Archive number: 853
Preferred name: Blue
Date interviewed: 18 September, 2003
630 Squadron RAF
You are listening to the interview audio
So, do you want to tell us about your life, Lionel?
I was born in Brisbane at Coorparoo, I was born at home, because in those days babies were born at home. The midwife and the doctor came and I was born at home. And I lived in Coorparoo all my young life.
I went to school at the Coorparoo State School. Did all the things that kids do. In those days, Coorparoo was an outer suburb of Brisbane; it’s not any longer. The bush came right up to our back fence, so we had a pretty free life. We could jump the back fence and hike through the bush to White’s Hill, without any danger in those days. There was never any thought of us
being in any danger at all. We knew the way. These were the pre-Depression years and Depression years. I remember our street wasn’t even sealed with bitumen. We used to play cricket. I look at the Darcy Doyle paintings now and I think, “That’s my childhood. That’s exactly what it was like. Playing cricket in the street with all the kids around the neighbourhood and that sort of thing.” So, in many ways it was a very
free lifestyle. My father was a World War I infantryman. And the family had to live with that a little bit. His health wasn’t always as good as it ought to be. He was a labourer. We were not a very wealthy family. My father, in the whole of his life, never owned a motor car. So we weren’t a very
wealthy family. The Depression affected us very badly. My father was a labourer with the Brisbane City Council Tramways in those days. And whilst he was never out of work during the Depression, he used to work two weeks and have a third off. The Depression hit us badly, as it did all the families in our neighbourhood. There weren’t any people it didn’t affect.
But despite that we got through. My mother always organised things. We always had food on the table, perhaps not always enough. But we always had food and we always had a bed to sleep in and we always had clothes to wear. We had patches on our trousers, but we always had trousers. I remember one thing she was very particular about. We were never allowed to go to school barefoot. We always had to wear shoes and socks to school.
We couldn’t go barefoot, even though we wanted to. And a lot of kids didn’t wear shoes and socks to school, because they didn’t have shoes and socks. It was a pretty tough time in those days, but we got through. I passed, what was in those days, the scholarship examination, which entitled me to go high school. There were no high schools in the suburbs in those days, so I had to catch a tram every day and go into the city of Brisbane,
to what is now the site of QUT, the Queensland University of Technology. In those days it was the technical college and the State Commercial High School. I went to the State Commercial High School because my father decided I wasn’t going to be like him. I was going to be a white
collar worker, so I went to get a commercial education. Which is just as well, as it turns out. I’m a handless brute. I can’t drive a nail in. So even though I thought, “Why are you choosing what I’m going to do?” – it turned out to be a good choice and stood me in good stead all my life. So I did two years at State Commercial High School and sat for my junior public examination, and passed that. But,
then I had to go to work. Like most kids in those days. There weren’t too many of us that went past junior. Simply because there weren’t the facilities to go to; our families couldn’t afford to educate us any further. It was going to cost money, and they just didn’t have that money. It had been a struggle to get us as far as we had. So I had to look for work. In those days, there wasn’t a lot of work around.
I walked the streets of Brisbane for nine months, looking for work. I had odd jobs in-between then. I was a points boy on the tramways for a while, and I was a billy boy for a team of carpenters. One job I had I was leading a blind man around, begging door to door. And every time we got two and six pence, he got two bob and I got sixpence. You’d do anything
to get work. Go home at night, get the phone book and write letters to firms, asking if they wanted somebody to work for them. And then, because we couldn’t afford the postage, go into town the next day and deliver them, door to door. It was that sort of thing, until finally, I got a job in September, 1939. I got a job, temporary work,
with Colonial Sugar Refining, in their office in Eagle Street, simply because one of their people was called up to go to a three months camp. So, that was the start of my working life, then. That was how I got a kick-off. But I remember well hearing Bob Menzies come onto the radio and say that
the country was now at war. Because England was at war with Germany, Australia was at war. And I thought, “You beaut! I’m going to be out of here.” Because I was seventeen at that stage, and the restrictions of living at home under Dad’s discipline was starting to bind on me a little bit. I thought this was a good opportunity to get out of here. And it took me a couple of years, but I finally made it. So I worked with CSR, I think, for six months, then I got a
permanent job with a crowd called Olympic Tyre and Rubber Company, in their Brisbane office. And I stayed there until I joined up. I finally convinced my parents – I was under 21, so I had to have my parents’ consent to go and join up. My father, in his usual way, refused to sign the papers until my mother agreed. And my mother,
wouldn’t agree. So I thought there had to be a way around this. Eventually I came up with a scheme; they were starting to conscript people into the army, in those days. So I went to my mother and I said, “Now look here. They’re starting conscript. My time, eventually, is going to come, when I’m going to be conscripted into the army. Now I don’t want to go into the army, Mum. I want you to sign this form to let me join the air force, because if you don’t, I’m just going to sit here until the army
conscripts me, and when they do I’m going to desert and disgrace the family.” So she said, “Oh, I’ll sign the form. Provided you make me a financial allowance out of your pay.” Because they were still struggling after the Depression. So that was the deal I did. I made her a financial allowance. What married men do for wives, I did that for that my mother. And she signed the paper, and I
started the process then of getting into the air force. Because another fellow who worked in the same office I did, we’d been kidding each other along for some time about joining up. “I’ll ask my mother, if you ask your mother.” He was the son of a widowed mother. Anyway, we finally did this. The other problem that we had, the boss that I had, the manger of the firm that I worked for, he was a bit of a menace, too. He had some influence around the place somewhere. Because
he was getting people out – people were being called up for their three months camp, their compulsory training. And he was getting people out of it. So we said, “We’ve got to get around this, because if we let him know he will do something to stop this.” So we to the air force recruiting office and the King’s birthday was coming up. It was June, 1941. So we to the air force and said, “Are you open on the King’s birthday?” And they said, “Yes.” And we explained the problem we had
with this boss of ours. And they said, “Well, okay, you get here at eight thirty in the morning of the public holiday and we will get you through that day.” So that’s what we did. We went down there and we spent the whole day going through this process of getting in. The medical was very, very thorough, and it took all day. So that’s what we did. We arrived at work the next morning and said,
“We’ve joined the air force. We’ve taken the oath and accepted the Queen’s shilling.” He couldn’t get us out. The only problem I had, in the medical I was a bit short in height, so I couldn’t get a complete medical clearance for all air crew categories. I had to go out to Archerfield the next morning and do what they called a ‘leg length test’. To make sure when I sat in an aeroplane, I could reach the rubber peddles.
So out I went to Archerfield and I met this young flight lieutenant. And there was a Wirraway parked out the front. And he said, “I’m going to put you in the Wirraway, Lionel. I want you to sit in the seat, and I’m going to ask you to put on the port rudder, and hold it hard, and I’m going to go behind and see if I can move the actual rudder while you’re doing that.” So I got into this Wirraway, first time in my life I had even been near an aeroplane,
and I thought, and I looked, and I realised that I didn’t have a hope in hell of passing this test. And I thought, “That’s it.” Then I realised, he’s at the back, he can’t see what’s going on in here. So I sat forward on the seat, and I braced myself on the seat and I put both feet on the rudder, and I held it as hard as I could. And he said, “That’s okay, now put on the other rudder.” So I changed around and I did exactly the same thing and he said, “Yeah, you’re right.” And that’s how I got through the leg length test.
And from then on, all the flying I did, I had to be backed up with cushions behind me so that I could reach. So I paid for my sins. So, I was in. There was quite a waiting list from when you joined to when you actually started training. We joined in June 1941, but we didn’t get into full-time training until November. But in the meantime, they had these night classes.
We were doing night classes in navigation and Morse code and things like that, for these five months. So that when we got into the air force we had that bit of a start that we could go in. And finally, the day came; the 9th of November, 1941, it was. And we went the recruiting centre, and we were marched up to Central Station. The old Central Station, not like it is now, on the number four platform and we caught the Sandgate train,
and went into training at number 3 ITS [Initial Training School] at Sandgate, which is the site of the old aged persons’ home that’s there now. That started off its life as an RAAF [Royal Australian Air Force] training station. That was the start of a new life for me. I was nineteen, I had never been away from home; I had never done anything. But suddenly I was thrown into the world.
I remember my entrance there; we were in big long huts, thirty people to a hut. The beds were a steel thing with a wire mesh, and a bag full of straw. That’s what we slept on. Blankets, no sheets, incidentally. Blankets. And we got pillow slips. The arrangement was that the previous
course had to fill these palliasses [straw-filled mattresses] with straw for the new course coming in. When I got my palliasse, I found there was a little bit of straw, and mostly tins and bricks and bottles. I was away from my Mum for the first time and I got a bit emotional. It was hard not to have some tears. I can see the funny side of that now. That’s what courses did to each other, of course. So there I was at Sandgate,
starting my RAAF training. I loved it from the moment that I got there, I loved it. I remember the very first morning, we were still in our civvies of course, and we were kept out of sight. There was a parade, and the parade was up a roadway, just outside our hut. And I was sitting in the hut there, chatting to all the other blokes. We were all new, nobody knew each other. And all of a sudden there was this great roar at the end of the road.
It turned out to be Flight Sergeant Heggerty, the man with the bloodshot voice. He was roaring like a bull. When I got to know him, he was one of the kindest, most gentle men that you could ever meet. But that was my introduction to him. But I loved it, from the time I got in. The training went on, and we were all in together at that stage. We had two months of training, then we had to face a
categorisation board, to be categorised whether we were going to be pilots or navigators or wireless operators and so on. So I knew that I had done very well in the exams, so I had to face this categorisation board. One of the things they said to me was, “Can you ride a motorbike?” “No, I can’t ride a motorbike.” “Can you drive a motor car?” “No. I can’t drive a motor car.”
“Have you ever been in an aeroplane?” “Yes, in a Wirraway out at Archerfield once.” But I knew that I had the examination results to back me. There were about three hundred on the course, and I knew I was in the first ten. So I used that and I was categorised for pilot training. We had another month of ground training there. But it was a good life.
It was plenty of outdoor exercise. We had physical training as well as lectures. We had lots of drill on the square. And good food at regular times. We were like young fighting bulls. We were really, really healthy. Then, it was in the December, I think, that Japan came into the war. But from there, I went off to do my pilot
training. I went to Lowood, to do elementary flying training on Tiger Moths. And that was my first flight in an aeroplane of any sort, was my familiarisation trip in a Tiger Moth. With Sergeant Brennan, who was my instructor. So we were up for a few minutes and I was trying to get used to seeing trees from the top instead of from the bottom. And it’s different, just so, so different.
And all of a sudden he said to me, “I want you to put your feet on the pedals and take hold of the control column and see – ” And I said, “Who me?” I had been in an aeroplane for the first time, for ten minutes. He said, “I don’t see any other bugger up here. Do you?” So it was me. The training went on. It was interrupted a bit because the Americans arrived at Lowood with their Aero Cobras. The Aero Cobras were the
American pilots, who were fairly careless people. Anyway young Australian students flying Tiger Moths – just didn’t meld, somehow. So we were shifted out. And we went down to a place called Temora, in New South Wales, to finish our training. That set us back a little bit. Most of us took a little bit longer to go solo.
Eventually I went solo, on the 1st of April, 1942. And I remember sending a telegram to my mother. I’ve still got the telegram in my album there. Went solo today. And that was just three or four days after my 20th birthday, I went solo in a Tiger Moth. But Temora? Yeah, I enjoyed the Tiger Moth. I enjoyed all the air force,
but I enjoyed that bit of it. I remember at Temora there was this story around that the ground staff – See, air crew trainees went into a place and they were there for a month, six weeks, and went out again. But the ground staff people were there, so the town belonged to them, really. In those days, we used to wear a forage cap, and air crew trainees wore a little white flash on the front of the forage cap, that denoted us as air crew trainees. And these ground staff, they had set word around Temora
that out at the aerodrome there, there’s a venereal hospital. And all those fellows around town with white flashes on their caps, they’re the patients. So we had to live with that, in Temora. And I’ve spoken to other fellows and ground staff did that in other places as well. They did strange things to air crew trainees. From Temora I went to Mallalah, in
South Australia. A bit north of Adelaide. That was a very good station, too. We had a very good group captain there. Group Captain Garrett. We used to go down to Adelaide every second weekend. Instead of having a day and a half off every week. Air force? War time? I’m still having a day and a half off at the weekend. He said, “No, we’ll divide the station into halves, and the whole half of that station will go down to Adelaide for three days.”
So you’d do that every fortnight. So that’s what we used to do. They used to charter a special train, every Friday lunchtime, and off we went, down to Adelaide. And Adelaide was a good city for us. The hospitality was good. They had a cheer-up hut, just near the station, with hospitality for us.
And just behind that in the park was a hostel. The School Children’s Patriotic Fund [School’s Patriotic Fund—SPF] they called it. And we could get three nights in there for ten and six pence. And I remember Eddy Dill, who was in our hut at Mallalah, used to go around and collect the ten and six pences every fortnight, and book us into this hostel. We’d have three days in Adelaide, getting to know people there.
What sort of things did you do in Adelaide?
Well, I remember the first thing we used to do was to line up at a restaurant and have a grilled steak. It seemed to be part of the exercise. I had friends in Adelaide, I used to go and see them. We met the local girls in Adelaide and we used to go to shows and dances and pictures. There’s plenty
to do in Adelaide. We used to go down to Glenelg during the day time. We got to know some of the nurses in the Adelaide Hospital. Nurses were always good fun for air force fellows. They had an attitude to life which was much like ours I think. They were very disciplined in those days, too. Matron’s word was law down there. They had to be in by ten thirty, and often they weren’t in by ten thirty,
and they’d arranged with their mates. So we’d go down and throw pebbles at the window, to let their mates know to let them in through the back door. So we had lots of fun in Adelaide. Eventually, it came to ‘Wings Day’, and we had our wings parade. We were through our flying training and we were about to start our service training, which is more operational things. But we
had a big Wings Day parade, and we all lined up and the CO [commanding officer] presented our Wings to us. That was a good day. And I still have the original Wings that I was given on that day. I came off the parade, I took them off my uniform, put them n an envelope and mailed them home to my mother, and she kept them.
So that was Wings Day. We went on from there, and we were flying Avro Ansons at Mallalah. And we did our service training. There was much more night flying and cross country training and that sort of thing, in those days, navigation exercises, until we got through our service training, I think, in October. Then we had to cool our heels.
We were posted to an embarkation depot. Back to Sandgate, actually. We weren’t there long, and we were posted down to another embarkation depot at Bradfield Park, in Sydney. That was a long wait, we were there – I think early November we got there, and I didn’t get out of there until January, so we were just cooling our heels in Sydney,
and we were just generally wasting time, really. We went into Sydney every night and it got pretty boring, really. We did all sorts of things, but it was just wasting time really. Then eventually in January, 1943, we were posted, we didn’t know where, we just knew it was overseas. We guessed we were going to UK or Europe, because all of our summer gear was taken from us.
We were sent from Sydney to Melbourne, and we got on a ship in Melbourne. Away we went; we didn’t know where we were headed. The first indication we had of where we were was when we got to San Francisco harbour. Some people knew it was San Francisco because they knew of the Golden Gate Bridge. I’d never heard of the Golden Gate Bridge in the whole of my life. They were talking about the Golden Gate,
and I thought, “The Golden Gate? What’s that?” And it turned out to be a bridge, of course. So at San Francisco we were taken off the ship and straightaway put onto a troop train, in San Francisco. Some of the blokes on the ship were trainees that went up to Canada; some were navigators that went to do some special coastal command training. The thing I remember most about
that boat trip were the three padres that we had on board. And I saw ecumenism practised for the very first time, way back then. It wasn’t new to those three fellows. We had a Presbyterian, and other denominations, padre named Fred Mackay, who was eventually Fred Mackay of the Inland [superintendent of the Australian Inland Mission], and eventually
became a very famous Australian. The Anglican bloke was called David Byre, who was a real larrikin. And the Catholic fellow was a fellow called McNamara. So McNamara looked after all the sports. Fred Mackay looked after all the social, the Red Cross parcels and writing materials. David Byre,
his main occupation in our life seemed to be arranging the after deck concert, which we had every night. It always turned out to be a terrible yarn telling session. And Byre, the Anglican padre was the leader of all this. It was great. When we finally got a place, on the other side of America, weeks later,
David Byre and Fred Mackay decided to have a church service for us. And I remember this fellow, and he’d been the greatest larrikin of all time. But he turned up for this service in all his robes and looking like an angel where butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth, and it was just so wonderful. He was quite a character. But the other thing I remember about this trip, it was an American ship called the USS West Point. It used to be the SS America, which
was a cruise ship. But it had been gutted. Can I tell rude stories? It had been gutted. One thing I remember about it was a breakfast they served was fried sausages smothered in maple syrup. I could take most of what they served up to us then, but I couldn’t take that. Neither could anyone else. We ate our iron ration biscuits for breakfast that morning, because we couldn’t stand it. Another thing I remember about it, and this was the rude bit.
