Interview with David Leicester


Interview with David Leicester


David Leicester grew up in Australia and worked as an office boy before he volunteered for the Royal Australian Air Force. He completed 68 operations as a pilot with 35, 158 and 640 Squadrons and as a Master Bomber with Pathfinders. He describes how he always kept his own parachute rather than hand it back and always asked the same person to pack it for him.







02:04:02 audio recording


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AP: And I think we’re working. Yes. We are. So this interview for the International Bomber Command Centre is with David Leicester. He was a Halifax pilot with 158 and 640 Squadrons and a Lancaster pilot with 35 Squadron Pathfinders. The interview is taking place in North Plympton in Adelaide. My name’s Adam Purcell. It is the 1st of May 2016. So, David let’s start from the beginning. Can you tell me something of your early life? What you were doing before the war and how you came to join the air force.
DL: Well, really before the war I was at school when the war broke out in 1939. And I left. In 1940 I was at High School and was very interested in the, mainly in the Battle of Britain and what their pilots were doing. And I sort of made up my mind that if I happened to be in the war I would like to be a fighter pilot. My father was in the AIF during World War One so I was very keen to get into something. I left school at the end of 1940 and started work as an office boy in the rag trade, in a manufacturer’s agents office here in Adelaide until I was called up in August 1941 as — in number 19 Course EATS at the age of eighteen. Yeah.
AP: Did you, sorry did you say you had any prior military service up till that point?
DL: No.
AP: No.
DL: No.
AP: So you weren’t in the, in the army or the —
DL: No.
AP: CMF or anything.
DL: No.
AP: Ok.
DL: We did, prior to be called up, after we’d applied to join the air force we would, I was, I and others were too young at seventeen. We had to wait until we were eighteen before we were called up. So we did, we were put on the Air Force Reserve and while we were waiting to be called up we did a lot of the pre-entry work. Learning Morse Code, learning air force regulations and that sort of thing. So, by the time we actually got called up and went to the Initial Training School we had done a bit of pre, pre-interest work in the air force.
AP: Why did you choose the air force?
DL: Well, as I said I was interested in what the Battle of Britain boys were doing and I thought, oh boy that’s for me. Exciting and it, it was the one that attracted me the most. Even though my father had been in the AIF and told a lot of stories about the AIF. I wish I’d known more about my father‘s activities actually. As most of us say these days but the air force was the one.
AP: Can you tell me something of the enlistment process?
DL: The which?
AP: The enlistment process. The process of actually going to and signing the papers and all that sort of thing.
DL: Well I don’t, can’t recall a lot of that but I guess in the early 1941 I made application to the Air Force Recruiting Office. We were under age as far as the air force was concerned so we needed the parent’s permission which was freely given by my father and mother. And so I was really ready for, to be called up.
AP: Were there any medical type examinations or something that you can remember?
DL: Yes. We had to get, from our local GP we’d need to get a clearance to say that we were medically fit to join the services. But of course as soon as we went in we went through vigorous tests at Initial Training School. Initial medical tests to make sure we were alright. If we had a broken toenail it was more or less couldn’t get in. We were rejected.
AP: Can you remember any of the specific tests that you had to do?
DL: No. I can’t really. Tests on what we had learned prior to entry. Tests on Morse Code. Tests on what we’d learned as far as air force law was concerned, and the theory of flight. We needed to know quite a bit about that prior to going in. And they assessed us on the results of what we had learned prior to entry.
AP: The, you said before you were doing some, some study while you were on the Reserve. Where and how was that delivered?
DL: Well, we, we were mainly did our pre-courses. We had lecture courses on theory of flight and air force law. They were, they were given to us at a local school. But Morse Code and other things like that we learned at the local General Post Office. GPO. And we needed to reach a certain qualification particularly in Morse Code, again before being accepted. I can’t remember now how many words a minute we had to do but obviously those of us that were called up had passed the requirement.
AP: Do — alright, so this is in Adelaide. Sorry I didn’t clarify that.
DL: In Adelaide. Yes.
AP: You’ve lived in Adelaide all your life.
DL: Everything was in Adelaide. Yeah.
AP: Yeah. Alright.
DL: I had never been outside Adelaide until I joined the air force.
AP: Excellent. So your Initial Training School. Where was that?
DL: That was down at Victor Harbour.
AP: What happened there?
DL: Well, that was mainly furthering education on air force law and theory of flight and a lot of drill, marching and all that sort of thing. Discipline. We learned discipline and had to do what an officer said. So it was very strict. And it was at the ITS, as a result, I guess of how we came through each subject and an assessment by a higher ranking officer. They chose whether we would be pilots, navigators, wireless operators or whatever was needed in the crew and fortunately I was selected as a pilot. And that course at Victor Harbour was about three months. No flying at ITS. Just strictly all ground work.
AP: What was, what was the actual camp like at Victor Harbour? What were the buildings like? Where did you sleep? All that sort of stuff.
DL: Well, the actual headquarters of 4 ITS at Victor Harbour was an old mansion. But as far as we were concerned as air force recruits we just slept in tents. Six to a tent. And that was it. And —
AP: They had classrooms and things like that as well.
DL: Oh yes. Yes. They built classrooms and as I said the actual headquarters of 4 ITS was called Mount Breckan which was an old English mansion built out here. And that contained many rooms. The air force had acquired that building and it had many rooms which we used for lectures and all the other requirements.
AP: Was that, that — I drove out of Victor Harbour a couple of years ago on the way back from Kangaroo Island. Is that the big house on the hill as you go, sort of out?
DL: Yes.
AP: Oh cool. Now I know.
DL: The big house on the hill. Yeah.
AP: Yeah. Now I know where it is.
DL: It was actually a house built for some Englishman. I can’t remember now but all it was built as a replica of his home, or her home in England and was built almost entirely of imported material.
AP: Wow. Fantastic.
DL: A grand old building it was.
AP: Yeah. And I imagine the air force probably didn’t leave it in quite the condition they found it in.
DL: No. No. That’s right. No. It’s still there today.
AP: It certainly is. Yeah. I remember seeing it. Yeah. Ok so from ITS your next step would have been an Elementary Flying Training School.
DL: Yes, selected as a pilot. Well, first we were asked at ITS whether we wanted, what we wanted to be — pilots, navigators or whatever. We were given three choices and most of us put down number 1 — pilot. Number 2 — pilot. Number 3 — pilot because everyone that went in or most of all, almost all were, ninety nine percent probably of called up wanted to be pilots. But at the end of the course at Victor we were, looked at notice board to see what the next posting would be and fortunately for me it was to be a pilot and posted to Parafield in South Australia flying Tiger Moths at EFTS. Yeah.
AP: So you’re, you’re still in Adelaide.
DL: Yeah. I’m still in Adelaide. Yes. Still in Adelaide.
AP: Excellent. All right. Tiger Moths. They’re the ubiquitous training aircraft.
DL: Magnificent little aircraft. Yes. Because we didn’t know about any the other. That was, that was it as far as we were concerned. I’d never flown before. Never thought of flying. I’d never been up in an aircraft. But we had to. Our flying started within a certain number of hours and again like ITS we were assessed by superior officers as our flying capability and given an assessment at the end of the, at the end of the course.
AP: What was your instructor like? Who was your instructor? What was he like?
DL: Well, the instructors were just chaps that had finished their flying training and I think the chap I had, I can’t remember his name but he had recently finished his flying training at, at Parafield. And he was posted from Parafield to Parafield as an instructor. Some of them happened like that. But I wasn’t interested in instructing. So, and at Parafield there we were given three alternatives of what type of pilot we wanted to be. Fighter pilot, bomber pilot or whatever, or instructing. And again I put down, as many others did, fighter, fighter, fighter. And it looked that way that we would be fighters because from Parafield we were posted, some of us were posted to SFTS at Point Cook and flying Wirraways. The course at Point Cook was a four month course divided into two. Two lots of two monthly courses. Two months of what they called Initial Training Centre School and another two months of Advanced Training School. ITS and ATS, flying Wirraways at Point Cook. After the end of the first two months we were given leave and many of us, the South Australians we came back to Adelaide for leave. And when we got back to Point Cook we found that all the Wirraways had gone and they had been replaced by Airspeed Oxfords. That didn’t concern us terribly because ok it looked like single engine pilots were out but we could now be twin engine pilots. And we had to complete that first two monthly period again, over again. And still complete the four months within the prescribed time. So it was a bit of a rush. And it was at ITS — at SFTS the second two months when we received our wings and became sergeant pilots or some of them were officers but most of us came out as sergeant pilots waiting for another posting.
