at all. It wasn’t football. It was running ball. I got through that alright. Went up to — came home. Oh God. No, we didn’t come home. Went to Parkes in the middle of New South Wales. We were there for a few months training as a wireless operator. Well, I had done some Morse code back as a trainee in the Air Training Corps. It was still hard to get but eventually it twigged. I mean twigged. But two fellows I always, they both failed. One was, he’d been a leaving certificate. Me, I was a Melbourne High School boy. Only got as far as year ten. And so those two chaps went to England as air gunners because they didn’t qualify as a radio operator. So being a wireless air gunner here in Australia worth really both jobs up north. They sent me off to England which was where I wanted to go in the first place. So I ended up over there. Again more, more training. And one of the tricks as I’m trying to remember is we were down on the promenade outside the Metropole Hotel or the Grand. I’m not sure which one was now, hotel in Brighton and we were taken out every morning. Morning drill by a guardsman. A former guardsman. Anyway, he gave us the changing step on the march. What a mess it was. Everyone did it differently. We didn’t do any good. Everyone laughed at us. I say most people laughed because I couldn’t help myself for laughing because it was so ridiculous and I was only nineteen. So it was all a game. It was. And from there we went up on leave in Wolverhampton. We were there with some people for three weeks or two weeks. Two weeks. Then back to Brighton. And because D-Day was about to start which we didn’t know but we knew it was coming. Something would be coming up. We were put back to a staging camp not far from Wolverhampton [pause] No, no. Yeah. A staging camp. All of us. So here we were. About a hundred or three hundred of us all stuck there. Nothing’s happening because there were four lots of aircrew there and we, while we were there they sent us off on a course up at North Shields and we did some shooting on a range with a Sten gun and also gave us a [pause] we were in, we were in these, these acquired houses. No. Acquired is the wrong word. Something like that. Acquired houses. And from there we went on a game, or I call it a game because we were all supposed to group as a group supposed to get to the final part by means of various pickups and all that sort of thing. Find, find the [pause] what? Yeah. Just find the place where finalising was happening. I said that before we started, ‘Do you want to win this?’ I said. They said yes. So we commandeered a car, and the lady there took us in a car to the next point and the rest came along in a bus. And I [unclear] the next, cabbed to the next place and we were also going on a bus there and some, some of them were riding on the back of hay carts. Another air group who were on the bus. From there we had to walk over the fields to the final meeting place and we went there. We went there. Which was good because we took this two groups at the second last meeting place. So we took off from there in a group across the fields, bulls not withstanding, went across the fields, over the gates. And we went straight as if going around the quick way. So we went. We got there before the other crowd. So we were the first there.
SD: Was that an escape sort of exercise was it or —
AP: Yes. Or seeing if you could map read. All that sort of thing you see. So we did that. Went back to North Shields by bus or we marched back. I don’t think we did. I can’t remember that now. So yes. And from there we went back to [pause] North Shields. I can’t remember. We went back to where I was. Met a chap there. I’d been dancing and I came back home walking across the street and it was his street. He came up behind me and said, ‘Would you like some supper?’ I said, ‘Yeah. I’d like some supper.’ So it was an experience. All this was at initial training but no sign of the staging. We were just waiting. So I met a girl there. [unclear] he invited me into his home to have bacon and eggs, I know it was something like that which was a big deal back then. It was all rations and everything. So she played the piano because I was invited back for dinner. She played the piano then. She’s since died. She went back to Malaysia. Her boyfriend was in the foreign [pause] foreign what’s the right word. The scope of doing some work in Malaysia. Probably to do with rubber. I can’t remember now because I never met him. Anyway, she took a girlfriend with her when we went to the movies so that was good. So eventually we went from there back to Brighton. And I was in 38 course and I think we were, I ended up with 41 course. I got three courses when I studying for the Morse code but I picked up my pass and passed through and that served me alright. I liked that. Eventually the radio went alright. I eventually acquired a bit of a skill to operate it. Not at any great speed but just operating. And from there we were [pause] oh yes we were sent to a place called Halfpenny Green. And that was where that lady in the hotel charged the duke of [pause] one of the dukes, there was a war going on so she fed all the horses at a halfpenny each. That was the thing. Different to Ireland. They’ve got a bridge there. Halfpenny Bridge. So there we were. It seemed like, to be about four months we were there I think. And we finally, having passed the course we were due to come home at Christmas ’43 and because we would have been on a train overnight I organised a taxi and there was five of us in a taxi. We reached Cootamundra the night before. Caught the train down so I was home for Christmas. There was, all this was all pre-Bomber Command but still. I went from home for three or four days leave or something like that. Then up to Sale to do the gunnery side of it. No dancing there. It was all fields and not many girls. So the dancing had to wait until I got back to, to Melbourne and off to England. So what are we up to? Ok. We were at, we were a long while at Church — no. Church Broughton. Yes it was. Church Broughton where we crewed up. We went to Glenfield Park first which was Lichfield. Lichfield. Where I got another uniform because I’d worn the bottom out of mine. I was at [pause] what do you call it? Where is the nearest to Park? Church Broughton, as a crew and from there we — we were at Lichfield first. Then we transferred to a satellite airfield for Lichfield. We spent a lot of time there skilling up to four engine aircraft. Big ones. Not the, not the Avro Ansons that we’d been flying which the wings flapped as you went. And I spent a lot of time there. And then we went to Bottesford. Bottesford was where we had our first trip was by Lancaster from there out across the North Sea. We had an experienced pilot familiarising our flight. This Scotty. Scotty. Our pilot. Well, Lachie was our pilot and all the others were there except the engineer. So we sort of got a little bit of time on Lancasters there. Not long because the war was going on. They were marching up through into, into, up through France. Up and through Belgium then. So we were pretty free of any danger coming up from the ground like. We were told not to fly over there. It was still risky. And so we were in Church Broughton [pause] That’s my son Adam. Adam. Meet Adam. Two Adams.
