Interview with Peter Watson


Interview with Peter Watson


Peter Watson was born in South Wales and joined the Royal Air Force in 1943. He wanted to be a pilot but there was a surplus of pilots so he became an air gunner. He crewed-up and flew with 101 Squadron initially, a special duties squadron, and he explains they took an extra crew member who had radio equipment, Airborne Cigar, to interfere with German systems. He describes the first two flights being memorable; on the first night his aircraft was shot by a Focke-Wulf. On the second night, during a bombing trip to Schweinfurt the aircraft was coned by searchlights and was badly damaged by a shell and bomb being dropped from above. He also describes the squadron’s role in D-Day. He later transferred to 300 squadron, a Polish Squadron, to help train the Polish crews. He completed 33 operations. He describes the Operation Manna drops and Operation Exodus, picking up prisoners of war. He was eventually de-mobbed in 1947, by which time he was a Flight Lieutenant gunnery leader. He talks about the discomforts of flying but also the camaraderie of the crews and his distress at losing a crew. They didn’t return when they went on a flight without him. After being de-mobbed Peter returned to a job in engineering but emigrated to Australia in 1949 with his wife and baby.




Temporal Coverage




01:05:04 audio recording

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AWatsonPHC170123, PWatsonPHC1701


JM: OK [pause] OK, this interview is being conducted for the International Bomber Command Centre. The interviewer is Jean MacCartney and the interviewee is Peter Watson. The interview is taking place at Mr Watson’s home in Clontarf, New South Wales on the 23rd of January 2017. Peter, you mentioned you were born in 1924 but I don’t know quite where. Where was it?
PW: I was born in South Wales, a very — in a little village near Cardiff.
JM: Right, and did you do all your education in Wales?
PW: I did part of it in Wales and then I went to King’s School, Worcester for four years. That’s a cathedral school in Worcester.
JM: Right and does that mean you were part of the choir there?
PW: I was. Well, yes, a little bit. I was what? I used to sing in the choir.
JM: Right, right and was that the, the latter part of your education?
PW: Er, well actually when the war started they evacuated the whole school to North Wales for one year and then they brought us back to Worcester, and then I finished my, er, matriculation in 1941, and left the school there and then started a training to become an engineer until I was old enough to fly.
JM: Right, OK, and so that was until 1943?
PW: ’43.
JM: When you enlisted?
PW: Yes.
JM: And whereabouts did you do your enlistment?
PW: We did it in London.
JM: Ah, the London Recruitment Centre?
PW: Yes.
JM: Right, OK.
PW: There were about a hundred of us in the, in the one intake and, er, I might mention every one of us wanted to be a pilot. We all wanted to fly Spitfires and shoot down Germans, and get Victoria Crosses, and then end up with a romance with the group captain’s daughter but it didn’t happen that way [slight laugh]. And after a couple days we were told, whether we liked it or not, we had to be trained as air gunners because there was a surplus of pilots and a shortage of air gunners, and that was the last thing we wanted, but we volunteered to do what we were told and that’s what we did.
JM: Yes, indeed and where did you do that? After you, you had your recruitment in London and then after that where did you go?
PW: Yes. We went to, I went to Bridlington in Yorkshire, just for ground training then flying training started at Stormy Down at South Wales for several weeks. And then we went to a thing called an OTU, um, Operating Training Unit, in Tilsbury [?] near Sal— , near Sal— near, er, oh dear, North Wales anyhow. And then we crewed-up and then finally went to a four — four-engine — you were trained on two-engine aircraft, then you finally became a crew member and a seven member crew was formed at the, er, four-engine training centre in Lincolnshire.
JM: Right.
PW: And then because we — when we were sent to our first squadron, er, it was known as a special duties squadron because we carried an eighth member of a crew. Instead or seven, we had eight. The eighth member being a German-speaking person, who had radio equipment, who was carried on board our planes to interfere with the German night fighter system.
JM: Right, so this is 101 Squadron?
PW: 101 Squadron.
JM: And this is in February ’44.
PW: Yes. Ludford Magna.
JM: Yes, yes and because that had the ABC equipment, um, is that right?
PW: Airborne Cigar.
JM: Yes, so that was, um, so you, you were in part of those flights there then?
PW: Yes, I did, I did I think it was thirteen or fourteen flights from Ludford Magna and then we were selected to go and form a new squadron, essentially with Polish airmen, at a place called Faldingworth, about twelve miles away, and we finished the rest of our tour with 300 Squadron.
PM: Right, so, um, how long, how — in the 300, 300 Squadron is the Polish Squadron is it?
PW: Yes.
PM: So how long were you in that squadron for?
PW: I think, I think it was about three months between the time that we’d — I think we’d done, I’m not sure, about fourteen or fifteen at Ludford Magna before we went to Faldingworth and we ended up doing the balance of thirty three trips with, with 300 Squadron.
PM: Right, OK. And so that took you through then to 1945?
PW: Well after, after we had finished our tour we had to be grounded for six months and I was selected for some reason or other to, to go to 460 Australian Squadron at Binbrook, in a non- non-operational unit, because they were doing a special — they were trying to introduce radar operated rear turrets in Lancasters and Halifaxes and’ um, I was part of that study to introduce that and it was called Operation Village Inn. But after that, after six months, I got orders to go back on operations so I went down to Number 3 Group in, in, um, Cambridge, and I forget the county’s name of Cambridge but it was Cambridge, and I did two daylight trips with, with 115 Squadron and then the war ended and then we went on to, er, taking food to Holland and then bringing back prisoners of war from France and Italy.
