Interview with Donald Wallace


Interview with Donald Wallace


Born in Edinburgh, Donald was 14 when war began. As a messenger during the bombing he remembers wanting to get back at Hitler so joined the Royal Navy at 17. He trained at Harwich then joined HMS Hotspur on Atlantic convoy duties. He recalls his first voyage, learning about all aspects of the ship and undergoing initiation by being made to sleep on a wet deck instead of below.
Donald then trained at Rothesay as a submarine detection (ASDIC) operator before joining HMS Essington. He served on the Arctic convoys and recalls surviving a torpedo attack in the English Channel and being shelled from Guernsey whilst hunting a submarine.
After the war Donald entered the church and became a Royal Air Force Chaplain and he tells amusing stories of his RAF service. His first posting was to RAF Halton, where his wartime medal ribbons earned him respect, despite arriving late on parade with oily hands from a recalcitrant bicycle chain. Then he moved to RAF Innesworth where he arranged a guard of honour for a friend's wedding, which impressed his Air Chief Marshall.
Donald was then posted to Aden, describing accommodation, training, and service anecdotes. From Aden, he was posted to RAF Cranwell where he set up a Sunday School, taught cadets to dive and took them to Cyprus to assist in some marine research. He recalls travelling around the Mediterranean to perform pipeline inspections and to referee boxing matches.
His final post was administering Bomber, Fighter and Coastal Commands, for which he flew around numerous RAF stations.
He also describes flying in a Vulcan and a Victor with his pilot brother and speaks of his emotion on visiting the National Arboretum and reading the names of the dead from HMS Blackwood, which was hit by the torpedo that missed Essington.
In later life he received the Ushakov medal and the Légion d'honneur.







01:42:15 audio recording


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AWallaceDS161015, PWallaceDS1610


CB: My name is Chris Brockbank and today is Saturday the 15th of October 2017 and we’re in Watford with Group Captain Donald Wallace and he’s going to —
DW: [unclear]
CB: I’m starting the introduction again because I got the date wrong. So it’s the 15th of October 2016 and we’re with the Reverend Group Captain Donald Wallace to talk about his times. Life and times. So what was the earliest thing you remember?
DW: The earliest thing I remember — I should say I was born on the 5th of September 1925 in Edinburgh. Elsie Inglis Hospital. And I took my children there to see where their dad emerged and they’d taken the hospital away. Just in case [laughs] But I said to them when it was here there were little trees with railings around to protect them from the sheep that roamed the lakeside. And they’ve all gone I’m afraid. And I was a laughing stock because they gently pointed out to me that we were standing underneath these trees. My father was a supervisor of transport for Edinburgh tramways and I went to school. And the top of the hill outside our house, I can’t remember its name but — but the war, we were involved in the war when it came right from the very beginning because we boys, I was fourteen I think when I was born, er war started. We began to help with our tin helmets on as messengers during air raids. And remember, Edinburgh I think was one of the first places to be raided during the war. And we were ambulance runners taking messages. We wore these tin helmets so it was an early beginning to my association with the clothing of a wartime Britain. I found out and of course we boys wanted nothing else as we grew up but to get face to face with Hitler and his gang. And there was nothing courageous or brave about this I don’t think because boys of our age were — you couldn’t maim or kill any boy of my age. We were indestructible. And I think probably boys are still at that age. We wanted to get our hands on Hitler and unfortunately I found that both the air force and the army coddled you until you were eighteen. You weren’t allowed to get in to any danger. But I did find that if you could pass officer selection you could get away at seventeen and you went off to sea virtually straight away and you learned your trade as a — in the Nelsonian tradition. And I managed to elude my parents by going along and passed as a potential officer cadet and was accepted. I had to wait a few months before which annoyed me as I recall but eventually I got the papers to, transport form to take me down to [pause] I think it was Harwich to start my life in the navy. I spent an extra two weeks. I had a call that was two weeks training before you went off and I had been promoted, as it were, to a class leader while I was there. And I was kept on to be the class leader of the next sixty recruits. They came in batches of sixty. And so I practiced walking with a seaman like roll as I had been in the navy two weeks before these youngsters arrived. Eventually however I got my calling for my first ship which was a Hotspur. A destroyer. HO1. And I can remember with my hammock, well which is a fairly bulky item you’ve got to carry ‘cause it’s your mattress and I still have that mattress. It’s long thin stuff. Carrying that or trying to do so with my kitbag and this hammock roll on a London underground escalator. And I was hovering at the top wondering if I’ll hit one thing going down. It might not be there when I got to the bottom. And somebody saw my plight and said, ‘I’ll carry that.’ So off we went down the escalator and I collected my bag and hammock and carried on to the station. So this, the hammock of course in those days was very important to the navy because it acted as your first defence if your ship was holed. All the hammocks were always stored together and along with bolts of timber and that was ready to patch the hole in the ship. Roughly. So you didn’t have your hammock until you collected it to go to sleep after you got up. It wasn’t just to have a nice quiet feet up. It was in the Fo’c’sle along with the rest. Ready to fill a hole up in the ships side if it suffered an attack. So, however, when I got to the point of sleeping there were no hammock billets, that slinging hooks — so I had to sleep on the deck. And I had to sleep under this long table which served as the mess table. Because you had, I think it was four messes. It was Fo’c’sle split into four quarters and I found I had to lie underneath this. Wearing goon skins mind you. Those are, those are waterproof garments with quilted interior that you wore all the time at sea. Nobody was allowed to take their clothes off. You had to keep [pause] and you had sea boots were leather and very heavy. So if you went overboard I should think the sea boots acted as a lead and you’d probably go down feet first. But I never tried that. This was an uncomfortable position I found because trying to sleep under this table when you’re on a destroyer at sea you find that there’s nothing stable and with the movement of the ship even the break in the Fo’c’sle which is the little bit you walk over to get into the next bit of the ship — the sea used to come over and some water was always where you were living. Sleeping. And that water I found was washing over me underneath the lockers on which people sat and kept their clothes from coming back over. So I look back. I did sleep in these conditions and until I got to the end of this first convoy to America. And it’s only some years ago I realised that all this discomfort was part of the testing time that I was being put to. And everybody on board was aware of my reason for being on the ship. From the captain down. I was the only one that didn’t seem to know. Because as I said I looked back a few years back and suddenly a light dawned. Why was it when we got to America with this convoy and on the way back I found that I had a slinging billet? That my hammock was up there and I could have a place to go to. Doss down and sleep and so on and so it dawned on me that all that first start up was a set up. For instance I was told, I was in the wheelhouse because our job was to get involved in every bit of the ship’s activities so that we had a complete picture, hands on, of all the jobs that there were to keep a ship at sea. And I got, if you just hang on a minute. So it had all been a set up and I was the one chap on board who didn’t realise why. And everybody from, as I said the captain to the youngest, well I was the youngest on the ship, knew what it was about. We got to America as I said and they mysteriously, I realise now that a slinging billet was found for me and I didn’t have to sleep on the deck on the way back. I was told that I had been successful. Ticked all the boxes. When I appeared as part of the officer course training there was four captains interviewing me and they said, ‘You’ve passed successfully. But we found your mathematics were not good enough.’ And I could have told them that because I was never any good at mathematics. And they said they were going to send me to a shore establishment for six months where I would get special coaching in mathematics. And I demurred. I said, ‘Look. I joined the navy to fight in a war. I did not join the navy to learn mathematics. And if the price of a commission is having to learn mathematics I don’t want any more of it.’ There was a bit of a [pause] eventually they agreed with me. My refusal to go off for six months. And I went, I was asked what branch of the navy. And one of the captains said, you should, ‘ASDICs is what you should go for. It’s the most secret but most vital system that we have and the Germans know nothing about.’ And you were never allowed to wear any badges which showed what you were in case you were caught by the Germans or be sunk or any. You would be tortured to get the information about the system and so of course you were incognito in that respect. I was trained at Rothesay where, I can’t remember for how long but it was a surprisingly short course because we were expected to absorb the basics and then learn what was required later on. At sea. So I can’t remember. It was just a few weeks there and I got my call to join HMS Essington which was a captain class frigate. And as you probably know that lies between — a frigate is smaller than a destroyer as it were. It’s the next one down. And as I say it was called the HMS Essington. And strangely I found only recently it was one of the few ships that served in every theatre of British naval warfare. And actually that was when I was on her. Those two years. They call it battle honours. That she’d, the ship earned battle honours in every theatre of British naval warfare. Well I think had I, had that been in the army we would have had a medal for each bit. But the navy are very sparse in dishing out medals. We got the Atlantic Star. Well I had it already actually. And all I got from all those activities was a bar running across the top of the Atlantic Star. I think it says D-day or something like that on it. Indeed I’ve only recently been down to the French embassy where I received somewhat belatedly as it were the Legion d’honneur. Which was rather fun. In fact only a few months before that I’d experienced the same thing because the Russian Embassy invited me to go down there where I received the Ushakov medal which was the eqivalent, as I understood of the French Legion d’honneur. The Ushakov. That was in, apparently appreciation of our protecting the ships that took much needed supplies during the Russian convoys and on arctic patrol up there. It’s on file. But it’s this convoy we’re talking about.
CB: Yes.
DW: I hadn’t, I’m still under the [pause] no. Have I joined ASDIC’s?
CB: Yes.
DW: So I was.
CB: We’re on ASDIC.
DW: I was operating ASDIC’s on the first ship. Essington.
CB: Yes.
DW: Yes [pause] on the way back from that first convoy laden with a huge bunch of bananas which were priceless items in Britain then and worth their weight in gold. I had thought what should I take home for my mother and father. And a bunch of bananas which were rather cumbersome but were going to be very welcome. So on the way back we had collected a film to be shown on board on the way back. Sixteen millimetre. And I think I’m going to forget the name of it at the moment but [pause] No. It’s not coming back. Can you?
CB: So we’re on the way back.
DW: We’re on the way back and we went patches. We watched the film that we’d been given. A sixteen millimetre edition of Casablanca which hadn’t — a pre-release copy of the film and the crew enjoyed it. And some of them got together and wrote a long letter to the film people complaining at the wrong ending. And that Paul Henreid should have been put on that aeroplane and left Humphrey Bogart on the ground. We never heard any reply from that I understand. But quite interestingly, only relatively recently I found there were five different endings ready for that film and they had decided on this particular one. So the crew of HMS Essington weren’t the only ones pondering how to finish up that iconic film. Casablanca. So where am I?
CB: You’re on the way back on the convoy.
DW: Yeah. Yeah. Well I think we had better just get back [laughs]
CB: Yes. So you’re on ASDIC.
DW: This is, is this my last fight.
CB: This is, this is coming back with ASDIC. So you’re trained on ASDIC.
Other: Essington.
DW: Oh yes.
CB: Essington.
Other: Essington.
DW: And we, after that convoy I found that we were spending a lot of time in The Channel, on patrol. E boat alley it was called at that stage. And we were in line abreast at one stage. Sweeping as they called it. Checking out for submarines when I heard the unmistakable whine of a torpedo. There’s no —nothing like it. You know exactly what it is. And because I was on the set there up on the bridge, on a little cabin that’s patched on to the Bridge with access from the Bridge little cabin that’s patched on to the Bridge with access from the Bridge through portholes for the officer on watch to look down and see what’s going on. I heard it. And I realised from its course and speed and bearing that we had only a few seconds left in this world. Because when a torpedo hits the Fo’c’sle of a frigate it doesn’t just pass right through it. It blows up A and B gun magazines. So, all the ammunition. And it’s one hell of a bang. And it takes the Fo’c’sle off and puts it slap against the funnel casing so anybody in that area is a goner. Waiting for seconds. And miraculously it went on. And we heard it gradually continuing. And as I said there were six ships in line abreast and Blackwood was slightly ahead. And the next minute there was this dreadful explosion they spoke about and poor old Blackwood had lost its forward part. I looked up and I could see dangling crew. Feet had caught on the rope obviously below the Crow’s Nest. The mast head look out on the deck because it wasn’t moving at all. And I thought to myself, that was my action station on my previous ship and there but for the grace of God. It could have been me. And I look out a little anecdote from my previous ship while I was learning the trade as it were. We had one of the merchantmen had been sunk and it was dark. And as dark as you can get the Atlantic to be. And we peeled off full steam ahead as it were. And when you’re going as fast as you can your funnel casing, I found, glows red. And there were sparks coming out from the top and I was in the masthead look out position in this little [pause] almost like a dustbin. You’re there and the communication is a tube with a lid and I thought just the time for a quick fag. I did smoke and one of the many things I learned quickly in the navy. And I had just let out this tiny glow of a cigarette with the funnel casing glowing red hot. Sparks coming out everywhere. And there was a fearful roar from the deck. This was the gunnery officer, ‘Get that fag out Wallace and see me afterwards.’ And I thought why? This tiny glow. But I knew this was, ultimately I realised that this was all a part of [ pause] however, that I remember that with humour now. The, the — am I still on? Where am I?