They had taken out this huge room, I think it must have been a dining room or a lounge room, they’d totally gutted it, and that was the ablutions and latrine area, and down the middle of this room they had a double row of shower roses. On the far side were the urinals, but on the other side were the toilet seats. Just a whole lot of seats, just a big row, with a whole lot of holes in the middle.
No partitions, nothing, no privacy. None at all. Down the row in the middle were the showers, no privacy at all, just showers. Salt water, incidentally. The flushing system for the toilets was a great four inch pipe, used to gush water into the far end, swish it through and it would gush everything out of the other end. And I remember standing under this salt water shower, trying to make the soap
lather one day, and all the seats were occupied as they always were. This character, he had this great heap of newspaper, and he put it in the top hole and set a match to it. And the force of water sent this burning newspaper the full length of the thing. Burned everybody’s bottom. You should have seen them go, “Oh!” they were going. So that’s my memory of that ship. But eventually we got to San Francisco, as I said, and we got onto this
train. Now we were used to Australian troop trains, and they were much like cattle trucks. I remember when I was on an Australian troop train I always slept in the luggage rack, because I was the smallest. That was where I was always put. And they were terrible things, they were crowded – we got onto this American train. There was a Negro porter to every car. We had bunks. We each had individual bunks. The sheets and the linen
were changed everyday. Our food was brought to us by this porter character. It was beautiful food. I’d never had any food like it in my life. There was about a thousand people in this draft going across America. We were told we were the first big draft, and we thought, “Well, isn’t that good of the Americans? To recognise that this is the first big draft of Australians.” We got this special train. So away we went, up over the Rockies, saw snow for the first time. They stopped the train and we got out and
played in the snow. It was wonderful. We stopped at the little villages and towns. We were going from San Francisco, eastwards, to the east coast of America. We finished up in Massachusetts. Every time the train stopped, all the people of the town would come up to the station and talk to us. Australians? One bloke was amazed that we spoke English; he thought we spoke Spanish. But I just think they came to look at these queer creatures. These Australians.
They turned out. Ladies turned out with hot coffee and scones. It was a great trip. Eventually we got a place called Albuquerque, and the train stopped there. There was an American troop train going the other way. It stopped, too. So we all got out and we were talking. And much to our surprise we found that their train was exactly the same as ours. So instead of us having this special train, as we thought, this was the standard for American troop trains.
And coming from where we came from, we just couldn’t believe it. Anyway, we went on through all sorts of places. It took about five days, to Massachusetts, to a town called Taunton, to a big army camp called Miles Standish. And we were there for six weeks. The hospitality,
you just have to experience it to believe it. We could not cope with the hospitality. Not only locally, but in Boston, which was not all that far away. So the old man decided that to cope with this, he again divided the draft into two. He said, “Okay, now half of you will spend three and a half days in Boston, and the other half of you will spend three and a half days here, in
Taunton. And at the end of three and a half days, you will switchover.” So that’s what we did, to cope with the hospitality. Families were volunteering to have us out to their homes. There were dances. It was just amazing, the hospitality. We just couldn’t keep up with it, it was terrific. And that we did, for six weeks. I
remember one fellow, terrible story this one, he got engaged to one of the local socialites. He was a married man, with three or four kids. The old man got to hear about this, and he got him shifted out of Miles Standish; he was gone within twenty four hours. There was a big splash in the local newspapers about this RAAF hero engaged to local girl, and photographs. And the old man could see trouble ahead. I don’t know what he did to him, but we never saw him again. He was gone.
Can you describe the camp at Miles Standish?
It was huge. I never ever saw all of it. But it was a huge, big place. The food, cranberry sauce, I remember the cranberry sauce – Turkey. I was a boy from Brisbane, I’d never seen turkey. And they used to line up through the mess with all these big dishes, with all these compartments.
Turkey, and we got this red jelly looking stuff. I thought it was jam. Everybody else thought it was jam, too. We were spreading it on our bread. We found out it was cranberry sauce. We were supposed to be eating it with the turkey. The food was terrific. They had this beaut, what they called a PX store. You were able to buy these great buckets of ice-cream for practically nothing. We just couldn’t believe what was going on. It was a huge place; I never saw all of it.
But it was very cold. Under snow, of course. And we were issued with these woollen berets to put on, because a lot of fellows were suffering with frost-bitten ears. But we had a great time. We were playing in snow, and we had all this hospitality. We really lapped it up for six whole weeks before we were posted out of there, and on our way.
Did you put on weight
while you were there?
I don’t know. Nobody ever weighed us. I don’t think anybody cared. We were so active, we were out doing things. We were playing in the snow, and going down to all this hospitality we were trying to cope with.
Yeah, perhaps we did put on weight. I don’t know. And then we were posted on. We got on a train and we went to New York. Not in New York, but under New York. We came out the other side. We were put on a tender, and we went up the Manhattan River, and we got on ship. The Queen Elizabeth, the first Queen Elizabeth.
And on the way up, we passed another ship, the Normandy, the French ship that had been destroyed, and it was lying on its side. But we got on the Queen Elizabeth and headed towards the UK. We knew by then we were going to the UK. We got on this ship. Huge, huge ship
Big crowd of people. All sorts of people. So many people they could only give us two meals a day. We got breakfast and we got an evening meal later in the afternoon. But we got into this little cabin, which I think had been a walk-in wardrobe at one stage. There were six bunks in there, two three tier bunks, so that’s where we were. We armed ourselves with books, and lots of chocolate and stuff.
Soon after we got to sea, they called a boat drill. And we got into this corridor outside this so-called cabin. The boat drill ended and we were still in the corridor outside, so we decided that if the ship had been hit, we didn’t have a hope anyway. So we went to bed for the duration. We just got out of bed for meals. Breakfast was at nine o’clock in the morning. And
the evening meal was about half past four, five o’clock, and that’s all we had to do. I remember once, being in there, and it was totally dark, we couldn’t have the lights on, we couldn’t see outside, and somebody said, “Oh gosh, it’s nine o’clock, we’re late for breakfast!” We got out of bed, put our overalls on, grabbed our messing gear, tore downstairs and it was nine o’clock at night. So we had twelve hours to wait.
We didn’t have an escort, because the Queen ships were so fast, and they had already had an accident earlier in the year, when the Queen Mary cut a cruiser in half, which was an escort. So we went without an escort. But they kept zigzagging, for six days across. They didn’t have any stabilisers on the ship, of course, and every time it zigzagged, the whole ship would shudder from stem to stern. For six days we had this shuddering. Finally we got to Greenock,
in the Clyde. We were taken off there and put on a train, and we spent all night on a train trip down to Bournemouth, in the south of England. That was the reception depot for air crew trainees, from the whole of this Empire Air Training Scheme. It was a huge big scheme that took in the whole of what was called the Empire in those days. The training was pretty uniform,
whether you were in Canada or New Zealand or Australia or England, wherever you were, this great training scheme. And the whole idea of this was, originally, it would funnel all this air crew into Europe. Of course, the Japs mucked that up. Lots of the Australian trainees had to be funnelled into the Pacific. But the rest of us were funnelled [into Europe]. So at Bournemouth was where all these people that had been in this great huge training scheme congregated. That’s where we all finally
met up. At Bournemouth there were Canadians and New Zealanders and Rhodesians and South Africans and Australians and RAF [Royal Air Force] people. The whole lot were there. And we were all, even though we had Australian administration there, we were into the RAF system. The RAF were running it. Our people were only from the point of view of personnel records and
welfare and pay. But we were in the RAF system, as individuals, not in a unit. Which was the big mistake, because we were then individuals, battling for ourselves, in an RAF system. And that’s the way it was.
We might just stop there.
Interviewee: Lionel Rackley Archive ID 0853 Tape 02
So at Bournemouth, they had so many
air crew people there, they just did not know what to do with them. They had a parade every morning, and I think it was only to mark the rolls. We were sergeants, we were senior NCOs, and they had us like a pack of recruits, with an RAF flight sergeant drill instructor – The best thing they could think to do with us, of a morning, was to send us on
route marches. We thought, “We’re senior NCOs.” People think that we’re air crew so we got to be sergeants pretty, so we’re not really sergeants, but we are really sergeants. Bournemouth was operating like it was – So their idea was to get us on a route march and march us out along these roads and we soon got to know these roads and we knew where the coffee shops were and the bun shops were.
And the buses used to go by. So it wasn’t too long before the last rank would fall off, catch the next bus, wave to the drill instructors as they went by. By the time he got to bun shop he’d have less than half the men. It used to really annoy them. He’d get to the bun shop and they’d be in there drinking coffee, eating buns. They couldn’t understand the humour of that.
I thought, “What a waste of time.” And so it was. Eventually, we did a month with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, the 4th Battalion, out camping with them. They were training, of course, for D-Day, so we did a month with them in Kent. But
there was such a pile-up of people, and it took us three months to get out of there. It was June/July before I finally got a posting out of there, to an advanced flying unit. Which was for two things I think. It was a refresher course, because I hadn’t flown since October the previous year, and this was June. It was nearly nine months out of the year.
So I had to get back into flying again, so that was good for that. And the other thing it did, we were flying in totally different conditions from Australia. We were flying in English conditions. The English countryside, the pilot navigation was different, because the countryside was different from Australia. English weather. So we had to sort become accustomed to that. So that’s what we did at this advanced flying unit, on Airspeed
Oxfords. So once we started flying again, that was really good. We enjoyed that. And the difference in the countryside, we were doing pilot navigation. You could follow a railway line there because there were so many railway lines, and the country looked different, it was green. So we had to become accustomed to that, and that’s what we did at AFU [advanced flying unit].
I think we were there a couple of months, from memory. Then we were posted out of there, and it started to get serious from there, to an operational training unit, in Buckinghamshire. A place called Westcott. There we crewed up. When we were posted there as pilots, navigators were posted there, wireless operators, gunners, bomb aimers, all posted there.
And we were told the first day there, the CO got out and said, “Okay, the first thing that is going to happen here, before you do any flying is that you are going to crew up. Now we’re going to give you a few days to crew up. Now if you don’t crew up in those few days, we will crew you up.” Well, most blokes did. You got to meet fellows over meals or in the mess at night, over a beer. And gradually little crews formed. I remember a
gunner came to me – I was called Blue in the air force, because I had red hair, “Blue, have you got any crew yet?” I said, “No I haven’t got any crew.” He said, “Look, I’m a gunner, and I would like to fly with you. Can I be in your crew?” I said, “Well, you’re the first.” “I know a bloke who comes from the same town as me, he’s a bomb aimer, can I go and talk to him?” “Yeah.” So we got a gunner and a bomb aimer. Eventually we got a navigator. The crew became a crew.
So we chose each other really, and that’s the way we started off. And we were on the Wellington 1Cs, with Pegasus engines. They were the most clapped out things you’ve ever had in your life. They were terrible aeroplanes, but that’s what we had. I think they had been clapped out in the North African desert, before they were sent to us. They were literally held together by bits of wire and chewing gum, I’m sure. But they were terrible things.
But we started off – And then the first upset I had was that the navigator I had took ill. They said he took ill. I’m not sure. I think he was a ‘lack of moral fibre’ case. The Poms were pretty strong on ‘lack of moral fibre’. As he soon as anyone went ‘lack of moral fibre’, he was gone. He disappeared so quickly. He just said,
“I’m going to the doctor, I’m ill.” And I never saw him again. My guess is he went to the doctor and said “I don’t want to do this,” and they just took him out. And I never saw him, to this day I don’t know what happened to him. So we were a crew without a navigator, at that stage. And as it so happened, there was another fellow on the station, who had been the sole survivor of a Wellington crash,
some time before. He had been badly injured and had been in the hospital for a long time, but he was now back and ready to fly again. He was doing some administrative job on the station, so they said to him, “Okay, we’ve got this fellow, he’s looking for a navigator. You’re looking for a crew. Why don’t you go and talk to him, Rackley, and see what you think?” So I went and saw him, I liked him straightaway, and the rest of the crew,
we got together and they decided they liked him so we said, “Yeah, we’ll have him.” So he became our navigator. Talk about luck of the gods. He was a top line navigator, this fellow. He had been trained by Pan American Airways, in America, to ferry aircraft across from America to England. How he got into bomber command, I will never know. But he was an expert on astro, and he was a top line navigator. So the gods were with us.
We got this you beaut navigator. So we left OTU [operational training unit] at the end of our training, with a complete crew, except for a flight engineer. We went then to convert onto four engine aircraft. And we went onto Short Stirling, which was probably the biggest aeroplane they had in the RAF at that stage.
And then we picked up an engineer. The gods were with us again. Being Rackley and having the initial R, my name was at the bottom of the nominal list, so they had a lot of flight engineers there, and they just got the nominal roll and said “One short. Rackley you haven’t got a flight engineer, we have to wait. There’s a fellow coming in.” So this fellow arrived, his name was Stan James. He was much older than we were. He became the father of the crew, Stan.
But he’d been an instructor at a flight engineers training school, and he was a flight sergeant, and he was a beauty. So we were lucky again. We then had our complete crew, and we did our conversion. I remember the first time I sat in a Stirling. They’re so high, when you sit in the pilot’s seat, you look over the side and you’re about thirty feet from ground level.
I looked out and there’s engines and wing both sides, and I thought, “I’m never going to fly this thing.” And again, I had this leg length problem, of course. They were huge, they just looked so huge. But it happened, it was part of the training, and eventually I did fly the thing and went solo and got to love the aeroplane. So that was our introduction to four engine aircraft. We liked the Stirling,
so much, as a crew, we went to the chief flying instructor and said, “We would be happy to do our tour on Stirlings. We like them.” Stirlings were being eased out of the bomber command mainstream at that stage and were doing other special duties work. We just liked the aeroplane. But he said, “That’s just not possible, you’ll have to keep on going.” So anyway, we went from there to a
Lancaster Finishing School. By that time we were in Number Three Group RAF Bomber Command. So we went to this Lancaster Finishing School. The first day I sat in a Lancaster that was the day I fell in love with it. It was such a wonderful aeroplane. So we had to convert then from Stirlings to Lancasters. The thing I
remember about Lancaster Finishing School – I was just talking to a fellow about it the other day. Our instructor was a young flight lieutenant. DSO [Distinguished Service Order], DFC [Distinguished Flying Cross], DFM [Distinguished Flying Medal]. A flight lieutenant, DSO? He had to be totally mad. And he was. He took us up on this familiarisation flight to let us see what the Lancaster could do, and he feathered four engines. So there we were, in this Lancaster,
with no engines going at all. Just gliding. I’ve never been so frightened in my life. I thought, “He is mad. He’s got to be.” So anyway, we survived that, and – onto the Lancaster, Not a very long course. But Three Group were in the process of converting from Stirlings to Lancasters. And they were producing Lancaster crews,
faster than they were getting Lancasters to fly. So they had a surplus. We were transferred to Five Group RAF Bomber Command. Which was another good thing. But at the wrong time, our flight engineer developed an ear problem, so he was kept in hospital a couple of days. But they said, “You’ve got to go ahead and do the posting.” So off we went to do this Five Group Lancaster Finishing School,
because Five Group considered themselves very elite, and of course Three Group training wasn’t anywhere near good enough for Five Group. You had to do the Five Group training. You had to learn to do the Five Group corkscrew, which was different from the Three Group corkscrew. And we went without Stan, so when we got there they said, “Well okay, he’s got to turn up in a few days. We can’t afford to have you sitting around. We’ll give you another flight engineer.” We thought, “Like Hell.” Anyway, so Stan arrived at the right time. They said, “He’s got to pass the test, he hasn’t done the training.”
