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Transcript of Australian War Memorial
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INFORMANT: ANDREW 'NICKY' BARR
SUBJECT OF INTERVIEW: 3 SQUADRON, RAAF
DATE OF INTERVIEW: 3 JULY 1990
INTERVIEWER: EDWARD STOKES
TRANSCRIBER: DIANA NELSON
TRANSCRIPTION DATE: 10 AUGUST 1990
NUMBER OF TAPES: 3
BEGIN TAPE 1, SIDE A.
Identification: This is Edward Stokes with Nicky Barr, No. 3 Squadron, tape 1, side 1.
Nicky, could we perhaps begin just with your date of birth and place of
I was born in New Zealand at a place called the Bay,
Wellington on 10th December 1915.
And I think you were saying that you came to Australia very
Yes, after a short term in primary school in Mount Eden in
Auckland we came to Sydney and then on to Melbourne.
And I think you completed your schooling, did your
matriculation and then became interested in the possibilities of wool classing?
Yes, I had been working with a Bradford wood buyer and he did
a lot of reclassing work and I decided to do the course. Having done that I
realised that there were more wool classers than sheep and at that time I was
fortunate enough to use that small amount of knowledge to join the Australian
Right. Two other aspects of your early years. Memories of
the first world war, of the involvement of Australians and of course New
Zealanders too, in it, the general tradition of the ANZACs, was that a very
conscious part of your boyhood, or not?
Yes. I found that a number of my schoolteachers had been members of the
expeditionary force or elements of it, and their stories and their
form of training had an impact on my thinking and on my life.
Right. Another aspect I think that's important to mention was
your sport. I think you were quite a swimmer and of course later a rugby
player, playing for Australia too. How much do you think did the attitudes that
lay behind your sport feed into your work with the air force?
I pay a lot of tribute to my bodily and mental well-being as prime reasons
for my survival. I have often looked back and thought that if I hadn't been as
fit as I was, both mentally and physically, as I was at that time
then my outcome from the war experiences would have been entirely different.
That's interesting. And what about the aggression that I
suppose certainly lies behind being a rugby forward, was that part of it too?
Yes, I think the attitude to sport, whether I was boxing or playing football,
was a desire to win, a desire to be number one, but behind it again I had always
the wish to be able to do whatever I was doing tomorrow. In other words, I'd
like to think that I was a born survivor.
The 'clouds of war', you used that phrase when we were
talking. Of course they were gathering during the late '30s, were you
particularly conscious of that, or not?
Not particularly about the clouds of war so much, my interest
had been in the description of the Nazi regime in Germany and I resisted very
much indeed the thought of being regimented. And the word 'regimentation' which
seemed to be part of German philosophy was, etched a very marked impression on
Right. That's most interesting. It was in '39, I think, that
you went to Britain to play for Australia as a rugby forward and I think you
were actually in Britain when war broke out. Do you have any clear recollection
of that event?
Yes, we were in a delightful place called Torquay in Devon in
England and sitting around the radio listening to Neville Chamberlain's fateful
words. Fateful for us in that all the team had worked terribly hard to be
selected and been looking forward to the grand rugby tour of all times; it was
to have lasted six months. And the air of depression and, more strongly, even
resentment that prevailed was readily understood by everybody. The next
impression was the desire to work such feelings off and we were asked to fill
sandbags and protect the hotel called 'The Grand'. Well, the feelings must have
been incredibly strong because that beach disappeared in one day, there was no
(5.00) Right. Is that a comment on your energy or English beaches?
I think it's more a feeling of the strength of our resentment.
Right. I do know that immediately after that you tried to
enlist in the RAF, thinking you could then serve with Australian units. Could
you just tell us that story briefly and the story of getting to Point Cook?
I'd always had the desire if war was declared to be a pilot and preferably a
fighter pilot, and with that in mind I had hoped to join the RAF, thinking I'd
be physically fit and suitably qualified to get a commission. None of this
eventuated simply because I was told in no uncertain terms that it would be a
long time before I saw an aircraft, and I failed to comprehend this, and it was
only many months later, or years later perhaps, when I found out the low
strengths of the RAF were such that what they told me was in fact the truth.
So you, I think with the aid of some contact in Britain, got
yourself back to Australia pretty sharply.
Yes. The thing then was to extricate myself from my enrolment in the RAF and
I was aided there by a previous Governor of Victoria, Lord
Somers, and I returned to Australia on the Strathaird with most of the
players who were with us, although a number had remained in England to join up.
And on getting back to Australia I think you went fairly
directly to Point Cook?
Yes, after a very brief period I was then sent to Essendon to do my
ab initio training, and from there we were posted to Point
Cook for completion of our course and the wings presentation.
Just a few points about your training generally, both at
Essendon and at Point Cook. The discipline that no was doubt part of your
initial training - parade ground bashing, et cetera - how much of that
discipline do you believe carried over into flying?
I didn't think the form of discipline at Essendon or Point
Cook was the type of discipline which had any marked effect on our flying
discipline. I don't think the two were related, the disciplines needed for
flying well and safely and preserve aircraft were another requirement.
Right. The actual training at Point Cook, I know you were
flying Hawker Demons, and of course you gained your wings there, how much of
your training was theoretical, how much of it was in the air - practical flying?
I felt that they were fairly well balanced between the two,
although all of us there I believe would have enjoyed more some practical
debates and talks about the application of flying to war. There was very
little, if anything, done on my recollection on stratagems and tactics, things
of this. The nearest we got to it was that delightful word 'formation'.
That's most interesting, because other people have certainly
pointed to that, that there was in many ways a great dearth of knowledge on
tactics when people reached squadrons.
Yes, well, it seemed to me that far too much expectancy was
placed on that further information given to you at another place. If it had
happened that would have been all right, the sequence of learning would have
been progressive and sensible, but it didn't happen that way.
Right. Besides the obvious thing of flying an aircraft, what
were the other subjects you did cover?
We did armament and communications, administration, but administration was
more countless lectures on the names of permanent officers of the air force and
where they were at. It was an attempt obviously to establish
communications between ourselves and those senior people who had gone before us.
Right. We must put on record here, I think it's a regrettable
fact that you scored below average on bombing.
(10.00) Yes, it's a regrettable fact, though one doesn't normally like
anything below average but the reasons were to ensure as best we could that in
my case I was not assigned as a future bomber pilot. And to this end it was
relatively easy to slew the bombs away from the target and get
the desired rating.
Seriously, was that a common habit? Did the authorities not
I'm unsure how common it was, it was certainly a technique adopted quite
successfully by three of us on the course who had no yen to be a
Right. Well, we may not go into more detail here with the
training because there is so much to cover later, but I think you left a pilot
officer? Is that correct?
And you were posted to the City of Brisbane Squadron -
Wirraways and Hudsons. What's your recollection of that first posting?
I enjoyed the prospect of being converted on to Wirraways which were our
front line fighter in those days, but didn't take too long to realise that the
capacity of the Wirraway, compared with the types of planes that
we were going to encounter, left much to be desired, so there was a major effort
to increase our skills as a form of compensation.
How was that gone about?
Taking advantage of the plane's ability to spin quickly and sharply, so long
as you had the desired height, and secondly by long periods at
gunnery on the drogue and on air to ground ranges.
Right, so you were in a sense maximising whatever potential
you could twist out of this plane?
Making the best of what we thought would be a disadvantage.
I think it was during, or shortly after, this posting that you
went as aide-de-camp to the Governor of Queensland?
Yes, I was Honorary Aide to Sir Leslie Wilson for a short time and it seemed
to me then that: hell, I thought this is going to be my sort of
war, you know, standing one pace back and to the rear. And I had in those
circumstances elected to tell my fiancée that we should proceed to get married.
This seemed to be the trigger for those in power to decide that this sort of
thing shouldn't be contemplated but I would be posted immediately as a
replacement to 3 Squadron in the Western Desert.
Right. If that posting had come through before you'd agreed
to marry, would you have?
I really don't know because the arguments for and against,
particularly if you are going to a front line position, it makes it doubtful.
But I've never regretted the fact that I did because it was a partnership which
contributed to my survival.
Yes, I can imagine that. We might just bring in here,
although it's slightly out of context chronologically your actual arrival at
Sidi Haneish and Peter Jeffrey's reaction.
The commanding officer at 3 Squadron when we arrived was Peter Jeffrey and we
were lined up to be introduced to him, and having done so he then
asked which of us replacements were married and four, maybe five, of us stepped
forward, and the CO then proclaimed to all and sundry that we'd be no use to
him. I saw fit to observe that I felt that we had much more to fight for, being
married, than otherwise. And it transpired later on after many, many operations
that those of us who had stepped forward that day were in fact amongst the
senior people and the most successful in the squadron.
That's an interesting point. Do you think that was because
you were married, or because perhaps reflecting that, you also happened to be
older than some of the fresh young pilots?
I think the fact that we were older than others there was the major factor.
Deferment of marriage had occurred with most of us two or three
times. In my case because of the sporting activities and secondly the war and
then thirdly my appointment as aide-de-camp. And it seemed that no further
deferment was justified. I don't think I could have reached that decision had I
That's most interesting, Nicky. Just taking a slight
sidetrack for a moment. The question of the allocation of men within the air
force, I know you have some views on this. You were saying that, I think
reflecting actual people you know, that there was an imbalance, for example the
way a lawyer or an artist might be used within the air force. Could you
elaborate on that?
(15.00) Yes, I felt that when any country goes to war one of the most
important prerequisites is to make sure that all of that
country's manpower is utilised to the best extent, so that the war effort can be
maximised. And in our case I saw a number of people with excellent
qualifications electing to enrol in the services in relatively mundane
activities, the wrong people doing the wrong jobs - or wrong for them in the
sense of their background - and in consequence a lot of people were being
assessed and/or classified into positions which were not in the nation's
interest. This was further aggravated of course by the lack of skilled
attention to the selection of people as to whether they were going to be pilots
or not: their make-up, their prospect and potential in the job that they were
going to be trained for. There were people earmarked for fighter pilots because
they had some cosmetic interest in it, and it meant that somewhere further down
the track these things were found out and re-alignments were necessary, once
again to the detriment of the war effort.
