Archive number: 1562
Preferred name: Bob
Date interviewed: 12 March, 2004
153 Squadron RAF
89 Squadron RAF
108 Squadron RAF
456 Squadron RAAF
You are listening to the interview audio
Thank you for joining us and sharing your story with us. We just would like to start of briefly and just go through
your childhood to now in a very brief summary and starting with where you were born?
Well I was born in Broken Hill, NSW [New South Wales]. My mother and my grandparents there were where my mother was born he was the head of the gas works there in Broken Hill and that’s where our family sort of started and my father came out from England
when he was 21 with his family to meet up with his family who was looking for a wonderful mine in Broken Hill and he was going to make a family and so that’s where my mother and father met and I was born in Broken Hill. From there, we left there when I was only about four and we came down to live in Adelaide
and went to Lockley’s Kindergarten I think in Adelaide and I can still remember when my father left me there and then our next move we went to Roseworthy College. My father got a job as house master at Roseworthy College and I went there and I had nine years of living in the country in the area around Roseworthy which was a wonderful part of my life
and it endeared me to the farming sort of life forever. I learnt to milk a cow there and all that sort of thing. While I was there I went to, I always like telling everyone when I was overseas that I was a real Australian, I went to Kangaroo Flat School, which was the local primary school near Roseworthy, and the teacher there, Ms Lilly Fanny Poppy Baldwin.
I mean, can you believe it, but she taught the class of about 30-40 of us from grade 1 to grade 7 and we all learnt to write properly and read and do our tables. It was a lovely part of my life there and we went, I went from there for a while there I got a little bit of a nervous tick on either side and it would be better if I went and stayed with my
grandmother and aunt in Adelaide for 12 months and I went to Westbourne Park School there for 12 months and then after that I got a scholarship to go to Queens College North Adelaide and I went there from 1933 to 1937 and that was, that was a wonderful experience for me. A good round education with a little bit of religious background and
good dedicated teachers and I was always very pleased with the fact that I had the opportunity to go there. Where do you want me, I’m not sure how long you want me to go on here. Just leading up to the war?
No we might just go through the childhood while we are here.
Well we had a, the years in the Depression and we had a
childhood that was very happy with parents that were dedicated and loving, and although we never had very much money we had a very happy childhood. I had three sisters. That was about the only drawback of my life. I always thought because they always told tales on me and things like that being the eldest, but no, they grew up to be lovely women. So, but we, I remember in the Depression years
there all the staff of the college, Roseworthy College where my father had his position, they all had their salaries, 20-percent drop in their salaries and I always remember my mother and father going to a fancy dress ball with hessian suits on with 20 percent cut out of them. But we used to come home from school to dripping
fried underneath the thing but never felt deprived at all. So I loved visiting the various farms around the place and I had some very close friends right to the time they died recently. The Day family at Reeves Plains where I spent a lot of time, I learnt to milk a cow there and ride a horse and all those sorts of things that one likes to do as a youngster
and altogether I had a very happy childhood really. My mother was a very strong woman and my father was a gentle lovely man so I was very fortunate. After Queens College when I was 15 I got a job at Hall Bankshore. I did my Intermediate and I had to do it twice because
we got the dates mixed up and I missed my English exam so I had to go back to school for a year to do it again, but I passed my Intermediate and then I got a job in a drawing, first of all just as an apprentice fitter and turner in Hall Bankshores in Mile End a general engineering and agricultural engineer and the time that I spent there was wonderful really. I had a wonderful all round experience. I
started sweeping the floor and gradually within a year or two I was in the drawing office there learning to be a draftsman and doing engineering studies as well as my apprenticeship for fitting and turning. They were busy years and I had to ride my bike to my School of Mines, the trade school everyday. Three times a week I think I’d go to night school at the School of Mines
and once a fortnight or thereabouts to the trade school. I did quite well in all of my studies there so I was given quite a nice job there at Hall Bankshores. Pay of course in those days Hall Bankshores was battling a bit financially and they named us apprentices in name and pay, but as a matter of fact we never had signed indentures, if it hadn’t
been for that fact I wouldn’t have been able to join the air force. They would of sort of hung onto me I think. So while I was there I learnt to do a lot of estimates for work that was being offered to Hall Bankshores from the tender board and government and Broken Hill mines and everywhere and we sort of had to work out how many nuts and bolts were in them and
what timbers or metal things were used and get an estimate of time from all the various trades and all the others. Sometimes the estimates used to come to 2 – 3,000 pounds in those days and I was about 16 years of age or something and I couldn’t sleep at night for worrying in case I’d made a mistake and you see my seniors there,
the engineer there Mr Avery Gerr was a crotchety old man with a wooden leg but he was a wonderful man to work for. I used to take the work into him and he’d say, “Well have you made any mistakes Bob?” “No, Mr Gerr, I’m not sure. I don’t think so, I hope not.” “Well I haven’t got time to look at it.” And he’d put these estimates in and an age where we were very young really and taking big responsibility
and I used to go home and couldn’t sleep that night you know in case I’d made a mistake. But it was all very good training and we got a lot of responsibility at a very young age actually. I was drawing and they were doing, Hall Bankshores was a wonderful place to be an apprentice in the engineering field. They used to make agricultural machinery, boilers, they had a foundry there. A leading foundry
in South Australia for doing foundries and cast iron foundries. They had people going all over Australia putting down bores for water bores in the Territory [Northern Territory] and everywhere and one of my jobs was to get all the reports from these bores and draw up a picture of them with the various soils that they passed through. We coloured them all different and
red gravel and blue this and what have you and meet the borers when they came down and everything else. It was a wonderful background in engineering in all sorts of ways. They had a wonderful pattern shop there where they used to make all the patterns for the foundry and that which was a very skilful trade and always sort of right to this day I can remember the wood turning there which is a sort of hobby of mine now. I think I got the bug there.
And can you remember
Yes, yes. First year I got 12 and 5 a week. The second year I got 16 and twopence and the third year I got 21 and threepence which was the first time I got a pound note and I used to go home and give, just give it to my mother and she used to give me a shilling or 2 shillings out of it and I used to go to the Star Theatre. I’d go to the pictures once a week. At the time
I played lacrosse for Stuart and I played mostly in the B team but I did have one or two games in the A team. We had, I can always remember getting cramps in the pictures on a Saturday night after playing lacrosse.
Tell me a bit about your mother. How would you describe her character?
She is a wonderful woman. She was a
very gifted woman really, and she was always a leader. Even when she was younger in Broken Hill, I’ve got pictures of her where she used to, they used to have concerts and she was the leading light or leading hand or something and she was the one who organised them all and trained them all and did everything and very, showed great qualities of leadership.
In the latter part of her life, all her adult life she was always part of the Mother’s Union in the church. She used to go around giving talks a lot, and I’ve still got letters now written by women who said that the impact she made on their lives…
And what about your father?
Well Dad was a very
gentle man. He was happy for mother to be the leader in the family making a lot of the decisions. I always remember he said to me on one or two occasions, “Well she is a bit of handful to live with at times, Bob, but as long as she’s happy, I’m happy.” So it sort of gives you some idea. I haven’t talked about them for a while.
Can I just ask you,
your father came to Australia when he was 21. He also fought in World War I over in England.
Yes, yes. He joined from Broken Hill he joined the 3rd Pioneers. Well yes. That was where he finished up. He finished up in the 3rd Pioneers. He started up as a sergeant, I’m not sure if he started as private but he finished up being a lieutenant with the 3rd Pioneers.
He was gassed twice with mustard gas during the war and I think he, I think he might have finished up like my uncle did at Southern England where there was a big hospital, big army hospital and when they were injured in the trenches or had problems they would often take them back from France over to the hospital there and that was one of the places we went to when we were on my tour in November. So he
always explained to me how the mustard gas lay in the hollows, the shell holes, and it burnt right from his navel down, turned all his skin black and it all peeled off and one thing or another and the was gassed twice and burnt. Other than that he never complained about the war, and in fact, like all of us I suppose, I wish I’d asked him more about his experiences, but he was in the trenches and their
responsibility the Pioneers was to lay down, the dig trenches, to keep the trenches where the mud was thick. To get, put down decking and all that sort of stuff and so he had a fairly tough war but he survived. I think one, I think he and my mother had corresponded but never made any real commitment. My mother had quite a few suitors at the time and she kept her options open I think,
so when they came back from the war they decided to…and I’ve still got letters from my mother. My mother was a very, very strong Christian, and I’ve got letters she wrote to my father like when he went away.
And how old, as you were growing up do you recall any stories that he told you about the war?
Not a lot except
the conditions he told me about. The conditions where the people were in the mud. The mud and the mess was something frightful at times and the Pioneers were expected to run out communication cables and keep the decking where people could get from one trench to another, and I always remember he was an expert at handling a shovel because he sort of had to teach everyone how to keep shovelling without sort of
breaking down, but no, he was a very quiet man in many ways my father. I sort of wish I’d drawn him out a lot more about his wartime experiences. We all do in those times, but if they don’t volunteer it, you don’t seem to unless you’ve got reason to you, you don’t seem to fish as much as you could. I do wish I’d known more about his work. My uncle as well, my uncle Fred, he was also a soldier. I’ve just been in touch with my
cousin in Melbourne for more information about both my uncle and one thing and another who both went away. So in answer to your question I should know more. But he finished being a good soldier and an officer, and when he came back from the war when the Second World War he was an officer in the defences here, like the local defence force
and took his job very seriously as well. So in answer to your question that’s not, I don’t know as much as I should about his wartime experiences. I did look up in the thing and it gave the dates when he was gassed and what have you. There is a book about the 3rd Pioneers in the National War Memorial but he and his younger brother
who joined up towards the end of the war, uncle George he also went to war in the 10th Battalion but nearer the end of the war because he was a bit younger than my father. I think my father was about 22 when he went away, 22 or 23. I think he was a few years older than my mother, so he might have been 24 even when he went away and I think my mother was married when she was just 21 or 22. Like I was.
And you briefly touched on having a very Christian mother. I just want to go back to your scholarship to Queens College in 1933, I think it was. That was a Church of England.
Church of England school, yes. Church of England Boys School, and it had a link to the local parish of Christ Church really at North Adelaide, I think at the time. That’s where all our Christian teachers came from.
It was a Church of England school. It wasn’t overly, overly pushed down our throats or anything but the standards of it. We used to get a weekly talk from the rector of Christ Church and all his assistants which sadly we kind of took
it as a free period I think. We never took it as seriously as we should of but because it’s an interesting sort of subject really because these young priests and some of them used to come and give us lecture on Scripture and because they didn’t have the authority of the school behind them you used to play up a bit and they must have had a terrible time at times trying to get anything into us because we
thought, “Well the headmasters not there, no one knows’ so we used to do all sorts of. I remember one bloke came and we put some evil smelling hair oil or something so when the Priest came and that he had to give us a lecture from way over the back of the classroom because of the terrible smell. Things like that. Stupid things really but that’s, we had a, with all of that we used to go to church regularly from
there. I was confirmed by the Bishop in Christ Church in Adelaide and the Reverend Murray who finished up being a Bishop himself in the Church of England and while all this was going on my mother was a leading light in the church movement down at Roseworthy College and she also started the girl guides there and you know the
boy scouts and all the others. She was always doing something like that. The principal of the school at the time wasn’t married. She was the sort of stand in companion for him at all the special functions. She was a sort of leader in the community as well as at home. But I’ve got a story later on about when I joined the air force. I’ll tell you something about mother’s advice to me
and one thing or another which is quite amusing.
Before we get to that I’d like to ask you about your sisters.
I’ve got 3 sisters. They were all younger than me. The youngest one is 10 years younger than me but I’ve got three sisters have all grown up to be fine women and have all been happily married and brought up big families most of them. One of them only had two, one had five and one had six children and in growing up with the
girls was interesting. Because I was the eldest brother, I was always the one who was the leader of the pack and doing things I shouldn’t have been doing according to them and my eldest sister Joyce, I always thought she used to tell tales on me if I was doing anything. Killing a cat or chasing something or doing something I shouldn’t. But they’ve been all grown up to be lovely women. I used to have arguments with them
like all siblings do but the mainly because I was the eldest and I was away studying at night school and when I first had a job I remember the inference on them more than anything. They were going to high school and they always complained that, “Why isn’t Bob doing the washing up?” And all this sort of stuff but at the time I was going to night school three nights a week and working and they thought that I should do, be pulling my weight at the sink and a
few things like that. We used to have wonderful arguments but no, very happy relationships with them. The girls were all different. Joyce my eldest sister is a very, very. She’s got a terrible conscious and she is the goody-goody of the family, and she sort of thought it was her job to keep us doing all the right thing. I don’t know if she got that from mother or what. Ruth was more laid back and never studied as much as she should
but still got through all her exams. She was a sort of a, didn’t like getting up in the mornings and my sister Margaret came when I was still at college she was 10 years younger than me and her and I are very close. But she’s there. All lovely women. Happily married. Good families.
Can I ask you grew up with sisters
and very strong females in your family and then you went to boarding school with all men or boys. How was that transition?
That was all right. I got on quite well. I bonded very well. I had some dear friends that I kept for life that went to school with there. We did the usual things you know. I think in those days there used to be the magazine out called the Gym magazine that we all used to read and it had the secret six of something,
and we did stupid things like that. We dug a hole underneath one of the classrooms after hours and lifted the trap door and put things, took stuff done there and made out we were in the secret service and all this stuff. We were very happy and we played a lot of sport. We played cricket and I enjoyed cricket. I played against Kim Benozer, when he was at Saints.
That I never had any trouble and when I was at home. I used to go home at weekends as a boarder. I used to catch the train down at North Adelaide and go home from there. Not every weekend but most weekends so I sort of kept in touch with home and I had some very close friends I used to get on my bike and ride over to the farm, the Day boys, Henry and Riley Day and that’s where I used to do
spend the time on the farm with them and very close with them so I had a lot of male bondage despite having all these women around.
And can I just go back to the Depression years. You were at Roseworthy College, you were living at the college at that stage.
And you father had secured a job so you were okay but what other signs were you seeing around you of the hard times during the Depression?
Well we were fortunate in a way in that we lived.
Our house was actually joined to the college. It was subsequently knocked down years later. It was a part of the college and I think that we were a little bit fortunate because the back of our house, almost the window of it was opposite the kitchen where they prepared and most mornings I was allowed to go into the kitchen with a dish or plate. I can’t remember whether it was a plate or saucepan or what it was,
and Bob the cook used to give me a couple of ladles of porridge into it and I used to carry it and it was always something I’ve never forgotten because Bob the cook had sort of cerebral palsy or something, he had the shakes. And I used to hold this pan and he used to bring the ladle out like this and I was always terrified that I wasn’t going to catch the porridge because he shook so much so that was,
that was a side issue and occasionally the window would open from the bakery and they would give us a slab of cake so we probably got a few things that some other people wouldn’t have got beaus of our proximity to the kitchen and the fact my father worked there. My father was house master there. His responsibility was the well being of all the students there. All teens, in their late teens and a very difficult
time and they used to call my father ‘Snip’ was because one of the jobs he had was dealing with, if there were any minor injuries. The nearest doctor was in Gawler, so any minor injuries he would patch them up and that sort of thing, and I don’t know if he used to say, “Well snip that bit off,” or what but that’s how, I don’t know how he got his nickname exactly but they called him ‘Snip’ because I think he had to do the dispensary there and there was some sort of connotations there. I don’t know
what it was. They called me ‘Little Snip’ later on so but I can remember going to school. Kangaroo Flats school. I can remember some of the families there from nearby farms. I remember the Dallas family. They had eight children I think and Sunny Dallas is one of the boys of the family he used to have milk the cows
by hand and them walk the 3 miles to school barefooted. Some of them lived fairly, basically, but I don’t remember anyone. I suppose the country life. The things I remember most - Bob the swaggie [swagman, sustenance worker] used to come around regularly. He called around regularly and he came with his pack and mother always used to give him a meal
and he used to chop the wood for us or something for his tucker and he got to be a part of our life really because he turned up every couple of months or something and Bob, at the door and Mum used to give him odd bits of clothing if she had any, but mostly he just came for a feed and there was a derelict building not far from the farm where the swaggies all used to call in there as a posting, a place where they all stopped
and bedded down for the night. Very rudiment. There was an old stove there where you could see they used to do their cooking and things.
Did Bob have meals with your family?
He never sat. I can never remember him sitting down with the family, no. We had, at one stage we had for some time a girl Lina Oliver who used to come over. I think the Oliver family were having really hard times and she
came over and lived with us for a time and certainly helped mother more or less for her keep, really. That was one of the advantages we had probably there, that we were able to look after someone that was perhaps worse off than we were. So they are the sort of contacts I had with them otherwise at the college itself.
Things were very much more basic there than they are now. They had all, they had pigs there and that sort of thing. The college was self sufficient. They had a dairy. They had their own pigs and some cattle and they fed themselves mostly and I think that’s why we managed to get some of the fringe of it. I don’t remember every getting meat from them
but I suppose we did. I certainly remember the porridge and the cake and that. So that was the only reason that I can think of I know some of the children going to the Kangaroo Flat School came from the farms but very small farms and most of them had a mixed farm where they had a pig and a cow, a few cows and one thing and another and they I think they lived fairly frugally
but they existed mainly on their own produce.
And do you remember after you left school and became a teenage do you actually recall and girls or girlfriends that?
Yes. Yes I can. I did. To start with I was so busy going to school and working and going to night school and everything I didn’t have a very big social life but I remember the first
date that I ever had. When we were at Hall Bankshores, a girl used to come in every morning. Where we were in the drawing office there was a, the members of the office used to have to come in and sign in and the table was there. We used to see this girl and this girl, her nickname was Betty Scooglebet, but Irene her name was and all the boys used to perve on her and she was a bit of a good looker
and one thing or other. And somehow or other. Don’t ask me how but somehow or other I was one of the boys that got a date with her to go to the pictures and I can remember being at home and putting brill cream on my hair and sort of doing things. And it was all so wonderfully, looking back on it now it was all so wonderfully, what’s the word, simple and harmless.
I think I probably, I think I probably got a kiss I don’t know but I can remember walking along with her with my arm around her and her breast sort of bouncing on my hand and I thought that was sort of heaven. I don’t know if that’s suitable for recording, but anyway, that was my first date that I ever had, and it really didn’t come to anything in the long run. So I didn’t have any really
serious, serious liaisons with a girl. None of the girls at the church I used to go to. I used to go to St Augustus Church and there were a number of girls there. We used to go dancing. I had a friend Tom McKenzie who has been a lifetime friend of mine and still is and he and I learnt dancing there and I knew a girl Sanders. She had some relationship
to my mother but I don’t know what it would be. A distant cousin or something and she came to teach us dancing in this thing. You know one, two, two, one, two, two and all this business and I can remember Tom and I going there and she was very, very well proportioned and she had a low cut dress and we couldn’t concentrate on our dancing because this was the closest proximity we had been to a buxom
woman and looking back on it all she, I think she sort of teased us a bit. I think she sort of enjoyed all these kids, you know, and the funny thing about it I wrote a little something about it in my little book and a friend of mine who is dead now, Gil Barclay, he was a friend of hers and he said, “She read all about that in your book and she laughed. She thought it was great.” So I didn’t offend anybody by saying so, but that was a…
So by the time I went away to the war I was pristine as far as any experiences with women at all really. I might have a kiss or something but that was the best I ever got.
And do you actually remember the day war was declared?
Indeed. Indeed. At the time my grandmother and grandfather lived with me. I haven’t talked enough about my grandfather. My grandfather who lived with us he was the one who was
the superintendent of the gas works at Broken Hill for about 30 years and my mother’s father and he, I think, in fact, I almost sure of it, helped me in addition to the scholarship I got in sending me to college. I think without his help I think I probably wouldn’t have got there. I think he either paid some part of it, the fees or whatever so he was a help to me there and he lived with us for a while and of course he was
an Englishmen born in Lancashire and so was my grandmother. That’s another story and they, when war broke out I can see us all sitting around in the lounge when Mr Menzies [Prime Minister Robert Menzies] announced that Australia was at war. I can remember it as if it were yesterday. So and there was absolutely no question about it that if England was at war we were at war. You know like never that sort of feeling of distinguishing ourselves from
Britain or anything at that stage. You know my grandfather talked about the old country and all that sort of stuff and my grandmother used to say, “Pass me the bootter’ and we’d say, “It’s not bootter, nana it’s butter.” And she’d said, “I don’t say bootter, I say bootter,” and it used to be a joke in the family because she had this Lancashire accent even after all these years and of course, my father was born in England so there was never,
we just took it as seriously as if it was happening to us as well as England so no question about it.
What do you remember about Menzies speech?
I just remember he spoke very clearly. He was a good orator and he was sort of a little bit of a Churchillian [Winston Churchill] manner about him the way he made these sort of announcements and he was very solemn and he said that
Germany had invaded Poland and England was at war, and therefore Australia was at war. Words to that effect. There was never any question about whether we would go in or if he was going to ask anyone whether we did it just sort of happened and coming within cooee [shouting distance] of World War I and the affinity between and the fact that so many English people were living in Australia there was never any
idea that we wouldn’t be part of it whatever happened and we sort of still felt that bond when we went to England in the Second World War. The people over there were just marvellous to us and never a question that we shouldn’t have done it all. We should have remained out of it or anything like that. Never, ever
came into our minds either in our family or in our thoughts.
And who was with you when you heard the speech?
My mother and father and my sisters, my sisters and my grandmother and grandfather. My grandmother at that time was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and I don’t know if she would have been at all conscious of it all but my grandfather and my father and myself and my sisters were all there.
I can remember where we all sat.
And what was your father’s reaction?
Well I think only that, my father never once ever made one statement or said one word that discouraged me from joining the air force when the time came and I just think like he did he thought I would just do the same as what he did when he
joined up. That there was no question about it. I think at the time when I joined I probably should, I probably, I may have needed I don’t know because I did it on my 18th birthday, and I’m not sure about what consent he had to give if any, but the question was never raised so I never met any opposition from my parents or my grandparents about me joining up at all. Never a, not a word and I probably
given the idea when the same thing happened to give you an idea. My grandfather who was there had already given permission for his son to go to the war, my uncle went to the war in World War I so I suppose he was reliving it all again. I saw my uncle Fred’s resume
about his grandfather gave him permission and was proud of the fact that he could sort of come to aid of the king and all this stuff. A real old fashioned sort of approach to it all so that was the. Well, I never received any opposition whatsoever from my family about joining up.
Okay we’ve come to the end of the tape. We might just swap over and then I’ll start talking to you about enlistment.
Okay dear. Right.
Interviewee: Robert Cowper Archive ID 1562 Tape 02
Before we talk about enlistment I would like to talk about your allegiance with England. What your mother’s family English?
Yes, yes, yes. My mother and my father’s family were all English. Yes. Well actually my father’s, in a word they were all English. My
father’s mother was named Perya and the family there related, we were always told that their family was one of the Huguenots that came across from France many years before but the name had French connotations and that was the understanding of how it happened but yes, they were English. My
father, my grandfather, my paternal grandfather was quite a different man altogether to my maternal grandfather. He is my father’s father. My father was why he was a quiet and dependable sort of bloke he was given, when the family came out on the boat from England, my paternal grandfather came our first
and went to Broken Hill. He was the original sort of entrepreneur. He was always going to be a millionaire and he never quite made it. He did, he had these wonderful ideas of how the family was going to make money. There are one or two good stories. I don’t know if we have the time to tell them to give you an idea of what he was like. My aunt was telling me once when they lived at Folkstown down in the south of England, the Kaiser was going to make a visit
to England before, of course before World War I this was and my grandfather decided, he had these three daughters, and he decided, he found out what the route was that the party that was with the Kaiser was going to travel and he got them all dressed up in special-made uniforms and made hundreds of cakes and different things and put up a stall on the corner where they were going to make a fortune when the Kaiser came
past and they had all this, did all this baking and everything and they changed the route and the Kaiser didn’t come and they had all this food that they had to dispose of. That was one of his harebrains [harebrained schemes] that went bad, but he bred dogs. He was a boot maker by, I think he was a boot maker by trade and then he went into photography and he set up a studio for photography. This was all in England before he came out and then he got the bug,
whether he heard like a gold rush was on or what, silver rush on but he just left all the family and went to Broken Hill and said, “I’ll send for you when I’ve made,” and he staked a claim of land, took a lease on like a hunk of land out from Broken Hill which subsequently turned out to be one of the parts where one of the mines was there but like and my, then eventually he just sent for
the family and my father was just 21 then and he had my mother and his sisters and the young brother and he sort of had to organise and bring the whole family out. He had a fairly heavy sense of responsibility at that age really because while grandpa was just busy out here thinking he was going to be a millionaire here in Broken Hill and so that was just
how my mother. He was very easy and I’ve got pictures there. He started the Buffalo Lodge or something in Broken Hill and he was the founder of it. He was a bit of trade union man which but apparently he got disillusioned with the trade union because they sort of striked and were doing things that he didn’t approve of too much and he abandoned them, but he still sort of stayed
as a staunch sort of man up in the lodge up there.
Can I ask did you actually celebrate Empire Day?
Oh yes. In school. Even in Junior school we used to run up the flag and run out. Of course Empire Day was only sort of…it happened everyday. Everyday when we went to school, when we went to Kangaroo Flats School we all stood around
and put the flag up and said - I ought to remember all the words, shouldn’t I? I haven’t got them all in my head now but saying about the British Empire and allegiance to the king and queen and all this business and we used to do that every morning before we went into classes so Empire Day just only came as an additional sort of
and yes, I haven’t got vivid memories of what we did on Empire Day. But Empire Day was, I remember we definitely celebrated, did something special on it.
And what did it mean to you Empire Day?
Well at school more doing geography than anything gave you a sense of empire. Half the map of the world was coloured red. The Indies
and that sort of thing. We used to hear stories of what used to go on in India and one thing and another and the Black Hole of Calcutta and the Khyber Pass and different things, and they used to go on then as part of the Empire. Singapore. I don’t, my own conscious feeling at that age was
we were part of a large scene in the world that we were a part of and a reason to be proud of. That was the feeling when you were young I think. The British Empire was something that ruled the world nearly, the king rather, and that’s only my juvenile sort of impressions of it.
And as you got older what did the
Empire mean to you?
Well I, it was revolving. The disillusion of the Empire was sort of a revolving thing that happened rather slowly, although I suppose you could say at the end it was rather quick. I think that even the remains that remain with me
now is that the world is probably a better place in many ways because of it. I think they left behind in India and many places there were, they left behind a system of government and law and a few things and that, and despite the remnants of it were beneficial to a lot of people in the world and of course, you
meet people who personify some of our rigours of probably that went on in some cases and the racism that went on and on the whole compared to a lot of other systems where people have taken over societies, it was sort of reasonably benevolent compared to the troubles that a lot of them have had.