[recording paused]
SD: Where am I up to?
AP: Where were we? We were at Church Broughton I think.
SD: Church Broughton. Then we went to Bottesford, and from Bottesford we did a lot more flying from there as a, as a crew. And I was there and then the war finished [laughs] So we were there, fully trained, nowhere to go. So they said everyone goes on leave. We went for a fortnight’s leave and by that time I’d met a girl. I was in their home quite a bit of time. Being a wireless operator I guess you were sitting in a little closed off section. You couldn’t see out. You didn’t see a thing. There was no window. You just sat there and looked at a screen, and what they call listening out for signals coming through. And just going out on these training trips. From there we went out again to various places. Around England mostly. One of the, one of the trips home, so my pilot tells me, he didn’t tell us because he was told not to tell us we were followed in by a German night fighter. And the, the [unclear] the reason about this, it was dangerous, and the base phoned through by telegraph to the, and said, ‘We’re being followed.’ Before he finished the message about we were being followed they said, ‘Ten thousand feet, angels high. Get out of it’ In other words get away. So that was one of those night fighters that were coming over and shooting down planes coming in to land when they were most at a disadvantage because everyone is tired and all that sort of thing. So we got down alright from there. But the war finished. And that was before the war finished. Now, all this time I’d been to lots of dances. A lot of the fellas were going to the pubs. I didn’t like the pubs. I wasn’t a drinker. I was happy with cups of tea at home. Anyway, yeah I went to [unclear] and met another girl. And her father was a policeman. I didn’t know at the time but it didn’t take him long before I knew he was a policeman. And I used to spend some nights there. This is way back at Church Broughton. Some nights there. I got to know the son there and the mum and dad. I was, I was made very welcome there which suited me because I was a home bloke. I wasn’t a fly by night fella. I didn’t go to many dances there. I know I went to a village one before I met this girl. Anyway, when the war finished and had to go on leave I went back there for leave which was alright. Now, as far as experiences now back to the air force days. The main one was that following by the fighter, night fighters. There were various other times when we were lucky as we were training. I was taken out by [pause] we were training in the Morse code. We were training flying so that navigators being acclimatized and we got lost one night. I didn’t know anything about it until the plane went there. We went through a hole in a clouds. We went through the hole and found out where it was. The pilot. We were over Wales and he recognised the big mountain there. I knew they were there, they came back when he came back he wasn’t he couldn’t get the wireless to operate. His wireless as it were. He couldn’t get that to work. So I used the Morse code and got us down from ten thousand, a thousand, that’s right ten thousand, brought us down to a thousand through the cloud to where the field was. So we landed alright there eventually. So again we were out of that. And mostly we were there over Christmas. Over Christmas ’44 that would be. I got on my bike and rode up to people that used to be in Australia at their home for Christmas Day. After Christmas Day I rode my bike about eighteen miles. I got on my bike and rode all the way up there to Flint in North Wales. And from Flint I went to a dance there. Where he was, the son, selling the house sale. Now, other experiences are mostly wrapped around not very big experience in the aircraft. Mostly off, off the aircraft on the ground. And nothing exciting happened except my dancing and keeping fit. Oh we played soccer over there and basketball and down in the field [unclear] and of course they were fields, not paddies. No. I can’t tell you much more than that. Rocky, our — for the formation of the crew for me was most significant. We were, there was about a dozen of us. We were in our training place not far from Wolverhampton. Not far from Stourbridge. And we, yeah [pause] So we did the Morse code to get, to get us back down. What else?
AP: Can you tell me —
SD: Oh Lachie. Yeah. Lachie. That arose when we went to Lichfield as a group. We were in the crew in Lichfield and we did a bit of drill there did a little bit of waiting around and we then paraded for selection of a crew. So there was twelve of us and each one of the pilots picked up a fellow as a, as a, as a navigator, a bomb aimer and I was a wireless air gunner but I didn’t have to fit that because I had two, eventually had two. A mid-upper and a rear gunner in, in the Lichfield and we were meant to be selecting a pilot. The pilot selected us. There was a group of pilots come down along the line and I was the last on the end of this line. So Lachie had never picked anyone and he was, he was left with me [laughs] So that was my luck. I get Lachie. My pilot was Lachie McBean and we spent about [pause] no we didn’t go on any air flights from there. Yes we did. We flew Stirlings. Big aircraft. A big tail. Stirling. From there we went to Church Broughton. There we were on our up to a point. Always had the radio to get us out trouble. And we did some long flights from [pause] no. Lichfield. Which one. From Bottesford. We had some long flights from Bottesford. Overnight. Mostly night flying because we were Bomber Command. Night flying. And from the night flying we had a few scares in as much as we got lost once that I didn’t know about. We were followed in. Because I’m in this little cubicle I didn’t know what was going on. All the others knew because he was on touch with base on his radio telephone and was told he had ten thousand and that was involved with flying Lancasters. The best time was had with Lancasters, at that time was the most beautiful aircraft I’d flown in. It was a lovely four big powerful Rolls Royce engines. I thought it was great. But then I was sitting there nothing to see. Once I was going on a long trip I got up out of the, out of my seat and where the radio equipment was and I got the mid-upper, the mid-upper gunner to swap places in as much as he didn’t have the radio but I did. But as I got up there and had a look outside. Only time I did with the big crew but fired a few shots way over a field. Just so as I’d fired a gun. Once anyway.