Just to bring some actual figures into it, I think you did
quote some numbers - I forget them now - of men who, I think, trained with you,
went to the Middle East but who in fact never flew actively?
Yes, this was a puzzle which remains unresolved, in that in
this particular batch of replacements to 3 Squadron there were seven definitely
and possibly an eighth member of that party who were sent to Khartoum with us to
do the conversion and further training on the aircraft available there and they
were all, they all seemed to be doing rather well, nonetheless when we returned
to the squadron this particular group were not with us and didn't join us. At a
later time in the squadron, particularly in the May and early June period when
the squadron was desperately short of trained pilots, I inquired of Bill Duncan,
the group captain in charge of RAAF personnel in the Middle East, where these
people were, and they were untraceable, and even in the post-war year when I
asked him again he said he'd spent some time on it and he doesn't know how it
happened. There was no report from the squadron as to requesting why or where
they were, and I was the first party who had shown any interest in their
whereabouts. The net result or bottom-line of this was that we were still short
of pilots, and some of these people had returned to Australia and actually
received promotions. It is incomprehensible to me that that sort of thing could
happen in a war.
Yes, that's most interesting and I imagine at the other end of
the system, well, I've certainly heard accounts of how the great frustration of
men coming back from the Middle East with the whole organisational aspect of the
air force, for example, getting 75 Squadron together, where they appeared to be
dealing with people who had no comprehension of combat.
Well, that was it. There were at that stage enough people around with
experience, enough feel for what was needed, and yet these people weren't
involved in the creation of the squadrons that were to go up into the Pacific.
Just to touch on a related thing, the attributes that you'd
see an effective fighter pilot having and an effective bomber pilot, were they
different, or not?
Basically I don't think so, but on the finer tuning of people I think there
were elements there which had to be available to that person who
wanted to fight, as distinct from the more phlegmatic type who could be an
excellent bomber pilot. I feel that people can be assessed as to the extent
that they can control their aggressiveness, that it doesn't necessarily mean
that people are reckless, that they are people who can make a fast reflex
judgement as to whether something is, not necessarily a bad risk or reckless,
but a calculated risk that had been thoroughly thought out, the risks are known
and mentally you are adjusted to combat them.
(20.00) Right. One final question on this issue of the
allocation of people. In your recollection of your general experience, I don't
mean just the first period but later in Australia, how much were you able to
push your own interests to get to the places and to do the things you thought,
despite the wishes of this administrative machine?
I was, I felt rather frustrated in that everyone seemed to be, naturally
enough, so preoccupied with their own wheelbarrow that looking
into someone else's was not important. I felt disappointed too because I felt
that I had, with my strange experiences, something I could contribute. I'd
learnt I'd thought quite a lot that was different to normal air force training,
and no-one had even suggested that this could be applied or utilised in some way
in my new position.
And this is after you came back to Australia?
That's right. Yes.
Well, moving on to actually leaving Australia, Nicky, I'd
imagine there must have been some sadness on leaving your wife and other
people. What other recollections do you have of leaving Australia?
Yes, there was a sadness because I had hoped that everything would have
settled down and that I would - with the depression years gradually being
eased - that I would start to make my way in the world and live what the world
war one people thought would be a normal life for a much longer time in this
world without war. So to be leaving Australia and to fight wasn't the happiest
moment of my life.
Right. The voyage over I think we might skate over, I think
you were with a general collection of air force replacements, but lost in a much
larger army contingent.
Yes, that was the situation.
Any particular memories of the voyage?
Yes, the air force team trying to beat the army team at volley
My pride prevents me from boasting.
I thought perhaps crying gave it away there. Well, after
arriving in the Middle East, I think it was at Sidi Haneish, September '41 that
you joined the squadron, and we've had this story of the marriage line-up. I
think you were only there for a few days before going to Khartoum?
Yes, it was thought then with the war being quite static at that time after
Syria, the Germans hadn't mounted any offensive and all the
reconnaissance information was that things were quiet, and Pete Jeffrey decided
then that with a course available to us in Khartoum at an operational training
unit, that we go down there and complete a conversion course and further
experience on the type.
I imagine in that you were rather fortunate to arrive at a
kind of lull in the fighting that allowed that to happen.
Oh yes, we looked back on that as a most fortuitous circumstance in that it
gave us a breathing time, an assimilation period to adapt and
instead of going into squadron formation cold on a new aircraft, we had
sufficient hours in it to feel comfortable.
I think you were saying that at Khartoum you gained about
forty hours in Mohawks and Tomahawks. What's your recollection of that
It was very thorough and highly enjoyable, except in respect to the Mohawk,
most of the aircraft that were taken up in that period fell out of the sky, and
it was found in later years that the piston rings on the aircraft had
been sabotaged in America. The aircraft were originally designed to go against
a French order and they were then sent through the Takorati Ferry run through
Khartoum in the hope that they might be used in front line combat. But the
Tomahawk conversion was the most delightful experience for me, I enjoyed the
aircraft, so much so that even the conversion later on to Kittyhawks left me
more enchanted with the Tomahawks than with the Kittyhawks.
The Tomahawk was a much more powerful plane than others you'd
flown, I imagine.
Oh yes, it was two or three times the horsepower, it had manoeuvrability.
The thing I liked most of all about it though was it had two guns firing from
the cockpit and four - two in each wing - to augment it. And I liked very much
indeed the loading of the guns when one took off. There was a closeness to
combat which seemed to help me with my make-up, the smell of cordite in the
cockpit was particularly helpful to me; I really felt that I was at a war.
(25.00) That's most interesting. Was there other training
there that filled some of the gaps in Australia, in particular in tactics?
Yes, we were fortunate to have a person who'd done a tour already, Squadron
Leader Greg - I've forgotten his name now. He was the CFR, an Australian
who'd been on loan duties with the RAF, and he had some skills and for those
days a big experience in tactical flying and operations themselves.
That's most interesting.
That man's name was Graham, incidentally, Greg Graham.
Great. Any other recollections of that period? What was life
at the base camp like? Did you get around Khartoum at all?
Yes. The aerodrome was at a place called Gordon's Tree and Khartoum was a
little distance away, as was Omdurman which was the other side of the Nile River,
and as wars go we thought things were rather nice because Gordon's Tree was an
established RAF air force base in peace-time with a very nice officers' mess,
terraced swimming pool and staff highly trained in the requirements of the
So this was the comfortable war.
It wasn't a bad life and most of us wondered how long it would last.
Right. Well, November of course you rejoined the squadron and
I think you in fact flew the same day.
Yes, things had warmed up in our absence and my first operation
was the afternoon of our arrival; a fairly nondescript operation but just as
well because to go back straight into air to air combat might have been a bit of
a shock to the system, whereas an escort duty suited us fine.
Well, still, I think it was true that in the subsequent weeks,
three or four weeks, exact time perhaps doesn't matter, there were some definite
engagements and in fact the army confirmed two kills on your behalf. What was
the general nature of those operations?
Both of those were general sweeps into enemy territory, mainly to ascertain
and test the enemy strength both on the ground and anything that we met in the
air, and also to observe if we could any ground movements and report back to the
army, because there was still, even at that time, some legacy of
requirement from 3 Squadron to act as a sort of army co-operative unit. So we
had these multiple duties at that time which made the exercise very interesting.
On those first flights into what was a complete combat
situation, or with that potential, what's your emotional recollection? How did
you cope with the tension and so on?
I can't remember feeling tense. I had a natural expectancy that something
was going to happen and one could almost wish that something was
going to happen, so when an enemy aircraft was sighted the bewilderment aspect
of my approach to it was gone and in its place I had substance.
END TAPE 1, SIDE A
BEGIN TAPE 1, SIDE B
Identification: This is Edward Stokes with Nicky Barr, No. 3
Squadron, tape 1, side 2.
What was life like with the squadron when you first arrived?
It was very comfortable, most of the people there had some
experience and were willing to share it with us. Most of the time was spent in
trying to obtain this knowledge and skill from those that had been engaged in
operations. Some of the people that were there were being posted back to
Australia and so there was an air of happiness and pleasure on their part, and
good wishes by them for our own future. It was a pleasant, happy squadron with
a nice atmosphere augmented by Pete Jeffrey who was efficient and popular with
not just the people in the officers' mess, which was not officers', it was a
pilots' mess due to Pete's efforts, and the other members of the squadron. It
was a family ambience which I think contributed to the standard of the squadron.
Yes, that's interesting. A lot of people all the way through
these interviews have commented on the morale of the squadron. You were saying
before that in No. 3 particularly there appeared to be a group as against an
individual ethos, so you were suggesting that the squadron never produced any
so-called aces. Could you talk about that?
Yes, I think that's interesting that although, as most people know,
3 Squadron itself as a fighting unit enjoyed a top position throughout the time
it was in the Middle East, yet in all that period the best that we could produce
was a chap like myself with about twelve and a bit killed, whereas other
squadrons had individuals with much larger scores. In 3 Squadron we were
trained and we had a sensitivity about flying as a squadron and not as
individuals. I can't remember for example, any person haring off on their own
to do some daring deed of some sort. And I think this had an impact on the
security in which the squadron flew, and a reduced level of deaths and failures
because we flew this way. Those squadrons who became disorganised in the air
for one reason or another but particularly those who weakened the squadron by
flying off somewhere on their own, shows that their losses were significantly
larger than 3 Squadron for the same amount of fighting.
That's an interesting point that - I'm not sure about this
myself - statistically the squadrons who were producing the high ace figures
were also producing the greatest percentage of casualties, were they?
It's hard to generalise. I know of two squadrons in that category, but I
think the pattern for those two would have spread into the other squadrons,
particularly one South African squadron which had been flying
with us at that time.