Generally, the Britons were reasonably decent sort of colonists to what we have seen in other countries. I’ve forgotten exactly where I was to answer your question.
No that’s fine. I’ll just lead you now and ask when it came to enlistment who was it you were fighting for? About to fight for?
we were fighting for the free world, for the. We were fighting for, I suppose we were fighting for Britain but at that time we were starting to get a hell of a lot of information about Hitler and what he was doing and of course he’d sort of, it was going. All the information we were getting was that he was gradually taking over the inland part of Czechoslovakia and
then Poland was the last straw sort of business. He was obviously on a world conquest, certainly on an European conquest at that stage, and that there was no reason to believe that down the list Britain wasn’t one of the targets, and I think we all just had that sense of responsibility that when Poland, they invaded Poland, and the stories were
still sort of coming through how the Panzer Divisions [tanks] were going to run all over the place. Apart from there is an element of fear, that this a bad influence, that there was something terrible happening over there. That people were being killed unnecessarily. That there was that reason for Britain in standing up for all those other people who were free in Europe
and I don’t remember having any doubts about the fact that we were on the right side doing what had to be done. We accepted the what was said to us and everything like that.
Was it for King or Country? Was it King or Country?
Well it wasn’t for Australia in that sense. I mean no one was about to head down
although we’d had talks about the yellow perils and all this stuff at different times none of that came into it at all. I didn’t do it for Australia. I think Australia wasn’t perceived to be threatened at that time. No directly anyway. Subsequently it could easily have been but when it first started like
it was, my perception of it was we were doing it for England who was the bastion of the free world and there was this monster who was going to try and blow Europe apart and one thing and another and if they saw fit to sort of try and stop him we had better hop and try to sort of stuff. A bit of a simple answer isn’t it.
No that’s fine. Can we talk about the day you enlisted?
I made up my mind before my 18th birthday that when my 18th birthday came I would enlist in the air force if I had the opportunity and on the day of my 18th birthday I got on my pushbike at lunchtime at Hall Bankshores and rode up to the recruiting centre at North Terrace and walked in and said I wanted to join the air force. I’ll tell you how naïve I was.
The sergeant said to me, “Yes certainly, how old are you?” and I said, “I’m 18.” “Yes, that’s fine and what do you want to do in the air force?” and I said, “Well do they have any draftsmen in the air force?” I never went in there with one moments thought that I would be considered to be air crew and he just, first thing he put in mind, he said, “A young fellow like you if you pass all the medicals, you’ll
probably be drafted for air crew. For flying.” And I thought, that was the first thing that I was sown in my head that I would fly an aeroplane, and everything so I went away quite stunned about all this and following on that a lot of my friends, we had to have an Intermediate Certificate to start with. To follow on I got on my bike and did this and I rode back to Hall Bankshores
and I thought, “Well I’d better tell the boss that I’d joined the air force,” and I went in and Mr Smith was the big cheese [boss] and I knocked on the door and timidly went in and I said, “Mr Smith, I’ve just joined the air force.” “You can’t join the air force. You’ve got a restricted job here. We need you here.” And I said, “Well I’ve just joined up.” And he said, “Well, I’ll fix that,” and he picked up the phone and he rang and asked for the CO [Commanding Officer]
of the recruiting depot. Neil Adams was his name. “Get me so and so.” And he got on the phone and I remember him saying, “Well we’ve got this young fellow here. He says he’s joined the air force. Well he can’t go. We’ve sort of got him here. We’ve got a big job on.” Halls Bankshores were getting contracts for making shells and different things and he got really quite bombastic with this bloke and he must have been speaking to some officer in the air force and I can tell
that he must have said, “Well, is he indentured to you? Is there any reason why he can’t?” and I could see Andy Smith getting less and less confident and one thing and another, and I could tell by the tone on the phone that he had been deflated a bit and when he put the phone down, “Well anyway, why do you want to go and do a thing like that? We want to keep you here.” But he couldn’t stop me like from the way it all went and
the fact that I’d never signed anything. So, eventually he came around to accept it like and he wrote me a nice reference and that sort of thing but my first reaction when I joined the air force.
Can I ask what was the appeal of the air force?
I don’t know. Well you see I suppose I do.
I guess, well you see although I didn’t do. Although the Battle of Britain was on the way then that was in 1940. Although the battle was getting a lot of publicity of course. That gave me some idea that the air force was going to be but the funny thing about it I never thought that I was the material, that I was going to be a pilot.
I had much more humbler ideas than making a contribution as a draftsmen that I had been trained at and but the air force, I think it must have been some subliminal because the air force was getting much more publicity at that stage than the army was. The Battle of Britain was on in 1940,
and I didn’t know it, but Kay was up there herself that year. So I think that was why I…I don’t know. That’s the only thing I can assume, because I didn’t, we weren’t seeing much about the air force in that later itself like. There weren’t blokes running around in air force uniforms like. I don’t know why. I had been flirting with the reserve,
army reserve. I had been going to a few night meetings and different things with them because a friend, a fellow who worked in the drafting office at Halls Bankshores was involved in it, but despite all that I joined the air force. I think I must have been something to do with the fact they were higher profile in those days or.
And what was your father’s reaction when you came home with the news?
Do you know I think they were, treated it seriously. They had a serious expression about it all but never said, “You shouldn’t have done it,” or anything. It was sadly accepted that I was going to do my duty sort of thing you know. I think that’s the best way I can put it.
And so do you remember the day you were called up?
Yes it was a very slow process because we were put on a, I don’t know what the word was. A sort of reserve or something waiting for call up. So we started all sort of preparation. We went to the post office. A meeting at night learning Morse code
and mainly Morse code and other lectures. We started to get involved in it before we were called up so it was just a gradual process where we were just waiting which month we were going to be called up. I went from June 24th when I joined up to December before we actually got on the plane, got on the train and went to Western Australia so it was a slowly drawn out process of joining and then actually being a part of it really but
we were put in the reserves sort of thing, and we were encouraged in every way to sort of prepare ourselves by going to some of these Morse code lessons and other lessons that we went to, I think, voluntarily before we were called up.
And do you remember when you were called up?
Yes, yes, yes. I remember getting the, yes. I remember getting the. One of the things that happened in the meantime was I went for my medical
after I joined up and I got conjunctivitis in my eyes and I had to see the eye specialist and get drops and things and I was terrified that when I went to my medical they were going to knock me back because of my eyes but they didn’t in the end. That just a - By that time we got to know a lot of the others and we had sort of bonded a lot of us, were bonded before we actually joined up.
We had a lot of friends and it wasn’t a sort of lone ranger stuff we were quite a bunch of and I think from South Australia some 30 or 40 from here went away on the train to Western Australia, so we knew most of the fellows really well because of the mixing we had done either socially or with these sort of things so it wasn’t a sort of a
letter coming one day and out of the blue or anything. It was a sort of slow process of knowing that we were probably going to be called up next month or whatever it was.
Do you remember the journey over to Perth?
Oh yeah, we went over in the train and I’ve got pictures there and pictures of us in the train and getting off the train and meeting aborigines sort of bum a few bob of us and one thing or another. And yeah that was
I think one of the, it wasn’t new to me actually aborigines. We went to Whyalla at one time to visit my uncle. We went to school and sat next to some but these were aborigines who made a lifetime job I think of bumming [receiving handouts] off the passengers I think on the east/west express and they were sort of professionals at it. We took pictures of them, standing with them you know these sort of things.
And what was the mood
on the train on the journey over?
I think we were all on a bit of high really. We sort of you know started off a new world to us all and we were all fairly excited and when we got to Kalgoorlie it was a terribly hot day and just about the whole lot of us went down to swim in the Kalgoorlie swimming pool I remember that. That was one of the sort of the things. That and getting off the train here
and there but otherwise I don’t remember anything exciting happening in the train but it was fun. It was a bit of a fun trip.
And what was your mum’s advice before you got on the train?
Oh God. My mother. Well she took me aside. First of all, the first thing she said to me was, “When you go overseas Bob
you might get into situations that you might, especially with girls that you mightn’t be able to handle and don’t know what to do. If you are in the situation where you feel things getting out of hand, just say to yourself ‘what would I do if mother was here?’” And this is one of the jokes of my life, because it was just a joke
to be thinking, “What would I do if mother was here?” So I used to tell everybody, like when I got to England, I had two big things that made me nervous and one of them was when the Germans were chasing me in the air and the other was wondering if mother was there when I was on the ground. So that was mother’s advice, that to tell me just to think she was there that I was going to use her as a pillar of righteousness if I got into trouble,
but before, the night before I left she put up a stretcher in the spare room and Dad was detailed was probably the right word, poor Dad, was detailed to come in and have the last advice to his son going to war and I can hardly remember one thing that he said to me. Certainly not what I can remember about what mother said, but poor Dad was embarrassed and he didn’t know,
I don’t think he knew what to say himself and he was quiet. We probably talked abut something but I don’t remember him saying anything ringing in my ear like mother’s did. But so that was mother said to me before I went. It’s always been a sort of a good, if I’m talking to any of the Widow Clubs or anything they like that one for a start. They give them a bit of an idea, a bit of a light note to start my
war career on. Mother’s advice.
And when you got to Perth where did you go from there?
We straight to Pearce in Western Australia and Pearce was an initial training school and it was pretty, it was pretty hard. Quite a sort of a quick lining up of discipline and one thing and the other and
hardening up a bit. A few cold showers and getting up in the morning early and parading and we had lots of lectures and much drill and discipline was very, very much to the fore. If we sort of forget to salute to one of the officers or something hell to pay and an awful lot of
drill work and then we did the usual things we did like gas things and but a lot of it was learning about air force law and drill and ranks in the air force and hierarchy and how the air force worked and what we were expected to do be fit and you know be on time and
carry ourselves well and be able to march beautifully and all these sort of things. It was a fairly elementary stuff but it was leading up to just getting us trained to be competent on a machine a bit.
Can you just describe to me the process where you became graded as a pilot?
Well it wasn’t all done at ITS [Initial Training School]. Some of it
was done on age. I think there were a number of criteria some of it was done on age I think. I think some of the older, but now always, some of the older members went away who had been school teachers or whatever. Some of those I think never got the opportunity to train to be pilots. They obviously thought they were sort of studious enough to be observers which needed
the range rather than the motor skills so a number of the ones that went away with us in that batch finished up as observers. A number of them were the older ones because when we went away I was 18 and those that were 27 or 29, I thought they were my grandfathers or something. The age difference was huge and we used to call them ‘grandpa’ and stuff like that if you were over
27 or something, and so, but some of those men. But then I think some of them. We had tests and that that we had to do about things we were being taught and I think on the results of some of those tests, they assessed on the mental capacity, but I don’t think that was, even that was the number one criteria. I think there must have been some. We had
corporals in charge of each hut and we had sergeant majors and we had lectures and I think the results of all of their assessments of us had some affect. Quite a lot, quite a number of them went to training, flying training school and subsequently didn’t go on with it for one reason or another. They were found not to have quick enough reactions or they got sick
every time they went up or they had some complaint where they, sinuses and headaches all sorts of things or clumsy, just plain clumsy to be a pilot. Some of them got scrubbed after we got there but most of the decisions were made while we were at ITS. Some of them were even posted straight to gunner school, air gunnery schools and things in the eastern states.
After a while I was just posted to Cunderdin where Tiger Moths [de Havilland Tiger Moth training aircraft] learnt to fly to be a pilot and I knew if I, that I was graded as a pilot. I knew that before we left Pearce. Most of us knew what we had been graded at and where we were going next and some of us went to the eastern states and some of us went to Cunderdin. A majority
of us were pilots went to the pilots course I think. The ones that went over with us and that’s where I learnt to fly at Cunderdin and my instructor there. I think I did seven to seven and a half hours or something solo before I was sent out in a plane by myself, and no one can describe how to tell you feel when you fly an aeroplane for the first time by yourself. That’s a little bit of a high, and I don’t care what anyone says.
I was going to ask you what were you flying
Tiger Moths. Yes. The de Havilland Tiger Moths.
And just before we talk about the first time you flew on your own what was it like the first time you flew?
I thought it was wonderful. I thought it was such a new experience. Oh great. Up there with the birds and the instructor I had was one of the senior instructors there and he
was very good and very quiet, reliable and just took things. Didn’t get excited or didn’t swear at me or one thing and another and he was very good. I think I was very fortunate. He was a good instructor, but there was still a sense of wonder about it and we were taught to do rolls and loops and one thing and another before we ever went solo
and sometimes we were doing them and if it came out all right it was a bit of miracle like. With no experience to draw on we didn’t know if we were passed or whether we weren’t. The instructor sort of had to say it but on the whole I sort of felt as if I got the hang of it fairly well and doing it in about seven hours wasn’t too bad.
Some of them did it, I don’t think many of them did it under seven hours, but some went 10 or 12 hours before they were considered to be safely on their own. But yes oh the instructing part of it. I think a lot of the experience in learning to fly depended an awfully lot on the instructor they got. Some of the instructors were sort of thought they were doing the right thing by trying to be over-critical.
Some of them pricked their confidence early for fear of being overconfident and it hurt, I think. So hearing some of the other stories of the others some of them got instructors that they didn’t hit it off with very well, and I think some of the instructors were a bit frustrated teaching us to fly instead of going away and fighting in the war and they took it out on their pupils a bit sometimes. But on the whole I think most of them
did a very conscientious job. There were definitely clashes of personality at times. They didn’t get on at all with their instructors, and it may have been they weren’t very competent, I don’t know, but the instructors got blamed that they weren’t getting on as well as they hoped but so that was one of the things, but I was fortunate in that regard. I think I had a very smooth passage in going solo.
And how, describe flying solo for the first time.
Well you have little milestones in your life and achieving things and that was, at the time I hadn’t, I had driven a car. I hadn’t driven a car, I’d ridden a motorbike. Not a lot, but a bit, but I think I had driven a car, but I don’t think I even had a driving licence for a car. I may have done. My grandfather
had a car and my father had one but to be flying an aeroplane was a grade above all that and it is quite an amazing sort of feeling of power or achievement or what, I don’t know how you describe it, but it was certainly exhilarating and I thought it was really great, and I knew I still had a lot of learn because there were dangers there because one or two
of the blokes had a bit of a prang [accident]. The Tiger Moth was very, a very safe little aircraft and if you had a good head wind when you’re landing your ground speed was so slow you had time to do things. The wind and control in a strong wind was a bit scary because you need help even on the ground sometimes to taxi them but no, I thought I was doing rather well.
Just a first tinge of confidence I think.
And speaking about Cunderdin were there any fatalities during training?
No, not at Cunderdin. We had a couple of prangs but no one was killed. We had quite an amusing incidents there, incidents rather than terrifying really. I think one or two blokes were scrubbed, what they scrubbed there
they decided that they weren’t capable of being a pilot and one of those was one who had quite a nasty prang in one. I don’t know what the hell he did wrong I can’t remember but he wrecked the aircraft but he wasn’t killed. We had some interesting sort of things. We had one of our pilots Don, he did several forced landings and got lost a couple of times and
finished landing in a farmer’s paddock and asking the way home and things like that, so we had a few little incidents that caused a bit of amusement. But…and he finished up being a director of Civil Aviation in Australia so there was hope for all of us. But no, no one was killed there, no.
And what did you know about the Empire Air Training Scheme?
I knew that we were a part of it. We were actually I found out a lot more about it because of what happened subsequently, but we were all knew it was a scheme for training new pilots and we were all part of this scheme and we knew it was happening in Canada as well and New Zealand and they were all part of it, and there was an attempt to train a lot of pilots for the air war was obviously going to be an important
part of it and so without going into the nuts and bolts [details] of it, we knew it was a scheme that we were all a part of and the object of it was to strengthen the allied forces in the air. That’s what we were being trained for. Subsequently from Cunderdin there were five of us, I think we had the highest marks in
the course and subsequently were sent straight to Canada from there and the rest of them were sent up to, Western Australia flying Ansons [Avro Anson fighters]. The name has just gone straight out of my head and I went over and went home on leave for a week and then went over to the eastern states and we embarked for Canada so that was the end of the career there but I must have got reasonably high marks.
The five of us that all went all did rather well in our course in our flying and in our studies.
Do you remember being told you were selected for EATS [Empire Air Training Scheme]?
I remember being told. I think the adjutant told us, the five of us, “You mean to go overseas.” Yes they told the five of us were going over to Canada
and that was the first we knew. Geraldton, the rest of them went to Geraldton and flew Ansons and I think, I’m glad I didn’t do that anyway. So we were fortunate in being chosen to go to Canada. That was another experience to going to Canada. But so that was, I think we were given the idea that we had been, the five of us had been chosen. I think it was a question
of sort of balancing the numbers from here and everywhere and why the number five. It wasn’t because there only five any good there but they probably only asked for five from the course and they just chose five of us and I think most of it was we had done really well, and I had to the advantage of only being 18 and coming straight from school and night school and everything, and I found the, doing the subjects there
most of them were fairly straight forward because it was only an extension of what I had been doing at night school or up until them. But some of the older members who had been doing jobs and had to go back to school again like found it a bit more difficult than some of us younger ones.
And you noted that before you left Adelaide you had already made some mates by doing night course. Did any of those mates get selected to go to Canada?
Yes, yes. Gil Barclay was one of them. He’s dead now. He died only about 18 months ago. He and I and Keith Murdoch and Ken Terry and - who was the other, the fifth one - and myself and Lyon Skinner. Have I got five there? Are there five there? I think they were, I think I’ve got the five.
Murdoch, Skinner, Barclay, Cowper. Have I got the five or four? I don’t know if I have the five? And Terry. Yeah, there were the five of us all went. We saw a fair bit of each other on the boat and that sort of thing but when we got to Canada there was only Gil Barclay and I were sent to one place to fly Harvards [Harvard fighters] and the others went to another place as Saskatchewan to fly twin
engine aircraft but so, yes we were. Gil Barclay was a dear friend of mine every since. We had the same instructor even when we went to Yorktown in Canada.
I’ve got to change the tape now.
Interviewee: Robert Cowper Archive ID 1562 Tape 03
We were up to your final pre-embarkation leave?
Well I think we had a week or thereabouts at home before we leave and that was quite interesting. I got on the train to go from home to Sydney and there we were on pre-embarkation there for a while. We didn’t know what was going to happen for a while we
found out what boat we were on and it was all supposed to be secret when we were leaving and all that but we got on a boat in the end called the Awatea and went our first port of call was Auckland, New Zealand and we arrived there on Anzac Day and the, we all formed up on the wharf and we walked straight into an Anzac march and we were all straight from our
training and all in our uniforms and everything, and we put on a show for the Kiwis that we would never forget. We made sure no one was out of step or anything and the New Zealanders were just marvellous, making offers to us to go home with them and what have you. Go home for dinner and stay and all that, and the process of it all, when we broke up, a young fellow came up to me and said that they’d like myself and Duncan Calwell,
a friend of mine. He wasn’t one that went away with me, but I met him over there and got friendly with him, and they asked us to come home with them for a meal that night and told us what tram to get on and when and that sort of thing and they left us then for the afternoon and we accepted their invitation and we went into the pubs for a drink. You know at 18 and a half I’d never drunk two beers in a row, and we went in there and they
had this light bitter and there were pints of it being shoved down and, “Come on Aussie,” and we finished up with all this beer in front us and drank too much and got a bit whizzy and had a terrible ride in the tram on the way out there and felt quite ill and they realised when I got out there that we’d both had a bit more than…and they were marvellous to us. She was just like a mother to us and the young boys and they let us
have a lie down for a while before they brought the meal out and all this business and they turned out to be lovely people, and they arranged to pick us up the next day and take us down to Rotorua. They had a big old Humber car and we went down there and the things I remember most. Well Rotorua of course was an interesting sort of place to go to anyway for young people to go to first with all the hot springs and everything but on the way back, I was sitting in the back seat of this Humber
with the bloke’s sister on one side and her girlfriend on the other and it was quite cold and we had this overcoats and things on and I took my turn in kissing the girl on one side and one on the other. We were all kids, you know, and we had this sort of exciting little trip back. It was all just fun, but subsequently, about years and years later, about 30 or 40 years later I went back and met them. Anyway, so we saw
Rotorua and we went on the Awatea went on to Fiji and Fiji was interesting. It was an interesting place to go to and the whole the city and the commercial side of it was taking over it. The Indians ran all the shops and all of that and the native people seemed to be more in the countryside and all that sort of…We had a happy time there just for a
day and to and then we moved on. We went to Vancouver, Canada was the next stop and at that stage we had no bother at all with the trip over. I can’t remember any crisis or anything really. That was really straightforward. We arrived in Vancouver and then we got on the train to go through the Rockies [Rocky Mountains]. In my case out to Saskatchewan
and where we were by train and on the way through we stopped at Jasper and a lot of these places in the Rockies and got out and had a look around. It was all a real Cook’s tour [comprehensive tour], that part of that. On our way there were things worth mentioning on the way. We were fed in the cars while travelling. It was quite a long journey and
they brought a 4 gallon bucket of peas and a 4 gallon bucket of this and potatoes and we had these meals and we all arrived in Yorktown in Saskatchewan with terrible diarrhoea and everything. We had this terrible grub that was, I don’t know what was in it or what happened, but the first two nights of our new station in Yorktown we were just queued up all night at the toilets. I can remember everyone was out of bed with diarrhoea. The whole lot of us.
We all got it so it just wasn’t a good start to our trip there, but Yorktown was a small town and we were the first lot of Australians to arrive there and the whole town turned out to welcome us and they were just marvellous. We couldn’t ask for a better reception from the local populace there. They were marvellous while we were there,
and it was really good, we were flying Harvards, which was an aircraft, a very nice aircraft to fly, and our instructors were very good pilots and very nice blokes and myself and Duncan Calwell and Gil Barclay that I mentioned before that left from here had the same instructor over there, Sergeant McKenzie, who turned out to be one of the better instructors I think there, and
I must say by the time we finished at Yorktown, I thought I was God’s gift to aviation. We were so confident. They were beautiful aircraft to fly. We were doing flick rolls and things we should never have been doing and low flying when no one was looking and things, and it only towards the end of my stay there that one of the blokes killed himself doing flying, doing night flying or something. They were doing night flying
and one of the planes went in and he was killed, and we then thought perhaps we’d been a bit stupid. This could be dangerous if we are not careful, and the first sort of alarm bells of any sort and those alarm bells are what keep you alive eventually. Like getting a fright is an example of what not to do.
And what sort of things were you doing that weren’t allowed?
Mostly we used to do formation flying. The countryside there is very flat
and it’s got all these washouts where, in the rainy season or when the snow is melting and you could get down in the Harvard and you could fly along the bed with the sides of the creek like each side of you and we did things like that and we did showing off doing flick rolls which is flying a certain speed and pull the stick back and the rudder and the aircraft goes like this and comes back straight if you are quick enough,
and things you shouldn’t do at low altitude but we were doing at low altitude and the aircraft went into a spin I think. Just doing a few things like that. Doing formation flying with one another and generally showing off when we weren’t under supervision. This was when we were solo, flying solo.
And how did you find the single-engine Harvard after the Tiger Moth?
Just chalk and cheese, like, the Tiger Moth was a dear old reliable
windy blowy thing and when you rolled in the Tiger Moth all the rubbish in the floor used to come down and the engine used to cut and the engine in a Tiger Moth doesn’t work upside down and it used to cut until you turned around but the Harvard was marvellous for aerobatics and it was really the American version of the Wirraway [training aircraft] that we had out here but it was much more sophisticated and better finished and
safer aircraft even than the Wirraway to fly, and we all did really loved it as a training aircraft. They’ve still got them. There’s a lot of Harvards in New Zealand and every time there’s an air show the Kiwis come up with a heap of them and they must still be flying a heap of them but they are a very pleasant aircraft. That’s where I got my wings there then.
Well what do you think you learned from that particular
It was really, we were really tested, our endurance was tested. We were learning to fly and we were doing a lot of work inside, examinations and things on navigation and airmanship and law and radio things and I - the hardest thing I found, I couldn’t stay awake in half the lectures,
and I think the one that I remember most was learning, I think they called it radio or communications which we were supposed to learn, all these different sorts of radios and how to work them and I used to go to sleep and the teacher that we had there. I suppose he was a flying officer, he used to throw chalk at me and that and once when I was so sound asleep he got the bloke behind to stick
a pin in me and he woke me up by sticking a pin in me and I woke up and wanted to kill him, and I remember I had this bit of an altercation but the point I’m making is, I was so tired. Well I was so tired I found it difficult to stay awake and of course when it came to the examination time I knew that this, he was always having a bit of a shot at me because I was dropping off all the time in the lectures, so two days or a day or two before the exam I just got the papers and
sat up half the night and swatted them, like, and got every page I could, sort of see the diagrams, and when I went into the exam I got 90 something percent and he never got over it, and probably a week later I couldn’t remember half the things. But that was the sort of thing I remember, just being there, but as far as that goes but as far as the flying goes it was marvellous and I think we learnt a lot. We finished up doing so called night flying
in the harbour before we left there, and when I left there with my wings I thought I was on the way to being a pilot and I thought I was God’s gift to aviation there for a while.
Was there, given that you felt so confident was there anything that was difficult for you at this point in time?
I didn’t find. Nothing that I felt that I couldn’t master.
The flying. We used to do aerobatics. The instructor that I had McKenzie, the sergeant pilot instructor we had was very - he loved doing aerobatics and he used to overdo it at times. It’s different when you’re flying it yourself than when you are a passenger in an aircraft. You kind of get a bit of a sickie feeling when you are passenger but you don’t get when you are actually in charge and he used to do
some of the times I used to think, “I wish he’d stop. I’d have enough of it.” But when you do it yourself its different, but I was never a mad keen aerobatic man. I never was. I quite enjoyed doing it but I never went on and on like he did because when you do it sometimes and you’re pulling out of a dive or something you black out you lose your vision and that and it’s not a very pleasant experience unless
you are used to it and he used to try and do that, I think, to show us how clever he was, the instructor, but apart from that we got on really well and I’ve got pictures of him there standing with us and I think I got quite high marks. I think I came third on the course if I remember rightly. That was overall, so that’s about - I was told that by somebody. We did quite well.
Did you ever get into trouble for anything?
Not there I think. No we had a wonderful time there really because the girls all chased us there. We could have got into trouble with the girls. Actually I remember going once with a girl that I just had a date with one night. I don’t know she worked in a milk bar or something but her parents almost went to pains to try and sort of compromise me almost. They were that keen.
