Archive number: 516
Date interviewed: 20 August, 2003
15 Squadron RAF
You are listening to the interview audio
Okay Bill, as I was saying if we could just get that sort of summary, an overview as it were of your experiences?
Particularly just wartime experiences or what?
From the beginning, I mean from your childhood days.
Yeah, tell us a little bit about your family?
Oh well I was born in Ballarat in 1925 and my father was a baker and pastry cook. At that time we lived in Sturt Street, which is the main street of Ballarat. And my early schooling was at Daner Street, State School. My father being a
pastry cook was working actually for his father, that is my grandfather who lived in another part of Ballarat in Genning Street North, and he died, my grandfather died and so my father shifted to the residence that he had at Genning Street North. So I then, after completion of primary school at Daner Street, I went to the Ballarat Technical School and after doing my four years
study at technical school, entered the workforce and became a Junior Draughtsman at a company called MB John Pty Limited who were valve manufacturers. And in 1943 I turned 18 and I applied for join the RAAF [Royal Australian Air Force].
My boss gave me permission and that was necessary because it was a protected industry but being young, he found that I could be done without and there were some girls coming up that could do the work I was doing at that particular time so I was allowed to join the air force. On entering the air force I was sent to Melbourne, which was the Recruiting Centre up in Exhibition Street
or was it Russell Street, Preston Motors at the time. And they sent me to Sydney to Bradfield Park, which was out in the suburb of Lindfield in Sydney for Initial Training School and after completing that I was sent to Parkes NSW to do a wireless air gunners course. I didn’t want to be a wireless operator; I wanted to be a pilot but so did
95% of all the other trainees and if I wasn’t allowed to fly the plane I wanted to be able to defend it, I wanted to be able to shoot. So in those days the only options was a mustering known as air gunner, I was a little bit rebellious against the wireless part even though I was getting on reasonably well and I requested to be taken off course and sent to air gunners
School, which was in Sale, West Sale Victoria and they reluctantly agreed and I went to West Sale and completed an air gunners course down there and got my wing as an air gunner and was made a sergeant. From there we were sent to Melbourne to one what was known as 1ED [Embarkation Depot] that was an embarkation
depot which happened to be at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. The Melbourne Cricket Ground had been taken over by the services and all the stands had been enclosed, the playing arena was untouched but the stands had been enclosed and converted to camp, and after we were there for a week we were given some leave, embarkation leave after which we came back to Melbourne to the MCG
and told that our group was being sent to England. So we were put on a train from Melbourne, sent to Brisbane and from there we boarded a ship which was an American Liberty Ship, one of those prefabricated types and we sailed across the Pacific non-stop to San Francisco, that took quite a while
of course. And on arrival in San Francisco we were transferred to a American army camp on an island in the Bay called Angel Island. We were somewhat rather taken aback by this particular camp because the facilities and the amenities
were something that we weren’t accustomed to being in the service. It was more like, from our point of view, a luxurious area and we were further amazed when on talking to some of the Americans army servicemen there, they claimed that that was their toughening up school to go out to the Pacific area. After a few days in San Francisco
we were put onto a train and the train went right across America to New York. Naturally we past through quite a few towns and cities on the way and quite a lot of the states of America and we arrived in New York and were taken to an army camp in New York or just out of New York. We were given several days’ leave in New York city.
And then we were taken by another train down to a wharf in New York Harbour and when we got out and looked at the ship it was so big we were staggered, it was the Queen Elizabeth. So we boarded the ship and our group comprised around about 1000 or 11 hundred Australian airmen but there was also 15,000 American
army personnel on board as well. And we sailed across the Atlantic to Scotland, the ship was unescorted. The two big liners of the time, the Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mary did a shuttle service backward and forward carrying troops and they went unescorted because their speed was too high to be
hamstrung by convoys. They use to sail at about 30 knots, so no ordinary ship could keep up with them and they zigzagged across the Atlantic and we arrived in the Firth of Clyde in Scotland. There we were disembarked and put on a train and taken all the way right down England to
the city of Brighton, which was on the south coast. There we were put into our reception camp, which happen to be 2 hotels on the beachfront. The hotels were known as the Grand and close by was the Hotel Metropole. Those hotels had been stripped of all of their normal
fittings and contained just the bare essentials for airmen and troops and we were, had to go through various more training exercises mostly physical but a few theory in preparation for what was to become our ultimate duties.
We were given some disembarkation leave and whilst we were in Brighton we noticed that all the side streets were slowly being filled with farming equipment, trucks, tanks you name it. Because obviously this was going to be one of the ports of disembarkation for troops who were heading for, who were going to be heading for France in the not
too distant future. So after sending us on leave and we took our leave up in the Lakes District as guests of some private people, we returned then to Brighton but were then sent to the city of Warrington, which is roughly midway between Manchester and Liverpool, because they’d closed the two
hotels as camps temporarily while they were getting the preparations for the, what was known as the Second Front. After a couple of weeks at Warrington we were posted to an Operational Training Unit, which was at the town called Litchfield. Litchfield is a small town about 10 or 20 miles north of Birmingham and it was at
Litchfield where we met other members who were of different categories such as pilots, navigators, wireless operators and bomb aimers. And over a period of a few days we gathered and formed what was known as a crew. And the crew of men that came
together would then hopefully remain together as a crew for the rest of their wartime experience. We then started training on the aircraft, which was known as Wellingtons, they were twin-engine bombers that had been retired from service but were now used to train crews. And first of all our pilot who had
who had trained in Canada on single engine aircraft had to be given quite some training to handle dual multiple engine aircraft but fortunately he was quite good and got onto the knack of it fairly quickly. So the first thing we did was known as circuits and bumps, that is the pilot was taught with the crew on board usually had to take off
with those scrand, what we call a scrand – that is an instructor alongside of him do a couple of circuits of the airfield – and come down and land again. It was practising taking off and landing which of course in heavy aircraft was totally different to single engine aircraft. When he became proficient at that, which was fairly quickly, we were then put on
cross country flights to give the navigator practice and we were sent to various parts of England or on various routes to come and then make our way back to squadron, to the Unit again. And also during this time air gunners were given the opportunity to practise various stages of air gunnery. We were also
given an awful lot of ground drill on exiting a plane, to parachute jumping and also for ditching in the sea. Because obviously everytime we flew on operations we had to cross the North Sea and after quite a few weeks at Operational Training Unit we past out so to speak, qualified and
were then sent onto what was know as a Heavy Conversion Unit where we had to change from a Twin engine aircraft to a 4 engine aircraft. The 4 engine aircraft that we went to were known as Stirling’s and that was at a town called Wesley up at Lancashire and we went through the same process again but on 4 engines instead of two.
Now we had to pick up another member of the crew at this particular station, the member was called a flight engineer and there were no flight engineers trained in Australia so the one we got was an English RAF chappie. And he joined our crew and it was his job to monitor the four engines and assist the pilot in various duties,
to keep the plane flying naturally. Watching fuel tanks, changing over from one tank to another, fuel cocks various things, watching the engine performance: it’s revs, it’s power, etc. And so we went right through the whole training again, circuits and landings, cross countries, air gunnery and also introduced us to fighter affiliation, they would
send us out on a job and also arrange for a fighter plane to come and meet us so that he could attack us using a cinecamera and we would have to take evasive action or try and use cinecameras ourself to try and shoot him down. And we were given a lot of bombing practise as well for the bomb aimer.
Then after we graduated from that particular school, we were then sent to a Lancaster Finishing School. And there we changed from the old Stirling aircraft to Lancasters. So we went through another training course but it wasn’t quite as long but it was little bit more intense. Particularly bombing practice and
fighter affiliation and getting the hang of what the Lancaster aircraft was all about. On completing that school, we were assigned to a RAF bomber squadron which happened to be number 15 and was located in Suffolk at a base called Mildenhall, but when we arrived at
Mildenhall which is not very far out of Cambridge, we found that it had been a long established peacetime station with good quarters and a well established airfield. And there were two squadrons based on this particular station and so when we settled into the squadron we were allocated
an aircraft and then we had to start practising again. We were sent out on a couple of familiarisation flights and then we were notified that we would be flying on our first operation. This particular flight on this day
was to bomb the railway yards at a town called Triea which was on the Moselle River and for our first trip much to our surprise, the squadron commander accompanied us. And he wanted to see what sort of a crew we were as well as to give us a little bit of reassurance on our first trip.
It was a daylight raid so we were able to fly in formation, so we could naturally see other aircraft at close hand and we could see what was happening in the daylight. We flew over the North Sea, crossed the coast of Holland and then turned into a southerly direction heading down towards to the Moselle River and ultimately reached the target of Triea, now that was our first experience
and in the distance we could see black puffs all around, that happened to be shells from anti-aircraft fire bursting in the stream and unfortunately I witnessed the first aircraft being shot down. The Lancaster going down in flames and unfortunately I couldn’t see any of the crew escape.
So that was our first experience and what had happened was the anti-aircraft fire would be able to predict the height we were flying at thanks to radar and they also had eight proximity detonators in some of their shells so they could explode at the level we were flying. And we were flying
at 21,000 feet this day. Some of the flak were close to our aircraft and we could feel it and a few small holes but we successfully bombed the target then returned to our base. We were away roughly 5 hours on that particular trip and naturally it was a relief to land back at our own station.
The squadron commander was rather pleased the way the pilot handled the aircraft and the way the crew worked together and so it was only a couple of days later that we were put on battle order again and off for another trip. Out across the North Sea, across the coast of Holland and down into Germany
and this time we were heading for, from memory it was Bonn. The difference was it was a little further than Triea and the flak was a bit heavier. Fortunately we didn’t encounter any enemy fighter planes but since we were flying in formation that gave us some reassurance because we had a fair amount of
assistance if that became necessary to fire. This gave us a little bit more experience but it also gave us a little bit more worry. Because I was sitting out in the rear turret being the tail gunner and I could only see what happened behind me and I couldn’t see what was happening in front, but other aircraft
at that particular time, there were several shot down and the crew on one of the planes baled out, we could see the parachutes. But naturally that worried us a little bit too, because we thought fancy having to bale out over a target area and because all sorts of things could happen.
Returning safely to base we found that there were a few small holes in our aircraft. What would happen with the anti-aircraft shells or flak as it was known, they would explode and send shrapnel flying in all directions. Anti-aircraft shell did not necessarily have to have a direct hit to put an aircraft out of action.
The shrapnel from the exploding shell spreading out was quite often sufficient to disable a plane if not bring it down. If one was unlucky enough to have a direct hit from an anti-aircraft shell well that was just complete curtains because if perchance you still had the bombload on board and still
had a large supply of fuel in the tanks it would totally destroy the plane and that was it, kaput. So this went on, after our second operation we were sent out on some more practise fights particularly for fighter affiliation, as it was known.
They’d arranged for one of our own RAF fighters to come and meet us and then engage in air-to-air combat and we would have to practise taking evasive action to try and avoid their cinecamera getting us, lining us up long enough to theoretically shoot us down. We had learnt to take this evasive action whilst
we were at the various training schools, and it was commonly referred to as corkscrewing and the aircraft fortunately, the Lancasters being well built and having been trained at a decent Lancaster finishing school. The pilot learned to throw the aircraft around in the air, which sounds a bit strange. But depending in which direction the fighter was going to attack us
he would turn the Lancaster in towards, in the same direction to make the turn ever so much tighter for a fighter pilot and at the same time drop a 1000 feet and then reverse the schedule so the rest of the crew were going up and down in the aircraft even though we were strapped in. But the G [Gravity] force, or what was known as the G forces would have a terrible effect on us. And then he
would climb a thousand feet in the opposite direction and then turn the wings over again and do this and then repeat the operation, known as corkscrewing until the attacking aircraft either drifted away or else decided to come in at a different angle. In which case then we’d take an evasive action in the other directions. And we had to practise this quite a bit because
it was going to be a very important manoeuvre for us. Mainly used when the aircraft, when the bombers were flying on a night operation. Evasive action of that type was not normally used in daylight when you fly in formations because it was too dangerous for the other aircraft in the flight and further more when you’re in formation you had got quite a lot of guns to bring to bear
on an intruder. The only problem was the guns that we had were point 303 Browning machine guns and at the time we were flying, it was a little later in the war the fighters were equipped with 20mm cannons so they could sit off at a lot, great distance and they would be out of range of our guns. But when we never flew less than 3 or 400 aircraft and quite
often we flew with a lot more aircraft there was usually quite a few guns in the vicinity you could bring to bear but unfortunately we didn’t encounter that problem. Night flying however you couldn’t fly in formation, it was too dangerous to have the aircraft so close, so they would fly what was known as a stream. And all the aircraft would be travelling in the same direction but in the
stream they’d be scattered all over the sky and slowly converge and become very close when we got close to target area. Then it became quite dangerous because we were usually at different levels and those who were rostered to fly perhaps at 20,000 feet and some would be 21,000 feet and, providing everybody
was there on the perfect timing and perfect bearings, things would be all right, however that seldom happened. Usually one group maybe a minute late or another one a minute early or something and you’d find some above the others and they would commence dropping bombs with aircraft underneath. And it was not uncommon for bombs to graze an aircraft as they were falling to the ground. And this
was quite a hazard actually as you can imagine. And so on night operations, and our particular crew did two of them, it was a period when you endured a great deal of stress and sitting out in the rear turret and looking into the night sky to try and
anticipate if the aircraft, you could see were your own or whether they were enemy, was very stressful, very stressful, very hard on the eyes. For this reason there was no perspex in the front of the…forward of the tail turret because they use to have trouble in the early days keeping the perspex clean and if it wasn’t absolutely spotless and even a flyspeck would give you a distorted
view of what was approaching from behind. So they dispensed with the perspex and we were sitting so to speak in the open, we only had perspex on each side of us. And it was bitterly cold because at the time we were flying it was European winter and nothing to be minus 40 or more in the rear turret that I was situated in and because of that naturally
I had a heated inner flying suit. I even had heated slippers inside my flying boots and gloves and also a heated microphone in the oxygen mask and we would have icicles below the oxygen mask, anything up to 6 or 8 inches long sometimes. It was extremely
cold. Ultimately we’d been over to Germany bombing on seven occasions perhaps the worst one we went to was Dortmund which was just past Essen, and those cities in the Ruhr Valley were extremely heavily defended because there was so much industry
there. And Dortmund we had to pot fire around that area, if was just further east than Essen and some of the other major cities in the Ruhr, so the amount of flak that we experienced was unbelievable. There were also lots of fighter aircraft in the area, but fortunately none of them attacked us.
It’s hard to explain nowadays the actual danger and sense of danger that one had while as you were flying in this but you had to do the job and that was it. To read the statistics of
the losses suffered by Bomber Command would stagger most people. Always we would see aircraft going down in flames, but usually the target would be well hit because of the number of planes that took part. We often read, and remember the early
days of war called the Battle of Britain when the RAF fighter planes put up such a great defence against German Bombers, at the time we were flying was very much the reverse. The Germans were then defending their country against invasion by air bombers
from RAF and also the American air force who always flew daylight. And when you’re fighting to preserve your own country you tend to fight a bit harder and believe me the resistance that we got from the German defences was enormous. I remember
hearing, it wasn’t generally known at the time that a bomber force of around about 760-odd planes were sent to Nuremberg and one hundred of those planes didn’t get back. Most of them were shot down over the target area because they picked a clear night with lots of moonlight, and the planes were easy picking for the enemy. So they lost almost
700 men on that one raid. On our eighth trip we were briefed to fly to Cologne, we had been there before and trip number eight we thought well we’ve had experience, we’ve been there, we know what it’s like, no problem. And on this particular day we were notified that our own plane
had gone in for a major service, so we were to use the squadrons spare. And the squadron did not have an H2S Radar Scanner underneath its belly but in place it had a point 5 machine gun. So on this particular raid we would take an extra air gunner to man that particular gun,
which being a daylight raid we didn’t think was necessary but anyway that was the instruction that we had. And this particular air gunner, an RAF chap was doing what was known as second tour. Now there was, tends to be superstitions: one, you didn’t like flying in planes other than your own and two you didn’t like a first tour crew
having a second tour man with you. There were other funny superstitions that the crews sort of developed but anyway on this particular occasion the target was Cologne so we took off at point of time, picked up our squadron over Suffolk and picked up the group and the rest of the planes and flew
over the North Sea, across to Holland, turned southerly down to Achen around at Achen and set course for Cologne. Shortly past Achen near a town called Durren, the flak started again and we were flying at 23,000 feet and all the aircraft on this particular day were flying in condensation
trails, vapour trails as what you can sometimes see jet aircraft flying over when you get a large formation, and they’re all flying and this, when all of a sudden the pilot said to the engineer, “I seem to be losing power on one of the starboard engines,” and the engineer checked his instruments and he said, “Yes, the starboard out is giving
problem.” The wireless operator hopped out of his seat and looked up through the astrodome, that’s a little perspex dome on the top of the aircraft and he said, “I think I can detect smoke in the vapour trails coming from the starboard out engine.” And he’d no sooner said that than he saw flames coming out of it, and so the
pilot naturally instructed the flight engineer to operate the fire extinguishers, each engine had built in fire extinguishers and the engineer of course did this immediately, it was routine training, and but unfortunately they didn’t quell the fire. Now the fire was getting worse and we had a blazing, naturally at the speed
we were flying at, the flames were blowing backwards of course onto the wings of the aircraft and heading towards the fuel tanks. So aircraft, we still had our full bombload on board, a lot of fuel and we were losing power and started to lose height so the pilot said, ordered us to bale out, he gave the instruction to jump, jump and so
we had to bale out. Now unfortunately the engine that was caught on fire and became inoperative was known as the starboard outer, that’s the one on the right-hand side and the outer of the two engines on that side. The turret that I was sitting in at the rear was operated by hydraulics and I had controls in front of me to turn it or tilt the guns, whatever, it was done by hydraulic power.
The starboard outer engine contained the little motor that provided the power for the hydraulics, now I have the turret turned around at 45 degrees when the order came to jump. So the first thing one has to do is centre up the turret so you can get out of it, but it didn’t respond, so I had to do it manually. There was this small
spur gear around the perimeter of the turret inside and you would just engage a pinion in that and start winding. So I had to do that until the turret centred up, then I had to disconnect the heater and the oxygen and intercom from my helmet and from my flying suit, then reach
up behind me and pull a wire which opened two doors behind me so that I could get out of the turret and get into the aircraft itself. Then I had to grab two handles and lever myself out of the turret and then find my parachute, which was stowed inside the aircraft, take that off it’s stowage and put it onto my
End of tape
Interviewee: William Wilkie Archive ID 0516 Tape 02
So yeah we’ve left it there at a very dramatic point and we’re going to, we want to talk about that in much more detail a little bit later. But now if we can I just want to take you back to your early, your childhood years and it would be nice if you could tell us a little bit about your experiences in the Depression, your memories of the Depression era.
I don’t have much memory of the Depression because I think I was too young at the time. The Depression was in the late 1920s and into the early 1930s and since I was born in 1925 I was still very young. Now as I told you before my father was a baker and pastry cook
and whilst his business, during the depression wasn’t all that successful we never the less didn’t go without much. We always had food on the table. But I can vividly remember people coming to the back door fairly often.
Wanting to know if there were any leftover scraps or any stale stuff that would be discarded that they could have. Because obviously everyday the shop wasn’t totally sold out so there maybe a few odd bits and pieces about and there were forever people in obviously poor
circumstances coming asking my father if there were any scraps left. Basically that’s my recollection of the Depression. Use to when we were very young kids, and this happened, we just thought that they were beggars and as time went on and our parents explained to us, “We don’t abuse
them or growl at them because there are a lot of people who are suffering and not as fortunate as ourselves but if there’s anyway we can help them, we will do it.” And that was the attitude that my parents took and that’s what brought the Depression home to us a little bit even though we were still very young whilst the Depression was on. Bear in mind, I repeat that having been born in
1925 I was still only 5 years old in 1930 and at that age you don’t realise what the economic situation is around you or in your town or in your neighbourhood so very much. All we use to do after we turned or when we turned 5 we went to primary school and sure we notice that some of the kids
perhaps weren’t dressed as nicely as others but then if you look at some of them today you’ll find a similar thing. But we realised that some of their parents were out of work and having a real struggle and were on sustenance payments and like the likes of that from the government. And we’d often see workers in the street and the kids would call them ‘sussos’,
which was rather harsh but being kids, young kids, particularly young school kids are inclined to be cruel, and we referred to them as sussos because they were on susso and doing sustenance work which was perhaps cleaning gutters or other types of manual work around the town. Basically that was my recollection of the Depression
time because I was so young.
Can you tell us a little bit about your family, your parents, siblings?
Can you tell us a little bit about your family, your parents, your siblings?
Well what I know of them, my father was a Wilkie born to a father and mother who had migrated from Scotland and tis said that
my grandfather worked his way out on board ship as a cook. He came from an area in Scotland called Motherwell and having worked his way out and being a cook for some reason he came to Ballarat and we haven’t established why or how but he came to Ballarat and set in, found an old building and made a bakehouse of it.