Just to pick up on a point you made there about having no
recollection of individuals flying off on their own. Of course I guess the lone
pilot was also, perhaps, the most vulnerable pilot, is what you're saying that
in situations where two, three or four planes were flying together, one would
never, in No. 3 Squadron, go off on a single-handed mission?
(5.00) Well, yes, that generally was the case. Naturally enough if you saw
an enemy aircraft and you were in a group of, say, four, you would let them
know. You'd point out where the enemy aircraft was, there'd be communication
about it and you might elect to go down. They would then know to
stay around and you could rejoin them so that the .... Also, if you got into
trouble they'd be there, and I think this is what impelled a number of us to go
down on different times, like Pete, and with 'Tiny' Cameron and others, trying
to rescue one of our chaps who had missed out.
That's an interesting point, the rescues: were they
particularly common, or as common, in other squadrons, do you know?
No, I think 3 Squadron led in that area. They initiated it, they
showed that it could be done even with quite big men, which 'Tiny' Cameron was.
And it wasn't that common in, even in 3 Squadron, nonetheless others attempted
it and the fact that it didn't come off was for other reasons than that.
Right. One other point on this general group ethos. When new
pilots as yourself did arrive was the sharing of knowledge a very open or
perhaps organised affair? Or was it more a question of new pilots approaching
the experienced pilots and in a sense wheedling the information out of them?
It was more the latter. There was, to me, a surprising reticence on the part
of those people who'd got this experience. I think it was mainly though a wish
on their part to present themselves as low-key operators. Once you got talking
with them there was very little real resistance to imparting to you what they
knew, but it wasn't easily or automatically.
In that there was a humbleness in their approach?
Yes, and it was more a genuine humbleness about .... They didn't want in other
words to bung it on, we used to say, and sort of talk down to those that hadn't
done what they'd had the opportunity of doing. And so instead of a easy, free
gain exchange, it was a bit more belaboured.
Right, that's interesting. Were there ever - besides
obviously with briefings before particular operations - were there ever times
when the squadron's pilots would sit down together to thrash out, in a sense,
the theory of tactics and so on?
Yes, and this occurred particularly when the newer people,
which I represented resisted very much the tactics of the day, which was a
defensive circle. If we got into trouble this defensive circle seemed to be the
only ploy that we could use, and the attitude was that the P-40 had little
chance against the 109. And after two or three experiences in this defensive
circle, none of which were really successful, we sat around and expressed our
views, and a number of us indicated that we'd have very little likelihood of
joining one again. The commanding officer said, 'Well, if you didn't like it so
much, why didn't one of you lead off?', which to me is hardly the answer, simply
because discipline was a strong component of our flying, and it wouldn't have
been proper for any junior, especially a new junior officer to lead off from a
defensive circle; it had to be the flight commander. So I found that if you
believe that you had an inferior aircraft there was more reason, stronger logic,
to support being aggressive, and a defensive role just played into the Germans'
hands, and I feel that contributed to so many of the early losses. The problem
was that the P-40 was being used for a purpose it was never designed to be used
for. It was a magnificent, solid aircraft, get you out of a lot of trouble most
times. It was built for air to ground army support operations. It handled all
right of course against the Macchi 200 and the CR-42s and aircraft of that ilk,
we were superior to them, but the 109 strength in the desert at that time and
their tactics were vastly superior to ours, and were the main cause for the
severe losses that 3 experienced at that time.
(10.00) We are going to talk shortly about the Kittyhawks as a
plane, but perhaps we could just bring in now the Kittyhawk as a plane in
comparison to, for example, the 109s, did that very much change the balance, or
No, the Kittyhawk first of all couldn't fly efficiently at the ceiling that
was rated for the 109F, which meant that almost every time the 109 formations
were above the Allied aircraft. This was always a serious disadvantage whether
you were on a fighter sweep or bomber escort, and even on
reconnaissance. It meant that one's first defence was vision. Our radar wasn't
operating successfully, we had to keep watching for the enemy all the time
wherever he was, and this can be a major distraction spread over, as it was,
many of the operations of that time being in excess of one hour.
That's most interesting, Nicky. Just turning to the actual
re-equipping with Kittyhawks - and this is looking at that period of December
'41 - how easy or how difficult was the conversion, and what's your estimation
of the Kittyhawk as a plane, besides those comparative points?
The conversion to Kittyhawks was relatively easy for all of those people who
joined the squadron as a replacement. Most had had the skills of landing
that type of plane taught to them from the Wirraway days, where we did power
landings on two wheels, not three-pointers. And so it was quite easy to adapt,
the only main requirement being to increase the landing speed. The second part
of the question: I feel that we were all thrilled to have such firepower
available to us. Also as it transpired a little later on, the ability to carry
bombs of a damaging size made us all very proud to feel that, although focus was
attentioned mainly on air to air combat and a situation augmented by the media
who felt that only those people who killed somebody on air to air combat were
worth anything, we had a realisation in 3 Squadron because our multiple role
that dropping bombs and strafing, reconnaissance and escort duties were equally
as important, and there were many pilots who never knocked out an enemy aircraft
but did incredible work in the categories I've just mentioned.
Right. Just briefly perhaps, if we could build up a picture
of the Kittyhawk as a plane - if you could imagine getting into the cockpit, the
routines you went through immediately prior to take-off and take-off - could you
talk us through that kind of thing?
Yes. In the desert there was always the desire for as many aircraft to take
off simultaneously as the landing ground permitted. The problem
about that was that the dust created by so much horsepower created a storm in
its own right. It was necessary therefore for formation take-offs to be
virtually line abreast, and this was achieved time and time again with sixes,
tens and even twelve aircraft. In fact there's a photograph over there of a
twelve, I'll show you. But it seemed to me that a number of the pilots had a
different requirement on becoming airborne and whereas mine, my first instinct
was that soon as it was convenient I would take the catch off my guns and fire
them. And I always felt there was very little merit at all in going to war in a
plane if my guns weren't working. I could let myself down and those people who
were flying with me, and that technique I maintained from the time I was flying
in a box as a number four until I commanded the squadron.
Right. In the actual climb up, were you at that time
generally climbing in some kind of spiral formation or were you flying out long
distances and back on a line? And also, what's the merit in those two
(15.00) The procedure varied with the individual assignments, as I recall, in
that with bomber escort duties we .... Each plane sought to take up its
position with the bomber group, not as a squadron but on an
individual basis as quickly as possible, mainly to be the least amount of time
in the air that the bombers could be kept there. Also there were missions which
placed some requirement on the endurance of the aeroplane itself in terms of
petrol consumption. And so in those circumstances the long climb, usually in a
slightly different direction to the target, sometimes as a zig-zag, was the
technique that was adopted by myself and other COs. And so we also avoided
being stereotyped in what we did from take-offs because there were quite a
considerable number of attacks on aircraft right over the 'dromes during
take-off operations. So this was done in order to make sure that the Germans or
Italians didn't have a known picture in their minds of what would transpire.
That's most interesting. Just to touch on a more human
aspect; the question of fear, both ongoing anxiety if it existed during a tour,
and the more specific tension either prior to or perhaps during an operation.
What's your recollection of that, in your own experience?
Yes, I had my share of fear, but fear seemed to me, in talking it through
with other people, to come in different forms. My own form of fear was very
deep and internal. I aimed never to show it, but I'm not certain whether I
succeeded, but I always had the feeling that I could handle it,
but until you actually experience the situation you don't know, and so it was
the finding out that I could handle it that made it easier in subsequent
flights. Fear and how to handle it was my main unknown, and until I knew where
I stood with it I was uncomfortable.
But having discovered that ...
Discovered that, yes.
... it was easier?
Yes, I was then very much at ease and by the time I came to command a
squadron the knowledge of fear was there but also my experience
in handling it had taken over.
With particular operations, in your case, was the tension
greatest some time before an operation? Immediately prior to take-off? During
The worst situation that occurred to me was being on standby.
The time seemed to pass so slowly. There was not a great deal to occupy one's
mind other than what was at hand, and in those conditions of standby, ready for
the phone to ring, and when it did and it wasn't the call to get airborne, then
in those situations the tension was high.
That's most interesting. So in a sense it was the unknown
rather than the known that was ...
Yes, well, once you got into the plane and you were doing, you were on with
the job, everything disappeared; you know, the shadows became the
Right. Moving on to your actual flying, Nicky, this is from
the booklet you showed me, I think in your first thirty-five operational hours,
twenty-two missions were flown therefore averaging out at a little over an hour
I guess, or something of that order, there were sixteen combats and in that very
early period you were credited with eight confirmed planes shot down. What was
the general pattern of those operations? What was the most common kind of
Well, we were mainly involved then on sweeps, aerial sweeps, hoping to
encounter the enemy and knock some planes out of the sky; they were
predominantly that. The squadron in that time did an incredible number of
operations, and yet there were some people on the squadron who
had not yet been in aerial combat. And I think it was just the nature of the
beast in that, yes, I think it was Pete, or it might have been Bobby, said to
me, 'You know every time you get airborne something happens'. And yet, well,
take a better analogy is look at the fellows who'd done thousands of hours in
the flying boat service for example, never had any enemy encounter, it isn't
that they didn't want to, it didn't happen to them; and this was very much the
case in the desert where out of those operations it was unusual to have so many
combats in that period of time.
(20.00) And you simply put that down to fate, do you?
Yes, because no-one really knew what was on, we didn't have a brief on what
to expect either in size or shape of aircraft or anything. When
I say, we didn't know whether it was going to be Italians or a mixture, or the
Germans, the Luftwaffe, up there against us. And so it's got to be fate when a
high proportion of your briefing about an operation is unknown; it's just
described as an aerial sweep.
What about aspects such as particularly keen eyesight, where
one might imagine a particular pilot might have just a highly developed physical
sense to pick up aircraft in the sky?