CB: So we’re on Essington. We’re on Essington.
DW: Oh Essington. And we’re on The Channel. In The Channel.
CB: In The Channel.
DW: Yes. And the Blackwood had been sunk.
CB: Yeah.
DW: And I went up to the [pause] this new Arboretum which is going to be used as a war.
CB: Alrewas.
DW: I was up there recently and I found that there was a special little memorial and that my six ships were called the forgotten frigates. And there I stood and went down. I got to Blackwood. And I experienced quite a wave of emotion. When I realised that it should have been Blackwood standing there looking at my [pause] — that was war. The chances were always there. You didn’t live like that. You didn’t worry about that. I never —
CB: Would you say that it’s a feeling of guilt that it didn’t get you?
DW: I, no. I don’t. There was no guilt involved. It was [pause]I felt that it was perhaps unfair that we should have been chosen to continue. And Blackwood —
CB: You survived. Yes.
DW: Going back to Blackwood though if I can for a minute. We thought a lot of lives lost. Because there she was. Three quarters, two thirds of a ship. Still floating. And we we wanted to get on a tow. But the sea was relatively calm but the submarine that had sunk us was still lurking about. Nobody wanted to stop for that reason. The other four were circling around the two of us. As we were the nearest ship we were picking up the survivors but they kept jumping. They were all jumping in to the water from the stern. And we were calling and shouting, ‘Stay on board.’ She was floating you see and we could have — but they’d all been playing housey in the tiller flat, which is a large blank area at the back. And you can imagine. Well, housey I should explain is a tombola sort of thing. Game. And they were all running out and jumping straight in to the water which was a ruddy nuisance to us because instead of all collecting from the ship. Well we rescued, got them on board us and got the Blackwood in tow and headed for the first port. Because in those days you could stitch. And there were other instances of the two ends of the ships, ‘cause they were the first of the ships that were not rivets. Riveted. And they just welded the bits together. However, sadly she began to flounder and eventually we had to cut her adrift and she went down. That was the end of Blackwood. The next [pause] it’s difficult remembering these things at this age. Oh yes. Mentioned Lancasters. We were in The Channel and a Sunderland, I believe it was a Sunderland but it could have been a Catalina. Anyway —
CB: A flying boat.
DW: Flew over us and flashed us that we’d dropped a sea marker on where a submarine had crash dived. A sea marker I should explain is — it’s a dye that once it’s on the sea it spreads out and it’s a mad vivid green over the area and it was heading for Guernsey. And we were peeled off by our group leader and the two of us went charging back to where the sub had crash dived. I should explain that at sea you could do short in between ship communication safely on this. I don’t understand the technology but you could speak to each other without it spreading beyond, as it were, the immediate area of your ships. And we had codenames. And our leader was Floor Cloth. That’s fine. Our leader was Beezum and we were Floor Cloth. And we got to, we got to this sea marker and absolutely right on time the eleven inch guns on Guernsey opened up. And they must have got the exact position from the sub before it crash dived because I was on the starboard lookout position just off the bridge when bang, we were straddled both sides. And it was so close that I got soaked from the shell that fell on my right hand side. Well, our skipper, he, he’d never waited for anybody’s instruction when danger waited. ‘Hard to capt, hard to port, full speed ahead.’ And we zigzagged and we were belting away as fast as we could out of this range of these guns when we heard, ‘Floor cloth. Floor Cloth. This is Beezum. I think it’s time we got out of here.’ He hadn’t noticed he was entirely alone down there. We were miles away. That was both amusing and as I said quite serious. But that that was one of the occasions when [pause] but as far as ships — we had a policy stay your distance from us. Any aeroplane that comes gets shot at. And quite amusingly I was at a dinner. As I think I was a speaker. When the chairman, he said, and he referred to me, ‘And I was one of these bloody pilots you shot at.’ [laughs] This was at the dinner. Thank goodness we can laugh now at things that went on. For instance, on a Russian convoy we were all listening avidly as we all did, to the “Man in Black.” These were stories told. Usually mystery and horror. And this is your story of terror. “The Man in Black.” So there we are listening to this and as I recall the mysterious severed hand was crawling up the side of the bedclothes and had just reached the top of the bed and was going towards the sleeping man’s head when action stations sounded. Well nobody on the ship were thinking about dying of fear. We were all just absolutely furious that this intrusion. We never did find out what happened after that. So I’m still on where?
CB: Well, if we go back to The Channel.
DW: Back to The Channel.
CB: You’ve just got shelled from Guernsey.
DW: Oh yes.
CB: What about the submarine?
DW: Yes.
CB: Where was that?
DW: Well we high tailed off and as far as that is concerned that was the end of that episode. We learned. You can’t, with three inch guns as our main armoury you might as well spat over the side as try to retaliate.
CB: Yeah.
DW: When it’s got its eleven inch guns that’s aiming for you. Right.
CB: So thinking of ASDIC.
DW: Pardon?
CB: So with ASDIC — what were you doing with ASDIC yourself.
CB: No. What were you doing with the ASDIC?