AP: So backing up a little bit more can you tell me something about the Tiger Moth in particular? What did it look like? Where did you sit? How did it fly?
DL: Oh the Tiger Moth is a twin-engined little biplane with a Gypsy engine. Not much bigger than a lawn mower engine but they had two seats back to back. The instructor sat in the front and the, we were sat in the back. And we spoke to each other through a funnel. Telling us, he was telling us what to do and giving, giving us instructions. We had to fly solo within twelve hours I think it was, or ten hours. And then most of us, there were some scrubbings but most of us were able to get through in the required time. I’m not sure what I, how many hours I took. Around about eight or nine I think. There were quite a few scrubbings strangely enough. Scrubbings, I mean chaps that failed the test and they had to be re-mustered as navigators or other crew members.
AP: Alright. First solo. Can you tell me about your first solo?
DL: Well the first solo was quite exciting. We’d go up, up with an instructor and land at a certain time and when he thought that we were, had done enough to go solo he just got out of the cockpit and said, ‘Here we are. Off you go.’ And that was it and we had to just go around on our own. A very exciting time getting the, getting, flying solo was the ant’s pants or mostly. When we would fly solo, amazing.
AP: Did, did you encounter throughout your training any accidents, or —?
DL: No. Not really.
AP: Did you see any?
DL: You’re talking about total training?
AP: All the way through.
DL: Hmmn?
AP: Yeah. All the way through.
DL: Yeah. Well, after we’d finished training at Point Cook many of, many of us were posted to England. To the UK. We were seconded by the RAF actually to replace aircrew. Aircrew were very short in England at the time. This is now in late or early 1942 perhaps. And we were posted from Point Cook to England. We went by ship to England via New Zealand. And when we got to England we were awaiting postings again. And a lot of us had all trained together and became close friends. And when we started off at a place called Advanced Flying Unit and that was still flying Oxfords. Still thinking we were going to be, or I thought we were going to be fighter pilots. After we’d done a course at AFU at Grantham in England I was posted as a lone figure to a bomber Operational Training Unit where all of the others went to further their single engine or twin engine fighting. Many of them finished up on Beaufighters or Mosquitoes. Now, why in the heck I was sort of singled out I’ve got no idea but I finished up at an OTU at a place called Honeybourne in England flying Whitleys. Now, the Whitley was Armstrong Arthur Whitley was one of the main bomber forces of England at, in the early part of the war, and Whitleys and Wellingtons were used for training purposes. And at the OTU at [pause] where did I say it was? Honeybourne. A place called Honeybourne. On my first solo flight at night in a Whitley an engine caught fire on take-off and I had to get up and go around and bring the thing back again. And I had to land wheels up. A belly landing. So that was during training. Yeah. And that was bad enough but quite an experience.
AP: I can imagine. Alright, so can you tell me how you got to the UK in a little bit more detail?
DL: Well when we arrived — on the way from New Zealand, Auckland to the UK we were in a South African luxury liner which had been turned into a troop ship. A vessel called the Cape Town Castle. The Castle Line ship was a South African ship. Now, this was, this was re-modified to take about two thousand troops but there were only about a hundred and fifty on it at the time. And we took off from New Zealand to England through the Panama Canal. And, but on the way across the Indian Ocean we came across some life boats with a crew from a vessel that had, a vessel that had been sunk by a U-boat, presumably. But then we, we carried on. Went to England via the Panama Canal and eventually arrived in Liverpool Harbour. Now the, Liverpool Harbour had been bombed by the Germans the night before and we had to stay about, oh three miles out. We couldn’t get near the harbour at the time so this large vessel anchored about three miles out and we were taken in to the city of Liverpool in row boats. Taken from, from the Cape Town Castle. So Liverpool was on fire. But then, there we boarded a train and went down to Bournemouth in the south of England.
AP: So this is the first time, as you were saying before, the first time you were outside of Adelaide.
DL: Yeah.
AP: The first time going overseas.
DL: Yeah.
AP: What did you think of wartime England?
DL: Well, at, initial, the initial because we didn’t know much about England of course. My father was very pro-English although he had never been there. But I remember, remember through my growing up days he always had, on the dining table, a huge map of the City of London and he would have been able to drive a taxi in London without any trouble at all. And this really got me interested in England. But the train journey down from Liverpool to Bournemouth was at night so we didn’t really see much at all. And the first we saw of it was when the next posting came which was only after a couple of days, for me only a couple of days at Bournemouth. From there I was posted to heavy, Heavy Conversion Unit. HCU in Yorkshire. So, I can’t remember now how I actually got from Bournemouth to Yorkshire but I remember being very thrilled at looking at the vast expanse of England. Even though it’s a very small area it seemed to have plenty of space. And I had heard that there was something like seven hundred aerodromes there so where the heck they put them all I really don’t know. But that was, by then I knew of course I was definitely on bombers. Getting to the Heavy Conversion Unit which were flying Halifaxes. So I I transferred from Whitleys to Halifaxes at the Heavy Conversion Unit. And it was at the Heavy Conversion Unit where we picked up our crews. For example, when, when pilots had, some pilots had finished their training they were sent to Heavy Conversion Unit. Same with the navigators and wireless operators and gunners etcetera. So we picked up the crew at, at Heavy Conversion Unit. Strangely enough on my first solo flight in a Halifax at night an engine also caught fire. But by then the training had been good enough to know exactly what to do without any, any problems. So we landed wheels down and only on three engines. So it was a good experience at the time. It was usual too for a pilot to be sent to an operational training squadron, yes an operational squadron, an operational flying squadron to become experienced in perhaps flying on operational flying. And the pilot would do two trips at least with an experienced crew at that squadron. And it so happened that, and I was sent to 158 Squadron to do my first second dickies we called them, with, with an experienced crew in 158 Squadron. And having done that back to the Heavy Conversion Unit to pick up the other six crew who I had obtained at Heavy Conversion Unit, and strangely enough when the posting came through we were posted to 158 Squadron, in Yorkshire.
AP: How —
DL: In East Yorkshire.
AP: How did, how did you actually meet your crew? How did you choose your crew?
DL: Well, it’s a funny thing. Strangely enough, as I said we crewed up at HCU and all navigators and other crew members came. Now, I was looking for a navigator so as soon as I saw one I said, ‘Are you looking for a pilot?’ Or he would say, ‘Are you looking for a navigator?’ And I’d say, ‘Yes,’ and the same with, we’d just see someone come into the mess or come into the — some, some pilots used to go out to the entrance gates of the aerodrome and as new crew came in pilots and the navigator or someone would just say, ‘How about flying with me?’ That’s how, it was as uncomplicated as that. We had no idea how good they were or how bad they were but that’s how we picked them up. Just by being in the mess with a load of, a load of other crew members.
AP: If you perhaps picked the wrong person. You discovered later that you weren’t suited was there any way out?
DL: Oh yes. Yes, that happened quite often. As a matter of fact a friend of mine from Adelaide he was on, finished up on the same squadron. He had got a very bad navigator. And so he just wanted him replaced so he would just, if there were any spare navigators on, around on the aerodrome he would, on the airfield he would just say, you know, or tell the CO that he wasn’t happy with his navigator and he wanted him replaced and that’s, he’d get him replaced. Sometimes, in his case the squadron navigation officer went on one trip with them and found out that the navigator was just not plotting his courses properly. Yes there was an out. Yes.
AP: What, ok, so, if you crewed up at the Heavy Conversion who were you flying with at the OTU?
DL: Well, nobody. Just, didn’t have any crew. Just an instructor. And I think on the night that I had the fire in the engine and crash landed I think there was a rear gunner. That’s all.
AP: Ok. It’s a little bit different to some other stories I’ve heard. So you did what a lot of what people did in the Operational Training Unit at the HCU instead. So it’s a little, a little bit different.
DL: What have others said about the crewing up?