Yes, and there was no-one with a higher skill in that area
than Bobby Gibbes, and my admiration for him because, as you would know, we flew
a lot of combats together, and with his vision and reaction he was invariably
the first person to pick up enemy aircraft and advise the squadron and so we
were alerted. My own eyesight was, although thought to be good, was not good on
sighting aircraft. I think my vision was much better in combat I seemed to have
a flair for shooting and gathering the range, those sorts of things which are
specifically employed for the actual combat itself. I don't think Bobby's was
quite as good, just to make a comparison, but his strength - his great strength
- was in this awareness and early sighting of enemy aircraft, and he was superb
That's most interesting. Of that first period, we'll come on
to some specific engagements later, but of that first period would there be any
particular combat that would stand out in your mind particularly vividly?
No. It wasn't that I'm inarticulate on that, it's just that I
wanted to balance two or three. It would be very hard for me to differentiate
between three scraps, two of which in which we were seriously outnumbered.
Would you like to describe those?
Well, as most people are aware now, air to air combat rarely
lasts more than a minute or a couple of minutes, your firepower if you're firing
your guns all that time anyway sees to that in any case. But this one scrap in
particular was quite long and made more so by attempts to get away when the
ammunition had run out. And in those circumstances to have two 109s formating
on you a bit above you; and the scrap would have lasted in excess of ten
minutes. I remember it well, because some time later I landed back on our
airfield and I have never perspired and I've never been so weak physically and
it just sapped me so much. That one is memorable in my mind to think that it
lasted that long.
Right. Were you in that encounter fighting alone against
these two or were you with other No. 3 pilots?
(25.00) We had started off as a formation of four and we lost one in the
initial attack, yes, he was David Rutter and we were then three. I then had two
number twos, if you like, and then we were attacked and in evading them I lost
both - lost sight and contact with the other number twos who then
formated on themselves and got back to base and I was alone then. I wasn't left
there, it just happened to transpire, I was left with these particular two
109s. In later years I met the man who led that operation and he remembered it
well, and he said it was quite interesting to see how every time I was working
them back over our lines but I was totally unaware of that. We ended up
virtually back over our strip.
You were just flying for your life?
I had some idea in the end that if I was going to come down I
wanted to be on our side of the dividing line.
How difficult was it having flown some distance from base, and
as I understand it from other people generally, by dead reckoning and a sort of
visual awareness of where you were rather than plotting anything on maps, and
then having become involved in very intense combat and all the kinds of
manoeuvring involved - I would assume constantly changing direction and so on -
how was it easy to then re-orientate yourself geographically to know where home
Well, the desert for many reasons was an ideal place to fight a war, and we
always knew that if we were flying home that the Mediterranean would be on our
port, our left side, and if you were going to war, well, the
reverse applied. And so if you, if the combat ceased and you were over land you
invariably headed north to find out, or as soon as you sighted the ocean, and
you could do that from some distance away, you got your initial bearings, then
it was simply a matter of picking out some land point on the ocean coastline
itself against your map and getting your bearing in that way.
I guess in other ways too, the desert was a good place to
fight and fly in that if there were problems there was generally flat terrain?
Yes, the prospect of survival there after being hit or damaged was measurably
better than elsewhere like, say, the English Channel or built-up areas. And it
also had the warm feeling that this was a war between two people whose men were
at war and it had virtually no impact at ground level on other people,
particularly innocent bystanders of any conflict.
Sure. Dust of course was a great problem, certainly for
aircraft engines; I'd imagine living was sometimes a bit rugged. What's your
recollection of that?
Yes, we certainly had our peck of sand or salt or mud in our diet in those
days. Quite often someone would quip that we should all be fitted with a Vokes
aircleaner because this is the only thing that helped aircraft engine to survive,
although in protecting the engine from sand it reduced its effectiveness in
terms of horsepower. It was a problem which was, you couldn't avoid so you
became phlegmatic about it and accepted it as part of living in the desert.
Would it be pushing things too far to suggest that at least
for some men there may have been a kind of spiritual aspect to fighting in the
desert in that deserts are empty, and to a lot of people, places where the
spiritual dimension appears quite strongly?
Yes, I had similar reactions. It is an impressive place. It has its own
form of beauty. There are ethereal qualities about it which, especially at dawn
and dusk, are very impressive. There's a calmness and a stillness about it
which is so remote from what you've been doing in the daytime, so
remote from war that it's a form of, or it was to me anyway, a form of therapy
in its own way. And I found the desert after even a torrid day relaxing, and
this is why I was often detected as being on my own enjoying it, when they'd ask
me in the mess, where had I been.
What? And you'd wander off from camp?
Wandering off, and sometimes walk around and talk to the aerodrome defence
people at dusk time, who incidentally were Indian Gurkhas in different places
- great people. And yes, I enjoyed the desert and I wrote that little thing
I was just going to ask you, could you quote those lines?
END TAPE 1, SIDE B
TAPE 2, SIDE A
The place where nothing seems to be alive, and I jotted down these words which simply said,
Only the wind has life,
It wanders through this arid land,
It does a little truckin' in the sand.
Truckin' in those days was another word for dancing, and I saw
the wind whip up these eddies and twirl around, and you could look around and it
was the only thing moving, the only thing alive.
Very evocative. Just a couple of general points, Nicky, this
isn't referring to any particular period. Your general recollection of the
airstrips you operated from and the ground staff support, how good or poor were
I thought under the circumstances of advancing or retreating in the desert
the quality of the airstrips were excellent. There was little, if any, damage
done to aircraft when landing on new areas. As you'd know, a lot of the
strips we were using were called landing grounds set out for us by Wing
Commander Fred Rosier, now Air Chief Marshal Sir Frederick Rosier, bless him,
and he used to take off in his clapped-out Hurricane and mark these landing
grounds out for the graders to do some preparation on and that was our home.
Though I had no quarrel with any of the strips that we used, the squadron in my
time of the Western Desert, and .... There was a second part to the question?
Yes, the other thing was the quality of support given by the
The only misadventures quite often was in the timing where having regard to
dust storms and distances quite a number of times the synchronisation of staff
on the ground for these new strips didn't tie up and .... But it was
all resolved, usually by the evening in any case. In no instance were there
difficulties in fuel supply. It was mainly in the ground support areas of
maintenance, feeding and tent supply.
The whole issue of moving fuel around to particular places, I
assume that those decisions - where fuel depots were to be based, where future
strips would be made - were being made above the squadron level?
Yes, it was handled by other authorities, usually from Advanced Headquarters
RAF. They had staff there that planned the synchronisation of
squadron movements, either forward or backwards, and mainly fuel dumps were
established obviously in advance. Quite often dumps were destroyed in a
Moving on to .... Nicky, I wanted to come now to the first
time you were shot down, 11th January '42. I think you'd in fact become
involved in trying to rescue a downed pilot. How had the whole situation
That particular mission was escort duty on some Blenheims who were bombing an
advanced base for Rommel, called El Agheila. The scrap became a
little bit awkward in that the lead Blenheim had a hang-up with its bombs and
instead of haring down to the desert and getting away, it decided to return by
180 degrees on to the course again and we encountered rather heavy German and
Italian, there were some Macchi 200s and 202s in the air as well as the 109s.
And so we were scrapping around trying to defend this, particularly this
Blenheim who had come back to bomb again. And so we had a number of aircraft
shot down, some people were made prisoners of war from that and one was killed.
(5.00) I had had a bit of luck in one of my skirmishes with a 109 and then
saw - this was sort of peripheral vision - that there was a 109 pretty close to
the tail of another aircraft and it was going down and down, and I tried to hook
on but I couldn't catch up the space between us, but I saw the 3
Squadron aircraft crash land on the desert area and as the .... Then I thought
the two 109s were going to fly away and I lost sight of them and didn't see them
at all, and as the terrain seemed fairly suitable for an attempt at a landing, I
had put the flaps down and things looked all right and I was starting to lower
the undercart when the pilot on the ground, who happened to be Bobby Jones - he
was wearing white gloves, I always remember that - and he started signalling and
waving to me from the ground near his aircraft, and I looked around and there
was this 109 coming in quite slowly just behind me, and started to fire, and I
think it was my slow speed with the flaps down because I was able to pull up
with the power on, and he must have been a relatively inexperienced German pilot
because he overflew me and without too much control on the aircraft I was able
to get a burst into him and, I didn't know what happened to him at the time
except that when I flew around a little bit longer there was this other plane on
the ground burning. And when I mentioned this they confirmed it later by
aircraft reconnaissance that it had gone down. But while all this was going on
this other pilot came around and shot me down, and even now by this time I had
both the wheels and the flaps up, I still was at relatively low speed and I was
forced to crash land.
Continuing that story, Nicky, your plane's crippled, what
The power unit failed so I must have been hit or, also there
was difficulty in controlling the plane so I had no option but to try and put
her on the ground, and this is what I did. Then I saw this 109 coming around to
see what was going on .... We must have been some distance away from the other
planes that I mentioned earlier because I could see no smoke rising from the
ground close by anyway, or anywhere, and so I thought we must have been nearer
the front line than I had thought. And so I was getting out of the plane at
this stage when this 109 was coming round, and it was quite clear to me that he
was going to strafe the plane and set it on fire to make sure that it was
inoperative totally. And I had to wait until he started firing and then I ran
towards him and to the side to make sure that I would not be in his line of fire
or too near the plane when it went up. One of his shells was pretty close, or
it must have been, because it hit some rocks some distance in front and to the
left of me in the direction I was running and the splinters from this rock which
had been shattered entered both my legs, and I felt this pain as though I'd been
kicked in the shins in the front scrum of a football match. And then he flew
off when the plane was alight and I was there in this desert on my own and I
tried to tie up my legs a little bit and while I was doing this - unknown to me
'cause I never heard anyone coming - there were these Arabs on foot, two adults
and one child, and they looked at my leg, we couldn't communicate other than
with some sign language, and they gathered me up and I was taken into a wadi
which led down to the ocean. And these people happened to be members of the
Senussi Arab tribe and their proper encampment though was on an escarpment a
little bit further down.
