Interview with William Geoghegan


Interview with William Geoghegan


William Geoghegan grew up in Australia and after serving in the army, joined the Royal Australian Air Force. He flew operations as a navigator with 61 Squadron from RAF Skellingthorpe.




Temporal Coverage




00:35:36 audio recording


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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 Bill Geoghegan at his home in North Curl Curl. A Sydney suburb. How old are you please, Bill?
WG: Ninety six.
DG: And where were you born?
WG: In Sydney.
DG: What, what did you parents do, Bill?
WG: My father was, as far as I can remember he was a wharf manager for a shipping company called Williamson. He was, he was a good athlete. He was written up, when he died, in the paper as being a pioneer of rugby league and he also in swimming. That was Australia against America in one stage. I haven’t got the complete details.
DG: Where did you go to school?
WG: I started off in Leichhardt at a school called Orange Grove Public School.
DG: And what, what did you enjoy doing at school? What were your favourite subjects?
WG: English and maths.
DG: And how old were you when you left school? Do you remember? Oh well it doesn’t matter.
WG: I think I was, I think I was fourteen because things were pretty bad at the time. I had wanted to go on and become a doctor but I had to leave school because the aftermath of the depression.
DG: Oh yes. Yeah. Well where —?
WG: I did three years at Stanmore High School.
DG: And where were you, or at what stage of life were you at, do you remember, when the war broke out?
WG: Yeah. At Bondi.
DG: And what, do you remember how old you were?
WG: Yeah. I think the war broke out in September ’39 and that was the same year as I turned twenty.
DG: Right.
WG: So I was twenty.
DG: So when you, when you left school. Well, obviously when you left school that was before the war started?
WG: Yes.
DG: I’m just a bit. I’m a bit — ok. So you were twenty when the war broke out.
WG: Yeah. Well I’m not too sure.
DG: No.
WG: It would just be a week or two in it.
DG: Ok. Yes. Yeah. But near. Ok. And did you, did you think, when it first broke out did you think about going to the war? Or what were your thoughts about what you might do?
WG: Well the war broke out in 1939, September. So in October the same year I enlisted in the RAAF but they wrote me a letter and said that they weren’t able to take me at the time and they would get in touch when they were ready. But as time went on and I hadn’t heard from them so I joined the AIF. And I spent a year in the artillery unit in the AIF before I received a notification from the RAAF that they were ready to take me into the air force. So they demobilised me, I think is probably the word, from the army and I went to Bradfield Park.
DG: Why did you, why did you, your first idea was that you wanted to join the air force. Why? Why did you want to join the air force as opposed to the army or the navy?
WG: I guess the general concept of what I thought I’d like doing.
DG: And when [pause] did you have, did you have anything in mind. When you joined the air force did you have in mind what you might like to do?
WG: In the air force?
DG: Yes.
WG: Yes. Yeah. I thought I’d like to be a fighter pilot.
DG: Oh right. And did that eventuate?
WG: No.
DG: No.
WG: I went to, I went to Temora and I did a short course on Tiger Moths [unclear] and I went past the stage of doing aerobics and what they call circle, circuits and bumps. And I was asked to go to the COs office one day and he said they were transferring me to navigating school. So I said, ‘Well my instructor told me that I’d done very well in the flying. So he said, ‘Oh well, we’ll leave it for a couple of weeks.’ And the same thing happened a couple of weeks after. Anyhow. the flight lieutenant instructor volunteered to drive me to the station and he said. ‘The only thing you did wrong was previously doing too well in your exam at navigation.’ So —
DG: Oh [laughs]
WG: I’ve since then read in a book a few years back that this was what was happening. Everyone wanted to be pilot.
DG: Yes.
WG: So they wanted other people in other positions in the plane and this was what happened. So that was something that went amiss.
DG: So you went. You said you went to Bradfield. And what happened there? What did they — what did you do up there?
WG: Well that was the Initial Training School.
DG: Right.
WG: And then, after that, after I left Temora I went back there, and from there we were shipped to Canada. Two of my friends and myself. And this was important. Well it’s not important. But we were the only three that didn’t go when the ship left. We’d all gone out together on a Saturday night to the [unclear] theatre.
DG: Oh yes.
WG: And we all had girlfriends and we went out at the interval. And while we were out at the interval they put up on the screen that all members of [pause] I think it was thirty five, I’m not sure, course at Bradfield were to return immediately. When we got back on the Monday morning the guard said, ‘The CO wants to see you three.’ And we found out that everyone had gone and we were the only ones left. So from there we went to Edmonton in Canada.
