Interview with Ian Petrie


Interview with Ian Petrie


Ian Petrie found himself struggling to find employment in recession hit New Zealand when he saw the advertisement to fly with the RNZAF. He couldn’t contemplate the thrill of flight at a time when opportunity for such travel was rare. He was unsuccessful in his attempt to become a pilot and went absent without leave out of disappointment. He eventually rejoined the training programme and was posted to the UK. He was very aware of the casualty rates and the fact he survived purely by luck. On his last operation it was his aircraft that took the line overlap photos. He went to the hut the next morning where the photos were displayed and took his own as mementoes just before they were all destroyed.






00:38:14 audio recording


IBCC Digital Archive


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APetrieIFP180926, PPetrieIFP1801


JB: This interview is being carried out for the International Bomber Command Centre in the UK. The interview is Jennifer Barraclough. The interviewee is Mr Ian Petrie. The date is the 26th of September 2018 and the interview is being done in Mr Petrie’s home near Auckland, New Zealand in the presence of his son, Robert Petrie. Ok. Mr Petrie, thank you very much for taking part. Could you tell me just a little bit about your life before you joined the RAF? Where you come from. A bit about your childhood.
IP: It was the end of the Depression. The end of the Depression and I was, it was hard to get work and I was only sixteen and I got a job through family in Newmarket doing, cleaning cars. Keeping cars spotless for sale because cars didn’t sell much these days. And this day a boy that I went to school with went past and saw me and he, I called him and he said, ‘Oh, how much do you get?’ And I said, ‘Oh, two pounds a week.’ ‘Oh.’ He said, ‘Out where I am we get a basic rate of 5.10.’ Five pound ten. ‘But,’ he said, ‘We make up to twelve, even fourteen dollars with overtime. And he said, I said ‘Do you think I’d get a job there at the end of the day?’ He said, ‘Oh, give it a try anyway.’ So, I went out and I got the job. I was getting quite big money but it was a very bad environment. They were, you know gambling and real, real hard lot of people that you worked with. So, I stayed there for a while but it’s a long time ago to recall. The [pause] Oh, that’s right I [pause] With all the carry on I had, I had developed a drinking problem. Drinking too much. And anyhow, the big outfit that I worked for, the medical man there, he sent me in to a specialist in town and they said to me, they said, ‘Well, you —’ They said, ‘If you don’t stop drinking alcohol you won’t live until your fifty.’ So, I had to make a decision then to make a complete break and cut out drinking altogether. So, I did that. I gave up the job with the big money because I was wasting it all and I went to work out of it bit cutting tea tree firewood in the bush. And from there went from one sort of job up to another and I saw the, you know, something about the Air Force that you know the, they were recruiting people as flyers and I thought oh God how unbelievable if you could, you know, fly in an aeroplane. You didn’t, I didn’t know anybody in those days that had even been up in an aeroplane. So, I thought oh, I’ll, I’ll volunteer and see how I get on. So I volunteered for the Air Force and they put us through a lot of different tests and I was, for some strange reason I was selected and I did my, you had to do fourteen hours before you got, went solo and I did my fourteen hours and it was just coming up lunchtime and the, I reported in and the, the head man of the station was there. ‘Oh, you’re, you’re ok. You passed.’ He said, ‘Come back after dinner and we’ll give you your next posting.’ And anyway, I told everybody I’d passed but went back after lunch and he said, ‘Look, I’m sorry. You just missed.’ And there was one, one instructor that I knew that I’d, didn’t do well with him because I didn’t like him and we weren’t getting on and I was flopping the plane down and [unclear] And he put in a bad word so I missed out. I felt, oh so disappointed. Anyhow, most of the course were, only a few were selected and I was put in charge of the group that was sent back to Rongotai and I was pretty upset and I thought, oh I’m going home. To hell with this. So when I got to, to Wellington I got all the, everybody’s papers out and I gave them away to the other bloke. I said, ‘I’m going home.’ So I, I just hopped on a train and went home. So I was absent without leave for two weeks and then a telegram come to my parent’s home saying I was to report immediately to Rongotai. They, they knew what had happened. I’d gone AWOL, you see with disappointment. But unfortunately, or it could have been fortunately, you don’t know because it, it put me back in the selection and you know, going on to next step. So the boys that I got on with they all went ahead. And, I was then, you know slowly coming, coming behind them. So that was it, and it was, it just went on from there. But there was a lot to it but I’m not going to talk about that. A lot to it. Anyway, the only thing, the one thing that, the one thing that counted was that I actually survived. I did. I was there, you know, when the war finished. I was, I was, I think I did my last, my last trip the day the war finished. I I when you, when you were on a bombing run and you dropped our bombs you took a photo. Everybody kept back and that photo was there and it gave them an idea where you, gave you an idea where the bombs actually dropped. Some of them were a mile away. But they didn’t want them all dropping in the one place anyhow. But anyhow the, I got back and we just went on from there. And you went at that, at that point they established the Empire Training Scheme where you were trained over a period as, and you started in Canada and you went to do a course and you went through the course but finally about three months or three weeks or something and when you finished you then waited until there was another one opened. So, you could be waiting for six weeks or a couple of months just, just on the station. You know, just working around the station doing the odd thing. And I did a lot of running in those days. I was a very fit man, running and weight lifting and other [unclear] So we went on from there and I eventually ended up in this particular flight and the, there was a sergeant in charge of it. His name, I’ll never forget it because he was part Yugoslav like myself. Ivan Yanovic and he, he went on to become quite an outstanding flyer. Well, one of the men did nearly fifty, over a fifty trips. But Ivan did, Ivan was on his, you did thirty. That was a tour of operations. Thirty trips. And then they asked for volunteers. They were short of crews and they asked for volunteers to do an extra five trips. So, Ivan volunteered like a lot of us did and he got, right on the thirty fourth he got shot down. It all started when someone went missing. It was strange how they, how the news went around so quickly that so and so had had it, and he was, he was lost. And had all sorts of stories about him. How, that they’d hung him and all sorts of things because you know you could understand the people that were being caught in the bombing how, how targets were all industrial targets that were, that were manufacturing for the war but the, poor Ivan he got it. So, Ivan Yanovic. A really fine man. Yeah. But there we go. That’s how it went on from there. You were, it was, it was just sheer luck. Every man I’ve spoken to that went through it they agreed with me that it was just sheer luck whether you got caught or not. You went over in a, in a group and the, you had every, every twentieth flight you had to do what they called, it was a line overlap. That meant you had to fly straight and level to take three photos and they put them together and that told the story of what was done in damage. But you, nobody wanted to line overlap because they knew that the people on the ground were looking for them. If they could get, get a person in their, their sights for just a short time they could bring them down. So that was it on my last one. My last one on Berchtesgaden was a line overlap so it was, that was like that and it was sheer, sheer luck or bad luck. Nothing different. But there we go. It was, that was the, the way it went and it was spread over quite a long period as I say waiting for a course that had to take a stand and doing its operational training. So you always think of it and it always comes back in memories how, how lucky you were. Just plain. Just plain luck. That was all there was to it but we, we had a, we had a fairly good career really, I suppose. And it was wonderful too. To have done that at all. The day that it finished I got up very early in the morning and I went down to what we called the flights. The bomb aimer’s section. I went in and all over the walls were the photos you’d taken because you took one automatically but the, as I say there was that one, one day in the month and that the twentieth day you did three in a row. A line overlap. Which meant flying straight and level between photos which was a dangerous, a really dangerous time because they could pick you up on the ground and they were waiting for that. So, ours is the, our last, our last trip was a line overlap. And I went to the flights this day. I took about seven or eight photos that I’d taken, they were just stuck up with, there were drawing pins on the all over the walls and I ripped out about seven or eight of mine and took them down and I, I kept them and, but the next day all of that stuff was destroyed. Everything was destroyed. They burned it all straightaway. And so I, I didn’t know but I had one of the few, few photos of the actual operation. So, it was, I didn’t learn about it until I was applying for a job and, I think it was in Panama or somewhere and they asked me if I had any flying experience. And I said, ‘Yes. I was with Bomber Command in the war and I have some photos.’ And they said, ‘Oh, could we see them?’ And they, I said, ‘Yes, I’ll go —’ I brought, I brought them in and I gave them to him but he happened to be, him and another man were writing a book on Bomber Command and this was the only photos they ever, ever got. Yes. So, I didn’t know. I gave them over to him and I got some of them back but some of them I don’t think I got back. But they couldn’t believe their luck that some of them hadn’t been destroyed. I’ve got them. I still got them. Still got the line overlap because those were, those were the days of, you know you, you just took things as they came. You knew that when you went down we were, in the morning as we were going out and we usually went at night but, but you would go down on a cold bloody morning and you’d be carrying all your junk with you. You’d get there and you would then put on, put on an outfit. Where you had slippers that you put on your feet and they had wires running up in to a tunic that you put on. And when you got in to the aircraft you plugged that in to the aircraft system and that kept you warm. They were heated otherwise you were bloody well frozen. So it was, and then in the air it even went down to your hands. Yeah. So you were, you were and of course even with that it was all open, you know. The air was pouring in. You had a chute there that you were to drop the Window in. They called this paper that they, silver paper, they called it Window. Have you ever heard that expression?
JB: No.
IP: Window. When it burst open it would have hundreds of these little sheets of, of silver paper and each one would show up on the on the screen and the people that were defending the place and whereas if you didn’t have it they could pick you up and send, you know probably eventually get you. And it was a risky business. But anyway, with Window it made a huge difference so you, you sat there and tried to put all your settings on. Oh, you had I think two big screens with all sets of switches and all a purpose to try and, you know get everything straight. And you had to put all these settings on to hopefully deliver your load where it was supposed to be but it was a hazardous bloody thing. So, you, you [pause] that was how it went. You went down. You had to, you had to be as you went down you’d be, ‘I wonder if this will be the last one or —’ ‘How, how we’ll get on tonight?’ They would, because the, at that time the, the old aircraft weren’t, weren’t that reliable and they could pack up and if your, if your oxygen packed up you didn’t know you were passing out. Didn’t know, it was just like going to sleep. The aircraft would then just fly on [pause] What’s that Rob?
RP: Just water for you dad.
IP: Pardon?
RP: Just water to clear, clear your throat.
RP: There you are.
IP: Thank you.
RP: I’ll put it there.
IP: Ok.
IP: It was a wonderful feeling when you came back and you were able to have the run down the runway and you knew it was behind you. You’d get out and I’d sometimes, I’d sleep. On one occasion I slept for twelve hours. I slept for twelve hours. I was so tired and I suppose it was nervous tension as well. Another time I passed out. You don’t know it’s happening and I’d, I thought, I thought it was fear. I actually thought it was fear. I felt this strange feeling coming over me. I kept saying to myself, ‘They will never get me up here again. They’ll never get me up here again. They’ll never get me up here again.’ And immediately after that I passed out. So it was quite dark and the next thing I knew something was hitting my hand. I opened my eyes. It was daylight. I’d passed out when it was dark. It was daylight and I’d, I’d actually lost consciousness and laid there and when they got well clear they were on the home run and they were clear of it. They went, they went down to about ten thousand and I I recovered. I recovered at that ten thousand feet. I was probably breathing oxygen but it was, it was a strange, strange, strange experience. Especially, you see you never knew it was happening. You didn’t know it was happening and it just just happened but the [pause] but that was it. It was a, it was [unclear] you went up because that was your job and occasionally you’d get somebody would refuse to go back. Just occasionally. And the, they would then had take them out. So he wouldn’t, he wouldn’t be punished in any way. They would just take them out and get somebody else in but, they didn’t, they tried to keep the crews together because you all knew each other and that sort of thing. But it was a strange sort of existence. So, you got, you got over it and you were [pause] there were big losses but a lot of them were accidents. A lot of accidents and others they don’t know what happened. They just, they just disappeared but perhaps they were flying over the, you know in training flying over Northern Canada. Oh God. A vast area and even if they had found them they they couldn’t have reached them. But it was a pretty, pretty risky job. There you were you were lost in with the others and as I say they didn’t, there was no, no punishment if they, if you didn’t fly. If you refused to go. They just put you aside and you’d be, you’d eventually lose all rank and everything. But there it was. We, we stuck at it and did, worked to the end of the war anyway. Yeah. So that was it. That was the, that was the story really. So, I don’t know if that’s what you want me to tell you or —