And started to manufacture bread and a few small goods. And he seemed to get on rather well, and he married my grandmother who I never knew because she had died long before I was born and I’ve only got faint, very faint recollections of my grandfather because he also died whilst I was young. And they had a
bakehouse shop in Vivien Street North and they had a family of 3 sons and a couple of daughters. And the sons worked for their father, so the business became known as A Wilkie and Sons, the A standing for Alex,
Alexander Wilkie was the grandfather’s name and it was A Wilkie and Sons. And the three boys worked for him. Now as things progressed he, and as the boys got a bit older, he purchased a shop in Sturt Street, in the main street and it was two storey fortunately, there were living quarters upstairs. And I’m not sure whether he
purchased that prior to my father being married or after it. But he set, there was another bakehouse behind the Sturt Street shop and my father use to concentrate on the smallgoods, whilst grandfather and the Vivien Street North Bakery, concentrated on bread. So the older brother he left and established a bakehouse
of his own, went out on his own and the younger brother he was a bread carter, he used to drive the vehicle around delivering and he died relatively young. So that just left my grandfather and my father in the business and when my grandfather died there was no need for us to live above the shop,
because the grandfather had a home in Vivien Street North adjacent to the bakehouse and shop there so father renovated that and we moved as a family up to Vivien Street North. I’ve got two brothers and a sister. Now my father unfortunately suffered severely from asthma and he was under constant medication for it and in those days
the medication was not as good as what it is today. And it was often blamed on his working, mixing flour and various ingredients that aggravated it rather much. Mother was not all, now my mother prior to marriage she was the daughter of a Cornishman who had migrated to
Australia and settle in another area of Ballarat called Mount Pleasant. To this day I don’t know how my father and my mother met because they were a close community in Mount Pleasant, strict Methodist and worked in their own, and lived and worked in their own area except for mother. Like lots of the young girls in those days, became sewers
and went into some of the mills that were operating in Ballarat. There is one run by Myers, one by Morleys and one by Lucas and my mother went into the Lucas establishment, which had a very good reputation for manufacturing various ladies lingerie,
slips all sorts of things. And it was a very successful and a very big company. So she was very good at sewing. But ultimately she obviously met my father and they married and naturally became the housewife, as was the thing in those days. Once a person married, the lady gave up work and became the housewife.
They had four children, 2 brothers and myself and a sister. The older boy on finishing primary school went to high school and after graduation he joined my father in the bakehouse. My mother didn’t like the bakehouse much because she claimed it had a very ill effect on my father’s health. And
also she didn’t like the hours that they had to work in those days. Because remember it was 6 days a week for trading and the busiest times were Christmas and Easter when most people were enjoying holidays, etcetera. And so she decided the two younger boys would not work in the business. We had to go out and find work elsewhere.
Whether that was the right decision or not, in retrospect now I don’t know but that’s what happened. So I got a job as a junior draughtsman at a company called M.B. John Pty Ltd who were valve manufacturers and a very successful company. And my younger brother when he left work, became a sheet metal worker at another local
company which was also successful, but since he was three years younger than me fortunately he did not get involved in War service.
Can I ask did your father or grandfather or any of your relatives have any involvement in the First World War?
No. During the First World War my father was too young to go into the army and
my grandfather was considered too old, and running the bakery business also considered an essential service so they weren’t involved in the war at all. So that didn’t, I had a cousin, my fathers, my uncle that is the one who left the family business and started on
his own, he had a son who joined the army at the outbreak of war. He was a little older than us and he joined the AIF [Australian Imperial Force] and was sent to the Middle East early in the war. And one of the first battles that the AIF was engaged in was at a place called Bardia and he was killed, which was a tragedy for the family.
My older brother, being 2 years older than me was 18 in 1941, but he was called into the army, but he served in the army for a short time then asked to be transferred to the air force, so he became an airman as well. Strange as it seems he also became an air gunner. But instead of being
sent to England he was sent to the north of Australia to help to crew up squadrons that were operating from the Northern Territory, principally by Dutch air force. And it was a mixed type of group he was with, there were a lot of Dutch airman cause if you bear in mind
in those days Indonesia, Timor was Dutch colonies so to speak, known as the Dutch East Indies. And they had lots of influence there naturally and lots of investment. So there were a lot of Dutch people there. They were equipped with American, they were trained and equipped with some American aircraft and based in the Northern Territory
at about 60 or 80 miles south of Darwin. And they use to fly on operations across to New Guinea and various islands from that base. So he was similar to myself except that he was in a different theatre of war.
Was his involvement before… He joined up before you did, I gather?
Oh yes, yes.
Did his involvement have any influence upon you and your desire to get involved?
I think there was an influence there, I think I had joined what was known as the ATC, the Air Training Corps, because I had, if I was required to go to the war and as it turned out I wasn’t, I was in a protected industry. But if I was required to go I wanted to be an airman. So to help this process I joined the
ATC, which Air Training Corps, which in those days was like army cadets, like school cadets and the likes of that. And I think that helped in my ultimate decision to proceed with in when the time came and I turned 18. Because there was lots of Ballarat fellows in the ATC and we use to have a good time. We used to do a lot of training but we also use to have a reasonably good time
and we were all mates so we decided, I presume, lets all get into the air force because that’s what we want.
Why the air force as opposed to the army or navy?
oh I don’t know, I don’t know that I could answer that because when I was very small if anything I would have liked to have been in the navy. But as time went on I changed and
I don’t know why that was, in the early days of the war, in the early 1940s late 1930s was customary for us kids to go to the pictures sometimes, it was Saturday night and there would be newsreels and that would be showing the air Battle of Britain and the air wars over Britain and you’d see nice, what we considered
nice shots from Spitfires firing guns and shooting down German aircraft, we thought gee that’s the shot, so we joined the air force. And like over 90% of those who went in wanting to be aircrew, we all wanted to be a fighter pilot. I think that was the aim of the majority of the young fellows who joined. Bear in mind you’re eighteen your adventurous, you’re like the kids of today
getting their first car, which of course wasn’t happening in our day but I think that was perhaps you know the adventure side of it, the… Being in the army and slogging along sort of didn’t appeal to us but up there flying an aircraft around oh yes, yes we’d like that. So the air force was number one.
And how long were you in the ATC,
the Air Training Corps?
I was in the ATC for about 18 months to 2 years. I joined when I was 16.
And you were already a draughtsman by then?
Yes, and the ATC it was like a cadet corps it was after tea at night or Saturdays and Sundays we’d be training and doing various things. Elementary stuff but nevertheless, we had a nice air force uniform to parade around in.
And we’d go on into, into city trips we’d go to Bendigo and play them football or do various things like that and if there happened to be a parade in the town well the ATC was asked to go because we were a nice group of fellows who knew march and we were in a uniform. So they would have a band playing and we were on you see. And it was a good bunch of fellows. Cause we knew one another, Ballarat being a smallish town you
know lots of people and I think that’s how it developed.
Were their mates from that group who followed you through to the working with the RAAF?
Well the strange thing was, naturally you didn’t get called into the service until you turned 18 and so naturally all the fellows didn’t have birthdays on the same date or anything. When you
turned 18 you still had to wait for your call. But because you had a priority of the air force it was normal for the army to grab everybody who turned 18, everyone, however as lots of young fellows were working in protective industries naturally they couldn’t take them. And I think that helped me for the first couple of months after I turned 18, I turned 18 in the February
and I was called up in May, so that’s…and the day I was called up I think there was only one other fellow from the ATC in Ballarat who was called at the same time. The rest of them, some had already been taken in, others were still waiting their call or hadn’t turned 18 or whatever, so that’s the way it was, so when we ultimately
got to our first initial training school in Bradfield Park in Sydney, there was only one or two other Ballarat chaps on the station, the rest were from all over the country. So you started off afresh as far as making friends were concerned.
How did your parents feel about your involvement, first of all with the ATC and then you enlisting with the air force?
They were quite happy with me being in the
T.C. Mother was not at all happy when I was called up cause she knew that really I didn’t have to go but since my brother was already there, I was very anxious to go but my mother was not at all, she was quite upset about it. Particularly as my cousin had been killed and I suppose it’s normal for mothers
to read the casualty list rather than the other side of thing. They’re inclined to worry that way, so she wasn’t too happy and she shed a few tears as she said goodbye at the railway station. And I suppose when I got to Bradfield Park after the first couple of days I was homesick too because I wasn’t accustomed to the discipline and the routine that went on but you grew out of that.
So the training at the ATC, what was that mainly?
Well it was mainly on, we were learning to do a little bit of Morse code, we learnt a bit of geography, a little bit of navigation, practice and various trigonometry things etc, bit of schooling and drill and physical training for fitness and since it was only 2 or 3 hours a week
you didn’t get a great deal but it helped just the same.
What did you know about planes at that point?
Other than aircraft recognition, I didn’t know much about it. We were taught aircraft recognition, you know, the difference between this one and that one, a Spitfire or a bomber, a Messerschmitt or whatever, we were taught all that and we grew to know that fairly well. Because aircraft recognition was
a rather important thing. And there’s a lot more in that than meets the eye actually particularly when you’ve got to know all the …you have to be able to recognise them from various angles, not just side on where you could see the insignia or anything. And there was such a large variety of them that, that took
quite a bit of doing actually but never the less we had a quite a lot of that training.
What do you remember of that time when you were called up, what was going through your mind?
I don’t know, I think, I think what was going through my mind probably was all fanciful things. That
once that I entered the service they would make me a pilot. And I would be a very good one and but I think that was similar to the thoughts of most of the other young people at that time. Remember when you’re 18 it’s and I’m now 78, you’re trying to think back and feel it.
I tend to look at my grandsons, think that they do some silly things but then I remember that perhaps I was that age myself at one time and whilst the circumstances were different, the train of thought was perhaps the same. I can’t single out any one thing that would
help in that regard, I don’t think.
What sense did you have of the war? I mean you obviously you had newsreels and newspapers?
Well, I think the sense that we had, when I was at that age and at that stage, was somewhat concerning, very
concerning because the European theatre was dominated by what Germany was doing thanks to Hitler and the amount of territory that the German forces had occupied. To this day I still don’t know why he didn’t go into England but that was a stroke of luck that he changed
his mind and tended to go to Russia instead. And also we were astounded at the progress being made by the Japanese. Everybody I think grossly underestimated the Japanese, I think they didn’t concentrate on them very much to try and find out a great deal because we were in our young days brought up to know that
there was a place south of Malaysia called Singapore which was impregnable and the English had that and there’s no problem, they’ll keep the Japanese out of Malaysia, etc. And I think everybody was so surprised, how easy the Japanese came down and took all of that. And then when they sent the, when the English, or Churchill
sent their two biggest best battleships out to Singapore to boost morale and to carry the flag and a few weeks later they were sunk by aircraft, it started to hit home that there’s something to be reckoned with up there and so when we joined the air force, of course we didn’t know what theatre we would
end up being sent to but it was …I think the thought was worry, worry of what the future was going to hold because we’re not sure how far either the European or the Northern Pacific
area was going to go. And when Hitler perhaps made a mistake and turned to Russia instead of England the Japanese made a mistake and bombed Pearl Harbour and I think that initially set things in motion
which brought America really into it because without them we couldn’t have done anything like what happened.
You joined in ’43, is that correct?
So the Japanese threat, that was already, that had been there …?
The Japanese were already in.
Can I ask before that when the war was concentrated in Europe what did you think Australia was fighting for? Why did you think Australia was there and why did you..?
Well we didn’t have to think.
When Britain declared war on Germany we were part of the British Empire, so it was automatic for our Prime Minister at the time to say we are also at war. There wasn’t a second thought given. Who was in, Menzies or whoever it was at the time, because
we were actually, you could almost say that we were a big county of the UK. And we stood for Mother England. Indeed during our years at primary school, each Monday morning we would be assembled in the quadrangle and they would raise the flag
and all the kids would have to say, “We will honour the King and serve the country,” as the flag was raised. And that’s the way we were brought up and so we didn’t know anything different. So when England declared war on Germany it was only automatic, it wasn’t should we or shouldn’t we, it was just automatic. And see we were
young so we just naturally accepted, and our parents accepted that, everybody accepted that. I don’t think there was any, I can’t remember of anybody dissenting.
Were there any changes to that point of view when the Japanese got involved?
Well when the Japanese got involved we had to be involved because they were coming south, and the British Empire
was involved because Singapore was one of the first. When they come down through Malaysia. And Malaya of course had been very British orientated too in the early days and so it was just, India was part of the British Empire.
so obviously at that time it was something that people didn’t question. You know the Mother Country was fighting a war so we were there.
For you personally has that sort of sense of affiliation changed over time during the war and since?
Well I’m sure it has for lots of younger people, for us older fellows it’s still pretty much the same.
Still very much the same. I’m in the Legacy Club, have been for a few years and we have a luncheon every Friday followed by a meeting or a speaker and the final thing we do is sing the Royal Anthem, every week. Now if
if the club was formed nowadays with a lot younger people, that wouldn’t happen, they might sing Advance Australia Fair and indeed there was a move to have us sing that our own National Anthem instead of the Royal Anthem, but at the time the vote was taken the World War II fellows outnumbered the Vietnam Veterans, but as time
goes on our fellows are dying or retiring or becoming disabled and we’re getting more ex Vietnam fellows to come in to take our place because we want Legacy to keep going you see because as you know the Legacy looks after the widows and orphan children of deceased servicemen. And that will continue for an awful long time. But because we’re getting too old, so we’re getting younger members
in, I’m sure if a vote was taken again this year or next year or whatever that would change or alternatively we would sing both. That’s my feeling.
We were talking before about your time at the ATC and the call up and you went to Sydney I believe, Bradfield Park is that correct, can you tell us about that,
about that experience?
Yes that surprised me in a way because there was an ITS [Initial Training School] at Somers in Victoria which was a good one down near the beach, I’m told. But for some reason we were sent to Bradfield Park. And we had to march from Russell Street, when I say march, walk because there was a lot of fellows and they were all in civilian and just carrying
a bag of some description from Russell Street, down Bourke Street to Spencer Street. And were put on, above all, the Spirit of Progress – which was the interstate express at that time – and taken to Albury where we had to transfer to a New South Wales train and we were taken to Sydney. And when we got to Central Station we had to change platforms to
get onto a suburban train to take us to Lindfield, which was one of the outer suburbs North of Sydney, and from there buses were waiting for us to take us to Bradfield Park, which was an air force ITS Training School. And we spent, I think from memory it was 6 weeks there I think, which was quite good really because whilst I was not at all happy with some of the …
when you leave a nice comfortable home and you’re put into a camp and you’ve got to get up as the bugle call was played over the tannoy system at about 6 in the morning, and they would be very cold morning too, some of them, almost as bad as ours, and go down to a long building where there
was just a row of basins and a row of open showers on concrete floors, and we were young kids and we would have to go up to, after the shower, getting dress, had to have a shave of course, and go up to have breakfast and we were given a rectangular aluminium cup, two containers and you’d line up to collect your breakfast
and into one they would put some cereal and some milk and into the other they’d put a nice fried egg which would immediately go hard when it hit what’s it. And so the first few days I started to feel homesick. After breakfast we’d have to go out onto the parade ground on the run, never walking, always on the run somewhere, lined up
and we had a beret, combination overalls done up to the neck and boots, black boots and lined up and then the corporal drill instructor would come along and look at us all very, very closely and shoes to make sure there’s not a speck of dust on them and all that sort of thing.
And then he’d look into me very closely, he’d look at my face and say, “Wilkie did you shave this morning?” Well in those young days I use to shave at night because I didn’t grow the whiskers very fast, so I would only shave at night and so I said, “No, corporal, I shaved last night,” and he said, “Wilkie, tomorrow morning you will shave from mornings, forget about the night stuff,
it’s every morning from now on.” And that was our first parade but he went through every man, walked around them to make sure everything was spick and span. And after that if you were caught you were really abused in front of every other person on the parade ground until he was absolutely satisfied that you were 100 per cent and then he would present you to the officer in charge and salute him and walk away.
So the strict discipline, of a morning we had a, we had a palliasse made from hessian which we filled with straw, that was our mattress and we were given three blankets and each morning the palliasse had to be folded up to a neat square thing, we’d fold it once, and twice
and then on top of that we’d have to put the blankets and they’d have to be folded in a specific way and the last blanket would be put around the others. And it had to be 100 per cent perfect the way it was folded; otherwise you’d be hauled over the coals again. So I suppose all of that was good discipline but
when you’re that age and you’ve come from a nice home it takes a bit of getting use to. But getting us to it we did, we settled down and we realised it was part of training so. We couldn’t see the reason for it but it was just another way of instilling discipline I suppose into all the young recruits. We found it was rather hard but the beauty of Bradfield Park was that it was a suburb of Sydney.
So of a Friday night we would get a leave pass for the weekend, so we’d hop on the bus and go to Lindfield and get an electric train into the city and we were able to enjoy the sights of Sydney.
End of tape
Interviewee: William Wilkie Archive ID 0516 Tape 03
So you were up to Bradfield Park and your first leave? How long had you been you know been in the air force for by that stage?
Oh that was, first day from Ballarat to Melbourne, that afternoon from Melbourne to Sydney and on arriving in Sydney
straight to Bradfield Park, so I’d only been in the air force a day really when we arrived at Bradfield Park.
And so by the time you had leave in Sydney, how many weeks had you done at Bradfield Park?
Well we’d been in Sydney 6 weeks but we would have weekend leave. Normally the station would close Friday night and you’d have to be back Sunday night, sometimes
we had to be back Saturday night but mostly we had the two days leave at the weekend, each weekend. Until we had complete the course of 6 weeks and then we were sent off to wireless operators school, which was situated out at Parkes, New South Wales which was funny because there was a wireless operators school in Ballarat, out at the local aerodrome
here. But that was full of airmen from South Australia and Western Australia and other areas whilst we were sent to the one in New South Wales, whether that was done deliberate or whether it was just done because of the numbers coming and going in various courses I don’t know, but that’s what happened to me. So I was sent to Parkes in New South Wales which was a wireless operators
course, but I wasn’t too happy with that but nevertheless I had to go through a fair bit of it before they would give me permission to leave so I was there for 2 or 3 months before I was let to go to Sale.
So why weren’t you happy about doing the wireless operators Course?
I think, I think it was one, I didn’t like radio theory
at all and because I wanted to be a pilot, if not a navigator, if not shoot the guns. I was not interested in wireless or wireless theory. I learned as did all the other trainees Morse code and I could send and receive Morse code at 24 to 30 words a minute. I was very proficient at
that but radio theory just didn’t interest me and I didn’t like it. So I said, “Why can’t I become an air gunner?” And after they, after several attempts they agreed that they would let me do that so I went off course as they termed it in those days to head for another school for air gunnery training and that was situated down at Sale,
So this was not completing the wireless course, before you’d completed that you went down to Sale?
Mmmm. I left the wireless course, a month or 6 weeks earlier than the rest of the fellows, there were several of us doing it, I wasn’t alone but we moved out and went to Sale to do an air gunners course. And
the strange part about it was, we didn’t realise it then but we realised it later on, particularly when we got to England that in our mind they had things around the wrong way in Australia. For when we went to England, all the aircraft that we would be flying in were bombers
and everyone needed at least 2 air gunners to one wireless operator, but out here they were insisting that they train a lot more wireless operators, then they trained air gunners but that’s just one of the idiosyncrasies of the air force at the time and
they may of have reason for it but in our way of thinking it was rather amusing because I’ll relate something different about that later on.
How did you find the organisational side of the air force as a young recruit?
How did I find it?
Were they very organised?
Well I didn’t, that was my first experience in the services so I really didn’t have anything
to compare it with. So I just presumed that everything was, other than what I just mentioned, that everything was what one would have to put up with, like it or not because I hadn’t been in other services, so I couldn’t compare. But I just believed that the air force ultimately was the top service
if you asked a sailor he would always say navy was always number one and army fellows would possibly have the same reaction I suppose, but that was the way I viewed it.
So you went to Air Gunnery School, you went off to do your gunnery training?
Yeah, can you tell me about that?
Well when we arrived at
West Sale there were two airbases, two air force camps at Sale, one was East Sale which was training pilots and one was West Sale which was training air gunners. And the aircraft that we were involved in were called Avro Ansons and first of all we were given extensive training on the machines guns that we would be using which were,
probably Brownings is the name of the gun, on the ground and sitting in turrets which were mounted on the ground and firing at targets on a gunnery range, and after the experience of doing that, then we were introduced to aircraft and the Avro Ansons had a turret, a midships fitted with a Browning machine gun, so we were taken aloft
on numerous occasions on the Anson and the air force would arrange for another aircraft to be flying abreast and towing a target, we use to call it a drogue, they would, on a long cable from the towing aircraft, they would put out this drogue as we called it. Which was like a
long tubular canvas balloon so to speak. And we would fly alongside of that and when we got at a certain range and a certain distance we would open fire and the number of holes you put in the drogue was counted as a score of the number of hits. Problem
was on many occasion the bullets would sever the cable and the drogue kept drifting away but never the less it was good training because as you may recall, or you may know I mean that when you’re flying it’s never lovely and smooth like a motor car on a concrete road, it’s there’s always
turbulence in the air which, and particularly on smaller aircraft, you notice it more. You’re up and down or moving and likewise the aircraft towing the target would be the same. So it was not just easy peashooter stuff, it was, you always had to vary the position of the guns. Well of course that was part of the training. So that you could
endeavour to hit the target with as many rounds as possible. And of course the machine guns if they’re in very good conditions can fire up to 500 rounds a minute but of course we would never run the gun for a minute, anyway you’d always fire them in bursts of so many seconds because that would naturally shoot off so many rounds and you’d have to
re-adjust your sights of course. Because you have to sight the gun naturally before you fire, and so this went on for 3 or 4 weeks while we were doing the training.