AP: Yeah.
SD: And so that was about my experience. We were sent on leave and we were told while we were off the station get a job. Something I could have when I went back to Australia. Well clerical works was still operated by the ladies and women. Fellows like me didn’t get a job that was permanent. So I ended up getting a job working in a brewery there in Derby. A brewery. And what we were doing was rolling barrels around but we had a morning tea of beer. We had an afternoon tea of beer [laughs] had a lunchtime too if you wanted it. So that was an experience. So afterwards the war was finished by then and some of us men were coming back home. Our crew had broken up. Lachie went one way. When we were at a place near Bottesford we had to throw away our flying gear out in a pile. Getting rid of our flying gear. So we went on leave and I was home with this family. At that stage I was going to bring her home, we hadn’t married but I was going to get her out to Australia afterwards. Well when I got back to Australia Australian girls were different to English girls and — but father had said to me before I left, ‘Don’t bring home an English bride.’ I’d forgotten all about that. So there we had leave there. Went back in November to [pause] where? Warrington. That’s where we were. First station camp. I think we were there. From there we went to Brighton in a big group. They wanted to bring us home to Australia on the Orion. The SS Orion. A big ship. Now, we were taken aboard and our quarters were over the top of mess tables. And they said, ‘You can sleep in the mess or you can sleep on the floor.’ We had officers saying, ‘Don’t stay. It’s not good.’ So we didn’t stay. So it was a bit of a rebellion if you like. A passive one because all, everyone was outside. Everyone who wanted to stay was outside on the wharf. And we there two in a group overnight. We slept on the train or played. The die hards played with the dice. Whatever the dice were. I forget now. And they went through this. Ok. Eventually we went to, I was coming home. At one point we went from Australia, this is coming back now in March ’44. We travelled from Brisbane. We got off at Brisbane. They put us on an American Liberty ship and took us very far down the coast of Australia below New Zealand I’m sure and it was cool, and up the coast. Took us a fortnight to get to San Francisco. We arrived there on the, this was 1944, we were on the, on the wharf in San Francisco. They welcomed, the American band welcomed the Australians there with a [unclear] A story I’d never heard myself before, [unclear] and do si do, a simple memory thing. We travelled over America for five days. We had three days in New York and then went on the Queen Elizabeth to England. We travelled across to Glasgow but we must have gone up to Greenland. Some of our fellows went up on the top deck manning the machine guns up on the top. I didn’t know if they I reckoned I couldn’t shoot much, I suppose. I didn’t end up there. Anyway we got to England. We travelled down. We went to, actually we travelled to Gourock in, just out of Glasgow and then come back down to Brighton by train overnight. And that was a long trip. So we ended up in Brighton overnight. That was earlier on, before all this happened. Anyway, having come back we come back to Brighton. We were going, we were on leave again for a fortnight. And we were brought back to Brighton and eventually put on the [pause] do you know I can forget that. The Stirling Castle. One of the Castle liner ships. Other people had been brought back by the Durban Castle about a month before us. We were on the Stirling Castle and the Orion of course came back to England because something happened to the engines in the Bay of Biscay and they came back. So all the fellas were supposed to go on the trip back on the Orion. Well those Stirling Castle ships, some of the ships came around the Cape through Durban, South Africa. We came through the Mediterranean. We picked up a whole swathe of New Zealanders. Army. They were army fellows. And they must have been down in the hold because we were on decks up on the ship to come home. So it was a seven, seven week trip. Or a six week. I can’t remember now. And we dropped off at Perth. And from Perth where we caught the train from Fremantle into Perth for six hours and back again to catch the ship home. All this is peripheral, got on the ship to Melbourne and all the people from South Australia got off there with us at Melbourne. And my mother and father and my big brother who was a big tall guy arrived on the Station Pier. They were late. They’d been walking on the wharf itself. Other people were up in the, high up in the observation part. A lot of people were up there yelling and screaming. Yeah. Waving. And there was my mum and dad and my uncle and they were late which suited us, suited the party, so. They saw me eventually. I threw my hat down to say. Well there used to be as saying if you threw your hat in your, and it wasn’t thrown out, you were welcome. That was an English trait. And then I came home. And going back to Lachie. We sort of broke up from Bottesford. We all disappeared. The crew disappeared. All different ways. We had two English fellas. Two English fellas went back to, to where they play tennis. They went there, another chap went home to Gloucester. The other two were Scots. They went back to Scotland. Oh [unclear] so that’s about me in the air force I think. About all I can remember. I was not, not real big stuff at all.
AP: There’s, there’s plenty in there.
SD: Yeah.
AP: One thing you mentioned a lot were dances.
SD: Yeah. Right.
AP: Can you tell us some more about the dances in England?
SD: Oh yes. Yeah. Well as much the same as here.
AP: Well, I’ve never been to a dance in the 1940s but you have.