So they took him into this room where there was a whole range of bits of Merlin engine. And they said to him, “Okay, you name these bits.” This was his test. He was a good engineer; he named the bits, so we got him back. Much to our relief.
We went from Lanc Finishing School to a squadron – no, at Lanc Finishing School, the pilots were interviewed for their commissions. I was still an NCO; I was still a flight sergeant at this stage. But the RAF decided that all four engine bomber captains had to be commissioned. So we had to apply for a commission. We did our commissioning interviews.
And I remember well the medical test. We had a medical test. There was a form you had to fill in. So I was sent to the station sick quarters to get the doctor to fill in this form. Well, I found this doctor, he was a squadron leader RAF doctor, and he was beside one of those little baby Austin Sevens with the bonnet open, and his head inside it. “Oh yes?” he said. I said, “Sir, I’ve come for a pre-commissioning medical.”
“Oh yeah. You still flying?” “Yes.” “And you’re still breathing I can see, and you’re standing up?” “Yeah.” “Give it to me and I’ll sign it. Now you take it inside and get the flight sergeant to fill it in.” So that was the pre-commissioning medical. But anyway, off we went then to a squadron. And I arrived at a squadron, still without my commission, to a place called East Kirkby, in Lincolnshire.
Number 630 Squadron RAF and 5 Group Bomber Command, in February, 1944. And then things got really serious, of course. Again, we had a settling in period, and we were sent on cross country exercises and bombing exercises and the like. More I think to settle into the
squadron life, to get used to the East Kirkby station and get used to the countryside around East Kirby. A general familiarisation thing. And then eventually, we started our operational tour. Now, in bomber command, certainly in 5 Group as well, and I think in other commands as well, all captains did a trip with another crew
before they took their own crew over. They called it a ‘second dickey’ trip. My second dickey trip was to Berlin, of all places. It was a terrific trip. It was the night of the big winds. The Met forecast for winds was something like sixty knots, and we were actually experiencing winds of ninety or a hundred knots.
Lots of fellows picked that up, lots of fellows didn’t. Strayed across into foreign territory. But anyway, the captain and the navigator that I was with did pick it up. But it was a beautifully clear night. You could see for a hundred miles in any direction. And that was what I was there to do, of course, to see. As far as a familiarisation trip, it was terrific. I just saw everything. I saw everything that the Germans had to use, I saw
that night. One of the things that impressed me about Berlin was the size of it. I thought I was never going to get to the other side of it. And I saw aeroplanes being shot down for the first time. I saw all the things that happened for the first time. And we got back quite safely. That was the last of the big Berlin trips. We used to fly
about eight hundred aeroplanes in a stream. We put eight hundred aeroplanes across a place like Berlin in twenty minutes. So it was a fairly compact stream. Out of the eight hundred that night, I forget the exact figures, but there was seventy three aeroplanes lost, that night. And that was my introduction to operational flying.
We got back safely. The next trip I did was with my own crew. That was a bit of a shocker, too. We were told that the weather was going to be pretty much the same as it was on the Berlin trip. Well, we were going to a place called Essen. We used to fly out from England, from our squadrons, from our aerodromes, we’d fly on a course
to gain some height, then come back and set course over the aerodrome and fly out across the North Sea. Each crew operated as individual unit. There was no such thing as formation, they flew in what they called a stream. But each aeroplane had a flight plan, we had take off times, we had particular turning points where we had to turn, we had times that we had to be there. And we flew to that flight plan,
as an individual aeroplane. So this night we took off, and out we went across the North Sea, and we came to the first turning point, and we turned in towards the enemy coast. And I remembered crossing the enemy coast from the Berlin trip, I remembered what it was like. And the navigator said to me, “Five minutes to the coast.” And then he said we were crossing the coast. And it was pitch black.
There were no searchlights; there were no guns, nothing. And I thought, “Something queer here. I think we’re lost.” And on we went, and we were ten minutes from the target, and there was still nothing. Eventually, not long after that, I saw some flares go down ahead of me. So I realised then we weren’t lost. But the weather wasn’t the same. It was ten tenths thick cloud below. It was so thick that the German tactic was just to lie still,
and not do anything to give us any idea about where we were. And the guns didn’t go up until we were over the target, and that was the first time we saw a sign of German life. So I got a bit of a scare. I was looking for what I saw in Berlin, but it just didn’t happen. That was a less hazardous trip. There was only nine lost that night, as I recall.
The next trip that we were put down for was the Nuremberg trip. Now Nuremberg was a pretty infamous – but before we went on that trip, the CO [commanding officer] announced at the briefing that some of crews were going on leave in the morning; our crew was one of the crews that was going on leave in morning. We didn’t have our
own aeroplane at that particular stage. We were still flying spare aeroplanes. So off we went to Nuremberg. A little while out, I think we were over the continent somewhere, but the navigator said he was having some oxygen trouble. He wasn’t getting oxygen. We always flew with oxygen, because we were flying at twenty five thousand feet.
Our crew used to put the oxygen on at ground level. He said he wasn’t getting oxygen. So I sent the engineer back to see if he could find the fault and he couldn’t find the fault, and then the wireless operator said he wasn’t getting oxygen, so I had a big problem. The engineer couldn’t find what was wrong, so I had no oxygen; I had to get down from where I was, down to a level below ten thousand feet
where these fellows could breathe, otherwise they would have died. So that’s what I did. I abandoned the trip, went straight down and went back home. I was suspect as soon as I got back home, because we were told we were going on leave the next morning, the next morning the CO called me up and he practically accused me of turning back because I was going on leave. I said that we had an oxygen problem.
In the aeroplane we found a length of tubing that you could have connected to one of the other oxygen points and given it to the navigator. I said, “Sir, I didn’t know the aeroplane. It wasn’t my aeroplane. I didn’t know the rubber tubing was there.” It didn’t make a scrap of difference, and I was suspect for lack of moral fibre. I don’t know that I ever lived that down with him. But anyway, we went on leave and came back. One of the other things that I missed saying was that
not long after I got there, before we started operations, every night there was an operation on, they used to appoint a duty pilot. Now the duty pilot’s trip was to make sure all the crews were right, because we were on a dispersed aerodrome. The aeroplanes weren’t parked at the flight office; they were parked in parking bays right around the aerodrome.
Your aeroplane might have been a twenty minute ride in a bus from the flight office. But that’s where they were parked. So they had a duty pilot, on duty, before the raid, before everybody went off. He was supposed to go to each aeroplane and make sure everything was right, that they had everything. I said, “Sir, you better give me a driver, then.” He said, “What do you want a driver for? There’s a car there, a truck there.” I said, “I can’t drive.” I was a captain of a four engine aircraft,
couldn’t drive a motor car. So I got a WAAF [Women’s Auxiliary Air Force] driver, and I was never asked to be duty pilot again. So we went on then, doing German targets, and eventually we began to prepare, from early April onwards, we began to prepare for the invasion, because D-Day was coming up, which turned out was in June.
We started to prepare for the invasion and to bomb targets in France. Railway marshalling yards, road junctions, fuel dumps. Anything that was going to hinder the enemy, particularly railways and road junctions. Now at that time there was a fellow called Leonard Cheshire. He became quite famous.
Our bombing results weren’t all that wonderful, at that stage, on the German cities. Even though we had the Pathfinders, only about forty five per cent of the bombs we were dropping were getting really close to the aiming point. So it was always a problem. This Cheshire thought this was a problem. He developed this system of marking,
a low level system of marking, where he and a couple of the pilots, he was the CO of 617 Squadron by this stage, they would go down to nought feet and mark a target, precisely, right on the spot. And he would go down afterwards and have a look, and if it wasn’t on the spot, he would scrub that marker and make sure that the marker was absolutely right before anybody bombed. In the meantime, of course, we were all circling around the target. That turned out to be a bit dangerous eventually, too.
But from then on, bombing got very, very accurate. It became so good on the French targets that he decided he would like to try it on a German target. Well, when we were bombing French targets, instead of bombing as part of a command group, of a group of eight hundred aeroplanes, we split up into groups, and each group was doing its own target. A couple of hundred aeroplanes, instead of eight hundred, which was a lot easier to handle.
But he decided that if it worked on a French target, it should work on a German target, a main force target. So, Harris gave him permission to try it out on a city called Munich. This was on the 25th of April, 1944. And it was a five group raid. We had to go from where we were, down England, across the
English Channel near Le Havre, across France to the south of France, then cross up and go across Switzerland, which was neutral, to Munich. And the pathfinders were there, and the pathfinders dropped markers on the way, track markers, so we could get an idea that we weren’t off track. So it was a very compact group. We were in the first wave. And I must have been right up near the front of it, I think, because we were going
up and we knew we were on track, knew everything was right. Headed up. Munich was outside of Berlin and the Ruhr was the most heavily defended target they had. The searchlight belt was twenty four miles out from the centre of the city. So it was pitch black dark, not a sign, none of the Pathfinders had got in a mark, but we were well out so we weren’t worried about that. And all of a sudden a big blue searchlight popped up. Now the big blue searchlights – we used to call them ‘Big Blue Buggers’.
They were radar predicted. They wouldn’t search for you, they would just go boom, and they were on you. And as soon as they got on you, of course, everything else coned in. That’s what happened to us. This Big Blue Bugger got us, and everything else coned in on us. And no matter how I tried, I just could not get out of that cone. I tried everything to get out of that cone. And of course all they do, once you’re in the cone like that, they just fire anti-aircraft fire up at you.
We were caught in this for twelve minutes as we crossed Munich, and they made a mess of us. We managed to drop our bombs on the way across, I don’t think the bomb aimer aimed too good. But we got rid of the bombs, we didn’t care too much, they were going into Munich anyway. I saw petrol pouring from one of the starboard tanks on the way across. We lost intercom; that was damaged at one stage. The wireless operator
took off his parachute harness, took off his Mae West [life jacket], wriggled down under the apparatus somewhere, got the fault fixed, whatever it was and we were back on the air, because without the intercom, a bomber crew defending itself – pretty hopeless. But he got us back on the air, and I thought that was a pretty great thing to do. The flight engineer’s instrument panel, which was at the side of the aeroplane, was wrecked.
One engine was put out of action. All our turrets were put out of action. Eventually we flew across the city and we just flew out. We flew beyond the defences, and that’s how we got out of the thing. We were, by then, very, very late. Everybody had crossed and were on the way home. We were down to ten thousand feet, we had lost
six or eight thousand feet in height. We were in a mess. We had one engine gone, we had another engine that looked like it was going to go; it didn’t look too good. And I knew that the other aircraft, which had gone through by then, they had to go through to the north eastern side, then turn west and go home. And I thought now if I try to follow them – I’ve got one engine gone, and another gone any minute, I’m going to be on two engines.
I don’t know how much the fuel is. I’ve got no guns. The enemy aircraft used to pick off the stragglers, and that’s where they got their successes. I’m going to be a straggler, I’m going to be miles behind the others, they’re going to pick me up and I won’t have a chance in hell of surviving. So I’m not going to go that way. I’m going to turn south, and head for Switzerland, because I thought they wouldn’t follow me across a neutral country. So that’s what I did. I headed for Switzerland. I went across Austria and into Switzerland,
reckoning that I would have to bail out. The second engine went, as we expected it would. It caught fire. We tried to feather the engine, which means to stop the propeller. It wouldn’t feather, it continued to windmill. The fire was still going. We pressed the grapnel switches, the fire extinguishers switches, and luck would have it, the fire went out, but this thing was still windmilling. So there we were
on two engines, we were down to ten thousand feet. We were in an area where the spot heights were fourteen, fifteen thousand feet, so we had to be pretty careful. We reckoned we would have to bail out at Switzerland. Then I thought, no, we’re still going. By then I knew that the Allies were somewhere in the south of Italy. I didn’t know where, because it wasn’t our war. That was another theatre. I didn’t know much about that. But I thought, okay, if I head down there, if I can get to the
south of Italy, I might find an aerodrome I can land on. So I decided to keep going. And we had this wind-milling propeller. And it was building up to terrific revs, and I was bit afraid this thing was going to come off its axle any minute and it’s going to right through the flight deck and cut us all off. So I had to keep that down, so the only way I could do that, was to pull the nose of the aeroplane back, until I got almost to stalling point,
put some weight on this end, it would cool down, then I would level off and fly a bit more, then it would build up again, so I did that. And we did that for four hours. And we gained two thousand. A Lancaster on two engines gaining two thousand feet isn’t a bad effort. But we were going all right. We had the two engines we had left going absolutely flat straps, we couldn’t have got another ounce of them. So we went. We then turned from Switzerland and
we went across northern Italy, we went across Milan. We didn’t have much in the way of maps, but the navigator reckoned that was Milan. They fired a couple of shots at us, but nothing more happened. We kept going and eventually we got to the sea, another big city, no action from them, but the navigator said it was Genoa, and I think he was probably right. So I decided then I would fly down out over the water, but parallel to the Italian coast
until I got to southern Italy. Then a little way down, some anti-aircraft fired at us from the port side, but on the starboard side, a flight path lit up. The navigator said, “That’s probably Corsica. Where the flak’s coming from must be Elba. That’s sure to be Corsica.” So I said, “Corsica? I wonder who owns Corsica?”
We didn’t know. But I thought that Corsica, okay. By then, the two engines we had were starting to show signs of giving up. The makers recommendation for Rolls Royce Merlins absolute flat-out like that was thirty minutes, and we’d had them going for four hours, and I thought the crew were starting to get a little bit stressed, too. So I thought, “Okay, down we go into Corsica.” So
we were at twelve thousand feet by this stage, and I could see there was some rising ground on the other side of the flare path. It was just a flare path. None of the sophistication that we had in England. There was no outer circle of lights, there was no flight path indicator, I didn’t know which end of the runway I was to land from. Nothing. So I had to be careful letting down, to get to a thousand feet, to make this landing, and I had this wind-milling propeller,
and try to keep the nose up and squash down a bit at a time. And we were around and around and around that flight path until we got down to a thousand feet. Eventually I decided to attempt a landing. I put the crew into crash positions. I asked the flight engineer to stay with me because I thought I might need some help, and he very bravely did. The rest of the crew I ordered into crash positions.
So in we went. I selected flaps and I got nothing, no flaps. So the flaps had been damaged. I selected undercarriage down and I got green lights to say the undercarriage was down and locked, so I thought I was right. So in I went, and I was committed, then, to a flap-less landing. Which had its difficulties. I didn’t know I was coming into the right end of the runway or not, and in retrospect I think I probably wasn’t.
I think I was going downwind. But anyway, eventually we got there, and as I touched, the undercarriage just crumpled beneath me. The undercarriage itself couldn’t have been too bad because I got green lights, but perhaps the tyres were deflated or something, but it just collapsed. There we were, skidding along this runway, which turned out to be a fighter strip, and it wasn’t tarmac runway we knew, it was metal strips.
They used to put down temporary fighter strips. Eventually we careered off that, and the old Lanc dug its nose in, swung its tail around and came to rest. And there we were on Corsica. We didn’t know who owned it, but we had to get out of the aeroplane in a hurry. One missing. One head I couldn’t count for.
But we had to get away from the aeroplane anyway. Because we used to have small incendiary bomb in those days, and if we were on enemy territory we were supposed to try and blow the aeroplane up. The idea was it had a spoke on one end, you poked that into the aeroplane, knocked the cap off, and it had a four second delay, and you got out of the way, and it would blow the aeroplane up. So we had this because we thought it might be Germans.
So we waited to see what would happen, nobody came. And eventually we heard some voices coming. We watched, and it was half past five, and it was half light by then. We see these fellows coming, and we thought, “They’re Germans.” We could tell by their helmet. But they seemed to be speaking English with an American accent. And they were Americans. The American steel helmet wasn’t unlike the German helmet in those days, so they were Americans and so we didn’t have to blow the aeroplane. Then we went looking
for the rear gunner who was missing, and the rear gunner, it appears, hadn’t gone to his crash position and had the turret doors open. When the aeroplane threw itself around, he must have been flung out. We checked and he didn’t even have his seatbelt done up. So by not going to the crash position, and staying where he was and taking the risk, he lost his life. So there we were in Corsica.