It was almost like a isolated little town out the middle of nowhere and I think these blokes coming from Australia, and one thing and another. I think Malta was a bit the same. Malta when we were there was a terribly poor sort of place and most of the girls there if you wanted to get somewhere you had to marry someone and get off the island you know. A bit the same there, and I got the wind up a bit anyway
because one thing about me being naïve, you get into situations you can’t handle and you squirrel a bit you know. It’s a bit of a safety valve thing you know. So I kept out of trouble there a bit. I went out with a few girls and a kiss and cuddle and that’s all, but I always remember one of the times when I showed a sign of cowardice
was when the train pulled out when we were leaving there and I had these two girls were both a bit keen on me and I hid in the toilet until the train was moving and then opened the window and waved goodbye to them both. I thought I was going to be a bit embarrassed. It, that’s a stupid thing but that’s what happened anyway, and I thought afterward, “What a naïve coward you were.”
So that was the end of it.
Tell my why getting your wings was an important day?
That’s the culmination of everything we had been working for, for months and months and months and now you have arrived you know and I think everyone felt the same. When you get your wings pinned on
it’s like the final accolade. Like getting a medal.
And what was the ceremony like?
Oh really quite formal. Yes, yes. I think the group captain and station commander. Group Captain Houson or something or other. H – O –U – S – O –N. It was all set up very formally with benches and chairs and all the brass and local brass were there and each one went up and had them pinned on
and we were in our summer uniforms then with shorts and I tell you what they weren’t board shorts. They were shorts like all the Australians had. I think it hit the local populace we all got off in our short shorts. Because the Poms [British] always wore them down to the knee and we thought that looked terrible and now they’re, everyone now wears them down to here and that looks worse, but we were all smartly dressed with the shorts on and things and the parade was pretty good and we were all pretty proud of being
Aussies and the way we carried ourselves and we got them pinned on and each time the group captain said a few words to us and congratulated us and a few things and another. No, it was a big day. The culmination of a lot of hard work and very satisfying.
And how did you celebrate afterwards?
I can’t remember because I can’t remember. At that stage I didn’t drink
much. I didn’t drink much at all and I can’t remember over indulging at all. In fact, Canada was, drink laws were quite queer in those days. For a start, I don’t think you could buy liquor in hotels or anything. They had liquor stores that were only open certain hours and certain days of the week even. Even, I remember in Halifax before we left. They obviously, they didn’t have a pub-sort of complex
like we have here. I don’t even remember going into a pub much and just drinking. We bought a, we put together and for $30 we bought a 1936 Chev [Chevrolet] or something. A little old Chev, an ancient thing, and we painted names and things all over it and we used to go out shooting rabbits and things like that. We did that rather than we ever did drinking there, and I don’t think we were ever encouraged to do, I don’t think.
I think it was part of the business. I don’t think we were off the camp a lot at night because they had a pretty tight schedule for us and we weren’t encouraged to play up while we were learning to fly and one thing and another. It didn’t, I didn’t remember. We were allowed relaxation but drink was never. I can’t ever remember having a decent drink in Canada. It’s funny isn’t it? Not there and not, it wasn’t a part of our life anyway so.
But the Canadians would be proud of that I suppose. Got the Australians through dry.
Well you then came to
I went to Ottawa on the way through and that’s where I first heard that I got a commission. We went on the way through, we stopped at Ottawa and we went to the Australian Commissioner because Ottawa
was the capital of Canada and we went there and I think interestingly enough the John Gordon who was the head of the recruiting centre here in Adelaide at that time had the job of being in Ottawa and we went in and he said, “I don’t know if I’m supposed to tell you but you blokes got your commission.” He did give us a sort of a matey sort of indication who got their commission and things
and that’s the first time I heard that I was going to be a pilot officer. That was fairly exciting news. Fully 18 years of age, and then we went to, from there still with our airmen officer unit, still a sergeant we went onto Toronto and saw Niagara Falls. While in Ottawa, a family there, we stayed there for… We must have stayed there for several days because an Ottawa family sort of befriended us
and we went horse riding and one thing and another with a couple of the girls they had there, and so they were very, very nice to us and so after a few days there we got a relaxing time. Inksters their name was. I don’t remember what Mr Inkster did, but all their friends seemed to be, they lived in a very nice home and they befriended us. Duncan and I stayed there and then we went down
to hired a car and went to Toronto. Drove down to Toronto and went and saw Niagara Falls and had a bit of trouble learning to drive on the right-hand side of the road I remember once instead of going right like that we sort of went like that and did a figure of eight and the policeman pulled us over and he saw who we were and he shook his head and said, “Don’t do that here in Canada, lad.” But no real
issue. He just sort of put it down to the fact we were Australians and didn’t know what we were doing. I saw Niagara Falls and that was marvellous. A real experience to see. One of the real world wonders in a way and from there we moved onto Halifax. Well Halifax was where we waited to embark on the. Halifax was the scene of quite a lot of problems that cropped up with going across
from Halifax to England by boat. On one occasion the Australians all just went on strike and refused to get on the boat because it had been carrying out Italians prisoners and hadn’t been cleaned out properly. I think all the others the poor English buggers that got on. they weren’t game to go on strike and I think the Australians led them all off and I think the New Zealanders were in on it as well and they refused to go until the boat was cleaned or another boat was found. It was unheard of in a wartime, having a strike
but apparently the conditions were absolutely terrible. They had been brought over in the hull and the place had never been properly cleaned out and it was like a floating latrine I think and they just refused probably rightly so and anyway the conditions improved and we got on a little boat called the City of Broder which I think was about 28 or 30 of us. I think we were all officers. I’m not certain
but I’m pretty sure we were all officers on board it. We were the only passengers. It was only a little freighter that used to run from England to Bombay or something, an Indian run and we went across the Atlantic in this big convoy. We first of, went out. There was fog everywhere and all we did the first day was just blown horns all the time. Everyone lost everyone and then we formed up into a convoy. A big convoy and we were
the second last on the left hand side and behind us was a Dutch freighter and we, during the days and nights were fine. We went all over the place. Three weeks we were getting to England and during that time we went not over, around Iceland and right up to Iceland and back, and most of the time we slept in our clothes because submarines were around. And interesting point there - we had the destroyers that
convoyed us, looked after us were American destroyers that were given to the British under the Lend Lease or something or other. They were old American destroyers manned by British crews and they escorted us across, and thank god not a ship in our convoy was sunk, but in the one before and the one afterwards they lost quite a few. We were lucky but…
And when did you feel
like you were actually part of the war? That the war was really on?
Well at that stage I wondered whether we were ever going to see the war like. We thought we might have a watery grave. I hated the trip across there because it seemed like after learning to fly everything on the water was a convoy which was sunk by submarines which wasn’t part of the scene at all and it was a bit scary because we were led to believe that the chances are that some of the ships would get
sunk on the way because that was par for the course and we didn’t enjoy it that much. I was very thrilled when I got to England and we saw land because there were times when we thought we wouldn’t and as far as getting sick the doctor on board was a case. He was an alcoholic and every night at dinner he used to be raving drunk and
all of us were terrified of getting sick in case we had to put in his care, and the crew used to tell us a story about him that he every time they went to Bombay and that he used to get all dressed up and all his best pucker gear [clothes] and that and go aboard and they used to bring him back in a wheelbarrow, so I think the reason he was the ship’s doctor was he wasn’t fit for any other duties as a medical officer. So that used to provide us with a certain amount of amusement to us
on board because he was cut every night. But when we got to England and I was really glad to get across the Atlantic and when you train for one particular thing dieing in an environment that you aren’t trained for is not a happy scene and to be taught to fly an aeroplane and sunk in
the Atlantic was not the sort of scenario that I was looking for. So that was. I was glad we made it over on just a little tug of a ship. That was all right.
And where did you go?
We landed at Greenock in Scotland and the first thing I remember was waking in the morning and seeing Greenock like and all the chimney pots. It’s funny how stupid things stick in your mind,
but seeing the green countryside and all these rows of houses with all these chimney pots. We don’t have chimney pots in Australia. Hardly any one put pots on the top of their chimney. But there were hundreds and thousands of chimney pots and we sort of straight away thought, “Why they have chimney pots in England and not here?” I suppose the reason for it might be snow and draught and save bricks and all sorts of things but that was just the first impression. It was wonderful to be there and then we got in
trains and went down to Bornmouth in the south of England and it was there that some of my destiny I suppose was formed there because we had a lot of tests when we got to Bornmouth about where we were going to get posted to and where we were going to fly. We had no sort of say really. We just had to go where we were sent and we did all sorts of tests. We had colour blindness tests and night vision tests and all sorts of things
like that. They were the two that I remember quite distinctly.
And how did they conduct the night vision test?
They put us in a darkened room and tried different silhouettes and things. I can’t remember the exact details but we were tested as to whether we could sort of read and see things when the light was poor and whether we could see moving objects in the dark.
It was a sort of just a bit of a general test to see whether we had good night vision or poor night vision, because it’s been a bit of a joke in the family because Kay reckons she led me around in the dark ever since, but I passed and said I had extremely high, excellent night vision and next thing I’m posted to the night fighter squadron.
Well before you got posted what were your hopes and dreams?
Well I didn’t want to, I
wanted to stay on single-engine aircraft because that was what we had been trained on and I really thought that I was going to be a pilot of the Spitfighters [Supermarine Spitfire fighter] or Hurricanes [Hawke Hurricane fighter] or whatever. That’s really what I thought I was destined for and to be posted to night fighter squadron I didn’t know what was involved in that at all when I was first posted.
Well given that you had I guess felt that you were God’s gift to aviation,
how did you react when you were posted to night fighter squadron?
I didn’t, I wasn’t daunted by it. Sometimes I had my moments at times but at the time I didn’t really know what aircraft we were going to fly or anything when I was posted there so I had to wait until I got there to see what it was and we arrived and we were flying these Boulton Defiants and they were all beaten up a bit and they were
using 75 octane or something petrol in them because they were saving the 100 octane for the real men and after doing, learning to fly them solo which was no problems because we didn’t have duel or anything. We just sort of sat in them and told where everything was and away you go you learnt to fly and they were underpowered and at the same time a significant thing happened there.
When we first joined the air force one of the boys who joined the air force with me was Murry Clindorf. He was an Adelaide boy and he was subsequently went to gunnery school and I never saw him again until I arrived at this night fighter squadron and Murray was posted there as my gunner. Nothing to do with me but one of those happenings that happened and I’ve got a photograph there of Murray and I at the OTU [Operational Training Unit] and
I don’t know whether to digress a bit now onto Murray, but I didn’t see a lot more after me - anyway he was my gunner, because the Boulton Defiant was a single-engine aircraft with a turret behind the pilot and little or no forward firing guns, but the turret was a four-gun machine gun and the idea was you flew it
at night and if you could find a German aircraft the gunner was supposed to shoot it down not the pilot.
Perhaps what we will do is come back to talking about Murray because where the OTU that you went?
At a place called, an aerodrome called East Fortune in North Berrick on the Scottish border in Scotland on the eastern side of England and
it was quite a nice aerodrome but the training that we did there was a bit funny in a way. The first thing we do is, that the did with us while we were there before we had been there very long was a little Miles Magister and a miles majestor is a little single engine open aircraft, low wing aircraft. A funny little thing to fly. Like a Tiger Moth. Same engine I think as a Tiger Moth, and they took us to
a what they called a satellite aerodrome to East Fortune and we had to go down there in the evening and then at night and do circuits and bumps and I was terrified because the first time we went there it was drizzling with rain and in those aircraft you’ve got no what they called artificial horizons that they have normally in more sophisticated aircraft, you know, you’ve got to turn and bank. And we were up there in these little wee things and pottering around in the rain
like and the dark and I thought, “Well, if I don’t kill myself here, I never will,” but it was a little bit of a thrown in the deep end sort of learning process. I think all of us were glad when we got back and the Defiant they had sort of sophisticated, artificial horizon to know what position you were in but to turn and bank in the funny old thing. You had to learn to fly in those because they are a very
crude way of night, instrument flying.
Why were you using the Miles Magister?
All I know they were just, I think it was a bit of a test of our flying ability. It was almost like going back to a Tiger Moth like as far as instruments were concerned and I never, ever really. I’ve often wondered why they did it.
But whether someone had the idea that that was going to weed out the chaff and see whether someone were hopeless or whether we weren’t but if you got down safely you were considered to be all right to go on the others and if you didn’t well too bad. I don’t know but I don’t remember anyone actually killing themselves but it was a little bit of a shock to be asked to fly around at night in this thing in the drizzling rain without any proper instruments not even anything to protect from the weather like. We were sitting
out in the open so that was a bit of a shock sort of tactics when we got there but that was only one night or two nights we did that and then we went on to the Defiants.
I’d like to hear more about, if you could describe the Defiant in a bit more detail?
Well the Defiant was a single engine aircraft. Very much looks like a Hurricane with a turret. It had this turret. It was a two seater compared to a
single seater. It had no forward firing guns. It was designed I think as a night fighter. No I don’t know if that was altogether true. They first used them in the Battle of Britain. The first day that they went out they were very successful because they looked a bit like Hurricanes and the ME 109s [Messerschmitt Me-109 fighter] and the Germans, the German fighter pilots dived on them in the usual way and here was the bloke waiting with four guns
in the turret and they were very successful the first day and then the Germans woke up pretty quick and so they worked out that was the only armament they had and I think the next day they shot down all the Defiants that they had. They just came straight at them and in a position where the turret couldn’t be seen and shot them down so they were withdrawn almost immediately and then someone had the bright idea that they would use them for night fighting purposes. They could go up at night and fly around
in the dark and find the Germans and shoot them down but first of all you had to find them in the dark and they weren’t very successful even as night fighting but we just, we did all our training on them and.
And how many crew were?
Just the two of us. Just the pilot and the turret behind. The turret was hydraulically operated from the front and they were. They were all right to fly
except they were a bit underpowered and all that sort of thing. They were safe enough to fly. Well that was a bit of exaggeration because some of them had already been tested out in other roles and they were cast offs. The ones that did survive the Battle of Britain were given this other new role and they were not in really good repair actually. We had a few engine
failures and things like that. Not a lot. In the course that I was in I don’t think, maybe one bloke was killed, a Canadian boy but apart from that we didn’t have any fatalities. But in a course a couple later than that they had some many fatalities they stopped flying them and the converted, we converted the Beaufighters the same. I went from there to 153 Squadron in Northern Ireland and they had got
Defiants as well and we flew them in an operational role there but there wasn’t very much business over there as far as the enemy went.
Well how did your posting to 153 Squadron come about?
Well as soon as we finished the course there we were posted, we were all posted to different. About the same time there was an Australian 456 Squadron, the squadron I eventually commanded was formed in Valley in Wales
and they had Boultan Defiants. They were given Boultan Defiants and why I did go there I had no idea, but I was sent over. I was the only Australian officer. There were three Australian crews that went over to 153 Squadron flying Defiants and I can’t tell you why we were sent there and not anywhere else but at the time
153 Squadron was the first night fighter squadron formed in Northern Ireland. The same reason, that’s how we met, Kay went over there to the operations room that was formed after Belfast was bombed they decided they had better have some air defence of Northern Ireland and they set up an operations room first and they built this aerodrome first at Ballyhalbert and then one of the first squadrons
they sent, A fighter squadrons and then they sent a night fighter squadron over. In case Belfast was attacked again we were supposed to be part of the defence of that.
Well we might just stop there because our tape is about to run out so we’ll just swap it over.
Interviewee: Robert Cowper Archive ID 1562 Tape 04
I’m just wondering one thing we did talk about was the weather. When you got to North Ireland at Ballyhalbert how was the weather?
Well first of all I’ll talk about the weather in Scotland just quickly because we hadn’t had - I learned one of the
great lessons of my life flying up there. I was up there on my own one day and the weather was fairly bad and it was overcast and the cloud cover was fairly low and I had been flying around for quite a while and the radios and the information we used to have when we were flying there was normally zilch or near enough to zero. You’d turn the radios on they were only HF [High Frequency] radios and not VHF [Very High Frequency] like later on
and you’d hear the BBC [British Broadcasting Corporation]news or something or music instead of what you wanted even to talk to base and they were very erratic and I got sort of lost and wasn’t too sure where I was and there was no way I could find out on the radio so I thought I would fly out east and out to sea and come down out of the sea because I knew the clouds were fairly low and I flew what I thought was long enough and I decided to come down and I thought, “Well I won’t
come down quickly. I’ll just circle around and come down slowly,” and I came, I just came of the clouds and I was in a valley with the hills going up in front of me and over the river that ran down to Newcastle and I realised that I could have just killed myself right there. That was a lesson I never ever forget as long as I flew an aircraft, that I made an error of judgment
and I hadn’t flown long enough and I could have even killed myself in these hills. So that was my first lesson about weather and hills and luckily without injuring myself, and straight away I just followed the river back to where I was fine and landed at home and I never forgot it for a long while and realised just how it can, these things can happen and you have an error of judgment and when you are lost and you don’t
know where you are you have to make sure are absolutely over the sea before you come down. So that was a lesson I learned about the weather and it held me in good stead for the rest of my flying career because there was an awful lot of blokes…my, two of my dearest friends flew into the top of the mountain in morning light when in the Beaufighter and killed themselves and they were only about 20ft from the top of it too when they hit it so you have to be
those clouds sort of got stones in them and very bad news. So a lot of people got killed with weather and hills. So I was lucky I learned a really big lesson in flying there by getting away with something I should never have put myself in so when we went to Northern Ireland well the weather over there at times was atrocious. Fogs used to roll in form the Irish Sea and we’d take off and before we landed
we’d be somewhere else nearly because the fog had taken over and it rained and the aerodrome was, had mud everywhere and it was really appalling when we first went there because the aerodrome was new and they had laid the runway down between and it was all muddy. So we started there and Bill Murray went over there with me and we flew Defiants as a team on an operational basis there but we hadn’t been there I don’t know how many months but not very long before they decided
we were going to change to Beaufighters. They realised the Defiants were. For the first time the airborne radar was coming in and the Defiant wasn’t. I think they had practiced with one or two or something but it wasn’t satisfactory and they, but the Beaufighter was capable of carrying an observer with full radar equipment. It was absolutely. It was one thing flying a Defiant and the German firing in the dark
but how you ever find each other was just sheer luck. The only way it was done in the early days was with a search light catching one of the enemy fighters in their lights and then night fighters had a chance but other than that finding them was just hopeless.
We’ll talk about your ops [operations] with 153 but first of all tell me about crewing up?
Well crewing up was the most amazing sort of
thing. There’s no sense to it at all. We all got together. First of all Murray Klysdorf was posted. Murray said to me, they had the, they were given the choice of doing a radar course if they wanted to and in which case they would have been sent away. I don’t think it would have altered his crewing up. He probably would have lost me anyway but he might have got someone else after that. He said, “No, I’m not going to do a course. I’m an air gunner,”
and he was enjoying a life of drinking and chasing girls a bit and I don’t think he wanted to go to a course or anything else so he was posted away and while I may as well while I am here. He was posted to a Canadian squadron and as an air gunner in a Lancaster and he’d been. He used to go and visit my uncle in Manchester where I used to go on leave
and he went there and I told him how to see Uncle George and he went there and Uncle George wrote a letter to be saying, “I’m worried about Murray. He’s got a devil-may-care attitude and he’s sort of sure he’s going to get killed and he’s drinking too much.” Anyway, that was Uncle George, and anyway Murray went to the squadron and sure enough after I don’t know how many, one of a thousand bomber raids he went missing and just missing in action, and
just to finish the story of Murray off, it took me a long while when I came back home years and years later. I looked up and I saw that there was a Klysdorf that lived up at Heinsdorf and I rang and I said, “It’s been a long time since the war and I haven’t seen much of Murray Klysdorf, are you related?” and he said, “I’m a nephew and I’m named after him,” and he told me. I said, “Did you ever hear any more details?” and in 1951
after the storm in the Zeider Sea in Holland their aircraft was washed up on the shore and they found Murray and all his mates. Just their skeletons.
So that’s what happened to Murray. Shit. Anyway back to where we’re crewing up and so Murray so I never saw, of course I never heard any more about him until I heard that news later, so he was one of the ones that were missing and they eventually found him. Crewing up. Well after Murray left they sent a crew of radio observers to the squadron
and we all. I can remember we were all in this room in the dispersal hut and I don’t remember there was no sort of organised. Everyone was talking to one another and anyway this little Scots bloke came up to me and said, “Well have you got anyone crewed up with you?” and I said, “No not yet.” And he said, “Well, can I come with you?” And I thought, “Well he is older than me.” He is five years older than me and he was about half the size
but he seemed pretty bright and everything and well you know. And he’d been in the air force before the war started and he was a bit of an old soldier and he knew the air force and I said, “That’s okay.” So that’s how it really happened. There’s no formal sort of thing. It’s just an informal approach and I think everyone just about did the same. It was almost queer so I was this tall Australian
and I was the only Australian officer in Northern Ireland at that time as a pilot officer. We had two sergeant pilots on our squadron but I was the only officer and I found out later when Air Vice Marshall Cole became the AOC [Air Officer Commanding], he and I were the only two Australian officers in Ireland. So he was an air vice marshal and I was a pilot officer but that’s another story. But that’s how we joined up anyway Bill and
I and of course I fairly soon realised he was a very intelligent young man. I’ve got to be fair. I think, the same as he admitted eventually after the war, that he lived because my skills as a pilot and I would say our success was largely due to his intelligence as an observer and we were a good team as it happened and so we
survived probably because we were a good team really and had the success that we did because he was quick on the uptake and a quick learner. The learning of the radio observer learning to use the airborne radar equipment was a bit of an art. Some blokes got it much quicker than others and the early radar equipment we had was fairly primitive and took a lot of skill
to interpret what they were seeing and he was very quick and so we. By this time I had gone. Then we went. We flew a Blenheim a few times to learn to fly a twin-engine aircraft before the Beaufighters came and we did circuits and bumps in that and we went over to Whittering in England on the grass to do some familiarisation and Bill came with me there and we flew the Beaufighter around and got familiar with it and then back to Northern Ireland again.
We were there only a week I think so that’s how we teamed up. He was a rascal in many ways but an intelligent, likeable little bloke who had been brought up in the real hard times in Glasgow in the Depression years and been a member of the Young Communist Party and all this stuff and had ridden their bikes out and pinched sheep when times were tough and marched in the
hunger marches so he had been brought up where was a commoner, a peasant, but he was so bright that I think he was one of the youngest members that ever went to Glasgow University. He matriculated at a very young age at 15 or 16 or something like that and he just loved reading and he was full of facts and he’d been around a bit and he’d had one or two liaisons and one thing and another so he was very worldly wise as far as I was concerned about women
Well Bill went on to fly with you on many, many occasions.
He flew most of the war, the rest of the war most of the time yeah.
So he was very key to your war story.
What do you think it was about his personality and your personality that worked?
It was like a marriage. Sometimes we hated each other and had fights but Bill always used to say we sent sparks of one another because we were so
different in our backgrounds and our outlook on life and our experiences and everything. It was like chalk and cheese in a way. He used to read books in the bath and everything. He was a real professor. He never dressed properly and I used to say to him, “How long have you had that shirt on for God’s sake?” “Well what is the matter with it?” “It’s filthy!” and he’d say, “I’ll turn it inside out and put it on again.” That will
give you a bit of an idea of his personality. That didn’t worry him, but he would be pouring into books and we used to have the most terrible arguments about things. Fundamental things not politics or anything because he read he knew all about Trotsky and all the Russian Revolution and he knew all about that stuff and he was full up to the eyeballs and it was Krups that started the war and all this sort of thing and it had nothing to do with Hitler and we’d have these discussions and I’d go to
sleep at night listening to all these things about Lenin and Jesus and he never convinced me that he was on the right track. I always said to him, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re biased,” and all this sort of stuff and when he used to pull me down by saying, “The trouble with you is you’re just a bloody peasant.” That was his way of putting me down if he was losing the argument, but anyway, with all that
it gives you an insight into him, but he had me reading…I read James Joyce when it was still on the banned list and all that. He was reading books, books, books and they were lying around and he had me reading them and everything. Some of them were quite educational and some of them weren’t so but that was the kind of person he was. He was a very, very interesting man. He knew, you’d have an argument and he’d know when Disreily’s birthday was and that sort of thing.
He was a real he had a very retentive memory. He used to say, “I can remember nearly everything I read and I remember all the rubbish.” So that was, he had this, he said I used to send sparks off, that we used to send sparks off one another and it was quite true. And you reckon I can talk but he so was interesting. At one stage he was on the television in England, this is after the war like,
Ask the Professor. That was the programme and he was the brain trust. People used to send messages in or ring up and ask and he’d answer anything. So that was our Bill. He came out to Australia two or three times after the war so we had a wonderful association really. He drank a bit much at times but we were very fond of each
other underneath it all.
And 153 Squadron at Ballyhalbert was also important because you met Kay there.
Yes. 153 Squadron was important in many ways there. That was the most important but it was a League of Nations. We had for the first time in my life I mixed with so many different blokes and that and it was all a wonderful education.
We had New Zealanders, Canadians, Americans, Englishmen, Australians all on the one squadron and we all shared. When the weather was crook at night we’d sit up and Bob Butts who was a mortician’s assistant from Seattle or something he used to tell us what happened when people came into him and he’d get us all our hair standing on end and
Smithy was a Cockney who used to be full of bloody rhymes and things and a wonderful sense of humour and McKinnon a New Zealander who was a friend of mine and his observer was Mulligan who was a New Zealander and an Irishmen and we had just this wonderful mixture and blokes from Scotland, a flight sergeant there who came from Fife. His family were fishermen and that
and we used to talk about our different cultures and that sort of thing and I remember the bloke from Fife was saying when his father used to get back from fishing up the North Sea at the end of the week how all the men used to just march off the boat and straight up to the pub and he used to put the fish out and put them in the boxes and everything and then by the time he got all that done they rushed home and got the meal ready for the father when he came home and he said, “When my father came home he used to sit
in the chair and my mother used to take his boots off and that.” I mean this was all sort of weird to us and but Bill who was an anthropologist explained to me afterwards. If you were a woman in that situation you didn’t have a man, you were gone. You had no man to support, no nothing, and the man was the most precious sort of thing you could have to sort of get through life and he wished his life and of course they meant a lot of the men as well. Very dangerous work
and when they came ashore they were God there for a while so it was just any women who had a man who was a good fishermen were sort of made and it was all new. I learnt all these sort of things when I was young talking to these blokes.
And how many pilots were there in 153 roughly?