(10.00) I don't know why these people were out the way they
were to this day, but I was taken down to this other area after they dressed my
legs, and we hid at another place on the way down due to a German patrol coming
nearby. They must have been looking for somebody from the plane, oh, I might
add I'm only guessing of course. But that night I slept in this Senussi tent
just as you see in the films, and in this case I had a camel sleeping on the
other side of the partition and the rest of the family and some of the tribe
were in this huge tent with me. One of them spoke a little bit of English and
some German. Another .... And I had what was called a 'gooly chip' [sic] - a
gooly chit ....
That's interesting. I've heard of these from somebody else.
These were a kind of a passport?
Yes, that was in Arabic and English and you carried it with you. It was born
of the days when people were flying in and around Ethiopia and they were castrating
people and making things rather messy for the ones that were not liked. The
hope was that if you gave this chit to these Arab people that they'd be able to
read it and say that, oh here, he's a good fellow, and if I look after him and
return him to the proper authorities a suitable reward would be given to them.
And this chit seemed to be understood by them and they were laughing and were
quite happy about it, and so they planned obviously to return me from this place
to our own people. And to that end a couple of days later, there was a small
camel entourage put together to resemble an Arab family in transit, and I was
one of them. And I was dressed up as best they could with the gear to make me
look a bit like them and so we set off, and we had to camp another night on the
way back but in the meantime we saw quite a number of German formations, I saw a
great number of tanks. They, it transpired later, too, had seen very much more
than I did, because at the debriefing with Advanced Army Intelligence - they too
were part of this process - and the brigadier told me later that they were very
helpful indeed with the information they'd given on the build-up of the German
formations at that time. A matter of reward: all they wanted was tinned fish
and I saw to it that they had plenty plus some blankets which I saw the child
interested in. And the last I recall of this very pleasant family and people
who obviously were interested either in the reward or in genuine reasons for
getting me back was disappearing on their camels over a dune and waving to me.
I often think that Gaddafi might have been one of those people because as a
child he would be that age, he was of that tribe and he was from that area.
It's only an interesting thought, but it could well be.
That's most interesting, Nicky. The question that occurs to
me is: without their help do you think you would have got back?
No, I think that the density of Italian and German occupation of that area
was so thick that someone not knowing the terrain, not resembling
the local inhabitants and posing as the group I mentioned, the chances would
have been greatly reduced. It was particularly worse coming up towards the
front line area where scout cars from both sides were dashing around at a great
rate of knots, and perhaps the most tricky part indeed was when we encountered
the first British scout car, who was very highly suspicious of us and
particularly with me, looking like a German trying to speak good English instead
of Australian, emerged out of this cloak and hat, the burnous, that they wear.
I assume during this period you would have been posted
missing. How conscious were you of the emotional repercussions of that back
Very much indeed because, whereas I knew I was all right I had
the realisation that those who were close and dear to me would be told that I
was missing and that the scrap was such that I might not have survived it. It
was doubtful indeed if anyone had seen me and it seemed .... I had an awareness
that there can be no worse category in war, or anything else for this matter,
than missing - even missing believed killed is sometimes preferable to the
unknown quantity of the earlier category.
(15.00) That's most interesting. That kind of experience, or
that particular experience, did it at all throw your confidence, your
determination to go back and fly, or not?
No, as a matter of fact I came out of that with a degree of confidence which
was not only high but apparently misplaced because, I thought, well, gee whiz,
I didn't do too badly, they can't do it to me again. I felt that I'd learnt a
little bit about it, but it was clear from my subsequent experiences that it was
good to have the confidence but the fact that I was shot down on two more
occasions after that didn't really add up logically, but it was good that I had
the confidence and the feeling because whether it was justified or not it helped
me do my job.
Right. Well moving on a little bit. I know when you returned
to the squadron 'Dixie' Chapman was about to be relieved, you yourself went off
to hospital. Perhaps just very briefly, where did you go and how adequate was
I was sent down to the Scottish General Hospital in Cairo,
just near the Nile, and the treatment there was first class and my rate of
recovery from the little damage I had was rapid. I was then given some
convalescence time, a few days on a houseboat on the Nile where Geoff Chinchen
happened to be, also from 3 Squadron, and we had a wonderful time together
there. But the hospital itself was staffed by wonderful people. For me it was
nice to hear Scottish accents again; my mother spoke with a brogue and also the
Gaelic and so to be amongst people like that again and it was very pleasant.
And the porridge for breakfast perhaps helped too?
Yes, there was that there too.
You got back to the squadron in March '42, Bobby Gibbes was
now CO. Coming up to the period when Bobby Gibbes himself went missing, what's
your general recollection of that period of, I think, about two months?
The change in leadership to someone I knew and admired was very pleasant for
me. We'd been at Point Cook together, we'd been in the 23 Squadron
together, and here we were together again and Bob's leadership qualities were
evident strongly even then and I knew we were going to make a great team.
Strangely I never ever aspired to command, it just happened. For example I was
never one who wanted to reach the stage where it could be said, 'He signed my
log book', I wasn't interested in that sort of crap as to who signed or didn't
sign my log book, after all to me it was only an audit tick and so with Bob and
I, we had a relationship which was warm, respectful and we had a trust in each
I think during this period you were flying as his senior
flight commander. Could you tell us what being a senior flight commander
involved, and how was it different to how you'd been flying before?
Not a lot different in the way we were flying before really
but in terms of responsibility. I found that when Bob wasn't flying that one
was taking over the flights of the squadron in any case. The responsibility I
was worried about it initially. One of the reasons I wanted to be a fighter
pilot was that I would be in a plane on my own and I'd make my own decisions,
now I'd be making decisions for a number of other people whom I'd got to like
and respect and I didn't quite know whether I'd be up to that, having regard to
what I accepted as a very rapid rise in my service in the air force. And so it
was only again after some experience when things settled down and I seemed to be
doing mostly the right thing that I was comfortable with command. But the
command was made light for me by some wonderful fellows around, who just carried
on the tradition I mentioned earlier of the ambience of a family squadron
instead of ranks and people and authority and that closely knit community - I
still remember it very kindly.
(20.00) Right. Moving on a little bit. I think it was in May
'42 of this year Bobby Gibbes went missing in early May, you yourself were
acting CO and I think confirmed CO 25th May; I assume after some administrative
things had gone through.
Yes, that's correct. It had been made known to us that Bob
had a broken ankle; that they'd advised him not to fly even though Bob protested
he could fly with a cast and put on a typical 'Gibbesy' act, but law and order
prevailed and so Bob was set aside, as it were, until he mended and of course
one never knew what would happen. But I think it might be as well to say here
quickly that once Bobby had mended, and totally unbeknown to me, he'd been to
RAF Advanced Headquarters the day that I was shot down, 26th June, and persuaded
them to allow him to take command of the squadron again. When I heard of this,
a long time later of course, almost in another world, I said to him, 'Gibbesy',
I said, 'What was going to happen to me?'. He said, 'Oh, you were going to
command the new RAF Spitfire squadrons'.
Right. He had it all worked out.
He was going to come back to the squadron because he wanted to be with the
Aussies, but I was going to have no say in it so I let him have a broadside.
Sounds fair enough. Well, that period of 25th May to 26th
June 1942 was very intense. Just to encapsulate a few things, the squadron was
in retreat, moving every few days, a very, very large number of operations we
have from the records here: you yourself fifty-six in a month, the squadron
flying sixty-four in one day, yourself I think on that same day flying six. It
seems an almost unbelievably concentrated amount of flying. What's your chief
recollection of that period?
The main thing is the instruction given to us by RAF headquarters that the
retreat, or the strategic withdrawal - pardon me, a retreat is
the right word of course but it was described as a strategic withdrawal - was
on, and that we were required to fly as many operations against defined targets
as the possible was able to fly having regard to availability of pilots and
aircraft maintenance. So with this freedom, which required us only to check our
targets and our purpose for being in the air, was very nice in that if one was
bent that way one could pursue the war virtually to one's own requirements and
limitations, and everyone accepted that it was intense, everyone had a belief
that our contribution could do much to halt, even defer, the advance permanently
and convert it into an advance again. The confidence was high. The most
remarkable thing at this time was the incredible support of the ground crew.
They worked ceaselessly night and day. The amount of work they did on
refuelling, aircraft repair, the armourers, the radio wireless people - we then
had radar so that was important that it be maintained - the number of aircraft
that they were continually able to present to us to fly. Don't let us forget
the cooks and people who provided the vitamins. The ground crew, it has often
been glibly said, you know, you can't fly without them, but they drove it home
forcibly and it cemented the squadron so tightly together that it was
wonderful. The ground crew of course had the additional responsibility of
moving the squadron generally intact from point A, to B, to C, to D, as we were
going backwards, and they accomplished this with a minimum of nonsense, no great
tragedies and always smiling coming up the next day. And one of the nice things
that I recall today, as I did then, was the support given to me personally by my
armourer, my fitter and my engineer, my airframe man who is still alive and
we're still in touch, we're a unit.
(25.00) As squadron leader during that period, Nicky, were you
closely involved in this day to day decisions of those people getting the
squadron back, or were you much more involved in the flying side and the ground
staff were quite capable, having, say, been given a destination to get to, to
get all the things moving in the right way?
Yes, well, this was my first venture into the area of delegation of
responsibilities and these fellows were so competent; I had to
watch and supervise the first one or two but then it enabled me to concentrate
almost entirely on flying with the exception of what to me proved to be minimal
administrative duties, and in those areas I took it on myself instead of the
adjutant to write the appropriate letters to next-of-kin and things of that
sort. I also was keen to make sure that anyone's belongings were properly
gathered up and looked after. I'd seen instances where it hadn't happened and
it didn't look good to me and ....
Can I just pause on that for a moment, I think that's an
interesting thing to develop? By and large letters to next-of-kin, I think
you're suggesting, were written by adjutants not by COs?
I know from the people that I went to see after the war, they
had received letters from the adjutant, and that puzzled me a little bit because
his letter would have been a second-hand type of letter, it could not have been
a first-hand relationship with the deceased, and in my case I personally knew
these fellows and felt that the only letter they should receive would be a
personalised one, not a stereotyped one from the commanding officer.