From what position on the plane were you gunning from during that training?
There’s a turret in the …around about the middle of the Avro Anson that’s the training planes, and there’s a turret on the midships upper side
with the machine gun mounted in that. And so you just moved the turret until you were lined up the gun sight with the target and let go. And we had to do that until we were proved proficient which was usually the case after 3 or 4 weeks training, so that turned out quite good.
So you were happy about your choice?
yes I was happy, well I wasn’t happy in so far as I wanted to be a pilot. But still that was ruled out, so I was happy with the ultimate choice, yes.
So can you tell me a bit more about the guns and you know as a new recruit, like it’s something very new for you to go up in planes and work these guns, what was it like the first time that you did it?
Well the first
time up in the air, I was a little apprehensive because I don’t know, still very young and I suppose it was an adventure and what was in my mind was that I didn’t want to fail the course. And I think that was in all recruits
minds because you wanted to progress and you wanted to keep on going. After all, the object of going into the air force was to do your service for the country I suppose, you see. There was a war on and that’s what was in everybody’s mind so you were automatically doing something towards the war effort.
Everyone had to do their little bit and if my little bit was to be able to protect or defend or shoot down or whatever, that was the long-term aim, so that was in our minds when we were going through our training. Naturally we had relaxation times on the camps and the only place where we could relax
in that area was of course the town of Sale. And I can remember well on one occasion we went into Sale, we had the day off and we went into Sale on the Saturday morning and we went to the local swimming pool, we were really enjoying ourselves and a couple of nice young girls come
along and we got pally, so we got a bit adventurous and we said hows about coming to the dance in the town, Saturday night and we said right we’ll meet you there. So off we went back to the camp, had our meal, back to our quarters, had our shower put on our dress uniform, collar and tie about to leave and in the door comes the service police and said we want
three volunteers to go on guard duty tonight you, you and you so that was the end of our adventure in Sale. And so we put on guard duty and I was handed a rifle at the guardhouse and put out on the petrol dump to stand guard for four hours on the Saturday night. So anyway that was our last opportunity of going into Sale
so our passing out parade was the following week and after that we just had to pack up our bags go in and hop on the train and go to Melbourne. So when we got to Melbourne we were put into 1ED as it was called, an embarkation depot, which was the Melbourne Cricket Ground. And that had been converted to living quarters.
They were rather drafty but never the less the fronts of the old stands were boarded up and we were on tiers naturally because it was built up as a grandstand but we made do. And down underneath was the ablutions area, showers, messes all that sort of thing. We were given some leave so I
was able to come home to Ballarat to the family. And spend almost a week in Ballarat on leave.
So just going back to the MCG, what….?
So when the leave expired we went back to the MCG, which is the 1ED it was called, and our particular course that had come up from Sale, were gathered on parade and they read out so many names,
“Would the following airmen please put their hand up when their names called.” And when they finished that, “Right, all of you fellows fall out over onto the side. Now you’ll be all going to England and so get your gear together.”
So you, sorry I perhaps confused you….you went for leave, so you’re at the MCG waiting for
embarkation, didn’t know where you were going to and went home to Ballarat for a week to see you family, so tell me about that, tell me about the week with your family?
Well I came home to Ballarat and naturally me parents were pleased to have me home. They were also involved, Ballarat had an air force camp here and
nearly all the trainees were from interstate, so it was customary for many, if not most Ballarat people to invite an airman in perhaps Sunday night or something like that or perhaps for a weekend. And this was happening and also the American army and marines who were involved in the Pacific area
were arriving in Ballarat, and they established a very big camp here in what’s known as Victoria Park, a local park at the top end of Sturt Street, Ballarat. They took that over completely and made a big camp there. So it was loaded with American servicemen, many of whom had been fighting in the Islands and they’d come down for rest and recreation leave. So they spent a few weeks here, and many
Ballarat households invited American servicemen into their home too. So whilst I was on leave, I met some of these fellows and we shared quite a bit of information with one another about various training, and where do you come from and all that sort of thing. Got familiar with them and on, I presume on the Saturday night we went to the local dance again and met up
with a lot of girlfriends that we knew and had a good time and spent the rest of the week renewing acquaintances around the town and saying goodbye, cause I’ll be off somewhere, I don’t know where but we’ll be off. But that was the norm because I wasn’t the only one doing this; there were lots of servicemen, army, navy, air force coming and going like this.
So it was sort of a …I suppose it was a very nice time to be able to get back into your own bed and sleep between sheets, etc., and have some home cooking and of course the day comes when you have to return and of course that’s when some tears are shed again and so forth and ..?
Did you have a girlfriend in Ballarat?
Yes I did. Not all that serious
but nevertheless I did have a girlfriend. Unlike today where my grandsons seem to acquire a girlfriend and that’s it. In our day we had a girlfriend for a couple of months and then we had another girlfriend for a couple of months etcetera, but it was all a very social, sociable sort of thing. And we, I suppose it was our family upbringing
I suppose, but, and Ballarat being a small town and a very for the most part conservative town, I suppose that we’d thought that we let our hair down Saturday nights but actually what we were doing was just having a good time, enjoying the company of the girls that we were with, respecting them, taking them home, kiss
goodnight at the gate and then go home again sort of thing, and that was it. And that would go on for a while and then you’d find another girl or else the girl would find another boy or something and that’s the sort of thing that went on, it was a very sociable atmosphere, which we enjoyed because that seemed to be the norm at the time. Cause we were still so young, we seemed to be, at 18 and 19 we seem to be younger
than what the 18s and 19s are today, if you can understand what I mean. And of course it was wartime so there was a lot or rationing and restrictions and all that sort of thing so.
Did you dance to the dances that you had in Ballarat, did you dance to a live band?
Was it a live band that was..?
Oh yes, yes, yeah.
What sort of music?
Oh yes, there were 3 or 4 dances held in Ballarat each Saturday night. In those days you danced with a girl, nowadays it doesn’t seem to matter because you might; it was ballroom type of dancing. The type of rock and roll, jigging stuff wasn’t invented in those days, so you had a partner
for each dance. And you would go dress neatly, a pair of sports trousers, a sports coat, collar and tie. The girls would come along in a nice dress, party dress or something, that was the norm and then everybody was similar. And so I naturally frown when I see them going out in
Jeans and funny old sorts of things nowadays because that just didn’t happen when we were young. But that’s the way time moves on but yes we did have a good time, we really enjoyed it.
So when it came time to leave Ballarat at the end of that week you would have been, how were you feeling were you?
Oh I think I was looking forward to what was in front of
us after all we were now use to being in the service cause I’d been in the service now for what 6 or 9 months of something. And so we were accustomed to it and we’d grown to know a lot of other friends who we’d met from different areas, Melbourne fellows, Sydney fellows, country fellows and we’d joined together as comrades.
So I think I was still looking for the adventure of what was next, what was coming up. I wasn’t at all apprehensive we just looking forward, gee this is going to be all right sort of thing.
Okay so you got back to Melbourne
Yeah, can you tell me about that, when you knew that you were going to England?
we knew that we were going to England and a small group of them were going to go north to Darwin. We thought this is great going overseas, an adventure. So they put us on trucks with our gear and took us to Spencer Street Station and put us onto a troop train, which was a little bit different to the passenger expresses.
Not quite as comfortable but never the less and they took us straight through to Brisbane. We had to change trains at Albury and we had to change again at Sydney and then the train took us to Brisbane now that was a rather long journey in those days because we weren’t in nice comfortable sleepers with porters or anything. And on arrival at Brisbane we were taken out to a camp at
Indooroopilly was the name of the suburb and we were only there for one or two nights, when we were put on trucks and taken to the wharf and put on board a ship. And the ship was called United States Army Transport Sea Corporal was the name of the ship, it was a victory ship which was a, one of the mass produced ships
that the Americans were doing. They had to my knowledge several types, one was called a Liberty ship and some were called Victory ships, they were mass produced, fully welded construction which was different in those days because most of the Liners were riveted. And this was stripped down to its bare essentials, we go down we’re put
down into the holds, which was in tiered bunks, four high, because there was a consignment of about eleven hundred of us I suppose on board this ship. And we get put into our quarters for the night, the next morning we find ourself out in the ocean and we didn’t even see much of Brisbane because we left at night
and the ship was cruising along at a reasonable speed, I don’t know what it was doing but probably 20 knots I suppose, 20, 22 knots or something, and it was an American ship with an American crew. Now the idea was that we would be fed twice a day and this for most of us was our first experience on a sea
voyage so seasickness took hold of quite a few of us. Fortunately it didn’t affect me a great deal, yes I felt uncomfortable, yes I felt nauseated but I didn’t reach the stage where I was sick. But the funny part was when we called down to our meal, we had to walk through certain corridors down in the bowels of the ship
to get to the mess room where we were going to have our meal. But it was cafeteria style, you were given the plates and you had to walk past the food service. Now we weren’t far from the engine room, so there was the smell of burning oil permeating through that area of the ship. And
when we entered the area of where the food was being served, it was rather hot, it was a bit smelly and they were mostly American Negroes who were sweating profusely, serving out the food. Now those of the men who were a bit wonky at the time could only turn around and go back again, they couldn’t, they got too sick to go through, fortunately I was all
right. But we, after passing through that room we went to another mess room where there were long tables and forms and we sat down there and ate the meal, but bear in mind the ship was pitching and tossing and rolling with the swell with the ocean and not much ventilation in that area. So after the meal naturally we were able to come up on deck again and get some fresh air and felt a lot better.
I can remember when we cross the International Date Line, so we had two Sundays, the padre on board, which was an American padre, chaplain conducted a church service on the deck on one day and the next day did the same again because it was two Sundays, that’s what happens when you cross the International Date Line when you’re travelling east.
Probably if you’re coming the other way you probably skip a day I suppose but anyway. Now the chaplain he also had a lot of goodies to hand out, in the form of fruit and some chocolate bars and cigarettes and during the course of the day he would conduct some deck games for us, mostly bingo
and the likes of that. Just to pass the time. And we would be given news broadcast on the Tannoy speaker system to tell us the progress of the war and then in the evening time every night at dusk we would be ordered below decks. And the order from the captain was it was now blackout time
and he would go through the same thing every night. Every night, every door must be covered, the black out curtains had to be drawn, all port holes had to be covered, there is to be no smoking, no cigarettes of any kind above decks whatsoever and this happened every night. And the garbage detail would they lay aft, which means would they go down the back and dispose of the garbage
because apparently lots of the garbage that was disposed of would float for a few days and if perchance submarines surfaced and found garbage, they would know that there was a ship had been in the vicinity. So what they would do, would be dispose of that on dusk, so by the time it maybe found we’d be very, very many miles away and, but that was the routine
that we got accustomed to hearing every night, and for memory, I think from memory it was about a 16 day trip or something across the Pacific because we went non-stop to San Francisco.
Did you see any war activity on the way?
Didn’t see a thing, one night when we were bedded down around midnight
we felt an enormous bump and the ship shooked but kept going, and making enquiries next day as to what on earth had happened one of the crew members said not to worry we hit a whale and because being in the Pacific
where there was activity by Japanese submarines we were all a little bit apprehensive but we were young and adventurous, she’ll be right, but when we felt this bump, it gave us all a scare naturally. But anyway they claimed that they hit a whale or something and I don’t know whether that happened very often or not, I would say that it would be a very, very rare occasion, I would say.
But travelling at night in pitch dark. And the closer, the strange thing was the closer we got to San Francisco the more liberal the chaplain became in handing out his goodies, cigarettes in particular, American cigarettes. We were being given so many cigarettes we didn’t know what to do with them.
They were American brands of course, Lucky Strikes, Camels, Phillip Morris, Old Gold you name it and if we felt one that wasn’t much chop we’d go and throw the packet overboard and get another packet, it seemed like a terrible waste. And the same happened with what fruit that he’d had in his cool store, orange and apples and things he became more and more liberal. We found out later the ship entered San Francisco Harbour, sailed under the
Golden Gate Bridge and pulled up at a wharf in their docking area. And we then found out that in the dock adjacent to where the ship was wharfed was one complete consignment of goods to go on the ship. Everything that they’d had on the previous had to be disposed of completely because there was no stocktaking or anything like that, that was a quick
turnaround so they had everything organised to dispose of rubbish, empty cartons and put one consignment back on the ship complete, load the troops and off the ship was off again. That was the way the Americans were working at the time and it was a very quick turnaround for the ship. We were put on a small ferry, well when I say a small ferry it was enough to take our consignment
and take it across to Angel Island. Which was in San Francisco harbour. On the way to Angel Island we past Alcatraz, which was their penal colony of course, their penal island. And the ferry people told us that’s what it was. So they claimed that no one had ever escaped there and got away with it so, we believed them.
And when we got to Angel Island and we marched from the wharf and assigned to quarters, we couldn’t believe it, we thought it was a five star hotel actually. Very nice, very nice two storey building, it accommodated most of us. True it was dormitory style but the facilities were so good.
So just tell me, when you talk about we you’re talking about
the Australian, the RAAF guys?
You’re talking about the RAAF guys that were taken…
to Angel Island?
Now Angel Island was an American army camp. America, of course population wise, is a much much bigger country than Australia, much more wealthy and it was even
in those times too of course. And we couldn’t believe the size of the army camp, there was a complete bus service running around the camp all the time, it was so big. Their canteens or PXs [Post Exchange – American canteen unit] as they use to call them, to us were more like a big department store. Their food messes
from our point of view looked more like dining rooms and the bedding that we were given, lovely beds and sheets and everything, we weren’t accustomed to that because when we were in our own base camp we didn’t have sheets. So we thought, “This is great, hopefully they’ll leave us here for a while.” Well they did, they let us go into San Francisco for a day and a night to have a look around the place on leave, use to sort of
recreation after the voyage across the Pacific. So we went into San Francisco and had a look at the town and of course being young and silly we didn’t look at the sights that perhaps we ought to do if we were tourists but we went down to China Town and went down to the wharf area and went up Market Street and just did a few, I suppose silly things, what kids do, but never the less we really enjoyed it.
What did you do?
Oh I think, first of all we went and found a nice restaurant and had a nice meal and then we walked up the shopping area of Market Street, which at those times was their principal one. Tried to meet a couple of girls but they thought we were foreigners so they wouldn’t have anything to do with us.
Did you tell them you were Australians?
Tried to go to a dance with two, we did actually we went to a dance,
and we did have an enjoyable time there. We didn’t make any connections or at all as far as girls were concerned but nether the less we had a good time and then we were restricted on the amount of time we had, so I think from memory we spent the night in San Francisco then we had to get the ferry back a certain time the following morning to go back to Angel Island again. And after back there
How did you find being Australians, you know were they friendly towards you as Australians?
Yes, yeah the people were friendly towards us. Young girls were very apprehensive and I suppose that’s understandable I don’t know. But all right at the dance, quite all right because we had the word Australia on our shoulders on the uniform and once they spotted that
and they realised gee they can speak English too but in a funny sort of a way. Ah we got on quite all right then. And so it wasn’t only a day or so after that we had to pack up and we were taken by the ferry back to the mainland and put on a train. And that train was
the longest trip we were going to have in a train.
Just before the train trip, what were you actually doing on Angel Island, what was the purpose of that?
That was merely a transit camp from our point of view. It was a place to put us when we arrived in America, while we were waiting for the train to be organised to take us across America. And at the same time give us a bit of
recreation leave after having sailed across the Pacific, non-stop, we didn’t even see an island, so it was a long voyage.
End of tape
Interviewee: William Wilkie Archive ID 0516 Tape 04
From Angel Island we were put on a ferry and taken to Oakland which is part of San Francisco another town on the other side of the Harbour, put on a train and sent across America. We went though Utah, Nevada, through Salt Lake City, we went through Kansas, Pennsylvania, Colorado
along the Colorado River, we went through all quite a lot of states, even through Chicago, down into New York State and then into New Jersey, which of course adjoins New York City, and there we were taken off the train and put into another American army camp called Camp Shanks.
So tell me how long was
that journey and what were the conditions like?
You’ll have to stop the tape a minute. It was extremely long and we were in what was know as Pullman cars and each Pullman’s carriage had a couple of porters, usually Negro porters, and they dropped the bunks for us each night. Because there were upper and lower bunks
in each compartment, four to a compartment and they brought us meals along as well. They looked after us quite well so by the time we’d finished the journey we took up a collection and gave them a nice tip, probably not as what they would have got from Zurlians I suppose but never the less they appreciated it. So it was an interesting journey right across America actually,
but to go into individual detail that would be a bit difficult without making reference to diaries.
Is there anything that stands out for you, an event or an incident or a town?
Yes, I was very intrigued with Utah and Salt Lake City but I think the most picturesque of the lot was Colorado and another couple of..
They tended to stop the train from refuelling at small places and they wouldn’t let us out of the station area. I think that was for obvious reason because it would take a lot of rounding us up again I suppose. So when the train come in we could talk to people who were in the vicinity of the station at the time because naturally the local population weren’t told in advance that
there’s a trainload of Australian airmen coming through. So we would talk to some of the locals and learn a little bit about their area before the train would take off again and I suppose going through the yards in Chicago was interesting, they didn’t stop the train in Chicago and obviously they didn’t want to do that, they’d never get us all back again at the same time.
So it went straight through but never the less we could see quite a bit of the skyline of Chicago and the railway yards, which were extremely extensive. And the on we went to ultimately arriving in through New York State into New Jersey, to a railway station close to this American army camp called Camp Shanks. And if anything
that was not quite as modern as the one on Angel Island in San Francisco but never the less was extremely big. And lots of the American troops there were preparing to head to Europe, to England. They had very big dance hall on the camp and we went there the first night and
enjoyed ourself and on the following morning we were given leave to go into New York city. That in itself was an experience because New York City is an enormous place, it was in those times compared to what we’d been use to. We had a look at Radio City, the Empire State Building, the New York Harbour, the Statue of Liberty those sort of prominent sightseeing things.
And we also did a little bit of shopping in a couple of the streets, we walked down Broadway, Fifth Avenue etc, the things that we’d heard about or read about on film and I suppose we basically had a good sightseeing time. We did
one funny thing, we went into a bar in the city, just for the fun of it. I was a teetotaller at the time but my friends liked to have a beer, and we went into this bar in New York City and that was an experience for us because we were only in there a couple of minutes and a couple of young women who
were painted up, came and sat along on the stools alongside of us and said, “Would you men care to buy us a drink?” you know and of course we thought, “Oh yeah, why not? We’ll buy them a drink.” And shortly after that an American army lieutenant come over to us and called us aside and he said, “I noticed you’re Australians
cause you’ve got it on your shoulder and you’re pretty young.” He said, “Don’t take too much notice or encourage those girls. They’re what they call taxi girls. Their object is to be fed and supplied with wine and given a good time, and then charge you for it, and you’ll go home to camp broke.” And so we said, “Well thanks for the tip.” We weren’t accustomed
to that, and that was one little experience we had in New York. So we finished our drink and decided to leave the bar. But that apparently wasn’t uncommon or was not uncommon at that time. So the following day we did a little bit more sightseeing around New York City and then we had to go back to camp because our
leave had expired, and on the following day we were told to prepare because we were going to be leaving. We were marched down to the railway siding and put on a train and the train went through New York and down to the wharves. And it pulled up and as we alighted all we could see was this great, big grey mass but we looked up and you could see it was a ship
and when we were, started to embark it was through a small hole in the side of the ship and there were a couple of crewmen inside and we said, “What ship is it?” and he said, “Queen Elizabeth,” so we weren’t all that surprised when we saw the size of thing alongside the wharf but we couldn’t see the name on the bow or the stern because they were too far away from us. So the crewmen
told us what ship it was. But through lots of other doorways in the side of the ship there were lots of troops, American Troops embarking as well as our group of Australian airmen. And we learnt later on that there were 15,000 American troops on board that was almost a full division of troops on the one ship. Now the ship was to sail across naturally to England
and we were allotted quarters which were very bare, in the lower bowels of the ship. So we didn’t have a nice cabin with lovely portholes or anything. The ship was sailed under an English captain and a English crew of course but other than that it was controlled by Americans because they had a majority of American servicemen on the ship.
We were given cards which told us the name of the deck that we were on, or the number of the deck that we were on. We were given instructions on how to get to the mess area for food, we would be fed twice a day, and along the alleyways inside the ship there were big signs showing you precisely
which direction you had to go, they were all coded in letters or numbers and so you had to follow the appropriate one, and when we were called for a meal, on each corner of the ship where we had to turn to go down a different alley way or a aisle there was an American serviceman urging us along so by the time we got to the mess we were running
because they had so many people to put through for food, and they had several messes, it wasn’t just the one but we were allocated to a certain one. And you were given a certain time, the food was brought to you and put in front of you, put in front of us I mean and then we were given a certain time to eat it, then we must clear because the next lot is ready to come in. And they were pushing them through, so it was a rather enormous task to feed such a large number of people.