AP: It tended to happen at the OTU. And so that’s where they started flying as a crew and then the Heavy Conversion Unit was just to add the extra two engines essentially.
DL: Oh well. It depends I suppose. I hadn’t heard that. I thought, I thought they all crewed up at HCU.
AP: Yeah. Well there you go.
DL: I’d never known, you saying that. Well OTUs, that’s strange because a, a Whitley or a Wellington didn’t have seven in the crew.
AP: Yeah. What, what tended to happen was they got the flight engineer when they got to Heavy Conversion Unit.
DL: Oh. I see. Yeah.
AP: So they were added on. But the, the six of them started out in those aircraft. But anyway that’s, that’s a —
DL: I hadn’t heard that.
AP: That’s different to your story but this is your story we’re telling.
DL: But is that how they got them at OTU?
AP: Yeah.
DL: The same way.
AP: Yeah the same sort of —
DL: Saying as hey you are you looking for a pilot?
AP: Or they’d put them all in a hangar.
DL: Yeah.
AP: Equal numbers of everyone.
DL: Yeah.
AP: And they say, ‘Sort yourselves out boys.’
DL: Yeah. Yeah.
AP: Yeah. I think it’s one of the fascinating parts of Bomber Command stories that so often worked.
DL: Yeah. And the seven became a very very close knit crew. Each relying on the other. I mean it was, if you had a dud, you know, no good having someone who couldn’t do their job properly.
AP: Did you, jumping forward a bit, did you tend to socialise with that crew?
DL: Yes. Yes. Yeah.
AP: You all lived together and —
DL: Yeah.
AP: Went to the pub and all that sort of stuff.
DL: You became almost all day and every day together doing everything together and became very close. You had to rely entirely on other members of the crew, particularly if something went wrong or something happened. There was only one pilot and if anything went wrong with the pilot they had to know what to do. No one could fly it if the pilot got hurt. It was almost baling out the rest of the crew, which did happen a lot.
AP: So I guess going on from the doing everything with your crew what sort of things did you get up to when you were on leave, throughout the time in England?
DL: Well, mostly on leave other members of the crew, if they were English and mine all were on Halifaxes, I had two different crews, I’ll come to that soon, they, they would go home for a leave. So mostly then I, I would go down to London and go to Australia House and meet other, meet some of my friends and who I’d trained with or, but the Englishmen would — would go to their home. I was asked to their home on, some of them, on occasions, where I went. When I went and met members of the family.
AP: Alright. So you flew both Lancaster and Halifax. What was your first impression of a Halifax when you first saw it?
DL: Well, I liked the Halifax. We might come to that later about the difference between a Halifax and a Lancaster.
AP: Definitely one of my questions.
DL: I didn’t know how a four engine bomber should, should operate or how it should travel. The Halifax was a very nice plane to fly and it did everything it wanted to do. In fact it did it too quickly at times. But my first impression was, was very good. They had Merlin inline engines, very capable and reliable engines. They didn’t have any real fault except that they were very vicious in any control needed by the pilot. It was like, I always say it’s like the difference between a car without power steering. The Halifax was very direct in its operational command of the pilot. It was very swift in its control, which, as far as the wartime flying was concerned meant a lot. The Lancaster was, was a beautiful plane. Very, very, very easy to fly. Very nice to fly. Very comfortable to fly but it was much slower to react to the pilots control in wartime. The Halifax would get me out of trouble more quickly then would a Lancaster. I’ve had arguments about this with Lancaster blokes forever, since the war. Most of them they, they, at OTU these fellas that you’ve already spoken to did they do their OTU on Lancasters?
AP: No. Typically they were, they were Wellingtons.
DL: Oh yeah.
AP: Or perhaps Whitleys.
DL: Yeah.
AP: And in the Heavy Conversion Unit was where they flew.
DL: Yeah.
AP: In some cases they went to Stirlings first.
DL: Yeah. Right.
AP: And then there was another thing called a Lancaster Finishing School.
DL: Yeah. That’s right, Lancaster Finishing School.
AP: That’s where they converted into the Lancaster themselves. That was later in the war though.
DL: Yeah. That’s right. That was later in the war.
AP: Yeah.
DL: But in most of the Heavy Conversion Units they were, were Halifaxes that had been passed their use by date. And they, they were cranky old things and they, they didn’t impress some of the pilots. But they would go from a beat up old Halifax and go on to a Lancaster Finishing School, a brand new Halifax, a brand new Lancaster and they would, you know, compare the difference. Well that’s not fair. In my opinion it’s not fair and, but the Halifaxes, oh boy, that really got you out of trouble in a hurry and also the pilot’s escape hatch on a Halifax was in a better position than that on a Lancaster. You could get out. The pilot could get out of a Halifax more quickly, not by much mind you, seconds quicker than a Lancaster. So those seconds meant a hell of a lot.
AP: So you talk about the escape hatch in a Halifax. Where actually was it?
DL: Hmmn?
AP: Where was this, this escape hatch in a Halifax? I know the pilot’s one they could get out straight up or they had to go down the nose. Where was the Halifax escape hatch?
DL: That was straight up.
AP: Straight up as well.
DL: But I can’t quite remember why it was better placed but I don’t think the Lancaster one was straight up was it? It was slightly to the front or back.
AP: I can’t remember. I don’t know.
DL: The Halifax one was straight up.
AP: Alright. I guess we’re getting towards the squadron now. Your first squadron was 158.
DL: Yeah.
AP: Where were they?
DL: They were at a place called Lissett in East Yorkshire. The East Riding of Yorkshire, right over near the coast. You’ve heard of Whitby I suppose. Not far from Whitby and it was, it was near the east coast of Yorkshire. What they called the East Riding of Yorkshire. It was war built airfield. So everything was strung out all over the place. All of the buildings and the sleeping quarters were miles apart, or seemed miles apart. Whereas in a permanent, permanent air force airfield was quite luxury compared with the wartime airfield. But they had everything there. I quite enjoyed it at Lissett and had no problems with, with anything. There were, there were three Aussies, three Aussies there, one other chap from Adelaide and a chap from West Australia and myself. We were the only three Aussies on the squadron and we got away with murder. We used to go and have a bath in the officer’s mess. Between, between where the sergeant’s, sergeant’s sleeping quarters and the ablution block, we had to pass by the officer’s ablutions. So on one occasion, it was about half a mile between each of the, of these areas. On one occasion the bloke from Western Australia was walking past the officer’s ablutions. He was a sergeant walking past the officer’s ablutions. He couldn’t hear anybody in there or see anybody and no lights on. So he hopped in there and had his shower, no shower, they didn’t have any showers, hopped in, had a bath in the officer’s quarters. He told the other two of us about it and we started doing it as well. The sergeant’s bath only had, they had a rim painted around the bath, six inches of water. Well, the officer’s had twelve inches. So, but we got caught out but being Aussies we got away with murder almost. And the CO found out but he didn’t take any notice. He just said, ‘Keep it going.’ So, that was a funny one.
AP: What, what sort of thing happened in the sergeant’s mess?
DL: The sergeant’s mess, well it was like a community hall I suppose. It had eating quarters. Tables and chairs. It had a billiard table perhaps. And lounge chairs. English papers, and just a general place to go and relax if you weren’t flying. It was used quite a bit when we weren’t flying.
AP: What, what other things did you get up to when you weren’t flying?
DL: Well, mainly, if we didn’t go to the mess we would go down to a local pub. English village local pub and spend the afternoon or evening there. I got a story later if you like about that. What we did when we were on Pathfinders. The crew instead of going down to the pub. We did other things first but it was generally just a recreation, time off, relaxing in the sergeant’s mess.
AP: So, ok you were on operations at this stage.
DL: Yeah.
AP: You’ve already flown two as second dickie.
DL: Yeah.
AP: And then went back to HCU and then came with your crew.
DL: That’s right.
AP: Do any of your operations from Lissett stand out in particular in your memory?