JM: Right, so that was all part of 115?
PW: Yes.
JM: Yes, right. So 115 was probably what? From about May, May ’45 was it?
PW: Yes, yes, 115, September ’45 until, er, September ’46.
JM: Right.
PW: And then, um, funnily enough I went to Leconfield for a two-week training course where your, your father was but by then it was just a post-war training and they were doing training for gunnery leaders, and then I was promoted to gunnery leader of Number 15 Squadron at Wyton. And that’s where I stayed until I was demobbed but I was a flight lieutenant by then. But then at the end, as a post-war economy measure, every war-time officer was reduced in rank from flight lieutenant to flying officer [slight laugh] so I was finally discharged as a flying officer.
JM: Mm, OK. So that was a little thumbnail sketch of, of your service there.
PW: Yes.
JM: Perhaps we’ll go back and, um, just take a look at each of those three sort of postings. What? You said you had about fifteen missions in 101, um, was that more over Ger— over Germany particularly or —
PW: Yes, essentially Germany and then —
JM: And was your, was your plane dropping bombs as well as jamming or —
PW: Oh yes. We were essentially a bomber but we just carried this extra man and we were honour bound never to talk to him about his job, even though he ate and slept with us, we were honour bound not to because of the secrecy but the aircraft were very obviously — you could tell which aircraft they were because they had big aerials forward of the mid-upper turret and, you know, they could pick us off easily and what we didn’t know at the time was that the Germans were able to hone in on our equipment. We didn’t know this until after the war. They were able to hone in on our equipment and pick us off and, er, hence our losses at 101 were much higher than the average. In fact, I think it was Nuremburg, which was the worst of all the night flights, when we lost 108 aircraft, 96 over Germany and I think twelve over England afterwards and, er, it was, it was a dreadful night but there we are. But yes, that was it.
JM: So, um, that meant, obviously, you were going into some pretty densely populated areas I presume?
PW: Yes, yes, yes. Places like Nuremburg, Munich, Augsburg, Schweinfurt, Brunswick, Berlin. I didn’t do Berlin but Berlin was one of the very populous, very common areas. Hamburg in particular, Kiel canal, where, incidentally we went to bomb the martialling yards but, er, accidentally dropped our bombs a little bit away and it, it landed on the German battleship the Admiral Von Scheer and sunk it. So, I mean how lucky were we? And when I say ‘we’ — the squadron. One of the planes from the squadron dropped its bombs in the wrong spot and sank the Von Scheer.
JM: It wasn’t your actual plane?
PW: No.
JM: Right, OK, well so instead of getting a bit of a bollocking they would — there was a bit of a cheer I suspect.
PW: Yes. Yes.
OK. Yes. Yes. So, um, OK. Then when you moved from 101 to 300 did your whole crew move together?
PW: Yes, yes.
JM: So your whole seven stayed together.
PW: The eighth member stayed at 101.
JM: Eight. OK and was your crew, were all of those eight people, er, English or did you have any other —
PW: We had one Canadian.
JM: One Canadian.
PW: Yes and our special operator later on was, was an Aussie, yes, called Beutel, B E U T E L, Graham Buetel. Yes.
JM: Aha and then in your — you had a number of missions in the Polish Squadron? What sort of — was the emphasis — was there any particular action?
PW: We were just, we were just part of the main force but we didn’t leave 101 Squadron at Ludford Magna until two weeks after D-Day, and D-Day was a particularly interesting project for us because we, we were put onto a special flight to try and imitate a naval fleet going from Dover to Calais to try and make the Germans think that that was where the invasion was going to take place, and we went round in, in sort of square circles for about six or eight hours to try to imitate — dropping window stuff to make the Germans think that that might have been where the invasion was taking place. Whether it succeeded we never found out.
JM: So that was still part of 101?
PW: No, er, that was part of 101 and it was the last but one I think before we left, yes.
JM: Right OK and then in, um, Polish Squadron just normal —
PW: Just normal.
JM: Normal routine flights there. Day and night or just —
PW: No, all night stuff and we took a lot of Polish people as extras on flights prior to them taking over the — on their own flights. You see, the Ger— the Polish airmen were complete for one air— for a particular aircraft. It would all be Polish, but before they did that we used to take them as second dickies and things like that, to get them trained and also to control them because they were a very uncontrollable lot, in the sense that their, their hatred for Germany was so great that there were rumours, and I think it happened, that after bombing in Germany they would go down at ground level and try and shoot at all the searchlights with the rear gunners but that was the sort of emotion that existed on that station and it was very prevalent.
JM: Yes so —
PW: But mostly I think of my flying is with 101 because that’s when the dramas started and I did have a couple of dramas.
JM: As in?