I would think about 20. About 20 pilots. Maybe 24 even. Ten or 12 in each
flight I think. We had Americans there who had joined the war. When we first went there America wasn’t in the war. American came in the war like December like 1941 and we were there sometime before that and they had joined the Canadian air force. The Americans who were keen to get into the war or had flying experience and they joined the Canadian air force and one thing and another and they were interesting characters. Wayne Coil was an
Indian from Butte Montana or something like that so it was very educational and then all this happened. One day we decided to go and have a look at the operations room that was there and McKinnon, Adam McKinnon. He was a lovely man. He was killed later on, but him and I were there and we were, we went in the operations room and we were up with the controller and we looked down and there was all these girls were around this table moving all the things
where all the aircraft with and he said, “There’s a sheila down there that’s got Australia on her shoulder. Go down and say hello to her.” And I said, “Come on. Cut it out, I can’t do that.” “Go on. Go on.” I went down there and said, “Hello Australia.” And I felt like a twit a bit and anyway she said, “Hello,” and one thing and another and that was the first time I met her. We didn’t actually go together for
quite a while. We met each other occasionally at a party or somewhere or in the sergeants’ mess when they opened the mess there and so gradually we sort of got fond of one another and that’s how it all started and eventually I think before. Before I went out to Malta eventually at the end of 1941, this was ‘42. We knew each other for quite a long while before we got engaged and
in 1942 we got engaged in about July 1942 and in December I decided we were going out to Malta. We got asked to volunteer and I volunteered with Bill so we went out to Malta so we were engaged when I went out there so we were away for nine months more or less down in Malta.
We’ll come back and talk about Malta but you spent pretty much the whole of 1942 in 153 Squadron.
Yes, in Northern Ireland.
What were the operations?
The operations were awful really because we never saw the enemy hardly and that was sort of you know. It sounds silly but I suppose you think if you can hide from the enemy long enough you live longer. It didn’t work that way. It doesn’t work that way and your young minds. I mean you joined up to fight. You are taught how to fly and how to beat them and then they aren’t there and it’s all very
disappointing so we thought it was boring most of the time over there. We thought it was boring because occasionally we’d a German plane from the reconnaissance unit used to come and fly over Belfast and at some height that we couldn’t even get to anyway and they would come and - called the ‘milk run’ or something. They would come once a week or once every few days and that was it.
That’s the only way we knew the war was on and we flew practice, practice, practice at night all the time but no real, real enemy action and so when they, we were in a state of mind when they called for a volunteer crew to go to Malta we, Bill and I said, “We’ve had enough of this.” Even though my girl was there,
we still thought we had better something useful in the war instead of hanging around Northern Ireland, you see.
Well how did you kill time?
We did a lot of practice flying. The weather was crook a lot of the time and there were nights waiting. We were supposed to be on standby. We still acted like the enemy was around but they weren’t like. We still had to have one of the flights on duty. We would have an
order in which we would fly if there was a call for scrambles or anything. I don’t actually remember having a fair dinkum scrambles there. We might have had a few practices and we’d talk at night and one thing or another. We would do quite a bit of flying at night. We practiced quite hard. I think we all got to be fairly proficient at our flying. I think two,
two of the Australian crews killed themselves. One in the Defiant and one in a Beaufighter. The Defiant was killed. I saw him go in just near us and the other one went in, a spin in the Beaufighter. I don’t know why. One or two crews just vanished in the night. Never heard of, never came home sort of thing. But more in Defiants. It still happened in Beaufighters a couple of
times and then their friends Peter Sadam and flew into the moor at night. That was a bit of a disaster. We were all very fond of them so we had our moments. We, I remember going, we went to a few funerals there for blokes in the squadron and I think it probably gives you a bit of an insight into our state of mind about that because I can remember going to one of the funerals for one of the boys
and they lowered the coffin in the grave and the priest picked up a handful of dust and held it over and said, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” And there must have been a stone in the middle of it and bom, bom, bom, bom, bom, bom along the coffin. Well we all had a giggle about that. It gives you an idea of how you shut yourself off from what was really going on altogether. I can do it better then
than I can do it now. It’s true. Old age, I get a bit emotional about some of things because we just had to do that to survive because some of the blokes in the squadron who didn’t drink - I’m getting a bit ahead of myself now - but those that didn’t drink were a bit more of a worry to me than those that did. They went to bed at night and had nightmares about everything that went on the day before and if you had
a few beers and get it out of their system a bit, so you had to learn to let it all sail along without being touched by it. That was just a silly example, but you managed to shut yourself off from it. I don’t ever remember - we did funerals doing slow marches. Every member of a funeral I went to really got at me, you know, because you’re dead really. It’s strange,
but you can shut things off. It was a survival technique I think but I’ve diverted a bit. Gone off the track.
That’s okay. Before we go on to talk about Malta. The conversion to Beaufighters. Just tell me a bit about the Beaufighter.
The Beaufighter. I’m indebted to the Beaufighter. I would be dead now if it wasn’t for the Beaufighter because the Beaufighter saved my life. I would never have got out of a
Mosquito drum. The Beaufighter was a good tough aircraft. It was really nice. You sat up the front, the pilot sat up the front in a little office of your own and you had good visibility, and they were tough and the engines were much more reliable in many ways than the Rolls Royce engine. The Rolls Royce engine had a radiator and a coolant and they were cooled like a car like, and
if your radiator sprung a leak or you lost your coolant level, the engine seized up. I had two or three single-engine landings in the Mosquito, but I never had one with the Beaufighter. Even when the got damaged a bit the motor would still get going. The air-cooled motor, because they weren’t reliant on anything else, but the mechanics and the observer had a little world of his own with his radar set and they were wonderfully armed.
When we first started, we had four cannons and six machine guns I think, but they were great to fly. There were several models of them. The first one we flew were Beau 1 [Beaufighter] and they were really good and then we went to later marks but the Beau 2 which came out with Merlin motors on and the 456 Squadron that I was telling you about that we flying Defiants they were given Beau 2
with the Merlin motors and they were a fairly ghastly aircraft in many ways. I learnt to the fly them without any trouble, but they used to get, when you went to take off the torque, they’d swing badly on landing and take off and blokes killed and they spun them around and wrote the carriages off and everything. They had a terrible lot of trouble learning to fly them and you had to sort of open one engine halfway up
and keep it open all the time to stop it from swinging but once you learnt to do it, it was easy but a big trap and once they started to swing if you didn’t nip it in the bud it didn’t matter what you did afterwards they’d keep going. But the Beau 6. They were only Beaus that I didn’t like. Ironically, when I went on rest I flew them all the time. I had to teach people how to fly them but the Beaufighter itself and the Beau 6 we had when we went out to Malta they were a beautiful aircraft to fly.
I loved them. So our conversion onto Beaufighters was good and I thought they were a great aircraft to fly. Reliable.
And what was the communication inside the plane?
We had, well first of all we had the radar. VHF [Very High Frequency] radar which we could talk to the outside world to control which was way better than what we had on the Defiants and
the second thing we had intercom on there. We both had intercom with the headphones and the oxygen mask and we could talk to each other as clearly as anything really while it was working. Very seldom - the intercom hardly broke down ever. Occasionally you had radio problems but they had about six channels or something. Six channels, and you used to be one channel, which was the universal channel, which was supposed to be only used in
the case of distress and that which the Yanks talked in all the time and you couldn’t get a word in edge-way but the others were various stations that you called up and your own station was the one you used most to your own operation room. When you were in the air we were in touch with someone on the ground all the time and they, the ground control stations the GCI [Ground Control Interception] stations they used to be able to plot our position all the time. That was,
the communications were okay really.
And how did you get into the Beaufighter?
I’ve got my model there. You, behind the pilots seat there is a door that drops down and it’s got three rungs on the bottom or a couple of rungs on the bottom and you step up and climb up into it and it get slams shut from underneath and while you are in there by pulling a lever you can release it
and hope it - that’s how I got out of it in the end but that’s, you climbed up inside and there was a hatch also at the back where the gunner, the observer rather could get into the back without having to walk through the plane. I think a lot of them used to get in the front and walk back to their position as well although there was an exit there and I’m not sure how often they used that
or they used that all the time but the pilot got in up the front. Climbed up the steps and straight into the seat. It was quite good to get into and out of but when you are on the ground nothing else happening but I’ve got other stories about that.
And what about the markings on the outside of the plane. Were there any?
Well when we were first there, they,
well, the first ones we had were painted black actually and they changed that later on. They found that by painting the underside of them different colour. We went to sort of camouflage. They found that the sky at the night and the clouds that they were somehow less obvious if they were camouflage in greys and lighter colours if they were all black. So we went from all black ones to ones
that were normally camouflaged. I think on D Day they, no they were going to paint ours white strips but they didn’t in the end so most of the ones I flew there were just camouflaged in greys and light blue colours all mixed up just to take the silhouette away from them, from being seen. They had the rounder on them, the red, white and blue rounder on them
with RAF [Royal Air Force] around them which was the same as what we had here but subjectively in 456 of course we changed that and we put the Kangaroo in the middle but that was another story.
And how comfortable was the Beaufighter?
It was great. Yeah, when you got sat in there was plenty of legroom and plenty of elbowroom. The Mosquito was much more cramped. You sat side by side and there was so much equipment in it and they were much more cramped. You nearly almost elbowing
each other you were that close to one another and the way out of it was a doorway which was over there and I used to say to Bill, “If you don’t get out in a bloody hurry you’ll watch me go first.” I was always glad that he was small because I thought I could push him out if I had to. It was much harder to bail out. Thankfully I never had to but it was much, quite difficult but with the Beaufighter once you pulled the lever you had behind your seat
a great big hole in the floor and you could tip your seat back in theory. But I’ll tell you about that later. It wasn’t as easy as it sounds. But yeah they were very comfortable and nice and had very good vision and good to fly.
When you first starting flying the Beaufighters what were their reputation? Were they deemed to be safe?
They were considered to be a good aircraft. Yes. They had a very good reputation and the engine had a good reputation. They were each time, like they do, like the Spitfires, the Spitfires in particularly went from Spit 1 to Spit 15 or something and then improved the props on them and the engine power and little sophisticated things. They got better and better as we went along but the biggest improvement in them was their radar equipment
they carried. The basics of the aircraft didn’t change. The equipment we had was far superior in the end to what we had in the beginning. In fact even superior to the Germans and that was one of the reasons why we were successful in the end.
Well you mentioned earlier that you volunteered for Malta. Can you tell us how that came about?
Well the CO happened to mention to all of us, or something that they wanted,
he got a cable from air headquarters saying they wanted a crew to go from our squadron to go to Malta and I said to Bill, “We’d better volunteer.” I don’t know if we were the only ones that volunteered. I’ll never know, I suppose so, we told the CO we wanted to go, so it turned out he said, “Okay you can go. We’ll let you go.” I don’t know if there was a shortage
of volunteers or if we had any reason of being chosen, I don’t know, but when we volunteered we were accepted anyway and we were the only ones that went from there. It turned out to be a nightmare, but never mind, it’s all relative.
Actually, before we move on just one thing about that time at 153 Squadron the Japanese entered the war in late 1941, December 1941.
What news of…?
Well, well, well it was interesting. While we were there that news came through 2 December 1941 or whatever it was and slowly we, the affects of it came through. First of all a few aircraft used to come through and started flying across from American to Prestwood in Scotland and a few of
them got off course and landed on our aerodrome so that was the first few we had of the Americans in the war when they landed accidentally on Ballyhalbert and we were, quite of astonished actually because they had all came with like five rows of ribbons before they even started and they had daggers in their legs and revolvers in their belts and they looked like they were
going to, “Look out, here we come.” But that was all they were sort of nice enough blokes but they sort of had the Liberators and the Fortresses were impregnable you know. I think with the result of all the sales talk like with motorcars about things that they thought they were going to have a good time shooting the Germans down.
But in fact of course they had a lot to learn and then subsequently we were given. I was, while I was up there I was over there I went up to England to where we had a satellite aerodrome to go up at night. This was after the, one of the reasons we went up there was the USA [United States of America] convoys started coming across and we while I was up there
the CO who I got friendly with said he wanted to fly a Defiant. This was early on. This is going back with the start. He wanted to fly a Defiant and I said, “Well you can fly my Defiant and I’ll fly your Hurricane.” “All right,” he said so we swapped and I flew a Hurricane and then why I came down in the Hurricane I said, “I brought that back in one piece, I want to fly a Spit [Spitfire] now.” “All right,” he says so I went and had a fly in a Spit, which was just marvellous. It was like getting on a thoroughbred
after a draught horse, but anyway, I brought that safely down and really enjoyed it and eventually when the American convoy started coming over up to Northern Ireland someone decided that they ought to have some day cover when they were coming in and they sort of said. The Polish squadron had Spitfires had left and left all their aircraft behind and we had all these Spitfires
lying around and so someone said, “We want to get some day cover. Some fighter cover of the convoy has anyone here flown a Spitfire.” So - because I’d had one trip, so that was all right. I volunteered and some others volunteered and there was three or four of us I think and we did 12 hours. I did 12 hours flying these Spitfires over these convoys on day patrols keeping out of range but just keeping that the Germans hadn’t heard about it and were
so I did 12 hours flying over the Atlantic. I should have put into the Atlantic as well shouldn’t I protecting the convoy. So that’s how I got to fly Spitfires and the Hurricane so when they started coming over they sent us up there in the Beaufighters in the end because we all knew when these convoys were coming and
we flew at night there and went on patrols and one thing or another and the Americans, when we took off in the Beaufighters at night the Americans had arrived there they used to come out and watch us taking off and they because sometimes it would be as black as ink and they, all the flying they had done at night over there was done on moonlight nights to see and that kind of thing and they couldn’t understand how you could do it when
it was pitch black. It was quite an admiring audience when took off there but they were coming and they got over there before their aircraft arrived and they had all been flying Airacobras and sort of things and some of them had seen the Spits and they didn’t want to. They didn’t care whether their aircraft never arrived they all wanted to get on the Spits and that.
Well our tape is just about the run out so I might just.
Interviewee: Robert Cowper Archive ID 1562 Tape 05
Okay Bob let’s pick up the story from flying out to Gibraltar.
Well to start with we had a lot of hiccups before we left because we went down to a place called Lynham to pick up our aircraft. An aerodrome in the south of England and our aircraft kept getting unserviceable and things and we, no, we were told to wait there until we were called
and we are called to Bristol to the Bristol factory to pick up our aircraft and we went over there and picked up our Beaufighter up and when we got back. Then we had to fly from there down to Portwreath in Cornwall where we were going to take off to go to Malta and Portwreath while we were waiting for us. Every time the weather came good there was something wrong with our Beaufighters. They kept saying they were unserviceable either the motor
or the rudder or something so we were there for two or three weeks I think before we actually got away. We couldn’t draw any pay because we thought we were leaving and we couldn’t get any washing done because we thought we would leave it behind. We were always going the next day and then never did go and it went on for a while so we left to go to Malta with all dirty underclothes and god knows what. We did go in the end but we flew down.
We took off all right. There was just the story or whether I am digressing. There were Americans going down there as well but they were going down in Air Cobra, the Yank called the Cobra and a whole squadron of them took off from Portwreath and the night before we had been talking to one of the young pilots and we said to him, “What, have you got maps, have you done a briefing?”
He said, “We won’t worry. We’ve got a plane to lose them we’ll just fly south and find Gibraltar.” We went away and thought, “Oh Christ,” so anyway they all took off and 1.00 that afternoon they all landed at Lisbon including the bloke that was supposed to lead them to Gibraltar. The Portuguese got a full squadron of Cobras. They put all the pilots and everything on a plane and flew them back the next day
and they never even found Gibraltar. Anyway that was a quick diversion. We flew down to Gibraltar and Gibraltar is the most interesting place to sort of land at because it’s a little bit of a lump of aerodrome there with the sea both sides of it and if you go too short you land in the sea and if you go too long you land in the sea. There’s not much room for error but we landed there and we had to wait there a day I think or two before we took off.
At least one night I think. Maybe two, and then we were briefed.
Can I just ask before we go into the briefing - how was the flight over with you involved?
Well it was fine. We had no real incidents as far as danger was concerned. We were given some food before we went and on the way they…
Normally we didn’t have much bother worrying about toilet problems when we were flying because we weren’t up long enough to get into trouble most times but on the way down there I was busting for a wee and they had like a little water bottle with a spout on it hanging up behind and I had never, ever used it in my life before and while we were having our luncheon then I got taken through it and I lifted this thing down and when I was putting it back the rubber part fell off
the top and the Beaufighter is a terribly draughty aircraft. There are cracks everywhere and the whole aircraft was full of a fine spray of my urine when we were in the middle of having our chocolate and some biscuits and some sandwiches, which were all ruined, and Bill Watson’s Scottish brogue from the back of the aircraft wouldn’t pass the censor. That was just one unusual thing that happened on the way down there, but otherwise we flew over Spain
at about 10,000 feet and it was apparently would be the knowledge and the compliance of the Spanish government and we had no problems from aircraft or anyone shooting at us or anything else and we arrived at Gibraltar uneventful but that was one stupid thing that happened on the trip that was noteworthy.
How long was that flight?
Good question. I don’t know. About three hours or something like that.
About three hours. That’s a guess. Three and a half hours, something like that from the south of England. It wouldn’t have been much longer I don’t think.
And how did you prepare for your trip to Gibraltar?
We did all our normal navigational things. We got held up several times. The weather wasn’t suitable and they wouldn’t let us go. While this was all going on, I was
ringing Kay every night. She thought she was never going to get rid of us because I was ringing her back in Northern Ireland and she’d say, “Haven’t you gone yet?” “No, we think we might be going tomorrow,” and then tomorrow would come. This went on for quite a while. We thought it was terrible because we thought every night we would be leaving and we didn’t. But anyway, the preparation was mainly getting the aircraft air worthy and the weather being right and we had no
worries about flying to Gibraltar. We had navigation equipment and Bill was very skilful at that anyway and I had a good pair of eyes on me. We weren’t going to get lost or anything and land at Lisbon, I can tell you that. So the trip down there was uneventful. We stayed overnight, and the next day the squadron leader came and briefed us on the trip to Malta. This is where all the trouble started, I think, to start with because we had an aircraft
that had, that was the latest radar equipment. We didn’t have all the radar equipment on board because I think for safety precautions they sent some of it in other aircraft and we didn’t, we have the basics of it but not, like a workable one but it showed a lot of interesting things on it that would have been interesting to the enemy at the time. There was a new Mark 10 radar they called it an American design and
so we were sent on because we were scared that we might land in enemy territory, ironically they sent us on this long route where we went over uninhabited parts of the Sahara and everything. Way down, way down the bottom of the Sahara and from there we were supposed to do this dogleg up over the sea towards Malta. In that way we weren’t going to cross
any sort of parts of enemy territory where they thought we would be discovered if anything happened to our aircraft. Well it turned out that the two things, the vital things. We were given a drift sight. A drift sight is you look through the bottom of the aircraft through the drift sift and you look at the ground.
You pick an object on the ground and you can see whether you drift away from it or one thing or another and gives you an idea of how much the wind is drifting you off course and whether you had allowed enough for it or not. We no sooner got overland and they told us it was going to be 5/10. Half cloud and half not cloud on the way there and with the drift sight we were going to be able to check the wind, which we were told was going to be so many knots.
Well as soon as we got over the Sahara there was 10/10 cloud and we couldn’t see the ground at all so we couldn’t use our drift sight, so that navigational tool was sort of gone to us before we got half way and it was getting dark by then and so we headed on. We had to do by dead reckoning. By reckoning we worked out our course on the conditions we were given and the wind velocity and everything and our speed and everything so we did what was called dead reckoning,
and we had to sort of assume that the wind information we got was correct so we set a course accordingly and when we thought we should turn when we thought we were on spot ‘A’, we turned and headed towards Malta. We did all that and when we were getting where we thought we should have been near Malta we started to call up on our radio and our radio didn’t work. So we were left then at that stage over the
Mediterranean Sea in the dark. Didn’t know where we were. Didn’t know where Malta was. Didn’t know where anything was. Didn’t know whether the wind we had been given was sort of correct and whether we were near Malta or whether we had been blown off course and all we knew was that somewhere along the line we were going to die brave or crash somewhere. All we wanted to do was, we sooner crash on land than just because we couldn’t find. We didn’t know where we were.
Can I just ask what was going through your mind at this time?
Seeing if I could work out how to stop dieing that was. It’s a ghastly feeling. It’s not like being shot at or anything. There is a certain stage of fear. When you are in a situation where something deadly is happening and it’s happening and you are coping with it,
it’s a different feeling altogether than that awful gnawing away hour after hour not knowing what’s at the end of it, and it’s much worse than having a quick fright. It gnaws at you. I had to make the biggest decision of my life. We didn’t know where we were so first of all I wanted to get down under the clouds so that we could see where we, at least see something. See the sea or something and
work out how to get so I decided. I knew that wherever, we were in the Mediterranean Sea. I knew that we were over the Mediterranean Sea, we went down below the clouds and it as drizzling with rain a bit and we were only about 900 feet before we could clearly see the sea and then I thought, “Well wherever we are if I fly north and just head on that course I’m going to either, if we’ve overshot Malta, we are going to hit Italy, if we have hit a long way over or we are going to hit Sicily,
and unless I am unlucky enough to go through the Pantelleria Straits I’m going to hit the coast of Tunisia so I flew northwest hoping that one of those was going to come up and when it did I was going to turn and fly south, and if it had been Italy I would arrive at Sicily and if it was Sicily I would have been able to find Malta probably and if it was neither of those it was going to be Tunisia, so that’s all the information I had, all I knew was if I flew northwest
the chance that I was going to be able to find any land. I wouldn’t have cared if it was Germany or what it was. I wouldn’t have cared if were prisoners of war, like before we ran out of petrol and had to land. If we had gone down in the sea no one would ever have known where we were or never found us and it would have been the end of everything, so it was a gnawing ghastly feeling really but I was so busy flying. Bill was worse than I was,
because I think he had to just rely on my judgment because he had no aids to help and everything so we flew northwest for an awful long time and eventually we hit land and we didn’t know what it was so I thought if I turned south I was going to find out shortly. I would run out of land at Sicily and I thought it more likely to be Sicily or Algeria or Tunisia than Italy. We really didn’t think we would have gone. As it happened the wind was a lot stronger than what they
gave us and we really finished up somewhere south of Malta in the Mediterranean Sea so when we struck land I turned left and I was frightened to leave the coast. We were getting a bit low on petrol. I had put it on the most economical way I could possibly fly it. I think we flew the Beaufighter for nearly eight and three-quarter hours in the end, eight and a half or something so we kept flying south until at last we came
to this big bay and when I followed it around I could see that it was a big one and when I thought about the map and everything which I looked at and there was only one bay like that and it was in Tunisia the Bay of Sfax and I thought that’s where we must be. We hit Tunisia, so for the first time then for about two hours we knew where we were. That in itself was some sort of relief.
Well when we left the Bay of Sfax is pretty well down south in Tunisia and when we left Gibraltar they had just captured Tripoli. The 8th Army had just captured Tripoli. So we knew that Tripoli was the nearest. They had only just captured it a day or two before so we knew that the nearest Allied land would be Tripoli but to do that to the Bay of Sfax meant that I would have to fly over the sea to get there because and there was some doubt whether I even would because my petrol was getting so low
then so I thought, “Well, I’ll just fly as far as I safely can and even if we had to land we would just have to work it out from there.” So I knew after we had been flying for a while that one engine was cutting a bit and one thing and another and the fuel was getting low so I said to Bill, “We will never make Tripoli, I’ll just have to find somewhere to land.” So first of all we saw a light, which looked like a light on an aerodrome,
so we flew over it. Funny when you think about it, and someone on the ground fired a red berry light at us saying, “don’t land,” or something or other, and anyway it was obviously a German aerodrome and they didn’t want to see us and we didn’t want to see them, anyway, but we weren’t too sure about how far the army might have got so then I said the engine started spluttering and one thing and another and I said to Bill, “We are going to have to land,” so I put the landing light on
in the aircraft and I did a run over the…I didn’t want to land right on the edge of the coast if I could because I knew that was where most of the traffic was, the roads were and I could see the lights of vehicles so I went inland and I thought, “Well if we do land we will try and land in the Sahara away from the fighting area if we can and work out way south.” So I had to fly down while I still had to find out what the sand hills were doing because if we had landed across the sand hills we would have just gone
straight into one and killed ourselves so I put the landing lights on and went down and did a big and I found out which way the dunes were running and I did a loop around and came back again still with the landing lights and decided I would do a belly landing into one of the dunes and by that time the engines were coughing like and I knew that one run would be all I would be able to do and I did this magnificent landing. This was at night of course in the dark and I did a magnificent landing with the wheels up and
we never got a scratch on us. That was here we were after all the trauma and we were alive and then we got out of the aircraft. First of all we wanted to find out exactly where we were because we had flown south a bit and I waited by the aircraft because we knew if we were in enemy territory, we had this aircraft that we weren’t supposed to be in and we were going to have burn the aircraft
and we wanted to just make sure where we were, so I gave Bill my revolver. He had handed his in like a fool. I don’t know if he lost in Gibraltar or something so I gave him my revolver and he said, “I’ll go and do a recon [reconnoitre].” We could see all the traffic going up. It was the Italians and Germans retreating really up the road and he went in there and took my revolver and disappeared for ages and I’m standing there by the aircraft. There was a fairly strong
wind blowing and that was the whole trouble, why were in trouble really, because the wind they gave us was about half the speed. That’s what blew us so far off track, and he went off to do reco [reconnoitre]and after a long time he came back and said that he’d met a German and said to him, “Sprechen sie Deutsche?” or, “Speaka the Italiano?” or something and Bill reckons he shot at him and he didn’t, I don’t know if he knew if he killed him but he shot at him and in the meantime he’d seen a sign up on the side of the
road which said ‘Zuara’. I think it is spelt a bit differently in the Arabic so we knew, we got a map and knew exactly where we were in the first time in a long while and we found out we were about roughly 65 miles or thereabouts from Tripoli, which we only knew, which we knew we were heading for so we decided that first of all when Bill came back,
he didn’t know when he went away whether or not anyone had found the aircraft because we made a bit of a fuss with lights on and everything, we think the Germans might have sent out a search party or something so instead of coming straight up to me he sneaked around like and had a look to see if I was there and he bopped out of the black and nearly scared the wits out of me. I was waiting there and with my eyes sticking out in the dark like this trying to see and he said, “We are in enemy territory and was are in Zuara and I’ve just shot a German
or shot at him, I’m not sure which, so we’ll have to burn the aircraft.” I knew we would have to burn the aircraft so then this big Beaufighter lying there and a box of matches and the wind blowing a bloody gale and everything and so I thought what will I do first. I went and took the petrol tank off and I got a match and threw it in and it went bang so that was the end of the petrol in that tank so I did the same with the other one off which was probably
a foolish thing to do because I think fumes of petrol burn better than what petrol itself does so I put the match in and they both went poof and that’s how much petrol we had left and there none left so I got the bright idea of getting our firing pistol which fired the colour of the day and I fired one on those into one of each of the petrol tanks and that started the fire and I by this time I had my great coat on
and we had the hand compass we had with us and I had the pockets in my great coats full of everything we could think of. Tins of cigarettes we had bought duty free, black and white cigarettes we had bought in Gibraltar. Water bag and revolver and I was loaded up like a draught horse and of we set into the
and I had my case with all my worldly possessions and my log book and photographs and letters from home and things that had been given to me and I started, we started to walk out and when I walked about 50 yards I said to Bill, “I’ll never make it carrying the case as well,” so I went back and threw it in the fire because it had information that would have been interesting to the Germans or something. I thought it might have been so we decided to walk out
out into the desert a far way until we started to head, getting away from any signs of habitation. We passed an odd farmhouse where a dog barked or something with palm trees around and we just had headed and by that time it was just starting to get light. The first thing we came across which gave us a bit of a doubt about what to do was it looked like a trailer that was set up like a signal van like. It was parked out in the middle of,
nothing attached or anything and we didn’t know. It had no distinguishing marks to say that it belonged to Germans or it was Allied or who it was or anything, and at one stage we thought we could get the MC [Military Cross] by locking him up and when the Germans ran out we’d shoot them. And then we thought better of it. We thought, “Well everything’s quiet, we’ll just leave them alone and head out into the desert away from it all.”