Of course it's terribly hard to comfort anybody in that
situation, what did you try to say about people?
I think the only thing to say is the great regret about the loss to me
personally, and then to the squadron, to try and comfort them by talking about
the job that you knew they'd done and that they were incredibly happy, as most
of them were, in doing what they were doing. I thought it was important feeling
that if it had been me that someone was told that I'd gone out happy.
You were smiling at the end. That's most interesting.
Turning to the actual flying, during this hectic retreat, how would you describe
the main kinds of operations?
A great number of light bomber and bomber aircraft had arrived in the Middle
East at this stage and they were doing daylight operations mainly
against the main artery of supply, which was the coastal road, and bombings at
daytime was the preferred exercise. And so a great number of our operations in
the retreat were escort duties, and the thing was to make sure we didn't lose a
bomber. And this we achieved reasonably well but quite often at the loss of
some of our escort. And 3 Squadron was sought after for this very reason and so
we ended up with what I thought was a disproportionate number of escort duties.
Against that there was a loss, in my view, that RAF command had taken a rather
short-sighted view because here was 3 Squadron, the ...
END TAPE 2, SIDE A
BEGIN TAPE 2, SIDE B
Identification: This is Edward Stokes with Nicky Barr, No. 3
Squadron, tape 2, side 2.
I was saying that here was 3 Squadron, with the highest
performance record on air to air combat in the Middle East, being asked to
specialise in escort duties while squadrons with lesser history and performance
were doing this job at a time when the Luftwaffe were very superior. And it
seemed to me that had 3 Squadron been allowed to capitalise on its expertise,
particularly in air to ground attacks on airstrips, because there was nothing
more desirable than to strafe 109s on the ground and thereby deplete their
strength in this manner, and here we were being asked to do these other duties.
I took this up with RAF command, in particular Air Commodore George Beamish, who
passed it on to the Chief of Air Staff, Lord Tedder, and there was a change in
attitude round and about the time that I was shot down.
That's most interesting. Just continuing with this period,
May to June '42, there's a note here in Nicky's log book from Tedder.
Yes, this personal note from Air Marshal Lord Tedder to the commanding
officer of 3 Squadron reads that: 'Congratulations on most efficient and
successful fighter operations past two days. The bombers did very well because
of the secure protection by 450 and 3 Squadrons. The fighting by 3 Squadron was
particularly grand. You have put the Germans back a good pace and we must keep
them there. Tedder'.
You must have been most delighted to receive that?
Yes, it was nice, and when I read it out to the squadron it was like they'd
won the football grand final.
Was that read out at an official parade?
No, I went around each of the three messes: our own pilots' mess, the
sergeants' mess and the ground staff.
Was that common for commanding officers to have that kind of,
I'd imagine, relatively informal dialogue in messes?
Yes, I really did nothing more than follow Bobby. Pete of course was well
known for the fact that he deleted the sergeants' pilot mess, his attitude being
if he flies with someone he wants to talk with someone, whether he's a sergeant
or an air marshal. And right along is this very democratic
approach by the COs that took command. I don't include Dixie Chapman in this
because he was not there long enough, and even if he had been he would not have
made it. He was a peace-time officer and ....
Did those attitudes, do you think, for example the pilots'
mess idea, did those ideas percolate through to the British units near you?
Yes, they saw a great deal of merit in it, especially the South African
squadrons who were at Sidi Haneish when the push started, and
they had tried it and I don't know whether they proceeded with it, because the
squadrons from South Africa were not kept in the front formations for political
and related reasons, but I know they were very happy with it the last time we
checked each other's operations out. There were some mixed squadrons which flew
under the RAF banner that had tried it out, they too were happy with the
(5.00) Right. Well moving on, a particular event during this
period, 30th May '42, you yourself were shot down for the second time. I know
there's another incident to relate later, perhaps we could keep this one a
little briefer, if you're happy with that. Could you describe the operation and
how it all worked out?
Yes, the briefer the better for this one, because this was an occasion when I
was not supposed to be shot down again but I was. It was .... I don't know to
this day how I was hit but I was, and I had to crash the plane
because the episode took place very close to the ground indeed, and in fact I
must have flown over something with enormous power at one stage, maybe an 88mm
aircraft gun because it flew me almost onto my back, tossed a wing right up high
and I just got myself straightened out in time to crash it, and it seemed that I
had crashed myself into a minefield area in a place called the Battle of the
Cauldron, south of Tobruk, near El Adem. To shorten it, I've never been in a
place so noisy and so nasty in all my life and I hope never to be in it again;
war had been relatively quiet to me but this was frightening. I found myself
listening to a loud hailer of some kind or other telling me to stay put because
of the minefield. The Royal Gloucestershire Regiment finally showed up, pushed
the Germans back on the other side because I seemed to be in between them, and
told me how to thread my way through the last hundred metres or so of the
minefield. I was then in their casualty section for a while and then taken to
Tobruk hospital, where I spent the night. I was re-examined in the morning and
returned to the squadron and flew that day. All I'd had was mild concussion.
That's quite remarkable, as you actually brought the plane
down you, I assume, were doing a belly landing - that had gone smoothly?
Yes, I must have hit some obstacle near the end of the run and at relatively
low speed because the strap marks had gone and I'd gone forward onto a part of
the gun mount with my head because the straps had expanded, but
there was nothing that serious that I couldn't continue flying the next day.
What was that like, getting into a plane the day after that
kind of incident?
In my younger days I used to come some terrible croppers when I was
diving and the only solution to a bad dive was to do another one and it applied
equally as well, the philosophy, to getting into a plane. I think the fact that
I got into a plane the next day was the right thing to do. If I'd had any
breathing time, or if I was given the opportunity to think things through very
analytically, I might not have gone back to it, I might have tried easy way
Sure. Just talking of easy way outs, while you were
commanding officer of the squadron, did you at any time have to face the no
doubt extremely sensitive issue of dealing with a man, a pilot, who for whatever
reasons was no longer able to cope?
No, I didn't, but I participated in a cleansing activity that Bobby had
introduced. A number of people were taken off medically.
Another one or two, I think it might have been, were taken off in respect of
their unsuitability. None were stood down because they had the required
operational hours up at that time. It had the effect though of reducing the
number of pilots available to me when I took over, and as I mentioned earlier
this was the time when I was seeking replacements, particularly those who'd
trained with us at Khartoum and they were not locatable. And so, although
everything done there was the right thing to do, and I was a party to the
decisions taken by the doctor and Bobby, in my time there - that short period -
I didn't have the need and I couldn't have exercised the option, I don't think,
in those circumstances.
In that you were so short ...
So short on pilots in any case.
(10.00) Just to touch on a few general points, Nicky, before
we come on to the end of your period with No. 3. The enemy, the Germans,
Italians, you were saying, I think, before that you believed you'd been taught
to hate - I'm not sure everybody would agree with that - what did you mean by
Well, the general training or propaganda, designed I think to establish
attitudes amongst fighting people one against the other, was to have something
greater than a dislike, and so the word hatred might even be too strong but it's
the next one up nonetheless, for the Nazis and the Fascists and
in other words the Germans and the Italians, and we were fighting them anyway.
And so the media of the day were always talking about these attitudes and the
hatred we had because, because, because. And so we were indoctrinated rather
strongly. My own views were a little bit different later on in any case, in
that I had soon learnt that my existence in this world depended very much on the
help and compassion that I received from both Germans and Italians, even though
I'd been harshly treated at different times by both of them, but for things that
I did. If you escape and you're involved in certain things you must have expect
to have some reaction when you're in a foreign country and you haven't abided by
the laws that they think you should give regard to. But in spite of all of that
experience, which wasn't nice at all, I learnt that I could de-personalise my
feelings very easily indeed. And so I've been asked so often why don't I hate
Germans, why didn't I hate Italians, and it's simply because I can't hate them
because of my associations with both of them, but I can hate intensely the
things that they stand for, and there is a big difference, and as I said, it is
so easy to de-personalise it. And I feel that overall in the world if you can
extend that philosophy to other things, if we really did fight for peace in our
time by doing the things we did, then you can make that time last much longer,
extend it deep into the future by reserving your great dislikes and hatreds to
the impersonal aspects of inter-relationship with countries.
Yes, that's interesting. In a sense I guess there's basically
a philosophical inconsistency in fighting for peace and hating individuals.
Well, the philosophical bottom line is both sides were doing
the same thing, for their sort of peace.
Sure. Well, turning to another aspect of this. A lot of
pilots will say that they only shot down aircraft, they didn't shoot down men,
and of course in a sense fighting in the air was far cleaner than for example,
hand to hand fighting with a bayonet or machine-gunning and so. How deeply do
you think people believed that - perhaps yourself? How much was it a
I .... Here again I think it's difficult to generalise because people's
reactions, like their emotions, differ so much that my experience was that it
was so easy for a fighter pilot to almost con himself into a depersonalised war,
because flying against the enemy in air to air combat was rather remote from the
reality of war, which I found was not only horrific but its effect on me was
much vaster than from my flying hours that I put in. People who fly in the air
and have the rights to claim something in combat don't really think they've
killed somebody. They haven't got that feeling, they haven't seen a man die,
they haven't seen the whites of a man's eyes. It is .... You have to say it
again, it's quite remote. Now, this is why I find that so many people in the
air force with vast experience, they really would not say, 'I have killed a
man', and there's a vast difference in this effect on you and your life, your
sense of values, if you've done it, no matter what the circumstance. And so I
had to find this out the hard way a number of times, and I must say I was never
ever comfortable with it, but in order to do what I wanted to do it had to be
(15.00) I was just going to ask you perhaps finally, on
occasions when you had certainly shot down an aircraft, for example that
evening, did you ever brood on the fate of that pilot, or did you perhaps of
necessity, push that aside?