DL: Well, yes they do. But I can’t really tell which was which strangely enough. We weren’t allowed to put in our logbook strange things that might have, may have happened. We had a intelligence officer, a squadron leader intelligence officer who was besotted with the fact that the Germans were going to land in England. He had dates and everything else. And he would not let us put in the logbook anything that happened that might give the Germans an idea that their defences were good. So, unfortunately in the first few, while he was there, the first few ops even if we got hit up to glory all we were allowed to put was, “No flak. No fighters. Good trip.” But the logbook, the logbook, I’ve got my logbook here. The logbook doesn’t really tell us what happened. Tells us, tells me what crew I had and how many hours it took. That’s about all. So you know, I got hit in the tailplane for example one night. Now, I can’t tell you what night it was. The night of Nuremberg. You’ve probably heard about that. I was on that. That was my thirty first trip actually. We had a bad run but I can’t really tell you what happened unfortunately which is disappointing. I was very disappointed with the log book.
AP: That’s wartime for you I suppose.
DL: So I’m asked questions like that I’m inclined to say what happened on nights with Bomber Command. Example, things that happened, not only to me but could have happened to anybody else. Most of them did happen to me but as I said I can’t tell of one particular raid.
AP: Well look if we don’t know particular dates that’s fine. We’re more interested in, in those, those, those particular things that happened.
DL: I know the date when I went to Nuremberg. I know the date that, I know things that happened but —
AP: That’s alright. Let’s hear some of the things that happened. It doesn’t matter if we can’t tell when it happened.
DL: At Lissett we had nights of absolute horror, nights of near death situations. Near nights where had parachutes on ready to jump. Twice on occasion I had parachutes on ready to jump. Being chased by a night fighter, a night fighter plane. Being shot at from the front, from the back, from underneath. Dodging searchlights, avoiding collision, landing short of fuel. All things like that. Could have happened to anybody any night. I did sixty eight trips and had my share of trouble but, you know some fellas got shot down on their very first raid. It’s very hard to tell. And I’ve been, you know, shot up one night when the rudders got jammed and things like that. But that could happen to anybody. So I prefer not to sort of talk about individual things that happened to me.
AP: That’s ok.
DL: All those things I mentioned did happen but I can’t tell you when and what night and where.
AP: That’s alright. The when, what night and where is less important I think then the feeling of it. What —
DL: Well, you know, you land short of fuel or you land on three engines many times and it’s, you come back and you think you’ve had a hard time and you look at another aircraft on the same, you know, on the airfield that’s come back all really shot up.
AP: So you mentioned there were two occasions where you had parachutes on ready to jump.
DL: Yeah.
AP: Why? Why was that? What sort of things happened there?
DL: On one trip we got hit in the tailplane, and the, just prior to that the rear gunner had spotted an enemy fighter and he, he told me as pilot to corkscrew. You know what a corkscrew is? And while we were doing a turn, a steep turn we got hit in the rudder or got hit in the tailplane. Didn’t know where but the rudder became jammed, and we were in this turn and the rudder jammed. We couldn’t get out of it. And so the engineer and the bomb aimer came in to help me by putting pressure on my feet to try and stabilise the aircraft. But we, we were circling. We had, we had to go. You know, we could have caused collision or whatever and we couldn’t. And so I told the crew to prepare for, to abandon aircraft. We had practiced the drill many times as a crew and, but the engineer and the bomb aimer were helping me with the feet on the rudder, trying to stabilise it. And we could, my feet kept slipping off the rudder pedals so the bomb aimer took off — he had two pairs of socks on [laughs] he took off one of his socks and tied my foot to the pedal. Anyhow, after a lot of trying, we eventually, something must have been stuck in the rudder cables must have come loose because it did free itself and we were able to get out of it.
AP: So, now as the pilot were you wearing your parachute the whole time?
DL: No.
AP: No.
DL: No.
AP: So you had to go and grab it from somewhere else.
DL: I’m sorry. Yes.
AP: Yeah. You were.
DL: I had used the parachute as a, as a seat of course. You know the parachute was a seat, yes. I always preferred the parachute with a seat. Everybody else had the clip on type.
AP: Yes.
DL: And I’ll show you something. A friend of mine did a pencil drawing of me years ago, many years ago which I’ve got down in a room at the back.
AP: Cool.
DL: And I’ve got the harness on for a clip on ‘chute. I’d a funny thing to tell you about parachutes. I don’t present myself, or I don’t think I’m a superstitious type of a bloke but I — usually with a parachute we, if we were on ops, say tonight. Or during the day we would go to the parachute section and collect a parachute. Parachutes were packed every time, even though they weren’t used. We took back a parachute to the parachute section. It would be repacked before it went out again. But I never handed mine in. I went to the parachute section one day and they were all girls that did this — packed the parachutes, and asked if she would pack my parachute. And she was a young girl. Probably eighteen. And I had my parachute. I kept it with me all the time and got this one girl to repack my parachute three times a week. So, but I never handed it in. I would have got into trouble but we just kept it. Just she and I kept it. And what was the question?
AP: We were talking about just parachutes in general.
DL: Yeah.
AP: We were talking about the time that, so —
DL: Yeah.
AP: You told the rest of the crew, ‘Clip them on. We might need them.’ Yeah
DL: Yeah. I can’t really remember the other time. It might have been the Nuremberg raid. We got badly hit on Nuremberg raid.
AP: By flak or a fighter?
DL: Oh, we shot down a fighter. We actually got the fighter, yes. We got hit by a fighter. In my logbook I’ve got just, I’ve written the word, “Wheels.” Why? — I really don’t know. I can’t remember what the word “wheel.” It was something meant to happen. I think the wheels didn’t come down. They didn’t, no, that’s right. The wheels didn’t lock down. Well they didn’t show that they were locked down. The green light didn’t come on. And we were flying around so long trying to get the wheels down that we were nearly out of fuel. And so we, the air con, air controller, air controller told us to go and crash land. They had special crash landing ‘dromes, airfields, but I didn’t have enough petrol left to go so we just had to chance that the wheels had locked down. They felt as though they were locked down but didn’t show. I think that’s the story. We had a bad night. Everyone had a bad night on the Nuremberg raid. But it was, we did, it’s very hard for an RAF bomber to have a [pause] shot down fighter confirmed. Have you heard the story? For example if we saw a fighter, if we saw a bomber go down, through a fighter, shot down, a fighter. We would have to take the time, the height, the latitude and longitude and all details like that. And we would have to do it and so would other, about another dozen other planes come in with the same, with the same news. And if they all confirmed well they would, if they were all together we would get it confirmed. The Yanks used to, you know the top one used to shoot the fighter down and then the next layer down would put the hole in him as well, but very, very hard. We did get a confirmation of getting a fighter that night.
AP: That was on Nuremberg.
DL: That was on Nuremberg. Yeah.
AP: Oh wow. Can you remember that engagement at all?
DL: Yes and no. It was, there’s been a lot of stories written about it. A lot of books about it and everyone’s got a different opinion. I think we took five hours to get there and three hours to get home. We were using tactics to try and put them off. We would head, head towards another German city and before we got there we would turn off and go somewhere else. The idea was that by the time we got to Nuremberg the fighters would be on the ground refuelling. But instead of that they were there waiting for us and there’s all sorts of stories told about why. Careless talk and all that sort of thing. But that was absolute horror. There were ninety six aircraft shot down that night. You know that story? Yeah.
AP: Can you, can you remember particularly the fighter that your gunners got? Can you remember that attack?
DL: The what?
AP: Particularly, the fighter your gunners shot down.
DL: Yeah.
AP: Can you remember that actual engagement?
DL: Yes. Yes.
AP: What happened there?
DL: Well the rear gunner just advised that he had a Messerschmitt on his tail, on our tail and to corkscrew. The same thing. Corkscrew. But while we were doing all of that the rear gunner was perfect. He was terrific. And I guess while we were, while we were doing all this throwing around he put a few bullets into it. Because it was very hard for us because they were using .5 cannons and we were using 303s. So, of course they, they could get us before we could get them. But, no I can’t, maybe except for throwing around and trying to get out of the way so that the — but the gunner just reported that he had got it.
AP: So how many —
DL: Other than that it was just routine flying. What you do if you’ve got a fighter on our tail.
AP: So, ok that is one of my questions. The gunner says, over the intercom, you know, ‘Fighter. Fighter. Corkscrew port. Go.’
DL: Yeah.
AP: What happens next?
DL: That’s right. He says, he might say, ‘Fighter, fighter.’ Or they were called, what word they used. What words did the Battle of Britain use?
AP: Bandits.