We were told but we didn’t see him but the world heavy weight boxer, who was at the time Joe Lewis, was on board and he was in one of the upper decks and he would be giving demonstrations but unfortunately we never got up to see him. The very top deck, the quarters up on the top deck was reserved for officers
and for the women of the American army who were accompanying us. All the rest the troops and that were down lower. The ship carried armaments and guns about the equivalent of a heavy cruiser we were told and had gunnery crews on board. It sailed at 30 knots which is very fast for a ship,
that would be about 35, 40 miles an hour and it was much too fast to go in convoys or be escorted. And the Queen Mary likewise and the strange thing, we were allowed to come up on deck periodically for exercises, do our running around and various PT [Physical Training] and whatnot, get fresh air. And on one occasion we happen to see
the Queen Mary going in the opposite direction, it was incredible. It was about 2 or 3 miles away but never the less we saw it. And sometimes the sea was a bit rough and even a liner of that size would move a fair bit with the weather, with the seas conditions.
So there were no escorts?
Did you say there were no escorts? You weren’t escorted?
no escorts. No destroyers or battleships or anything. They apparently they presumed that that must have been the best way to go cause the ships were very fast. And how they survived the war and I do have some information on that in a book that my friend has written unscathed as far as
enemy action is concerned, still beats me because I think from memory it took us about 6 days from New York to Scotland and the ship sailed around the North of Ireland and into the Firth of Clyde and down the Clyde to a place called Gourack, which is not very far from Glasgow. And anchored in the
Clyde and we were taken on lighters and they call those small rafts and things from there to the shore and we were put on a train. That was our experience with crossing the Atlantic Ocean. And the train then took our consignment of airmen, non-stop right down through Scotland right through England, through London
down to Brighton, which is on the south coast. Another long train trip, nowhere as long as America one of course. But it was just an overnight trip. And so we arrived at the city of Brighton.
How was London, when you arrived in London what did London look like?
Well when we were on our way, on this first train trip we didn’t see much of it, we just went straight through and
so we didn’t actually see London as a city until we got leave, so I couldn’t tell you much about it on that particular occasion. Brighton, our camp was these two hotels on the seafront on the esplanade which we thought was very good but they were
inside they were not like hotels they were like army camps, they’d been stripped of all their peacetime luxuries cause I believe in pre-war they were luxurious hotels and we were right opposite the beach, and we could see two of their amusement jetties sticking out into the ocean but they had been severed half way through so you couldn’t get out to them anyway.
But it was typical of English seaside stuff. The only thing was the beach was pebbles and it was really course pebbles, like washed gravel. I suppose the sea had washed them smooth but there was no sand on the beach at Brighton it was all pebbles, something that we hadn’t observed,
seen before. So after a getting into our quarters and settling down we were assigned to a drill instructor and we were start to go some more drill and do more physical training for a day or two and then they said you are now going to, allowed to have some disembarkation leave and we were asked where we would like to go.
Well not knowing much about England they told us there was a scheme whereby private families accommodate you whilst you are on your week’s leave. So my friend and I decided to accept one of those offers and it was to a place called Kessick in the Lake District not far
from Cumberland, the town of Cumberland. So we were given a train pass and a leave pass and we went north to there and that was our first leave in England. A lovely little place in the Lakes District, absolutely beautiful it is, Lake Derwentwater from memory it was and they were extremely big lakes. And the people who billeted us had been doing this for several
years and that’s where they asked us which part of Australia we were from. And when I said I was from Ballarat, they said, “We had a man here from Ballarat here a year or so ago. His name was Jake Chisholm.” And I said, “I know him. He lived near us in our younger days.” I think he was a pilot
and he would ultimately become Mayor of Ballarat. He’s not very well at the moment unfortunately, but that was just a coincidence. But it was only a small village this place called Keswick and it had a local, like all the English villages had a billiard salon because a lot of the locals are in the billiard club and it was not like the billiards
salons that we are thought of in the seamier suburbs of Melbourne, this was just a real nice country gentlemen’s club. But they had a couple of nice billiard tables and we were told that we were free to make use of that club and use the tables. We were also free to go around anywhere in the district that we’d like but unfortunately they couldn’t give us motorcars or anything but there was a bus service
and so we toured around the area. We met a couple of young girls one day and we went out rowing on Lake Derwentwater and when our leave was up, back down again. And then sent, they were closing the camp in Brighton because they wanted all the area to be prepared for troops, tanks, trucks and equipment for the
invasion of France. So they wanted us out of the way, so they sent us up to the Midlands to a town called Warrington which is situated somewhere between Manchester and Liverpool. And the station there was a RAF regiment station. The RAF regiment was to the air force a bit like marines are to the navy.
Marines are soldier-sailors well these are soldier-airmen and they were trained, whilst they were in the air force they were trained more like army and commandos because their duty was to carry out protection of airfields and airfield dumps, petrol supplies and all those sort of thing. So they were basically army trained airmen and that’s what this camp was.
But since we were just in transit so to speak we did have to do some of the training with them to keep physically fit and what not and we had some leave to go into the town of Warrington of an evening and so forth but it wasn’t much of a place. Some of those Midland towns are not all that attractive, they weren’t then. And after a few
days there we were told that we had to go to an operational training unit, which we were looking forward to because that was going to be the start of our training to get on the reason, get on Bomber Command, that’s the reason for our existence after all. They told us that the OTU as it was called, operational training unit, was at a place called Litchfield, which is about 10 or 15 miles north
of Birmingham. So we were put on trucks and taken across to Litchfield. And when we got there we were, a group of air gunners were taken and given quarters into a hut and told that this is where we will be formed into air crews because at the same time that we
arrived, from another area came a group of pilots, and another area a group of navigators and a group of bomb aimers and a group of wireless operators. So within the course of the first week we all intermingled with one another, got to know one another and slowly sorted ourself into a crew, which consisted of a pilot, a navigator, a wireless operator, a bomb aimer and
two air gunners. The aircraft that we would be flying would be Wellingtons, twin engine bombers, they were used earlier in the war and some of them were still in operation but they were slowly being withdrawn because they were superseded by four engine bombers of the Lancaster and Halifax type so they were now used for training crews.
They were a twin-engine aircraft.
Can I just ask you about the crewing?
when you were crewing, how did that come about?
Well in our case it was fairly easy. A pilot came to us, as the crewing up started a pilot came to us and he said, “I want two air gunners, are you two friends?” I had a
friend with me a chap from New South Wales and we said, “Yes, we trained together and we’ve come together,” and he said, “Right, what about joining me as my air gunners?” Oh well we didn’t know whether that was good or bad or indifferent so I said, “Yes gladly, we’ll do that for you,” and he said, “Good on you, cause I’ve already got a navigator and a wireless operator, so I’m only looking for a bomb aimer now and we’ll have a crew.” Now this is the way it started.
Sometimes it didn’t work out, different personalities and whatever. And we, he went and found a bomb aimer who joined our crew. Now everyone except the bomb aimer hit it straight away, really good. The navigator came from Perth, he was a married man, he’d been a schoolteacher,
the pilot came from Sydney, the wireless operator came from Bexley, a suburb of Sydney, the other air gunner he came from Bellingen New South Wales, and the bomb aimer he came from Newcastle from memory so
we all went down. After in the evening we went into Litchfield for the local pub and had a few drinks. And I’m still a teetotaller but that didn’t matter because I could drink lemonade, that’s all right. Training started and we immediately noticed that the bomb aimer, nice fellow but for somehow
a little bit odd, but nevertheless we were just starting up so, you know, let’s get on. But as the weeks went by he and the pilot were not getting on very well so he departed our crew, but then this did happen on occasions because with so many hundreds of men there’s bound to be some personalities
who don’t get on a hundred per cent.
So can you tell me a little bit about the way the pilot and the bomb aimer have to work and so why would this cause..?
Well when you’re doing training and there’s a variety of training to be done. First of all to learn to work as a team, we had to learn how to use
the gun turrets that were in these aircrafts because they were going to be the same as the ones that we’d ultimately end up with. The wireless operator he had to learn, he had already learnt but he had also to learn how to pick up signals, take bearings from base so that he would get to know their own base signals and that was extremely important because there were so many bases.
The navigator, he had to know how to use the equipment that was supplied to him in this aircraft and to be able to give instructions to the pilot, when to change course, which course to fly on etcetera, and when we were on bombing training, the bomb aimer, once we arrived at a target the bomb aimer would take over and give the pilot instructions how to fly to kept it steady or vary it left or right
or whatever. And I can’t give you any single specific instance but there was just that tiny bit of friction between the two for some reason and we tolerated it for most of the course that we were on. It wasn’t till the virtual end of our operational training unit course that this ultimately came to light.
One day and they had an argument between the two of them. And so the bomb aimer said, “I’m sorry but I’m not flying with you.” Now there was several ideas put forward amongst some. You must remember that what we are going to go into and what we had been told at OTU because,
whilst we were doing our training we had lots and lots of lectures. The air gunners would be given lectures by fellows who had come back from trips, from operational service and tell us what it was like. The pilots would be given instructions from experienced pilots etcetera, and each member of the crew. And then we’d all come together and be given lectures as a crew, just to prepare us for what was coming.
Now the instructors who had been experienced didn’t hold anything back and that’s when we started to get really worried because they told us in graphic detail what to get ready for. And it was going to be a heck of a lot worse than ever we’d ever dreamt of. As a result of that
some men or boys as we were you might say, start to get to the stage where they couldn’t handle it, they were a bit frightened, they were a bit scared and some of them needed more than counselling, they pulled out. And those who did that, the term used was LMF.
LMF stood for Lack of Moral Fibre – in other words you were a scaredy or you were a coward. Now whether this particular bomb aimer was affected so much that this got to him or not we don’t know, because we lost him and he went to another area. We did hear later
on that he joined another crew and was very good. So we had to find a new bomb aimer. Now this happened at the finished of our operational training unit course and we were about to be posted to the next school, which was called Heavy Conversion Unit. So they sent out crew on with
the rest of them because we’d successfully completed the course onto the heavy conversion unit and when we arrived at that at a place called Wicksley we were then told that they have got another bomb aimer coming to join our crew and he happened to be an Englishman, in fact he was Welsh which didn’t matter, that’s a coincidence that his name
was Jones. Tom Jones but not the Tom Jones who gained popularity as a singer in latter times. But he was Welsh and he fitted in beautifully. He was very amiable, very good bomb aimer, done his training very well and he liked the idea of mixing with a group of Australians
and we thought that was excellent. So on the second or third day after we had arrived at this Heavy Conversion Unit and the aircraft that we would be flying were called Stirlings, they were four engine bombers which preceded the Lancasters and Halifaxes and they’d been withdrawn from service by in large, there were still some operating but mostly they’d been
withdrawn, but the were used to train pilots who were converting from twin engine aircraft to four engine aircraft. And so lots of the operations that we had done previously at the OTU we now went through the same exercise at Heavy Conversion Unit. After the third day a group of…a truckload of English
airmen arrived and they were all trained as flight engineers. On four engine aircraft it was necessary for every crew to have a flight engineer, so that meant we had to pick up another man to join the crew. So instead of being six we would now be seven. flight engineer, he had a very important role to play
so we gathered a flight engineer. And it was an amazing thing and a very amusing thing, when these flight engineers all got out of their trucks and assembled in the hangar where we all were being Englishmen they did their drill rather and they had to line up and right dress and everything and stand to attention, then their names were called, they called the role.
And they went through the role, now most of the crews who were waiting to select the flight engineer were Australians and they called out the names Smith, Jones, Brown etcetera, alphabetical order and they yelled out a funny name Cablebuckle and I said to the pilot who was standing next to me, “Guess which one we’ll have,” and he said, “Oh it couldn’t be.”
We were allotted Fred Cablebuckle to be our flight engineer. And do you know he turned out to be one of the best flight engineers on the course. He came, he lived in London, his parents lived in the suburb of Morden, which was one of the outer suburbs of London. His father worked at the Bank of England and he was one of the men who had
to dress in a specific uniform at the Bank of England with the top hat and everything and he was very interesting, very very interesting. He had a lovely girlfriend he showed us photos of and whilst we use to sling at him and say why don’t you speak English, etcetera, and he slowly got us to mingling with Australians in the same way as the Welsh
bomb aimer did. And after a weeks training he just fitted in like a glove, it was terrific, very good. So flying training started and we went through the usual circuits and bumps as they called it, take offs and landing so to get the pilot accustomed to handling a four engine aircraft. And then we did cross-country work,
and the engineer and the pilot were getting on very well because they had to give instructions to one another regarding fuel change from tank to this, tank to this, change fuel cocks, give me so much boost, put up the revs on this, alter the pitch of the propellers, all those sorts of things. And they were getting on famously. And we did gunnery practise and we had fighter affiliation as
they use to call it. They’d send a Spitfire up to…fitted with a camera gun, a cinegun as they called it, we’d have camera guns put on our turrets and so we’d try and shoot one another down and we’d learn to take evasive action because this was going to be necessary later on. The bomb aimer, we had to carry out so many bombing operations there was a bombing
range very handy, allocated to the particular training school. And we would have to go and fly at a certain altitude when the bomb aimer would have to give the pilot instructions and then release his practise bomb and it would be recorded by people on the ground as to how accurate the bombing was, and sometimes there was lots and lots of cloud and we would have to try and pick a hole in the cloud
if we could, and at the same time see the bombing target. So this was quite an ordeal. But so the wireless operator had to do the same training as did the navigator, and at the end of our 3 or 4 weeks or whatever it was at this place they told us we’d satisfactorily completed the course, we were now being sent to another school which was called a Lancaster finishing
school and that was at a place called Sireston, which is roughly midway between Nottingham and Newark.
Can I ask you a couple of questions?
about that training, the heavy conversion training, with the Cinegun, how did that work with the Kittyhawks?
Well, the operation from my point of view, we had controls on the turret, several set of controls
hydraulic to turn the turret around, to elevate and to press the guns, to revolve, to sight and then the trigger which would fire it, well instead of firing guns we’d start a cinecamera going, it was a little movie camera, we didn’t have videos and things in those days. And so we’d run a film and the film would show
exactly where you were aiming at, show exactly where the target was and as you pressed the trigger, so they would know that’s what you were firing at, likewise in the fighter plane, it could be a Spitfire or a Hurricane or something, he would have a similar thing. And he would swoop down on us and start his camera going so he
could pick up our aircraft and they would be able to tell whether he shot us down or whether he hadn’t and whether the evasive action that we had taken was sufficient to counter his approach or whatever because it was, it was quite hair raising at times.
So who was responsible for the
keeping the camera running
and putting the film in
Someone was responsible for
Oh yes, yes, yes
all part of the training.
So later did you sit down and watch the film?
Yes, yes they would show us. Show us where we’d gone wrong, what we did wrong. Bad luck you’re dead now, you’ve had it etc you know we would be told straight whether we did good, bad or indifferent. But of course that was all part of the practice, part of the training….
End of tape
Interviewee: William Wilkie Archive ID 0516 Tape 05
Okay Bill before we broke for lunch you were describing the Camera Gun, I still haven’t quite got a good grasp of how that worked would you mind sort of explaining that in a little more detail?
Well it was similar to the machine you’re using at the moment, except that not a video it was a cinefilm, a cinecamera and it was mounted
right adjacent to the gun sight in the turret. So that the view that the cinecamera took whatever was whatever you were aiming at, at the rear of the aircraft, what I was aiming at. And as we got involved in engagement with a fighter plane, when I thought that it was appropriate to shoot, I would pull the trigger as
to fire the guns but instead of that the camera gun would start operating and that would record precisely what I would have been shooting at.
Right so at that time when the camera came on it would show you exactly what you were aimed at.
Right, and when you went back to base they would then play that back
That’s right that was the idea.
Great, yeah good system, and did you find that useful?
Oh yes, yes because all the training exercises we found useful
particularly ones that exercises we did on the ground to they had old aircraft fuselage in some of the remote areas of the airfield so that we could train on bailing out and doing ditching drill. Both were necessary because each operation from England
was actually the English Channel or mainly across the North Sea and quite aircraft were badly disabled and couldn’t reach home and they would have to ditch into the sea and so it was essential that you were pretty proficient in knowing what to do in the event of that happening. So that was all part of our training as well. And then early in
November 44, we had finished our course on Stirling Conversion Unit and we were sent to an airfield called Sireston which was not far from Nottingham. And here we were converting from the Stirling aircraft onto Lancasters exactly the same that we would be flying when we reached a squadron.
So we were given some more training on Lancasters and the crew was made to do all the exercises that we had previously done but this time in the proper aircraft that we would be using. And during the course of our training naturally we were given periodic leave passes which we’d visit various parts
of England, and then come back to do more training and we ultimately finished our Training at Sireiston on Lancasters which was basically the same as we had done of the previous two, but more advanced, and told that we were proficient. In fact our pilot and navigator got such a good report, they asked us if we would consider going to Pathfinder Force.
And so a meeting of the crew was called and the problem was, it was the December 1944 and the light army’s were already a fair way across France and Holland, and when we were told that by going to Pathfinder Force we would then have to go through a minimum
of another 3 months training, and the majority of the crew said well we’ve come this far, we’re all geared up to go on operations, I think we would rather go to the squadron and do some of the work that we’re trained for. Pathfinder would have been a feather in our cap of course, because they were the picked crews that went into that section so instead of that we decided not to go. Now
therefore we were then told very good you will now go to an Operational squadron. And were assigned to R.A.F number 15 Squadron which was based at Bildenhall, Suffolk and duly we were sent there, arriving there in about the 20th of December 44.
What would have Pathfinder meant,
what was the purpose of the Pathfinder Force?
Pathfinders were a special force of flyers using both twin-engine Mosquitos and also four engine bombers. Their job was to go to a target first, identify the target and mark it. Mark it by dropping flares over the precise area that the following bomber stream
or formation, was to aim for. The object was to try and improve the accuracy of aerial bombardment. Since we’re normally bombing from around the 23,000 feet mark, accuracy was very difficult to obtain. The reason for that was numerous, one is because of the height and the bomb aimer aiming at the point and from such a
great height, where he thinks it’s right, might in fact mean that the bombs fall a mile away, also quite often it was cloud cover so Pathfinders would put special flares into the clouds, but that was, they become a hit and miss sort of a thing and it was awful when you flew in a large group of bombers and you couldn’t actually see the target so you had to bomb on these particular markers in the clouds that
the Pathfinders put down. But a Pathfinders Force was a very dicey job too because they would go down to low altitudes to identify the target in the particular city that they were going to, it might be an oil installation, it might be a factory, it might be an armament factory or a steelworks or something like that and in order to get the bombers to try and hit it properly, they had to mark it so that there would be no
mistakes. And so it was a precision flying sort of a job but in order to do that they had to be very highly trained and very highly skilled, and it was a feather in ones cap if one became a Pathfinder.
And later when you were on the Lancasters over (UNCLEAR) over Europe were the, had the Pathfinders been there before you?
was that part of the…
They are always there before us, always there before us, even on
the daylights, just to make sure that we got to the right place. The only funny thing about it was after a while naturally the Germans knew when they saw the Pathfinders arrive and drop certain colour flares, and there were various coloured flares, the object being was to isolate areas where we were not to bomb,
areas where we were to bomb and the exact target point. The Germans would sometimes put up a decoy, they’d watch for the colour of the flare and put up a decoy a few miles out of town, because of the altitude that we were flying at some of the crews would mistake the decoy for the actual thing, so it would be up to the navigator to be precise on his navigation and his timing to get the pilot in the right
spot at the right time and not hit the decoy which quite a lot did naturally until they woke up to what was happening. It was always cat and mouse, always. We use to fly in on, naturally radar was a big thing and the Germans of course got to know what radar was and made it themselves. And so they’d use
radar to pick up the bomber stream coming and direct fighter aircraft to it and try and guess from the direction we were flying what the target was going to be. Now to try and interrupt that the RAF planes then got onto the idea of dropping strips of paper with aluminium foil on one side, it was called window,
and they’d come in various sizes to try and interfere with the different frequencies that the radar, the German radar was using when that was first used and one of the early bombing targets was used on Hamburg, it mucked the German anti-aircraft and fighters up completely because what would happened their signals would hit all this Window
and we would drop hundred and hundreds of strips out of each aircraft so their screen would become just one big blur and they wouldn’t know what had hit them. They thought their equipment had gone fuzzy until ultimately the Window that we’d dropped would slowly float to the ground and then naturally people would pick it up and wonder what on earth it was and where it come from, and of course naturally the Germans quickly twigged to what was happening, so they had to
alter their thing to try and counter the Window that we dropped or changed their frequency to try and get it under a different screen. It was always cat and mouse.
So for a very short space of time there really was this technological
competition race as it were.