JB: Definitely.
IP: Hey?
JB: Thank you.
IP: Yeah.
JB: That was lovely.
IP: Yeah.
JB: Yes
IP: So, we, we were lucky. We survived and you wondered how. I think of the real, the fine men that, really fine men that you know went missing and you know there was at the time they were, they made a lot of it but in no time they were soon forgotten. There was nothing. Nothing to be gained from it. Just to hopefully stay alive and you know, get on to another way of life and I, I don’t know what to say about it. There was a, an experience that I’d had and I I just wonder what about the poor kids. The poor young people, you know that were growing up. And I sometimes wonder why. Why they sent the young ones that had only turned twenty one. Why they sent them away quickly first. It seemed to be bloody unfair to me. They had no say in who was to go but they were, they were the first to be sent and if you didn’t, didn’t go you were sent to a special camp and you served a punishment. But it was so, to me looking back now it was so unfair that the young ones that had nothing to do with who was to go were the ones, the first to be sent. Only twenty one. Yeah. So, there we go. There it was. So, and of course with myself I didn’t. That was only after a while that I thought of flying and I thought gee it must be wonderful. You know. To fly. So I, I volunteered for the, for the Air Force. I’d already passed for crew of a Lancaster. But anyway, I applied and they gave me a, an opportunity to train as a pilot and as I say I only, I only just missed out. But anyway, if I’d have been successful I’d have been there within, dead within a year so what, what happened was I ended up still alive at the end of the war. I’d survived it. All those years. All those different places where you, you know where we went to and you had any had special travel and all that. So that was it. I think of it but I guess there’s a lot more to it than what I just told you. The, the doing the paperwork was, was an effort for me. For a lot of young people who were, you know trained in [unclear] they got through it very quickly but I had never had that training. I never went. I never went to what was called a secondary school. I left school Class 6. I never went to school again. Left school at fourteen had had no other [pause] I went to, went to a, oh do you think [unclear] accounts. I had no other education at all. It was, I guess at the, at the time they were, they were I had met before and interviewed who, oh somebody said to me, ‘Oh, why don’t you apply for pilot?’ I said, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t be no hope.’ They said, ‘Yeah. Give it a try. You don’t know unless you try.’ So, I thought oh well, I’ll try. So I, I applied and I went to this interview and the, that’s right I was married and they said, ‘Is your wife expecting a child?’ And I said, ‘No, she’s not.’ And the chap who was interviewing me said, ‘Oh, we’ll give you a call and let you know how you got on.’ And I went away I thought not a hope. That was it. Then I got a call to say that I had passed. Yeah. So I went, even though I’d never been to even a secondary school. And so I went on from there and I had to probably work a lot harder on it, on the book work part of it but from there you went, went to a flying training and once there quite a number of steps that you took. You would go on for bloody years because you were put in, put in to, in to a class or a group or and they would you had to take your turn where there was a vacancy for that particular group. Sometimes it would be two or three months. But, you know. So you’d be on the station just doing, you know just doing work around the station before you went back on to the flying again. So that was it. It was, it just you know happened and I don’t know. I can’t tell, I wouldn’t say whether I wanted it or didn’t want it or had thought of getting out of it but that that actually never entered my mind. Except the one occasion when I ran out of oxygen and I thought they will never get up here again [laughs] but that was lack of oxygen. But there we are. So that was it until the end and the, the last one, my last operation was the end of, right the end of the war and I did what was called a line overlap. And that was when you took those three photos and you had a real good picture of everything that was going on. But there we are. You, you do think of it at times and wonder about it. There we are. I hoped, I hoped it would never happen but we couldn’t do anything about it. But there we are.
JB: Ok.
IP: So that’s it love.
JB: That’s about it. Thank you.
IP: There’s nothing much I can tell you.
JB: Thank you very much. That was perfect.



Jennifer Barraclough, “Interview with Ian Petrie,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed October 7, 2022,

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