SD: Oh yeah. Well back in those days that was, it was the modern waltz, the foxtrot, a faster dance. And then there was an English dance. You could dance with a whole load of people. You had to know where you were going because you had to do the same thing. You were going backwards and forwards. So that was, that was great because you know it suited me. It was just something I could do and I enjoyed. And of course I had the English ones. I can’t remember now. No. I can’t remember. So yeah, so I enjoyed the dances that I went to. And mostly they were a small group of musicians. It was never played over the radio. It was all by three or more. Went to Derby a couple of times, a few times and stayed overnight in one of the places. So I’d go there on a Saturday, down Saturday night go back to the bed and breakfast in a big place. And the next morning go back to, on a Sunday go back to Church Broughton back then. So yeah dancing was something I enjoyed. [door sliding open] Yes thank you. You want coffee? Tea?
AP: Tea would be nice actually.
SD: Yeah. I used to be in the tax office after the war. Eventually the tax office. I was over there because I had cups of tea. No milk. No sugar. I was welcome because I wasn’t using any part of their —
AP: [unclear]
SD: Would you like a bit of [unclear]
AP: Say again?
SD: Would you like a bit of life into it?
AP: Yeah. That’s alright. Give it a moment.
SD: Yeah. Sorry yes. As I said there were girls there. Even though there were a lot of Americans were around they didn’t go to the same dances I went to. So I was fortunate that way so I always had a girl to dance with. Oh yes, one experiences they were the [emphasis] experiences of my trip over there was we’re at Lichfield. And we’d gone in to town to, to the go to the pubs. From the pubs I was going to the dance. I’d had a couple of drinks down in the pubs then went to the dance hall. Or the big hall. As it turned out there were a lot of girls there. I paid my money and walked in. I looked at all these girls all around. They had seats all the way around. I’m the only fella there. So I walked in and they started playing the music. No one got up to dance. Oh this is silly. I came for a dance. So I picked on a girl on the other side of the room and she must have been fifteen. She was there with her mother. She might have been well lower than that. Might be fourteen. So I picked her up and did the dance with her and that sort of, everyone else got up then. The fella had made up his mind so he got up 10 o’clock, and the pubs shut and they were all coming up from the pub then to the dance hall. And of course the girls had plenty of people to dance with then. So that was [pause] now there was always a girl to take home. Always took a girl except the first dance I went to near Church Broughton. I found out, I found out that I’d been there and I didn’t have the girl out there but strangely enough a fellow said to me thanks for not, thanks for not taking his girlfriend out. At the end of the dance I just went off on my bike back to, back to the camp. Because they were small English village dance. I didn’t get back there but when I was going with a girl later on who was a policeman’s daughter her mother had mentioned that their auntie had said he was, he was at the dance way back. So nothing secret. So that was, that’s another experience I guess. But again nothing, nothing demanding as far as — no action at all. The other fellows got in to action. Went over Germany and got shot down and some walked out. A few walked out and weren’t captured. Another went back through, back through, through Spain and there I was over there dancing with the girls.
AP: So —
SD: I was, I was, no. I came home virtually. I was lucky. And Lachie will tell us the same. Even now he says to me he always regarded himself as being lucky. I do myself feel I was lucky to go all that way. All those miles on water and not be troubled by submarines or anything like that. No foreign aircraft flying over us. So, I was safe in England. I was safe coming back because the war was over. Arrived back home two years since I’d left there. Come back in, arrived back in Australia in 1946 so that’s something. I mean on the trip arriving home. Coming up in the ship that goes up at 3 o’clock in the morning , pack, pack, get packed up ready to go ashore. We come through the Heads, down towards Rosebuds and then up the, up the channel, up to Melbourne. And we passed by Marines Pier and then, and then you could see Melbourne and the Luna Park stood out well. And then we, I can’t remember. We had a, we were towed in, and we were lucky. That’s the way I think of it. I was lucky.
AP: Why did you pick the air force?
SD: What?
AP: Why did you choose the air force?
SD: Because I didn’t want to go in the army. My dad was in the army in the First War and he’d given us stories about that. He was a trumpeter. He was also an artillery man later. And it was, it was a tough life in the army. So I reckoned with the air force you were safe. Home to a bed at night and have three meals a day. And relatively safe. But no we weren’t safe when we got to England. They were lucky to get thirty missions up. Very lucky. Those that went through their first, first flights. Some of them died on their first trip. Like my two mates. They’d become gunners and they crewed up and the last letter I got from him he’d written the words, ‘Hurray we’re flying.’ He posted it and I tore it up which I shouldn’t have done because it was his last letter ever. What else is there?
AP: What, what can you tell me about the enlistment process and interview or a medical or something that you had to do to get in to the air force?
SD: Yeah. Again it was easy. I already had a uniform. I got a uniform for twelve months in the Air Training Corps until about the February 23rd, I guess. All my stuff’s in the back there. The 23rd we went into train from Spencer Street to Bradfield Park overnight. So, I wanted to be in the air force because I wanted to be a fighter pilot. We all wanted to be fighter pilots. Young and silly. Anyway, at the end of our time in Bradfield Park I wasn’t sure if we were two months or when. It was a week before a category selection board where they chose people for pilots, navigators and gunners, radio operator. The gunnery came along later. So we went to Parkes and I spent my last two months, three months there before I got the taxi home. that’s about all. Anything else I could help you with?