DL: Bandits, yeah, bandits. So and so, and so and so. Corkscrew. I was always known as, I was never called skipper, I was always called, I was always the youngest in the two crews I had and I was known as Junior. Which someone had painted on my helmet. And he would just say, ‘Corkscrew. Corkscrew Junior,’ and he’d just keep giving an account of where the fighter was if he could see it still. But we were, yeah, so, he got close enough to us. He missed us fortunately, the tracer bullets going in, going past.
AP: And as the pilot, how, how do you do a corkscrew? What are the movements and how do you actually make a difference?
DL: Oh you’re just flying it all around. Up and down. Up to stalling point or down, you know. Just trying to, so that you couldn’t get which there was still enough room to get, to get his eyesight, his bomb site on us. His guns on us.
AP: So —
DL: That was just, just corkscrew was the best way of getting away from a fighter.
AP: How many trips did you do from Lissett?
DL: How many?
AP: Yeah.
DL: From Lissett I did twenty seven. And the 158 Squadron had three Flights. You know all about the Flights.
AP: Yeah.
DL: A B and C. And C Flight 158 moved to Leconfield and formed 640 Squadron. So, and I was in C flight, I was actually, I was flight commander of C Flight. And we moved over to Leconfield as 640 Squadron. And I only did four trips from there, from Leconfield. The — when we go to a bomber squadron it is a known fact that we would be expected to do a tour which would comprise thirty ops. Many were taken off. What we called screened at twenty six, twenty seven, twenty eight, twenty nine. There were a shortage of crews at the time. This was in March ’43. There were a shortage of crews and although the squadron commander CO had said that we were, we were ready to be taken off the crew were getting a little bit, a little bit [pause] what would I say? They were getting a little bit cheesed off. I became flight commander and was only allowed to do one trip a month. And there’s a reason for that which we can get on to. And they were getting a bit cheesed off with waiting around, waiting to be — waiting to finish ops. Not nastily but they just felt that they were, had had enough. And so we’d done our thirty and I said, ‘Ok fellas. That’s it.’ But on the night of this Nuremberg raid Bomber Command called for maximum effort. Now, when, when they called for maximum effort it was every plane they could get on the airfield and any crew they could get. So there we were supposed to have leave and finish because we were still on the squadron as a crew they wanted maximum effort. We were, every crew was put on and so we were rostered to go that night. And so actually it was our thirty first trip, op. And after that, yeah, we did finish up. They all went. They were all posted to different areas of instructing and I was posted to the RAF College to do what was called a junior commander’s course. During the time at Lissett on 158 Squadron our CO had finished. He was in permanent air force but he had finished a tour of ops and he had been posted to 158 Squadron as CO, but, and he was, they weren’t allowed to fly. COs weren’t allowed to fly on ops although they, they had a plane at their disposal. A staff plane which was shared with a couple of other squadrons. But he had itchy feet. Now bear in mind that he was not allowed to but he had itchy feet and he decided that he would go on an op one, one night. And he didn’t have a crew of course so he took with him the navigator, a crew from 158 Squadron. The navigation officer, the gunnery officer, all the senior officers on the station and the flight commander of C Flight which was the Flight I was in was, he was a squadron leader navigator. Unusual but he was a squadron leader navigator but he went as the CO’s navigator. Well, they were shot down and didn’t return. Here we are at 158 Squadron. No CO. No leaders. No flight commander for C Flight. No one to roster the crews for ops the next day, or the next couple of days. What a mess. I’m, our crew, as far as C flight was concerned was the, had the most experience on the squadron and I was asked as a sergeant to fill in for the squadron leader flight commander because they couldn’t get one. Couldn’t find one, particularly in a hurry. So, on the next night sure enough there were ops on so I with the other two flights — A and B squadron leaders, went and rostered all the planes and the crews for the night’s op, and off they went. And we had done twenty three trips I think at the time. Or about that many and we were the most experienced crew in C Flight and on the squadron actually. There were other officers on the squadron but they had, they were just none of them had done many ops at all and didn’t have any experience with, and so it so happened for the next six weeks they couldn’t find a flight commander and so [laughs] I was asked to have the job and I was given the rank of squadron leader. Six weeks from flight sergeant to squadron leader [laughs] and took over C Flight. Well then, C Flight as I told you, C Flight then moved over to Leconfield to form 640 Squadron and I was acting CO there until they found a CO for 640 Squadron. Still, still with a rank of squadron leader. And so that was it. But our crew, after the Nuremberg raid we all split up and they were posted elsewhere and so was I —
AP: So —
DL: So there we are.
AP: As a flight commander what actual duties did you have and where did you do them?
DL: Well, the duties were split between the flight commander’s office and the ground crew out at the dispersal area where the aircraft are kept. The flight commander was really, did all the paperwork necessary for C Flight. Not, not the administration for the squadron but just for C Flight. But it meant getting the orders for the day. If there was going to be an op on for that night roster the crews and make sure they were all ready to go and had no problems with crews. I was helped a lot by the chap who was flight commander of A flight. In fact, he helped me, he helped me even to his own working. He gave me advice that, from a flight commander’s point of view. I still, a New Zealander he was, and he’s still a friend of mine. He lives up in Queensland and he’s still alive and he helped me magnificently. In the meantime also we had transferred from Halifax with radial, no with Merlin engines to Halifaxes with radial engines. Mark 3 Halifaxes. And so when we moved over to Leconfield we had Mark 3 Halifaxes which were even better than the Mark 2s. And of course the radial engines were better because they were air cooled whereas the Merlin was glycol cooled. Liquid cooled.
AP: So —
DL: And when, there’s an anecdote there. With the, with the appointment as flight commander we had, I had the use of a motorbike and shared the use of a Hillman Minx motorcar. Have you heard of a Hillman Minx?
AP: Vaguely.
DL: They were not too.
AP: No. I can’t say that I’ve ever seen one.
DL: A Hillman Minx. The air force, the RAF had a lot of these. Hillman Minx’s, little cars and they were shared with the other two and I had this use of this motorbike and the car and I couldn’t drive any of them. I was nineteen. I was. And I could fly a four engine aeroplane before I could drive a motorbike or motor car.
AP: So did you, did someone teach you how to do it?
DL: Yeah.
AP: Or how did you get around it?
DL: Yeah.
AP: Yeah. Very good, alright. So after you’d been to Leconfield your tour finishes. You said you went to a junior commander’s course?
DL: I went to a junior commander’s course at the RAF college at [pause] where was the RAF college, Grantham I think.
AP: Cranwell.
DL: Cranwell, that’s it.
AP: Yeah.
DL: Yeah, Cranwell, now a junior commander’s course. There were about fifty of us. Mainly group captains, wing commanders, and a few squadron leaders. The idea was that the college was teaching these wing commanders and group captains how to be COs at squadrons. They had, most of them had finished their tour. Most of them were permanent air force blokes. Most of them had finished their tour and were being trained to be squadron COs. And I was put there, I don’t know why but I went to this course and it was just doing that. Learning how to run a squadron. But being more familiar with air force law and being more disciplined as far as a squadron was concerned. Now after, I don’t know how that lasted, I can’t remember that but after that that during that course we had a lot of exams and all sorts of things. And at the end of the course it was, I was found that I had done well in air force law. Now, I’ve never, I wasn’t interested in it at Cranwell but for some reason or other I — what happened then?
AP: No. That’s alright, the sun went down. The sun went behind a cloud. It just got a bit darker.