I was inclined to push it aside, I can't remember brooding. I can never ever
remember feeling elated either. I rather felt a difficulty in reconciliation of
things, there are so many things about war anyway that have no
reconciliation. But I was more prone to think - when I was thinking about the
relationship of those matters - about the number of good folk that I'd lost, and
that seemed to me in a very light-hearted sort of way a sort of a pay-off, that
Yes, well, that's obviously completely understandable. Moving
on now, 26th June 1942 - a fateful day - you yourself came obviously very close
to being paid off, I think the squadron had almost, or had retreated close to
Sidi Haneish. Tell us how this operation began?
First of all this will tell you the density of the work being done by the
squadron at that time, and in my case I was on my third operation for the day
before midday. Looking backwards I now think that I surely must have been
operationally tired, I didn't think so but clearly, you know,
what with retreats and squadron responsibilities something was happening. And
the third operation for the day which started at eleven o'clock was escort
again, to Bostons on a well-defined target. And we'd had a scrap defending them
way back in the Al Adem/ Belhamed area, and we were coming back in reasonable
shape and all of a sudden I had a loss of power and I was the lead aircraft in
the bomber fighter formation on escort. So I elected to drop back slowly
because of the loss of engine power, and I couldn't keep up, and so the next
moment I was in a scrap again with an engine not performing. I was attacked
from above, rear quarter attack, and the aircraft was hit in the engine and the
wings, and probably the tail because I had no fore and aft control; I was set on
fire. I knew I had two wounds in the leg, either from bullets or the cannon,
and the next thing was to try and get out and ...
The fire, Nicky, how bad was it? Pilots always speak of that
as the ultimate fear.
Oh, it was the most frightening thing, the fire, because it was licking round
my legs and where the parachute was, and also round my arm where the wind
suction had drawn the flames from the exhaust stubs and other parts of the engine,
and I was having trouble with the canopy. And I was wondering if I could force
my way out of the plane or whether I'd have to try and roll it to fall out, but
I knew I wasn't going to have much time for thinking, and so I got the canopy
open and then started pressing on my good leg to straighten up and, what seemed
to be a lifetime, I was suddenly sucked out of the plane, and the next thing I
knew I was free falling and wondered quickly whether I should delay the release
cord or not, but I suddenly realised I must have been pretty close to the ground
anyway so I pulled it almost immediately and ....
(20.00) Why would you have delayed?
Well, if I was high, see they, the Germans, had .... There were three or
four instances of this time where the Germans had shot people
from their parachutes, and although they disclaimed this we'd actually witnessed
it. Pete had witnessed one in his time and I'd witnessed one when Bobby was in
command. When I was in command I didn't witness any myself but there were
others in another squadron. So the thought was that the way to avoid that is to
have a delayed drop, but as I say this was just a flash thought until I realised
that I didn't have that option. And so I got out and the force of the air blew
the flames out that were on me and my leg, and so although I landed reasonably
well on my other good leg, the parachute was still in its pendulum movement. So
I wasn't seeing too well at that time, my eyelashes and that had been seared and
I then had these degree burns to my legs and arms as well as the leg wounds; but
I was alive.
Yes, well that was .... What was going through your mind?
Well, nothing too much at that time except that I was flat out on the ground
and, you know, if I'd been a Pope I would have kissed it I guess
- the ground I mean - and I then heard a voice and it was an Italian voice, and
he was feeling my pulse and I'd had some shrapnel there which was putting
pressure on my - it's right there and you can get the pulse from it. And he was
saying in Italian, 'Lui e morta' which means, 'He's dead', and I thought
it can't be him - it can't be me - and it was like someone whispering. Anyway
I, some time later, I don't know how long, I was gathered up and taken to an
advance casualty clearing station, which I think very fortunately for me once
again the luck aspect of it, it was controlled by Germans, who were as usual
very businesslike, very competent and attended to me and decided not to
amputate, put my leg in plaster and cast me aside to recover. About two days
later I was put on the tray of a truck with a number of other people and shipped
to hospital in Tobruk, and along the way a couple of the fellows were declared
dead and were cremated on the roadside.
Yes, you were saying this before, I think one was a German
officer, I'm not sure if ....
A German officer, yes, whom .... We got to know each other reasonably well
in hospital and also talked about all sorts of things along the way on the tray
of the truck.
In moments, or in that particular moment, or that encounter
with the officer, how much were you both able to shed your roles as adversaries,
I think that we were on common ground, we didn't seem to think we were
adversaries, we were both two human beings who had had a
misfortune. And he was glad to be going back to homeland for treatment, as he
thought, and out of the war. He didn't look too good to me then but his English
wasn't too bad and my German was average. And I learnt from him that he was
from a very respectful family just north of Hamburg but he'd had an amputation
and I don't .... I think they'd told him things that weren't quite true because
he was so positive about his homeland and everything, but .... And as for me,
he was sorry for me that I wasn't going to be treated back home. And so here
was a man in desperate plight, an enemy, I remember him all my life, he had
Right. Your own leg had, just to go back a moment, was there
ever any serious question about amputation and how would that have affected you?
(25.00) It was certainly a question of amputation twice, once there in the
advance casualty because it was a faster solution to problems, it happened
actually there were three times, the second time in the hospital
at Caserta where, but there were no anaesthetics around or anything there so I
was relieved of that risk there. The third one was actually back in Australia
in peace-time where I had a farming property and my leg played up and I was on
drugs. And they said, 'Well, if you're unhappy with what's going on now, we can
take your leg off or stiffen it for you'. So three times along the way the
threat has been there. As to its effect on me, I would think I would have found
it hard to live with. I've loved sport, even though the wounds themselves
stopped me from re-appearing on any real arena, I think the fact that I was
still whole meant something to me and on the other hand it's the unknown - I may
well have learnt to live with it. After all, I might not be a Douglas Bader but
I think it's just your attitude.
Yes, people are remarkably adaptable. Moving on a little bit,
Nicky. We, as I was saying before, must keep the focus on your No. 3 period so
perhaps we can talk in a more synoptic way about events later. But from that I
know you went to hospital near Naples and then I think on to hospital in
northern Italy. From there I think you escaped?
Yes, I escaped and being in northern Italy it seemed to me sensible to try to
get into Switzerland through the lake country, and I actually had
reached and was in sight of Lake Como and I was gathered up by Italian
frontiersmen with dogs, and there was only one at the start and I was so close
to what I thought would be freedom that I engaged him in a bit of a wrestling
match and eventually hit him on the head with a stone that I'd picked up. But
the dogs and everything around the place gathered at a great rate, and I was
gathered up. And this wounded fellow was moaning and groaning and they didn't
like what I'd done. Actually these people were there to stop contraband leaving
Italy and going to Switzerland, and so it was a pure misadventure that an
escaped prisoner of war was gathered up in this net. I had no contraband of any
nature whatsoever. However these men and dogs really gave me the treatment; I
was thoroughly bashed up and I was returned then to the Milan hospital, prisoner
of war hospital again, and it took me a few weeks to recover and I was
court-martialled then and ....
I think that was a very close thing in that the day was really
saved at the very end by a Red Cross official.
Yes, it was a colonel from Switzerland representing the Red Cross who was in
the area and he'd been checking out things. I'd been told that the man I'd hit
had died, and that I was for the firing squad for that as a murder and on top of
it all being an escaped prisoner of war. He sorted things out and the end
result was that I was sent to a place called Gavi, which was a prison for
dangerous officers, and my first ninety days there were spent in solitary.
Under the Geneva Convention you're only allowed to give thirty days, so at the
end of each thirty days I was given half an hour in the exercise yard and sent
How did that solitary confinement affect you? And how did you
retain your spirit?
Other people might think it affected me a lot. I was a loner before that but
it made me more so. I can be quite happy with my own company. I don't think it
affected me too detrimentally. I learnt a lot about myself. In
the final thirty days in any case I didn't really complete the solitary. I
ended up with another cell mate who was a professor of languages from Koasha[?]
and he helped me to speak Italian and some German better than I did before.
Well, you were saying that the people in this high security
prison were a very mixed bag I think.
Yes, the character of this place was very entertaining in that Gavi had been
a normal penitentiary closed by Mussolini about 1936 because of
the high mortality rate in the prison. It was re-opened again about the time of
their war with Ethiopia, and then for our war. But the inmates represented a
cross-section of people from the war who were classified as dangerous people,
'e officiale pericolosi', they were called. There were religious folk and
real criminals and murderers and a great cross-section of people. We numbered
only 157, give or take a few, and ....
END TAPE 2, SIDE B
TAPE 3, SIDE A
Identification: This is Ed Stokes with Nicky Barr, No. 3
Squadron, tape 3, side 1.
You were saying that the Germans came and basically I think
you were to go on to Germany?
Yes, they thought that we were a hard core of people who could
be a great source of trouble to them behind the lines should we escape, and so
we were told that we were being taken through to Germany where a number of them
would have been sent to the bad prisons and others who were classified as pure
prisoners of war had the prospect of going to a Stalag. Now, though each
carriage in turn was warned that should there be any people not on the roll call
next morning the remaining people, having regard to the escapes that had
obviously taken place, would be shot. So this was designed obviously as a
deterrent to stop any nonsense and apparently from all accounts - this is
post-war information - it had the desired effect, except for three carriages
where people had taken the opportunity to escape en route, and I was in that
category and got off the train, at night of course, between Piacenza and Bologna
in northern Italy.
Was the knowledge, that of course I know you gained after the
war, that those people had been shot in your carriage, was that difficult to
cope with, or not?
Yes, it was, it had great difficulties within our own
carriage. For example, the feelings were so strong as to whether we should make
an attempt or not that a senior officer in the carriage had to divide the people
up into, as he'd call them, non-combatants and the combatants. And even some of
the work that was being engaged in to escape from the carriage by destructing
the end or the sides was impaired by these people. It got almost physical at
one stage, and particularly when we were able to open one of the side doors by
putting the hand through a hole and using the big pull that they had there to
open it, they then wanted to join us, some of them did, but it wasn't on, they
had not contributed, in fact quite the reverse. So it was difficult.