So that was a pretty busy day, then. We had to all be checked medically. We had to try and send signals back to base, to let them know where we were so that our families wouldn’t be told we were missing, and so forth. At the end of the day, the six of us were taken to an RAF hospital in a town called Bastia. The aerodrome we were on was in a town called Borgo. So there we went.
We were pretty strung up. We’d been awake for thirty six hours at that stage, because we had been awake since the morning before. We’d had our wakey-wakey pills of course. They always gave us wakey-wakey pills when we went on a trip to try and keep us awake. I tried not to use mine until always the return trip,
but I had used them on that trip, and we were wide awake. We went to this hospital and we decided that we were going to go downtown. We had robbed our escape kits. We always had escape kits in aeroplanes. They had chocolate and all sorts of things in them, if we were shot down and we were trying to escape. But they also had French, Dutch and Belgium money, I think it was.
Corsica was French. So we robbed the French money out of our escape kits, so we had money. We decided to go down to the local town and there we met a fellow called Flight Lieutenant Parges. He was an RAF intelligence officer, but he had been with the underground in Corsica, during the German occupation.
So we met him, and he took us over and he said he had some French policemen friends he would like us to meet. So we went to meet these French policemen friends. We couldn’t speak French, they couldn’t speak English. So we went on a pub crawl, with this French money. And the conversation was along these lines.
“Bom bom, bom bom!” they’d say. “Viva La France!” we’d say. And down the hatch again. So we had a great night. In the early hours of the morning we got back to this hospital to find the doors locked. We couldn’t get in. But in the yard there were some field ambulances with bunks in them, so we slept in those until the hospital door opened. We went back to this room that we had, we had breakfast. The next thing an RAF padre arrived –
Interviewee: Lionel Rackley Archive ID 0853 Tape 03
And we met this RAF padre, he was from a Spitfire squadron up the country. From memory it was 451 Squadron, but I wouldn’t want to bet on that. But anyway, we had the rear gunner’s funeral that day; that had been arranged for us. So we told the padre this and he said, “Okay, I’ll come back for you later in the day. But I’m going to take you up to this RAF squadron,
because we don’t think here is the right place for you to be at this time.” So we went downtown again, we’d spent all our money. We were going to the gunner’s funeral, and somebody said, “We should take some flowers.” And we said “How are we going to get some flowers?” So we committed a crime. We found this flower shop. The plan was that the navigator and I would talk to the lady in this shop,
and the bomb aimer and the mid-upper gunner would nick some flowers and run down the road with them, while we keep her talking. So that’s what we did. We got her in conversation, they nicked some flowers, off they went, she noticed them go, complained that we they pinching her flowers. We said, “Oh, we know them, we will go and get the flowers back for you. So off we went.” All of us, down the road, we never went back. Poor old lady she lost her flowers.
Anyway, out we went to the funeral with the flowers. Maxy had been the rear gunner. He was a great yarn teller, but all the yarns he told always had this fellow who had a speech impediment, he had no roof in his mouth and talked like that. So out we went. We were the chief mourners and they had all the things that you have an airman’s funeral. Rifle party and – We all had to line up at the gate, and parade
to the gravesite, with the padre in front. Halfway across to the grave site, the padre started a chant, like this, he had no roof in his mouth either. We could see the irony in that. You normally wouldn’t do that sort of thing, but the sort of life we were living. But anyway, we went the funeral service and everything went off well.
He was buried. We went back and met the padre and he took us up country to meet this squadron. They were living under canvas, in conditions that were almost idealic. Beautiful countryside, a stream with a waterfall, which they were using for a shower. A swimming pool, a natural swimming pool. Living under canvas, it was just what we needed,
and we stayed there for a week. Incidentally I pay tribute to the cook there. He was working in the most primitive way. He had ovens suspended on tripods. He was working with dehydrated food. He was producing some of the best food I had in the RAF. It was fantastic. But that was exactly what we needed. We just needed that week to settle ourselves and get back to something like normal.
We had trouble getting back to the UK from there. We were aware by this stage, that D-Day, the invasion of France, wasn’t all that far off. We didn’t know when. We’d been
bombing these French targets in preparation for that, so we knew it wasn’t far off. So we were anxious to get back to England. We didn’t want to be out of England when that happened. We didn’t fancy ourselves operating out of the Middle East at all. But that was the problem we had. Because we were the crashed crew. Nobody wanted to own us. We were nobody’s responsibility, nobody wanted to own us. We had to form
friendships with people that could help us to get out, and that’s what we did. On Corsica, with the help of the Australian boys, of course, somebody got us on a flight on a Dakota, from Corsica to Naples. When we got to Naples, there was even a bigger lot of people there, than on Corsica. So we were competing in a much larger market.
But we got to Naples. On Corsica, we managed to get a pay advance. On the basis, we thought, we’ll get an advance on our pay here, the way the RAF pay system works, by the time that catches up with us, the war will be over, and we’ll be gone. More about that later on. So we had money.
We got to Naples and we registered with the transport officer there, and asked him if he could get us a flight out. He said he didn’t have any flights going directly to Algiers, but maybe we could get a flight from there. So we were left to find our own accommodation. We found a Red Cross sort of a hostel of a place. So we slept there the night, and we didn’t feel like wasting our money on that. It wasn’t going to be very much anyway.
We woke up at four o’clock in the morning and escaped out of there with what gear we had. To save us from paying, actually. Got down the transport office at the aerodrome, and got a plane out, fortunately, that morning, straight away to Algiers. Algiers we struck another blank. That was a huge market in which we were competing, too. Nobody was very interested whether we got back to England or not.
It took us a while to make friendship with some contacts that could help us. In the end I think we were thrown out, rather than pulled out because one of the crew members put up a real black. No names, I suppose. While we were on Corsica, he’d become friends with one of the equipment sergeants on the squadron.
Now they had some captured German equipment, among other things. He was a flight sergeant in rank, but he also managed to get a set of summer gear. Now we didn’t have summer gear. All we had was what we stood up in, which was the English battle dress and slacks. And it was jolly hot. Now he managed to get a pair of khaki shorts and socks, and a khaki uniform, and of all things, an officer pith helmet. Very special, officers’ pith helmets.
So he put this on, no rank markings of course. And he also managed to get from this bloke, a German Luger, a souvenir. So far so good. We got to Algiers and an RAF special service police flight lieutenant came to me one day, and he said, “You’re the captain of the crashed crew?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Can you account for all your crew?” I said, “Reasonably. They’re all around.”
He said, “How long since you’ve seen them all?” “Oh, I’ve seen them all in the last twenty four hours.” He said, “Have you got a Flight Lieutenant Maxwell on your crew?” I said, “No, don’t know him.” “Sarge gave me his regimental number.” I said, “No, not my crew.” He said, “Are you sure?” I said, “Of course I’m sure, they’re my crew.” So I went on my merry way. A couple of days later he came to me again and he said,
“Look, I want you to come with me to the civilian jail because we’ve got a fellow in there and I believe he’s one of your crew.” “Oh? Okay.” So I went down to the civilian jail and it was one of my crew. And the story was that there were some very high class brothels in Algiers. And there was one, I forget its name, I think it was called ‘the Yellow Canary’, or something of that sort. But anyway,
he had been drinking and he went up there during the day. Because on that particular day it was other ranks and NCOs during the day, but it was officers only at night time. So he was up there during the day, and he reckoned he was an NCO. But because he was intoxicated the lady wouldn’t let him in. And he didn’t like that. So he went back again at night time, when it was officers only, he then claimed to be a flight lieutenant. Now she remembered him from
day time and she wasn’t going to let him in. So he kicked up a bit of a stir. There were some French sailors there. Now French sailors weren’t very well disposed towards anybody who was British, because of what had happened to the French fleet at Dakar. So they took him on. So what does he do? He draws the German Luger and holds them up, against the wall. The RAF service police arrive and rescue the sailors and him. The German Luger wasn’t loaded. They took him
out to the RAF prison, in a place called Maison Blanche, which used to be the foreign legion camp. He claimed to be a flight lieutenant, so they put him under house arrest and gave him a flight lieutenant escort. The flight lieutenant escort was very much an English gentleman type officer. During the night, this fellow said he wanted to go to the toilet. So the fellow said, “Down the corridor – ” So down he went and out through the window and escaped.
Next thing he was picked up in town by the civilian police. That’s where I found him, in jail. So we were out of Algiers very quickly after that. I don’t think they were very interested but they didn’t want anyone who was going to cause them that sort of a trouble. So that’s how we got out of Algiers. And we got from Algiers to Casablanca, on that first flight. We thought, “Oh well, here we go again. Wonder how long we’re going to be in Casablanca?” But we were lucky. We got a flight out that afternoon, again on an American plane.
We were on the plane, almost due to land I would have thought. One of the crew came back and said could they borrow my navigator and wireless operator. And I said, “Yeah.” So they borrowed my navigator and wireless operator. They were lost; they were trying to find where they were. So they used my navigator and my wireless operator to direct them to where they were going. And
that’s how we got to where we supposed to land, at St Morgan. So anyway, we got back, we rang the squadron. While we’re out there, the blokes on Corsica, they had this special jewellery that was locally made, and they wanted to get it home to their relatives, but they couldn’t get it out of Corsica. So they packed it all up and addressed it and we promised to post it for them in UK.
What we didn’t allow for was the fact that when we got to the UK, we had to go through a customs inspection. So the navigator still had his navigator’s bag with him, so we put all this stuff in his bag and he claimed that this was special secret navigation equipment that wasn’t to be seen by anybody, and the customs officer let him through with it. So we got through customs, and
the squadron sent an aeroplane down for us and they flew us back to the squadron. Now, can I pick up this story again about RAF attitudes towards dominion people? I hasten to say, I’m sure this wasn’t the situation in every RAF squadron, but it was in our squadron. Our CO, he was a nice enough bloke, but he was by birth a South African who had been in the RAF for some time. He seemed to have an attitude about
dominion people. Our flight commander was an RAF navigator. Usually flight commanders are pilots, but this bloke was an RAF navigator, and if I can use French, he was a thorough bastard. He didn’t like pilots. He didn’t like dominion pilots. And he didn’t like this pilot, I can tell you. So when I got back, I met him, and he said to me, “What happened, Rackley?” I said, “Sir, I got coned and hit by flak.”
He said, “You got hit by flak?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “What the hell do you think they put windscreens in aeroplanes for? It’s so you bloody pilots can look out and see where the flak is. Now I would like to know how you got hit by flak?” That was the reception I got. What I didn’t know, and I didn’t know for many, many years later, was that an RAF pilot, a young RAF officer, on that same target that I was on, on Munich, he got hit by flak, too. He got damaged,
but not all that badly damaged and got back to the UK; he was awarded an immediate DFC. Now this was the attitude that I objected to. This was the difference that went on. It was a lot easier in our squad, anyway, perhaps not only in our squadron, for an RAF officer to get promotion and get decoration. And there’s an instance. And I’ve got the documentary evidence there, because eventually I went back, many years later,
to the public records office in Kew, and picked up all the operation reports for my squadron, for the flights that I was on. It’s very clearly there that this fellow was given an immediate DFC. Also I asked that my wireless operator be considered for a decoration, because of what he had done over Corsica. Now, he was a very sick boy. That trip really, really upset him. He didn’t fly with us again.
The last time I saw him was just before I came home in 1945, and he told me he was still being pursued over a lack of moral fibre, because he wouldn’t carry on with his operational tour. But he was an RAF fellow, he was an English fellow. So not only was I robbed of a decoration, but my recommendation for one of my crew wasn’t listened to either. That was a bit off-putting, I think.
Between that and between this business of the Nuremberg trip when I was suspected of being ‘lack of moral fibre’ because I turned back, it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. And worst than that, when we did get back the air commodore wanted to see us. So I went to see the air commodore. And I had asked the wing commander before then, if we could have some leave, because I had some married men on my crew. He said, “No Rackley, I can’t afford the crews
to send you on leave. You’ll have to stay.” Anyway, we went to see the air commodore and he wanted to know all about what happened, and we told him. He said, “I suppose you’re going on some leave now?” Very foolishly, I said, “Oh no, sir. We’re not going on leave. The wing commander can’t afford the crews.” He said, “That’s bloody rubbish.” So he rang the wing commander and ordered him to give us some leave. The wing commander then accused me of going over his head to the air commodore to get some leave. So my stocks with the flight commander and the wing commander weren’t good. Not good at all. Another black.
We came back and resumed squadron duty in the normal ways. We went back on flying again. We got a new wireless operator, and we went on flying as though nothing had happened, which is what we expected would happen. We wouldn’t have objected; we were quite happy to do it. We wanted to do it, I suppose. We went on and I suppose the next
big event in our life was the actual D-Day landing in itself. We didn’t get over until that night. The landing was early in the morning. We bombed the night before. You might recall that the D-Day Landing was postponed for twenty four hours because of bad weather. But they didn’t postpone the bomber command operation, because we were bombing
gun sites on the beach, at that stage. So we weren’t cancelled. We went ahead as usual. It was the roughest trip I ever had. We bombed, in cloud, using our radar devices and gun sights on the landing beaches. So we came back. Twenty four hours later they repeated,
and the thing did go ahead, but we weren’t on that trip. But we were the following night and our invasion target was Caen, which was a bit of a nasty trip in some ways. There weren’t very many of us on it, it was just a few of us. We had to be very careful, and we were told we had to stick exactly to the laid down route. Everything was programmed and laid down. We had to stick exactly to that. Now normally,
if you get into trouble, you abandon the raid and you get back. We were told if you get into trouble on the raid, you stick to the flight path, no turning around and coming back. You stick to it. If you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, the navy will fire on you. So we had to be very careful. It was a very small target, of course. For us, it was low level. We were down to three thousand feet.
Now we normally operated at twenty five thousand feet. So three thousand feet for us was pretty low. There were a couple of hundred of us on this raid. But we had to get into a very narrow area. I think every German in the place had a gun. That was a bit of a problem. The other problem was that it being such a small area, two hundred planes trying to zero in on that, there were a few collisions. We almost had a collision. We looked up and saw a bloke
above us, with his bomb door opens, at the wrong time. So we had to make a quick escape. I forget how many aircraft were lost on that night, but I would think probably from collisions, rather than from any activity. So that was D-Day. Everything returned to normal after that. And eventually,
20th of June I think, we returned from French targets to do a German target. We had to go to a place called Wessling, on the Rhine, just a little bit south of Cologne, to an oil plant there, a hydrogenation plant. It was a five group trip, a hundred and thirty three
Lancasters were on the job, and it was a very, very bad night, because thirty seven of the hundred and thirty three didn’t come back. Which is a pretty high percentage. We got back, but we were attacked by a fighter and we were very badly damaged, and we were very lucky to get back. We were attacked by a fighter using a method called
‘Schräge Musik’. What it meant was upward firing cannon. The Germans had got some aircraft, and instead of using forward firing cannon as they usually did, they put a cannon in the aeroplane, firing upwards. Now normally with forward firing cannon, they did conventional approaches. They flew in and you could see them coming. They never attacked us from the front. It was always from the rear or from the stern.
They were conventional attacks and you could see them, or you had an opportunity to see them. We didn’t always see them, but you had an opportunity to see them. These fellows used to come from nowhere, thousands of feet below you. We had a radar system on our aeroplane, a big balloon underneath the aeroplane, and in there was a scanner. It was H2S system, and that scanner provided a picture in the
navigator’s compartment, a picture of the ground that helped him in his navigation. It wasn’t such a good picture. Navigators seemed to be able to understand it but I don’t think anybody else did. But it was enough to help them with their navigation. So every aeroplane had this individual scanner. So these fellows used to come from below, and they used to home on this scanner, to underneath the aeroplane. Instead of coming in like that, he’d come from below. Now the Lancaster didn’t have any downward vision at all.
The only way we could see down below was to do what we called a ‘banking search’. And I had just done a banking search, so the gunners could see downwards. They didn’t see this fellow. So I don’t know where he was. I don’t know whether he banked with me or not, or whether he was way below. But in just such a short time after I finished a banking search, there was a hell of an explosion. And the aeroplane went straight down, five thousand feet into this terrific dive.
The mid-upper gunner said he fired some shots at the German as he broke away. We didn’t know, at that stage, that the Germans were using that method. The hierarchy apparently knew, and had elected not to tell us. We didn’t know. We weren’t looking for that sort of thing. It was years later, after the war, I read in a book about Schräge Musik, and I realised then that’s what had happened to me, and I never ever knew, until then. We weren’t told.