So when we arrived at our squadron around about the 20th December we were given a couple of days to settle in. We were allocated
an aircraft, which we became familiar with when we took it up on a couple of training flights and got use to the ground crew who serviced it and three days later on the 23rd of December we were put on the Battle Order, that means that we were going to go on our first operation. And so we had to report to Briefing Room at a certain time and once
we’re in the briefing room naturally the doors are locked, and the squadron officers told us what the target would be and what we were going to do. They would brief us on flying conditions, height that we’d bomb at, the types of bombs and the amount we were carrying, the amount of fuel that we had because they would assess how much fuel you needed to get to that place and back allowing for your
Detours. They would tell the navigator that the weather was going to be so much and the wind would be blowing from such a direction but they were quite often wrong, they would tell the bomb aimer what markers he would have to aim for when we got there, we were told what time the take off, what time we would rendezvous with the other planes of our squadron and move to the group, then pick up the rest of the planes.
And there was always hundreds of them going, the number varied from 250 up to 700, 800.
Just in the one squadron.
In the one raid.
That would be from a number of squadrons? You said you were with …
We were with Number 15 Squadron. Well Bomber Command was divided into groups, 1,2,3,4,5, etc., group and they would
call in some many squadrons from each group. We were in number 3 group and Bomber Command would tell 3 Group Headquarters we want so many squadrons of so many aircraft into the air for this particular operation. They would tell the same to 4 Group, 5 Group, 1 Group etc and so they would build up. There was always usually around about 12 aircraft per squadron flying, sometimes a couple more
sometimes less, it depends on the number of serviceable and the number of crew that were available. So our first operation was to Trier and as I mentioned earlier the flight commander came with us on that trip which was somewhat reassuring, a young inexperienced crew and when we flew down into Germany. Trier of course is along the Moselle River
west of the Rhine and we were to hit their railway marshalling yards. Now the railway system in Europe and in England is very extensive, very extensive, compared to Australia so our object was to hit this and we would be flying at 20,000 feet so when we got to target area naturally
our navigator gave the pilot instructions precisely what heading to fly at, and exactly what time we would be on target area and as we reached that stage he would hand over to bomb aimer who would then pick up the sights through the Bomb sight, the target that we’d be aiming at and provided everything was working perfectly for us, which seldom did because quite often the wind was stronger up at that altitude then what
it was down below and vice versa. And dropping from high altitude it made an effect on the bombs, path of the bombs but anyway the bomb aimer would direct the pilot to right, right, steady, steady, steady, right a bit, steady, steady, steady, bombs gone now. We always seemed to sigh of relief when that, when he said that because he would close the bombs doors and the pilot would bank away, drop a few couple of thousand feet to pick up speed and head on our way back
providing we weren’t flying in formation. When the formation would do it, you see. So then we would make our way back to England across the North Sea and locate our particular airfield and he’d be flying with navigators instructions because England was a mass of airfields, particularly in the Suffolk, Lincolnshire area there were so many airfields it was unreal actually,
both squadron and training and what not so it was quite, or not uncommon for pilots to make a mistake sometimes but you fly on radio silence until you arrived home at base, and then the pilot was able to call up base on his radio and notify them that we’d joined the circuit and then the WAAF [Women’s Auxiliary Air Force] in the control tower would then give us instructions on how to join the circuit
and come into land. And they were very good at that because quite often we would have two aircraft on the runway at the one time. One would have touched down and be at the end of the runway with it’s brakes on ready to turn off while the next one was touching down, and they would endeavour to get them all in as quick as possible because the pilots and the crew were quite tired and they were all anxious to get down and the quicker they could get them in and together,
then we’d have to go to debriefing, so we’d be asked all sorts of questions, did you see this or did you see that or did you see any planes shot down if so did you see the crew bale out, did you know which one it was etcetera. So it was quite a process actually and that trip took us about 5 hours.
So this was your very first trip, obviously you’ve done lots of training so you are prepared in that sense but are you prepared for the actual experience of getting out there and being in the war?
Oh well we weren’t fully prepared for everything that was happening, we were prepared as much as they could train us for but they can never train you for what actually happens when you’re actually over
there on the spot, that’s something that you’ve got to learn through experience. Well after our first trip, the following day we had a rest and helped service the aircraft and the day after that was Christmas Eve and we were rostered
to go and bomb on that night. So Christmas Eve we went through the usual routine getting our equipment, briefing, told that we were flying to Bonn to hit an airfield, that Pathfinders would be using such and such a colour markers etcetera. So we took off in the evening and because it was a night job we didn’t fly formation we flew
as a stream and bomb being on the Rhine of course.
So to interrupt there.
Well we proceeded to Germany and bombed the airfield at Bonn and we encountered a lot of flak, that’s anti-aircraft fire and a lot of it was very close
and started to worry us because whilst in the daytime all you see is black puffs, in the night-time you see the sparks from the exploding shell and some of them are very close and unfortunately I saw a couple of Lancasters go down in flame. So we then, we were successful we got away with it and we flew back home again. The problem was when we come over the coast and got near our airfield
we were told it’s covered in fog so we can’t land so we were diverted to another airfield, quite some miles away which was operated by the American 8th Army Air Corps and we landed at this place called Shipham and they were not use to having British aircraft come in at night, the
Americans never flew at night they always flew in the daytime, but the squadron came in o.k. and we were taken into their mess area as a crew and of course we only had our flying gear on and it was Christmas eve and Christmas dinner so they were having all sorts of turkey and plum puddings and everything that had come over from America, they were living it up very well really. So we had quite a nice feed
and a nice night there, and the following day when the fog lifted for a bit we were able to fly our planes back to our own base. This did happen periodically because particularly in the wintertime which this was. So 2 days later we were told we were on another operation this time it was Cologne
and we were to hit the railway marshalling yards at Cologne. Now the number of times Cologne has been bombed as I’ve since read in various histories is just unreal. If you’re at all familiar with Germany, and I don’t suppose you are, but if you are the railways yards in Cologne were enormous because the traffic, east and west and north and south along the river by rail,
is just unbelievable. And when we would hit them and hopefully destroyed them within a couple of days they’d have trains running through it again, it was incredible the way they use to recover. So anyway we went to Cologne and hit that and fortunately we got away with it okay because Cologne was heavily defended. And we were given a few days leave,
and when we come back from leave we were told we were on another operation and this time to the city of Koblenz
Before you go on there Bill, I’ve just want to, you’ve talked about your first, it strikes me it’s almost surreal that idea that you go off into a wartorn part of the world, do your bit and there’s obviously massive damage and casualties, you fly back, you sit down, you have your Christmas turkey, it’s a strange.
when we first started we use to say this is a wonderful way to fight a war. You would fly out, do your job, create damage, probably kill lots of people, destroy lots of equipment, fly home again, if it was a daylight op, go into debriefing, then go back to our quarters, have a shower, get dressed, go into town
to a dance or to the pub. We use to think this was a wonderful way to fight a war because naturally we knew what the army had to go through and the navy they were out somewhere in the ocean, and but we’re able to enjoy the facilities that were in England, that was incredible, a wonderful way to fight a war. But that’s just the nature of it, there’s no way could you have
Bomber squadrons close to the front line on the ground or anything. For the first thing, you couldn’t have a bomber squadron without a proper airfield and proper runways, like we’ve got a Tullamarine and Essendon etcetera, so you can’t just make those sort of overnight. The, our Lancaster always carried a minimum of 10,000 pounds worth of Bombs, including one big
one, one 4,000 pound cookie, so the sheer weight of the aircraft hitting the runway all the time you just couldn’t do, you had to have permanent bases and naturally they were tried, they had built them in what they hoped would be a safe place, so that the operations could take place. And we would fly to our objective, hit it and fly back again, then relax.
So you could sort of release that stress I guess?
release the stress and thank God, “Gee, this is a great way to fight a war, you know.” Lots of fellows who were heavy drinkers would drink quite a lot and I was still pretty much a teetotaller at the time myself but other members of the crew were drinkers. But fortunately they would go and drink and almost get merry but they would stop, they’d never drink to excess. Because we never knew which, whether we were on the bombing,
whether we were called up on battle orders again the following day or not you see. So that’s the way things were, if we had a few days off, they’d either give us leave or alternatively we would do ground duties around the airfield. We’d go up on a couple of training flights or we’d do some more fighter affiliation, or just to keep everybody fresh and on the ball. So we were never still for very long, sure we had leave
and sure that was nice but you’d have to come back to it naturally. So we hit Koblenz after we hit Cologne and then after that we went to a funny little place called Varwinkle which is a few miles west of the Rhine and it was only like a village but we were told that there were immense concentrations of
Germany divisions coming through on their way to the Western Front, and a lot of them were in that area for us to hit them. Well when we got there we found out that the winds, that the met [meteorology] section had given us were the reverse and so most of our bombs fell out in open paddocks. Well
when we got back and they saw the photographs, because each time we bombed a photograph was automatically taken from your aircraft camera. So intelligence could interpret how good or how bad we were. They would also send reconnaissance planes out the next day, usually Mosquitos or something like that because they were very fast and they’d fly low and take pictures of the area. So,
anyway they told us we’d missed, well what happens in a case like that, you go back and hit it again and get it right. Well fortunately our names were not on the battle order because the Germans would say they missed so the beggars are going to come back. So they brought in all sorts of …a lot of extra anti-aircraft stuff ready to defend it and the next one
was a night operation and we weren’t on it fortunately. But the next morning we got up and went down to the disposal area to have a look at the aircraft and they were shot to ribbons, quite a lot didn’t come back and those that did come back were they were severely damaged. Cause it was, they had a lot of concentrated anti-aircraft defences ready sitting waiting. But anyway we were fortunate to get away with that.
just simply feel fortunate or (UNCLEAR)
Well see they’d rushed a crew, they had more crews then they would put on each op naturally because the always had rotating them and you couldn’t fly, every crew, every night or everyday, the fatigue was too high. So you would look up the roster to see whether your crew was on it or not. You might get 3 or 4 trips running and then you might get laid off for a few, various things like that.
So after that little exercise we had a little bit more leave but then they called us up again and we went to a place called Noice. Noice is just a little west of Essen. Now Essen is a very highly industrial town in the Ruhr area and all of that area was heavily defended with anti-aircraft fire and if you’re flying by night,
searchlights would be a problem as well as the fire, because if one searchlight picked you up others would cone in on you and hold you and that would give night fighters an ideal opportunity, and also the anti-aircraft batteries to hone in to pinpoint and you’d usually. If the aircraft couldn’t get out of the cone as they called it, usually they didn’t last very long. So,
How would they get out of the cone, what
Usually to get out of it, the pilot would put the nose of the aircraft down and put it into a steep dive, that way it would pick up speed, tremendous speed and then the cones would try and follow it down, but then if he turned slightly chances are he’d miss it, he’d get out of it and dodge it and then they’d have trouble trying to pick him up again, so they’d go looking for somebody else. That was about the only evasive
action you could take to try and get out of it. So fortunately we didn’t, a searchlight past over us one night but fortunately he didn’t pick us up and so we weren’t caught in it. So we hit this town of Noice and fortunately got back with only a few little holes to our aircraft and then after another couple of days they sent us to Dortmund, well Dortmund was just as bad
because that was on the east side of Essen, a few miles east of Essen and also in some referred to the Ruhr as, the Rhine-Ruhr area as Happy Valley, some called it the Valley of Death. Crews had their own little sayings of what it was like because it was not the best place to be flying and it always gave crews a lot of worry whether they would actually survive
or whether they would not.
What did you call it?
We called it the Valley of Death. Our wireless operator he use to call it Happy Valley but that’s what we called it. In fact when I gave a little talk to the Air Force Association last year, I prefaced
my comments with the words from that poem by Wordsworth or whoever it was into the Valley of Death, instead of saying rode the 600, I said flew bomber command, because that’s basically what it was. It was very, very stressful, very nerve racking because you’re forever wondering whether the next ones going to hit you because you’d see the planes going down around you
and you had a feeling that, oh well lucks a fortune, and we’re fortunate so we got through. Until it came to the time of our trip, our eighth trip. We’d completed 7 operations and thirty operations was considered a complete tour,
now we’d finished 7 and we were off on our eighth and it was once again to Cologne. Fortunately it was a daylight operation and this was on the 28th of January 1945. So we took off at our usual time but we were not in own aircraft and we had an oddbod with us because our aircraft didn’t have a Radar
H2S in the bottom, it had a gun. So we took this second tour air gunner with us to man that gun, but it was just more or less to be a joy ride because being in daylight we didn’t have much enemy fighter because by this time long range Mustangs were based in France, could follow the Bomber formation and act as deterrent to enemy
fighters. Night fighters were the worst daytime didn’t worry us a great deal if we were only going a short distance into Germany because we had some fighter protection. So anyway we crossed the North Sea, crossed the coast of Holland and then turned southerly to Achen, around at Achen and then headed east north east to Cologne when we were near, just over a town called Duran,
when one of our engines was not giving power so the pilot told the engineer. He checked it and sure enough it was losing power and talking on the intercom, the whole crew can hear what they’re saying and the wireless operator, bear in mind that he only had certain times to sit at his wireless because we had to strictly enforce radio silence
whilst we were flying on ops. Because the radios could be picked up by the Germans as well as anybody else and he had certain times when he had to listen in for in case an instruction came through from base but that was at a specific time. In between those times he was free to have a look around, and he hopped up to the Astrodome and sure enough he could see a fire in the outer engine and so
he reported that to the flight engineer who knew it by this time and the pilot ordered the flight engineer to try and extinguish the fire. But the built-in extinguishers wouldn’t put the fire out and the fire was getting worst, in other words we were going to become a blazing aircraft. So he ordered us to bale out and that’s where bailing out procedure training
came into effect. I think I mentioned earlier I was caught with the turret rear end about 45 degrees and I had to get it central so I had to wind it manually because the engine that was on fire is the one that supplies hydraulic power to my turret. So when I got it around and disconnected all my gear. And to get out of
my turret I had to lean backwards and put my arms up and grab two handles and lever myself out, then sit on the tail plane spar and take the parachute out of its stowage and put it onto my harness and then climb over the tail spar and make my way to the rear door. The only problem was at 23,000 feet I was then off oxygen, so I was starting to get
drunk through lack of oxygen, starting to get disorientated, but I managed, the object was to go to the rear door sit on the door sill or the door step facing the back and roll sideways, and the slipstream would do the rest. Well I can remember sitting on the doorstep, I put my hand on the handle of the parachute
and leaned over and I can just remember seeing myself clear the tail plane of the aircraft as I was falling I went unconscious, no oxygen. So then sometime later and I’m not sure how long it was but I came to but I was obviously down to oxygen level
and the first thing I thought, “God, I’d better put me, get the parachute open,” but I looked and it wasn’t there. And then I looked up and it’s up there and it opened up beautifully, so I remembered I put my hand on the thing and it must have, and the slipstream must have helped my pull it off I suppose. So I’m floating down to earth in a parachute and the cloud was ten tenths, that is total cloud you could not see the ground, so we were
way above the clouds and in the distance I could see other parachutes, they were obviously other members of the crews but they were quite a way off, well after all we were doing about 230 miles an hour I suppose and the time interval between each person leaving the aircraft represented a fair distance. So and my feet start to get cold
and I look down and I didn’t have my flying boots on cause when the parachute opened it jerked, I had to wear the old type of heavy flying boot because I had inner heated slippers and the flying boots that the other members of the crew wore were not so heavily lined, and they didn’t need to be because they were inside the cabin of the aircraft and were more comfortable than what I was.
So my feet were getting very cold and after what seemed an eternity the top part of the clouds just come up to encompass me and then I was going through the clouds and that’s the most eerie experience if you’re floating down in a parachute through a thick cloud. And the clouds started to get darker
and darker the further we went down because the clouds are always brightest at the top where the sun is naturally. And then at the base of the cloud is naturally the darkest. Until they got very dark and I wondered where the heck I was going to come out, how far away the ground was and where would I be. And when I came through the cloud, the ground was,
the cloud base was only about 500 feet and I then realised how quick that I was coming down because the ground come up so to speak, hit me. And fortunately I was on the side of a hill and there was between 12 and 18 inches of snow covering it completely because that was European Winter. And that was one of the worst winters they’d had for a long time. And I landed fortunately in snow
so I didn’t hurt myself even though I didn’t have any shoes on or boots
End of tape
Interviewee: William Wilkie Archive ID 0516 Tape 06
Okay Bill we’re rolling again, sorry we had to stop at that most traumatic point, you came through the clouds and the earth was racing, fortunately there was a good bed of snow there.
I was on the side of the hill in very thick snow and I only had time, strange as it seems, to remove the parachute and take off the harness and I was going to dig a hole in the snow and bury it
when four German soldiers came around the side of the hill and approached me with rifles naturally and one of them said to me in very good English, “You are my prisoner of war. Are you armed?” And I said, “No,” and he said, “Right, follow us.” And one of them went ahead and the other three were behind me. And
so I went around, they walked right around to the other side of hill where they had strangely seems a dug out ready and when I come to think of it they were not very far behind the advancing front line. So they took me into this dugout, which was only room for 2 or 3 people and they, I pointed to my feet
to indicate that I had no boot and he said, “You’ve lost them,” and I said, “Yes.” He said, “I’ll try and help you.” So he sent one of his men into a village obviously to report that they’d taken a prisoner, as it turned out they’d taken another prisoner because they’d picked up a couple of others and I think that’s why they were looking for me. And about an hour later this fellow came back from the village
with the oldest pair of boots ever I’ve seen. But low and behold they fitted and unfortunately I was very thankful and then I stripped off my outer flying suit because it was too hot and uncomfortable and I had a few cigarettes in my cigarette case and I offered them a cigarette and they took
one each because they were American cigarettes and they hadn’t had such a good cigarettes in donkeys years. So I got on the right side of them, but they didn’t try to ask me anything or anything and they just said right you come with us now and they took me into this village. Took me into a house in the village where there was a couple of German officers at
a desk and told me to sit on the floor and I wasn’t there five minutes when another member of our crew was brought in and put down alongside of me and ten minutes later another member. And
One, the other air gunner and the wireless operator, no not the wireless operator, the navigator. So
they then gave us a cup of ersatz coffee, which means artificial coffee and that’s all. And then that night a German Transport truck came along, put us in that and took us through several villages until we reached another one called Flamisham, which was
a few kilometres south of a town called Euskirchen which was probably twenty kilometres west of Bonn I suppose. And so when we got to this place called Flemisham they first of all, they’d picked up another two members of our crew by this time, they took us into a classroom in the local state school which the army had
taken over and they asked us our name and number and rank, well that’s information that we had to supply. And so they asked where we were from, so I merely pointed to my shoulder patch which said ‘Australia’. “Oh Australia, Oh Australia.” So anyway they took down the names and
then sent us along this street of this village to another house and they’re all two storey, and of course their villages are not like ours, there’s no front garden, they’re all on the footpath level. And we’re taken upstairs to a loft in this house and the loft was covered in straw and fairly big loft as most of them are. So,
then the guard went away and locked the manhole. We had no means of getting out and then as night fell a lot more British Army fellows arrived and it seems that they’d been there for a few days, but each morning they took them out to work on the railway siding at Euskirchen doing loading and unloading, they had to work for them.
Being airmen they didn’t trust us so they wouldn’t let us out their sight. So after a couple of days there in which one guard come and relieved us of our wristwatches, cigarette cases anything that we had. They told us they were moving us which they did on foot through back streets, back roads and
we had to walk this 20 odd kilometres to Bonn. Where they put us in a camp, which held a lot of French prisoners on the west side of the river at Bonn. They put us into a hut there and we had to sleep on the floor. I remember I used the old boots as me pillow and they gave us a bowl of soup
and a cup of coffee and that was it. The next day they did the same but the following night whilst we were in this camp at Bonn, we all of a sudden saw the place get lit up and looking out the window we realised what was happening. Pathfinders were marking out Bonn and I though blimey
we’re going to be in trouble here, and fortunately we’re a couple of kilometres out of the city centre and they’d put down a row of markers around the camp which meant they’re not suppose to bomb in that area. Now not everybody was able to carry out the instructions, so the air raid started and it was horrendous and sure enough
bombs started to fall in the camp, so we quickly got out of the hut that we were in and went into an air raid shelter of a sort, it was more like a slip trench with a little bit of a cover over it. And the next thing a bomb landed extremely close to us and we could hear and feel the shrapnel dropping everywhere around us and we found, felt
the ground shudder so when the air raid was finished and all the aircraft had disappeared we clambered out this particular shelter but our hut no longer existed, it was gone completely. There was an enormous big hole in the fence and one of the German guard towers was down on the ground but never the less there was a squad of German soldiers with
German Shepherd dogs patrolling the area where the hole was so they were very, they were on the ball. And so we didn’t have a very comfortable night that night. The next day because the camp was virtually unserviceable from our point of view they told us they were shifting us, and there were quite a few of us actually. British Army, paratroopers, and us airmen. There
was virtually, only our crew of airmen were the only airmen, the rest were army fellows and so they suggested, one of the guards suggested that in his funny way, since we were airmen to get some hessian and put it over our uniform because we were going to be going through the city and the local population don’t take kindly to enemy airmen
after, particularly after an air raid such as that. So it was raining on foot they started to take us through Bonn and we went right through the centre of the city and I’ve never seen such a mess in all my life. You could see buses and trains on their sides, you could see water mains burst, sewage mains burst, power lines down, building destroyed and ablaze you name it.
And the strange part it was, when we got through the city towards the river, the bridge over the Rhine was still intact, and so they hadn’t hit that. They marched us across the bridge onto the other side of the Rhine from Bonn and onto a place called Siegburg which is about another 16 or 20 kilometres on the east side of the Rhine.