AP: Yes. Plenty. What about the first time you ever went in an aeroplane? What did you think?
SD: Before that I’d already been on an aircraft at Essendon. A de Havilland aircraft. Room for about four or five passengers. I went for a flight from Essendon down surround around towards St Kilda. South Melbourne. And then I went in the air force. The first trip in an aeroplane in the air force at Parkes. We did our training there on single, single engine Wacketts. I think it was Wacketts and did the basic radio work from there. And eventually at Parkes we all had to get to twenty five words a minute in speed. Like my two friends didn’t make it, although he’d been in the Air Training Corps before, one of them [unclear] from Sydney. And he was a beautiful dancer and he was, he could run like the wind too. We both were going out that night to [unclear] because it was cold. We were going home to people. I wanted to go home with the girls to meet their family, and then go back for a cup of tea or sit by the fire. You see, looking after the young men pretty well. So that happened in Parkes. It didn’t happen in Sale. What else is there? Went, went to Brighton and at Brighton we danced at [pause] the Pavilion I think we called it. It’s where the King George the third built this big palace with towers and everything. Chinese influence. So we’d go to the dances there. I went once, got a girl to take home and that night the German bombers came over the top and we were in the street so we didn’t hear from any, that was the closest [unclear] they didn’t drop any bombs over us but they shot, someone shot down a German fighter because they crash landed. He was shot. He ended up in a cemetery on the top of the tombstones if you like. And the other time I went home. Something else. No. It’s gone out of my head. You won’t bring it back.
AP: What, what were your early impressions of wartime England?
SD: Everyone seemed to be alright. They were fed but only just. They [pause] and as I said with the dances went to most places where there was a tourist sort of thing. I got on my bike. Oh yes, the chap had got, where I went, he was a mate eventually I asked him get me a radio and get me a bike. They were two things I needed. I had twenty five pounds, English pounds then, and so I used to ride my bike to these dances. So I had the means of moving around and a radio of course. I had all the music I wanted. In the hut. No one objected to the radio going.
AP: What sort of radio was it?
SD: The one sitting outside under the house that’s been pulled down since then. It was called a lease lend. Lease lend radio. Wooden. Wooden. Wooden casing around the radio. It’s been it was home for a while. Came to my brother in law up the road and from there back here. Not a very powerful one. Had to break the temperature down. Had to break the voltage down from 240 to 120. So it had a [pause] had a power cord to the plug back this way to the unit at 120 by the time it got across there. And that meant it was Americanised. And they operated at 120 rather than 240. Now luckily I stayed mostly in the country with these people. And they seemed to be managing on what they had. As I said a cup of tea. No milk. No sugar. That was a big plus. And no tea except when it went in the water. That’s about all. So England was doing very well as far as their civilian population was concerned. And this was long before I met Lachie. Because when we crewed up when I go back a bit there when we crewed up from Lichfield and they decided, the crew decided we were going to go to the homes of the other members of the crew. So we went up to Scotland and a place called Burntisland which is just across the bridge from Edinburgh. And from Edinburgh we went across to Glasgow, or near Glasgow. A place called Stepps which is a throwaway. From there we came back. We didn’t go to any more. Oh yes we went down to where they play tennis. Must have gone before. Where they play tennis. Do you remember?
AP: Wimbledon.
SD: Wimbledon. Yeah. Close to Wimbledon, that’s right.
Other: [unclear] country.
SD: Nothing. No. Nothing.
Other: Supplement their diet.
SD: They were lucky to live in the country. Yes. They had all those sort of things. The people I was staying with they were, their great grandmother, grandparents lived in the village further down towards the river. While I was there I did a little bit of work with the son of the household and I helped him with his electricity. I helped him with that. They were always had plenty of eggs. And the rest. I didn’t eat much when I was there. I still don’t eat much. No. There’s not much. Not much there to put in a story. Sounds like a long story but a story about coming back here. I always have read the births and the deaths part in the newspaper and lo and behold there was a McBean. Now that was very foreign to me. McBean. And sure enough it said Lachlan [unclear] and sure enough his name was Lachie as the husband. Lachie. So it rang a bell with me. We organised it through the through the, through the funeral people. And said was he a pilot or anything like that and it turns out he was. So, I wrote. I wrote him a card of sympathy which, it’s not good to lose your wife so young. There you go. She was [unclear] Anything else? Oh yes. We went to Wimbledon and stayed overnight there and then back up to camp again. Went back to Lichfield. So that was an incident in the air force. Nothing dangerous about getting on a train or, train travel was pretty easy really for fellas like myself. We went as a group. Went as a flight or unit. [unclear] we just a group of air force bloke so we could travel anywhere. We didn’t seem to put anyone out or anything like that and the people I stayed with were pretty well organised. But the people in the city they would have suffered. As I say I stayed in a place where they could grow some vegetables themselves.
AP: So you were saying about Lachie. About sending him a card.
SD: Oh right. Yeah. Ok. Yes. That notice was in the births and deaths. My daughter, Suzanne rang the, the funeral people to find out if he was a pilot and he was a pilot so it must have been him. So I wrote him a card of condolence. Condolences because he’s lost his wife. And I knew damned well how he’d be feeling because I’d lost my wife some several years before. She was in a nursing home. Went through dementia stage. [unclear] So went up there. Went on the 26th of April last year. Yeah. 26th April last year after Anzac Day and he was pleased to see me because he thought I was dead. I’d been killed in a motorbike accident or something like that. That’s, that’s how I got to know him because he rang me back then over the phone and we organised we’d go and have a day. We’d meet up there the following Sunday as a reunion. So there we were after seventy years of not knowing where either of us were. And there we were. So that was a gift from a higher higher people upstairs.