Anyway, the aeroplane went straight down into this terrific dive. I had both feet on the instrument display panel, and the flight engineer helping me pull the stick back to get it out of this dive. And eventually we did, we got it out of the dive. It took about five thousand feet, as I said. Straightaway I realised what had been damaged was my control services. What had happened, underneath, he had raked
from the ailerons right back. Fortunately he didn’t hit the bomb compartment. The bombs were intact. And that’s what happened to many people, in getting underneath and doing that, they not only damaged the control surface but they entered the bomb compartment and the bombs blew up, and that was the end of the aeroplane of course. But fortunately our aeroplane was intact. We got the aeroplane, dropped the bombs, dropped them safe, because we thought we were still probably over Holland somewhere.
We weren’t too sure just where we were by then. Then I tried to turn the aeroplane to go home. No point in going any further; couldn’t go any further. The navigator’s log shows that it took us fifteen minutes to turn the aeroplane around, because the rudders were so badly damaged. Having got the aeroplane around onto a course that would take us home, the rudder pedals sprung, with the port pedal
full on and the starboard pedal full back. And the only way I could use the rudder pedals from then on, was to put both feet on the starboard pedal and push, and try to get the rudder pedals equalised. By doing that, what little rudder we still had left, I could get a little bit of turn. But not enough to do us any good. I had no ailerons at all, they were totally gone.
The banking of the aeroplane was just impossible, I had no aileron to turn. I had elevators, but the stick wanted to go forward and it was taking two of us to hold the stick back, to keep the aeroplane level. The wireless operator reported, from the astrodome, that the starboard fin and rudder had been shot away down to the tail plane level. So there we were. I knew then,
that even if we got back to England, we had to get across the North Sea back to England, even if we got back, my chance of landing the aeroplane was nil. I just didn’t have enough control of the aeroplane to even think about attempting a landing. I thought about trying to steer the aeroplane with motor. And then I realised that I’ve got so little control surface left that if anything happened, doing that, I wouldn’t have enough control
surface to pull us out of trouble. Frankly, I chickened out. I wasn’t game to try that. It turned out later, that was crucial. So I decided to get back and we would have to bail out. At that stage, I got a report to say that the rear gunner’s parachute pack had been destroyed by the cannon fire. Now in those days, I wore a seat pack, so the parachute was with me.
I had to do that, because of this problem I had with my short legs. So I used to take the cushion out of the aeroplane, put the seat pack in the cushion, and put the cushion behind me so that I could fly this Lancaster. Crews wore chest packs. They wore a harness that had hooks on, and they’d take the pack and stow it in the aeroplane until they needed it, then they used to have to hook it on. So where his pack was stowed had been destroyed by the fighter cannon. So he didn’t have a parachute.
In those days we didn’t carry spare parachutes. We didn’t have spare parachutes to give anybody to carry. So there he was, without a parachute. And I thought, “What do you do about that?” The bomb aimer volunteered for the two of them to go out on the one shoot. When it came time to bail out, that’s what happened. They tied each other together somehow, and clung face to face.
We couldn’t go out the back door because the damage at the rear of the aeroplane was so severe, we couldn’t get to the back door. The poor old rear gunner was in his turret, and there was this great hole, I’m told, I didn’t see it, but the damage report told me, there was a big hole in the back of the aeroplane where this scanner used to be, and somehow or other they got him out of his rear turret and around that hole and up into the aeroplane. I don’t know how they did it, but they did it.
So he was there, safe with us. We had to escape through the forward hatch, which was in the bomb aimer’s compartment, forward of the flight deck, a hatch in the floor. And that’s how we all had to bail out, because we couldn’t get to the rear door. It was too damaged. We couldn’t get it open anyway. So they tied themselves together and went face to face, but out they went, out the hatch together.
When the chute opened, whatever was happening, they couldn’t hold onto each other, the bomb aimer couldn’t hold him, or whatever they were tied together with broke, but anyway the rear gunner fell away, and of course he was killed. Now his story was a sad story, too. We had a lost a rear gunner on the Munich trip in Corsica, as I said, so we had to get a new rear gunner when we came back and we got this fellow. Now he had been the sole survivor from another crash.
From a Lancaster that on take-off, an engine had failed on take-off one night on a raid, and the plane crashed. We used to carry four thousand pound bombs, among other bombs, incendiaries and five hundred pound bombs, but always a four thousand pound bomb to a German city. When the plane crashed, the bomb exploded. It killed everybody in the aircraft, except the rear gunner. It blew the turret off the aeroplane and blew him somewhere, and he got out.
He was damaged, injured, but he got out. He was the sole survivor. He was a gunner without a crew, we were a crew without a gunner; we got him. And he was killed. So that was the second rear gunner I lost. He was the sole survivor of that first crew, but he was the only person killed on our trip. I don’t know if there’s some sort of poetic justice in that, but that’s the way life was in those days. So we flew the aeroplane on, we bailed the rest of the crew out. The engineer, again,
elected to stay with me, because I was needing help. By this time, we had trussed the rudder pedals together in a neutral position with some rope that we had. We had the control column tied back to take the weight off my arms. With just a little bit, I was controlling what bank we had, with what little rudder we had. But as we went on, we bailed the rest of the crew out, the flight engineer stayed with me.
We had this wild idea. We were worried about what would happen if the plane crashed, we thought what damage it would do on the ground to people. We had this wild idea, that we would try and stay with this aeroplane until we hit the West Coast of England, and as we go out across the West Coast, we’ll jump out. It was a piece of fantasy, because the further we went, the less control we had. In the end we had no control. So we decided it didn’t matter whether we were there or not and we decided to bail out, too.
So out he went, and I quickly followed him. Tumble, tumble, tumble. I had turned the wingtip lights of the aeroplane on before we bailed out, fortunately. I pulled the cord, the chute opened, a hell of a jerk. It was a pleasant experience until there, incidentally. You’re twelve thousand feet or somewhere in space, just a free body in space, just tumbling.
And it was quite a pleasant experience. Then you pull the cord of course, and that all stops. But as I pulled the cord, I could hear aeroplane engines. And soon after we got out, the aeroplane toppled, and it circled around over the top of me. And it continued to circle, and I’m going down, and it’s going down and I thought, “I hope it goes down faster than I am.” And fortunately it did, because the next time it circled, it circled beneath me. So down it went.
Eventually I saw a huge explosion on the ground, and then some seconds later I heard the boom. I was going down. I had lost a flying boot bailing out, and my feet got cold. I was keeping the other foot warm by tucking – We had those padded flying boots in those days. Very, very slowly, and at one stage I convinced myself that I wasn’t going down, I was going up. But eventually I was going down. Down, down, down I went.
It was two o’clock in the morning, over a blacked out England. I couldn’t see I thing; I was just hoping. Eventually I hit some cloud, and I went through the cloud, and the cloud must have been very low, because no sooner did I hit then bang, I was on the ground. Clang, I could hear train wheels. What happened was the London Express was going by, just at this particular time. I had landed beside it, and the canopy of my parachute collapsed across one of the cars of the train,
and I was being dragged at the speed of this train, along beside the railway line. And I was conscious enough to realise that this was happening, for a few seconds. I could hear the wheels. And I remember thinking to myself, “You keep out there, Lionel, because if you go over that way a bit you’re likely to lose your arm or your head or something.” I don’t remember much after that, so I must have been knocked unconscious.
The next thing I remember, I don’t know how long afterwards, I woke up beside the railway line. I came to. The chute had gone, everything, it was just me there. I think what must have happened, in being dragged – Parachutes had a quick release button in the middle, all the harness connected into this quick release button. I think the quick release button must have got knocked or broken, and it’s released the harness and it’s pulled the harness off me. Because the harness
and the parachute continued on the train and got to London. When it got to the London terminal there’s this parachute and this harness on the train, and no fellow in it. So that started a panic in London. They sent a search party back along the line, looking for the bloke that used to own the parachute. In the meantime, I had regained consciousness. I had lost the other flying boot as well by then. So I started to walk along the track.
I can tell you the ballast on the railway line when you’ve got stocking feet is not all that comfortable. My arm was immobilised, I couldn’t move my right arm. My head was sore, and I was bleeding from the head. Altogether I wasn’t feeling all that good. And I could hear a train coming. Fortunately it was a British goods train. British goods trains during the war used to carry double loads, and they chugged along very slowly. And I think it might have been up a rise anyway.
But it was a very slow old goods train, chug, chug, chug. So I just waited until the engine got level with me and I called out, “Help! Help!” And they stopped the train. Couldn’t believe it, they stopped the train. The engineer and the fireman got out, and there I was, all bedraggled and all bloody, trying to say I’m an RAF pilot, I’ve just bailed out, and they’re looking at me and I think they thought – There was all this worry at this stage about German parachutists arriving. They weren’t too sure,
but I think they decided, well, he’s in a bit of a mess. He can’t do us any harm anyway. So eventually they got back in and they pulled the train its full length, until the goods van was where I was. The guard came over and they put me in the goods van of this train. And the guard wouldn’t get inside. He sat outside on the steps of the van. He wasn’t game to come in with me. So they pulled the train along a little bit, and they stopped at a signal box, and they
went and sent a phone message through to Luton Station, and I eventually got to Luton Station. There I was met by the ambulance, and the local police force. And I was given a police escort to the local hospital. All the details were taken then, and my head was in a bit of a mess. They decided, that night on the spot, to put me in the operating theatre, and they stitched my head up.
My arm was still in trouble of course. And this was a civilian hospital, it wasn’t an RAF hospital. I remember the interview, they were asking me who I was and where I was. They were very good actually. What I didn’t say before and perhaps I should have, when I first got to England, there was this hospitality scheme going. A Lady McDonald of the Isles was running this hospitality
system, and she was putting overseas aircrews in touch with English families; as host families. We were very lucky, my mate and I. We were given this host family on our first leave out of Bournemouth. They became my family for the war. They became my family. They were my Mum and Dad for the duration of the war. They were saying
in this interview in the hospital, the police were saying, “Have you got some family?” “Yeah, my family’s in Australia.” “Well, you must have some family in England?” So I gave them their address and they notified my English family that I had been hurt. So they knew very quickly. So that night they operated, and the next morning I woke up and they told me where I was, and I said that my arm was very sore and I couldn’t move it. The doctor came in and he said yes, they had had a look at that,
and they didn’t like the look of that too much. It was a very nasty arm. They thought they might have to do an amputation. And I thought ‘Oh, Crikey!’ Fortunately for me, the RAF came and claimed me that day. They had a hospital at Halton, which was not all that far away, an RAF hospital. So they came and claimed me and took me to the RAF hospital. Now, there was an orthopaedic surgeon in London, a fellow called Clarke, who was
an air commodore at that stage. At Halton Hospital there was an orthopaedic surgeon, a Canadian, named Butcher. Now Butcher had been one of Clarke’s students, before the war. He was now chief orthopaedic surgeon at Halton. He got in touch with Clarke; Clarke arrived at the hospital and a couple of days later I went in. And they fixed my shoulder.
I’m so jolly thankful. It was an impacted fracture of the scapula and a central dislocation, and it was a bit of a mess. Fortunately for me, Clarke and Butcher were the right people at the right place at the right time, and they were able to do wonders with my shoulder. It’s not perfect, but it’s been good enough for me, all these years. So there I was, in hospital.
Interviewee: Lionel Rackley Archive ID 0853 Tape 04
Well, I was in hospital for a little while. I met some very interesting characters there, including a fellow – He was a New Zealander, but he had come to England and he was in the RAF. And he was flying Mosquitoes. He was a
fairly thick set bloke, this bloke. Apparently Mosquitoes are a little hard to bail out of. They used to bail out of the front hatch. They used to practise bailing out on the ground. Everybody would stand underneath the front hatch, and the bloke would go up and bail out of the front hatch, you’d go out headfirst of course, and as you went out, they’d catch you as you went underneath. Well, what his story was that they had been issued with some American flak jackets. So he was
practising bailing out with this flak jackets. And it just made all the difference between him getting through the hole and not getting through the hole. And apparently, he went through and he got his head through the hole, but he got caught by the hips. These fellows underneath tried to catch him. Ho, ho, ho bloody funny. Meanwhile while they’re all laughing and haw hawing, he moved the wrong way and through he went, and they weren’t very ready to catch him. Plonk, he went on the ground. Got a sore neck. So the doctor
had a look at his neck and kept him in hospital for a couple of days. He said, “I can’t see anything wrong with it at the moment. But I’ll tell you what, go and take a few days leave and if it’s still sore when you come back, we’ll take some x-rays and see what’s wrong.” So down he went to London, had a whale of a time, wine, women and song for a few days, got back to the squadron, his neck’s still sore. Oh, the doctor says, “We better do an x-ray.” So he does an x-ray and he’s got the fifth and sixth vertebrae broken or something. He’d been walking around London for a week,
grogging up and playing up merry hell and everything else with a broken neck. So he was in hospital when I was there. He had this cast on, from the hips, all over his body, up his neck, over his head, with just a space for his face. And something happened one night. His throat started to swell or something and he started to almost choke. So they had to relieve the pressure in a hurry. They decided to cut a hole on the throat.
So there he is in the treatment room, and everybody in the ward is there, and there’s this wards man with a cut-throat razor cutting a hole around his throat. He thought he was going to get his throat cut, and everybody standing there laughing, and urging the wards man on of course. A big joke. So that was hospital. After a while I was sent from there up to a place called Loughborough,
which was a medical rehabilitation unit for people with orthopaedic problems and blokes who had amputations and that sort of thing, to get their prosthesis fitted. I was in a plaster cast all over my body and down my arms. Up there they eventually took that off. When you’ve had that on for a few weeks, your body wastes and you just flop. So you’re there to get your limbs moving again.
This was an old English boarding school we were in, a terrific place. All the equipment there had been donated by Lord Nuffield. It was a wonderful place for us. I was there several months. And all the other fellows there were doing the same, getting treatment, getting movement.
All sorts of things. A wonderful place. I remember the dining room in that place. A big dining hall, big exposed beams. I used to think I was one of King Arthur’s knights, sitting in there. The experiences I remember there was my bomb aimer. As I said, he bailed out with the rear gunner and the rear gunner had fallen off.
It had affected old Morgan; it had affected him badly. It took him a long time to get over that, his nerves were – Anyway, I was at dinner one night, in this King Arthur dining hall, and the steward came in and said, “Excuse me, sir. You have a visitor.” I said, “A visitor?” He said, “Yeah. There’s a fellow
outside wants to see you, he reckons he knows you.” So out I went, and here’s my bomb aimer. I looked at him. He had shaved his head; he didn’t have a hair on his desert. I said, “Good day, Doug.” He said, “Oh, I was in the district, I thought I’d come and see you.” I said, “Oh, yeah. Have you had anything to eat?” He said, “No.” I said, “You better come in and have dinner.” So I took him into the mess.” He had been commissioned by this stage, too. And we had dinner.
And I said to him, “Have you got a place to stay?” And he said, “No. I thought I’d stay here.” I said, “Doug, you can’t stay here, this isn’t like an ordinary RAF station.” You could go to any RAF station and get accommodation. I said, “This is a sort of a hospital.” “Oh,” he said. “We’ll go downtown and see if we can get you into a hotel, eh?” We had no hope of getting him into a hotel. We had to do something. My room was down a corridor, and it was the last room on
the corridor. There were just rooms on the one side of the corridor, but beyond my room was another big storeroom. And in there, they kept all the bed linen and the mattresses and the spare beds and everything. So I thought, “Well, that’s all I can do.” So I set him up in this room. There was a spare bed, and I set him up with all the bed linen to sleep. So there he is asleep. What I didn’t account for was that early in the morning, the house maid cleaner lady used to come down there and
go into her room, that was her sort of headquarters. I forgot all about that. Early in the morning, I hear this scream. She had come down the corridor, opened the door, there’s Doug inside, not a hair on his head, he sat up. “Aaarrrrr!” Frightened the merry hell out of her. Well, I had to explain to the group captain about that. Yeah, that was just a funny story that happened at Loughborough. I stayed there until I was considered okay to go back out again.
From the time of your crash, had you actually spoken to anybody from your squadron?