Can I just ask, before we go much farther,
you landed in the dark. How did you find your way? How did you navigate your way in the darkness?
Well we had a compass but apart from having an idea. We knew the direction we were landed in and I had an idea. We could see the lights still on the road and we knew where the coast was so even without the compass we knew which way to head roughly inland to avoid the coast then.
A lot of the desert warfare was carried out a mile or so from the coast almost where the roads were. There weren’t too many roads out in the middle of Sahara and so we thought if we get out there we can make our way. We had our water bottle and with our water we thought we were just going to do a trek through the Sahara. We didn’t know how long it would take us but we thought we could do two or three days. We had some rations and a bit of hard rations and an
escape kit which I’ve still got and but so that was. We had a compass, which had a little light on, a torch. A hand compass that was part of the equipment of the aircraft and which we’d taken with us and we could stick it up and see what direction we were heading and at that time when we really needed it we were starting to come light then. Dawn was breaking so we didn’t really need a light and we started walking and we walked. I get the sequence
of it and the hours mixed up a bit, but we walked all of that day. See, sat up at midday when it was a bit warm under some bushes and walked on in the afternoon. I think it was late on that first afternoon that we wondered what was going on. There was this Arab on a horse and a fellow on foot and it was quite a distance away and we didn’t take any notice of them. We thought, “They won’t worry us.” They didn’t seem to be very belligerent or anything,
and then they got a bit closer and closer and next thing we saw the bloke get down on his hands and knees and pointed a bloody gun at us you see and we thought, “Christ what’s going on?” So as soon as he got down, knelt down and pointed the gun at us we zigzagged like. We were zigzagging in the sand with all the gear I had on, I tell you it wasn’t easy, and we did this and then he’d pack it in and wait a bit longer and then he’d
get a little closer and we did a number of this zigzagging before anything else happened and then eventually we realised that they were sort of, they were definitely out to get us or something, and the only thing that we had a little bit of an idea the fact that he wanted to get so close we thought, “He mightn’t have had a very powerful late-model gun and why don’t we keep zigzagging,” and he didn’t want to fire while we were zigzagging apparently and we
sort of did this tactic for a while. I was getting a bit puffed but the chap on the horse, but he had his sword out and every time we caught sight of him he had his sword out waving it about and we thought, “Jesus, what’s going out? This fellow’s waving his sword. We’re in trouble.” And he wasn’t a very nice feeling being out there. We just got out of dying from one thing and we’re going to die another way now so we kept going
as fast as we could and I was getting I was just breathing. We decided it looked like we were going to have a Custer’s last stand if they were going to shoot us and I had my revolver and we had it ready and the German, the Arab bloke with the gun kept creeping closer and closer and eventually he, we went to ground.
We went behind a bush with a little bit of a heap of sand around it and we thought, “We’ll wait here a while.” I had to get my breath anyway and he came up and got behind another bush and we weren’t that far away. Maybe a house or a bit more, and he was an evil-looking bloke too. A real Arab with a great hooked nose and beard and everything and his head would come up over the top of the sand and boom I’d have a shot at him and sand would all fly up
in the front of his face and I’d think I got him and next thing up would come the head again. I think I fired three or four times and this didn’t look like this was going to get anywhere and in the meantime the other bloke on the horse was still galloping around and I said, “I think we’ll have to get in a better position.” Because we didn’t have a proper cover so I said, “I think we’ll have to make a last stand and if necessary we’ll head to the German lines. If these blokes are going to get a hold of us anything can happen.
We’d be better taken prisoner like.” We’d heard all sorts of terrible stories about what the Arabs did, with their women, and read all about it in books about it all and how they mutilate you and all that. That’s why they call it the ‘gooly ship’ and things and Bill, of course Bill knew everything and he said, “Oh Christ if they get a hold of you, the women tear you to pieces,” and it made me run a bit faster. So we decided we would head to the German lines.
By this time I was still a bit tired. I’d had this little bit of a rest while we were having this shooting contest and we decided we were going to do a do or die. We were going to make a run for it and see if we could get to the coast at all and eventually I had gone about 2 or 300 yards and I said to Bill, “I’ve had it.” I’d completely had it. We decided we were just going to have it out there and have it out to the death.
I had been trying to unload some of this stuff, all these Black and White cigarettes in one of my pockets. Tins of them. Tins of 50 Black and White cigarettes and started heaving, I thought, “If I start heaving them out one at a time they might think that worthwhile,” you know, like throwing out your money. They might stop and pick them up but so I started doing that and sure enough he picked them up. The chap on the horse picked them up and
to our surprise, just at the time when we decided it was death or die, like the bloke on the horse galloped up in front of us like and he put his sword away and he was, “Silly Englishie,” and all this singing out and I thought, “What’s going on?” We didn’t know if he was trying to trick us or what and he was smiling and he rode up closer and I still had my revolver ready and he got up closer and by the time he got up really
close to us he looked like he was genuinely, genuinely trying to, we thought he was genuinely trying to make friends with us and so we turned around and he saluted. Mohammed had decided to pack it in too, although he fired one shot at Bill, and Bill said, “I’m shot,” and that was when we were lying down and it turned out to be only a pellet and we found out then that it was only a shot gun
and we were a bit braver. If this go only had pellets, he’d have a job to try and kill us if he gets close so anyway that’s why we thought we’d try and make a run for it. The gun wasn’t quite so fearsome as we thought it might be so he got picked up and he came around and he was with this other bloke and the war appeared to be over. He came over and said, “Englishie salusi, Englishie salusi.” And so the cigarettes,
I think, might have saved our life. It doesn’t save a lot of peoples lives now but the cigarettes were the turning point. They thought we were Germans. They told us after they thought we were Dadeski or something they call them. I don’t know what the Italians word was for it but they kept using this word Dadeski. I think it’s a word that the Germans get known as. I don’t know. But any way the war was all over and they, I put my gun away in my
holster like but I was a bit wary still but the interesting thing about it. God, if I’d shot him we would have been dead and I tried hard to because after it was all over heads popped up everywhere. We thought we were fighting the two of them but there were about half a dozen of them all around ready to pounce on us I think if we had done anything. So you can’t see them. They are very skilled at hiding themselves in the sand, so anyway
we had this big party where we were all mates all of a sudden. I was so done in that he got off his horse and they lifted me up on the horse so I rode this white Arab steed back to their tent and they all took pity on me because I was in bad shape. So there I was next minute thinking I was going to die one minute and there I am riding a horse
back to the tent. Then there’s a bit of a story about. Have we finished now?
I was going to ask what happened when you got back to the tent?
We got to the tent Mohammed Ali Bendal Gasin was his name. I’ll never forget it as long as I live. Mohammed Ali Bendal Gasin. Well he finished up was he was the bloke with the gun. The other chap was sort of a tribal leader or something
and he was a Sheik or son of a Sheik or something but we got back to where Mohammed. Because he had been the main protagonist he was the one who was acting as our host and he was a very lowly member of the tribe and he had this skinny little horrible cavalier tent that we were taken to and we had to sit down in there and they all, everyone gathered around. Half the village came to see us,
and they all sat down in this little tent and I sat here and Bill sat there and Mohammed sat next to me there and we had only been in there about 5 minutes before everyone was, “Salaam, Salaam,” and everything was going on and I caught him with him trying to get my wallet out of my hip pocket and I thought, “Christ, what am I going to do now?” I sort of turned around to look at Bill and at the same time I sort of swung my arm around
and nearly broke his arm and he pulled his arm and he turned around and smiled at me, so I smiled too, and we got over that one all right and he never tried again anyway. And then they made gestures to sort of suggest that I, that it was rude of me to have my revolver here in the tent so I hung that up on the pole there in the tent so we weren’t, and everything they did then. We gave them. Mohammed couldn’t read a word
but the Sheik or whatever he was he could read and we gave him our ticket thing that’s still there and he read it all and then they, the way they were behaving and everything. I said to Bill, “It doesn’t look too bad, does it?” Because we could say anything we liked to each other and they didn’t know a word we were saying. As long as you smiled
like you could say anything you liked and at one stage there after I’d picked my pocket, I wouldn’t trust this old bloke as far as I could throw him and we smiled at one another and we could say anything we liked and no one could understand.
So what was the hospitality like?
It turned out to be quite good. First of all, the first thing that happened, the first meal that we had there
they killed a kid goat and I ate it nearly raw and Bill with all his knowledge of everything said that, “We’re right. The Arab people kill meat for their guests. That’s a sign of hospitality.” He was so sure of all of that that he sort of
comforted me a bit as well and but they were behaving really quite well and everything. Quite a lot of things were happening. A lot of visitors because we were a source of curiosity like and visitors and Mohammed was in his element. He had these two blokes in his tent and all the villages were coming and having a look at us and big talks used to go on between them and everything so we were sort of ‘Exhibit A’, you know.
First of all a few things. A few funny little things happened. First of all they had a tea ceremony which they went through. Mohammed came in with a handful of dried stuff and a little teapot and a couple of cups and he put it on the fire and put tea in it and then he’d let it fizz up and then he’d take it off and let it boil and put more and more sugar and put it back on again until it was almost like an
like a syrup nearly, like a tea syrup really and they had a little glass like a medicine glass and a big ceremony all this was. It wasn’t like casual ‘have a cup of tea’ and first of all he tasted it and he’d offer it to you and he’d say, “Salaam,” and you had to, “Salaam Aracum,” and then you had a sip of the tea and you had this little sip and then the next guest and the next guest and in the order of
preference or whatever it was, but we all had used to take a long while but we sort of liked it. It was sort of sweet and refreshing really. It was like a syrupy tea and we knew that all the wogs had been burnt out of it if there was any like and we weren’t going to get jibby tummy or anything from anything we ate and for that reason we in our escape kit which I’ve got one in there that I’m going to bring out to show you it had two packets in there of Halzodome [?], which is,
we were supposed to take the tablets out and put them in the water. I don’t know if it had chlorine or what it had in it but it was supposed to make the water drinkable if it was doubtful and the other one was Benzedrine. If you were escaping. I should have perhaps taken one when the Arabs were chasing me I think but if you have to swim a river and you have nearly done in you take a couple of these and do a Johnny Weissmuller [actor who played Tarzan] across the river but Bill said
I think we ought to put some tablets in this and he said, well we didn’t want to offend them like so he did it surreptitiously and he got them out of the kit and alongside me and he put these tablets in the water before we had a drink and we didn’t find out. We never slept for two nights like. He had put the Benzidine in instead of the Halzodrome so we were high on Benzidine for the first couple of nights and I couldn’t sleep
and I had this sort of wide awake like that and I could feel all the wogs biting me so that was the first blew we made but we got over that one. But the food that we brought. In the end we lived on dates and raw eggs mostly. They had a meal they used to make out of a sort of wheat meal they mad with sort of rancid sort of fat and as soon as they brought it over my stomach was going,
I was going to throw up. I just couldn’t bear the smell and I used to, they’d try and push it on us and, “No, No. Englishie no.” And we all got over that and in the end they did the kid there was lumps of white floating around in it and they kept pushing it over and I said to Bill, “It looks like fat to me.” It turned out to be white of eggs. They had broken some eggs in it apparently.
Can I just ask, what does that mean?
Cut your throat like. I had to do that when I leant him my revolver. I had to say, “If you don’t bring it back to me, Englisie.” That was a sort of threat like, “No good.” Everything was done with sign language like because we hardly knew a word. Eventually we met some of the young children were brought in later and they were going to an Italian school
somewhere or other and we could get words with them like ‘medico’ and all those sort of words. A lot of words that were Italian are very similar to ours and we could sort of talk to these kids and they were nearly acting us interpreters when they were asking us questions. But anyway I digress again. They gave us some dates and goats milk and raw eggs and
that’s really all we ate for a time. I’m an expert at cracking an egg and down the hatch. A bit of raw egg, but we knew that was fairly wholesome tucker. We didn’t like some of the other things they were dishing up and some of the things that went on while we were there were quite interesting. Every night nearly Mohammed and his son used to go down on a foraging down to the lines to where the war was going on and come back in the morning with coils of rope and a pair
of boots and things they had pinched from the Italians and they’d showed us all the loot they had got during the night and I remember once they came back with this pair of boots. They look like they must have been from a giant. They were about twice of his and they wore this kind of brown habit thing and just the one garment they had on and he put these boots on and he went outside the tent
and he gathered everyone around and pulled his thing up and danced around in his boots and that and everyone sort of guffawed. He put on this wonderful dance in these boots he’d pinched during the night, and everyone thought they had the greatest laugh you have ever saw. So there were some light moments and that was one of them.
I’ll stop you there at the end of that because our tape is running out.
Interviewee: Robert Cowper Archive ID 1562 Tape 06
Bob, before we continue with the finishing off the Sahara story, you mentioned your escape kit. What was in your escape kit?
Some emergency rations. A tin of condensed milk, malt tablets or something they called them. I think they were like chocolate tablets, chewing gum,
a compass, a rubber bag to put them all in if you were worried about them getting wet, Halzodrome and Benzidine tablets and what else. They were the main items I think. It wasn’t intended to be something that you could live on for weeks or anything. It was just emergency pack like to give you through a couple of days or something.
To give you a bit of sustenance and energy to get out of a difficult situation. I don’t think it was ever meant to be field rations.
How had you been briefed in terms of the protocol of coming down behind enemy lines?
Not much. Not much really then. Funny part about it we got briefed more about it when I got back to England in the latter part of the war. We had a chap come out and gave us a talk about
what to do when you came down and how to take in situation you were worried about to try and take the initiative away from whoever was confronting you and that, “Don’t think that you can live on cabbages unless you can eat four a day,” or something like that and things like that and they told us. But one of the main things that I always remember is that if you are in a situation that looks dangerous if you can do something to take the initiative away
from the perpetrator you are one jump ahead of him then. You say something unexpected or do something unexpected than his plan starts to fall apart a bit. I’ve always thought if I got held up in a bank I would try it out but I haven’t had a chance. But those sort of things he talked about and of course it was quite a different story. We were never sure who would be our friends and who wasn’t out in the desert and actually we were really fortunate and it just shows
from when we were talking early on that there are some people even in the Arab world that were pro-British in that time. So we were very fortunate. It could have been someone else who hated the British but I don’t know at that time if there were that many of them about. We were glad they were friendly.
You mentioned that the situation turned around once you produced the cigarettes, but what as it do you
think that really?
It was just the fact that they were quite convinced. I had my great coat on and one thing and another and I suppose they didn’t get close enough to hear us talking or anything and they, I could have looked like a, looked from a distance like a German officer or something and it was only the fact that they saw the cigarettes that they knew they were English cigarettes that they realised we were English and that was what turned it around the fact that they thought we were Germans. I think they were perfectly genuine in that as it turned out. So we were
that was a lucky. I’ve often said that cigarettes saved my life and it’s got a certain truth about it.
And you mentioned that you were I guess in some way a little bit like a trophy for them.
Not in a nasty way but we were paraded around by him and a lot of people came to the thing and he took us around to meet the head
sharang there. The head man in the camp. They sort of they were nomad Arabs and they lived in tents in the desert and they had spots where they grew some grain and things like that but we were introduced to the head man and it was interesting. He had quite Nubian women as wives and I’ve read since that right up until very recently
some of the Arabs used to do raids in Nubia and come back with some women and one thing and another and the women seemed to be treated as if they were equals and you know, the dark kiddies, the half and half seemed to be part of the family. There didn’t seem to be any discrimination that you could tell, but it was a bit of a surprise to see these black women there. They didn’t seem to be hidden away as much as
in the tent we were in the younger women were, they just looked through a hole at us. We just saw their eyes. Grandma was allowed to come in and do the cooking and that but none of the younger women. We don’t even know how many there were there I think. There were at least a couple probably daughters or something. Might have been wife and daughters, I don’t know, but grandma, she was allowed in for the cooking and that. They went away now and again
carting water on the camels and all that sort of thing but donkey rather. The donkey used to go with a goatskin on it and come back with water. I don’t know where they got it from but it was all right.
So how long did you end up staying there?
I think altogether about, in the fifth day we were rescued, from memory. I’m pretty sure I’m pretty right there so we probably spent
four nights I think and four nights and five, about five days. That sort of, that’s what my memory says. I’m not sure of that exactly. I should be I suppose but I’m not it all very confusing but we eventually Mohammed went away with my revolver which I told him I’d lend him and we gave him that chip that we wrote on saying there were two airmen are there and he took that away and
he came the next morning with a bloke from one of the armoured cars that were out doing scout cars an advance party right out in the desert away from the desert really and I nearly kissed the bloke when he came up. A little red fellow, Englishmen came up and said, “How are you, Sir?” and they were from the 11th Tahars [?]
I think from memory, but I’m not sure about the number, but they were in armoured cars and he took us back and we slept that night in a tent with them and then we went to Tripoli the next day. We both got up on the roof of a building and took all our clothes off and we were eaten from about here to here. We were just raw with all the wogs that had eaten me. I think that, I’m a bit susceptible to wogs. Mosquitoes like me and everything but Bill didn’t have any at all. I took my clothes off
and he said, “You poor bugger.” He didn’t realise I had been suffering that bad, but I slept next to Mohammed and he just scratched himself all night it sounded like sand paper, but I think they all came off and they feasted on me.
So what was biting you?
I presume they were either bed bugs or fleas. I’m not sure what they were but they were either bugs or fleas. I didn’t get a chance to see what they were while we were there because we never had our clothes off while we were there
but they certainly. I knew they were there. They were driving me mad. I don’t think it helped when we had Benzidine and couldn’t go to sleep either. But that was just a little side issue. That wasn’t really important but when we got back to Tripoli we just waited there for a while and the message got back to Malta. I don’t know if they sent a plane over that time or we bummed a ride back to Malta
and then we stayed there for a little while and they sent us over to pick an aircraft up. That’s how we arrived there. Yes, I think so.
And you mentioned that you were quite emotional when you first met that British, was it a British officer?
Yes well we were pleased to see him. Yeah. The first words of English we had heard for a few days. That was great.
A lovely moment to know that it was all over and we were back in safe hands again. We never really doubted that the others were hostile at all after a while but it was just nice to know that we were on the way home like you know. Actually one armoured car was towing the other one that had broken down as it happened. So we were put on one of them and they towed us and the broken one
back to their camp so that was good.
And so what was going on in Tripoli when you arrived?
Well that was sort of quite interesting really because Tripoli had only fallen a few days earlier and when we arrive there the 51st Highland Division I think it was. I’m not certain of that number but I’m pretty sure it was the 51st Highland Division had just came in
and taken over the garrison, the official garrison of Tripoli and they call came in with their bagpipes and their kilts and it was great. It was quite emotional, and they took over the city and it was something worth seeing really. They were all, me looking back now, they all seemed about 5ft 6 high, 5ft high with ginger hair and that and their swirling bagpipers and that. It was quite emotional seeing
that. I still feel a little bit emotional thinking of that but it was nice to see something different. All dusty and dirty but all soldiers so that was something nice. I remember that and I forget, I only remember for sure. I think I’ve got it in my book there but I’m not sure what plane we went back on. I think we bummed an aircraft on another aircraft and got
back to Malta. Pretty soon we got another aircraft and then we got busy and Malta then was a very busy place. The worst of the bombing was over but every afternoon the enemy 109s used to come over and squirt the aerodrome and that but the main bombing from the Italians was dropping right off. They got the wind up and started dropping bombs in the sea before they got there before they got to
some air defence in Malta.
Well before we go on and talk about more of your operations I understand that you were posted missing when you first came down?
We were posted missing when we just didn’t turn up in Malta and they, it wasn’t until we were found, that we got back to civilisation that. I’d left Kay you know and kissed her goodbye
and we went missing five minutes later. I don’t know what she went through, but she wouldn’t have said anything to anyone knowing her, and of course then later on when I bailed out I was missing again so she would have thought, “He’s never going to get back to marry me. He’s going to kill himself.”
And did you ring Kay when you got back to…?
No I don’t think I had any telephone communication with her from Malta. We did it by sending,
I think we sent a telegram, but the authorities did that for us really. They notified her. I think I’ve got copies of most of the telegrams in my book, in folders, that I had been found. When they first found us they said they didn’t know what our condition was or anything like that but it turned out to be all right so yeah, the family and everyone else. The family in Australia was
my mother, my mother who spent the war looking after boys that went away. They were always staying with them and they got a few telegrams from one of those that were missing and I suppose a knock on the door I suppose. I didn’t think much about it at the time but they must have had a pretty rough time there for a while. I’ve got letters there, copies of letters there that my ex-employer
and family wrote, I’ve read my obituaries because they wrote when I was missing for nearly a week and they didn’t knew and they thought that I might be dead so they wrote letters of condolence and I turned up twice.
Well what happened next?
Well when we got. When we got to Malta we got our
new aircraft in Malta. Malta was a very strange place. It was very busy. Things were very basic. We had quite nice digs, reasonably nice digs near the sea but the food wasn’t too flash. Dried potatoes and we drank beer made from potatoes in bottles that had the tops cut off sort of thing. Things like
that were a bit rough unless you went into the main city where we were billeted and around about there and to get any eggs or that the eggs used to be flown in from Egypt or something like that and we had pay sixpence each for them I think and about a third of them were rotten so we got diddled a bit with the eggs but they were just glad to get the eggs. Malta was a strange, strange place.
You would see marching all over the place great big caterpillar lines of young men in brown habits. You see it was a church, it was the church that maintained the whole of the economy nearly then in Malta at that time. They were the big employers and the young people there was no jobs for them I don’t think and a lot of them just finished up in the church looked after them more or less and they had all these young priests and that
and the nuns used to do a lot of lace work and that sort of thing and I’ve still got a few things that I bought and sent home to Kay and it was a place where a lot of young men had nothing to do in the church. At that stage it was goats and priests they called it at the time but the church played I think a huge role in just feeding people who otherwise would have had no work
and took them under their wing.
Were you, you were then sent back out into ops?
Yes we were back in ops fairly quickly when we went there. We had a busy time. The first combat we had was some weeks after we arrived and it was a bit of a scary one. We ran into I think another German night fighter that tried to shoot us down and we had a bit of strange combat.
We didn’t know who was chasing who at one stage but in the end Bill gave me such an accurate position of when he was coming at me head on at one stage that that I managed to swing the nose of the aircraft and just pressed the button and made him fly through. I couldn’t aim at him at that time, I just made him fly through and we got strikes all down the fuselage and he just turned over on his side and he flew just straight, almost straight down and we think to this down that he probably
shot him down so we were never able to prove it so it was claimed as a damage like. We never got that one concerned. They said someone was in a dingy the next day and they didn’t confirm that, so that was a damage, but we reckon we got him. For my first. That was my first combat with an enemy and to be fighting someone that had been trained and had equipment on board similar to what we had was a real battle. It was a tough one for a first up
and we were always pleased that we got out of it as well as we did really, but then the raids in Sicily came not long after that. Well a while after that and we did a lot of trips over to Sicily with armoured personnel and that and show them in moonlight night where they wanted to drop paratroopers and that and then the raids on Sicily began we got fairly busy. We there was
the first one in combat where we, there was a stream of bombers going over to Sicily between Italy and Sicily and we got behind. There were a number of contacts and we got behind the ADAs [Air Defence Area] and I just got my usual distance away from them that I thought was quite safe and then we, the first couple of cannon shells that hit it set off a bomb or a mine
and the most ginormous explosion and their aircraft and everything just disappeared in a cloud of dust and bits and pieces flew back and knocked the windscreen, part of the windscreen and my engine started running rough and there were holes everywhere. Bits of molten metal in my legs and the whole world sort of went mad and I found the aircraft wouldn’t respond to the controls and things so I knew
that we had to bail out and my observer who then was Pilot Officer Parkinson, DCM [Distinguished Conduct Medal], very experienced too, and he yelled out, “We’ll have to bail out,” because some of the bits of the aircraft had gone over near him as well. He knew things were serious although I was supposed to be the captain, I was suppose to decide when we were going to bail out but he said, “We’re going to have to bail out,” and then I spent a time,
you don’t, your time factor in this situation is very difficult but I spent what time I had first of all calling up on the radio saying, “Mayday, mayday.” People were talking on it but that was the first thing and someone will know that we are bailing out and the next thing that happened before I got the aircraft under control or anything. Well, I didn’t get the aircraft under control. I tried to see if I
could but Parky rang up and said, “I can’t find the lever for my hatch.” And I said, “Well I’ve opened mine.” Because as soon as we said we were going to bail out I pulled mine so the hole behind me, the hole in the bottom was open so I said, “Well, don’t muck about. Come up and get out of mine.” Well that was the last conversation I ever had with him and I don’t know now to this day where he was. Whether he got out,
whether he got his hatch out, whether he was in the aircraft, whether he drowned . I will never know but from that point onwards I had no control over the situation and the aircraft dropped a wing and went into a spin, and to get out in the Beaufighter you sit in the centre of the seat like this and when you want to get out of it you have a lever and your seat goes back like this and you get your feet up, you get your heels
up on the edge of the bucket seat and I had my parachute and everything on and you have your hands up here and when the seat lays back you are supposed to be able to lift your legs up out of the seat and drop through the hole. When doing it properly when practicing and all I remember at this stage was I had my hands up and the aircraft was spinning and the G [force] was so great, ramming me in the seat, and the last thing I really remember was
my hands gradually being torn off the thing and that’s when I thought, “Well, you knew you were going to die sometime,” and this was it. “You’re going to die,” and funnily enough the moment when my hands let go my recollection of it was everything went very quiet and because there was a hell of a noise before that. The wind was whistling in, the engines were going and all of a sudden there was this wonderful quiet
and I thought I’d died and then I came to and I was flying through the air and my first reaction was I didn’t have my parachute, because your parachute weighed quite a bit and when you’re going through the air it doesn’t weigh anything and I had to put my hand down and found it was still there and pulled it and it opened and I was in the air long enough to sing out first of all to Parky to see if he could hear me
because I didn’t know if he was out or where he was and I got no reply and almost at the same time the aircraft itself plunged into the sea not very far from me so I must have come down almost as fast as the aircraft spinning like and dropping without my parachute open. I must have been level with the aircraft. It went to sea just a little before I did and the next thing was I had to get into my dinghy.