DW: We — ASDIC’s I should explain are both — the Germans had the listening devices that could get sound but we sent an echo out and got it back and you could work out from the time taken by the echo.
CB: Yeah.
DW: The course and speed of whatever was ahead. Hearing you could [pause] fish a shoal of fish will give you a faint positive echo.
CB: Yeah.
DW: And you learned to read what it is. As opposed to the one thing you’re concerned about is a submarine. And also the bottom. If there’s like if you’re in an area where there might be rocks sticking up from the bottom you have, by your experience, you could understand, deduce what, what because it can be and that was the point. Submarines crash dived and lay still and nobody would, no noise because that would give their position away. So you only had your ASDIC’s to probe and try and find the submarine that had just sunk one of your —
CB: Just to clarify that ASDIC is Anti Submarine Direction Indicator.
DW: That’s right.
CB: And what rank were you at that time?
DW: Oh I was still what I had chosen to be. An able seaman. Yeah. And I remained that to the end of the war. And I look back and realise that was probably the best preparation I ever had for life afterwards. Because eventually the war, the war finished and I yes, yes, eventually the war finished but before it did I began to get, I’ve no idea why. I think I, if I try to find out why but I think it might go back to seeing a chaplain and I, very few of them I saw. And I don’t want to denigrate those that serve but it just happened with me. This chaplain came on board and headed straight to the ward room and I recall we never saw him. And that, that I think was the spur. I’ve no, I only search my own memory to find out why because my father was, A) my father had a whole line of Black Watch. Now all the family were Black Watch. My young brothers were commissioned in the Black Watch. And I was the black sheep. I joined the navy. I said. You know why? But here I was. My father was so surprised that I was talking about taking holy orders as it were. However, I determined on this. Offered myself to the Church of Scotland. And in the light of my break in education and the fact it might be service that were, another chap who was in the same position called Farquhar Lyall who had been a colonel in the army. He and I both were ex-St Andrews. Started off for four years course at St Andrews University and at the end of which we were graduated, as it were, MAPD. But the penalty and I think it never would have been, and perhaps I should have it now — the agreement was they would graduate but not get the labels of the degree. So this would not happen today and we were, when I look back it was a very, what’s the word [pause] unfair, as it were, imposition. But we didn’t mind and Farquhar Lyall and I rose to be a senior — he was a senior army chaplain and I was a senior Scottish chaplain. So where am I?
CB: Well we’re just talking about the fact that the the origin of your — I’m going to stop. I’ve got to stop because I’m clearing my throat.
DW: Yeah.
[recording paused]
CB: Right.
Other: Would you like some water?
CB: Yes. Thank you. What we’re talking about is I just want to go back a bit more, thank you, into the war because I think this is a really really significant point. Your perception of the chaplain only going to the wardroom.
DW: Well, yeah, I weren’t — yes.
CB: It’s how it worked.
DW: Yeah.
CB: But how did the crew feel about that?
DW: I I I’d been a normal Scottish boy. We went to church and Sunday School each day er each Sunday and were involved in the activities of our church. It was part of life. And we never thought that we were different from anybody else. It was. And our parents. So the church and living and activities like the Sunday School and the outings and so on. And then I was in the Cubs and the Rovers. All part of growing up in the church. So it was church centred. And our minister was a figure that was revered and was our leader as it were, in the community. And indeed it was the minister of my church to whom I discussed my idea of offering my — that I went to so I think it was, looking back that this chap I thought he would go to the crews quarters because they’re the people that would appreciate his visit and so on. That’s [pause] I’m trying to find a reason. A raison d’être as it were for my being a clergyman. And I’ve, I’ve tried and I think it was at that point. Now, he may have had some specific reason for going up to the wardroom. I’ve no idea.
CB: No.
DW: But that, as I search my memory was the critical point which made me think about offering myself to the church and going back to the navy as a chaplain.
CB: Yes.
DW: That was the bit.
CB: Right. Would you say you were shocked by his apparent behaviour?
DW: I would not say that was that. Shock is nothing. But my expectation was, and my, what I felt was that he should be heading for the crew’s quarters because they would need him and appreciate his presence. Rather than going to have a gin and tonic in the wardroom.
CB: Which is the officer’s mess.
DW: Yes. So and after this, so now that that is on looking back that was the bit that made think of going back in a ship which meant training and so on. I surprised my parents and many of my friends that I [pause] So —
CB: But would you say that during your times in these ships first the destroyer and then the frigate. That as you got to know what everybody was doing that your faith became important to you again.
DW: I don’t think so. Looking back. Alistair Campbell, a great friend of mine happened to come from Edinburgh and so on and we, we were together on Essington. And his, I think his father was in charge of the lighthouses and so on in Britain — in Scotland at the time. But Alistair and I were good friends and we did things together when we got ashore. We’d go to church. Now I, our reason for going to church was first of all it seemed a natural thing and I think right down it was something we needed. To retain contact with those who appreciated with what Christ had done for us and the risks he’d run and so on. But secondly and not too surely. It wouldn’t be firstly was when you went to church in your sailor’s uniform there were girls there with their parents. And there was possible invitations back for a meal and so on. So as I say they talk about rice Christians and I think probably Alistair and I were, were rice Christians and in America for instance we had wonderful hospitality and in subsequent times I had the same thing because there had been notices posted up when you got to Newfoundland I remember. Saying so and so and so and so invites so and so for a weekend and we met this wonderful hospitality which was so welcome to us in those days. So as I said, I’m back. I embarked on my time at St Andrews.
CB: Was this under the auspices, was this under the auspices of the navy?
DW: No. It was under the auspices of the Church of Scotland. Forces chaplain.
CB: Chaplaincy.