AP: A couple, a couple more questions if you’re, if you’re still happy to —
SD: Yeah.
AP: Keep answering them. Just interested, your story of the radio sparked off a bit of a memory for me because —
SD: Oh yeah.
AP: Because another pilot I knew had a radio as well but I was never able to ask him about it. So what sort of music were you listening to?
SD: Oh modern stuff. I was never interested in the classical stuff then. It was all the dance music and all that [coughs] which fitted in with the dances. I used to like to listen to the big bands. To Glenn Miller bands. Tommy Dorsey and his brother’s bands. Who else? Stand. No. I can’t remember [coughs] Yeah. So used to listen to all the big bands and the other music that we played. Mostly American music.
AP: There was a lot of that on, on the radio?
SD: Yeah.
AP: Did you have that to listen to.
SD: Yeah. Much the same as young people here listen to the radio now. Music I don’t like particularly. But then I came home and my parents would have said, ‘Turn that off.’ Because I was dancing. I was listening to dance music rather loudly which [coughs] which suited, which suited me because I was, I enjoyed dancing. I enjoyed that music. And they actually took me to a stage show [pause] and that was where? It must have been His Majesty’s then. I can’t remember now. That was after I came home.
AP: And you continued dancing when you got home as well.
SD: Oh yeah.
SD: Yeah. I met another girl up in Sale. That was alright. She was a schoolteacher up there. She has since died. At the time we had fairly, got on pretty well together. Then I met my present wife Lola. She’s still here. In ‘46. And from her, meeting her I was then a member of their wedding party at their marriage in ’48. And then we were married in 1949. So here again we had the band with quite a number of this band and that was at Tudor Court. Reception. We were married in All Saint’s Church down in South Yarra.
AP: So just moving back to England just briefly can you tell me about VE day? What if any experiences did you have then?
SD: You got it right. It was the VE day. So [pause] I can’t remember. I don’t think it was at the camp. It must have been sort of celebration at the air force station Bottesford then. So I got on the train and went back to a place where she was at. The family I was living with. I was back there. Do you want some more tissues?
AP: No. No. That’s alright. I’m good.
SD: At Church Broughton so that wasn’t far out of Derby. A place called Hatton. H A T T O N. I spent a fair bit of time there. Hatton. Of course the trip into Derby took a long, travelling around by bus, took a long, fairly long time so it was quite handy having a girlfriend near the station and I stayed there some nights in the, with her mother and father and the son at the time. I was in a double bed with the son. That was before the war. That was before we went to to Bottesford. So that was alright. So the son of the house then went to, up country to do some clerical electrical work up country. So I had the bedroom to myself then. But I was pretty green. Young and not very bright family wise or anything like that but I knew they were looking after me pretty well so I still stuck with it and the dances.
AP: What did you do after the war, Steve?
SD: I came back to Australia. Went back to the old job. Job. Like most people went back to the same. The old job then. If they were lucky. But I was there twelve months and then I put up a shilling a day away for my time in the service. So I I can’t remember how much you got. It was a shilling a day and maybe in twenty days I got a pound back then. I was, I had worked that out. Worked out alright. Now, so I didn’t [pause] I came back to that job. Then I went into a business. A trucking business. With a chap that I met through a fellow at work. And the two of us went into partnership in this big truck. A Studebaker. And we were carting wood from [unclear] back to Melbourne. I know I learned to drive virtually on the truck because my uncle had said to me, ‘You’ve got to learn to drive.’ So he was teaching me. Learning to drive. And it’s amazing that in the air force days we had these guys who had never driven anything before in their lives piloting big heavy aircraft. It’s a bit of a thinking back now they were very brave people. I guess we are too actually. Pardon me. By the fact that we were flying too. Because we lost quite a lot of fellas in aircraft accidents.
AP: Did you ever have anything to do with an accident? Or did you see one?
SD: No.
AP: The aftermath of one or something.
SD: No. Once we, there was half a dozen of us selected to go as pallbearers out of respect of a Polish airman. I can’t remember where. Gloucester I think. Gloucester somewhere. Round about there. And there was a trip down there and drove back. That was all. Took some time to bury him and that was it. It wasn’t really worrying me much because it wasn’t me that was getting buried. So I was rather blasé about it then. I was young and didn’t really know. But it was amazing the number of young people who were all mostly well not more than twenty. My group and then as you got further up the line they were older then. But I was pretty young. Some of the fellas had driven cars and all this sort of thing. Which I hadn’t had the experience. So it was a bit, a bit of an attitude which I didn’t have to to fly or operate machinery. So all I had to do was do the Morse code which eventually of course I got expert at it. And I wouldn’t have been able to pick up messages from ships because they were very fast. Aircraft. At twenty five you were pretty ok. As I say I brought one plane down and through the clouds at ten thousand, nine thousand, eight thousand. Down and we were the last to land. But they were bringing down all the other aircraft down before us. Every Avro Anson and we had an Avro Anson here. I reckoned the wings flapped as it flew. Avro Ansons. And from the Anson we went to Stirlings. From Stirlings we went to the Lancasters.