DG: Right.
WG: And I think I was there a bit over twelve months before graduating. I think it was as sergeant or [pause] flight sergeant. I think.
DG: And so Bradfield, at Edmonton was all your navigation.
WG: That’s right.
DG: All for navigation training.
WG: Yes.
DG: How long were you doing that at Edmonton?
WG: Well a bit over twelve months.
DG: Right.
WG: Yes.
DG: What sort, what did it involve? What practical exercises? What sort of practical work did you do in navigation?
WG: Well mainly obtaining a fix.
DG: Right.
WG: Every ten minutes. In an aircraft the course is set on the instruments that you’re going on. That’s the, but then that isn’t your actual position in the air because of wind blowing.
DG: Yes.
WG: It’s important that every ten minutes you find a fix. Connect it up with your actual air course and find out the direction of the wind and the speed of the wind. So you have to correct that. You give the instructions to the pilot as to the way he should alter course to take advantage of it — that wind.
DG: How did you know of the direction and the speed of the wind to be able to make those changes?
WG: Well, after, for instance in navigation to obtain a fix you had to get a shot on three different places which took time.
DG: Right.
WG: Probably. And then the first two were moved up to the third. That was your ground position.
DG: Right.
WG: Not your air position. It showed your ground position. So in that way you knew just how far you’d strayed off course from, in a certain time.
DG: Right.
WG: This allowed you to figure out the speed of the wind and the direction the wind was coming. Like say that’s your air position. That’s your fix. Then the lines would be drawn between the two and gave you the direction of the wind plus the speed.
DG: A little bit different from GPS that’s used now.
WG: Yes. Yes.
DG: Did, have you, your age this is something that is, that’s something completely different. GPS is something completely different from the sort of. You have, you understand, well, I mean you know what GPS is all about.
WG: Yeah.
DG: And that sort of thing. It must, when you look at that now it it must be very difficult to comprehend.
WG: It’s amazing.
DG: For the change from what was involved in what you did and how I guess it could be so inaccurate sometimes being because it would be hard to get a fix and knowing what wind speeds were. Compared to something now whereas you look at, look at a screen and it shows exactly where you are.
WG: It’s all computerised. Yeah.
DG: Yeah. Yeah. It’s incredible.
WG: But generally the navigation was very accurate.
DG: Was it?
WG: Yeah.
DG: Or you were just a very accurate navigator.
WG: Well that could have been it [laughs]
DG: That could have been. Sounds like it.
WG: Because later on when we got on to ops I don’t think I was ever involved in big raids. You know, like the thousand bomber raids. But wherever we went like I mentioned to you before, Norway for example, I think we used up all our gas. It was a long way and we arrived on target, you know and in the right position without looking for it.
DG: Yeah.
WG: Yeah. So, but then they, they had invented what they called a Gee set which recorded radar findings. But you still had to get a, make a fix as in, as in area.
DG: Did that get you all the way to Norway? Gee.
WG: Yeah.
DG: Ah Right. Because when you were over Germany I believe the Germans could block it couldn’t they?
WG: Yes.
DG: To a certain, to a certain distance.
WG: Not completely though. We were still able to get it.
DG: Oh were you?
WG: Yeah. Like now they’ve got ways of intercepting the radar.
DG: Yeah.
WG: With these stealth planes for example.
DG: Oh yes.
WG: They’ve got some instrument on board. I’m not conversant with it fully but that can counteract it.
DG: Oh I see. Yeah. Now, you, at Edmonton you then went to the UK.
WG: Yes. To West Freugh.
DG: So that was your first base in the UK.
WG: That’s right. Yeah.
DG: Right. And what did you do in West Freugh?
WG: Well we did further training over England in navigation.
DG: Right.
WG: More or less getting used to a different type of plane I suppose. The Anson was, although we had been on Ansons in Canada and then went back on Ansons there. I suppose it involved the different type of terrain and probably a forerunner of the type of thing you would do on operations.
DG: And what —? What, after West Freugh where did you go?
WG: I should have written this down.
DG: Oh that doesn’t matter.
WG: Yeah.
DG: That doesn’t matter.
WG: We went on to Wellingtons. It’ll come to me in a moment. Wellingtons.
DG: Right.