DL: What was I saying? As I did air force law and I was posted to a field somewhere as part of a, and I did well in organising Courts of Enquiry. So I was posted to an airfield somewhere, non flying to take part in organising Courts of Enquiry. Collecting evidence. Me and a couple of others there were, not just myself. Collecting evidence. This was mainly for crashes that had occurred during training practice and collecting evidence and all that sort of thing. And then the lawyers would come in who were mainly [pause] well they were seconded to the RAF. They wore a uniform although they weren’t in the RAF. They were like doctors and then they’d come in. Look at all this evidence and then find the pilot or whoever — why the aircraft crashed. And most of it was quite clear to me that they were fit on trying to make that the pilot error which I didn’t agree with. And I hated it there. Absolutely hated it. I wanted to get back to flying. And so I was friendly with a girl who was the personal assistant to the air officer commanding 4 Group. You know all about the Groups of course. And after I’d done a couple of these Courts of Enquiry I applied for leave. It was granted and so I went up and, to 4 Group headquarters and looked out, up this girl. Not romantically. I was just a friend and I was, she had an office outside of the Group commander’s office and I was sitting in her office with her just having a cup of tea and the Group commander came. She had a intercom thing on her desk and he came through the intercom and asked this girl if she knew of a spare pilot in 4 Group who could go down to 35 Squadron and take over a crew. They wanted a squadron leader. A squadron leader on 35 Squadron because 4 Group supplied 35 Squadron. The pilot had been injured and the crew were, were ok. And they wanted a pilot to take over this crew until such time as the other bloke could come back. So I’m sitting there, spare pilot and I said, ‘Hey, hey how about me?’ And she said to the air officer, commanding, you know, ‘Squadron Leader Leicester’s here. He’s looking for a job.’ So the CO said, ‘Send him down to 35 Squadron.’ So down I went. And when I got down there and made myself known to the CO he said that the pilot wasn’t as badly damaged as they thought he was and after a fortnight leave he could come back and fly with his crew. So I’m down there. And I said, ‘Well what do I do?’ He said, ‘You either go back to 4 Group or you volunteer.’ You had to volunteer for Pathfinders as a single unit. So I said, ‘Oh ok.’ I said, ‘I’ll keep on flying. Thank you very much.’ So then I was posted to the Pathfinder Navigation Training Unit flying Lancasters. Now, it’s funny but at this Pathfinder navigation, quite often when crews finish their thirty trips there’s one or two of the crew that don’t want to go instructing or anything like that. You’ve heard that story have you? Understand it?
AP: Go on.
DL: Yeah. And they want to keep on flying. So, if they don’t, if they can’t find a place for them the only thing they can do is volunteer for Pathfinders. And so within a week of being at the Pathfinder Navigation Training Unit in came a navigator, DFC and Bar. He had done flying, all his operational flying on Mosquitoes and he came in, navigator. And in came a bomb aimer DFC. In came an engineer and so on. Within a week or ten days I had a crew. And so we did a bit of flight training in the Lancaster and got to know each other and finished what we had to do. Strangely enough we were posted to 35 Squadron. We could have been posted to any other Pathfinder unit but we, it was usual for 4 Group to, 35 Squadron was originally Halifaxes. So that’s how that all came about.
AP: Alright. How did, in terms of the operational flying that you did how did Pathfinder flying vary from Main Force?
DL: Well —
AP: How was it different?
DL: Generally speaking for example the Pathfinders had a number of steps in a squadron. You’d start off at the bottom and step and then as you got experience you’d be given a different job to do. Now, when we, when we first got down to the 35 I think our aggregate in, every, every one of them had done a tour of ops. I think the aggregate was over two hundred. And so here we are at 35 Squadron as what we called a sprog crew, a new crew. And the first op that we were asked to do we were called a supporter. That was the bottom rank. Now, we would go in exactly the same way. Drop bombs with main force but carefully examine the work of what the Pathfinders did and so that’s as we got more experienced we got a different job to do. We didn’t carry bombs. We carried incendiaries. But we carried flares and as flares were required by the Master Bomber well we would drop them according to what was required.
AP: So you said that there were different levels of Pathfinders.
DL: Yes.
AP: So support was one of the bottom one.
DL: Yeah. I was trying to think of some of the levels. What was second? Supporter. An illuminator. Now, an illuminator would [pause] a raid is controlled wholly by the Master Bomber. Now, the Master Bomber would go in twenty minutes ahead of, ahead of main force with other Pathfinder aircraft and as an illuminator we’d go in early and we would drop an illuminator flare which would light up the whole of the area we were going to bomb. So, if we were bombing Nuremberg the illuminator would go in. If we were bombing the railway yards at Nuremberg the illuminator would light it up so bright that the Master Bomber could see quite clearly what he was looking for. And when he found the marshalling yards he would ask for a red flare to be dropped. And there would be a Pathfinder aircraft carrying red flares. And then when the red flare was dropped the Master Bomber would assess to where it was to where it should be. For example if it dropped on the Adelaide Oval instead of the Adelaide Railway Station he would be able to tell the main force of bombers it’s not in the right position and so on. And then the Jerries would start dropping red so we as Pathfinders would have to change them to green or something like that. And then others were visual marker. You could, dropping flares visually. You could see. And blind marking. You’d drop them at night. Or drop them above clouds. There was markers on little parachutes.
AP: How would you know where you were when you were above the clouds in that sense?
DL: Where that’s where navigators came in. They were, the navigator in Pathfinders had to be spot on. My navigator got the DSO when we finished.
AP: Wow.
DL: He came with the DFC and Bar. He got the, he got the DSO. He had to be, we worked to a tenth of a second and yeah, he was pretty sure he was right. He would have visual. He would have blind markers and they would drop them in the air but of course they had they would hang on parachutes so of course they’d drift all over the place. Then they had visual centrerers. That’s another name I can think of. The top job was Master Bomber. The second was the Deputy Master Bomber. You could get to Master Bomber class for example and never do a Master Bomber raid. Because there were eight squadrons in Pathfinders and each of them had their Master Bombers I guess. And we became Master Bomber status. You were given an extra crew member. There was so much radar equipment in a Pathfinder plane that the navigator just couldn’t handle it all. So, we had an extra man that was called a set operator. And he would just work entirely with, with a navigator.
AP: And would he be next to the navigator?
DL: Next to the navigator, yeah.
AP: On the same bench.
DL: Yeah. Just working all the —
AP: A bit squeezy.
DL: With all the equipment. Yeah.
AP: Wow. And so what, what level did you — what were you?
DL: I got to Master Bomber level.
AP: You got Master Bomber.
DL: Yeah.
AP: Did you ever do any Master Bomber raids?
DL: Yeah. I did. I did quite a few.
AP: Tell me about that.
DL: Hmmn?
AP: Tell me about that. I’ve never spoken to a Master Bomber before so —
DL: [laughs] I just told you about it. Just get there first. The Master Bomber is the first to get there and the last to leave and he’s flying around all the time assessing what’s going on.
AP: How would you communicate with the rest of the crews?
DL: By just voice over.
AP: On VHF. Or on the, what would they call it?
DL: I don’t, no. It wasn’t VHF.
AP: It wasn’t.
DL: No. It was, I don’t know what they called it but they were all on the same channel.
AP: Yeah.
DL: And the Master Bomber did voice over.
DL: We would just tell them what to do.
AP: Excellent. So ok, how many, how many trips did you do with Pathfinders?
DL: Thirty eight, thirty seven.
AP: Thirty seven. Golly. Do any of those stick out in your memory?
DL: Do what?
AP: Do any of those stick out in your memory? Same sort of question we had before?
DL: The same sort. The same sort of things happened. We used to say in [laughs] on the squadron, Pathfinders squadron if anybody came back on four engines we used to rib them. We used to joke with them and say, ‘Haven’t you been there? Where did you drop your bombs?’ [laughs] One, one fella I remember he took the ribbing so [pause] so much to heart that on one occasion when he came back he called up for his turn to land and he was given his turn to land. And when he got down to number one turn to land on his downwind stretch he cut one motor [laughs]
AP: Fair enough.
DL: That was the sort of things that happened though.
AP: Actually just ripping off that for a moment. The landing procedure when you all came back from a raid. All your aircraft are arriving at more or less the same time.
DL: Oh yes.
AP: How did that work?
DL: Well, more or less the same time.
AP: Yes. How was that organised because obviously only one can land at once.
DL: Yeah. Oh well, we had to stay while we were over enemy territory we had to stay as we, you know, as the raid instruction said. We couldn’t, we couldn’t drop our bombs and just put the nose down and whizz for home. We had to stay where we were supposed to be. But as soon as we crossed the enemy coast, to cross the English Channel it was everyone for himself. But we would get back. We’d come in on a beam. The pilot’s mostly would come in on a beam and we, we’d get back to our aerodrome and call up with the call sign, whatever it is and say, and say, request, ‘Request permission to land.’ And back would come the control, ‘Your position to land is number six. Circle aerodrome at six thousand feet.’ Something like that. And then he’d gradually bring you down to five, and four and three and two. Yeah.