DW: Yes. The thing I’ve got — I was heading for the navy you see. When I was approaching the end of my time at St Andrew’s and I’d thoroughly enjoyed it. I’d been the convener of publicity for the all important charity’s weeks and so on. And I was the Cape Kennedy Club was a kind of, ran a seniority system at our time in St Andrews. I think I’m the oldest life member of the Cape Kennedy Club of St Andrews. Still. Those days — I boxed for [pause] my father encouraged us all to box and I boxed with one or two amateur, in between ships contests and then I, I got involved and boxed again ashore while I was at, while I was training. And I began to get a bit ancient for the boxing. You know, when you’re boxing, the longer it takes, it takes you longer and longer to get over a bruise. And tempers [unclear], there’s no escaping. I realised that my time actually participating was drawing to a close so I became a qualified time keeper. And then a qualified judge and then ultimately I qualified as a referee. And so on. And eventually I became the [pause] what’s the word for the three services?
CB: Joint service.
CB: Yes. The —
Other: Combined.
CB: Combined services.
DW: For the combined services, but as a referee. And that was just a sort of a natural progression from not being able to participate. You did the fine tuning. These were all activities which were taking place parallel with my other great activity was, while I was in Aden in 1950 with the Royal Air Force. I met one of Cousteau’s team and Cousteau had just produced the iconic valve allowing you to breathe underwater. And I tried this. We only had one in Aden. It was the chap who owned a ship that took passengers and freight and things back and forwards between Somalia and Aden. He thought this was a good idea because in those days ships had no — there was nowhere to dock alongside and the only way to get a ship repaired was to pull her up on to the beach. The huge gangs of neighbours would pull and you would beach it. Of course, with a very small tide you know. You’re talking inches rather than feet and he thought a good idea. I’ll get one of these and have a look at the hull without having to leave the ship. And I borrowed this and we got it filled with air from a static I think there was about seven or eight inches long. Compressed air cylinders that were used by the aeroplane people. I managed to acquire, shall I call it, one of these four or five large bottles and subsequently I was able to have it recharged and we could fill this air bottle from the tubes. And I remember the system where you had to go from the lowest to the highest I think it was. It was so as to ensure you got the maximum value of compressed air from each cylinder. Anyway that was me started and I went out with this thing on my back. Surprisingly heavy. I swam out and down I went and I was breathing. And I thought this is just marvellous. And I was probing around the shallow waters off the little bay I was at in Aden. And ultimately I began to find that it was harder to breathe and I was finding it desperately, you know, so I realised I must be running out of air. So I began to swim somewhat frantically towards the shore and only to realise I was swimming away from it ‘cause you’ve no [laughs] And I, there was only one resource. And I pushed myself. I never thought of breaking surface because this weight on me. Strangely enough, I got to the surface and found that the cylinder by this time, I was so exhausted it offered slight buoyancy. So, on my back, I back paddled away back to the shore. I did not even have a snorkel. Now you see this is really, really early.
CB: Yes.
DW: As sub aqua. So I learned my trade right at the beginning there. And subsequently I said in parallel with the boxing, I introduced and encouraged the sub aqua in the air force and ultimately was the head of sub aqua activity. Which included the adventure training and so on to encourage people to join the services.
CB: Right.
DW: You see.
CB: So we’ve come to the end of the war. You’ve been to St Andrew’s. You’ve qualified
DW: Oh yes. Right.
CB: So how did you not go on with the navy?
DW: Well I was nearing the end and I had, it was two, I can’t remember if it was two or three officers or chaplains or officer chaplains came to visit me at the university and said they understood that I was going to — that I was training as a chaplain and was [pause] and but they said we wanted you to, we wondered if you would consider coming into the air force. And I said, ‘No. No. No. No. I’m going back to the navy.’ They said, But your young brother is training at this minute as a pilot in Rhodesia,’ where they did the training in those days for the good weather. They said, ‘Would it not be a good thing if you were in the same service as your brother?’ And I remember saying, ‘Oh. Well. Yeah. Well I’ll give it a whirl.’ And I found myself joining the air force. And I had absolutely no connection with the air force. When I [pause] what changed my uniform I remember it was in the gents toilet in London station. Into this RAF colour. I emerged and headed for RAF Halton. Which I was told was my, I had to go there for my first and my RAF career as it were started there. There was nobody to meet. Oh yes eventually the chaplain of Halton who — there was supposed to be a senior and a junior chaplain. I was going to be the junior chaplain to this chap. He arrived and in I got through the guardroom because I had no identification or anything like this you see. And in we went and I was in the air force. And I — and this chap went off the next day, said ‘Well I’m going to have some leave.’ He was supposed to be instructing me but he pushed off and I was left with this. With something like thirty lectures to deliver each week to the recruits coming through. On lifestyle and so on including more rough chaplaincy talks. Plus that I found at the hospital to minister to Halton. And my only means of transport was this ancient RAF bicycle that I’d acquired in some way and I was told I had to parade to 8 o’clock in the morning or something. So from the mess which was the old Rothschild house, I’m going up the hill and it was beginning to spitter with rain. The chain kept coming of this blooming old bicycle. And I had to try and — my hands were getting oilier and oilier and I was trying to get the chain back on this bike. But I finally got up to the top and there were about a thousand men, you see, parading. An officer came marching towards me and I didn’t realise that the parade was handed over to me you see. So, I thought, hang on, the reason I was so unprepared was they heard that I had been in the navy so I didn’t, I got no officer training. I did not get the few months preparation that the doctors and dentists and schoolies and so on got. I was making this transition totally unprepared. So much so that I thought oh well here it goes. So having this officer march off and left me with this. And I thought, right, well here goes and I upped my arm, right arm, grabbed my hat with the right arc. Left arm up. Put my hat underneath my left arm and I prepared to continue with a few words and then a short service. When I looked around I thought nobody else was taking their hats off. I realised that they didn’t take their hats off in this new service. So I had to discreetly put my hat back on again and carry on with the service. And while the chap who used to be my batman used to arrive in his car I — the only transport I had was this old bike. Well that was a happy, or unhappy beginning to life in the Royal Air Force. And I subsequently raised the, they seemed to like me and I think, looking back, probably I was welcomed by them because I had naval ribbons. In the air force — medals. In the air force the only people who really are exposed to, if you like, danger or whatever, are the pilots and crews. Whereas the vast number are all on the ground and don’t get exposed to the enemy as it were. I think looking back probably the fact that I was wearing medals which showed that I had been involved as it were put me on a — and I was able to get things when I wanted something for the airmen or whatever it was. I got access to highest.