AP: What was your first impression of a Lancaster?
SD: Beautiful ship. Beautiful. The engine. The engine — I didn’t know much about engines but they sounded great to me. Sounded beautiful. And as far as I was concerned they were invincible. Of course they weren’t.
AP: Yes.
SD: So I enjoyed my time in Lancs. I’m sorry. The tea went down the wrong way before. Have you got any other questions?
AP: How did you live on the, on the station?
SD: Oh. There was a bed. A bed there. Meals there. Lunch as well as morning and evening meals. Yes. When I was there I appreciated that. These fellows that didn’t ever want to stay there very much. I gave up the evening meal. I’d get on my bike and away I went. I didn’t stay around for the groups who were going to the pub anyway. I wanted to go the dances. If there were any dances. On my bike. Other times I would catch the bus in to Stourbridge and go to the dances there. We’d all been warned about the girls that went to the dances in Stourbridge. Keep well clear. Don’t get mixed up with them. You’ll end up with venereal disease. That’s coming from the station commander. So at night there was, there were a few girls there I would take them home after the dance and then back to get my bike and ride back to the camp mostly. Sometimes I went on the bus. Not very often. I rode my bike most of the time. Which was about twelve miles from Halfpenny Green to Stourbridge which was mostly what I did. But went there. I put my bike there on the long grass. A village tree. There used to be long grass everywhere. It wasn’t any danger of getting pinched or anything from there. I knew it was there. Now, I was telling you about the bacon and eggs earlier on when you got on to the bike. I was over there when I first arrived in Warrington which was not far from Flint in Wales. I used to go to Flint by train. I was welcomed there pretty much. We went to a dance there on a Saturday night. I was down at Rhyl which is further along the coast. Always had a group of girls going with the fellas. I lined up with a girl there who was just to kissed them goodnight and away I went because I was living with these people and I didn’t want to be out late or anything like that. So what else was there? That’s about all.
AP: Can you tell me about your bike? Your bike in England.
SD: I wanted a racing bike didn’t I? Didn’t want one of the bikes you see on television there with the handlebars stretching out. Handlebars went down. The fastest bike it was. It was painted black. Earlier it was painted, bikes there were all painted black so there was no glint from the air. Yeah. So I left my bike behind me and I got on a ship to come behind. Come home. And we wrote together for some time and then she realised I was still dancing. She took umbrage about going dancing with other girls. There she was in England at sixteen and a half. She was fifteen when I first met her. And sixteen at a half. Very young. But at the time I didn’t realise. She was four years younger than me. I’m jumping around a bit.
AP: No. That’s fine. That’s the nature of memory. It does tend to jump around and that’s, that’s exactly what we’re after to be honest otherwise you don’t dig in as far as you want.
SD: Well the main thing is I got into the air force. Not the army. And the air force was good to me with three meals a day, training and a bed to sleep in. Which was entirely different than the army. It was great to not be in the army.
AP: What err — yeah go on.
SD: Somewhere on there you’ve got there how I met Lachie. That’s one. The last one of the line. He was the last pilot. I was the last radio operator. He already he had his navigator. He had his bomb aimer. So he was ready. He had three, three members of the crew. And he didn’t get the air gunners until later. In the Stirling. We were flying Stirlings. That was later. At [pause] where was that? I don’t know. I know we flew Stirlings. But I don’t know whether we flew Stirlings or Lancasters at Church Broughton which was close. Fairly close to Derby. I enjoyed my radio. I enjoyed my dancing. And I enjoyed the air force. And I got to a place where I soon woke up to the fact there wasn’t many fellows that made the grade. They, they went out and got killed. Or killed in crashes. Some, some fellas didn’t last. Coming back from Derby this girlfriend when I was getting off the bus and this Australian airman was on the bed in the house. [unclear] he knew before I came along that she told me she when the war had finished and he apparently came back to England. I don’t know whether it was Brighton. Whether he was a prisoner and escaped or was sent home. Anyway she didn’t want anything to do with him so that was a bit of let down for him. Not for me. What else is there? Better stay with your questions.
AP: I’m starting to run out of them actually. [unclear] Alright. What, what for you was the legacy of Bomber Command and how do you want it to be remembered?
SD: The fact we were in the, at Bottesford and heading for, heading for action. Real action. We were this far away from it. We were still flying over Germany. dropping bombs while the ground forces were coming up through France. Up through Belgium and Holland. [pause] So there was no, ok in my way of a young fella thinking I was twenty year old. I was twenty year old then. I think it was from day to day really. So as far as memories are concerned I was just pleased to be in the air force and safer than most days I could get up and I’d be safe. Most days. [pause] One thing I did notice between the two. England where we were living mostly had these ordinary, ordinary people living in houses made of brick. The people I stayed with were in a house in brick. Coming to Australia quite a lot of houses there more so were billboard houses and different to England. They were well built up out Camberwell way. I didn’t know much about that. I was pretty green as far as, in fact I wanted [unclear] we wanted to buy a house when we, when we came home. So yes we did want to buy a house. A lot of people over there wanted to buy a house and of course I didn’t have any money. Well, my mum had been a saviour because I allocated some money for her which she put in her bank and my bank until I came home. Until I wanted the money. And she, she’d actually had this five shillings, five shillings a week for up to two and half. Two, two fifty pounds roughly. So that’s a bit of a plus to come home and you were still getting air force money. We didn’t get flying pay though because when we were in England we got extra money by way of flight pay which was more than the soldiers were getting. All the aircrew. People on the ground floor didn’t get anything. I forget how much it was. So I didn’t want for money ever. There was always some money there. As a matter of fact I lent a chap ten pounds. He came from Sydney. I lent him ten pound. Where? Where? Halfpenny Green. So that was about, about the size of it. I don’t know if you’ve got enough there.