Before this all happened, before the explosion I’d seen this lighted hospital ship all lit up with lights and a red cross on it like in the distance. We seen that before we even had our combat but that’s all I knew. So I went into the sea and I got into the dingy. I vomited first. I was sick, and then I said a bit of prayer, and then I
realised I was out and then a destroyer came past fairly close to me and I managed to get one of my rocket, not a rocket - I haven’t got the right word - safety thing that we had on our belt and fired a cartridge from it and the destroyer just went straight on, they were busy chasing a submarine or something. I don’t know, they didn’t worry about
me, and I looked up and as his wave came up I could see this hospital ship that was lit up and I started paddling towards it but I don’t know. The dinghy’s a difficult thing anyway because it swings about all over the place but I don’t know whether it was the wind or my paddling or the ship was coming towards me but it was gradually getting a bit closer so as it got a bit closer I fired another signal rocket and
the chief officer on the bridge saw it and they, don’t say drive the boat. A sailor would kill me if I said that, but they brought the ship up right alongside me and dropped a rope ladder down. They sang out to me and I said I was an Australian airmen and the dropped a rope over and then sent an able seaman over to help me up the ladder and that was pretty good.
So that’s how I came to there.
So just to go back over that story again very difficult situation for you to be in - you said that when you hit the water you body went into shock a little bit.
I think it was just a severe case of post-traumatic stress I guess but it was a shock.
When I was on board later and I had some metal buried in my leg and they were starting to fester we were picking up all the wounded prisoners in the hospital ship and the doctors were working like mad and I didn’t say anything to anyone for a while. There were blokes dying everywhere and eventually I called one of the doctors and said, “Do you think I should be worried about this?” and he said, “Come down, I’ll take it out straight away,” and he gave me
a little prick with a local anaesthetic and I just fainted and the next thing I knew I was on the floor and he was picking me up and I said, “Gee, I’ve had injections and they’ve never worried me,” and he said, “Don’t worry about it boy. That’s just shock.” You don’t realise what shock does to you, I don’t think.
Well how do you avoid your parachute landing on top of you?
Well you just have to, there wasn’t much, if there had been much wind it wouldn’t have been any problem but at the time
it was very still and the parachute when I hit the water was fluttering down and I could see that it was going to land on me and it would have been a real crisis if it had. I probably would have worked my way out of it but it just looked like another problem coming so I paddled as hard as I could, and as it came down like I got out and it sort of fell into the water and I just jettisoned. I pressed the button and let it go. It sank. It’s out there somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea somewhere I think.
But that wasn’t a life, life-scaring thing really. What happened before that that was really nothing. That was just something I had to do to rather than have it falling on top of me. I imagined myself inside this bloody great big envelope, wet envelope trying to find my way out. It would have been a bit of an anticlimax to what I’ve been through, so I got out of that one all right.
And the other thing is, this might seem like a silly question, but you had your flying
gear on. You would have weighed quite a lot when you hit the water.
I had the Mae West [inflatable life jacket]. I had the Mae West on when I hit the water. You know the Mae West and that’s got a little compressed bottle and I hit the water I pulled that and that inflated the Mae West and I wasn’t in danger of drowning for the moment. That was very buoyant and I managed, underneath us when the parachute,
all the parachute gear is lost is a folded little dinghy on top of the parachute which was on a lead that was clipped to my harness and so I still had that and I just pulled that and that was the same. Once you got that out of the packet it was in you just had to pull the lever and it inflated automatically and I managed to climb in that and all this effort sort of wore me out a bit I think was a - in the circumstance I suppose I was in a state of shock anyway
and that’s why I was a bit emotional when I got in there. I did say my prayers I think but yes, it was great to be alive because I was thinking I wouldn’t be. And you know there’s nothing I could do. I thought about it and thought about it. There was nothing I could have done to help my observer any more. I had my chute, my hole open and I couldn’t get his and
its really a sad, terribly sad in a way and he was an experienced observer like and he, in one of the first things you learn when you are night flying all the time is you get so familiar where, you have to be able to turn the petrol on and do this and do that and everything in the dark and you had to know where every knob was in the aircraft otherwise you can’t be shining a torch around to see where things are
and things like that. When I pulled my it opened it straight away and I was completely flabbergasted when he said he couldn’t find the lever for the hatch because I thought he would have been out before me but it just goes to show you. If he didn’t get out of the aircraft it was because of his unfamiliarity of the aircraft, not thinking about it because it was life and death thing
not to do that. That was one of the things that you looked for - the levers. Usually they were painted red or something so you didn’t grab them by mistake. We all sort of thought time and time again what we were going to do if we got into a situation like that and sadly, you know I wrote a long letter as best as I could to his people and never got a reply, which was sad.
And had you flown with him before?
hadn’t flown with me before. He had done a lot of flying, but Bill was in hospital at the time. He was sick and that particular night he flew as my replacement crew and it was a fateful night for him I’m afraid and nearly me almost. But one of those things that fate plays a part in one’s life.
And that moment that you were, had your hands onto the bar and you were
feeling yourself let go.
I died. I know what it is to die. I thought I’d died. That’s the thing I’m left with. All the noise and everything that was going on. I don’t know whether it was because I hit my head or it was shock or the fact that I knew I’d lost it sort of I don’t know. It may have been. They say you have a lot of your dreams just when you are waking up I don’t know but
I thought I’d died. I can remember that feeling of everything went quiet and all of a sudden from all of this hullabaloo and the explosions and the wind and the engine going and all of a sudden everything was just quiet but it may have been because I was unconscious I don’t know but that’s the feeling that I had and I remember sort of. I sort of, I think it started to come on me
once I’d thought I’d died. I thought I was going to die. I couldn’t get out. There was no way I was going to get out. I couldn’t get out. I couldn’t lift my feet out of the seat or anything and it was only the weight, the top half of my body, my arms gave way and bent me over the back and the top half of my body must have been enough. I’ve had a crook back ever since of course and it must have been enough to tip my bum out and I hit my head. I looked a real mess. I looked a real soldier of war when they picked me up.
Blood everywhere but none of them were very serious. Mostly scraps off my head and I broke my nose and my face was all covered with blood and there was blood all running down the front of me and I really looked like a wounded soldier. Once they cleaned me up I wasn’t too bad really, but there were a couple of Australian nurses on board and they just iodised me you know.
Well it is pretty phenomenal that you got out of there with just a few scraps, but how did you realise
that it was a hospital ship that was approaching?
They are lit like a Christmas tree, and that was interesting because the nurses on board wrote an article to the newspapers afterwards and they say that I saved the hospital ship because the Germans had dropped some bombs very close to it and of course, the hospital ships is supposed to be sacrosanct, you know, under the Geneva Convention,
you don’t attack hospital ships because otherwise they will sink yours and no point in having them like but they were all lit up with the red cross and everything but the two nurses the Australian nurses on board wrote an article which is published somewhere there and they sort of said that I was responsible. I might have done but that was exaggeration because like five hours or something afterwards. I was in the water, I don’t know, two or three hours
before I actually got to the ship but in while I was on board the hospital ship the next day, not the next day the morning afterwards because it all happened at night, near dawn. We could see the huge big black cloud up there where I blew up. It was an enormous explosion and my first shots either hit a mine or a bomb that exploded in midair like
and you could see the huge black ball in the sky where we blew up like. So it was quite a bang.
Where were you?
We were off the coast of Sicily. About 15-20 miles, 15 miles off the coast I think over the sea. When the hospital ship picked me up they were in true sailor fashion they have recorded the longitude and latitude where they picked me up but I know exactly where I was when I was picked up but that was a bit.
I’ve often thought of getting in touch with this bloke that finds old aeroplanes and telling me where mine was and giving him the coordinates but it wasn’t exactly where I was picked up. I’d paddled some distance and they’d moved a bit. It wouldn’t be too far away from where I came down. But it was the experience on board that. I could go on for a long while on board the hospital ship. The war in the raw it was.
They were picking up all these prisoners and wounded prisoners and wounded, our troops as well. German and Italian and British troops coming on board, all wounded. Some of them were terrible. Jaws shot away and things that you never want to see. The surgeons were marvellous. They stood on the gangway and the ones that had to be operated on immediately went straight to the operating theatre ,and which ward, where they
would go and if they thought they would live until tomorrow sort of thing and making life and death decisions and it was a pretty educational sort of thing and they just lived on a couple of double scotch whiskies I think. I think for about surgeons because they operated day and night for about three days. I went down with one of them and saw them taking lumps of shrapnel out of blokes and things like that. We had, one of the saddest parts we had a, the second night I think I was there
they brought on about 10 sailors which had been in the magazine of a ship that had been hit with a and they were all rustled like brown paper parcels. They were all burnt about 100 percent. Some of them were conscious and I talked to some of them and they were all dead in the morning. So it was…
And what was the name of that hospital ship?
Aba. HMHS Aba. A-B
I’ve got pictures of it there and everything and Chief Officer Bird and he spotted there and I gave him my dinghy as a gift. I don’t know what he did with it. Wouldn’t mind having it myself now. I couldn’t give anyone my parachute. I thought it was the least I could do anyway because he was the one that spotted me. I’ll never forget his name.
Well I imagine it would have been quite difficult to spot you.
Yeah. Only that I fired
the, I haven’t got the right word now. It’s not a rocket, what do they call them? Anyway you know, a signal it is anyway. A berry signal that sends up a light up and he saw that and that’s what steered the boat over but he did a good job. He brought this huge boat alongside my little dinghy and dropped the rope ladder down there
and I’m repeating the story. But that was a wonderful experience and of course I finished up in Tripoli again of all things. They went back to Tripoli and every time something happened to me I finished up in Tripoli. Gaddafi would be pleased to know that I spent so much time there.
All right well our tape is coming to an end so we might just stop there before we move on and…
Interviewee: Robert Cowper Archive ID 1562 Tape 07
In Malta, I got amoebic dysentery after this. I shot down after only about three or four days later I was in the air again after I bailed out. I had the heebie jeebies a little bit but once I sat in the aircraft I felt quite good and it never worried me again. It has worried me. It doesn’t worry me at all now
but when I came home from the war they didn’t have such things as post traumatic stress counselling and none of us did and I used to wake up at night in a sweat trying to get out of the aircraft and that, but that went up for a time. Kay will tell you I used to wake for a time but I got over that. I don’t know. It went off and on for a year and I’ve never thought about it again so we did
we did have this sort of syndrome. No one knew what it was in those days and a lot of the boys came home with problems that they lived with for a while. I suppose their wives and families helped it through but now counselling is something that we never heard of such thing.
But just going back to your time in Malta.
While I was in hospital in Malta, one of the little things I remember,
we all got around the balcony this man was coming to see us and Noel Coward all came down and Noel Coward was notorious not only for his skills but for his homosexuality, and being butch blokes we were, and he came down and sat down at the piano and started singing Mad Dogs and Englishmen and he was so talented you forgot all about all that
and really enjoyed it. He just sat at the piano and played for about an hour or something we had the whole hospital interested in singing with him. That was just a little bit of trivia really, but soon after that, about that time because amoebic dysentery is awful like. You, I lost a lot of weight and got very weak and was having a lot of back trouble and one thing after another,
but one day we were going out and I’m not sure whether it was just before or after I went to the hospital but they test our aircraft every afternoon and Squadron Leader Edwards came up and said, “I want to take your aircraft. Hop out and I’m going to take this gentlemen for a ride,’ and he got in the aircraft and took off. At the end of the runway at Luqa Aerodrome in Malta was a big quarry and he took off and had an engine cut out on the way out and they just went into the quarry and blew
up in a puff of smoke. So we don’t know if that would have happened with us if we had been taking off, but it was the sort of thing that made you think how precarious life was. He died flying our aircraft that we were just going to take off on, so that was a rather sad sort of little interlude, so things like that happened which are just sheer luck. Some things in life especially in wartime you have control over and some things you don’t
know whether you are lucky or not lucky, and that’s what happened to a lot of people I’m afraid. So I must have been one of the lucky ones.
You spent a considerable amount of time in Malta.
We were there for only, only there for eight and a half months I think but I would have been there a bit longer if I hadn’t been so ill. I lost nearly a couple of stone. Amoebic dysentery was really horrible. You woke up in the morning and
everything just dribbled out of you. The most humiliating sort of thing and they gave me a whole lot of big pills and I had the sigmoidoscope, which - I don’t know whether you are familiar with that, but they looked inside my bowel and one thing and another but they gave me pills. Anyway eventually when I got back to England after I spent nearly the whole time in the toilet on the way it seemed to clear up and I didn’t have any recurrence of it again.
Just before we talk about your journey back to the UK [United Kingdom]. In Malta you flew quite a few missions over Sicily.
Yes. I flew a lot of Sicily and we did, we shot up a few trains over there. One night we bombed a railway. We used to carry 250 pound bombs for a while there. I don’t know if can claim being in bomber command but we bombed the
railways with our cannon shells. Shot up the trains and we, one night when we were there on a bit of a moonlit night we encountered three trains altogether. One was completely finished but the other two we certainly damaged them. The last one was a fastest train driver in Sicily because I fired at him and he had just come out of a tunnel and he slapped it in reverse and before we could get another run at him he had backed into the tunnel. So
we fired at three trains that night and certainly damaged them all. One I think we completely stopped but I can’t be sure.
Firing into civilians like that it must be different to firing and having one and one combat.
Yes it is a bit, but we were only, we were really only aiming at the locomotive and even in the moonlight we could see people scurrying out of the carriages but we didn’t
try to chase them or aim at them or anything. The main purpose was to blow the train up. Hit the boilers and the train. We were reasonably successful doing that but we never went out of our way to hit anyone like that. Not one on one in those particular cases. It’s a bit different with bomber command. They drop their bomb and they can’t see where they are going but that night we could see where they were going.
A German friend of mine said you would have been chasing them, when he was chased by the Lightning he reckons he rode his bike so fast he broke the chain. He reckons he still went just as fast after the chain broke. That’s another story. So we didn’t get in that position where we were aiming. Most of the people. People have bit of a different idea about people. They were the enemy
like. It’s hard to sort of be, I mean even the blokes that I was blowing up in their planes ,they were only young men like myself but they were on the other side and I don’t have any - I don’t get any pleasure out of thinking about that and I don’t think I need to, because at the time we were fighting a war. We weren’t sitting down thinking about it someone’s living room. We were in a war in which
we either had to win or we were going to lose, and we were going to lose our life or we had to take someone else’s. It had to be one. The only thing I can say is just think what would have happened if we’d lost it so that in itself justified that we just had to do what we had to do otherwise we would have lost. So I don’t have any nightmares about that because no more than I would expect them to have nightmares about doing the same with me you know.
But as far as shooting up civilians goes. Doing that in cold blood would be a bit…I don’t fancy that myself either. I don’t think anyone would but I think in most cases when that would happen they were trying to stop transports and things and firing at tanks or trucks or trains or something without specifically targeting the people involved. You are rather aiming at something rather than anybody do you know what I mean?
I don’t know if I have answered what you.
You were actually awarded a DFC [Distinguished Flying Cross] for your work in Malta and Sicily?
Yes. Yes. It was a culmination of our escapades in the desert and bailing out and I also shot down two and a half aircraft in my spare time. Yes I, it was quite a, I didn’t know I was going to get it. I was quite shocked myself when I found out.
Do you describe shooting down those two other aircraft?
Well one of them. One of them was the last one that I shot down was over a place near Augusta I think it was and this was after I bailed out and everything. The next combat and as soon as I hit it,
it just exploded in a ball of flame, and actually it was unfortunate from my point of view although I wasn’t that close to it. Because you have to get fairly close at night you see. You can’t sort of see them 500 yards away. You are sort of a few hundred feet away. It depends on how dark or if it was a moonlight night. A dark night sometimes you have to get fairly close and you have to get up really close at some stages because you have to be absolutely
certain it’s not a friendly aircraft or something. You have to be certain that you’ve identified exactly what it is your firing at because I mean nothing to could feel worse than shooting down a fellow Beaufighter or something so you had to take a certain amount of risk in going very close and the risk that they might see you and shoot you down before you had worked out who they were so although we
often went up fairly close often we pulled back so we weren’t too close before we actually fired at them and this one exploded in a ball of flame. I hit a petrol tank or something, and some of the molten metal from their plane hit my windscreen and we got behind another aircraft just after that. Another German 88, which I had identified by looking up through the top, and I couldn’t get my sights on it because I couldn’t see through the windscreen because it was covered with
all this molten metal, so in the end I had to drive for quite a while and knew that if I wasn’t careful I was going to get shot down in getting too close and I tried to look at through the side window and all sorts of things but try and get my sights on it, but I couldn’t. So we had to miss that one but in the middle, I think that night if that hadn’t have happened we might have shot down a couple more but it would have been satisfying from the point of view of our job we were
doing but that’s the only thing, regrets I’ve got really. Made a combat move there but that one burnt very fast and just went down in a ball of flame.
Were all the combats at night?
Yeah. I never had a combat in daytime - all at night.
And how did your shifts work?
How did what?
How did your shifts work?
Well every night we had a register table. If you were up at the top
of the table you were first off like. We were all put down in the order and every night the flight commander had the responsibility of doing that roster and in most cases it was a rotation thing to give everyone a chance. Later on, in one case I will tell you, we had a CO that was a little bit…When he heard something
was coming in, he grabbed and went first spot, but we never ever thought of doing such a thing because it just wasn’t done. If you were first spot you were first spot, because people think that you read about these German nightfighter pilots, they had these thousands of bombers. In England particularly in the latter part of the war it became hard to find a German and some of the really good pilots just never
had an opportunity, so it was considered that we all should have an equal chance to operate so that’s how the roster worked, and every night it was rotated between one fighter and another as a rule and if you were on first one night you would probably be down the bottom the next night and someone else would be up the top.
How often were you flying over a week?
In Malta we
were flying mostly about three nights out of four there for a while. Very tiring it was. We were walking in our sleep nearly and the food wasn’t that flash and you don’t sleep quite as well in the daytime as you do at night, so we were all getting very tired, but in normal circumstances we tried to work one night on and one night off, so you get tired like that.
And how, just escaped me.
That’s all right. We had our own aircraft to fly too, and we were encouraged to fly the same aircraft all the time if we could. It wasn’t always possible but you used to get used to flying one aircraft and one of the rules was where possible you kept the same aircraft
because you got familiar with it and were responsible for reporting any sort of faults with it and having them attended to so it was in the interests of everyone but you couldn’t always. Some aircraft would go unserviceable and simply weren’t available so you couldn’t have the bloke being unserviceable. You had to give him another aircraft but as much as we could we used to try and otherwise some people that had an aircraft that had nothing wrong with it
would be flying all the time and someone who had a dopey aircraft would be having half their time off so someone would kill themselves being tired.
How did you react, how did the crews react on the ground when you were losing pilots, losing crews?
Well the ground crew tried. It was much more camaraderie in the squadron later in 456. In Malta
I don’t remember having such a close rapport with the ground crews. I think it was because we were flying so much that we were sleeping in the daytime and we never had an awful lot of long-term contacts with them. In the squadron itself we were all Australians and we all had our aircraft more or less and even the ground crews were rostered to look after one particular aircraft most of them. We had a fitter
and an airframe and an instrument bloke and an electrician or something and we sort of got a really close rapport with them. The people that looked after my aircraft in 456 were friends for life. I have photographs of them there. They turned out to be dear friends really.
And what did you…did you have a ritual you went through before flying?
No. I’ve heard of these things. Spitting on the wheels and all these funny things. No.
We fighter blokes didn’t carry on like that. I can’t remember anything like that. As soon as you landed because sometimes you’ve been up for several hours the first thing you wanted to do was light up a cigarette, have a wee and, “Where’s supper?” But no, we never had any. They are almost like superstitions, those kind of things. I don’t remember anything like that.
How did you unwind after coming back from combat?
Go and drink a few beers and have a bit of fun
together. Drinking competitions and all sorts of stupid things. Childish things, some of them, but just to get it all out of your head and keep yourself sane.
What about the teetotallers that couldn’t do that?
They were a bit of a worry, really. One or two of them were a bit of a worry. They definitely didn’t have that chance to unwind properly and they used to find things
wrong with their aircraft. Not all of them, but there were a couple I can think of that we got worried about a bit because I think they got nervy. And of course all that business was coming under the heading of ‘lack of moral fibre’. If people were reported as unreliable and their bravery was questioned it was a terrible thing. A terrible thing,
and it wasn’t fair either because I think in bomber command, particularly, some of the blokes were having nervous breakdowns. That’s all it was. They just wanted a rest and all that and they were sort of half accused of having cowardice and they called it lack of moral fibre. People used to get accused of it, you know, and for the most terrible reasons. They were just completely worn out,
most of them, so it was a cruel thing. I never thought, I would never, I went to great pains in our squadron, if I thought that was the case, they were to report to the doctor and get a rest or something and they usually come good again, but it’s usually because you are overtired and your nerves jangling.
And did you feel your nerves jangling at this stage? I mean you’d been through quite a bit.
Not so much in Malta, but when I had responsibilities
in England around D Day [June 6, 1944], I had to go for a week’s rest at one stage. I went to the doctor and told him to sharpen his pencil and get a page of foolscap, I was going to tell him all the things wrong with me and he said, “I think you better have a rest for a few days,” and sent me away for about a week and I came back ready to fight the war again. But sometimes you just run out your reserves, you know.
So how did you finish in Malta?
I finished up in hospital and then they gave us a bit, after the hospital and they treated me they gave me a bit of respite. We had a rest where we went swimming a bit and out on the boat and that was about the last memories I’ve got of Malta. I think they decided that I’d lost so much weight and I had amoebic dysentery, it is difficult to guarantee that it was cured apparently,
so they decided it was time I went back to England, so I went back to England then and I went on leave for quite a period and went to stay with Kay’s aunt and uncle and just fed me like a fighting cock and looked after me and I got better.
So once you had revived yourself and you were back on track where did you go after that?
I went instructing. I went down to a place called Honnerley [Amberley?] teaching younger pilots to fly
at night and instrument flying and flying, teaching them how to fly Beau 2, but mostly teaching pilots to fly at night. They were used to flying Miles Masters, a two-seater aircraft and put a hood over them and take them out in daytime with a hood over them so they couldn’t see and just give them directions and see if they could fly on their instruments and just learning to be
dependant on your instruments. You don’t have to think about what you feel like, or think you’re like this or like that. You have to believe what your instruments say because your life depends on being able to do that.
And how did you find that experience?
Pretty…on the whole we managed to get most of them. One bloke I remember quite clearly telling him that he had better give it away because he couldn’t do it properly. Most of them
we managed to get them through so they could fly pretty safely.
And what words of advice did you impart on them?
Just quickly. You’ve got look at your instrument panel and see it all and get a picture of what everything should be. You can’t look at your airspeed and say you are going to fast and so you pull your stick back and then
when you pull your stick back your wings going down. You know what I mean. You can’t go doing one thing at a time. Yo have to be able to look at them. I mean you get in your car a bit don’t you and just in a bigger way. You look at the dashboard and straight away you see if your heat gauge is not where it ought to be or something so you’ve got to be able to see the whole picture and see if something is out of place and get it right without taking your eye off everything else at the same time. That’s
the secret of using instruments is having an all encompassing view of the controls.
And I expect that instructing is quite different to what you were experiencing in Malta?
Yes. Some of it was good and some of it was bad. Sometimes the aircraft we were flying weren’t that flash. We had an engine cut once when we were in the middle of storm but we managed to get up and get out. It’s a long story about the master but when you were instructing you were sitting in the
seat behind in a lower position and not in a very good flying position and the pupil was up in the front and when the engine cut, I just had to find somewhere to land down near the aerodrome. We weren’t that far away. We had enough height but things like that. They weren’t exactly good for your heart rate, but most of it was, some of it was quite nice, and for a while I went up to Scotland and we used to put the pilot under the
hood to do instrument flying and we would fly all over the great lakes area and have a look at the scenery while you were giving instructions to the pilot. So that wasn’t too hard work. Nice day.
And where was Kay at this stage?
First of all, when I came back home she was still in Ballyhalbert in Northern Ireland and I made arrangements to meet her there and we rang up and all the places we
arranged to meet somewhere but it wasn’t in the main street, and I walked down the main street and there she was coming towards me, so my first meeting with my girlfriend was inhibited a bit in the main street of Dublin but we, that’s we, we got together there and we had a hug and a kiss and then when I went over to Honnerley, I arranged with one of the senior officers there to arrange to
get her posted to Honnerley so she was there when we made all our arrangements to get married and the CO at Honnerley, Wing Commander Reid, Group Captain Reid was a very obliging bloke and helped us all he could and even allowed after we were married and one thing and another allowed her to come in civvy clothes although she was still a corporal WAAF [Women’s Auxiliary Air Force] to come to some of the dances in the officer’s mess and things like that. It was a very happy time really
after all the traumas getting married.
And when did you get married?
When I was in Honnerley when I was still instructing and we got married on 9th December 1943 and our first baby came on 9 November 1944 and then the next baby came on 9th April so we got in the groove there a bit,
and then 15th and 18th the next two, so. But no, that was lovely really getting married and we lived out. The time we lived out while I was in Honnerley at the time I was instructing in the springtime we rented a little, we lived with an old couple, two old maids that had this little cottage and we rented, they were elderly ladies and we rented
a couple of rooms and a bathroom from there and we had a very happy time there. Lovely.
And where was Bill at this stage?