CB: Respect.
DW: Yes. And it really quite, it really was, looking back my navy time prepared me for my chaplaincy service. A) because nobody could come with a hard luck story to me because I could match anything he was going to come up with. But equally it made me probably empathetic to those who really needed help and perhaps even more than I could probably find a situation in the married quarters or something. Or whatever. I might be ahead of it and able to [pause] because you can’t have a good ship as it were if you’ve got somebody’s wife having it off with a chap two doors down. These are, these are you are not a little chap straight from the college. You’re someone who’s seen life. And so I was able to both enjoy and I think be of some value to the service that I had joined. Incidentally my brother, young brother, Albert was so determined that when he had to be, join up, he and my brother, his twin, were commissioned in the Black Watch but Albert was so determined to fly that he rejoined. Relinquished his rank when he had finished his, what was over. He relinquished his rank because the only way you could get to fly was start off as an airman and do your recruit. So there was a highland Black Watch officer doing his square bashing again under an RAF corporal. But that was my brother. Determined. And by this time he had, he flew all kinds of aeroplanes. And I flew with him in, for instance, a Vulcan that he, and he was one of those who, when at Waddington had to sit there knowing that if the balloon went up he had to get straight in to the cockpit and fly and that because there would be no where to come back to.
CB: Never return. Right.
DW: I think. And these are the guys that I could relate to. And there’s my own young brother. And I’ve flown with him in [pause] what’s that comfortable place to be a visitor or was it a guest crew because you sat right down the bottom in this little cubby hole with the side here and the inside of this plane was cold. Freezing literally. And up the top of the ladder was my brother, navigator. Above me. So it was a fairly lonely place there. Damned uncomfortable. And Albert — seven hours we flew as I recall. And he said, ‘I’m going to fly up over our house.’ So we were flying up Scotland and he flew over Arthur’s Seat and our house was on the slopes of the hill and I thought I’m not interested. Just get me back somewhere warm. But when you’re sitting for seven hours doing nothing whereas these guys are doing this all the time. But eventually he, he moved on to the aeroplane, I forget it’s name now. Similar. But it was the one that refuelled.
CB: The Victor.
DW: The Victor. And the Victor was a great place to be the passenger. Because right up the top of the little ladder there was navigator pilot and there was a seat in the middle that was slightly raised above the others and you had this fantastic view in front. So thumbs up for the Victor. So I’d done and I’d flown in Vulcan and a Victor. And a Victor was very comfortable for, for a — I flew in all sorts of aeroplanes. Particularly because my refereeing. I found out the PE officer at headquarters in Cyprus for instance had, was sick or had some lung problem. And I found I was the only boxing referee in the Mediterranean so I’ve been, I flew in all sorts of aeroplanes to get to referee a boxing match in Gibraltar or Malta and at the same time I’m in charge of the sub aqua activities there. For instance inspecting the pipelines that went, that had been put in to refuel aeroplanes. And a tanker would offload their fuel and it would pump ashore. Well it was vital that these, there were no leaks and of course it was relatively shallow and there was always, the worry was that they’d move and you’d get a slight leak.
CB: We’ll just stop for a mo.
DW: Yeah.
[recording paused]
CB: So you had a wide variety of activities but your first posting was Halton where you had no proper induction. How many postings did you have? Tours did you have in the RAF?
DW: Well in the first I was posted to Number 1 School of Recruit Training. After this few weeks at Halton. Because the boss chaplain visited and found out that I was in there on my own. And he said, ‘Where’s your — ’ I said, ‘He’s on leave sir.’ ‘Is he?’ So this guy was back and he said, ‘It’s very obviously you don’t need a second chaplain here. Having Wallace here, inexperienced a novice, running this on his own. You can’ and I went off. I was posted to Innsworth where I got friendly with a fellow. Jack. Oh I’ll remember his name in a minute. And he asked me to be his best man at his wedding. I said it’s a bit hard. A bit difficult because — no. I was to marry him but it was the bride was going to be married in her, was going to be married in the village church and in, of course the padre, the minister, the vicar so he said well I was in charge of the guard of honour. And so much against the rules as I thought, I organised, we organised the ceremonial swords that you had to have and in full dress uniform. And there I arrived with a dog collar on. But with the sword alongside of me and leaning there was eight of us formed the guard. The next day after the wedding I had a call. The commander in chief would appreciate it if you pay him a visit this morning. I thought oh God I’m going to get a rocket for being armed. And I started along the corridor and the door flew open, ‘Oh there you are. Come on in and have a coffee you see. Right. So I sat down, drinking coffee and he said, he said, ‘I wanted to talk to you about yesterday.’ He said, ‘Do you know that was the best blooming guard of honour I’ve ever seen?’ [laughs] And I get this chap and I in fact Peter Horsley. Air Chief Marshall Peter. He’s up there. He and I were great friends. He’s dead now sadly. And its things like this that I’ve got on awfully well and I’m not talking about crawling to get to know them. I think my naval experience was appreciated. And the fact that I could talk to men from my own experience and to officer’s with theirs so I feel I was probably was pushed in the right direction when I was asked which service I was going to go in to. Hence I’m RAF and, ex now of course. Very proud of my — not proud. Yes. Why not be proud.
CB: Why not? Why not? Yes.
DW: An airman as well as a navy.
CB: A fish head. Yeah.
DW: Yes. Is that enough?
CB: Yes. We’ll stop there.
DW: Yeah.
[recording paused]
CB: We’re restarting now after a bite. And we’re going to talk about the postings that Donald had.