PW: Well, I was extremely lucky. In the first flight that we made we got attacked by a Focke-Wulf 190 over the, over the target, and we got hit a little bit and we hit him a little bit and he came back for a second attack on us. We fired at him again and we saw him — well, we saw him going past at the side of us after he flew to one side and another aircraft watching from the other side, flying parallel with us, saw the pilot bail out, so we were unofficially given the credit of having destroyed him, and it was a particularly nasty experience because we also got, we were hit in many places but none of us were personally hurt and we, we thought after that flight we wouldn’t last more than two or three more flights because it was so horrendous, you know. But then the second night, that was at a place called Schweinfurt. And we went to bomb Schweinfurt because they had a lot of production of ball bearings at factories which they needed for the for U-boats, and the U-boats were giving curry in the Atlantic at the time, and they thought if we could bomb the ball bearing factories the U-boats couldn’t go to sea and they couldn’t sink our ships. That was the sort of theory. But the second night was a night where I’ll always remember because over the target we were coned by searchlights. There would have been fifty of them at least and, er, an explosive, a shell, blew, blew us underneath us whilst we were on our bombing run and it completely destroyed all our hydraulics, and also we were hit with another bomb dropping from an aircraft above and we had about six feet of our wing tip broken off. And luckily our pilot, who was wonderful, managed to keep us stable and fortunately all our engines were OK, but we ended up with our bomb doors open with, with some incendiaries that we couldn’t release and, and we couldn’t come back and land normally. We had to come back and belly land because we had no wheels to put down, we had no flaps and we didn’t know even whether we’d make it because we, when we hit the ground we had all these incendiaries on board, but fortunately they dropped off and went off like fireworks while we skidded on the ground for about half a mile and then finally came to a stop, but we, we never thought that we would survive that night but we did. And, do you know, one of the first people to turn up afterwards while we waited for a crew wagon to pick us up was the Salvation Army canteen and they offered us cups of tea and cigarettes. Oh, they were wonderful and, er, but the emotional part of that is that I had to go into hospital for a short while and while I was there my crew went off with another gunner in my place and they never came back. Well they came back but they crash landed and were all killed so there was I, on my own, and the thing that, I suppose emotionally, and I never forget and it’s still with me, er, we shared a Nissan hut with two crews, our crew and another crew, so after my crew disappeared I was the only the one there with the other eight members of another crew. Two days later they disappeared so I was one, one person in a room of sixteen, in the middle of winter with nothing else to do, and the emotion, and knowing that all your crew were dead. And, er, you didn’t have group therapists in those days. You just had to put up with it and that’s sort of stuck with me ever since [sniff] mm.
JM: Goodness me and, and then they expected you to go off and just happily join a new crew and get on with it.
PW: Well, once, once you were — you were seen as a jinx. If you were a survivor of a dead crew nobody wanted you, er, but there were so many times when crews needed other people that I was eventually put with another crew and within a few days we were all good mates and I, we spent the rest of our tour as a crew very happily. Yes.
JM: And is that the crew — and that crew was also all —
PW: They were all English.
JM: English. Which crew was it that the —
PW: Well the pilot of my first crew was a Sergeant Roy Dixon and, er, I didn’t know until later that the night that he died his commission came through as a pilot officer. He was just a sergeant before and he also got the Distinguished Flying Medal. And I have a photograph here of our aircraft when it landed I could give to you if you like.
JM: That would be very interesting to see that.
PW: Incidentally, in the photograph because of security reasons they ob— obliterated the two aerials.
JM: Of course yes, yes.
PW: Yes. That was, er, that was life but it was tough because our losses and, in fact, at Nuremburg we lost five aircraft. That’s a lot of aircraft in one squadron.
JM: That’s a lot. That’s a huge amount, yes. At least from all those subse— those first two missions were the first two that really —
PW: Blooded us.
JM: Yes, well and truly, and then from there on in you, you and your crew stayed intact for the rest of the course of the — all your other subsequent missions, which is so pleasing given such a horrendous, horrendous start for you. Yes indeed. And, um, and then on that basis I guess nothing compared with those early experiences from 300 and 115 really?
PW: No, no, no, they were much easier. I mean, you couldn’t go on and you couldn’t get away with what we got away with there more than once I’m sure, but, er, and luckily by the time we landed from the flight, because we were flying with our bomb doors open and no flaps and so forth we landed when, after everyone else had gone, had landed. Sometimes, or very often, when you got back to your aerodrome there were twenty other aircraft waiting to land and you hung around for perhaps an hour before it was your turn to land but by the time we got home we were about an hour late —
JM: You were a straggler.
PW: And we went straight in but we weren’t allowed to land on the runway. We had to land on the grass which really was good because it was wet and soaking and —
JW: Made it slippery [unclear]
JM: And flame-wise it was good and we didn’t — we anticipated we might blow up because of the bombs we still had on board but they dropped off instantly, fortunately, and by the time we came to a halt — and I don’t think there was much left in the petrol tanks [slight laugh]. But on our first trip I might have mentioned that the — when we were attacked he hit one of our fuel tanks and set it on fire but we were able to extinguish it with an extinguisher system that they had in the aircraft, which is wonderful. And one of the big, one of the big loss reasons — there were two reasons we lost a lot of aircraft, one was collisions, because when you had seven or eight hundred aircraft all going within half an hour of bombing a place you had to be more, more careful than ever of bumping into anyone else and the only times you could see them was when it was moonlight. Other times, all you could see was the red, red exhausts. The exhausts of the Merlin engines are red hot and the only thing, that’s the only thing you could see on a flying, plane flying alongside you, but you had the rear gunner, the mid-upper gunner, the wireless operator and the bomb aimer all looking because they didn’t have anything else to do until they got to the targets, you see. I mean, the bombers would — the air gunners were looking for fighters but the others were also looking for fighters but as well to make sure you weren’t bumping into any aircraft and we had a couple of near misses. But that was the way things were.
JM: That’s right. Right and with, with this crew, um, you stayed together right through in 300 and 115. Did you stay together for the post-war stuff as well?