AP: Yeah. I can’t, I can’t think of too much else to ask.
SD: Yeah.
AP: So do you have any final thoughts on Bomber Command in general? How it’s remembered.
SD: As far as I’m concerned Bomber Command — it was, people were getting killed in Bomber Command and it never occurred to me this was the case. I thought it was unending safety at that stage. And as I got closer towards flying on Lancasters I realised it wasn’t a game anymore. It was fair dinkum because I lost two mates. That didn’t, that didn’t mean much to me at the time. They went out on their first flight and didn’t come back. They’re still missing. God knows what happened to them. And I was ok. The air force for me — I was safe. My mother must have worried a fair bit because she, she died in 1948. I was back in 1946 and I was a different bloke living at home to what I was in the air force. Again, I was a bit selfish. I had turned twenty one and I was quite happy about going to dances, playing loud music. Not worrying about mum waiting at home for me because no one had been waiting home for me before. Back to the camp to sleep. So it was a big, big step back to civilian life from air force life. What I’d been doing anyway because my air force life was mostly tied up with working in day time and dancing at night. Obviously at night. But there was never a twenty four hour, a twenty four hour job. It was from 8 o’clock in the morning until about 6 o’clock at night. Then dinner and then back to bed or go dancing. That was all. So all in all because I had this freedom I felt safe whereas in the army you were under threat all the time. And I was told they were fighting the Japanese here and that didn’t grab me one bit. That’s about the size. What else is there? Yeah. I arrived home and I was close to what it was part of must have been part of. 1946 Australia Day holiday which was [unclear] I didn’t know about that. A group of people here wanted me home which I didn’t really want. It was 3 o’clock in the morning. Got out of bed. It’s not my mother got up early to wash my clothes. My grandma got out there and was washing. And my wife, wife my mother went crook because my grandma was doing my washing and my mum was there. That sort of thing went on. Then after that my mother looked after most of my clothes and my mum got the photograph. [unclear] That’s about all. There’s not enough meat there. I went, I went back to the girl’s place. The police sergeant’s home. And Lachie as I found out later went up to Queensland but had been up in Scotland. I didn’t know that. But yeah I found out and after arriving home he went back in Melbourne and then gong to Ballarat. Started two years ago. So that was a bit of an experience. Meeting up with someone who didn’t know what had happened to you in 1946. Here we are in 2006 and it came out of the blue. Seventy years. So that was a big experiences. My daughter wanted to go to further back so she got in touch with Lachie’s girls so the girls fixed up this meeting with going to the Shrine on Anzac Day. After Anzac Day met after Anzac Day up at his new home because he’d given up, he was over seventy like myself, and he stopped farming and passed that on to his son. He lost his wife and he was up there on his own except for the people in the, in the complex. Various small homes. A house but two bedroomed home. A kitchen, dining room and a lounge. And so he come down from his home farm to a home in Ballarat. So that was his thing. It was a big thing after seventy years. Meeting someone right out of the blue like that. Not that we were very close in the air force because he was on the intercom and he’d be speaking to the other members of the crew except me because I wasn’t connected to the system. I was just plugged in to here. Plugged into home base plus I also used to listen to American Forces Network when we were not listening out. So I had modern music as it was then. So yeah. I was lucky. I was lucky to be alive. And there was a lot of fellows came home on the same ship. The Orion. So I was lucky to get through that. So virtually it was 1943 I went into the air force. Late 1943 and was there until April 1946. So what time was that being in the air force. And in that time I got my boat to America. Got to England by boat again. The big ship. So pretty safe. I was lucky enough that my ships weren’t torpedoed or danger of being torpedoed. Which was at the back of your mind when you were travelling by ship. Am I going to be safe? Will I get out of this? No. I never felt that way. I always felt safe in the ships. Whereas when I was flying I always felt safe up there too except [unclear] German fighter followed us home and I didn’t know anything about that. So from, I was lucky from that point of view. I never faced the dangers that I knew about, the bomb aimer and the navigator yes. They did. And we had two gunners by then. The mid-upper gunner he was from, he lived close to Gloucester. And the other fellow was he was an old man of thirty something or other. He lived with his wife in Wimbledon. Wimbledon. So that’s about all. Not too great. Not great. I was lucky to be alive then. I’m lucky to be alive now. So we were going up to Ballarat and then back to the Bomber Command Memorial Service. Yes it was a big experience. And from the point of view of [pause] I was lucky this happened. To have been in Bomber Command. There were fellows there that flew in Bomber Command in England. There’s not many fellows left that had been in Bomber Command. And I was part of Bomber Command but didn’t see any action except a near miss. How about that?
AP: Sounds pretty good to me.
SD: Ok. I don’t know what sort of story you can make out of that.
AP: Thank you very much, Steve.
SD: That’s alright.
AP: It’s been great.
SD: And would you like some tea or some orange?



Adam Purcell, “Interview with Steven Downes,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed April 15, 2024,

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