DW: As I said, I was a relatively short time at Halton. Busy and enjoyable. But I found that myself posted to 6 flight training school. Number 1 school of recruit training which was RAF Innsworth and I was told that you could settle down here for a few years. Well, I had quite a good experience there but the phone rang on my desk. They said terribly sorry Wallace. Could you take two weeks leave and be at such and such. We’re having to post you to Aden because the chap there had fallen ill or some such thing and was being invalided home. Or his wife was. I can’t remember. But he’d gone but of course I went out but in those days you had to travel by sea so I had two weeks and there I was on board. A very pleasant experience, you know, in those days. The officers had the first class of this converted liner. As a duty. And joined there, and I won’t go into details because. I finally got to Aden. And in those days you didn’t have any facility to draw alongside so I had to drop down a ladder into a boat and put ashore. And my mess was, the, where I was going to live, was a [Tarshind?] it was called. Was a little headland where the officer’s mess was. And there was a few little bungalows there with sort of leafy surrounds and the, some of these bungalows were for married quarters. There were a few. And others were provided two accommodations each for an officer. And strangely enough you had your own body servant, if you like, they called them in those days. And I had a young fella called Ali who was a Somali lad. Somali. And of course they had no books. Nobody could read. But the only book was the Kitab. The Muslim bible as it were. Well, Ali nevertheless was a very bright boy and he was I suppose he was about sixteen or seventeen and he’d bring me my morning tea and light my morning cheroot. I used to smoke P John cheroot’s a lot. I’d have my cigar. My cup of tea and my little cheroot in bed often. I can remember on one occasion because you were wearing your shorts all day I arrived at the mess and Ali used to go around the back way and be there at the door to meet me. Take me to my place at the table. In those days of the Raj if you like. And I remember him looking at me and, like this, waving his hands. No. No. I thought what’s wrong with him. Has he been at the hash? You know the green that comes in each week on the camel loads from, and sends him a bit [pause] but no. He was trying to tell me I hadn’t got my trousers on. Well, you don’t miss it. You’re in your shorts all day but you’re in your trousers at night. And I hadn’t I looked down and realised I was just in my shirt tail. I walked out. I did a quick about turn and went back to retrieve my dignity as it were. And however years have rolled on and I’m at Cranwell where I spent, they kept me there for another year to complete a scheme I had. And I had been visiting somewhere to do something and had a staff car. And I said, ‘Stop at the next pub. I would like a glass of beer.’ So the driver pulled in at this pub. I walked in and there was a very crowded bar. And I was sort of trying to — I’m not very tall so it’s easy to be below everybody else and a voice said, ‘Could I buy you a pint, sir?’ I looked up and there was Ali. I had arranged for him before I left to do an Alaska job which meant that you got on board a ship and you could choose when your period two, three, four years service was over. You could choose which port you wished to have taken back. Ali had chosen Southampton and was now an inspector of steel. And his golden mark as it were went on the ingots was to prove the value and quality and so on. And there I am meeting him again. The most extraordinary coincidence of my life. One of them anyway. There. And I kick myself to this day that I did not get his telephone number and address when I left. And I was away in the car and I couldn’t get back.
CB: Yeah.
DW: But that was me meeting Ali as I said and it showed that my arrangements that I had been able to make for his future paid off and that I learned how successful it had been by this quite extraordinary coincidence. Yeah.
CB: After Cranwell where did you go?
DW: Cranwell. I was kept on at Cranwell. I spent four years there.
CB: What did you do there particularly?
DW: I ran sub aqua and introduced it to the cadets who as you know we tried to produce officers who are no question, are totally confident. But they can be an absolute pain in the back of the neck because I who had taught them that I’m on a boat, a little boat were diving in. What do you call it. Not research. Checking out pipelines and things under water and these guys — it was the Mediterranean in Cyprus. And these were guys who were coming ashore or sitting on the boat telling me how to put on my equipment. I thought, God, I’ll show them. So I said, ‘Right. We’ve got enough.’ Oh we were diving for underwater, at that point we had a duty for the RAF for the Natural History Museum.
CB: Was this a detachment to Cyprus?
DW: It, yes, and they were, I had been in the Natural History Museum. I saw a photograph of a whale. And it said very rare so and so and so and so. And I thought I’ve a much better photograph. So I called one of their people in uniform. They went and brought this chap from behind and we talked back, I said yes, I’ve got this photograph. ‘Did I ever see a Mediterranean seal like it?’ ‘Oh yes. Quite often. Used to try and swipe the bait.’ ‘Oh what colour?’ I said, ‘Brown.’ ‘No they weren’t,’ said he. I said, ‘Look. Who saw them? You or me?’ I can remember this conversation. The net result was that I was to try and take an expedition on their behalf to Cyprus. And we were to try and photograph the Monachus Monachus. The Mediterranean seal. And also to bring back a collection of coloured sponges from underwater caves which saw absolutely no light at all but these multi coloured sponges. And one of the questions as I understood it was why should you have colour in the darkness? You know. These are as I recall, anyway however I agree, as you could imagine, quite enthusiastically with this idea. And I collected a bunch of cadets to take as training for them and another officer, a flight lieutenant, to come along. And off we set for Cyprus. This was a return for me. We went up to the top of the island. And I went to the monastery which is at the esoteric Monastery to see if I could buy bread and a goat for a barbecue. And I was told I couldn’t buy but I would be given as much bread as I wanted. So we made sure that there was a good donation to a charitable outreach by the monks there. And set up our camp. Started trying to photograph the seal. We were successful in that and at the same time I gave a permission to gather some sponges. Now sponges are black underneath the water. They are mounds. They are covered in a kind of black polythene with holes in it and it takes, it takes a fair amount of time to recognise the sponge with it’s black covering as I said. And it will become the wash aid that you use in the bath. Because the bulk of them are wild as you call them and will never transform. Now, certain shades and slightly less gloss and so on which I could recognise immediately because of my experience. But these cadets who were getting on our backs by this time about knowing everything and telling us how to put [our gear on] I said right you can have your opportunity to take some sponges to take home. But I explained to them what to wear. I remember sitting a bit like Canute, you know. Sailing that close to the water. And they were coming up with their arms laden with these beautiful little black and I’m saying, ‘No. No. No.’ So they were casting their useless. And it might be just occasionally be yes. And I can remember the little blighters there. They had visions of taking home these. I can show you some of these I’ve got. But as I say you’ve got to have a particularly resilient nature to be able to withstand close proximity to a Cranwell cadet in training.
CB: At Cranwell itself.