No, I hadn’t spoken to anybody, but the adjutant was a very good bloke. I was mates with him. So he gathered all my gear, that he thought I’d need and packed it into a suitcase and sent it down to me, in hospital. And also, he wrote me a few letters and he wrote and told me
that they had talked to the rest of my crew, when they got back to the squadron, they talked to them and they had a debriefing with them. And that he had written to the Caterpillar Club and put our names in for Caterpillar membership. And told me all the boys were okay. Eventually he wrote to me that all the boys weren’t okay, that the CO had got the chop. So I kept in touch with him, a little bit, just by writing.
But I hadn’t spoken to anybody really. That was the only news I had.
Can you tell us about the Caterpillar Club?
The Caterpillar Club was formed by the Irvin Parachute Club. It was a fellow called Irvin that invented the parachute long, long before. Parachutes were originally made of silk, and of course, the silk comes from a caterpillar. So the Irvin Company formed this, what they called a Caterpillar Club,
and people who bailed out of aeroplanes to save their lives, not for fun, had to bail out to save your life, an emergency situation, automatically became members of the Caterpillar Club. So your name was put on their list, and they issued you with a little certificate, and a little caterpillar badge, which we used to wear on the pocket of our uniform. Much to the disgust of RAF wing commanders, who were very proper. “That’s not uniform; you’re not supposed to wear that.” I used to say, “I’m not in the RAF,
I’m in the RAAF, and in our air force you’re allowed to do that.” Which would seem to satisfy them, but they didn’t like it. So that was the Caterpillar Club. But people were in the Caterpillar Club, because people were bailing out of aeroplanes – I think Captain Lindbergh was a Caterpillar Club member. But people were bailing out of aeroplanes then. So they became members of the Caterpillar Club. Of course, during the war thousands of people did it, so the Caterpillar Club had a big, big influx all of a sudden. As a matter of fact there is
a Caterpillar Club group still operating in Brisbane. We meet a couple of times a year and had lunch together. We’re all fellows that have bailed out of aeroplanes. Some became prisoners of war, some bailed out into enemy territory but they managed to evade and weren’t captured. Others like me, bailed out over England. But we’re all members of the Caterpillar Club. Now Irvin Company’s been taken over by somebody else now, and I’m not too sure the thing’s alive. As far as we’re concerned, it’s still alive.
So eventually I had to face a medical board. They said, “Okay, you can go back to the squadron, but you’re on light duties. You must not do any more operational flying until we tell you.” That was late October, early November, and I think I had three or four months light duties or something. So I went back to the squadron,
went into the mess that night. I met my mate the adjutant, still hadn’t heard any news about any directions. Saw him look at me in a funny way. But anyway, we had a few beers and had dinner together, and I got myself some accommodation. He said, “Okay, Blue. I’ll see you down at the squadron office in the morning.” I said, “Yeah okay, sir. That’ll be right.” So the next morning I went down to the squadron office, and the orderly
room clerk said to me, “Oh, Rackley, I’ve got a decoration for you.” I said, “Have you?” He said, “Oh yeah, didn’t you know about it?” He said, “Oh, go and see the adj [adjutant].” So I went into see the adj. He said, “You know Blue, I thought it was funny you weren’t wearing that ribbon last night.” He said, “I didn’t realise you hadn’t heard about it.” And I hadn’t heard about it. And he said, “Okay, then, the
best thing you better do is go and get yourself properly dressed. Go up to the property store, get some ribbon and go to the tailor shop and get it sewn on. So off I went, and I phone my family in London. I said “Do you know what? I got decoration.” “Oh, do your mother and father know?” “No, I don’t think so.” “Would you like us to send a cable?” “Oh, yes please.” So they sent off a cable to my mother and father. I went to the store, got a bit of ribbon,
went to the tailor shop, got it sewn on, walked to the mess. Just about lunch-time about by then. Looked in the mailbox, a great pile of mail. It was from all my friends and family back home, they’d known about it for a fortnight. And there was all these congratulation letters, including one from RAF Headquarters in London, from Air Vice Marshall Wrigley, with a nice letter: “Dear Rackley. Congratulations. Just in case you can’t get any DFC ribbon, I’m enclosing it.”
Well I did get some ribbon, and I’ve still got the bit of DFC ribbon that he gave me. So my family knew all about it, long before I did. So that was the way it was. So I was doing odd duties about the place. The amazing thing about getting back though was that when I left the squadron in June, we were still short of aeroplanes; we just had enough aeroplanes, always scraggling to get enough aeroplanes to go. We’re still short of crews,
we’re still short of everything. When I got back in early November, they had enough spare aeroplanes to form a new squadron. They had two crews to every aeroplane. They had equipment running out of their ears. It was just as though everything had clicked somewhere along the line and all this stuff had started to flow through. It was all there. So they didn’t need me to fly. They had blokes there that were dead scared the war was going to finish before they got on opps. So
they didn’t need me. I was doing intelligence officer duties. I was working in the base operations room as an operations officer. I was doing post maintenance test flying, filling in duties, and eventually I got posted. Nobody asked me to go back on opps, and my time on light duties was running out and I was thinking about that I
will have to go back, and all of a sudden I got a posting from RAF headquarters in London, to report to Brighton to go home. So for me, that was the end of the war. So that’s what happened. I went down to Brighton; I eventually got onto a ship and went home. The war was almost finished then, it was April when I got onto the ship. It was February or March I think I got to Brighton.
But it was April before we got on a ship. We were actually in the Red Sea when VE Day was announced. I always felt a little bit sorry about that, that I hadn’t stayed those last few weeks, just to see it out. But however, I didn’t. We came home, through Fremantle and – Fremantle. We were on a Dutch ship with a Dutch crew,
but the Royal Navy were – We were just a few Australians going home, but the Royal Navy had a big contingent on, coming out to the Pacific war. So they took charge of the ship. We got worse accommodation than we had. We got the raw end of the pineapple for sure. However, that didn’t matter. But they had naval discipline on board.
Where we were in this cabin, there was twenty of us in there. We got fresh water for one hour a day. There was one wash hand basin and one shower rose. So twenty of us had to get through the wash hand basin for a shave, and twenty of us had to get through the shower for a shower. Every morning. I tell you, in an hour, twenty people shaving at the wash hand basin, getting a shower under the shower? A big rush.
But where we were in this cabin, we were up the end of a corridor. You couldn’t go any further than that corridor. So we were a bit snakey on this Royal Naval mob. We felt it was a bit wrong. We had been to the war, we were all commissioned officers. A lot of us were decorated. And here were these young naval ratties, who hadn’t seen a shot fired, getting a better deal then us. They used to come out every night for what they called ‘final divisions’, or something of that sort. There would be a great heap of them. There would be this
duty officer, and the duty NCO and a great pile of underlings and this little bugle boy from the Marines in front of them, blasting on this thing. “Officer of the day! Stand by!” he used to say. So we got a bit sick of this. So the blokes who had musical instruments got them. The fellows who didn’t have musical instruments got toilet paper and put them over combs, and we piled ourselves up this blank end of the corridor.
Back he came this night, “Duty officer. Stand by!’ Daaarrrt! We gave him this great blast on all the instruments we had. He took one look, then turned around and went. So there was a great laugh. If he had kept going, it would have been all right. But no, he was a Pom. He came. “Was it really so bloody funny?” Laugh again, you see. We knew who he was, and he was in the same mess we were, so we gave him hell from then on. We’d stand behind him
in conversation and we’d say to each other, “Do you really think it was so bloody funny?” So we gave him hell all the way home. Poor devil, he was only doing his job. We shouldn’t have done that. But when we got to Fremantle, this Royal Naval Officer decided nobody was going to go ashore. No shore leave. And we thought, “What?” We’d been away from home for two or three years, this was Australia. No shore leave?
Like hell. But we had a good squadron leader. He said, “Don’t worry about it, boys. I’ll fix us up.” So he went and got permission for us to go and do a route march. The old, old story. “Do a route march.” We said, “A route march?” He said, “Trust me.” So he got us all out on the wharf, lined us up, very regimental, right dressed and off we went on this route march. When we got outside the gate, we scattered. Much to the annoyance of –
He didn’t like that at all. We stayed away all day. Somebody found out when the ship was going to sail, and we got back in time. They just didn’t understand, they just did not understand. So we got back to Sydney and we were sent from there. We were put on a train and sent to Brisbane. I had rung my mother and father from Brisbane and said I was coming home.
The interstate train used to pull into South Brisbane station in those days. My mother and father were on South Brisbane station with a lot of other family. I got off the train, said, “Good day Mum. Good day Dad.” Went through all the thing. Got into a taxi and went home. That was it. That was in July. I was given ninety days disembarkation leave. July, August, September. The Japanese war finished in September. So I went back.
I was called back at the end of my leave and I went back. We’d read in the papers about this ‘scrub course’ for pilots. Apparently they were taking pilots that came back from the UK, sending them down to Narami or somewhere and giving them what they called a refresher course, then deciding they weren’t up to scratch and scrubbing them. So I took exception to this. So I got this posting, so I fronted up to the adjutant. I said, “Scrub course.”
He said, “It’s not really that, you know.” I said, “Oh yeah? I can tell you, I’m not going. I’m refusing the posting.” He said, “You can’t do that.” I said, “That’s what I’m doing. I’m not going.” He said, “Leave it with me, and I’ll let you know.” Fortunately the war finished in a fortnight. I tell you I was out in a fortnight, they got rid of me. And that was the end of the war. You went home. I got in a taxi and went home, and
virtually that was the end of the war. It was a bit hard to take. I had been all these years, with all this activity around me. I don’t think the lights were ever out in any of the huts, there was noise and people and things happening. All of a sudden, I was home at Mum and Dad’s place. Meet the family and all that sort of thing. All aunties and uncles and cousins and all this sort of thing. A very exciting life. But then it settled down. And it struck me,
the first night I went out at night-time from there, to meet some friends of mine. And I got home at night. Blackness. Had a key to the front door, opened the front door, nothing. For four years I had been walking through front doors to all this activity, and suddenly it’s gone. It was as though you switched off a light. There was nothing. There was no parades, there was nobody saying anything.
There was no celebration. There was nothing. And that was the way the war finished. You eventually settled back. Your life is never the same again, of course. I went back to work. Eventually, I had demobilisation leave. I knew a girl before I went over and we were pretty close.
Not long after I got back, we decided we’d marry. We married, I went back to work for the same firm that I was in. I decided eventually that this was not for me. I didn’t seem to be able to fit in with what was going on. I didn’t seem able to renew my relationship with the people that were in charge of the place, the bosses.
I don’t know. I just couldn’t settle. Anyway, I put up with it for a few years, then thought, “No, this is not for me.” Got out and I went to another firm, and managed to get myself sorted out from there. It wasn’t easy. You talk to people these days and they say, “Weren’t you counselled?” And we think, “Counselled?” This counselling business to my generation, we think, “Counselling?
That’s funny, isn’t it?” No counselling, you just had to sort yourself out. And sometimes I felt quite aggressive to people. I felt quite aggressive to the police force. Traffic cops. “Who the hell is he telling me I can’t go through there?” You were fed on this aggression and all this sort of hatred, I suppose. But you were fed on this aggression, but nobody
took it out of your system. It was still there. Even now, I find myself thinking “Who the hell is he?” I object to authority a little bit. Most of it’s gone. But that’s the way it was. That was it.
How about comparing your excitement of your role during the war, to the mundaness of life in Australia?
Not easy – Give me a minute, will you?(BREAK)
I was just interested to know what it was that initially made you want to
join the air force?
I think it was a number of things. Fellows of my age, there was this community expectation. Nobody ever said anything, but you felt it. You were expected to go. Not only that, but in those days it was God, King and Empire, sort of thing. It was still at the stage where we saluted the flag every morning.
And the ‘Golden Rules’ were still up on school walls. So we were brought up to be true to God and honour the King and obey your parents. So there was that. You felt that there was that expectation. And you felt that you had a duty to do it. It was an intangible thing, I suppose.
But it was there. But not only that. There were some blokes like me; I was just itching to get out from under my father’s control. At seventeen, it was starting to be limited and restrictive, and there was no indication he was going to give up. So to me that was welcome. At that age, of course, the war was overseas, it was in Europe. There was no Pacific war
when I joined up. And so you knew when you joined, you were going to go overseas. My father had gone overseas in the First World War and that was what was going to happen to me, too. Then it was the thing about flying. When I was a kid, I actually saw Burt Hinkler arrive, and I saw Kingsford Smith arrive. There was the Melbourne Centenary Air Race. There was all these blokes, Scot and Mullison and Butler
All the fellows. They were our heroes, and we lived off them. This aviation thing sort of got to us. I don’t know, I suppose it was a combination of all those things. I knew I didn’t want to be in the army. My father had been an infantryman. I didn’t want to be walking around sticking bayonets in people, and I didn’t want bayonets stuck in me either.
There was no navy in our family, although I did try to get into the navy at one stage, and I swear my old man fixed that. I think he rigged that. But the air force was the thing. It captured the imagination. You didn’t know what you were going to be. You hoped you were going to be pilot. And I was lucky. But a lot of blokes weren’t. A lot of blokes did get categorised
as pilots and failed the course. They were scrubbed for one reason or another; they just weren’t able to do it. But I was lucky. It was a combination of all those things, I think. A mate of mine who lived over the road from me, when he turned eighteen, his father almost told him that he ought to be going. My father would have been like that, except that my mother wouldn’t let him say that. And she didn’t
want me to go, of course. She was the problem that I had getting away. The old man wouldn’t sign the form until Mum agreed, and there was no way in the world she was going to agree. I had some regrets about that when I got home after the war, and saw what that had done to Mum. What me being away and her worrying about me, had done to her health. War did terrible things to mothers. It really did.
What sort of stories did your father tell of his experiences?
Not a lot really. At school, we were told those sorts of things. My teacher at school was an ‘MC and Bar’ bloke [Military Cross with a bar added for further citation], a very military man. And Anzac Day, we were filled with these things. And I read books about it;
about the VCs, and this sort of thing. My old man didn’t tell me a lot about what he did. But he didn’t have too. I had read all this stuff, and heard all that stuff from Anzac Day lectures and things like that. I knew enough about it to know I didn’t want to be in the infantry. If I had been in the army, I tell you, it wouldn’t have been the infantry.
Can you tell us about that navy experience? Of trying to join up?
The old man had a mate who was a chief petty officer. And he was in the HMAS Moreton, the depot down the bottom of Alice Street. And the war started. You could join the navy at seventeen, and I thought “Okay, I can get away sooner if I do that.” Because you couldn’t join the air force until you were eighteen. So I pestered and pestered and the old fellow said “Okay, I’ll
arrange for you go down and see this mate of mine and he will get you a medical.” Foolishly, I believed him and trusted him and down I went. I saw this mate of his. He said, “Oh, okay, I’ve got the doctor lined up.” He had this doctor at HMAS Moreton lined up who went through what he said was a medical examination. At that time he told me I had a weak chest. And it never dawned on me, but it has since. That wasn’t the naval recruiting office.
The naval recruiting office wasn’t at the HMAS Moreton. I didn’t sign any papers or anything. That was a set up. He set that up with a mate of his. And he knew before I went down there I wasn’t going to get in, I’m sure of it. So I didn’t get into the navy. I wasn’t disappointed about that later on, I got into the air force. I just had to wait that little bit longer.
Can you tell us about that first experience of flying?
I don’t know that I can describe it, but it’s just so, so different. You’re up off the ground, you’re seeing things from different – You sit on the ground and you look up at trees. When you’re up there, you’re looking at the tops of trees and looking down. You’re just out of this world. The excitement of doing it to start with – I mean, I’d stood as a kid and
watched these aeroplanes all my life, and suddenly I was in one. It was just a big excitement, I suppose. It was like a kid going on the roller coaster at the exhibition. All this excitement. When this character asked me to take over, I just couldn’t believe it. I was going to fly an aeroplane. I thought that the first trip that I would just get flown around a bit, and the lessons start next trip. But the lessons started that trip. That was exciting.
The other thing that’s exciting, of course, is your first solo. That’s something, really, up there on your own. And the aeroplane feels different because you’re the only one in it. You’ve always had an instructor, until then. And you’re there, and you’re totally in control. Until you start to wonder how the hell I’m going to get back. I remember I didn’t get in on the first approach.