Sorry, up until this point how long had it been since you
How long a period had it been since the bale out of the Lancaster?
Ah, four days, about 4 days.
Can I ask just a couple of questions, just to get up to this point? Firstly what happened to your shoes when you baled out, how did you lose you shoes?
How did we what?
How did you lose your boots?
The boots were the loose heavy type because they had to come over the heated slippers
and by rights they should have had a clamp or a strap on them but they didn’t, they only had a zip fastener up the side. Now when the parachute opens, you’re falling at a very fast rate and the parachute opens so it’s like a heck of a jolt and that jolt took the boots away from me. So somebody on the ground, somewhere in
Germany was either hit by or found a nice pair of flying boots.
And when you had to bale out, there was seven of you if I’m not mistaken?
In the plane.
Eight actually we had this extra bloke.
And when you’re given the orders is it just a mad scramble, is it every man for themselves or is there a…?
Yes, yes it is because each man is in a different location, so we went
through this drill numerous times on the ground so that we would know what to do because each person had a certain thing to do, either dispose of their oxygen or intercom or whatever it was and make their way to the door, but there was no order given that you must go first and you must go second, that wasted time. Because each person may have been in an awkward situation and may
not get there at the right time so they don’t want anybody standing and waiting. As you reached the door, you went. It didn’t matter whether it was a gunner or a wireless operator or a bomb aimer or whatever, usually the pilot and flight engineer were amongst the last but in this case the flight engineer was one of the first. The pilot had to engage automatic pilot
even though he was losing altitude and losing power, just to try and hold the plane steady while we got out. And then disconnect his seatbelt harness and get his parachute and make his way all the way down from the very front to where the door was, cause I had to go through the exercise that I told about, so I was one of the last ones to go too. The funny, the strange thing, the spare
fellow that we had operating the belly gun was closest to the door but he was one of the last to go, I don’t know why, whether he thought, you never know the plane might get together again, I don’t know but he was one of the last to go, whether he was scared or what or whether he wanted to see us do it I don’t know, I never found out. But anyway
we didn’t see much of him afterwards because he was taken by a different group.
So of the eight of you, they were all taken prisoner but perhaps by different.
Yep all taken prisoner, the wireless operator was taken in a different area to us, the bomb aimer broke his ankle when he landed, that’s the Welsh fellow and he was taken to a German hospital so he wasn’t taken down
with us group when we went south, and what I mean by south, after we’d got to this place of Siegburg we’d found it was an old camp that had been occupied by Russian prisoners and they’d shifted them and when we got to it the place was infected with lice and bugs and fleas everything, but never the less they kept us there for 3 or 4 days
and I think they gave us a bowl of soup and one slice a bread each day and a cup of this Erzats coffee. And then they decided to shift us away from that camp and we put on a train and we were separated from the rest of the prisoners because we were airmen and we were sent down to the town of Limburg, where we changed trains
and we got on a train to go to Frankfurt. The guard accompanied us, put us into a compartment on our own, because it wasn’t a dogbox thing it was an ordinary train. And when we arrived at Frankfurt he took us along the station and we went into what was normally their waiting room, tearoom, but the local population objected so he had to take us and put down to the basement,
down to the cellar and locked us in the cellar of the Frankfurt Railway Station. And to his credit he went up and brought down a couple of bottles of German beer, they wouldn’t give us coffee, so he got a couple of bottles of German Beer, that was my first drink of beer. So we stayed overnight and the following morning we were taken out to a different platform and put on another train which took us north
to an outer suburb of Frankfurt called Oberrucheschall, that was where the Luftwaffer had an interrogation camp. So we were taken into this interrogation camp and separated and each put each of us into a room, solitary confinement. The room was just big enough to have a bed.
There was about, probably be about 2 metres by 2 metres I suppose and we were in solitary confinement. If we wanted to go to the toilet we’d have to pull a string on the inside of the door and that would drop a bell on the outside and the guard would come along and escort us to the toilet. And they would bring us in a mug of coffee or with a bit of luck a bowl of soup and a piece of bread and
on the second or third day I was there. We couldn’t speak to anybody, we didn’t know where each of us were or anything because if they took us to the toilet they wouldn’t, if there was somebody else in the passage, total isolation. And on the third morning a German officer came into the room and sat down and offered me a cigarette which I took because I smoked at that
time. And that was the worst cigarette ever I had because half the tobacco fell out of it. And he looked at me and he knew my name, rank and number from the paperwork that had come through with us but he asked me that again, which I just told him and then he handed me a file and about A4 sized sheets
and he said would you look at that, and I looked at that and he had a list of every RAF squadron that existed in England, the names of each flight commander, the number of crews that were on it, the number of aircraft that were on it, etcetera. So he said, “Your squadron’s on that, isn’t it?” And I
just looked at him and he said, “I thought so.” And he was a real psychologist this fellow, he really knew his eccka but fortunately I was just a dumb air gunner so I didn’t know much, so he couldn’t get much information out of me. Now he said, “You’re in 15th Squadron and you baled out over Berren near Achen and
we’ve got the rest of your crew anyway. But other than that I don’t think you can tell me any more than I already know,” so anyway farewell and away he went. Now earlier in the war I’m told that lots of the aircrew, particularly pilots and navigators were really grilled by these people at this interrogation
camp. Whether they wasted much time with air gunners like meself I don’t know, but I’m told that they were really grilled and but you’re only obliged to give them your name, rank and number, but they always try to get as much information as they could, but by the time we were there in late January ’45 they already knew everything they wanted to know and I think they’d sized
up the situation anyway.
When you say they use to grill…?
Yeah so they didn’t grill me any more than just that fortunately. So the next day the guard come along and took me out and fortunately the other air gunner and two other members of the crew with me and just marched us down to the Railway station and put us on another train and we went North to a town
called Wetzlar, and at Wetzlar we went into a camp which was a really good one and it was manned by English speaking blokes and I think they were army fellows, English army fellows actually. The guards are all German guards naturally, but the fellows inside and they said, “Right, strip everything off completely naked because we’re going to search you
for lice and fleas. This camp is clean and we’re not going to let anybody in.” So they went through every hair on our scalp, every hair everywhere else on our body and if they found a lice or a flea, then you were shaved completely. After that process we were put into the showers and given a chance to have a proper shower and this is the first shower we’d had of course since we’d left England. And
they even gave us a clean set of underwear which they’d got from apparently Red Cross had been supplying them with stuff from America and what not through Switzerland and we were given a new set of clothes. And an overcoat which was very good. And we had a couple of good feeds and we thought we were right. But two days later they said, “Now you’re off now.” And, “Do we have to?”
“Yes, you have to.” so they put us onto a train at the Wetzlar Station and the train was dogboxes, forty men or eight horses, so it was similar to those that you see on sometimes on films when the Jews are being transported around. The door was shut and you could only see out of a tiny window at the top and they took us from there to Nuremberg and we were put in
to the prisoner of war camp, it was a couple of miles, 2 or 3 miles south of the city of Nuremberg and that was already holding quite a few aircrew, both British and American, lots of aircrew prisoners.
What was it called, that camp?
The camp was called, I think from memory it was called Offlag
3 I think from memory.
Sorry the travelling from Essen to this…?
This was from Wetzlar to Nuremberg.
Was this the three of you?
Was it just the three of you?
Four of us.
Yeah, and we couldn’t see much of where we were going but it took us two days for the trip, which in normal
would have taken a couple of hours I suppose but their railway system had been damaged so much they had to do so many detours and so much shunting that it took us two days in these conditions to get to Nuremberg. And when we got there we had to march or walk from the station, from the bahnhoff as they called it, to the camp,
which was a walk of several kilometres and we were put into a compound in the camp. The camp was a big one divided into compounds, each compound holding about a thousand men I suppose in various huts. And the bunks were in tiers and I think they are 2 or 3 high from memory and there
was one chap called the orderly, he happened to be a Yank because the American prisoners were in the majority here, in charge of ours. When I say in charge he was just a monitor because the German guards come around several times a day. And we had to line up outside our
hut and get counted every morning and every night. And after morning count they’d give us a bowl of soup and a cup of coffee and in the evening if we were lucky we’d get a couple of slices of bread and perhaps a little bit or margarine. And that was about the rations. After
the first week we were lucky some Red Cross trucks arrived with a lot of Red Cross parcels but they were not sufficient to go around so they put one parcel between 5 men but even that was quite good from our point of view because we were use to having almost nothing and naturally starting to lose weight. Now several times we had the Red Cross parcels
arrive because they were coming up from the Swiss area, so we were told by trucks, and we heard that they were paroled American Truck drivers that were driving them. Now I never verified that but we were told that was what was happening. And after we’d been there 3 weeks we were allowed to go and have a shower.
And on the day that our group were allowed to have a shower we had to go over as a group, about 30 or 40 men. Strip off and go into the shower room which had a lot of shower heads and they would say, “Okay, you’ve got 60 seconds to have a shower.” So we had to go like blazes
to try and wash ourselves in that time. And the water was warm, not hot and as it went on it got colder and colder. So that was the one and only shower we had during our stay in Nuremberg. And since there was still snow of the ground outside there wasn’t much you could do to clean yourself otherwise there were a few outside taps which we
would go and slosh in but they were good of course. So as time went on we spent about 6 or 8 weeks in the camp at Nuremberg and one day whilst we were there we saw the American air force come over and start to bomb the city and,
oh it was terrible to watch because we were not very far away but fortunately we were far enough away not for bombs to fall in our camp area. And we did see a few Flying Fortresses come down in flames and then the they all flew away. The following day they came again and did the same thing
and since our compound and our hut had a lot of American airmen in we said to them you must have missed yesterday so you had to come back today. And of course they didn’t know how to answer that. The following day was quite all right but at the night RAF come over and marked the place, the Pathfinders marked the place and the RAF
blasted it at night-time. Now the Americans were not use to night air raids and it was, looking back in retrospect, it was amusing to see the reaction on some of them. During the first wave we told them to open the windows even though it was wintertime because concussion and what not could
break the glass. And the night raid and we were inside the huts and we could hear them saying, put out that goddamn cigarette. Now it’s the difference between what you could say there the flares that Pathfinders put down had enormous
candle power and they would light up the entire area and there was so many of them it was just like daylight, but they were different colours for the aircrew above to select the right colour. And they put a row of markers around the camp because they knew that we were there and the poor yanks were frightened that the bombers might see a cigarette butt. But you know that was all part of the, that was all part
of it because they were not accustomed to night bombing at all, we’d been through a little bit ourselves and we’d carried out quite a lot so we knew what it was like.
It must have still been an experience; I mean you’d seen it from the sky?
Oh yeah wasn’t it ever.
And you were saying you were seeing, you could see devastation this was at Nuremberg you could see devastation of the city, what was that like, what did you see?
Well from where we were all we could see of Nuremberg was smoke coming up from the fires.
Why they had to have 3 air raids running to this day we don’t know. I have read and seen various programs on television about the bombing raids but they were, went in for pattern bombing and tried to totally destroy cities irrespective of whether they were military targets or not.
Whether that was the pattern or whether for some reason both the preceding raids had missed the objective so they decided to bring RAF in at night we don’t, never found the story, the true story. I dare say it’s probably in the archives somewhere but we didn’t find it out. But that’s an experience that we went through.
So there must have been
must realise there’s civilian casualties?
Yeah, oh yes. Well in some of the air raids on German cities the civilian casualties went as high as 40,000 and more. We’ve read about various raids but it happened since they sent a city destroying raid to Dresden
later in the war and for the life of me I could never find out why. Because we didn’t think Dresden of much importance except that was line of communication for the Eastern Front and they were helping the Russians a bit. But what happened was the Russian army was advancing westwards into Germany and in front of it were tens of thousands of refugees,
civilian refugees because this happened. And they claim there are 20,000 refugees in Dresden on the day or the night that the RAF went over and bombed the place with pattern bombing. So well over 40 to 50,000 people lost their lives, civilians I talking about. But this is what happens in wartime. It doesn’t matter which
side you’re on, it happens and the advancing force doesn’t care. And of course at that time we were a lot younger than we are now so I doubt if I would like to be involved in a thing like that now, I’ve got a little bit more mature.
What was your awareness at the time, we’re going back a bit?
Yes well our awareness at the time, you beauty, that’s knocked that out, you beauty sort of thing you know.
And you’ll find that attitude in many books too. Because I was still, I didn’t, I turned 20 while I was a prisoner of war so I was still pretty young. And also rather scared of what the ultimate lot will be so that’s the experience we went through in Nuremberg.
The, I told you about on one day they gave us a shower naturally we had to use toilets, well I don’t think I’ll tell you what the toilets were like. They’re not very nice, they’re not very nice at all, but nature calls so you have to use it and there was no nice
toilets with the flush system or anything like that. And they used Russian prisoners to clean them out and as you can imagine there’s one toilet block in each compound in Nuremberg and there were several huts per compound and each had a 1000 men so I’ll let your mind wander around that one. But
after these raids happened low and behold some more prisoners were brought in to the Nuremberg camp and we were surprised to see that they were army fellows because nearly all the rest were airmen. And amongst the army fellows were some Australian AIF and they come into our compound, so naturally
we got chatting to them and they had been prisoners in Germany since Greece and Crete, in other words they’d been there 4 or 5 years. And they’d been working in various areas because being army and of non-commissioned that is they’re privates or whatever, they were obliged to work. And some of them had been working in coalmines in Selicia up in East Prussia.
They’d been used as labour wherever the Germans wanted them. Some of them were fortunate they were put onto farms and become farm labourers and those who were lucky enough to get that got on rather well because after awhile the farmers got use to them and they started to learn to talk the German language. Well the chappies that
we met in this compound could not only speak the German language fluently but they could also speak a few of the dialects. Now lots of European countries have different dialects, such as England does, the Welsh don’t speak like the Scots, or the Cornish but they all speak English but in their own way. Well it’s the same in Germany, different areas
have different dialects, well these fellows could speak the different dialects as well. And they were annoyed at being brought into the camp because they said that they’d been on foot marching under guard from over in East Germany, across to where we were and they said they were living better on the road. The main reason for that was they were able to converse readily and get on well with the farming community and population.
A couple of days later we were told that we would be shifted and to prepare ourselves for a long trek. The American orderly who was overseeing our particular hut said that from what they’d been told the trek is going to be a long one and you’d better
prepare yourselves to mind Russians. I don’t know what we were going to prepare them with because we only had the residue of a few Red Cross parcels which we’d been sharing between a few men, and the only good thing about it was, which we were to know later, which with each parcel there’d be a tiny cake of soap and there’d be a packet of 5 or 10 cigarettes and the rest were food,
biscuits or tins of fruit or whatever and we would share them. And so these couple of army fellows knowing how young we were said you stay with us and we’ll have no trouble, because the Yanks thought a lot of them were going to die, they wouldn’t survive the trek. They inclined to panic a little bit like that but
and we didn’t know whether they were right or wrong but fortunately these 2 or 3 AIF fellows they befriended us, said, “You stick with us and we’ll get you there in better conditions than you are now.”
End of tape
Interviewee: William Wilkie Archive ID 0516 Tape 07
Okay so we were told that we were leaving Nuremberg camp and we were going to go south on foot, we didn’t know how far or how long we would be. So they suggest that we make iron rations of whatever food we had which was virtually nil anyway.
But these two Australian Army fellows said, “Stick with us and we will see you through.” And we started to go south in a very long column with lots of guards because there was such a lot of prisoners from this camp going south. Most of them were airmen but there were a lot of army fellows who had come in from other areas.
I think the object of the thing was to send us further south to another camp which was closer to Switzerland perhaps from where Red Cross supplies were coming because the Germans were just a bit out of food. Our rations in Nuremberg had been pretty poor, we were given a bowl of soup of a morning, a cup of coffee, ersatz coffee, a loaf of bread shared between two men for a week,
a small swab of margarine with a bit of luck, and on Sundays about a very small piece of cheese, that was the German ration. So the few Red Cross parcels that we had we were very grateful for, they helped us out, we were losing weight of course. A good way to slim actually. So they sent us off on
the road and it was still late winter so there was still snow about on the road, and after the first days march of about 6 or 8 hours, they stopped us outside a village and it was near a little church and about 60 or 80 of us could get into this church, laying on the floor for shelter and those who couldn’t get in
had to lay outside. Which was most uncomfortable. Now unfortunately some of the men were experiencing stomach problems so they had to go in and out during the night and that was quite uncomfortable because we were packed so close together, laying on the floor. The next day still with no food supplies from
the Germans we had to rise early and start our trek further south. And we went all day until we past through a small village where we were given a small cup of soup. They also gave us a loaf of bread which we were to divided equally between eight men.
That was our rations for the day. The following day, the following night we could not get into any shelter so we had to sleep on the ground, we were adjacent to a pine plantation and low and behold it starts to rain, we couldn’t do anything about that except to rug ourselves up as best we could because we didn’t have bed clothes or anything, there were
no beds, we were out in the fields. And in the morning we woke up, of course quite wet but had to proceed on our march again. Now we were getting into the Bavarian countryside and the long column of prisoners were starting to thin out, fast ones were getting further ahead, slow ones were falling further behind and the army fellows who were with us
said, “Well that’s just exactly what we want. We want it thin because we’ll show you what we do.” Because they spoke German very well, they got pally with one or two of the guards because the guards were getting browned off at this stage and they’d changed the guard from the army fellows who had us in the Nuremberg camp to older
generation, what we learned to call later dad’s army. They were virtually World War I veterans who were too old to enter into any other service and so they brought them in to control this group going south because they realised they were not going to get much trouble from them because few if any
would endeavour to escape at this stage of the war, and remember we were already into March 45. We would get to a small village, and there are lots of villages in Europe as there are in England. You only have to go about 5 or 6 kilometres and you’re into another village. And they would allow us to sleep in barns or whatever
and the first thing we would do is see if we could find a barn with some chooks in it and hopefully we would hear the buck, buck, buck, buck, buck, we’d follow the chook around and sure enough we’d score an egg which we would pinch. So the army fellows who were with us would take us one at a time, myself included and we’d walk perhaps over the hill to a farm about a half a kilometre away.
And we’d go up to the door and knock on the door and the farmer’s wife, cause usually it was only women there would come to the door, and in his fluent German he would ask the lady did she have any eggs, or any bread or any kataffel, that’s potato and he would offer her,
whatever we had in exchange. It might be a quarter of small piece of chocolate or one of the cakes of soap that I mentioned earlier, even though they were small we would cut them in half because the German womenfolk had not seen a decent cake of soap for years. And they would welcome it but they knew our plight and they were very, Bavarian people were a little bit different to the stricter German
population in the North of the country. Bavaria is a lovely area actually and we got to like it. Spring was coming on, the snow was thawing, the streams were running and we were getting nice sunny days, the temperature not very high but just the same nice sunny days and little or no wind, so from that aspect we were feeling better. So they taught me then
to go to a house and knock at the door and say, “Guten tag, haben sie kataffel…” and sometimes you’d get a reject and told to clear out and other times they’d look at you and think, “He’s a nice looking decrepit looking fellow and he needs a feed,” and they’d perhaps bring a
two slices of bread perhaps a couple of potatoes, if we’re lucky an egg and so we would take that back and in the evening our little group that we’d got into would get together and have a little bit of a feed. Now the army chappies they would have, they would make little, little blowers out of tin cans, they’d
done this over a period of years. They would get a, an old tin, fruit tin can and put a hole in the bottom of it, put the lid on and a hole in that and put a little piece of wire through it and the wire would be attached to a couple of flat pieces of tin, and on the other end they’d put a crank and that become a blower. They’d squash another couple of tins and join it to the bottom
of that and there about six inches long and have another little open ended one and they’d put a few chips in that with some scrounged matches or something, they start a fire, then by turning this little blower the fire would come up really bright then we’d put on an old tin of water and in a matter of a minute or two the water would be boiling. So if we were
lucky enough to have a skerrick of tea left over from the parcel or some Erzats coffee we’d make a brew of tea or whatever. And we’d cook an egg. So they were right in so far as saying we’d live better out in the country but that was because they were so experienced. And they could have a good rapport with the German peasants particularly the farmers. And this went on for days and days.
And we did have a funny experience we were getting down near the town of Neustadt and we were going around backcountry roads, which was in our favour because that’s where we saw more farms and private homes. And there was a bus coming down the road, now the old German army guard who was with us was feeling very unwell,
it was too much for him, in fact half the day we carried his rifle as well as his pack for him and one of our army friends stepped out and stopped the bus and went up to the driver and in fluent German told him what he wanted him to do. And we put this old German guard on the bus and
told him to go into the next town, wait for us in the town square because there was always a town square, church, hall, town hall or rat house as their town halls are call. There’s always a square and we would meet him there. But make sure when we get there you have got some food and supplies for us, oh a he thanked us profusely, he was going to go in on the
bus, instead of having to walk it. Low and behold when we got to this town a few hours later true to his word and he had the food for us, you wouldn’t believe it but that’s what exactly what happened. He was feeling a lot better so he was able to carry his own rifle but we still carried the pack for him. Now this was the exception rather than the rule because not all guards were,
even though they were mostly all old fellows some of them were much more fitter than others. This exercise then went on for quite a few days because it took us 15 days on the road to reach the destination that we were going to. When we got south of Neustadt or Newstead in English we were halted behind a small plantation
of trees and a platoon of German soldiers came dressed in their full battle gear, dark uniforms, steel helmets, rifles and they marched up the road to us, and counted us, a certain number out and we had to form up in between them, when we got down to the end of the road where they’d formed us and turned the corner we realised what it was. There was a bridge there
and we were going to walk across the Danube River cause the Danube flowed through southern Germany as well as further down of course. And they had the bridge mined, it was loaded with explosives underneath cause they were going to blow it up as the Allied armies were approaching. So they had to escort us across so that none of us would get up to mischief. And so they took us from a kilometre before and a kilometre after,
before they went back for the next group. And a couple of days after that we arrived at our destination which was a small town called Moosberg. Moosberg is situated just North East of Munich, about 15 or 20 kilometres out of Munich and we were taken into a POW [Prisoner of War] camp there
Can I ask you how all the men managed on the walk, like were there people that found it very difficult?