He was resting too. He was a place where they were doing experiments with radar. He was doing that. He went through a bit of a bad time, then. But if you get onto Bill’s story, we’d be here all night, but
when we were in Malta Bill got a ‘Dear John’ letter [letter informing that a relationship is over]. He had this girl Effie in Blackpool that he was going to marry, Berlin or bust, and while he was out there he got a letter from her saying it was all over. And he was terrible after that in Malta. He packed it up completely. He started drinking madly and he was hard to get on with and you know, I wasn’t allowed to mention her name and all this stuff, so things were fairly strained there for a while, so when he went
back, he still took a while to get over that but eventually he did and when I got posted to the Australian squadron, I asked them if he could come and join me and they said, “Yes, that would be all right.” So we joined up again and he got through most of his traumas then.
And this is 456 Squadron.
So when did you get posted to 456?
I think it was April 1944. Yes about, sometime in April. I forget the date.
D Day was in June ’44, and it was a month or so before that and we flew Mosquitoes. We had to learn to fly new aircraft. But they were very easy to fly, lovely aircraft to fly and we wound up there and after D Day we had a very successful time there. Well, we shot down four more aircraft.
Just before we go onto D Day, can I ask where was the 456 Squadron based?
Ford in Sussex.
Ford in Sussex at that time. They had been at other stations but that’s where they were when I joined them and they’d been, they hadn’t had an awful lot of success up until then because they had been in out of the way places a bit and that was where we hit the jackpot there.
And how many Australians were in this squadron?
At that stage,
most of the aircrew with the exception of about six, I think, were Australians. We had a couple of fleet air pilots or had been in the fleet air and at one time we had four Americans there and I’ve got a beautiful trophy there that the, two of the Americans were killed. He and…flew on the same night in the most terrible weather England had ever seen and he
never came back but the other one did and when the war ended they sent a plane over when we were in Brabble base with this lovely sort of trophy I’ve got in there bought at Tiffany’s engraved saying that ‘the four Americans were proud to have served with you’.
How did you get along with the American pilots?
They were marvellous. The four that came along to our squadron were absolute gentlemen.
Lovely blokes. Lovely blokes. Dear friends. Yes
What set them apart from the Australian pilots?
Well they came to us to learn how to do night flying. At that stage of the game the Americans were mainly engaged in the war in the Pacific and there was no such thing as a night fighter squadron out there and night fighter aircraft were being built
in, specialist aircraft in American for night fighting and these two crews. I think some other crews went to other stations but we had two crews, four men and they were coming over to get experience, night fighting experience so they could go back and use this experience it the formation of this night fighting aircraft that was called the Black Widow. It was a specialist aircraft specially designed for night fighting
and at that stage this was the latter part of the war and they’d never done any night fighting and they came to get experience from us. That’s why they were there.
And at this stage was D Day approaching?
And what preparations were you going through?
Well we, we were just practising, practising, practising but everything was going on around us. We were right in a very interesting position at that
time. We used to see everything that was going on. To start with the first thing that happened some time before D Day they put a not a barrier, a closed area around our part of the world. People couldn’t drive cars in or anything. There were barriers up all over the roads to stop people from travelling in to see what was going on and out at sea we saw
all these concrete blocks floating everywhere and no one knew what they were and they were part of the Mulberry Harbour which was subsequently used for landing the troops over there and of course we were confined to barracks for 24 hours or so before D Day. We weren’t allowed to leave the boundary and then when D Day itself took place
the ground nearly shook with the number of aircraft going over. It was a sight that I will never forget. It was just incredible. Thousands of aircraft towing gliders.
Well we’ll get to that in a moment. We’ll still talk about 456 Squadron. You mentioned that you converted to Mosquitoes. What was it about the Mosquitoes that you really enjoyed or that you liked?
Well the aircraft when I was first made.
They used them first as photograph reconnaissance and they were the fastest aircraft in either the German or British air force at that time. They were number one in, and they turned out to be such a versatile aircraft that they carried 4000 ton bombs to Berlin. They used them for photo reconnaissance, used them for night fighting, they used them for ground
strafing. Altogether it was one of those wonderful aircraft that it was so versatile that it was a joy to fly as well as be involved with and they were just a lovely, aerodynamic. Nice looking and lovely to fly. That was a one up. To fly Mosquitoes was one of the ambitions of all airmen at that time.
And you were also promoted at this
Yeah while I was at 456. When I went there I think I was still a flight lieutenant, I got my squadron leader soon after I got there and I was given charge of B Flight and then after that I went to A Flight and I was in A Flight when the CO killed himself while we were at Brabble Bay ?] and just for a short time I was acting CO of 456 before we disbanded at the end of the war. So I had a
fairly responsible time there. The hardest time was towards the end of the war when you see the war was going to be over you still have to set an example of sort of press on regardless and I found, it wasn’t easy to set an example particular when Bill was saying all the time, “Pack it in like. Tell the weather is crook. Anything to stop the flight.” Because we knew that even if we did
Victoria Cross sort of acts it wasn’t going to make any difference to the war and your duty made you feel you had to do what had to be done without doing anything stupid at the end of the war that would kill yourself unnecessarily you know. So it was sort of a difficult time. It was all right if you were once of the troops but when you are the flight commander or the CO, we had to set an example. We were given some difficult tasks to do actually
and we had to sort of get up there and tell the boys what they should be doing and in our heart we wished we weren’t doing it.
Well when you were squadron leader, what qualities do you think it was that got you to that position?
Well, partly the influx of time and the fact that I was still alive and still flying. I don’t think my decorations had anything to do with me making a squadron leader, but the fact that
I there was other, one or two other squadron leaders, but the fact that my experience was wider than some of the others was why I was given the job of flight commander over one or two of the others. I was only young too really but still I was a young man with an old man’s shoulders.
And being squadron leader came with more responsibility in looking after your crews. You spoke before of lack of moral fibre.
Did you start to notice it amongst your men?
No. No. I don’t want to exaggerate that too much. Not on our side because it was something that was going on in the air force generally at times and people were being accused of it for I think rather cruel reasons. They had a medical condition rather than but no, the only thing the responsibility was trying to keep everyone alive and
giving advice to help to keep them alive. We were doing a very difficult job some of the time. We were chasing Heinkels [German bomber] over the Channel [English Channel] who were dropping buzz bombs on London and they were flying slow and low and with the Mosquito we couldn’t fly as slow and it was very dangerous work and we had to impress on them how dangerous it was and not to be to, be to bravado and feel like they had failed if they didn’t get any
because it was really difficult flying and I lost a crew that I had given a lecture to the night before and told him, he’d said, “I’ll get the bugger next time.” And I gave him a long lecture and he killed himself the next night, so it had sort of repercussions that were sort of really hard at times, and you wondered if you had impressed on him enough to keep him alive, but I did all I could.
As squadron leader with these men under you
guidance and care it must have been difficult when you lost men?
Yes in a case like that I felt some recriminations, why did he go on and do it after I had lectured him, and I tried really hard and the enthusiasm of it all and the excitement of the moment and that type of thing I don’t know what happened. He disappeared into the sea so I assume he killed himself trying to shoot these things down. It was very, very difficult job it was.
We were doing what you should never do. Fly low and slow in an aircraft. You are always better flying fast and high so it was a difficult time.
And when you say some of the men with their nerves slightly fraying how did you care for them? What did you do?
Well I, I don’t want to sort of dwell too much on that because it is a delicate subject.
You know there’s people that were accused but not in our squadron. I don’t know of anyone in our squadron that was ever really accused of it but it was one of those things that you just had to try and use your psychology to give them confidence and rest if you felt they needed it, but we had one or two crews that would never be first class pilots
or observers for that matter. Not all the blokes. Sometimes the pilots were undermined by their observers who had the jitters a bit and was trying to discourage him from doing anything. But no there wasn’t, there wasn’t much of that in our lines. Bomber command had the biggest problems with it. You can imagine these poor buggers being sent out every night and their friends not coming home and one thing and another and after a while you got to be made of pretty tough,
stern stuff every time you have to do your bit and I think it is just wonderful to think that England war that there was so little of it really. To think that against enormous odds that the boys were still going out night after night and doing things that they always knew would eventually kill them. It was a bit of awful thought.
Well our tapes running out so we will swap now.
Interviewee: Robert Cowper Archive ID 1562 Tape 08
Well Bob I just want to go back and talk about 456 Squadron. You mentioned that it was the only Australian night flying squadron in the war and that you did a lot of dangerous ops. What was the role of 456 Squadron?
Well I suppose.
Sorry what was the function?
We were part of what was called the night defence of
Great Britain really. That was our initial role. That was in latter parts. In the earlier parts when it was first formed just a quick thumbnail history they flew Boulton Defiants and they were on the island of Anglesey and they did quite a lot of shipping work over the Bay of Biscay. And any shipping and one thing and another and they were quite busy doing
they did quite a bit of daylight work as well. They did a bit of shooting up trains but that was in the very early days and they reverted to a complete night fighting role altogether with the radar on board, and for the rest of the time they were officially the air defence of Great Britain at night really. They got called ADGB [Air Defence of Great Britain] was the group that we were part of. They had several numbers of groups, eight, nine, 10 and that sort of thing and I think we were part of 11 group or
something but our whole role was night fighting. Eventually not just the defence of Great Britain but we took a pre-emptive role and did raids over the continent and at the end of it we were doing bomber support roles and flying as far as Berlin and covering night fighting aerodromes just to discourage the night fighters and shoot them down or whatever
and you would do some quite long trips towards the end of the war. Right as far as Berlin.
And how far could them Mosquito go with the?
They had a good range. In, we could go to Berlin and back and spend an hour. They would fly for about six and a half, seven hours. About seven hours, so that depended a little bit on how fast you were flying how much fuel you were using but
seven hours or so of flying and they were beautiful to fly and very efficient and you could get the fuel consumption down to a very reasonable level if you weren’t pursuing someone. They were lovely and then the role that I was speaking of chasing these Heinkels was, that was a bit, just a bit before this one
but it near the end of the war as well. When they started cleaning up all the launching sites in France to stop then sending the V1 over they started getting these Heinkel aircraft which were really quite obsolete now and then hang one of these bombs underneath it and then they would fly over as close to the water as they could and probably with radio altimeters and when they get near London they could go up in the air
2 or 300 feet and let the bomb go towards London and turn around and fly back right on the deck. A fairly slow aircraft compared to the Mosquito. We stalled at about 110 even with a bit of flap down and they would fly about 90kms an hour, 90 mile an hour and we’d have difficulty shooting them down and we couldn’t slow up enough to have a shot at them without going into the sea. It used to be a bit scary because you would be out there at night and you
could see just the white tops of the waves going under your wing and trying to slow down behind them and we used to put some flap down to give us a bit more leverage and it was very dangerous work, and the boys shot two or three down but we didn’t get an awful lot of them. They claimed at least one, I’m not sure two of our crews trying to shoot them down. It was dangerous work.
And when you were
ops what was the formation of your flying?
We, it was all solo work. We were controlled from the moment we took off by a ground communication station. A radar station on the ground which had a coverage of the area we were operating in and they could see any aircraft that flew into that area they could pick.
And we had a thing called IFF, identification friend or foe, and they ground people could see this if we switched on they could see this little thing beeping and they would know it was a friendly aircraft. If one got into their range and we would be on patrol or something like that they would say to us, “Investigate possible
bandit,” or something and they would give us a course to fly because they knew where we were. They could see us and they would give a course to fly and intercept them and when we got within a reasonable range of our radar we used to pick it up and then we used to take it over from them and it was our responsibility to identify what it was and whether it was a friend or foe. Sometimes we used to follow half a dozen friendly aircraft before we found one of them was a bandit, you know.
So a very important part of it. We used to have lessons regularly on the identification of silhouettes of aircraft. Where the exhaust was, where you were likely to see and flames, the shape of the tail was and what they looked like from this angle and that because you didn’t want to make any mistakes. It was fairly serious business before you shot something down to make sure that you knew what you were shooting down. A very important part.
But that’s how we did it. We took off either on patrol if nothing was going on or a raid of some sort we were told to get off the ground as soon as we could. Scramble and they would put us on right on where we thought we would get the trade as they called it. “We’ve got some trade for you,” but it was one on one and when it was on our own radar it was up to us to finish it off
so we used to switch right off the control and talk to one another.
And who would brief you for ops?
We always had a briefing, mainly, we didn’t have a briefing every night with night fighting because we all knew what we had to do when we took off. Every afternoon our aircraft were tested. If we wanted to find out if our radar was working properly
we would go up and practice chasing each other and make sure everything was working. That was the purpose It’s horrible going up at night when there’s a raid on or something and the first thing you switch on to find your damn radar isn’t working. It’s really frustrating, so the test every afternoon was an important part of our whole procedure, but ordinarily in night fighting you would be sent up on patrol
or you would be immediately scrambled because they had picked something up and they wanted it investigated, but when we were doing other patrols into Germany and things we were always briefed then because sometimes we were working with other squadrons and they’d say, “Go to this aerodrome and we want you to cover this aerodrome and so and so will be over there at such and such a time and drop flares and if you
see any aircraft on the ground try and shoot them up,” and that was as near as a briefing as we got than early on. We had, towards the end of the war we had air supremacy which was vital.
Well tell us about the kind of briefing that you received leading up to June 6, 1944.
Well we were told quite a lot of things. We were told what to expect
and what to see and one thing and another and because there would be a huge lot of shipping and major battle ships and what have you in the area and what aircraft they expected to be used and when they would be going over and what have you and traffic was just unbelievable. Thousands of aircraft going across and the channel was just dotted with ships by the thousands, literally thousands,
but our main role - the Germans at that stage they had these radio control bombs on them and the radio control bombs could only be used effectively when they would could see the target so they had these aircraft going out carrying these bombs but they had to come out on a fairly moonlight night because it was no good if it was too dark they couldn’t see. They could
stand off out of range of the capital ships anti-aircraft fire and they could let the bomb go and if they could visually see the ship they could guide like they guide like a model aeroplanes they had. Not the same at all but similar and they could guide the bomb towards the target. It was sort of rocket propelled and they could stand off. That was the theory and they were going to go out and sink a lot of our major shipping but where
it fell down, A, it was a moonlight night and that suited us. We could see them before they could see us when we had radar and they used to chuck a lot of this window which are strips of aluminium cut to the same length as the wavelength of their radar and they used to heave it out and the radar that we had at the end of the war were so efficient that it didn’t interfere with us at all. We used to just see this whole stream of stuff coming out and we
would just head up stream and there was the aircraft so they helped us in a way to find them by doing that. In the early stages it was confusing, but in the latter part of the war with the better radar we, it was quite an assistance for us to find them. So we were very successful. We shot down 13 of their biggest aircraft and I don’t know how many others. We shot down 30 or more aircraft over that period over D Day and we destroyed nearly all of the Heinkels, more of the Heinkel
177, which was a huge German aircraft. I shot down two of those and I think we shot down 13 our squadron so we were very successful so we think that by our efforts we could have saved some of the major shipping. That’s what we reckon.
Well perhaps you could take us back to that day. Were you aware of the significance of that particular operation?
Oh yes. You couldn’t help but be.
It was really quite remarkable that so much was done without the Germans knowing which day and where. Although it was terrible for some of the poor coots that did that. Some of them landed in the wrong place even then. It was a like a little Gallipoli for some of them. They landed where they shouldn’t have done. Some of the Americans, they landed where there was huge cliffs, where they weren’t supposed to be. They were supposed to be somewhere a bit further along
but on the whole, the Germans, they went to terrific effort to hoodwink them by having dummy raids and into ports and harbour and further up the coast and one thing of another making them not too sure where it was going to come. They must have known that it was going to come but they didn’t know what day, and they were taken more or less by surprise and the build up of it.
You couldn’t move on the roads for transport and gliders in all the paddocks and everything and the build up to it was fantastic, and just that sense in the air that this is the big one and everyone was very, very keyed up about it all yeah. Even all the day fighters even had within a day or two they had white stripes painted underneath
so that when they were flying over the enemy territory they would be straight away recognised by the ground troops as ours. They did that, they had it all ready and a day or two before they slapped it all on. We were going to have it on but because we flew at night it would have been a bit of a waste of paint but all the day, all the aircraft flying over the enemy territory had it and after D Day all had these white stripes painted on them.
Blue and white strips on the base of them so the ground troops would look up and see straight away they were American or whatever it was.
And what time of night did you all take off that night?
We didn’t all take off that night. We had stuck to our patrols and I think one of our blokes shot down one of their aircraft on that night. I’m not certain of that but certainly the next night
I think and the following nights onwards. I can check it out in 10 seconds but from that moment onwards almost every night one our birds shot down, but we still didn’t go out and form - we didn’t all go in the air and flying around everywhere. It was still done in an orderly fashion. One went out, if they said they wanted two aircraft or three aircraft. It was usually left to the controller in headquarters. He had the final say as to what aircraft he wanted in the
air and he’d control them and everything and sometimes you would up there on your own and they would say fly this and fly that and then they would send you off to any likely looking target. Because it was D Day we didn’t all get in the air or anything like that. It was still done in a controlled fashion that if there was any German - because at that particular time there wasn’t much activity from the Germans,
the first day or two because they didn’t know what was happening, I don’t think. They were caught by surprise to some extent, it was only in the build up after that they began to send out aircraft and messing about, so it was still a very controlled exercise as far as we were concerned, but the gliders and a lot of the day fighters. They went out in packs and everything shooting everything, anything
that moved on the ground. Part of the ground warfare but at night we were still fairly orderly really.
So things were pretty much as usual.
Exciting as usual but the crews were coming back every night saying they had shot one down and that was fairly exciting. Some of the boys that hadn’t shot one down before would come back so excited. So you know it was an exciting time.
You can train for years and some really good pilots in our squadron never saw a German. They were always up at the wrong time or there wasn’t any Germans around or they were on leave or something so there was an element of luck of being successful even if you had the where with all. So there is a lot of blokes that didn’t get gongs and they tried very hard but they just weren’t in the right place at the right time.
I have to think of that at times because there was an element of luck involved.
And did you fly yourself on D Day?
I think so but I don’t. I think so. Certainly I did on the next night if I wasn’t on that night, but I just can’t remember exactly if I was on that night or the following night. I kind of think I was but I’m not certain of that
because there was a bit more trade around after that first night. The first night the Germans hadn’t started their counter attack and I think it built up a bit from that time onwards. That’s when they sent a lot of their planes out to shoot up the shipping. That’s when that started.
And how important was it to I guess make successful claims?
Well that’s the one thing about it. There is a book called
Aces High which explores all that at great length, which I had the honour to be in, and it says that it’s the one thing. The night fighters were almost all one-on-one. You either shot them down or you didn’t shoot them down, or if you couldn’t conclusively prove that the aircraft had gone down, it was damaged or whatever, but in the day fighting it was a different story altogether. The confusion was just incredible
and blokes would be firing at aircraft that had already been fired at and both claiming it, and if you read the stories about the Battle of Britain, the claims at the time was quite irresponsible in a way but understandable, because in the melee the aircraft going here there and everywhere and people squirting at this one and squirting at that one
and then one all of a sudden going down in flames and no one knew it was, who did it, so the claims were very good. In night fighting there was never any dispute really at all about our night fighting claims because we either shot them down or were damaged and probably down. The first one we shot down or the second one, the first or second one we shot down after D Day, we had a bit of a battle with it a 177 and it finished up crashing
in the Cherbourg Peninsula, but just before it crashed we were so low over the cliffs there that I had to pull out and I had to look back and I saw some flames there but I wasn’t game to check but I knew I’d damaged it because I’d seen sparks all over it and but I claimed it as a probably destroyed, but the next day the ground troops reported the aircraft in the exact place where we said it was and we had it confirmed
but things like that. But when it is one on one it is much easier to do things like that than when you have a melee. The fighter claims on the whole are very accurate really.
You mentioned much earlier in the day you passed with flying colours your night vision.
That didn’t come into it really. In the end they gave us night vision goggles that were, like
a little pair of binoculars that if you look through even normal binoculars at night or poor light they gather the light in a bit and you can see a bit better than what you can with plain eyesight. But these night vision goggles, but nowadays it’s been perfected, like, they have infrared and all sorts of things. We had these goggles and if we wanted to use them we could use them
to help identify what were we were following, so we did make use of them but not real…Because by the time we got close enough to use the night vision we could usually work out what it was especially when you’re seeing the same aircraft a few times in the air but we did have them when it was a very important and difficult. We were told just after D Day that the Americans had brought over this
this aircraft called the Black Widow which they were going to use for night fighting and it was a twin-boom aircraft and we had pictures of it and they showed them all to us and they said, “You won’t see them. You won’t see them. They’ve been told they are not to come down below a certain such line in England over the front marker so you won’t see them but we thought we better let you know what they look like.” So next things here’s one of them floating around come down to have a look at the war and
if we hadn’t been told that they were there we would have shot it down because the only other aircraft apart from the Lightning that we knew the Germans had a Focke-Wolfe twin-engine aircraft which was not exactly the same but very similar that we’d never seen before either, and we would have, we feel that we would have shot it down but we looked at it and looked at it and looked at it and I said to Bill, “I reckon it’s one of these bloody Black Widows that the Americans have.”
So I’ve often thought that I would like to write a letter to the Black Widow Association, if they’ve got one in America, and tell them how bloody lucky one of them was that we knew what we were looking at and they didn’t get shot down over D Day, but I’ve never done it.
Well what, can you describe what would you use as markers to identify the enemy?
The silhouette. The shape of them. You get that way. We used to spend a lot of time
looking at in the dark just the shadow of them, the silhouette of them because what you tried to do all the time was get the aircraft mainly of the enemy to get it against the lightest part of the sky. Sometimes that was, you would go this side of it to get it up against the lightest part of the sky or sometimes the horizon or against clouds at night or
anything but you wanted to always try and get it so it was between you and the lightest part of the sky. There is always some light source at night, almost always. The stars, when you get a really black night and you can’t see anything but just the stars it is unusual. There is almost always some part of the sky whether the moon set or whether the sun is coming up so your aim was always to get a
silhouette of it against the light and from that silhouette, we had practiced it so much that we could almost tell straight away as soon as we saw that was that aircraft was and also you could see the exhaust coming out of most of them although some of them were pretty cunningly concealed so that was another thing we used to put. The shape of the tailplane and lots of little things. Occasionally, if the light was everywhere,
we would see the Swastika, not the Swastika, but the German Cross on them. Occasionally but not very often. That was fairly rare really. We didn’t that close to them and by the time we did get that close to the rear gunner they could see you and blow you out of the sky so you had to use a bit of. But if you kept in the dark part all the time. When we were stalking them we always tried to stay in the dark part of the sky and have them silhouetted against the light that was part of the whole scheme.
And how close did you need to come?
Only a few hundred feet away, a few hundred feet. Sometimes 2, 300 feet but we used to usually fire from about 4, 500 feet, 600 feet. 200 yards away. It depended. Some nights you couldn’t see them that far away really when there was no light out.
You had to get very close to see them, and of course they couldn’t see you, like, so you had to have the advantage, and once you picked them up and you were satisfied what they were, we used to, usually 500 feet away or something like that, and you get too close and they do blow up you get some of the refuse yourself and you can injure yourself. The one that blew me out was an
usual thing. It was most unusual that you hit a bomb, like, but you don’t usually get a bomb go off upstairs there.
And what were the ammo in the load you were carrying on the Mosquito?
20 mm. We had 4 x 20mm guns. Very lethal really. Very lethal. The, I think there was a few traces amongst them so we could see.
The reason they put tracer bullets in with the others was so that you could see where your bullets are going and if you are missing you can see why you are missing like and the tracers are, and they, people firing at you do the same thing, and so a couple of times when we were fired at I can remember see a tracer bullet coming at you it the dead of night and it looks like it is going to hit you right there and it goes past, or over if you are lucky,
but it looks like its coming right at you and it’s a bit scary at night when they are coming at you.
Well what sort of evasive?
Well if they were firing at us. The times we got fired at we were doing the firing too so you just hoped that the firing you were doing was making the gunner so nervous he couldn’t shoot straight but that didn’t happen a lot. Most of the ones we shot down didn’t know we were there. They didn’t know we were there until it was all over.
How did you know that?
Because we never got fired at all and they were just doozying along and they didn’t take any evasive action. They didn’t know anyone was chasing them. They were just sitting there waiting and we found them and shot them down with out and we were quite sure that they never knew what happened. That happened quite a lot at night. Not so very often in daytime.
Although most of what happened in the daytime blokes diving out the sun. You couldn’t see with them with the sun up and they would dive out of the sun towards their target and they would arrive sometimes before anyone knew they were coming sometimes. It wasn’t that hard especially on a dark night.
Well when you are in a crew of two, what’s the success of that team?
It’s just like a marriage. I am doing everything
he tells me to do. He is looking into a radar screen and he can see the aircraft and where it is and what position it is and whether we are overtaking it and the instruction he gives to me is sort of something like this, “Left, left, left, straighten up, he’s up above us, he’s above us, climb up a bit, we are overtaking him too quick, throttle back,” instructions like this all the time until I can get a visual, until I can
see and when I can see I just say, “I’ve got it.” And then it’s up to me to do the rest of it, but up until that time I am just doing what I am told from what he can see on the radar.
So you had the?
I had the firing buttons and that. I did the firing and I had the gun sight and all that sort of thing so if I got a visual on it, it was my responsibility then, but he had to get me
a visual, get me into a position where I could see it and that was his job. Bill always used to have a great joke. He used to tell everyone, “The trouble with Cowry, I’d tell him to climb and throttle back and he couldn’t do it,” that meant you just fall out of the sky if you do that. You can’t climb and cut the engine like. That was his big joke. He reckoned I couldn’t follow his instructions when he told me to throttle back and climb, but he had to give me instructions and I had to interpret them the best I could,
but sometimes he’d tell from the radar that they were coming head on. Sometimes we would pick something that was coming head on and we had to wait until they got to a certain thing and then we’d swing around and do a loop and try and get on their tail you see and he had to give me a bit of an idea. As soon as it was coming rapidly we knew that we were head on and we weren’t following it so we had to do a loop and get behind it. It was quite an interesting, clever task really.
The observer who was guiding me had to be, his skill depended on your success to a large extent. Once you could see it was up to me about what to do. Very skilful, and Bill was excellent.
And Bill was on 456 Squadron with you?
Yes, oh yes. He was with me the whole time I was on 456. Yes, very interesting man he was.
Can we just, it sounds like from your descriptions, your great descriptions there’s not much room, there’s no real margin for error really?