PW: Yes. Yes. The war finished in, well in May and then in August we were going to go out of the Far East because Japan was still, still active in the Far East but then in August of that year the war ended in Japan, so we never went but we were kept as a squadron. The Air Force kept a fairly strong force of Lancasters and Halifaxes for at least two years and one of the reasons, probably never written in history, but England was frightened of Russia coming west and we, I think the Government, decided we’d better stay powerful, so I didn’t get de-mobbed for two years after the war had finished. But by then of course I was a gunnery leader in 15 Squadron but we had very, very little to do and very boring in the end.
JM: Yes, so you were actually doing what? Training flights or —
PW: Training flights and things like that. And, er, when the immediate war finished in Europe though we were quite busy. We would fly to France and pick up released prisoners of war. The Americans flew them from wherever in Germany, and Italy, and around there to France and then the Royal Air Force used the Lancs and Halifaxes to fly them back to England. And I, I think we had seventy thousand prisoners we managed to get back. Then after that we flew out to Italy to bring similar prisoners of war who’d been stuck in Italy. We flew them back to England. And we loved those trips because we’d never been abroad and it was the first time we’d flown into a place where it was really hot weather and we could buy apricots and peaches. [laugh]
JM: Because again you were flying in, in spring summer sort of by this stage so —
PW: Yes and really the gunners were really only like only flight lieutenants, yes.
JM: Because you actually had no —
PW: Nothing to do except being sort of stewards for the people and of course it was very uncomfortable where they could sit down in the aircraft wherever they could find a spot.
JM: Well that’s right because I presume they tried to put as many people as possible onto those flights to maximise the, the value of each trip so to speak.
PW: Yes. That’s right. It took about five or six hours to get from Italy back to England and that’s a long time for people not in very good condition.
JM: Well because a lot of them would have had injuries, um, sickness and being in prisoner of war camps they would have been in pretty poor shape generally I would assume.
PW: And, er, quite a lot of them had been originally before the war out in India and they were on their way back to Europe in 1940, ‘41 I guess, and they got caught in North Africa and from there they were taken prisoner by the Germans and sent to Italy, so some of them hadn’t seen England since 1935.
JM: Goodness me.
PW: Yes and there was one, there was one old tough old fella there and we put him up in the nose so he could see the white cliffs of Dover and we flew — he started crying. He couldn’t, couldn’t resist. It was very emotional.
JM: He couldn’t not [emphasis].
PW: No.
JM: Goodness me. When you went did you — was it like a day trip for you in as much in that you went straight back in, loaded the servicemen, and then flew straight back out again or did you fly in and have a day off?
PW: Oh we always had a day off.
JM: Day off, right, OK. So you actually got to see the immediate surrounds of the airfields where you flew in then?
PW: Yes, yes.
JM: What memories do you — any particular experiences that stand out there?
PW: [laugh] Funnily enough, funnily enough, um, the first time we went in it was a place called Pomigliano and it was very much a basic aerodrome, and on the end of the runway was a local road, and when we went in the first time we saw a horse and cart [slight laugh] going across just as we were going in and we missed him fortunately. That’s one thing I remember. The other thing was that, you know, being young and, and flippant, we were only what? 19 or 20 years old. We all liked to smile at the local girls but they all had to be chaperoned and, er, they would always have a mother or father or a brother with them so we had to be very careful there. The other thing is that the fruit that we had never seen before, oh it was beautiful and, er, also, you wouldn’t believe it, but even then the, the Italians were flogging watches, you know, wrist watches, and we’d never seen, we’d never seen this sort of post-war stuff that the Italians were doing and, er, funnily enough, and I suppose it’s OK to say this, but our navigator had a girlfriend and he bought her a watch, and because of customs finding out, he put the watch inside a condom and then put it inside an oil filter in the aircraft until we’d got back to base. So whether, whether he got oil in the watch I don’t know but that was one of the funny things that happened. You were asking for unusual memories and that was one of them [slight laugh]
JM: Yes, gosh that’s — it would have been interesting to know whether he got it out in one piece or not undamaged. Yes and so you had those flights and then subsequent to that you had the Manna flights as well?
PW: Yes.
JM: And how many runs would you have done?
PW: I think we only did only about three.
JM: Right.
PW: Yes, and the first time we went over we had to come back because the airfield or the — I think it was a sports ground, where it had been arranged that we should go and drop, it was full of people and we realised that we would, we’d be bombing people with tins of flour and potatoes and things like that, so we came back and waited until the Germans cleared the thing and then we went in and dropped the food. We weren’t very accurate because we’d never been trained and one lot went into the greenhouses. That didn’t appeal to them very much. But you saw people on, on the roof tops waving sheets and clothes and things just to welcome us because we had to go in at ground level. And one thing that I remember one of the last trips we made was on the VE, er, VE night when there was to be a big celebration in the, in the mess, have a party to celebrate the end of the war, and we had flown so low that we evidently hit the branch of a tree because when we got back we found our bomb door, when we opened it, had a big scar in it and it was a piece of tree in it and so our ground crew were very upset because they were going to miss the party because they had to repair it overnight [slight laugh]. Isn’t it funny how you remember these little things.
JM: Yes, absolutely. And so were your trips there all to the same place in — when you were doing these drops?
PW: Yes.
JM: Which was where?
PW: It was Juvincourt in France and Pomigliano which is virtually I think Naples, in Italy. Yeah, they were was the only two places we went.