Were there men that found the walk very difficult?
And didn’t make it or were…?
Well I don’t know any who didn’t make it because the condition was not quite as bad as what some of the Americans were frightened of,
rather that was our experience and even though the line had stretched out and instead of all arriving at Moosberg on one day, we arrived in dribs and drabs over a period of a few days. Some of the younger fellows from a different compound formed themselves up into a group and marched it in step all the way, they reckon they could get down better in doing it that way, and perhaps they did. But the way we
went we were very happy with because we had good companions who helped us a lot. So we arrived at the town of Moosberg, taken through the streets and down into a prisoner of war camp which was not far out of the centre of the town. When we got there and taken in through the gate, we could see there were a lot of huts that had been there for a long time but we
were taken right past that and they had big tents, big marquees like circus tents erected at the back and that’s where we were taken to. We then found out that there were about 30,000 allied prisoners in that camp. Now we were put into this Marquee and so naturally our little group sat together,
to wait, to find out what was going to happen. And the next morning an Australian Army officer came into the tent and he looked around and he sorted out Australian people he could tell by their uniform, we had a dark blue air force uniform in those days which is different to the one they were now
and that was distinctive from RAF so he knew which were Australians and he came over and he said, “Anybody here from Ballarat?” and I said, “Yes I am.” And he said, “What’s your name?” and I said, “Wilkie.” “Is your father the baker and pastry cook in Ballarat North?” And I said, “Yes.” He said, “Do you know the boot maker on the other corner opposite your father’s shop?” and I said, “Yes.”
“Very well. That’s old Mr Brown,” and he said, “That’s my father.” Now you wouldn’t credit that would you? So I met Arthur Brown, he was a captain, now he’d been in Moosberg camp for a long time and being an officer he didn’t have to go out to work, but because they’d been there a long time they got themselves very organised and he said come over and I’ll show you our quarters. Well it was in a hut and of course
it was full of officers, army officers that is, and they were in fairly good shape. And he said over in this corner we’ve got out wireless set where we tune in every night and over in this corner we’ve got that and the other thing and I can assure you we’re not going to be here very long. He’d been there a long time but he said we won’t be there very long. American forces are not very far away from us.
Next morning because that was the most Southern camp at the time, closest to the Swiss border, they were getting Red Cross supplies frequently, in fact that were being used as a bulk depot for sending them further out. And because they couldn’t transport them much further out they were living rather well. And the next morning he brought around a couple of boxes of Red Cross food for us to share amongst all of our
fellows who were with us. And which was a nice greeting, was very good. So we were only there, I can’t remember now how long it was, about a week or two and we heard some shots being fired and then we saw a light aircraft fly overhead. Now the American army use
to use spotters in flying little Pipers like a small Cessna, Piper Cubs they were. They’d fly around the front line to see which way the, or what strength the opposition was providing they weren’t shot down themselves, and this flew over the camp. So we had a pretty good idea things were getting very close. The following day the American army arrived
at the gates of the camp and it was General Patton. Patton’s 3rd American army and General Patton he had a reputation of being a rather bullish type of a General and he wore a couple of pearl handled revolvers on his side as though he was a Western cowboy, we laughed at that. Because being a general he wouldn’t have got close enough to anybody to shoot
anyone, but that’s what he liked. And so they liberated the camp, now we heard later that the German commander of the camp was in contact with General Patton’s Headquarters and offered to
hand the camp over to Americans provided they spared the town. Advancing German armies would usually line up their tanks and artillery and blast the hell out of a town before they actually went into it themselves. And that was done for a purpose because the Germans usually put up stiff resistance in every town. It was house to house fighting and all that
sort of stuff. So he offered that and I’m told that the Americans accepted this, so the town of Moosberg was not destroyed. But the Americans arrived and we were liberated. Now with 30,000 prisoners, the problem was what to do with them and how to evacuate them.
So we were given freedom and the men, the prisoners if they so desired could walk into the town and have a look around and talk to some of the people or, and some of the nasty chaps did nasty things, but let’s face it there’s a war on and you get nasty types unfortunately in all walks of life.
But we waited in the camp, we had a look around the small town and after about a week, a group of American servicemen arrived with a lot of equipment and we were told that we were going to be deloused, so they had a lot of DDT spraying equipment, so we had to strip off
and get ourself completely deloused. The washing facilities for such a large number of men was unable to cope, so we couldn’t bathe and wash as we would have like to have done. The only decent shower we had the whole time was the one that we were given in Nuremberg and we weren’t given a nice clean change of underwear everyday or anything like that so
you can imagine the condition that we were in. So delousing became necessary before evacuation. And then we were divided into group and a couple of days after that a convoy of American trucks arrived and group-by-group we were put onto these trucks for evacuation.
Our particular group was taken up the main autobahn north from, it ran as far as Nuremberg but we stopped at a city called Ingolstadt halfway between Munich and Nuremberg and taken out to an airfield. Where we were told to wait, and fortunately we had a bit of shelter there, some old barracks.
It was one that had been a German air force airfield and had been evacuated of course, taken over. Peace had been declared so we were told to wait there for air transport to take us out. Now while we were in the, while we were at Ingolstadt on the airfield, we went
through the place and I got a couple of souvenirs, trinkets. And we would sit on the airfield. On the second or third day we had a funny experience. A German Stuka came flying over our airfield and from the way he flew over the airfield at a low height and flapped his wings;
we knew what he was going to do. He was just going to come and surrender, so he swerved out and turned around and came in, put his flaps down and you could see he was approaching, going to land. And that’s exactly what he did. Now the airfield was guarded by a lot of American troops in jeeps and trucks and most of them were
dark coloured Americans and they flew down the runway in their jeeps and trucks chasing after this aircraft which was going to stop anyway and the German pilot pushed back the canopy and started to get out. And two American privates rushed up to him with their rifles and told him that he was their prisoner.
An American officer came up and told them to move and they said, “No, he’s our prisoner.” I don’t, this is the funny way the Yanks, there’s so many ways, I don’t know whether that made any difference but they thought it was marvellous that they’d caught this German pilot you see. When I say caught, he volunteered, he came in to surrender and what had happened was he had
been based over in Eastern Germany and he wanted to escape from the Russians who were advancing into Eastern Germany, he would prefer to surrender to the American or the British rather than surrender to the Russians. So he flew his plane across and he was lucky to have got that far without being shot down, but he got there and that was one peculiar little incident that we saw.
Two days later the American DC3s, twin engine DC3s, you want to know what they were like? They use to be airliners before the war. A flight of them came in a landed at the airfield and we were fortunate enough to be loaded onto one of them
and from Ingolstadt in Germany they flew us to Rheims in France, to an airfield there. And when we landed there, and got out of the aircraft, we were taken across the tarmac to another lot of aircraft that happen to be Lancasters. And they’d been
stripped of most of their gear and they were being used to ferry prisoners back to England. So we were as strange as it would seem. The aircraft that we were assigned to was amongst a group of Lancasters and whilst we were doing our own original station commander was there. And
he had heard that we’d been taken prisoner, he knew we went missing naturally and heard we’d been taken prisoner but it was incredible that we would meet him on the airfield at Duncore which is just outside of Rheims. So after a few words with him, we were put into a Lancaster aircraft and the pilot said,
“What location were you?” And I said, “Rear gunner.” And he said, “Do you want to fly back in it?” and I said, “Yes I do.” So I hopped into the tail and I flew back to England in the tail of the aircraft. And on landing at one of the airfields at England, it was not our squadron one, because this ferry service was going backward and forward all the time because there were thousands and thousands and thousands of men to get back. And on arrival
at the airfield we were, went into the offices and they confirmed our names, etc., and our records and they said, “Right, you’re going down to Brighton where the RAAF reception base is.” So lo and behold we went back to the Grand Hotel at Brighton. So that ended our little jaunt in Germany. So we were
re-equipped with new clothing and naturally enjoyed a shower. We got some pay because the pay in our pay book had accrued while we were in Germany and we’re told to wait for a few days, whilst we were put on special food rations because we were suffering malnutrition,
and after oh about a week I suppose, they told us you can now have a leave pass for a couple of weeks if you so desired. And we’ll give you special ration cards. And we had of course sent telegrams back to our parents; the moment we had arrived there of course to let them know that we were now safe and well.
And so I thought I better do the right thing and go down to Cornwell and look up some of my mother’s relations. Because she still had a cousin living there. So I took the train to Cornwell, to a little town called Redroof and when found my way to where
this lady lived, an aunty of my mothers. I knocked at the door and she wondered who the heck I was until I told her who I was and who my mother was. And she almost fell over backwards and naturally welcomed me in, she was living alone, with opened arms. And I said, “Well to help you, what about some of these food coupons?” and her eyes popped open – she could buy eggs, she could buy some bacon,
she could buy some meat and lots of things she didn’t, hadn’t had for a long time. So I spent a few days with her. And a nephew of hers come around, was a young lad too young to be in the services and he took me around the area sightseeing and then she said, “Whilst you’re here, there’s another cousin not quite so well known living in Penzance and I suggest you go down and see him.” And I said, “Well that would be a good
idea. What’s his name and address?” And she said, I’ll tell you his name, but you don’t need his address because everyone knows him.” And I thought, “Well that’s strange.” But she told me, “He has a small inn in one of the main streets in Penzance.” So I hopped on the train and went down to Penzance. Went outside and found a taxi
and I said, “Could you take me to Howard Warren?” and he said, “Straight away.” He knew him straight away – he was a well-known local identity. I think he was into a bit of mischief about the place too quite frankly, but he ran a little pub. And I went in and sat down and asked for a glass of lemonade and he looked at me and I said, “I’m looking for Howard Warren,” and he said, “You’re talking
to him,” and I said, “Right, do you know Beth Jones at Redroof?” And he said, “Of course I do, she’s a distant cousin,” and I said, “Right, my mother is a cousin of hers.” And he looked…so he welcomed me with opened arms and he said, “Come out of the bar. Let’s go into the back room and we’ll have a sit down over a nice cuppa.” And he then said, “You’d better stay the night and I’ll show
you around a bit.” So the next morning he got out his car, and I don’t know where he got the petrol from and nor did I ask, but he drove me down to Lands End and all around the far end of Cornwall and gave me the royal treatment. And took me back to the station and thanked me for calling on him and I went back to Redroof and stayed another few days
with my mother’s aunt before I went back to Brighton. So that pleased my mother no end. She got letters and what so name and they were all thrilled and that made her very pleased. It made her pleased that I was safe and sound, it made her pleased that I looked up her relations. So back at Brighton we were starting to feel a bit better.
We had had quite a few meals and we were starting to recover from our malnutrition and slowly getting our strength back. So we went off to London and had another few days in London looking around and went to dances, Leicester Square, Trafalgar Square you name it all around the place and thoroughly enjoyed ourself. And the next thing we know
we’ve got a ship to take us back home to Australia. So they put us on a train to go north to Liverpool and when we got to Liverpool, we were taken to the dock area and we were put on a ship called the Orion, it had been an Orient Line Cruise ship but it had been stripped down to make it into a
Troop ship of course. And we were to sleep in hammocks, which didn’t appeal to us very much but never the less if it was going to take us home to Australia we’d put up with some pretty rough times so this wasn’t going to worry us much. So we set sail from Liverpool on this ship across the Atlantic, through the Panama Canal and
as we come out of the Panama Canal and set sail into the Pacific, we learnt of the Japanese surrender. Which we felt quite happy and so we didn’t have much worry sailing across the Pacific on the way home. And ultimately sailed straight into Sydney Harbour and obviously a lot of people knew we were coming because there was a flotilla
of small craft. Accompanying, once we came through the heads in Sydney there’s lots of small craft come up and was accompanying us up the harbour and all sorts of funny things were happening. You know people were calling out because they knew that hopefully their sons, or daughters or brothers or sisters or whatever would be on board.
And quite a lot of them would call out a name you know, so and so or so and so, Tom Jones or Bill Smith or whatever and we’d say no he went mad and we shot him and threw him overboard, all sorts of funny things like that because we were in a jovial mood and everybody was. We’d come into Sydney Harbour and we had a welcome there. Naturally the New South Wales people and Sydney people
were given leave straight away, many of their loved ones were waiting at the wharf for them to disembark. We Victorians were put on transports and taken back out to Bradfield Park where we had first done our ITS. And we were issued with any new clothing that we wanted or any other supplies and then we were taken into Central Station and
put on a troop train and sent to Melbourne. And Troop trains had improved a fair bit in the meantime and we were able to lay in bunks. They’d put bunk in tiers on each side of the carriage so that we could sleep because it was an overnight trip of course. Changing at Albury and everybody in Melbourne and all relations had been notified that we were coming
and would arrive in Melbourne. When we got to Spencer Street Station there was a long row of cars, mostly driven by volunteers in Australian Red Cross people so we were put 4 into a car and a long procession up Collins Street and there were crowds on each side of the road.
You’d reckon it was a Grand Final day or something. And we were told as we got into the car, stay in the car because all relations have been told to meet you at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. So the long procession of cars went through the city and half way up Collins Street, I spotted an aunt of mine who lived in Melbourne
and behind her was my Mum and Dad. So I said, “MCG,” and they waved, so they went to the procession of cars got to the MCG and stopped at one of the gates we got out, walked in through and onto the oval and across the oval towards what is now, what was the Members Stand and that’s where the families were coming through to greet us,
so halfway across the oval, I met Mum and Dad. So naturally we’d been given leave passes so that was the beginning of the end of my little experience in World War II.
How’s the tape going?
End of tape
Interviewee: William Wilkie Archive ID 0516 Tape 08
So yeah just go back to England and the base and being in England, so do you want to tell us about some of the friendships that you had with a few women?
Have we started?
Oh have we?
Oh well, what would you like to know?
Well did you form any close friendships with any women?
Oh yes I did as we moved around
England, and we did move around because we went to various training establishments. We did seemed to form relationships, sometimes with WAAFs who were on the station other times with local girls that perhaps we’d would meet at dances. And perhaps they were girls because we were young and that was the
thing to try and obtain a girlfriend whilst you were in a certain area. But in my own instance they were passing friendships. I know some airmen got into lasting friendships and married the girls and ultimately came out here as wives. And that was
nothing unusual, I suppose that was to be expected. But for the ones that I became, for instance when we first went to our Operational Training Unit at Litchfield there was a WAAF serving meals in the mess, sergeants’ mess where we dined and she smiled at me one day and winked, so I
got friendly with her and I accompanied her to picture shows on the station and several dances and she said that I could tell by her accent which she told me she came from Wales and as I thought the Welsh people had a funny accent. So did the girls and the people
from Lancashire they also had a funny accent. We use to joke to them that we didn’t know how to cook out of a cookery book and that’s the way they use to talk. Well the Welsh use to talk a little funny too in our mind, not in theirs but in our mind. And she told me, I said, “What part of Wales do you come from?” I don’t know why because I didn’t know the first thing about Wales and she
said, “I come from the Rhondda Valley,” and I said, “Oh yes, and what’s that?” And she said, “Well down in the Rhondda Valley there’s a place called Trerherbert in the County of Tinewood.” So I said, “Oh yeah, you know I don’t know much about it. Tell me.” She said, “It’s an area of nothing but coalmines,” coalmines. Now they
produced a film shortly before the war called How Green was my Valley” And the mine that her father worked at was used for this film and that interested me and I thought well Wales is interesting. And when we were leaving that particular station to go to the next one, she said, “Would you come and visit
me if you get leave? I’ll be down in Wales on leave, would you come and visit me on a certain time (UNCLEAR) the days?” And I said, “Oh well, yes I will,” because I was interested. And she said, “I’ll show you something that you’ve probably never seen.” So I made me, I got a leave pass and on this particular time and I got on a train and went to Cardiff, changed trains there
and got one that took me down this Rhondda Valley and when I got out at the station. It was the darkest sort of a place that I’d seen at that time. Everything was dark colour and blackish and I asked a person directions where to get to this particular area and this street and they told me. Well all I could see was rows
of cottages that were built all together right on the footpath and they went for miles. And it appears these had been built a hundred or two hundred years ago to house the miners, because this part of Wales was absolutely covered in coalmines. And you could see these coalmine poppit heads everywhere. So I ultimately found the cottage in which
she lived and knocked at the door and low and behold, it was her mother who’d come out and she saw an Australian airmen there and I could hear the girl yell out, “He’s come down.” So she come out to meet me and welcome me and introduce me to the family. Now this was latish in the afternoon
and about half past five I think it was. It was a very primitive type of cottage, they all were and Mother got out an old tin tub, which was hanging on the wall outside and brought it into the kitchen and she started pouring kettles of hot water into this old tin tub. And a few minutes later
the father arrived home from the coal mine and he was as black as ink. Covered in coal dust and the first thing, he was to strip off and hop into the tub for a bath in the middle of the kitchen floor, which was basically a dirt floor with a mat over it. That was my introduction to this old coalmining area
in Wales. Now their son he also came home but he was as clean as you and I are now. His mine had been modernised and they’d put in showers and locker rooms and dressing rooms at the surface area of the mine, so that all the miners could get a shower and a clean up before they went home. It was a very big contrast between father and Son arriving
home. The next was the Saturday or something, or Sunday, the next day was Sunday and they were not working. So father took me down to this particular mine where this film had been shot, or they’d used this mine for lots of the scenes in the film. And took me around it and he said that they went
down so far underground, I think it was virtually a couple of kilometres vertically downwards to get into the seam of coal and that’s where they worked all day. And they would only see the surface in the morning and in the evening because they’d have their lunch down there too, it was so far down. It was very interesting. So
there was nothing much in the way of entertainment for me to do there. This particular WAAF girl who’d invited me down to see this was very pleased that I was there. And I think we went for a bus ride to a picture theatre or something and then we had a little bit of supper at a café afterwards and I took her home. And then my leave had expired because it took me quite a while
to get back to Cardiff and then another connecting train to go back to get back to the station where I was. So that was just a little interesting aside. But of course she was based at that original OTU that I was at and in the meantime we’d progress to another couple of schools and then gone to a squadron so I’d lost track of her. I do think that I did send her a couple of cards on occasions
and contact by virtue of a letter was kept but then we went missing and whether she ever found that out, it’s possible she did because there were certain magazines or newspapers that come that often published casualty lists. But unless you read them and there were lots of names to read you wouldn’t know. The only people who knew
were next of kin and friends and other crews on the station that you were operating from, from the squadron. Telegrams of course were sent to my parents immediately we went missing and follow up telegrams were sent when they ultimately found out a couple of months later that we’d been taken prisoner of war from the Red Cross notification from Geneva.
So contact was lost and after the war I didn’t go back, well it was no deep love affair and I was still only a kid anyway, I was too young to get any further involved. And there are other pretty girls around anyway so that was that little interlude if that’s what you wanted to hear.
So with being captured, what were your
instructions you know as an airmen, what were your instructions from the command about what you were to do if….?
Our instructions were that if captured we were obliged to tell our captors our name, our rank and our service number. We are not obliged to tell them anything else and if they ask us any other questions just repeat
your name, your rank and your number. Now we were also given small escape kits but by the time we’d been taken prisoner one of the first things that our captors looked for was our escape kit. They knew that our instructions were to escape
and they knew that we’d been given certain aids to help our escape, there was a small packet with contain a couple of iron rations, a small map and the compass that had been sewn onto our, which was two buttons sewn onto our battle jacket so that we could determine the direction that we
were going to move but I was taken prisoner very, so soon after landing on the ground and the captors knew that I would have an escape kit and that they knew that I had two buttons which were a compass, so they immediately relieved them, they relieved me of them. So I wasn’t able to make much use of that. Now airmen who had been
taken years earlier and were taken into various prisoner camps, did sometimes when the opportunity arose formed themselves into a little escape groups and make escapes and usually ended up in recapture or being shot but some did ultimately did get back to England via the underground, but that was the exception rather than the rule. It was not,
it didn’t happen to very many men at all. But there are books written about those who did escape and some of them did it quite successfully but as I said before it was the exception rather than the rule.
So if you did manage to escape, what would you do then and how would the underground assist you?