Not really, not really. There was a terrible lot of enemy aircraft got chased and got away, especially if they knew they were being chased and if the other aircraft you were followed was more
manoeuvrable or as fast as you were. Towards the end of the war the Germans used to send of Focke-Wolfe 190s and they used to hide and they used to dive from about 30,000 feet and terrific speed towards England and drop a bomb and then turn around, and they still have half their height and they would head back towards France or the Territory again downhill all the way, and they were already fast aircraft and when they were going downhill they were much faster
and we picked them up some nights and just couldn’t catch them. Not even in a Mosquito. They were faster than us going down in a dive, but that’s why they did it that way, but it had the advantage of although they achieved their objective of dropping a bomb, they didn’t have any hope of working out of where it was going to land half the time. It was what they called nuisance raids really. They didn’t, it wasn’t accurate bombing. They just flew over with a fighter and 500 pound
bomb just let us know the war was still on but we didn’t have a lot of success with those. One or two got shot down but we couldn’t catch them. Very frustrating. But so a lot were missed and if they knew you were behind them they would you know and at night. In the daytime it’s one thing you can see them all the time but at night you’ve only got limited range of vision anyway and as soon as they get out of that you lose them again and clouds of course,
easy to hide in.
Well by this stage of the war when you are with 456 what was your squadrons view of the enemy and their capability?
Hard question on behalf of the squadron. Well we knew that technology was changing all the time and at the end of the war the Germans were getting a few. When I told you that the
Mosquito was the fastest aircraft - that wasn’t actually the night fighting ones that we had because we had so much equipment on with the radar and so forth and photo reconnaissance Mosquitoes could outpace anything at one stage, but a lot of the German aircraft they had during the war, the jet aircraft and what have you, were superior to what the Mosquito was and sometimes we used to just get behind aircraft and away and we knew that we had struck a German jet or something.
I think a 262 was one of them from memory, so technologically towards the end of the war the Germans were, technology for, aircraft technology and that was at a fairly high level, and if the war had gone on they might have had even better aircraft, so it was always a cat and mouse to see who was in front. Fortunately, I think we stayed in front in the end
with the radar that we carried which made us more effective, but we didn’t necessarily keep up with the - at the same time, we were producing jets then almost and faster aircraft so it was a, you were never in front for long. It was like a horse race. There was always someone else breaking the record. I’ve got a few horses. One won the other day. Sorry.
Talking horsy jargon.
Well you mentioned that it was a little bit difficult to keep up your spirits towards the end of the war.
Yes it was. I spirits were great but you sort of became more cautious. Slightly more cautious
when you had the opportunity to do so, but I don’t think - Bill and I used to joke, “We are not going to get any posthumous VCs [Victoria Cross],” but we never failed to do our duty though. There was never any thought of ducking or anything, but we never went that extra foolish bit that you might have done earlier in the war. We were just that little bit more reserved. It seemed a waste
to throw your life away, but you were still conscience enough that we would do our duty and we will never do anything less, but as times come you have to make a judgment about what is stupid and what is unnecessarily stupid and that happened at times. I mean, we went out one night over an aerodrome in France.
We were supposed to shoot up this aerodrome and a bloke was supposed to drop a flare over the aerodrome and he dropped it a few miles away or something and he kept saying, “Can you see them?” and I said, “No I can’t see them,” and we looked and looked and Bill said, “I’m buggered if I can see him.” I don’t know what he did, but the next thing he said, “Well I’m going in,” and next, “I’ve been shot up. I’m on one engine. Mayday,” and all this business, and he was trying to be a bit of a
hero himself because he dropped the flare in the wrong place and did something stupid to try and make up for the error that he made, and he wanted us to do the same and we couldn’t see. I wasn’t going in and try and shoot up something I couldn’t see what I was shooting at. So we came home and never fired our guns. I don’t know where he finished up. He either crash landed or make a forced landing somewhere, but we thought he was foolish. He obviously was
showing a bit of bravado to cover up the blue he made when he dropped the flare. So little things like that. We pressed on not regardless but satisfactorily, and some of the jobs, we didn’t have any choice. We just had to do what we were asked to do and hope for the best, but I think a lot of people felt the same way. You can understand, can’t you? The early part of the war, we all thought, “We are going to die.” Half way through the war we thought, “God
we are still alive.” And at the end of the war you see the end of the war coming and you think, “God, we might make it yet.” I think a lot of people went through that. The lucky ones that lived through it. We were lucky to live through it. I was lucky to live through it, I know that.
And what role do you think having a family through this time played for you?
Well, I thought it was the sane things in the middle of
stupidity and danger and sadness. I thought it was wonderful. It was the most wonderful thing I ever did, but of course it could have been a disaster. I used to go out every night and not knowing whether something was going to happen. It must have been hard for Kay, but we found it lovely.
Okay. Well we might stop there and.
We almost got the war over now, haven’t we?
We’re just about getting to the end
of the war this is true. This will be our…
Interviewee: Robert Cowper Archive ID 1562 Tape 09
Before we finish up with the war, I would just like to ask you about the caterpillar club and the goldfish. Are they, do you belong to these clubs as a badge of honour?
I think the, it was first started by the Arvin [?], a parachute company, they started it. It was an American company of course, and they started
this club. It could have easily been an advertising gimmick, I don’t know, but apart from some patriotic thing, but the criteria was that you, if you had to save your life by the use of a parachute. It wasn’t a matter of just having a jump out and having
one time. But if you saved your life using one of their parachutes in an emergency, then you were eligible. They sent you a little caterpillar, a little gold…similar to what is on the tie, a little gold caterpillar with the date on the back and they send that to you and they started that thing and then I think the
goldfish club got in on the act a bit, like, I think, and they thought it would be a good idea for everyone who had saved their life in a dingy got a badge. So as well as all that they started this. Particularly in the desert and sometimes in Europe there were a lot of cases in the desert were blokes crashed their aircraft after combat or whatever and managed to, because of the
terrain and the lack of population and whatever, managed to get back to their things and walk home, so someone brought in this later rollers club with a flying boot if you, after combat from enemy territory, you could get home by foot or other means, they called that the Late Arrival Club. But sadly blokes that landed in, now let me think how they did it.
They didn’t class what they called air raiders, I think if blokes bailed out over Germany and got picked up by the Germans and brought home or something like that. I might be wrong there, but there is some distinction between an invader. Yes, that’s right. I’m getting mixed up with prisoner of war. You weren’t considered to be a prisoner of war or be eligible
to claim to be a prisoner of war unless you were actually captured even though you might have landed in enemy territory and got out and were assisted to get out without being put in a prison camp. They called you an invader rather than a prisoner of war and for some reason or other they didn’t get some of the privileges. I’m getting off the track now, but no, if you walked back from the enemy lines after action
you got the…So that’s how it all happened and when we were in Malta. It wasn’t me. I never made the, I never made an application to any of them. It seemed either my promotions officer or whether the members of some of the squadrons were responsible for sending in the application or whatever it is, because I’ve got a copy of one from when I was in Malta and it said,
you know, in writing to the goldfish club saying that I had been picked up at sea and all this business and it just automatically come and next thing I got this thing from the goldfish club, you get this certificate and things and one thing and another. And that’s how it happened. I didn’t initiate any of it. The system somehow handled it and I just got this membership, made a member because of the information that had been
passed onto them and I was eligible and they made me a member.
And what does it mean to you to be a member?
Well, nothing in, there’s no financial advantage in it. The only thing, it’s one thing that sort of arrives on you after you had an experience, and most of the clubs have a publicity officer and they send you
a newsletter once a or twice a year and you are aware of other people. It brings together. Sometimes they have a social function in England or somewhere of all the caterpillar members and get together and have dinner somewhere and a reunion. It can lead to some people having a social contact with others that did the same thing, but to me it’s just being a bloody boat I suppose that I got the three of them
and I’m still alive. I’m not, not really. I don’t boast about it, but I don’t think there would, there would be a lot of people who got two of them, and certainly a lot of people who got the flying boot from walking home in the desert and some of them would have got that, and probably some of them have got the three. But I haven’t actually met anyone who said they had the three, but there must be some of them.
You were also
called to Buckingham Palace for the bestowal of your medals. How did that come about?
Well, I just got a letter from, a letter of course which I have copies, of saying an investiture will be held at Buckingham Palace on such a day and you, to met His Majesty and one thing and another and I forget the actual wording of it all
but it comes in a letter and it tells you what time you’re supposed be there and who you can bring with you. Whether you are going to be accompanied by whoever, and I just got this letter and it was that I was requested to attend an investiture with His Majesty King George VI and I was able to bring two other persons with me
and the time it was and a few restrictions on it. Not about dress or anything, but just most about the time and everything that I had to be there and the date when I was going to be there and so forth, and that letter came and so I made arrangements to be there.
How did you feel when you received that letter?
I was chuffed. I was pretty glad to know that. I wasn’t sure at that stage
whether it happened while I was still over there or what, but I was chuffed you know.
Having entered the war mainly for king rather than country, how did that weigh on your experience?
Well I was, I think people are a bit two-faced about this sort of thing a bit because whether we like to admit it or not, whether we reckon we have any sympathies
to the royalty or that the same people that say get down and do their curtesy when the queen came and they have this sort of saying that ‘everyone is related to royalty’. ‘I knew a man who knew a man who danced with the Prince of Wales’ or something is the old saying, but the - even if you know what they say to you when they meet you, you still get a certain amount of pleasure out of thinking that you were there and that they
even took the time to sort of say something to you that was personal. That was what got me more than anything about meeting the king. I thought he would just walk out and pin it on me and say, “Good show,” and I would say, “Thank you, Sir,” and that would be that and then each time after he gave one a medal and he stepped back and obviously his aide of com [command] or master of ceremonies or whoever it was would say to
him, “Well this gentleman who is coming up next is so and so and so and so,” and give him something to say to him and he walked up to me and put it on and he said, “When was it you came down and crashed in the desert?” And I sort of thought, “How did the king know?” And even though I knew he had been told, it still was something to think that, like, the king knew anything
about what you did or anything. I used to joke with the kids about it after the war, and when I had some of the talks, but like, even though I knew it happened, I was chuffed to think he would go out of his way to say something personal to me instead of just hanging the ribbon on me but I think. They said to Monty when he was out in the desert, Monty always used to, he would be travelling around and he would have about
50 papers rolled up ready you know the local 8th Army News or something and every time he jumped out to go and see the news and every time he’d go up to someone he’d saw, “Would you like my paper?” and he’d get back in and get another one and people would say, “Monty gave me his paper.” That was something that not everyone got. So it’s a sort of PR [Public Relations] exercise but I thought. I was chuffed because he was a very
sick man. You could see he was a very sick man at the time. He was fairly heavily made up to cover the pallor of his cheeks and one thing and another. I noticed, I was close enough to him to see that he had some make up because I think he was in the process of starting to die and so on. He didn’t last long after that. So that was my moment of glory, I suppose, that he wanted to know when I crashed in the desert
and I thought, “Well, fancy the king asking me that.” So we are all a bit vain about things like that underneath it all. Even if we know it’s cooked up sort of thing.
If I can skip forward a bit now to your last sortie when did that happen?
The last operation I would have to look in my log book but it would have been in the middle of 1945.
May or June or something like that. I think the last flight that I did in England was, I flew a Beaufighter. I don’t know why. To pick someone up or something. But the last operational thing would have been in May, late May or something like that.
And where were you when you heard the news that the war had ended?
At Bradwell Bay in Essex, and I got…
There was a couple of quite unusual things happened to me there. At that time, the CO had killed himself and no, he hadn’t killed himself on the actual day but he did a couple of days afterwards, but I was given the job because I was senior flight commander. The first thing that happened on D Day itself, all our aircraft were declared unserviceable.
What they did, they thought that when the war ended that some silly coots would get up in an aeroplane and do some aerobatics or something stupid, so all the aircraft were rendered unsuitably. They took the magnetos and disarmed them all so no one could do anything stupid with an aeroplane when celebrating and the next thing that happened, the station commander came and saw the CO and said, “We’ve just had a request from headquarters
to say that the commander, the German commander in Jersey Island won’t surrender. He’s going to fight on the war on his own and we want a squadron, not a, six aircraft from your squadron and two or three other squadrons, Mosquitoes, we want them to get them, arm them and we want them to fly over the Jersey Island in a feat of strength just to let him know
that if he doesn’t pack it in…God knows what we were supposed to do, but it was a show of strength just to convince him he had to pack it in. I had to go out. On our aerodrome we had two hotels, two pubs in the aerodrome circuit and I had to go out with everyone drunk, just about drunk on the day after the war ended, and get six aircraft in the air,
get crews and everything like that. They were all in the pubs and things. First of all, I knew two blokes were teetotallers so I got them out of bed first. I got one crew that hadn’t had anything to drink and I knew were all right then I had to go around and find the armourers and mechanics to make the aircraft serviceable and find people who fortunately it was early in the day and not too many of were too far gone or anything, and I had to get,
I had to do the biggest salesmanship. Can you imagine walking into the pub the day after the war is over and try to tell some blokes that they are needed to go and fly their aeroplanes again? The war’s not over, they have to go and fly over the Jersey Islands. They’d say, “For Christ sake, shut up and have a bloody drink, man.” It was all just unreal. So I had to go around and get all these. I finished up getting six aircraft and all the armourers and so on. it was a difficult, difficult job
and we finished up getting six aircraft in the air together with the others and we flew over the Jersey Islands and when we got there they had put the white flags up so we were never know whether it was because we were coming or we were there or he had changed his mind, anyway, before we left, but we can claim that we got the surrender of the Jersey Islands by flying over them. That was a bit of queer one.
Was it a completely sober air crew?
problems at all. I got everybody in the air and then that was on, while we had the aircraft. I think it was only that 24 hours or so we got the chance of flying all over Germany. We had two trips. We had two days in beautiful weather and we went out the squadron practically all the squadron and we flew over Germany and the Rhuhr and everything in daylight just to see what
it all looked like from the air when the war was over. It was really awful it really left an impression on me. Some of the towns, well parts of England were the same. You looked down and all you can see are what looks like a lot of sheep yards or something. There are no rooves on any of the houses and you can see the walls and the rooms and where it was and hundreds of them in areas where there were just - for the first time without any
fear or anything the first time we witnessed what really happened to them over there and not that it didn’t happen. We have no regrets in many ways because they started it. They bombed London without worrying two hoots about it and but, and Rotterdam and Coventry and everywhere else, so they started bombing with any discrimination so
it wasn’t that feeling, but it was an appalling site nevertheless. The Cologne Cathedral was this frame standing up there in the middle of Cologne. It was just a framework. It looked like all the windows had been broken just standing there right in the middle of Cologne and everything about it flat. Very wonderful thoughts and wonderful sights to have seen after the war. We did that for two days. Two flights over Germany just having a look. We did two trips over there
for several hours just having a look at them. I took different passengers with me from fighter command, so that was the sort of thing I did in the war that had any connection to the war really.
Was that the last time you flew?
No I don’t think it was the last time. I think I ferried an aircraft from A to B somewhere but that was the last time I flew a Mosquito I think.
And how was that feeling?
It was a wonderful feeling, I think. I was still alive and my wife and baby were safe, and all I worried about then was how we were going to get back to Australia.
And how did…?
Even that turned out to be a bit of trauma but we got there. Kay in the end got a boat. She wasn’t immigrating. She was being repatriated and that gave her a slightly different sort of…the fact that she was an Australian with an Australian passport,
like, she was being repatriated which gave her priority over someone who was immigrating. Most of the war brides, you know, immigrants as it were, so we got back eventually. We had a bit of a tussle with a bloke at Parliament House, Australia House at one stage. I won’t go into that.
How did they come home eventually?
They came home on a boat called the Empire Grace.
The war against Japan ended while she was on the way home, actually. They turned all the lights on in the ship on the way home. When she left the war was still going on in Japan or nearing its end, so she came out with 30 other women, mostly with children and that on the Empire Grace and she had a bit of a rough trip through. She had a nine-month-
old baby and coming through the hot part of the sea the Red Sea and one thing and another was a bit trying but she managed it all right.
Japan was still in the war when she…
When she left.
When she left. That must have been a very stressful goodbye.
Yes, yes. Well the war was over there and Japan seemed an awful long way away and we
didn’t really expect it in the way I think Japan must have been. I suppose because it was only a week a way there must have been signs that Japanese war was winding down, whether it was after the bombs about just about the time when they obviously were getting the upper hand, so I don’t think either of us thought that they were going to get sunk on the way home or anything. We, I think that they probably chose a route that was reasonably fairly safe, but she says that she remembers
the lights coming on and they announced on the boat that the war was over in Japan. It was a stressful time. It was nearly as bad as moving here. Seventeen pieces of furniture to get on the boat with a pram and a baby and trunks and we had to change trains and like you do in England, but that was all, it was a wonderful time really. I wouldn’t leave England until I got her on the boat
because I heard stories about some of the blokes that had gone home and had been promised their wives would follow them and were still waiting a year later, so I stood on my dig then when I went and saw them in Australia House and the chap that I saw made the mistake of asking whether I knew the…I had to make the first arrangement when I came back from Malta. When I’d been to Malta not just after and he said to me,
he made the mistake of saying to me, “Don’t you know there’s a war on?” and I stood up and grabbed him by the tie and said some rude things to him, so that was how I was wound up a bit, but it wasn’t the right thing to say to me after I thought my bit of trauma.
And how did you come back from England?
I came back on the Dominion Monarch. It was really good.
It was a dry ship [no alcohol] but we played cards most of the way home. We played a competition all the way home and drank tomato juice and orange juice all the way home. Played bridge, competition bridge all the way home and by the time I arrived back in Australia I was really at the top of my tree with playing bridge. But I
haven’t played it for 40 years or something.
And what was your homecoming like?
It was, it was rather funny. It sort of fell flat a little bit. We arrived in Melbourne and I got on the Melbourne Express and came home by train. From memory, I don’t remember seeing many other airmen at the time, and I came back and I got out at the platform at Adelaide and these women
and my mother came up and, “How are you going love?” in this broad Australian. I thought, “My god, what’s happened to her?” I didn’t realise that after being five years away and in England for so much of the time that I would notice the accent, but as soon as I noticed that everyone talked to me in Australian. “G’day, g’day.” But no, it was wonderful though.
And how did you find the transition of coming out of uniform and
into civilian life?
Well the interesting part about coming out of uniform, I don’t know, when I got home a lot of us it seems funny to say now but I read a lot of about it, but a lot of the permanent air force wanted to get us out of uniform as quick as they could because they thought we were going to come back and pinch their jobs. This is true you know. There is documentation about it
and they couldn’t get me out, I was out in a flash. I wasn’t even put on the reserve or anything. I had to report down to Doyles Road and before I knew where I was I was out. That didn’t particularly worry me. I didn’t want to stay in but I was never given the opportunity to see if I wanted to go on the reserve or anything but that was another thing. But coming out and my old employer Halls Bankshore offered me the job back again if I wanted it,
and I told him I was just thinking about things and I went and gave a talk to the Legacy Club [association caring for families of war veterans] about, when I got back. I was still in uniform I think, and a few days after a woman said, her father was a legatee and one of her father’s friends was a Legacy president and what not, and asked me to come as a guest speaker every week and talk there and after the talk
the manager of Dunlop rubber came up to me and said, “What are you going with yourself?” and I said, “Nothing yet.” And he said, “Come and see me on Monday morning. You are the sort of bloke I’m looking for. I’ll give you a job.” So I thought it wouldn’t cost me anything to go and find out, so he gave me a job on the spot at Dunlop rubber and a better proposition that I had at Bankshores. I took the job and I was there for two or three years and then I was working so hard
and I started up a workshop there and everything and I got this chance of buying a service station very cheaply that was run down on Glenaltern Road and so we put my reserve pay and a few bob we had and borrowed some money from the insurance company and we bought it and I did that for nine years until I got enough money to buy my farm, which I really wanted to do all the time.
And what did you miss about the air force?
Nothing much. It’s funny, really, because it sounds a bit strange, but most of the young airmen that came to our squadron towards the end of the war all finished up being airline pilots. I didn’t want, I didn’t care if I never saw another aeroplane when I came out. I just wanted to make a new life for myself and wife and baby, and flying aeroplanes…I’d done all the flying and had all the fights that I want.
If they offered me a job. The interesting thing about it, Don Anderson who finished up the director of Civil Aviation got in touch with me at one stage and said, “Do you want a job in the Civil Aviation Department?” and I said, “Sorry Don, aeroplanes are out. I’ve decided on what I’m going to do.” I would have been a vet if there had a been a chair of veterinary science, I would have done it, but it meant that I would have had to leave home and go to Tasmania
or Queensland or Sydney I think. There was no chair of veterinary science in Adelaide and I didn’t want to leave home again. I wanted to get busy and get a roof over my head.
You mentioned that earlier on when you came back from Malta that you had some hard times sleeping and nightmares and so on when you actually came back from war did you have any nightmares?
Oh yeah. I used to wake up at times
and try and get out of the aircraft. Be in a sweat. Oh yes. It went on for quite a while. I’d wake up and just a sigh of relief that it was only a dream again and covered in sweat and because I had been struggling to get out and that was the most reoccurring thing that I had and I had that for some time. Off and on it got less and less and less. It
still used to come back to me occasionally and I never think of it these days or anything like that, but for a year or two I’d occasionally dream I was fighting for my life.
Do you mind if I ask what the nightmares consisted of?
Well, mostly I was trapped in this aircraft and it was going down and I couldn’t get out of it, which was really what sort of happened in a way to me, and that
feeling of frustration and terror of being trapped before, not being able to get out before it crashed. That was the feeling of reoccurring. Always the similar detail about what aircraft or anything, but just sort of a recurrence of my experience there and that reoccurred for a long while and a lot of the blokes had similar things. A lot of them drank too much
after the war and really needed counselling, I think, but no one ever, no one was counselled after the war. If you had something wrong with you, you either drove your wife mad or your family or you got drunk or whatever. I don’t think, I think a lot of people came home with problems but they were ones that you were supposed to work through yourself, which we did.
And what about Bill, how was it saying goodbye to Bill
at the end of the war?
It was all right. He, yes we weren’t together at the last bit. He was posted to another aerodrome before we actually left and so I didn’t see him when I got on the actual boat or anything, but I saw him so little time before I left, but we wrote to one another incessantly after the war and he came out here two or three times, so it was never a final goodbye. He was in England at that time
and spent, the University of Manchester where he got his professorship in Anthropology, Doctor of Philosophy. I don’t know if he got that, but he was working, going, that was his programme. He was going to Manchester University, but I knew saw him again until he came out to Australia to visit me, but we wrote to one another often. Very interesting man. I could write a book about.
There is a lot more about Bill I could tell you, but this is not about Bill. I could write a book about him one day.
Well, as we come to the end of the day and looking back on your war experience, what would you say was your proudest moment of the war?
Oh dear. Proudest moment. It’s hard.
I suppose as far as recognition I would have to say my trip to Buckingham Palace, but no, the proudest moment of the war was when I held my baby in my arms.
And how would you like your experiences to be remembered?
I think the war changed all of us. It changed your priorities. Most of us I think came out of it probably better people than when we were young. We weren’t so petty. I don’t know that. I just think
my family are more important than anyone else. I don’t care if anyone else remembers me.
How did the war change you?
It gave me a better view of life and as I say things perhaps that people think
are important aren’t important. When you come home and you’ve been through the war and you’re still alive and you feel it was all worthwhile because in the end whatever we did personally I think changed the war. It made the world a safer place. You’ve only got to think if the Japanese and the Germans had been winning the world and running the world
at that time with their philosophies and their callousness and everything, so we felt that we had done something that was really worthwhile and I think it changed us in the sense…I always said when I came home living near neighbours and that sort of thing, I wouldn’t go to court over some leaves falling over my back fence or something, and there’s things that people get really
upset about that, I think you need bigger things to move you. That you want to feel like you want to give something back, and that’s why I joined Legacy and have been a great interest and satisfaction.
And what, what do you miss about the air force?
That’s a hard one really. Well I think it’s hard to put into words. I don’t miss it an awful lot. I don’t miss it in the sense that, I’ve got boys in our squadron, Bill Griffin, he’s 83 and he’s just bought a new aeroplane to fly. He never got over it. He came to the end of the war and he just lives to fly aeroplanes.
So I’ve never been bitten by the bug like that. I think the experience I had was just enough to make me realise I was lucky to be alive and don’t push it too far. Don’t get airborne again because everything that goes up has got to come down. I don’t mind flying. I’ve been in a jumbo, but no. I haven’t got…I’ve been up in an aeroplane a few times. Sometimes I go outside and see the beautiful clouds
and think it would be quite nice to whiz around up there and play around in the clouds, but never in the sense, never to the extent that I get a real urge, a real urge that I get overwhelmed that I’ve got to out to an airfield and hire a plane or pay someone to take me up. No, no real, no urges to fly. Quite a lot of our boys have finished up being airline pilots and most of those came in the latter part of the war and never got, I always say they never got enough
frights. I don’t know if that is a fair comment in some cases.
And if you could any advice to future generations what would it be?
All this heavy stuff isn’t it really. The only thing I tell all my kids and grandsons is to be honest. I don’t know, it’s a…
just to be honest and to treat other people as you would like to be treated and try to be petty about things. You know, to be a friend. To get a friend you have to be a friend. To be loved you have to love
someone. A bit corny. That’s how I feel and no big stuff, but I feel that you have to sort of fight some things, for anything you think is right, and I despair of the, some of the trends that are going on now with young people. It’s awful.
What happens. Why are children burning down their schools and pinching cars day and night? Is it the parents’ fault, is the education, is it a complete loss of religious sort of basics? What is it? It’s so complex to try and put a finger on it all, but there are some very worrying trends I think that are leading
us, aren’t leading us to a better society. I mean, some of the problems that they are bringing up like aboriginal problems and whatnot. I’ve had friends and the aborigines broke their heart and they tried to help them and they broke their heart, so some problems. A lot of people are saying they are going to solve them but they seem to go on year after year and the solution isn’t easy as people make out.
And I think with the youth people. I think it is bad parents. Parents that, not just economics, but when we were on the farm and that we had hard times on the farm and we lived very frugally to get through the seasons, but we never went to sleep before the kids came home to bed. Some parents don’t seem to know what their children are doing.
Running around. Pinching cars, vandalising. I don’t know. That’s a new thing that we older people can’t quite understand. The thought of kids getting up and going to burn their school down and set fires. Where does such a thought come from? I mean, in our younger days we would never have dreamt of such a thing, so some things
are a worry. We hope that the world is a better place. It has made up safer, I think, until these new things come along. It’s a bit of a worry and I can’t offer a simple solution to it all except the way we live I think.
Well thanks very much Bob for your time and for sharing your story with us.
It got tough, didn’t it? God, you have better do a bit of editing there
I think. Don’t embarrass me too much.
Thank you very much Bob.