JM: The Manna drops I’m talking about.
PW: Oh, the Manna drops. No, I think, I think two were to The Hague. I think one was Amsterdam or Rotterdam. It’s very vague now, yes. I have a photograph of, of stuff being dropped whilst we were doing training in England. We did train for a few days to know how to do it and I’ve got a photograph if it’s any use to you.
JM: Yes, we’ll have a look at that afterwards. Thank you. That would be very interesting. And so then, um, with 115 I believe there were a couple of notable planes in that squadron. Were you ever, um, did you ever hear, were you ever close to any of those pl— notable planes or just —
PW: Well, it was an unusual squadron, um, because with the development of radar we were able to, we were able to go and bomb and have the bombs released from a ground station instead of ourselves and we were able then — I think our last trip, I think it was to Hamburg or somewhere and we were able to bomb half a mile from the front line British troops, and there was a bridge or something they wanted bombed and, and, er, I can tell you now. Can you just pause for a second? [pause] To The Hague and one to Rotterdam. That is food dropping. Then we went to Juvincourt to pick up prisoners, ex-prisoners or war, two trips there, and the last was to Brussels and then we went to Eng— to Europe after, to Italy, Operation Dodge it was called. We went to — oh, Bari but it was actually I think it was Pomigliano. Bari is, is the capital of — it’s on the Adriatic side of Italy. And, er, after that that was the end of our really useful work.
JM: But you were saying about [unclear] the, um, with the bombing with the — from the ground the — that’s using the G coordinates is it?
PW: It was called, um, it was called G2 I think. We flew in formation of three and, er, only one of the aircraft had the equipment on board and as soon as he dropped his bombs we, we dropped visually on his bombs. We saw his going. We knew they were due to go and as soon as he felt his go he pressed a button and we would release ours.
JM: Right and which —
PW: Hamburg I think it was.
JM: Hamburg. [background noise of pages turning] I’m trying to think back. ’45.
PW: Yes. 115. Just April ’45. Just one month before the end of the war. ‘Intense accurate heavy flak,’ I notice here. So that was at Bremen, not Hamburg, I beg your pardon.
JM: Right.
PW: Bremen and we were damaged by flak. It was very, very accurate. But sometimes, you know, you’d feel a bump then — well we didn’t knew where it came from but when you got back home you might find a few holes in your fuselage and, er, on one occasion, it’s rather amusing, the only bloke who got damaged was our bomb aimer and he got, he got damaged. He got a piece of shrapnel into his bottom [slight laugh], not seriously, but he was the only one who was hurt. But frostbite was a problem for the gunners and that was what put me into hospital, um, when they went off with another gunner. It was at Ludford Magna. I’d got a lot pain. It wasn’t severe but it was enough to stop me because you had to be one hundred per cent fit before they’d allow you to fly. If there was anything slightly wrong with you they used one of the spares to take your place. Particularly important was the breathing because, you see, up at above ten thousand feet you had to go onto oxygen, and one of the reasons why the losses were so great with rear gunners was it took so long to get out of a turret, if you had to get out quickly, because if he was on oxygen he’d have to disconnect, then find a bottle of, a bottle of portable oxygen, connect that up then [emphasis] get out of his — and what? He had four pairs of gloves on and, and trying to get out was hopeless. I would say two or three minutes at the earliest he could need to try to get out a rear turret and in the meantime, of course, by then it could be too late. And on that trip to Augsburg that I mentioned we got hit, as well as damaging our hydraulics, er, the bottom floor of the aircraft was blown out and the rear door, which we used for getting in and out of it, was blown out as well so how we, how we got back I don’t know to this day. And he, and Sergeant Roy Dixon, our pilot, he was all of twenty years old. You know, when you think of it —
JM: Amazing, amazing.
PW: So I, so I have a lucky star.
JM: You have indeed and were you a mid-upper gunner most of the time?
PW: Most of the time I was mid upper, on a few trips I was rear gunner. Most of the time I was mid- upper, yes, yes.
JM: So you would have been able to —
PW: Oh that’s an easier place to get in and out of. It doesn’t quite get so bitterly cold because you got a little bit of heat coming back. The people at the front were warmed by the engines. They had a warming system and so forth but the, the rear gunner was the coldest of all.
JM: That’s right.
PW: And I might mention one of the big losses was that the Germans introduced a very clever idea, instead of firing from wing guns, they put a forty millimetre cannon into the fuselage pointing upwards, forty-five degrees, and they would come up underneath and fire at us, and a forty mill— cannon you only need a few things to set the petrol on fire and that would be the end of the aircraft but, you see, we couldn’t see them because we couldn’t look down. The Americans had a belly gunner but we didn’t. We had nothing. We were blind. That’s right.
JM: So that’s why quite a lot of losses were due to that experience.
PW: Yes.
JM: Yes and with, um, your crew after the war did you maintain contact?
PW: No, no. Well you see we came out to Australia two years after I retired from the — well I was demobbed from the RAF and, er, they were all scattered all over the place. We sent Christmas cards but they eventually disappeared. I never kept up after I left, left England in May ’49.
JM: May ’49.
PW: With a three month old baby.
JM: Right. OK.
PW: And when we got on board, on board the migrant ship, the people at the top of the gangway they said, ‘OK Mr Watson you go down that end of the ship and Mrs Watson and the baby you go up that end.’ So three weeks of the trip we were separated. Of course we met during the day but at night — but of course instead of two people in the cabin we had four because they were — anyway we were very lucky to have got that migrant ship, very lucky.