AP: Yeah, that’s how it sort of how it works today.
DL: That’s how it worked.
AP: The beginnings of air traffic control.
DL: The first in, best dressed, [laughs] the one with the fastest plane.
AP: Alright. Were, you told me about, in your previous or earlier on actually, that’s right. You told me something you used to do instead of going to the pub with your Pathfinder crew.
DL: Well, yes, when I got this Pathfinder crew they were all top blokes. And, but when we had a day off flying and there’s nothing on tonight most of the crews would go down to the local pub. Most of them, if not all of them. And when, the first time we were off flying someone said to us, ‘Look, we’re all going down to the pub. How about coming down?’ Were inviting us to come down. And we said yes. I said, ‘Yes, ok. We’ll be there.’ But just before we left to go down to the local pub the rear gunner came up to me and said, ‘Junior [laughs] how about we don’t go down to the pub till later?’ He said, ‘I’d like to have our crew stay behind for an hour and I’d like to talk to you about, all of you, about aircraft recognition.’ Now, the rear gunner on Pathfinders I had, he was an expert on aircraft recognition. He was a Londoner. But boy he knew every, every aircraft backwards. And I said, ‘Oh yes. Ok.’ So we told all the others that we wouldn’t be down ‘til an hour later. And he put us in a room and showed us shots. How to recognise enemy aircraft and our aircraft. Amazing. He was absolutely amazing. So we had an hour with him, seven of us. And then we hopped down to the pub. Now, on the next time it came up one of the others, perhaps the navigator said, ‘Listen, Jimmy had you back for an hour last time. How about me having an hour?’ So I said, ‘Ok.’ And so the same thing happened except the navigator, he told us all about his equipment and how it worked and everything else. And then the third time the engineer had a go. And we were already, in fact we got quite a name and people used to rib us and call us all sorts of names and laughed and joked. Until one day one of the other, we were going and we were off and one of the other crew’s pilots came over and said, ‘Listen, we know that you stay behind every time,’ to, you know we used to do parachute drill and we did all sorts of things. And the pilot said, ‘Look, do you mind if we join you?’ And I said, ‘No I don’t mind at all.’ But I said, ‘Why join us? Why don’t you do it yourself?’ And so he did it himself. And it wasn’t long before every crew in that squadron was doing exactly the same thing. They would stop behind and an hour later at the pub, incredible, incredible. But oh boy we had, the crew, the crew I had were out of this world. I’ll tell you something funny about that too. Do you know that I flew with them for I don’t know how long and I did not know their names, their surnames, and I don’t think they knew mine. I was, I was Junior and that was it. No, surnames. What names. For, yeah for example, the bomb aimer’s name was Rusty when we were at PNSU, Pathfinder Training Unit. He introduced himself as Rusty. He was a London policeman. He had the DFC. He was Rusty. Now, what the Rusty meant I’ve got no idea. And the navigator was a New Zealander. He was Pat. His name, no I’m sorry we knew their surnames. We didn’t know their Christian names. His name was, he was called Pat. He was Patrick. What his Christian name was we had no idea. The engineer was Titch. A little Canadian. Flying Officer Lloyd. Didn’t know his, didn’t know his Christian name. And there was seven of them. Never knew. Jimmy, the rear gunner, we called him Jimmy but he didn’t have a J in his [laughs] he wasn’t J something Hughes. I knew their surnames. Didn’t know their Christian name. Incredible. And they didn’t know mine.
AP: One of the other, he was a Halifax pilot that I interviewed in Melbourne recently said, I think it was his mid-upper gunner, his surname was Bill so he was always Dingle.
DL: Yeah.
AP: That was it. He never found out his Christian name.
DL: That’s right. I’m the same.
AP: Seventy years later.
DL: Incredible. That’s good you’ve heard that story before.
AP: Yeah, a similar sort of thing to you.
DL: He was on a Halifax. What squadron was he on?
AP: He was 578 and then 462.
DL: 462 was an Australian squadron.
AP: It certainly was. Yeah.
DL: Yeah.
AP: Only on 462 very very briefly.
DL: Where were they?
AP: Oh bugger I can’t remember now. Burn, at 578. I don’t know where 462 was.
DL: No. I don’t. I don’t know where 578, I’ve never heard of 578.
AP: A place called Burn they were.
DL: Yeah.
AP: Anyway. They came out of 51 squadron same way as you.
DL: 462 was 4 Group. Halifaxes.
AP: 466 was the other one.
DL: 466. 461 was too.
AP: Yeah.
DL: But they were 3 Group I think. 461 were 3 Group, I think.
AP: I can’t remember. Alright, so you mentioned something earlier as well. Just going back to some notes that I took down.
DL: That’s alright. No.
AP: Something about as flight commander you could only do one trip a month and there was a reason for that, that you were going to say.
DL: Well the reason for that was when the CO of the squadron went and took all the officers with him an instruction was ordered that flight commanders were only allowed to do one a month. That was interesting too because the other, the other two got a bit of a reputation of picking what they thought might be an easy trip. No trip was easy. But they, some were easier than others of course. I used to put up on the board, on the 1st of the month that Leicester flies on the, well on this case, Leicester flies on the 28th of August. And my crew knew that as well so they could do all of their planning. And when it came to the 28th of August there was no trips that night. No flying. 29th the same. The 30th — Nuremberg [laughs] so that’s how I got to do that. They used to wait until they saw what the others used to wait, well the story thought of. They used to wait until they found out what the target before they decided.
AP: What that might be.
DL: Yeah. Yeah. Take the nearest one, or the shortest one. Or the less defended one or whatever.
AP: What else? Yes, alright. So you have a DFC and Bar I believe.
DL: Yeah.
AP: That’s also unusual. I haven’t met someone with a DFC and Bar before.
DL: Haven’t you?
AP: No.
DL: You know what that is.
AP: It’s a second DFC.
DL: Yeah.
AP: Yeah, so —
DL: Yeah, they don’t give you two medals.
AP: No, just the one little bar.
DL: I’m sorry to ask you that. Of course you’d know. But, you know, I had an interview last Monday, Anzac day and the reporter was a girl. She just didn’t know anything. She hadn’t done her homework. She didn’t know what the questions to ask. She had no idea what a DFC was let alone a DFC and bar, you see.
AP: So why do you have two DFCs?
DL: Why? Well, I think one was given for the Nuremberg raid, and the other was towards the end of, and I can’t think what raid it is now.
AP: So they were both —
DL: They were both immediate awards.
AP: Immediate, they were, both. Wow. That’s also unusual.
DL: Yeah. Yeah.
AP: So we might have to dig the citation out. I’m’ sure it’s there somewhere. Ok, cool. So how did your second tour, well your Pathfinder tour, end?
DL: It ended, well, we had been discussing it for a while. And we thought we had, had done enough. But I applied for a job. The then CO for Qantas was in England and this is early ’45. The war is coming down a bit. And he was recruiting pilots to restart the Australia — England route for Qantas using aircraft called Lancastrians. And I applied for that and was one of eight. They wanted eight pilots. And I applied for that and was actually picked to be one of the eight pilots. But when I got back to Australia I was still in the air force of course. I had to be discharged and I was discharged being deaf in one ear or not, not requiring the, not reaching the required deafness. And the Civil Aviation at that time, Department of Civil Aviation — Federal. Would not accept anybody or Qantas would not accept anybody who had any defect and so I was put out. I had stayed in the air force and I went to all sorts of troubles. But that’s what happened. I just missed out on flying for Qantas. The, it’s always been a bit of a sore point with me. When I joined up in 1941 with the air force medicals we had to go through an ear, nose and throat specialist. Now, when I came out for the discharge five years later, four years later, we had to go through the same medical procedure. Who’s there? The same, the same doctor. And the first words he said to me was, because I came back with quite a bit of publicity actually because of decoration and being a squadron leader at nineteen and all that sort of thing, and the first thing he said to me, ‘Oh you whippersnappers come back and you think you own the world.’ And he just, he gave me a bad report on my ears. And although I, it didn’t show in any other way and my own GP I went to who I saw during the war, before the war, he gave me a test — no. Nothing was wrong. But I went through all sorts of tests and the Department of Aviation said no. Qantas said no, so that was it. But I’m not, I don’t regret that because the fellows that did stay in, none of them liked it. You know, you had to fly straight and level. You couldn’t, you couldn’t spill a cup of tea [laughs] they just sat there and the aircraft did it all for them. So that’s the story.