WG: And then that was a bit more advanced to what we’d done on, in the Ansons. And that was a bit more advanced than what we’d done on the, in the Ansons. And then we went on Stirlings and then we went on to — that was a four engine very ungainly bomber. And then we went to Lancaster Finishing School which was, that was pretty dicey in some respects because we sent, they sent us a couple of times out on what they called a diversion and they didn’t explain what it was. I don’t think we asked at the time. But we were up near the border with Holland on our own. We were attacked by two German fighters. One of them was an ME109 and that was coming in from port because they’d got fixed guns and they had to get behind you to shoot you up. So they sent the ME, which was the slower of the two fighters, in and the rear gunner picked it up and he yelled out, ‘Dive port. There’s a ME109,’ and by diving port you increased the arc of the fighter coming in.
DG: Right. Yeah.
WG: And you go in to what they called a corkscrew.
DG: Yeah.
WG: But then half way through going through there he said, ‘Dive starboard there’s a Fokke Wulf coming in from the other side, from starboard.’ [laughs] Anyhow, we got, some or other, we got with just a small amount of damage. We, we got out of it and that was when we got back we found out that a diversion was sending us from, I think it was Lanc Finishing School to, as sort of decoys. When they were sending the main force out they’d sent us up on a diversion to attract fighters before the main force.
DG: Draw the attention.
WG: Caught up. Carrying the bombs.
DG: So was, was that from West Freugh or that was from another —?
WG: No.
DG: That was from another station.
WG: Yeah. Yeah.
DG: Right. When did you or where did you, where did you go then? Where were you stationed permanently?
WG: At Skellingthorpe.
DG: And can you remember when that was? What year? Well what year it was? It doesn’t matter, it’s not important.
WG: I think it was 1944.
DG: Right. And which squadron were you with at, at Skellingthorpe?
WG: 61.
DG: And what was your, can you tell me a little bit about your daily life at the base? What, what happened? Got up in the morning.
WG: Well, looking back I mean it wasn’t a matter of getting up in the morning it was a matter of getting a few hours sleep in the daytime. It was never regular. You’d get, the weather would be too bad so you wouldn’t be going out so you’d get probably a night’s sleep then. But other times you’d be flying all night so you had to sleep during the day. But there wasn’t much rest because in between they would, we would be sent to a bombing range to practice there.
DG: Oh right.
WG: It’s not, [pause] I can’t really remember even getting nights off too much. Occasionally we’d get a night off and we’d go into Lincoln. I think to the Strugglers Inn and have a few beers.
DG: Right.
WG: Yeah. But it wasn’t, it wasn’t a station life. Not like they think the air force is all wine, women and song.
DG: No. If, if you were flying a mission that day. Well, that, presumably that night. When would you find out you were flying a mission? Just find out that morning or would you know the day?
WG: Yeah.
DG: Usually just that same morning.
WG: That day.
DG: Just that day.
WG: We had to go to what they called briefing.
DG: Right.
WG: Which took quite a long time and it mainly involved, I think, well it involved everyone I suppose. I was going to say the pilot and navigator because they gave a hell of a lot of details and so on that the navigator would record at briefing. But then, I’m not too sure about this but I think the whole crew were there and perhaps the wireless operator would be there as well.
DG: Right.
WG: Yeah. The engineer and the gunners. They were probably listening there too although they didn’t have a job to do at briefing.
DG: How many Australians were there? How many Australians were there? Well not how many but were there a lot of Australians at Skellingthorpe?
WG: Not a lot.
DG: No. Of course being RAF it would be mainly —
WG: Well my crew were, we had a Australian pilot, a Canadian navigator
DG: Oh right.
WG: And then the others were English.
DG: Right. Right. How did you all, the different nationalities in a crew like that you’ve obviously got to all get along very well together under a lot of stress and strain how did you all get on with different nationalities. Did you get on pretty well?
WG: Very well I think. Yeah. We were very close. The whole crew. I can’t remember any dissention of any sort, you know. I had the impression that they were all very efficient.
DG: Yes. There was, there was some fellows that had trouble going on a raid or something and they couldn’t go or something and they would accuse them of having a lack of moral fibre.
WG: Yeah LMF.
DG: Yes.
WG: Yes.
DG: Did you? Did you ever have experience with that?
WG: No. Not really. I’d heard of it.
DG: Yes.
WG: But I didn’t know of anyone on my squadron who did that you know.
DG: Did you, did you hear about how they were treated?
WG: Yeah. Well we didn’t, we actually thought that they weren’t treated very well. I mean if your make-up was that way. I mean everyone is different. I mean at times with tiredness and everything else you can probably understand it was pretty easy to think I can’t go on and do my job properly the way I, the way I am mentally. So they informed the CO that they couldn’t go on.
DG: Being honest. They were just being honest. Yes.
WG: Yes.
DG: Yes. Yes. What can you, can you tell me a few of the names of some of the targets that you bombed?