JM: And that was May ’49, so coming, stepping back a little bit, so you were demobbed in, um, ’47 so between, er, from the time you were demobbed did you work or —
PW: Yes, I went back to the company that was training me as an engineer.
JM: Where was that?
PW: In Cardiff.
JM: Cardiff right.
PW: Yes and [slight laugh] I was earning, I was earning five shillings a week, would you believe it. It’s one of those things, like an apprenticeship. I think they called it an articled pupillage? Anyhow, my boss was a wonderful man because in the meantime I had fallen in love with a lovely girl and wanted to get married but on going back to getting back to getting fifteen shillings a week or five shillings a week I couldn’t do that and he smiled at me and said, ‘Look, you get married and I’ll see that you’re alright.’ And he did [slight laugh] and I was with that girl for fifty-eight years and she died in 2004.
JM: Right, right.
PW: Yes and her best friend had lost her husband, and she and her late husband, and Audrey my wife and I had been friends for forty years, and when Audrey died Ruth, the other, the widow, and I got together and we’re together now. And it’s been twelve very happy years.
JM: Very good.
PW: And that’s her there.
JW: That’s her there. That’s right. And so you got married and then made the decision to come to Australia. What prompted that decision?
PW: Er, well first of all I had developed asthma. I’d had a little bit of it as a kid but it came, it came back as a post-war thing I think and somebody said, ‘Why don’t you go to a warm climate?’ Not, not only that I was in an industry that was going to be nationalised, and everyone was very depressed, and even in 1949 rationing was still on. You still had to ration petrol and that sort of thing. And Audrey, my wife, had an uncle, who was very prominent in Australia, and he came to London on a conference and while he was there he came down to see his sister, who was my — was Audrey’s mother, and said, ‘Look if you come to Australia I can assure you we can get you a job and we need new migrants.’ That’s how it all started and never looked back.
JM: Never looked back. No, so obviously —
PW: And our three-month old baby is now sixty-seven and we produced as Aussie but she died in a car accident when she was sixteen. It’s one of those awful things that you have to put up with. So that’s my story as an air gunner.
JM: Yes and that’s — and when you came, when you migrated did you come here to Sidney?
PW: No, sorry, we migrated to Perth.
JM: Perth right.
PW: Yes. We were there for seven years and then I got a job with Caltex Oil as an engineer and I was there for thirty-two years. Not in Perth but a couple of years after I joined them, er, they promoted me to a manager of an installation in Adelaide, and so we moved to Adelaide and we were there for ten years, and after penny died ( she was killed in Adelaide) the company said, ‘Why don’t you come to Sidney and start again.’ And my wife was a very plucky mother and she was fretting terribly and though she resisted coming she knew it was the best thing to do, so we did it, and that was 1967 and we’ve been here ever since.
JM: And did you come here to Contagh or — straight away?
PW: No we were three months in — the company had a flat in Martin Place, Martin, no not Martin. Oh I forget the name of it. Anyhow, Win—
JM: Oh, OK.
PW: And we were there —
JM: Market Street.
PW: Market Street. That’s it, yes. Right opposite the park.
JM: A brilliant park there.
PW: Yes and whilst we were there Audrey was looking for a place. She was the searcher for a place to come and live and she was offered this place and it had been on the market for five months because, as you can appreciate, young people can’t afford to live here and old people don’t want it because it’s so steep but at the time you buy you never think you’re going to get old, do you? So anyhow we bought this place for, would you believe, thirty-five thousand dollars [laugh] but that’s how things were.
JM: That’s how things were back then. That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right, yes. So right and as I say — well you just stayed with Caltex through to, until you finished?
PW: Well, I was sort of given a package. When computers came in and they wanted to get rid of numbers and all the oldies, I was fifty-nine by then, they said, ‘Would you please go.’ Sort of thing.
PW: So I retired from there and I started a business of my own which I’m still running.
JM: Oh OK, right. Oh very good, very good, and that’s just a sort of consultancy business I presume?
PW: Yes, yes. It’s to do with finance broking, yes, but for twelve years, the first twelve years after I retired, I actually had a pump agency for an American company and I eventually sold that and with the proceeds I started a broking company ,which I’m still running.
JM: Still running. Goodness me. And going right back to the very beginning when you enlisted, way back in ’43, what was the decision, was there any decision in particular that directed you to Air Force rather than Navy or Army?
PW: Yes, yes. I’d always, you know, wanted to fly and so you vol— put your name down as a volunteer and I guess they kept your name on until you were old enough to be called up. And, and they said, ‘Are you still keen?’ And I said, ‘yes’ and I went up to Birmingham for a test, a medical test, and back to Cardiff and they said, ‘You’re fit enough. We’ll call you up next week.’ And they did [laugh]. It was a great disappointed when we were told we had no choice.
JM: To be an air gunner.
PW: Nobody wanted to be an air gunner. They called it the lowest form of animal life in air crew. But still there we are.