And it was the old, old story, of course, when you went, so every instructor said it, “Now, okay Rackley. Be careful, because we’re very short of aeroplanes. We don’t care if you get back or not, because we can always replace you. But we’re short of aeroplanes.” So you go around, and I came in and I stood too close to the field, and I had to go around again. And of course the second time I got in. You know then, okay, “I’ve done it. I’m going to get through this course now.
I’m not going to get scrubbed. The worst of it is over.” It’s the excitement of being free, in the air, on your own. It’s a combination of things. But you never forget it. And I haven’t forgotten it since. I still love the Tiger Moth. On my eightieth birthday, I went for a fly in a Tiger Moth, because the sixtieth anniversary of my first solo, was about four days after
my eightieth birthday. There’s a bloke with a Tiger Moth who does local flights here. So that’s how I celebrated my eightieth birthday. I went for a fly in a Tiger Moth. And I thought, “I wonder if he would give me a fly?” And I’d always flown in the rear cockpit of course, but this day I had to sit in the front, and all the controls had been taken out of it, so I was a bit disappointed. But it was still great. The old Tiger Moth’s a great aeroplane.
Can you tell us a bit more about the Empire Air Training Scheme?
It was a huge, big scheme. In Australia it was called the Empire Air Training Scheme, because it was Empire wide. It totally integrated all of the entire Empire. It was an agreement that was signed; they called it the Ottawa Agreement. And the British Government, the Australian Government, the Canadian Government, the New Zealand Government,
the whole of the people of the Empire were involved, agreeing to set up this training scheme. And they took blokes off the street, like me—I’d never sat in an aeroplane in my life—and taught us to be pilots, and taught us to be navigators, and bomb aimers and gunners. It was a huge undertaking. There were people being trained in Australia, there were people being trained in Canada, there were people being trained in Rhodesia.
There could have been people being trained in New Zealand, doing early training. I’m not too sure about that. But the whole thing was integrated in this Empire wide scheme. It was a great scheme. I started my flying training, actual aeroplane flying training, in February, 1942. Allowing for the fact I had this
gap between October ’42, and June ’43, by about October ’43, which is only months after I started, I was captain of a four engine aeroplane. That’s a great course that can do that. To take a raw bloke like me, who hadn’t been in an aeroplane in his life, in eighteen months you make him captain of a four engine aeroplane. I couldn’t drive a motor car,
captain of a four engine aircraft. The training was quite wonderful. It really had to be. I was just one case. There were hundred of blokes that could tell that story. The great story for me, as far as my life was concerned, is that at seventeen years of age, I was walking the streets of Brisbane, with patches in my pants, trying to get a job. At twenty one, I had my twenty first birthday in England,
at twenty one, four years later, I was captain of the biggest aeroplane the RAF had at that time. I tell my grandsons that. Nothing can stop you. You don’t know what’s ahead of you. If anybody had told me, when I was walking the streets of Brisbane, that I was going to be captain of a four engine heavy bomber, four years from then, I would have laughed. But it happened. So there it was.
So it was a great scheme. And it really was Empire. In my crew, I had Australians and I had RAF blokes. Some blokes had a mixture of Canadians and New Zealanders, all in the one crew. So it was totally Empire. And the feeling between the fellows themselves, it was great. We were all like brothers, together.
I think now, when we were training, we used to live in these huts, and there’d be thirty people to a hut. Discipline was fairly strict. Lights were out at nine o’clock. We were healthy fit young blokes. We couldn’t go to sleep at nine o’clock. And I think of the conversations that were held in those huts at night-time. Especially when I first went, because I was nineteen. I had lived a very protected life. I had never been away from home. I’d never been away from Mum and Dad even for a holiday. And I’m in this hut.
And there were blokes who were twenty five, twenty six, and they were married men. Boy I tell you what; my education was improved overnight, just listening to those fellows. It was just terrific. But all that sort of camaraderie, it just grew. The only problem I had was with the hierarchy in the UK. Some of them weren’t very nice people, in my book.
Can you remember what you did for your 21st birthday?
Yes, I do. I had never had a drink at that stage. I went and had my first drink of beer, in an English pub. So my mates were there, and they knew it was my 21st birthday and they saw to it that according to them, I got initiated. I was taken down the pub and taught to drink beer. It was a lesson I learned well.
How did all the crews get on with each other?
You mean individual people in the crew? Or the crews together?
Well, the crews got on well, because we all understood what was happening to the other people. You felt it when crews got killed, and they did. I remember at OTU we were flying Wellingtons, and I was back from
a night cross country, and I was number six to land. The five aeroplanes ahead of me crashed, and twenty eight blokes were killed. Then they changed the runway, and I landed. I think what happened, and I don’t know, I think they were landing downwind, and the old wimpy 1C with the Pegasus engine didn’t have a lot of guts, and I think they were going downwind and they were finding they weren’t going to make it
on power, go around again, didn’t have the power to go around again. Rising ground at the other side, and that's what they all finished up in. Twenty eight blokes. And you feel that, when that happens. There were other crashes, with just single crews, but they were mates of yours. And you feel that. The casualty rating in OTU in training areas was something pretty horrific. But the amazing thing about that particular
crash was, I was in the air, I was number six to land, and I watched it. I was an eye witness. Now there must have been some sort of inquiry about that at some stage; I was never called. So you wonder what happened. But in my own heart of hearts – they changed the runway, and I didn’t have any difficulty landing. So I think the cause of it must have been a runway problem and I can only think that it was downwind. The old Wellington didn’t have any guts, when you get down to that stage, and they were leaving it too late.
Interviewee: Lionel Rackley Archive ID 0853 Tape 05
The crew situation. Yeah, the spirit was there and you felt it when you lost people. Particularly when you got onto a squadron and you lost crews. You knew them, you were living with them. Even though perhaps they weren’t mates in the sense of buddies, pals, they were friends. They were there.
And I remember, one of the things that shocked me a little bit in my early days on the squadron. They had, in the flight office, this big board with all the crews’ names on it, you see. Now the first pilot down to the flight in the morning, it was his job to have a look at the authorisation book and see who didn’t come back. Then you take the duster and you rub their name off the board. Now the first time I had to do that, that really got to me.
You’re just rubbing somebody out of existence, they’d gone. And it happened, almost every trip. There were people who didn’t come back. Our squadron was formed in November ‘43, I didn’t get there until February ’44, but it was formed in November ’43. Mid-November ’43 to the end of July, which is eight and a half months, we lost twice our squadron’s strength. We lost forty aeroplanes.
Twenty aeroplanes was a squadron. And so you were losing friends all the time. And you felt that. The feeling between the crews was there, and it was encouraged. On the squadron, whenever we got the opportunity, whenever a stand down came, the old would say, “Right, tonight, we’re going to have a thing.” Now a ‘thing’ meant we were going into the mess and somebody was going to play the piano, and we were going to drink beer
and sing songs. It was all this togetherness stuff, this camaraderie thing. Within the crew itself, that was even stronger. Even for months before we got to a squadron, we lived together and ate together and played together. We were brothers.
That crew feeling was strong. And everybody knew what their responsibility was. Everybody knew what could be expected of them and the crew. And everybody knew what you could expect from the rest of the crew. And so that bond was there. I know I used to go back to England now and then after the war, to meet the English members of my crew.
They’ve all died now and I don’t have to go back. It was like seeing a brother that you haven’t seen for a long time. The first few minutes were always very emotional. But then you would sit down and you start to talk as though you’d seen them last week, and you were just picking up the conversation. It was that sort of a friendship. So crews, there was a pretty strong feeling.
When you did lose so many crews, were there times
when men felt like they didn’t want to go up?
You couldn’t afford to dwell on that. We didn’t know the overall figures then; that we know now. But you know, we weren’t stupid. We could do sums. Thirty trips in a tour. We knew that the losses were two percent, five percent, sometimes more. At Nuremberg, March 1944,
it was something about eleven percent. Ninety six aeroplanes out of the eight hundred and something. More air crew died that night than in the whole of the Battle of Britain. There were huge losses. A few nights before that, the Berlin trip I did, seventy three were lost. And that goes on. May ’44, I wasn’t on this raid, I was still trying to get back from
the Middle East, but in May 1944 they did a raid. Forty two out of two hundred. The one I finished on, thirty seven out of a hundred and forty three. Huge losses. It was twenty five percent, almost. So we knew that those were the sort of figures. We weren’t stupid, we could do sums. So we knew the chances were there.
But you couldn’t afford to dwell on that. You had to keep that well out of your mind. Because if you did that, that’s exactly what would happen. You wouldn’t have gone, and I think there were some blokes that didn’t go because of that.
Can you tell us about the different fellows in your crew. Their different personalities, maybe? And how the spirit of your crew was?
Yeah. Let’s start. There was the flight engineer. He was the father of the crew.
He was much older than us. He was a very restraining influence. If we looked like playing up and getting into trouble, Old Stan was there. He always calmed things down a little bit. He tried to hold a bit of a rein on us. He was a very good flight engineer. They used to run sweeps, the flight engineering section used to run sweeps.
The flight engineers would keep records all the way, on petrol consumption and that sort of thing. And when they come back, they’d dip the tanks to see just how close the reading on their record was to the reading on the tanks. He won so often, they scrubbed him from the sweeps He was very good. He was a gem. The navigator, he was a good navigator, too, but he was a different personality.
He was a bit of a playboy. He liked ladies. He was a bit of a play-up merchant. Who else was there? The bomb aimer. I don’t know. He was a bit of a wild man, but it was just as well that he was. When we came to be bailing the rear gunner out on that last trip, it was the bomb aimer that volunteered. I don’t think anybody else would have.
He was a bit of a wild lad. He was a bit of an eccentric in many ways. I know I had to restrain him. He always wanted to know what it was like to go over a target the second time. And I used to say, “If you don’t bomb when you go over a target the first time, boy, you’re on a charge when you get back.” But he was that sort of a character. The first wireless operator I had was a Glaswegian.
I don’t know what went on in Glasgow, but he always used to wear a razor blade in the pleat of his forage cap. And he spoke this Glaswegian lingo, and we had trouble understanding him. Especially in the air, on the intercom. We used to go up and we’d make him talk on the intercom, trying to get used to the accent. And we’d get to the stage where we could understand him, and then he’d go on leave. When he came back from Glasgow, he’d be worst than when he started.
The mid-upper gunner, he was a permanent RAF fellow. He’d been permanent ground staff and been remustered into the air. I’m not too sure about Jack. He was always a mystery man. But he was a motor car man. He loved motor cars. And I remember after the war when I went back to see him, he had a son named Talbot, motor car. He was into cars in a big way. But
in many ways, he was permanent RAF. He was brought up with the RAF as an elite force. The first rear gunner that I had, he was an Australian country boy, and that’s what he was. He was a bit of a larikan sometimes. But they all melded in together. They were all good people. The second wireless operator I had,
he was a very creative bloke. He was a design artist of some sort. After the war, that’s what he did. He stayed in the RAF, after the war, and became a pilot, and became a captain of a Sunderland flying boat. But he was invalided out, because he got diabetes. But he was a very
skilled design artist. Very good at drawing. So he was another personality. The rear gunner who got killed. We didn’t get to know him so well. Before he got into our crew, he formed friendships outside our crew. And he came into our crew, but we never got as close to him as we did to the first bloke. He wasn’t with us all that long, incidentally. We didn’t pick him up until
May, and he was killed in June. He tended to retain the friendships that he had. They were good blokes.
Did different crews have traditions or superstitions? Things you’d do before you went on a mission.
Yeah. Some did. We would never take the aircraft key with us. You were supposed to take the aircraft key, so if
you landed away somewhere you could lock up the aeroplane. And we reckoned every time we took the key, something happened and we landed away. So we would never, ever take the aircraft key with us. Little things like that. Some blokes had soft fuzzy toys that they took. Couple of ladies men
wore ladies stockings, ladies favours, around their necks as scarves. Superstition was a pretty big part of it really. I don’t know what we thought. But it played a big part. That was all to do with the fear that you had I think.
Not so much in the air. We used to be told in the morning. We’d know at nine o’clock. They’d publish the battle order and your name would be on it, so you knew you were going to fly that night. Or you reckoned that you were going to fly that night. And the briefing for the trip wouldn’t be until five, six, seven o’clock. You mightn’t take off until ten o’clock or even midnight. So you had all those hours knowing this was going to happen. And that was always the part that I found
the gut-wrenching bit. That was when I spent the day being really frightened. The irony of that is, is that I thought I was the only one that was. What I didn’t know, and I’ve found out since the war, everybody else was, too. But I thought it was only me that was frightened, so I was getting a bit self conscious about that. So you might go all day like that. And the trip would be scrubbed before you got into the air. You’d get out there, you’d get into the aeroplane and
up would go the yellow flare. For some reason or another, weather over the target, or weather back home, you would be scrubbed. You might have three scrubbings to get away once. You had many more scrubbings than flights. So every time that happened, you spent this day with this – let’s call it what it was, it was fear. I didn’t find it so bad when you get out to the aeroplane with your crew and you get
into the aeroplane, and you start the engines, and you’re on the trip. Your mind is so occupied with what you’re doing, you don’t have a lot of time to worry about that, anyway. As a matter of fact, I always felt a bit more confident when I got to the target; I think that was because I could see the light. But that was bad. You start to get over confident when you got to a target, wasn’t a good thing. But I always found
that feeling that I had, left me when I got to the target. That might have been good, to get you through the target but it can perhaps help you to be a bit careless. The casualty rates in bomber command, of course, were huge. There were a hundred and twenty five thousand people flew in bomber command.
The lowest figure I’ve seen of the killed was fifty five thousand. I’ve seen it up as high as sixty thousand. So when I ask what the difference is, they say, “Oh yeah, but fifty five thousand was just the fellows that were killed on operations. Add to the fellows that were killed at OTUs and in training, and you get this sixty thousand. You’re talking about fifty percent of the people that flew in bomber command being killed. You add to that, the seven or eight thousand that were seriously injured. And another
seven or eight or nine thousand that were taken prisoner of war. And you’ve got seventy five thousand people, out of a hundred and twenty five. It gives you about one chance in three of completing a tour of thirty operations. Some blokes did. Some blokes did two tours. My wing commander was shot down on his sixty ninth trip, the second last trip on his third tour. But they got him. Getting through that tour of thirty, you had about once chance in three.
So it was pretty huge. It wasn’t a career with a lot of future, if I can put it like that.
Can you talk us through a day, from seeing that you were going on mission and what the briefings involved? That kind of detail?
Yes. The amazing thing about RAF operational stations was there seemed to be a minimum of discipline put on us. Breakfast
finished at nine thirty. So you never had to get up very early, if you didn’t want to. We’d get down to the flight office, nine thirty or so. Before ten o’clock the phone call would come through. Right, we’re on tonight. The battle order would go up. The captains’ names, all the crew’s names. You looked at that. Okay, yes, I’m on tonight. The time I was on when there
weren’t any spare crews, you were on every night there was operations. The only way you weren’t on the trip was if you were on leave. So there was no, “I flew last night, so I’m not going to fly tonight.” You flew every night that they wanted you to fly. So you learned that. Okay, the next thing you would be out to the aeroplane. In those days, they were on dispersed aerodromes. There was three runways, and a perimeter track right around. So you would get a bus,
WAAF drivers with buses, and you’d get out to your aerodrome, which might be a ten or fifteen minute drive, around the aerodrome, to where your aeroplane was parked. When you got out there, your ground crew was working on your aeroplane. And that was the time you got to know them, because you spent the rest of the morning with them, watching them get the aeroplane ready, talking to them about it, talking to them about themselves, helping them to think they were part of the crew, as well as the air crew.
Getting into the aeroplane itself. You spent the whole morning doing that. Then you’d go back for lunch. You might go for a catnap in the afternoon, get a bit of sleep, because you weren’t going to get any sleep if you were on that night. You’d have to be up for an early meal, if the briefing was on. Or perhaps the briefing might be before the meal. But
you would go to the briefing. Each section held their own individual briefing. The pilots had a briefing with the squadron commander. The bomb aimers had a briefing with the bombing leader. The gunners had a briefing – all the crew had their own briefing. The navigators had a briefing with the navigation leader. Then you would come all together in a general
briefing, and everybody would know by then, what the target was. At the end of the wall was the big map, with the screen across it. Security was very important. It was so important. They closed down all the phones. Not only on the station, but for a couple of miles around. Every public phone had a service policeman at it, so nobody could ring. Because they were afraid of spies.