WG: Yeah. Bremen. Nordhausen. I could probably look it up.
DG: Oh that doesn’t matter.
WG: Nordhausen.
DG: You did say you did some bombing over Germany.
WG: Yeah. Yeah.
DG: And you mentioned Norway.
WG: Norway.
DG: You did some. What were you, what did you bomb in Norway?
WG: That was an oil refinery.
DG: Oh right.
WG: And there was only ten Lancasters went, went there.
DG: Right.
WG: Actually there was fourteen. They started with four that had to turn back. And it was a daylight raid. Looking back on it it was probably pretty bit dicey, you know because a few aircraft crossing over enemy territory.
DG: Yes.
WG: But I think the main thing about the raid was that the oil refinery was destroyed without much or at any loss to civilian life up there.
DG: Now some, some of the targets that you’d bomb would probably no doubt be near populated areas.
WG: Yes.
DG: And no doubt bombs would fall on civilians. How did you feel about this sort of thing when you were doing your missions?
WG: Well I don’t [pause] sort of mixed feelings. But I think, well as far as navigator I was so busy the whole time I was in the plane that I didn’t have much time to think about anything else.
DG: Yes.
WG: But looking back on it I think it’s pretty horrendous to know we were dropping people on civilised towns and that and the civilians were getting killed but at the same time I think we had the impression that ok everyone in Germany was in favour of the war when they started off. And they treated people very badly like Auschwitz where they had the camp ovens and all that. And then they started to, they started to go through Europe and then they got to the coast and England wasn’t really prepared at that time.
DG: Yeah. Yeah.
WG: So it was vital that you did the job to stop any more of this happening.
DG: Yes. Yes. How were your nerves? How did you, how did you feel when during just the day at the base? How did you — did you think about, you know your missions or? How did you feel? Because you were doing, you know, a very risky business and yet back there you were in a nice comfortable surroundings. How did you feel?
WG: Alright. As I was saying before it was a pretty busy life and as a navigator I think I probably had to do more on the ground than what the others did.
DG: Right. Yes. Yes.
WG: And my general impression thinking back on it as I do occasionally that most of the time I was too busy and I formed the opinion that it was probably inevitable because I think at the time we were having something like fifty percent casualties that we wouldn’t come back one night. But I thought to myself if I concentrate on doing the very, doing my job the best I can I shouldn’t worry about anything else.
DG: Yes.
WG: It’s something that I’ve been able to use in my life ever since. I mean let’s not worry about something doubtful about in the end but to concentrate on while you’re living. On the situation while you’re living.
DG: Yes. Yeah. That’s, that’s very good. Well then when you were flying how did you feel?
WG: Well, just the same. I was too busy to think about things.
DG: Yes. Yes.
WG: Even when we were attacked. I mean you couldn’t stop what you were doing.
DG: No. No.
WG: And there were different ways of being attacked by fighters, or flak coming up or bombs dropping on you from another aircraft. Although we weren’t, we didn’t have that problem much because we were mainly operating in smaller groups.
DG: Now, just the navigator of course was in his little, his little hutch.
WG: That’s right.
DG: You couldn’t see a thing. You just, I know where you are. Behind the pilot. You were sort of boxed in with your little desk. Walled in. Can’t see a thing what’s going on. Whereas just about everybody else on the aeroplane can what’s going on all the way around.
WG: That’s right.
DG: How did, how did you feel when you were just sitting? Couldn’t see anything. Obviously concentrating on what you were doing. And you had to do that but how did you feel when, that you couldn’t see and you didn’t know what was happening out there?
WG: Yes. Well, I, I can’t remember having even thinking about that because I found to do my job properly I had to concentrate entirely on what I was doing and inevitably from the time we left England to wherever we were going and back again I think you couldn’t take your mind of that. If you were going to get there without using too much fuel.
DG: Yeah.
WG: Would be If you wandered off course and all that. And you had to get there at a certain time like other aircraft. So I really don’t think I had time to think about anything else.
DG: When you were, when you were coming back from a mission did you [pause] you said, you said your navigation was usually pretty good. Did you ever have any experiences where you didn’t quite know where England was and you thought you might —
WG: Not really.
DG: You were pretty right.
WG: Yes.
DG: So when you knew you were flying to England did you ever find that you didn’t land at Skellingthorpe but you landed on a runway of a, in a village nearby by mistake. Did you ever do that?
WG: No. but there was one flight where we wondered if we would make it to Skellingthorpe as we were coming back over the coast of England. And we thought we might have to land at one off the coast because it was all flat country there. It was close to the aerodrome but no we managed to get there.