JM: And what — you said you’d always wanted to fly. What was the attraction, of just being —
PW: Well I think, um, the Battle of Britain and the success of our, of our planes then inspired young people like myself and, you know, you were going through the romantic age of what do you want to be when you know you’ve got to go? And Air Force was more appealing than the Army or the Navy. Yes, my sister went into the Navy. Ruth, my partner, she was a WREN. Yes, so we were all in it. And, er, actually we were, before that, in 1941, it’s the only time that Cardiff ever got bombed badly. A few times, I remember there was one bad raid and I was stuck in Cardiff while the raid was on but it was OK. But then I had to walk back to my little village, which was seven miles away, in the dark because the power, all the power had gone off. When I got there I found all the windows and doors of my house had been blown in and what had happened was that a stray bomb, because I mean who would want to bomb a little village, a stray bomb the Germans had dropped about a hundred yards on the other side of the road, on the golf course that we faced, and it had blew it all in but my family had gone to the back of the house into an air raid shelter that they had there and they survived. But we had to evac— evacuate our house because it was unliveable until it was repaired. So we went down to a place called Llanelli, which is about fifty or hundred miles west of there, put up with some friends and eventually got back into our house.
JM: Right. And your family had built the air raid shelter in the garden?
PW: They actually converted the back veranda with steel and stuff and, you know, and when the raid was on it as only my mum and my sister. I was in Cardiff, and my eldest sister, and my elder sister sorry, and my two sisters and my mother and another cousin, who was expecting a baby, but she lived in London and came back to Cardiff, came down to Cardiff to have her baby because she thought it was safer and she ran into — but they survived.
PM: Yes, yes but even in Cardiff though and out, and I appreciate that you’re saying your village was seven miles out of Cardiff, but even then the, um, the normal procedure was to build some sort of — at that time was to build an air — some sort of shelter?
PW: Something safe. I think the main thing was with those sort of things was that falling beams from your house or your roof. You know, I mean, you hear of people hiding under the dining room table because that was protected but, um, and some people put an air raid shelter in their, in their garden, and the Government provided a galvanised iron sort of thing. It was a very easy thing to do but it was the safe, the safest thing you could do.
JM: Mm, yes. So that would have — that was just another sort of —
PW: And it was the only bomb that had ever dropped in the village. Because, you know, I would imagine the like, having the experience later on, you sometimes had the odd bomb that didn’t drop off and you went and released it and it didn’t matter where it fell so long as you got rid of it. So I think that’s probably what happened. But of course the local press said that they were after the, you know, they put all the experienced people have said, ‘Oh yes, well they knew something we didn’t.’ It was wonderful.
JM: Oh dear yes, yes, but as you say that was the only time that Cardiff was actually —
PW: Heavily, severely bombed as a city. Other times it had bits and pieces blown, er, thrown at it but this was the Baedeker [?] raid but it wasn’t successful in the sense that it wasn’t concentrated, it was spread out, but what had happened was that they — it had effected the power supply and everything was in dark and, you know, in January that’s really dark and when I had to walk home seven miles in complete darkness —
JM: And that was January ’43 was it or ‘42?
PW: ’43,
JM: ’43, yes.
PW: Sorry no, ’41, yeah, two years before I went — I was only a school boy.
JM: Right, right, so ’41. Mm, gosh. So that was a very, much of a little bit of a taste of what London was experiencing and all the other cities in England , so —
PW: Yes, yes. I think what had happened was that they stopped bombing London. I think they thought they couldn’t do any more with London and I think they were going to concentrate on shipping ports to try and starve England. That was — they really wanted to starve us into submission, you see, with their U-boats and they were very successful and very close to succeeding I think at times. But anyhow Cardiff is a port, you see. Cardiff is very much like Newport, our Newport here. They produce steel, they produce coal and about the same size but there you are.
JM: Yes, yes. That’s right. Yes, and in terms — you mentioned you didn’t maintain any contacts, er, long term ongoing contacts with your former crew members.
PW: No.
JM: Did you, were you aware of any associations, um, to link up with, you know, in Australia here at any time? Did you became a member of RSL or join in and then subsequently — about the only other organisation would have been the Odd Bods Association because you came here to Sidney in ‘67 I think so —
PW: Oh I’d been in the RSL right from day one and of course I joined 460 Squadron old boys here because although I didn’t operate from 460 I was sent to the Squadron and we used their aircraft for training on this thing called Village Inn. Yes, and actually for me it was six months of very easy living because I didn’t have to fly on operations. By then I was an officer and you were in — and Binbrook was a peacetime built ‘drome so the facilities were very, very good.
JM: Yes, so that was sort of a, a far more peaceful, less stressful, sort of period of time for you rather than the stress of the tour?
PW: Oh there was no stress at all whatsoever. In fact it was very easy living. That was the intention to try and defuse you and, you know, so — by the way my second pilot, who I joined after the raid when Roy Dixon was killed, we kept an association afterwards and he, he left Bomber Command and went into the Fleet Air Arm, and finally he was retired, and he came to my wedding in 1946, er, and but then he went out to North Africa doing something with the shipping company. We kept on for a little while but we’ve lost — I’d have liked to have kept — I regret now that I didn’t.
JM: But communication back then is not what it is today.
PW: No, I think that’s right.
JM: I mean between — only being able to post letters that took weeks to, to get anywhere and you couldn’t make phone calls back then because they cost so much money between Australia and, and the UK and, er, not everyone had a phone back then you know so —
PW: But I always felt though I’d like to have kept in touch with Roy Dixon’s family, you know, but, um, I mean I was — although I was in hospital I wasn’t serious in hospital but I was just not fit enough for flying because of this frostbite thing but, um, when Roy was killed in Norfolk he was able to be buried back in his home, near Doncaster I think it was, and but they wouldn’t allow me to go to his funeral because of the, ‘Oh, why you? Why are you alive and my son is dead?’ Sort of thing. I can understand that and of course you also had the problem with people who couldn’t take, couldn’t take it and they refused to fly after their first two or three missions. Their nerves went. And they were very, very severley treated by the Air Force. They were branded LMF, called lack of moral fibre, and they were sent off nasty jobs and got rid of.