AP: That’s not so, not so exciting for a bomber pilot, with sixty eight flights under his belt I’m sure.
DL: No. No.
AP: Alright, so your tour in Pathfinders. When did you actually finish flying with Pathfinders? When was your last trip?
DL: February. January ’45.
AP: So, you pretty well, at that point having done well more than the minimum you could pretty well pull the plug yourself.
DL: Yeah. Yeah.
AP: Yeah. Ok. And then go in. Ok, so coming home. How did, how did you get home?
DL: Flew home.
AP: Flew home.
DL: I flew home and as [pause] well we were temporarily, the eight of us were temporarily discharged from the air force and we flew two planes home. A Liberator and a York to Australia. We landed in Perth and then we were back in the air force. And we couldn’t go to be Qantas staff until we had been officially discharged from the air force. So that’s what happened. We actually flew home.
AP: And so you, you flew the aeroplane yourself.
DL: Yeah.
AP: Wow.
DL: Well eight of us did.
AP: Yeah. Nice. So you said something about publicity on your return. I’m just sort of curious as to what that was like for a twenty something year old.
DL: Well just that you know south SA boy makes good. And, you know, that sort of thing. And I still get a bit of that actually. You know on the march on Anzac Day the chap doing the commentating had obviously done his homework and he said, you know, he mentioned my name and said all about, you know, sixty eight trips and all that. My actual log book shows as sixty seven. But there was one trip where we had crossed the coast, enemy coast. And the raid — we were all recalled. It was aborted, officially aborted. And at the time we weren’t allowed to count it as an op. But later on —
AP: It did count.
DL: We could count it. Yeah.
AP: Right. How did you find readjusting to civilian life?
DL: Very, very hard. It was very difficult because, you know, we left home as we were eighteen and we came back we were twenty two, twenty three. All of the jobs had gone that we would have been perhaps been promoted to. Someone else had got those. And it was very hard to get anything. In the six months from the time that I left school at the end of 1940 until I was called up for the air force, or eight months I worked as an office boy for a company. A manufacturer’s agent in the rag trade. And when I came back of course that office boy job was no good. I wasn’t a boy anymore anyway. But he knew someone in one of the retail stores and I got a job as an Adelaide representative of a Sydney company in the rag trade. But unfortunately the chap in Sydney, the owner of the company in Sydney died at the age of forty two and it all fell through. So I then got in to the food trade. I worked for Cadbury’s for four years [laughs] and then worked for other food companies right until I retired in 1988.
AP: I guess the final question, possibly the most important one. How do you think, or what do you think is the legacy of Bomber Command and how do you want to see it remembered?
DL: Well, it’s a hard question but whenever I hear the words Bomber Command mentioned I think of the hundred and twenty five thousand boys that joined. A hundred and twenty five thousand. Plus of a hundred and twenty five thousand. Of which fifty five thousand would die. Forty four percent, you know. It’s a big — and in Pathfinders it was fifty percent. I think of them often. Particularly on Anzac Day and Day of Remembrance and any time I see a Bomber Command bloke has died whose name’s in the paper. It’s hard. I’m a very emotional type and I cry very easily and it really — Anzac Day gets to me. But I consider I was proud to be part of Bomber Command. I don’t know how else to put it. They played their part. They’ve been criticised badly in some areas for what they did and how they did it. I have no apology for that. I did what I was told. I did what I was trained to do. What else could I say? I call them a hundred twenty five thousand heroes. A hero to me, Adam is not the bloke that kicks the goal after the siren that wins the game. The hero is the bloke that stands on the front line and gets shot at. Does that sound alright?
AP: That’s a very emphatic way to —
DL: I’d like to talk about defences.
AP: Go for it.
DL: People often ask me what I considered to be the worst. I always say searchlights. You can dodge fighters, you can dodge flak with a bit of luck. You can be hit by a fighter. You can be hit by flak and get away with it at times, you know. A lot of people didn’t. It depends where it was hit. But searchlights were impossible. They were so bright that a pilot could not see a thing. Could not see a thing. And I can say, and once a plane gets caught in searchlights, one searchlight, well the other hundred and fifty all, yeah and you form a cone like that. The fighters can see you. The gunners can see you on the ground. None of the crew can see you. It’s absolute curtains. So, for that reason I say searchlights were the dangerous things as far as I concerned. And unless you were trained and told really how to avoid them it was curtains. Once you got caught you couldn’t get out of it. But you could fly through them and that’s what I used to do. I mean, I’m doing a hundred and sixty mile an hour. The fella on the ground training the searchlights can’t move that quickly here. So you’ve gone before he can get you. The thing I feared most was an engine failure on takeoff fully loaded. I had that on one occasion. I lost power on one engine. It’s frightening. You know, you think you’re going to not take off and you land with your bombs on, you know. How does that cover it do you think?
AP: That’s pretty good. Any final words before I —
DL: No. I thank you, and I thank you for what you are doing and the work that your committee and everyone else is doing. I think it’s marvellous. I’m glad that Michael did get in it because he you know he went to England for the, me with the Queen there.
AP: Yeah. He’s quite proud to show that photo.
DL: Yeah. I’m quite, very pleased with what you’re doing.
AP: Good. That’s absolutely the least we can do.
DL: You’re on the last Sunday in May are you?
AP: First one in June.
DL: First Sunday in June. Originally it started off to be the first Sunday in June. Why has it changed?
AP: It’s a contentious thing at the moment.
DL: Yeah.
AP: The first Sunday in June is the official day.
DL: Yeah.
AP: That’s in Canberra.
DL: Yeah.
AP: Canberra’s sort of the sort of main one.
[telephone rings)
DL: Can you excuse me a minute?
AP: Yeah. Go for it.
[ recording paused for chat]
AP: That’s alright. What were we talking about? Oh yeah. That’s right, the day that changed. So it was in, in Canberra and it still is the first Sunday in June except if it’s the long weekend when it’s the one before I think. So the concept was the Bomber Command Commemorative Day. You know, supposed to be the same day around the country and around the world.
DL: Yeah.
AP: I don’t know why it changed in Adelaide. Different Groups organised all the different ceremonies.
DL: Yeah.
AP: So it’s RAFA here and in Western Australia. It’s the Queensland University Squadron in Brisbane. I don’t know who does the Sydney one because most of them are in Canberra. And with our Group which is different. Separate to RAFA that does the Melbourne one. I’m of the opinion and our group in Melbourne is of the opinion that we should have them on different days. I think the Canberra one is the big one. That’s what everyone sort of wants to go to and I think all the individual States should be on a different day because that gives you a chance to, I can go to the Melbourne one and then go to Canberra. So it’s a bit like Anzac Day. I don’t know what it’s like in Adelaide but certainly in Melbourne and Sydney Anzac Day, the day itself that’s the day of the big march in the city.
DL: Yes.
AP: The Sunday before is typically when all the little suburban RSL’s hold their services. So that allows the veterans to go to their local one and then also go to the big one in the city. I see it as a similar sort of concept for the Bomber Command Day. However, in Melbourne there’s a long standing booking at the Shrine on the day that we want. So we’re going to have to, we’re still working on that. We’re going to have to negotiate to get the day that we want. But that’s what it is so I don’t know why it changed here. I’m in contact with Dave Hillman who organises it for RAFA South Australia.
DL: It won’t change here you say.
AP: I don’t think. I don’t know. I don’t know why it changed and I don’t know.
DL: I would have thought David would because originally it was the first day in June.
AP: Yeah. Yeah. I know last year the one in Canberra had to change.
DL: Yeah.
AP: Because of the clash of bookings.
DL: Yeah.
AP: So it actually changed after it had been advertised if you like but yeah I don’t really know. It was useful for me because I could go to both of them.
DL: Yeah.
AP: But this year I’m going to Canberra for the Saturday night. Flying back to Melbourne Sunday morning and then going to the ceremony in Melbourne. Anyway, yet more travelling. Now I’ll stop the recording because we are still going here but I’ll cut this bit out.



Adam Purcell, “Interview with David Leicester,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 19, 2024,

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