DG: Yeah.
WG: In one piece.
DG: How many missions did you fly?
WG: I only flew on seven actually.
DG: Right.
WG: Yeah.
DG: Right. Because you would get, when did you, when was your last mission?
WG: I think the last one was the crossing of the Rhine. That was 1945.
DG: Right. Early 1945.
WG: Yeah, well I think it might have been May or something like that.
DG: Right.
WG: Yeah.
DG: Right. When you, did you know that you were flying your last mission? When you were on the mission did you know that was the last or was it just another mission?
WG: Well we knew, we had a fair idea that war was going our way. But the Rhine was quite a major thing because they had, I think they had on the other side of the Rhine they had the German Panzer division like armoured vehicles, tanks and stuff. And for the troops to cross over the Rhine something had to be done about them. And this was one of the targets where we got the congratulations from the prime minister and all that. It was so effective that they got across with something like thirty four casualties, I think. Strangely enough I think I told you about the young person that was giving me that introduction. Her father, no her grandfather was a major in the infantry. While we were bombing they were preparing to cross the river.
DG: Right.
WG: Yeah.
DG: What were you actually bombing? What was the target?
WG: The Panzer divisions and —
DG: Oh yes. Ok. Right.
WG: Yeah.
DG: And that was pretty successful?
WG: Yeah. Very successful.
DG: What height were you bombing to do that?
WG: Oh it was flat and level.
DG: Pretty low.
WG: Possibly about five thousand feet, I think.
DG: Oh that’s pretty, that’s still pretty high to get targets.
WG: It could have been lower but —
DG: Yeah. Oh yes but I mean it wasn’t just at a couple of hundred feet.
WG: No. No. And where [pause] so you were at Skellingthorpe when you flew your last mission. And after that? What? What happened? When you had flown what happened then?
WG: On, the end of the war came and we were given three weeks leave and I didn’t leave England I think until April 1946 because I think it was the Stirling Castle I was on. Got down near Suez and had to go back because of problems with the ship. So it was another few months after that that I came back. Actually, I navigated the world by sea. We went over through the Panama and came back through the Suez.
DG: Yeah. Circumnavigated. Yeah. What did you do when you got back to Australia? What did you do?
WG: Well our first thought was to to find a job.
DG: Right.
WG: Like everyone else that was coming back.
DG: Yes. Yes.
WG: But fortunately I’d joined a textile company during the war and I went and saw them and they gave me a job back at, because they’d been grooming me to take over as production manager. Putting me through all the various sections of that. But I finished up really as sales manager there. But I was one of the lucky ones because a lot of people couldn’t find work and I was married then and living at Bondi.
DG: Right.
WG: And I managed to scrape up enough money to buy a block of land over here at North Curl Curl. Built a house and been here ever since.
DG: Good. And did you ever keep in touch with anyone from Bomber Command?
WG: No. I’ve often tried. Even the pilot who I was very friendly with. Very close to. I don’t know what happened to him. I’ve tried the rolls in Canberra and various other things without any success.
DG: Oh. Yeah.
WG: But the other’s, no. I lost track of them completely.
DG: How, how do you feel about how Bomber Command was treated after the war?
WG: I think generally people that counted like the chief of the Bomber Command and people like Winston Churchill who came out later and said, I think he said something about the fighters were our salvation but the bombers won the war.
DG: Yeah.
WG: So he appreciated. But apart from that I’m still amazed that very few people were aware of the amount we did.
DG: Yes.
WG: Because people were even condemning us for bombing the cities. As we spoke about before. But the Germans were manufacturing all sorts of armaments and so on in these town. And there didn’t seem to be at the time to be any other way.
DG: Yes. Yeah.
WG: But ever since, I mean [pause] actually in the First World War that keeps cropping up every year which, rightly so I suppose. But I even went to the church one day and asked if, if they could, in the churches throughout Australia just devote ten minutes to have some sort of monument to the Bomber Command.
DG: Yeah.
WG: People that died over there.
DG: Yes.
WG: But that didn’t seem to go very far.
DG: Did you, did you got to that commemoration? To that new Memorial that was unveiled in London.
WG: No.
DG: A few years ago.
WG: No.
DG: Right. Right.
WG: Actually, I didn’t know much about it.
DG: Yes.
WG: I could have probably would have gone if I’d known more about it.
DG: Yes. Yeah. Yeah. Well I think that covers it. Thank you very much Bill.


Donald Gould, “Interview with William Geoghegan,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed April 21, 2024,

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