JM: Very difficult times.
PW: Oh very difficult. I think fear, fear kept you together and, and doing the right thing by your mates, you know, kept you together.
JM: And I think, from what I understand, that’s what they used that glue to keep those crews together to, to ensure that moral support within the crew all the time.
PW: Well, one of the things that I haven’t mentioned but it is significant is, how do you choose your crew? And the simple answer is that, er, when you were, when you were — during training and you’d finished, everyone was ready to be put together as a crew, they put you all into a hangar one afternoon and there was probably hundreds of us, after we’d finished our training, the pilots, navigators, bomb aimers and so on and they said, ‘Listen boys you’ve got to form yourself into crews. Go and have a yarn with each other and see if you can match up friendships.’ And that’s all it was and it was the most successful system the Air Force had ever used because you were then with people who’d picked you or you picked them and, you mean, you might see one bloke and say, ‘I like that bloke. I wonder if he needs an air gunner.’ Or a pilot might say, ‘Have you got a crew yet?’ If he liked the look of you and I said, ‘No’ or ‘Yes’ and that’s how it went, and you ended up with seven crew, seven members of the crew. One or two of them might have been officers but it didn’t matter. You were all crew together.
JM: Yes, that’s an interesting approach to the way —
PW: Some didn’t like it. It was a very sensible thing to do.
JM: Yes, well I guess it was from the point of view that they knew they were going to keep the crews together so it was important for the crews to each like each other.
PW: Yes, exactly, yeah. And that also built a camaraderie I suppose so you never let your crew down. You were always aware that without you they could be in trouble and each one, perhaps less with wireless operators and bomb aimers, but with pilots and navigators — well, if they didn’t have a good navigator you were in trouble because you’d get picked off. If you didn’t have a good air gunners who picked up enemy aircraft when you should be shooting at him, you know, you realise how important each job was. And, er, and also I found that we were attacked many times but if they find out that you, if you fired at them quickly they would leave you alone because it was awful for them to come in from behind with — you’ve got four guns in the rear turret and two in the mid-upper and you’re firing bout twelve rounds a minute and he’s got to fly into that to shoot at you so he never came in behind you, he came in on a curve. Now, if, if you saw him coming in on a curve and you timed it right and then you turned the same way as he was going he couldn’t get around to shoot you, so if you, if you kept your nerve and did the corkscrew at the right time he’d never get you. Interesting.
JM: Very interesting.
PW: But of course doing a corkscrew when you’re in several hundred aircraft, right?
JM: It was a little bit difficult.
PW: Collision was awful.
JM: Yes. Again comes back to the skill of the pilot and to the lesser extent the navigator.
PW: And more often as not he still had his load on board, his bombs. Never mind. I don’t know how many tons, I suppose four or five tons. I’ve no idea but it was a very heavy load.
JM: It was a very heavy load to take but Lancasters and Hallies were all carrying at that time.
PW: Your husband would be on Hallies I would think?
JM: Not my husband, my father.
PW: Pardon.
JM: My father.
PW: Your father rather.
JM: On Hallies yes. So, yes. So that’s some amazing memories that you’ve shared with me now. I really appreciate your time and, um, your thoughts.
PW: Well, thank you very much.
JM: But there’s probably time to wrap up at this stage. I presume there’s nothing else that you, no particular thoughts that you want to mention. Any other things that you — you mention you do speeches for Probus Clubs so was there anything from those speeches we haven’t covered or —
PW: No I think what we’ve covered is what, what formed my thing. A lot of people ask questions because they had parents or uncles or brothers who said, ‘Did you know Sergeant Jones, so and so.’ You know. But it was a big force, the bomber force, we didn’t — but there we are. I’ve had a very lucky life, very lucky, and lucky in that sense, you know, but and also I was one of the luckiest — we’re not recording now are we?
PM: Yes.
PW: Oh. Well it doesn’t matter but, er, one of the fortunate things was that during the depression of 1935 to ‘38, ‘39 my father retained his job, which was pretty good in those days, which enabled me to be given a decent education and that’s held me in good stead all my life. And that’s why I, one felt that with the education that I had, to have to be an air gunner was a bit degrading because, you know, we were all pipe-dreaming at the time about it. As I said before we wanted to fly Spitfires, the glamour of that, being shot at [laugh].
JM: Yes, indeed, indeed.
PW: But we made wonderful friendships and some of the bravery of some of those fellas was quite incredible. You’ve probably read about it all.
JM: Did any of the — your pilot wasn’t awarded any, um, given any award for bringing that plane home in the way he did?
PW: Yes. He was awarded the DFM but he didn’t know it until he died, you know, when he died it was the same day that his commission came through. So he got the DFM not the DFC. DFM is for non-commissioned, DFC was for commissioned. I got a Polish, Polish award. I forget what it was called now, something, er, but I never bothered with it but it was just some sort of service medal, you know, but there you are.
JM: Very good. Aright well I think we’ll wrap it up if you’re happy with that?
PW: Yes. What’s the time?



Jean Macartney, “Interview with Peter Watson,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 12, 2024,

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