So there was quite an understandable unwillingness on the part
of the men who were escaping to take the previous waverers?
Well, they didn't want us to escape, because they wanted the roll call to be
a hundred per cent in the morning. They knew if we started to go the only
prospect for them, if they wanted to do it, and there was a
fairly good risk when you jump off a train at night in the dark at fair speed,
they had the option of sitting it out or taking the jump. And from what I
gathered post-war, most of them took their jump in a firing squad.
Moving on, I know after this escaping from the train there was
an extended period behind the lines where you were involved with partisans in
north Italy. I think that whole thing finally fell apart when you were
Yes, there was a strong feeling at the time by the Royalists
against the Fascists and vice versa, and it was very hard in a largeish area,
which it was, round about a place called Montromole[?] to keep everyone on
side. And Germans were offering inducements for betrayals and the Fascists were
strongly in favour of this in any case, and the whole group were betrayed and we
were once again gathered up and put on a train, taken through the Brenner Pass
to Austria to a transit POW camp between Obsteg[?] and Innsbruck.
How long in fact had you spent with these partisans?
Two and a half months.
(5.00) And I think just for the record too, it's worth noting
that in the post-war period you have been - in the years after the war - you
became very closely involved in revisiting the area.
Not that particular area, it was the one further down when I came down from
Austria and met up with the SOE group just behind the front lines which then
extended from Salerno through to a place called, it was Castel de Sangro on the
Sangro River where there were a number of
big battles, and just before the Anzio beach-head was attempted.
Right. So this is after you'd escaped from the transit camp
Just for the record, I think you said in that escape from the
transit camp five escapees got away, twenty-three were killed.
Yes. Once again, when one escapes you never know what
happens. I didn't because I was invariably a loner, and so it was only the
opportunity given to me after the war to piece things together with friends we'd
met in England and Europe, to learn that they'd been gathered up, similar to
other escapees from Stalags as well as the transit camps and shot on the spot.
Once again, the Germans in particular were especially ruthless in making sure
their deterrents had witnesses so that by fear they could control the situation.
And you were saying, I think, before, Nicky, that you actually
made it through the Brenner Pass alone.
Yes. I decided after escaping not to try Switzerland, but to give a chance
to making it all the way down to joining up with the Allies in the southern part
of Italy, and the only way through then. There were a number of small passes
but I thought out that it might be nicer to have a lot of company, the more
people the better, and this proved to be the case and I came down through the
Brenner during periods of very high density of traffic in the early spring of
It's a remarkable story. I think it's also remarkable that
besides debriefing by Intelligence, British Intelligence, that although you
later returned to Australia via Britain and I think spent some time in Britain,
you were never debriefed by either air force?
Yes, that puzzled me because I have never had a more thorough debriefing, or
briefing for that matter, by anyone than the British colonel in
charge of Allied Intelligence at a place called Vasto in Italy. This was the
spot where I came through the lines eventually to freedom, having developed the
Roman sickness called malaria and I was a bit weak from malnutrition. And this
debriefing showed enormous interest in all the things I'd done from the time I
left hospital. It was therefore surprising to me that when I returned to the
air forces, both RAF and RAAF, on not one occasion, at any time, by any party,
was any interest shown, no questions were asked, about what I had done in
twenty-one months away from the air force. It seemed to me that here again, to
confirm the attitude previously expressed, it could be said I had some
experience in certain areas which could be helpful to the Allies, and it seemed
to me too, that maybe some person in authority could see a way to use it. There
was not ever an attempt to either chronicle what I had done or attempt to
utilise whatever asset they saw in those experiences.
It really does beg an analysis. Did it ever occur to you that
perhaps it was in a sense a reaction of threat perhaps that your adventures -
and clearly they were that - posed a threat to men who in a sense had sat
through a much safer war?
(10.00) There are plenty of grounds for thinking that because
there were so many senior officers in the air force who seemed to me never to
have taken the opportunity along the way to gain first-hand exposure and
experience. Very few of them indeed, you know, had operational experience. I
fail to agree that you can take on positions of high command unless you've had
the experiences of your service somewhere along the line, it doesn't matter how
small, but at least some experience in operations. So here again we found that,
with the explosion in the growth of the RAAF, such a high proportion of the
permanent service went into administrative and/or training posts. Now there
were a number of air force people who had Citizen Air Force, or short term
commissions, who did a commendable, enviable job, really great, but their
numbers are small and I can't remember one of the senior command. Now, I feel
that they might well be able to justify it, and I'm quite sure that many of them
feel they made some contribution towards the war in our time, but I think that
from the viewpoint of a fresh faced young man who'd had no experience of war or
of flying to come in and not to have the opportunity of talking to people in
high places with that knowledge was a weakness in communications.
Yes, sure. I would have thought even to talk about the
psychological aspects of being taken prisoner.
Going back to that, just perhaps to finish that story, you've
got over the front line, you're back in safe country, what was your strongest
feeling and what did you think of most?
The first thing was I wanted to return and see my wife. Of most of the
things that I'd done and attempted she was the reason for wanting to get back to
things again. She was the image, the focal point. The second
thing, almost equally as strong, was what in the hell can I do to help finish
this war? Let's get back to peace. And so I guess that .... I found out too
that it was very difficult to get back to Australia from the Middle East, and
Bill Duncan who was still there at this time said, 'Well, we'll get things
organised and put you in England where you've got a better chance of getting
back to Australia very much faster'.
How long did you in fact spend in Britain? And were you
I've forgotten the exact time now, but it was a great number
of months, because after I did a refresher course on Spitfires and a parachute
course at Prestbury[?] ...
That must have been a bit of a joke.
Yes, I told them, you know, I don't mind jumping out under
duress, but to do it voluntarily seemed a bit odd to me. Anyway, the thing was
that they wanted someone who'd done this course, and the prospect was that I
could be returned to Australia to take command of the parachute school at
Richmond Air Force Base, where Alan Rawlinson was supposed to have - a friend of
ours from 3 Squadron - supposed to have been sent. So there were reasons for
everything that was sold to me. And then I was engaged in testing and flying
some Typhoons against the [Pas de Calais?] and I eventually ended up
being asked to go to France on, not D Day, but it transpired four days after the
landing to participate in some control of air to ground operations. It was at
this stage they then found out that I had been an escaped prisoner of war and
for some obscure reason best known to the command, they thought the Germans
might recapture me and shoot me. Now, their system is good, but not that good.
They could never identify me with the fellow who'd been somewhere else.
Yes, that's a lovely image of the .... Some guy in western
France flicking through ...
Cross-reference and all this stuff. Anyway, it suited me fine and I was then
sent up to Manchester and then across the Atlantic, then back to Australia via
Reaching Australia, you'd lived through remarkable
experiences, horrific experiences too, what was your feeling on reaching home?
Well, it was sheer delight. I am not bright enough to describe it
adequately. It was the most euphoric feeling that anyone could have.
It was also, it wasn't just a short term feeling, it's lasted and lasted and
lasted. And those people who sit down and say we count our blessings, that was
the sort of .... Anything that happened was a blessing after that.
That's most interesting, Nicky.
There were three and a half years of it, you see, virtually three and a half
years' front line.
I think we must, because of time, skate over the period in
Australia, but just to put on record you did go to Mildura OTU, I think?
(15.00) Yes, I found that, due mainly to Bobby Gibbes who
wanted to vacate his position as chief instructor of fighter operational
training at Mildura to go back to operations again in one of the squadrons or
wings up north, I found that I'd been selected to succeed him. So I went up
there and had a look at the syllabus, which was pure Western Desert and
European, and from the little amount that I'd learnt about the Pacific it seemed
to me quite incongruous that a man who'd never been in the Pacific should be
asked to train pilots for the Pacific area because we weren't, we were having
more people sent back to us from Europe than we had people going there. So here
was this very grim situation where I had to get myself up and do a few
operations up there to find out how we should train people because the unknown
quantity was how long would the war last. The Japanese were formidable, had
resources and all that, the bomb hadn't been mentioned, and so we set about it
purposefully, and I designed the new syllabus aimed at doing the type of
activity like the mopping operations and things.
But it was an innocuous war for Australia at that time because as
history shows the war had by-passed us in Australia, politically we were not
wanted either by the Americans or the Australian politicians didn't want our
involvement. But we had to find this out the hard way, there was
no communications by these people downwards to tell us how to shape things, how
to mould things so that whatever effect, whatever blow took place it was done
with full understanding and appreciation of the event. And so I'm highly
critical of the fact that actions were requested and asked of us to delete
numbers, to cancel, to reduce the numbers of people passing and this had a very
bad effect on the morale in Mildura. We had stacks of people arriving there
with wonderful operational experience from Europe and talking about the air
force contributing to their delinquency, we had a plateful of that towards the
end of the war, simply because here were all these fellows wanting to do either
a second tour or even a third tour in some men, to get the whole thing finished,
and we were not told that our role had been chosen for us so that we could shape
things in respect to that policy at an early date. It just happened very
Well, that's most interesting. Look Nicky, just to end, one
thing I like to ask everybody, is there anything that you feel you would like to
add to this record that has not been put down now?
I feel particularly garrulous over this session, I seem to have been more
chatty about things than I ever have been before. Right at this
stage, no, I don't think I would like to add to it or change anything. I have
some stronger feelings about some things but I don't think this is the occasion
for it, it's best handled in another way and in any case ...
Vis-à-vis the air force?
Yes. I did have the advantage of having Sir Alistair Murdoch on a couple of
the boards that we were on together and as his chairman I was able to do a lot
through him just after he was Chief of Air Staff. So I think that's the
better avenue to go working back, although he's dead now there are ways open to
me there for these other things, which I think although they're critical in my
case I'd also have their constructive ....
Good. Well, on behalf of the War Memorial in Canberra, Nicky,
thank you very much for these tapes.
I've enjoyed it too. I've thought of so many things I'd forgotten for
[3SQN Assn repaired version of original transcript on https://www.awm.gov.au.]
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