DW: Pardon?
CB: So actually at Cranwell itself. When you were at Cranwell with the cadets. What was the main role that you had and what was the reaction of the cadets?
DW: Your main role first of all was as a chaplain. You conducted and you gave talks on lifestyle. And that were all tabled and each of the talks was as I said lifestyle. My memory came back. And the importance perhaps of having a faith. So you didn’t go there as an evangelist, as it were. One hoped, one would hope that would showing the sort of life that a normal Christian would live and if it is different or was different from that of others perhaps they could see something in your life that would encourage them to follow suit. So, as I said very active. For instance, I found myself, we had a mid-air collision between two air craft off the bay and I was responsible for trying to recover the part of the wing and fuselage of the two aeroplanes to show what angle they hit at so that it could be worked out who was responsible or stop such a [pause] so there I was and coming off the work, rushing up to take a service and then back down. But it was all just a part of life.
CB: So these. Most of the cadets were straight out of school.
DW: Yes.
CB: And they actually came from a wide variety of backgrounds but –
DW: They did.
CB: But actually there was a predominance, probably, of public school boys was there?
DW: I don’t know. That’s, that’s you’ve posed a question that I never even considered.
CB: Because they were used to chapel every day.
DW: I did not [pause] I took them as they were and I never recall giving any thought to their backgrounds. They were there. They were what they were. How they became what they were was really — I did not consider. I just sort of seemed to accept that these young men who had passed certain tests and were considered officer material and it was my job to pass on what I considered were principles and activities that would serve the royal air force well and them too
CB: I suppose, in a way, I’m getting to the what I’m trying to say is the public school boys would be the people who would have had religion every day when they were at school and I wondered how that impinged on their activities when they were at Cranwell and their activities when they were and their receptiveness and otherwise to your —
DW: I didn’t notice. That’s a question I never considered before. Never mind now. As I said, I can only say I took people as they were. I wasn’t interested in what they were before.
CB: Yes. I wasn’t thinking what they were only other than their attitude towards religion.
DW: Yeah. Well as I said I can only reiterate that this religion I’d hoped that they would follow suit. Go to church.
CB: Yes.
DW: And it’s not going to church that I’m interested in it’s become a follower of the Christ.
CB: Yes.
DW: Whom I admire and was my hero.
CB: After Cranwell where did you go?
DW: Right. At Cranwell. I was there for a longer time because I had this scheme. I can’t remember what it was. Oh I got married quarters. That’s right. I managed to get the married quarters into church. The married quarters were quite a way and it was all just officers cadets. But I got a bus organised and that went every Sunday around the married quarters. There was married quarters down there. And we finished up with quite a thriving Sunday school. In fact the photograph’s up there. And so what used to have been a kind of a detached part of the building for training young officers became what I thought the little parish church taking in airmen’s families as well as officers.
CB: Yeah.
DW: And I think that was one of the vagaries that they kept, kept me on there.
CB: Yeah. Yeah.
DW: They already told me they were going to promote me. I can’t remember. And of course ultimately I saw the future. I only had chaplains as parishioners as it were and I to me I was a bit reluctant in that respect to leave because I really enjoyed having families.
CB: Sure.
DW: What rank were you then?
CB: I was a wing commander.
DW: Right.
CB: And I knew that this, ‘cause it’s the senior rank I could achieve in the royal air force. So ultimately I spent fifteen years I spent as a group captain.
DW: Where did you go from Cranwell?
CB: That was a ceiling.
DW: Where did you go from Cranwell?
CB: Well I had to buy a house somewhere.
DW: Posting.
CB: Yeah. The posting was I had of three offices. One, in Strike Command. Bomber Command, Coastal Command and Strike Command. Fighter, Bomber, Fighter and Coastal. That’s it. Three. Which ultimately became Signals Command. Four. And I provide services for these command in my denominations. And I had to find somewhere to buy a house convenient to living in married quarter which would have been very inconvenient. So we bought this house which served the purpose of access to airfields. For instance, my car would arrive in the morning and we would drive off to Beaconsfield.
Other2: Beaconsfield.
Other3: Beaconsfield.
DW: It became a, it became a —
CB: That’s the language school.
DW: No. It became a Borstal or something, you know.
CB: Right.
DW: Out west of here.
CB: Oh right. Broadmoor.
DW: Or a prison. So, anyway I was able to drive off usually these small aeroplanes with two seats.
CB: Yes.
DW: And off I would go somewhere in the UK. Fly me back home by six. So it was very civilised.
CB: Yes. Very good. When did you come here then? When did you buy this?
DW: 1967. I think it was. Something like that.
Other2: Nearly fifty years.
Other3: Nearly fifty years ago.
CB: Good. Good move. Right. I’m going to stop there.
DW: Good.
CB: Because we’ve done a brilliant job. I’m going to suggest that another time I pop back just to look at some pictures and things if we may.
DW: Yeah.
CB: And how to support this because you’ve done brilliantly well and I really appreciate it. Thank you very much.
DW: Do you want to photograph the photograph?
CB: Well I was going to ask you whether that can be copied but what I’ll do is to arrange. Now, I’m actually Sundays is a busy day for probably is it?
Other: Sundays.
DW: Well.
CB: Do you tend to go to church in the morning?
Other2: We go to church in the morning.
DW: And then after church usually there’s —
Other2: Coffee and come home.
CB: Right. Well next Sunday I’m going to Hendon and so in the afternoon if I could pop in on the way back would that be convenient or have you got something else on?
Other3: Which day do we go to —?
Other: That’s the 23rd.
DW: Well we were going. Wait a minute.
Other: Shall I get the diary? Shall I get the diary?
Other2: I’ll go and get it. I know where it is.
Other: I saw it. It’s in the kitchen.
CB: It doesn’t have to be that day.
Other2: You happen to be passing.
CB: Happen to be passing.
DW: We’re going to the Currans on Monday.
Other2: On Monday. So we should be here on Sunday.
DW: So we’ll be away for four days. Is that —



Chris Brockbank, “Interview with Donald Wallace,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed April 14, 2024,

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