It was hit and miss,
if we were captured inside Germany, that made it very difficult, if we were captured, if we were rather sorry baled out inside Germany it made it difficult, if we baled out over France and that happened a lot that wasn’t quite as bad or in Holland or whatever. But first thing you’d do is hide whatever stuff you had to hide, such as the parachute or try and hide it by burying
it or whatever and then just take your time to get your feelings about where you were, determined north, south, east and west and so you’d naturally want to travel westerly if you could. If you got near a village and you’re in Germany, scout the village because it’s a hundred to one there is a German
people, German army people or SS [Schutzstaffel] or Gestapo in the village, who were very careful. Because remember we couldn’t speak the language, we could only speak English. So if we were challenged we couldn’t intelligently answer the challenged. So to scout villages and try and hide up during the day
in the back of barns or behind heaps of stores or whatever, hedges whatever you could find. And try and move by night. Now to move by night is not an easy thing particularly in the middle of winter. You’re not sure whether you’re going to stumble over something, and you’re in snow so you are silhouetted against a white background so it’s not easy to hide. But some
men were able to achieve that, they were lucky and once they got into France or Holland quite a few of them who would make contact with perhaps a farmer or a farmers wife or something and they would be sympathetic and would perhaps guide them or introduce them to somebody which would help them with the underground. Others
would make out that they were doing that but were in fact contacting the Gestapo or something and dobbing them in. So it was not an easy exercise to do. Particularly as from our point of view living across the other side of the world and we’re not use to European customs and had no knowledge what so ever of the language. I did pick up a little bit of German, not very much
but we were counted twice a day so I learnt my numbers easily and the Australian Army fellows taught me a little bit how to ask for various things and ask directions and things but very restrictive.
So when did you become aware that the instructions had been changed?
When we were in the Nuremberg prisoner of war camp,
some airmen arrived who had only been shot down a couple of days before in Southern Germany and had come virtually straight to Nuremberg. They’d been through interrogation and come to Nuremberg camp and they told us that about a month previously the RAF had advised airmen not to
try and escape as were the previous instructions. Because the allied armies were so far across France and entering Southern Germany that the likelihood of getting into more difficulties than ever it was far better to stay where you were and see it out, and then you would be brought home. Whereas if you did escape and some of them
did, some of them did run away, two things one is that you’d possibly be picked up by German army as they were retreating and they didn’t want anything to do with you, so they would shoot you and if you were lucky enough to get through German lines and that wasn’t all that difficult because it wasn’t one great big line from north to south. If you were lucky enough to
through the allied armies, particularly the Americans, if they saw you in the distance would possible shoot first and then ask question afterwards. But if you were lucky enough to get within earshot of them you could tell them who you were, the chance are they wouldn’t believe you because it was known that many Germans were escaping in
Allied uniforms and so they always interrogated anybody very closely first. And they could usually pick up by your speech whether you were in fact genuine or not, cause there’s always a dialect. So it wasn’t easy in either way so the order to escape was countermanded,
so we didn’t try.
So just going back to the Lancasters, the planes and it would be good to find out a bit more about the way the team seven airmen, seven crew on the team on the Lancaster, how you co-ordinated what you, each of you did on the plane when you were doing an operation.
What you communicated to each other?
Well there was an aircraft internal intercom system, each of us had a microphone and earphones, they were built in as part of the helmet. The microphone was attached just inside the oxygen mask which we always,
we always put the oxygen mask on when we took off, when we climbed above 5 or 6,000 feet, it was compulsory anyway but even if we talk with the mask, as far as my position was concerned, I had the mask on all the time. The reason being if I turned on the microphone to speak to the other members of the crew, the location where I was, the noise was, the background noise was so severe that it would drown out some
of my speech. So to overcome that I’d just clip the oxygen mask around and that covered all of my face and sealed it off so there was no outside noise got into the microphone. And then I did not have to speak a great deal but I had to listen all the time for any instructions or request from the pilot in particular because normally I didn’t get into conversation during
flight with the navigator or the wireless operator. I did often speak to the other gunner and I spoke to the pilot but there’s no need to converse between myself and other members of the crew other than those. But it was there and I could tune and listen into everything that was said between conversations with the other crew members, so.
So what’s an example of a sort of instructions that you would get from the pilot or the navigator?
Well any instructions that I would get come from the pilot and mostly he would say that we’re now approaching such an such an area it is known that this is the location where enemy aircraft could be expected so please be alert and start your scanning.
Well I was doing it anyway. Scanning to me was moving the turret around to scan the sky for the whole 180 degrees of visibility that I had from the rear turret. The mid upper of turret, the fellow in the middle of the plane and up top, he was able to scan 360 degrees for me in the rear turret, I was only able to scan through 180 degrees, up and down as well as sideways of course,
and mainly when we were on operations that would be the conversation that I would get from the pilot. We tended not to natter very much when we were on operations, we did quite a lot when we were training, spin yarns or sling off at one an other etc, but while we were on operations we tended not to. Because the
main conversations were between the navigator and the pilot because the navigator would be giving the pilot instructions when to change course and what course to fly at and what altitude. And the pilot would respond to the navigator saying o.k. done, flying so many degrees east, west, north, south whatever and
the conversations were mostly between those two. Now the wireless operator had to maintain radio silence, he was not allowed to use his wireless to transmit because any signal could be picked up by enemy as well as our own group so it was observing radio silence but he was given instructions to tune into base on certain particular times,
every 30 minutes or every 60 minutes or whatever, expect a signal to come through from base the signal would be coded of course in the form of a letter or something like that and that would signify for that particular day what that message meant, and if necessary the wireless operator would relay that to the pilot or the navigator to give them instructions that he’d just received.
Other than that there wasn’t a great deal. Now there was always a fair amount of conversation between the pilot and flight engineer because he would have to watch which fuel tanks were being used and get ready to switch to other fuel tanks because the fuel tanks were in the wings and it wasn’t just one big one there were various fuel tanks, individual ones and he’d have to open or close the cocks from one tank to another
to make sure that the engines received fuel all the time. That was done, separated tanks were done deliberately for safety aspects of course, hopefully that if one was put out, because it was isolated from the next one they could perhaps isolate that one and switch to the next one perhaps without causing damage to the lot. So conversations between the pilot and the engineer were common as well
as pilot navigators, but as far as I was concerned in the rear turret was mainly listening rather than talking.
So who was actually spotting the plane, spotting the enemy, was that the pilot?
We were searching for it,
Who was doing that?
Doing like, actually seeing the enemy in the sky?
Well if it was from the rear it was me, if it was from the front it would be the bomb aimer
because he had a position up in the nose. If it was up above or around about it would be the other air gunner, Mid upper as we called him, so we had a fairly good cover as far as observation was concerned.
Did you use binoculars?
No. Didn’t have a chance to use binoculars.
And the signal that would come from base at these different intervals
with an instructions of some, with a coded instruction, what would those signals be telling you?
Well it could be denoting a change of course from the prescribed one due to change in the weather conditions expected over target because the climate did change fairly quickly sometimes and when we were briefed prior to taking
off we would be given weather conditions over the target area as well as weather conditions over the North Sea and over England where we were flying. But sometimes that would find out, perhaps Pathfinders who had gone in early had found that the wind wasn’t from the north at all, it was from the south or something like that, the weather had changed. So they had to instruct the planes to make the necessary alterations
to cope with that because the wind has a great deal of influence on flying aircraft particularly at high altitudes. So these messages would come through in code and if there was a change and if there was an alteration then the pilot, the wireless operator would tell the pilot and the navigator so they could make the necessary adjustments. Also if perchance for some unknown reason
the operation was to be aborted he would get that signal too. That did happen, all be it extremely rarely. Very seldom was it aborted when we were well into it. But that did happen on occasion, because they might find the target was perhaps
completely cloud covered over weather, well that didn’t always stop us but Pathfinders couldn’t locate it or couldn’t put down the markers or whatever and they didn’t want us to waste the bomb load that we were carrying, so we would turn round and return to base. But that was a rather rare occurrence for us anyway. Besides I only did 7 and a half, it was on the eighth that I went.
It was only on one occasion when we aborted, on take off for an operation, an engine failed and the aircraft couldn’t climb up and gain speed as was required to keep up with the formation and that happened immediately
on take off, so the pilot said we will abort, so we flew over the airfield and we fired off the colours of the day. Now each aircraft had what was known as a vary pistol in the ceiling of the aircraft and each time we flew we would be told what were the colours of the day.
The vary pistol would carry a cartridge, which was fairly fat and stocky, and the wireless operator would put that into the pistol when we got into the aircraft. The colours of the day and they changed every day and this cartridge would fire off these two, would shoot up and you get two colours, a red and a blue or a pink and a white or something,
something. Each day it was changed, it was done for quite a variety or reasons, it was to let people, the ground staff knew you had a problem because we were not allowed to tell them on radio, we had to observe radio silence, it was if we were flying over the English Channel and they’re a couple of British warships underneath us and they didn’t like any aircraft flying over them
at all, and occasionally they would fire a few shells at us, so to overcome that we’d shoot the colours of the day and they’d immediately know they were friendly aircraft. Various emergencies that you would get onto you would do that. Sometimes when we’re well over France and perhaps some of our own fighter planes
were suspicious of us for some unknown reason and they looked rather threatening we’d fire the colours of the day and they’d immediately know things were all right. One this day when the engine failed we flew over the airfield and fired the colours of the day that was to let the people on the ground know that we’ve got a problem. Now we were carrying all our bomb load including a 4000 pound cookie
now whilst we would often, not often but if necessary we would land with all the bombs on board, we didn’t like landing with the Cookie. Now the Cookie didn’t look like an ordinary bomb, it looked like an oversized 44 gallon drum, a big tubular drum and it was, it would detonate immediately it would touch anything and if we landed with one on
you’d be chewing your fingernails, crossing fingers doing all sorts of things hoping that it didn’t shake and come loose because there would be an enormous explosion because it was a 4000 pounder, so he decided that we would jettison that bomb over the North Sea. Now the 4000 pound Cookie was not allowed to be dropped under a height
of 6,000 feet, preferably 8,000 over water but the pilot wanted to know what the effects of it would be. So we flew at 6,000 or a bit under it and he dropped, he ordered the bomb aimer to drop the Cookie which he did and we felt the shudder at that altitude when it hit the water and exploded, once that had gone we flew home with all the other bombs still on board and landed safely
on three engines. That was the only time we had to abort an operation ourselves other than that everything, each time we went we were okay. So always little bits of excitement. I can remember on one occasion when we were at Lancaster Finishing School. The pilot use to have to learn how to fly on three engines
and he use to have to learn how to abort a landing. And we were with an instructor this day doing circuits and bumps and he said we’ll now feather an engine, in other words you cut out an engine and feather a propeller, so you’ll only be on three. Now if you get into trouble as you approach a runway, then overshoot
quickly pull the wheels up again and fly and go around again. We approached the runway on this day on three engines and we had the instructor alongside of, sitting alongside the pilot watching what he did and an engine on the otherside conked out, so instead of being on three engines we were on two. And he was almost on the runway, and the
instructor said we have a problem and he was as calm as you and I are today, he said we’ve got a major problem, put some boost into the other two engines, lift up the wheels and we’ll abort the landing and go round again. Well I reckon I could put my hand out and touch the ground from the rear turret, we were so low and I don’t know how we survived that one but
fortunately on two engines the aircraft slowly gained a bit of height again while he brought up the wheels and we went around again, so and the instructor said the engine that we deliberately stopped, bring that back into use. So he restarted that engine while we’re in flight so we were on three engines, the one that had gone crook of it’s own accord so we come and landed on three engines.
So that was one little hair-raising event that we had too. But there were a few of them, I can’t recall them all at the time.
So perhaps we could wind up with coming home and what it was like for you coming home and how you found yourself back in your community in Ballarat and what you did, going out to work? So you met up with your family at the MCG and then what happened?
Well after I’d met the family at the MCG that day, of course we had leave passes straight away so we went home in the car, father had a car. We use to use that for part of his deliveries, he would take the back seat out and so forth, so we did have a family car. And we drove home from Melbourne to Ballarat and they’d booked us dinner at the
local Clays Hotel and one of the young girls that I had been writing to, they’d invited her along too. And so we had a lovely meal that night at the hotel. Whilst I was away my father had a flagpole erected in the front garden of the house and when they got a telegram from me in England he bought a flag and hoisted it to full mast. Which
having a private home with a flagpole was not common thing, it’s still not common. I don’t know very many people who do have one, I do know of one chappie close by whose got one, so he had the flag flying then everybody knew then that Bill must be safe. So when we got home naturally it took me a couple of days to settle down a bit, I was rather overjoyed about it, I was still only
twenty years old, I was rather young and sillyish. So I just proceeded to go around the town and meet some of the friends that I had known, find out what happened to others who hadn’t returned and just, oh I suppose slowly got myself back into routine. I had to return to Melbourne and at this
discharge area for the air force was situated in the Exhibition Buildings at Carlton. But when I went down there, you’re an ex prisoner of war so I’m sorry you are posted to Warburton, to the chalet at Warburton because you must be suffering from malnutrition and other various things so you need a holiday
up in the hills at Warburton. So I said I’m not keen to go, sorry you’re posted there you catch the train tonight to so and so and so and so and then get the bus and they’ll take you to the Chalet. So I had to go up to Warburton for a week or two. Now if they said that to me today I’d go as quick as a flash, it would be excellent. But when I was only that age and Warburton didn’t mean a great
deal to me and they didn’t say you can take your mum and dad with you or anything like that. There was just a few of us ex prisoners of war who were sent up there and what would 20 year old boys do up at Warburton in October, November you know. I suppose you can think of lots of things, but at the time
we couldn’t think of much but it was a nice chalet, lovely accommodation, very nice meals, had a swimming pool that we could go to and various other things but other than walk around the hills and walk around the town we didn’t have much to do. But when after the couple of weeks were up a doctor arrived and checked us out again and made sure there were no ailments visible or anything
and told us we could return to……
End of tape
Interviewee: William Wilkie Archive ID 0516 Tape 09
Okay so we’re recording now, so just on that point now whether you ever fired a shot on any on your 7½ ops?
No, I was fortunate that our individual plane was not attacked by enemy fighter aircraft, so I was not obliged to fire the guns, much to the relief of the ground staff because they
would have had to have clean them each time. Remember I had 4 machine guns; four Browning’s and they were very lethal but their range was not all that long compared to the equipment that was on board enemy fighters at the time I was flying. They were using 20 and 40 mm cannons so they could fire at us from a much longer range than my guns
could reach. But I was lucky that in just the few operations that I had been on we hadn’t encountered enemy aircraft that attacked us individually, so I didn’t fire the guns in anger, no.
Okay so how did you blend back into civilian life, what did you do once you were discharge?
Yes, well after I went through the process of getting
discharged which was at the Exhibition Buildings in Carlton and that was a long process because one had to get a signature from each officer of the various sections. From dentists, from doctors, from pay section, from…I think about I think I had to get about 8 or 10 signatures before they would issued the discharge.
And most of the sections were in the Exhibition Building but you had to go from one to one to one, and I can remember it got near the end of the day and some of them were packing up and that annoyed me because I wanted to catch the night train home to Ballarat. And one, I went to one section which was about the last section that I had to go to to get a signature
and it was the only time that I said I got a priority, he was packing up and about to say, “Come back tomorrow,” and I said, “I’m sorry. I’ve got a priority.” And he said, “What’s your priority?” and I said, “I’m an ex prisoner of war.” “Oh, I’m sorry, sir.” I don’t know why he called me ‘sir’ – I was only a warrant officer. But a warrant officer’s uniform look like a ….anyway and so he immediately sat down and went through his particular papers, I’m not sure which section it was
and stamped it and signed it and I had my full set of signatures complete, so I handed them in to the adjutant’s office on the way out and went down to Spencer Street and hopped on the train to Ballarat. And shortly after that my discharge certificate was forthcoming and so I was able to dispense with my uniform and start preparing myself for civilian life.
This was in early December ’45, so I went down to my former employer where I worked as a junior draughtsman and they were all pleased to see me and I said, “Okay, how about it?” “Yes, we want you to start as early as
convenient.” Companies who had and firms, shops, etcetera, who had people taken to go into the services were obliged to give them their job back, if they were still in business and this business was still going very well so he said, “Yes, we’ll take you back. So what do you say? You come in as soon as we resume after our Christmas holidays in January and come
back to work then.” And I said, “That suits me fine.” That gave me a few more weeks of idleness at home. And so I resumed worked at John Valves in January, 1946. And in February of 46 I turned 21 and had my 21st birthday, so I was back in civvies and back at work and that was the end of my
two and a half-odd years away.
So did you make that adjustment easily, was it easy to do?
Yes I found it rather easy to do actually, probably be because of the age I suppose. Probably be because, I’d heard that others found it rather difficult but because…I don’t know the reason it might have been our upbringing, keep a level
head whatever you do you know, don’t do anything stupid or anything, enjoy yourself but keep a level head. I think it was just the makeup, I think it might have been in the genes, perhaps hereditary I don’t know. But our family was such that we could endure the tragedy and then get over it fairly quick if you can understand what I mean.
My father was the first to die in our family and he was comparatively youngish, he was only, I don’t think he’d reached quite 60 but he was a bad asthmatic. And we really mourned his loss, it was a tragedy. But at the same time within a couple of weeks, my brothers and myself had got over it and we
realised that the world goes on just the same so that’s what we’ve got to do and do it. And I think you know that’s the way, we weren’t a terribly deeply emotional family if you understand what I mean. We did have lots of strong feelings for one another but in the event of an accident or a tragedy or something happening
we would feel that but we would quickly get over it. And I think that was part of it. When I got back to work I also got back in amongst our other friends and started play tennis and cricket again. And I started to train with the Local Football team again, not that I was any good at any of the sports but we just use to like to play. All of this combined to
make me think, “Well the war, yeah I’ve been to the war, that’s over, let’s get on with life sort of thing.”
So when did you meet your wife?
Oh I met my wife about a year or so later than that, I think it was late 46 I think. Amongst the local dances that we use to go to on Saturday night there was one at one of the rowing club boat sheds by the lake. It
was a summertime dance, it didn’t operate in the winter time, but in the summer time, so we’d go there of a Saturday night in the summertime and that’s where I met her. I thought now I wonder if I’m going to ask her for a dance you know because she’s not a bad looking sort. She was with a group of girlfriends and she agreed to dance with me. And I went back and had 2 or 3 dances with her.
And one of the things we use to get up to in Ballarat was during the course of a dance or conversation ask where they lived, and if they lived right down the other end of Sebastopol or way out the other end of town and we lived up this way, you’d say gee that’s lovely for you isn’t it, then slowly drift away. This particular girl lived exactly on the way home from where I, cause I was walking
see we didn’t have cars and things in those days not like the young ones now. So I walked her home to her gate and gave her a kiss goodbye and then I went home. And because I got home at about half past twelve and I had to go in the front door, my mother heard me. “Where have you been to this hour?” And I said, “I’ve been to the dance.”
“Yes, but that stops at midnight.” I said, “But I have to walk home.” “Yeah, but that’s only 15 minutes.” I said, “I took a girl home.” “Well you shouldn’t keep girls out that late at night.” And that was the beginning anyway. And so I met her again the following Saturday night. And then I asked her one night if she’d like to go to a movie show or something and so that was the start of it,
and then we were married in 1948.
Did you know her family?
No I didn’t know her prior to then. The strange thing was after a couple of weeks she invited me inside her home and introduced me naturally to her mother and father and her grandmother who lived with them at the time.
And her father was in World War II and was taken a prisoner of the Germans in World War II. So we were on a little bit of common ground from the start, which turned out all right.
So did she understand something of the experience?
No. And I didn’t tell her either.
Well that was history, we were just wanting to get on with life, you know. It wasn’t, I haven’t spoken to anybody much about my wartime experiences until late last year and early this year. When certain people or groups have asked me. And the people at the local veterans affairs
office where I go about once every two months for a meeting because I’m in the Legacy Club, and they have a meeting of various groups, and they said that Veteran Affairs [Department of Veterans’ Affairs] are encouraging people to speak to younger groups in particular if they would because not enough is known by the young people of what some of you people went through. And we’d say
well so what. And they said so the history will disappear and we don’t think that should happen. But I didn’t press it any further but I have been asked on one or two occasions to give a bit of address on my experiences. And I’m in the
local Air Force Association branch, we go to a luncheon once a month and they asked two or three of us if we’d give them a bit of a 10 minute each talk about it and which I did. But fortunately or unfortunately I don’t know which, but there are some other people who were sitting there said he’ll be an ideal speaker for our little group. So I was asked to speak on a couple of occasions and I’ve got to do it again in October
for our local Probus Club, they want me to talk about it. I thought that by this time people would be trying to forget those things and get on with more pleasant things but I don’t know.
So how has it been for you speaking about it, has that…?
I don’t think I’m all that keen on doing it really.
The libraries are full of books on the subject and I can just relate my experience, does that matter. I can relate my experience but if there was a hundred, a thousand, a million, two million
chaps involved in the war one way or another either with the Japanese or with the Germans or whatever. They would all have an individual story that they could tell. So my experience is certainly not unique as far as air force goes, as I said earlier, because of my age I didn’t get involved
until late in the war and I feel for the fellows who were there early in the war because while we went through a lot of tragic stuff which I prefer to forget, they went through a lot worse and anyway that’s just the way I feel.