So security was big. They’d draw the curtain back and there would be the target, but there would be the route to the target as well. So you’d get a briefing. You’d get a briefing from the Met [British Meteorological Office] man as to what the weather was going to be. You’d get a briefing from the aerodrome control people as to what runway was going to be used and what the taxi pattern was going to be. You’d get a briefing from the old man about the trip itself. He would point out which way you were going. We always zigzagged in,
to try and fool the enemy as to where the raid was going to be. They’d head in a certain direction to make him feel the raid was going to be there or there, so he’d be mustering his fighter forces, of course. Then steer off somewhere else and try and fool them that way. Also to try and steer clear of any defended areas. So he would give you the route, and he would warn you where the defended areas were. He would give you the latest gen [information] on what the fighter situation was, perhaps.
Generally like that. And then you would get the timings for the turning points. The heights you had to fly. All that general stuff about the trip itself. Because every aeroplane flew as an individual unit. Once you took off, you were on your own. So you had to be well aware of all this stuff. All of that stuff happened at the briefing. If you hadn’t already had the last meal, they used to call it the ‘prisoner’s meal’,
the pre-operational meal, you’d go back to the mess. The pre-operational meal was always special because you always got an egg. Nobody else got eggs. But the air crew got eggs with their pre-operational meal. It was the prisoners last meal, sort of thing. By then you’d come back and it would be time to draw your parachute, get yourself dressed up in your kit. The buses would be waiting to take you out, so you’d hop into the buses and be driven out
to your aeroplane. When you got out to your aeroplane, you did your external checks. At the right time you got into your aeroplane, run the motors up, tested the motors up, tested the motors, tested all the equipment, the radio and things like that. Get the whole thing tested, then shut everything down. And wait. Because you had to wait half an hour at least before you could restart Merlin engines. So you got out there early, did all those checks, ran your engines up,
got any faults there were fixed up, that you could, then got out of the aeroplane and just sat around outside, smoked and talked and waited for the start-up time again. You’ve got forty aeroplanes on an aerodrome all taxiing round. So the taxiing pattern had to be fairly well controlled. You knew what time,
where you were in the stream of things. Blokes that were in the first wave went early, and the second wave and so forth. If you were in the first wave, you had to start up early and taxi out and try and get in your sequence. Because they flew in waves. Usually five waves in the stream, of about four minutes per wave. You taxied out,
and on your way out you did you pre-take off checks. Eventually you got the end of the runway and the green light came on and you were off. You were on your own, then. We used to climb, our operating height was always somewhere around twenty two, twenty five thousand feet. So you’d climb,
set your course over base, and you’d have that flight plan then. Then they introduced a scheme of wind finders; people with good navigational records. And apparently we did have one; because we were a wind finder – you’d get a forecast wind with the Met report, so you’d navigate on that. But the forecast wind was never accurate. But he’d establish
what he reckoned was the average wind. So being wind finders we’d break radio silence and radio that back to command headquarters. Now they’re might be fifty blokes in the stream, doing exactly that. So they’d all go back and they’d get all those winds and they’d throw out the wild ones, average the rest, then broadcast a wind. So everybody would then, or should, navigate on that wind.
Now, what that meant, everybody navigating on the same winds, the stream would be compact and stick together. Because that was important. People that wandered off or got outside the stream were the people that got shot down as a rule. The Germans would do that; they’d pick off the stragglers. So the idea was to stay in that compact stream. If you used the Met wind, the broadcast wind,
that’s what should happen. Some blokes didn’t, they decided that they knew better. Then our navigator might find out that wind wasn’t actually what was happening. He’d wait for another wind, then they’d broadcast another wind. So then everybody would navigate on that. But if that was done probably, that meant that even if the whole stream went off course, they went off course together. They were all compact and they could be brought back. So that was
the benefit of that. What it did do was cause a lot of collisions. People laugh when I tell them that when you’re flying in a stream like that, you feel the slipstream above aeroplanes. And people say “Oh!” To me that was always a comfort. When I felt the slipstream of another aeroplane, I thought “Right, I’m not on my own. I’m in the stream. Somebody’s around.” So that’s the way it went. They’d put eight hundred aeroplanes,
nine hundred aeroplanes, across a big city in twenty minutes. You get to Berlin. Each aeroplane would have six or seven thousand pound of bombs. There would be a ‘cookie’, a four thousand pound bomb, Cookie we called them. You’d have some five hundred pound bombs, and some incendiaries. You’d have six or seven thousand pounds of bombs.
Nine hundred aeroplanes, six or seven thousand pounds of bombs, in twenty minutes? Across a city? The impact alone must have been horrendous. I don’t know how they got through it. That’s the way it was.
It sounds extremely complicated, the battle plans and staying in position. What was the reality of when you got into your mission? And did you usually achieve what the battle plan had set up?
This was all part of the training. Navigators were trained, bomb aimers were trained. Bomb aimers were usually some blokes that had done a navigation course, so they were up the front, looking out the window. And we used them as blokes that could actually look at what was happening on the ground in the early hours, when there was enough light to see. And they were giving the navigator information. The navigator had some electronic assistance.
No, I don’t remember ever having any problem staying in the stream. It was never a worry. The one time I did have to worry was the time I talked about earlier. The time on our first trip as a crew, when we were given this duff weather information, and I thought I was lost. I wasn’t lost at all, we were spot on. But no, I never had any worries about that. You could always feel that slipstream.
Sometimes you looked up and you saw a bloke quite close to you. Everybody had their lights out. It was pitch black dark. You couldn’t really see anybody until you got to a target, when it was all illuminated. Then you’d see some people. Sometimes you’d see blokes that were caught in searchlights, in the distance, something of that sort.
The training all came and you were stepped up into this thing. It didn’t seem difficult to us at all. Because you were stepped up from nothing, and the knowledge was added and added and added as you went. It all became second nature, after a bit.
What were the sounds like when you were flying?
Oh, huge. The noise in a Lancaster – many of us today are wearing hearing aids, that we call ‘Lancaster Ear’.
I suppose other planes were just as noisy. We had to wear headphones, and we were all connected on this intercom system, where we spoke through microphones to each other. The noise was huge. If anybody stood next to the pilot in the aeroplane, and talked to him without the intercom,
you could yell your head off and you wouldn’t hear a sound. It was a huge, huge noise. And the aeroplanes weren’t insulated against noise, of course. You’ve got four engines and they’re twelve hundred and fifty horsepower each. You’ve got five thousand horsepower of engine, roaring away up there. The noise is tremendous. So really, that noise blocks out everything.
The only other noise you’d hear is if you got hit by flak. It would thump against the aeroplane, and you would feel and hear that. Outside of that, you’re looking out of the windscreen and there’s lights and everything. But there’s no noise. All you can hear is the engine noise. It totally isolates you from everything else.
Can you feel a difference in the aircraft when you’ve dropped your bombs?
Oh yes. Like a lift. We used to carry cameras, so we could photograph what we’ve done.
After you’ve dropped your bombs, you have to fly straight and level for x number of seconds, until the bomb aimer told you that the camera had finished its cycle. In that way, they could calculate where your bomb was dropped. If you flew straight and level. If the aircraft tilted of course, you would get some picture of some paddock. But if you flew straight and level like that, they could tell you where your bombs dropped.
The bombs used to be dropped in a sequence. The bomb aimer would be told the sequence. There were I think fourteen bomb stations in the Lancaster bomb bay. And each of those, you could drop the bombs. He had an instrument board in there, and he could decide, in which sequence, those fourteen stations released their bombs. And that was done, so
that you wouldn’t get any sort of imbalance in the aeroplane. If you dropped all the bombs at the front, and not the bombs at the back, it would upset the balance of the aeroplane. They had to be dropped in the proper sequence. So that the aeroplane stayed reasonably in control. But when the cookie went, that four thousand pounds just dropped off, you could feel the aeroplane go up like an elevator. Like a lift. The struggle was then to keep this thing
straight and level. But as the bombs dropped off you could feel it. Sometimes thirteen thousand pounds of bombs just dropped off the aeroplane. That’s a big weight gone and of course the aeroplane just kicked into life when that happened.
Did you ever have an opportunity to see the photographs, to see if you hit your major targets?
Oh yes, you always saw your target photographs. That would be shown to the bomb aimers, they
were the people most involved. But the bomb aimer would always show you. I’ve still got a couple of mine. We always saw our target photographs. So we knew how we were going. Whether we got close or not.
Do you know on average whether you hit most of your targets?
Yeah, we were never too bad. We were always fairly well there. But we had some stray ones, like everybody else.
We were as good as the rest of them.
Was there a debriefing that happened after each mission?
Oh yeah, always. Always when you came back there was a debriefing. They would be waiting there and there would be cups of coffee, and sometimes there would be a dash of rum in it. The padre was always there with cigarettes. They had the intelligence officers there. And each crew, was individually debriefed. You’d talk about all sorts of things. You’d talk
about your navigational experiences. The navigator would want to say what the weather was like, and what the winds were like, and whether he got to the turning points on time, and if he didn’t, why he didn’t. And also, anything we saw we thought was worth logging – if we saw an aeroplane shot down, or we saw something in the sea, the navigator would put that in his log, and that
was always talked about. And that helped a little bit. We talked generally about the trip and how we thought we went, and any difficulties we had, what the searchlight position was, or what the anti-aircraft attack was like, or whether there were fighters and where the fighters were. All that sort of stuff. Each individual crew did that. Then we went back and had a
post operational meal. Sometimes we even got another egg. But there was always a debriefing.
Would things blend from each of the debriefs? Would there be certain information that would be passed on generally?
Oh yes. Particularly if it concerned other aircraft. Sometimes you would see lights in the North Sea. It might be some bloke that had ditched. So if you saw that, you always plotted that, and the navigator
would take a notice of where you were on his plot at the time, and he’d put that in his log. So you’d want to tell them that, because air sea rescue would want to go out and have a look at that, and see if there was somebody there. It could have been anything. But anything you saw like that. Anything about the defences that looked different from what you had been told at briefing. Anything of that sort. That was all taken and put together and somebody used that information. We hoped.
What sort of names did the different pilots have for their Lancasters?
Oh, I don’t know – I know our second aeroplane, when we came back from Corsica, we called ourselves the Corsican Bandits. Very shapely ladies were popular of course, in drawings, and names for very such ladies.
There was a range, but I can’t think of them all right now. Ginger Meggs figured on some. He figured on some blokes’ aeroplanes. Everybody kept a score on the number of trips they’d done. We used to paint a bomb on the aeroplane. Anybody got a decoration, the decoration would be painted on the aeroplane. Of course, sometimes that would be painted on the aeroplane, and the crew would finish a tour, and the next crew would come in,
and get that aeroplane. And there they are, done two trips, but they’ve got thirty trips on the side. Big hero. If you went on mining trips, they’d have a mine instead of a bomb. All that sort of thing. And that was encouraged. I think that was part of the thing to keep morale as high as they possibly could. They knew what the losses were,
and they knew that must be having an effect on people. So the emphasis was on trying to keep that morale up. And trying to keep that aggression up, too. You’re out there killing people, so you’ve got to have a reason to be doing that. Sometimes I think they said things that weren’t true. I remember one briefing the old man told us
that they were going to arrive there at ten o’clock, because that’s the time the when pictures came out, and that’s the time we killed most people. I don’t think he believed that. But it was a story he told us. Some blokes felt that, personally I never. I thought, “Well, stuff it. They went looking for this. It’s too bad their civilians are getting killed.” Our civilians got killed, too. So I never felt any guilt or bad feelings about that. I was there to do a job,
and that’s what I went and did, and if they got in the way, well, they got in the way. I didn’t ever have any bad feelings or regrets about that. And I still haven’t. I went to a school to lecture one Anzac Day, it was a bunch of grade eleven girls. And one of these girls got up and asked me, “Did you feel guilty about all the people you killed?” And I had to be honest, I said, “No, I didn’t feel guilty about all the people that I killed.”
It was kill or be killed. They started it. Warsaw, Rotterdam, Coventry, London, you name it. They were doing all that sort of thing. We were doing it, too. We were doing it better than they did. So it was too bad; I never felt guilty about it. I’ve heard blokes say that they do, but it’s never worried me like that. Not really.
Where you often escorted by fighter planes as well?
Yes. Fighter planes were there every night. We weren’t attacked every trip. But we were attacked. In those days, in the early stages, it was always a conventional attack, because they had forward firing guns, and the gunners would pick that up. And we used to have this corkscrew that we did. You see, they had cannons, and their range was a thousand yards.
We had .303 machine guns, with a range of six hundred yards. So they had a four hundred yard start on us, as far as firing was concerned. There was no point in us firing until they got in close. But gunners could see them coming in. And they would report to the skipper, fighter here or fighter there. And as soon as they started the attack, he would say, if he was coming in from the starboard side, you would get the order from the corner, “Corkscrew starboard, skipper.”
And you’d go down. You always corkscrewed into the attack. And the five group corkscrew was back and straight down for five hundred feet, roll it over, another five hundred feet, pull it back, halfway up, roll it over again. And by then, the fighter should have gone. Most fighters, once they realised
that you have seen them and you’re taking evasive action, there wasn’t a lot of hope of them being successful and they wouldn’t continue their attack. Some of them were pretty voracious. But I never had anybody that continued the attack, after we started the corkscrew. They usually broke away, or they lost us, because that was a pretty effective corkscrew. It was a bit physically demanding. I always reckoned that
if we saw them early enough, we had a good chance of getting away. Not everybody saw them. Pitch black dark. Bit hard sometimes to see them. Sometimes they’d do funny things. You’d see a bloke out here, and you would be watching him, but he’d have a mate on the other side. They played tricks like that. The German fighters were pretty well
organised. They would know long before we got to the mainland, where we were. They would send aircraft out to try and find the bomber stream, and actually fly in the stream and actually radio back to Germany where we were going. Then they had these fighter beacons and they would orbit around the beacon. They had fighter controllers that would vector them onto the stream.
And then of course they got these upward firing guns, and they got onto this idea of honing onto our radar. It was a piece of cake for them really.
Interviewee: Lionel Rackley Archive ID 0853 Tape 06
I just want to ask you, if could describe for me physically having to get out of a pilot’s seat to bail? How hard is it? Could you describe that for me?
To bail? Not when you have to. The physical difficulty in getting out, is that you’re strapped in, and you’re connected to the intercom with your radio, and you’re connected with your oxygen mask and so forth.
So yeah, there’s a few things to do. And you must get your helmet off, because if you bail out with your helmet, you’ve got your intercom cords, see, the chances are they would become twisted around your neck and throttle you. Yeah, it was a bit physically hard getting out of the seat, but we were young and fit, so that wasn’t really hard. As far as making your mind up to go? I never had any doubt about that.
At all. You had to go. We were told what to do, but we’d never done it. We were told you sit on the edge of the seat, you put your head out, and you tumble out and then you count five and you pull the cord. Okay, I did that. But I didn’t get to the stage where I had to make myself go. I was quite happy to go. I knew if I stayed, I was going to be in trouble. The big worry that I had was what the aeroplane was going to hit when it hit the ground.
And it was many, many years later I found out about that; then my mind was cleared on that, because I never knew where the aeroplane hit the ground. I knew it was in Bedfordshire, but I never knew exactly where it was. It was fifty years later, and I was going back for a squadron reunion, in 1994, and I was going back to the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landings.
Not long before I went, just a few weeks before I went, I got a letter from this fellow in England. Poms do funny things, for hobbies. And his hobby was researching all the World War II RAF crashes in Bedfordshire, in World War II. And he’d come across my crash site. I don’t know how he got it but he got some records from somewhere. And he was
able to write to me and say, “I’ve found the crash site of your aeroplane, and can you tell me some more information about this?” And I thought, “Now how did he get my name, and how did he know I was living?” But somehow he had, they’re pretty good. So I wrote to him and said, “Okay, John, as it so happens, a few weeks from now, I’m going back to the UK and I’m planning with some members of my crew to go
and see if we can find this crash site and go there on my 50th anniversary. So you’ve done me a good turn, if you know where it is.” “Righto,” he said, “come over.” So we went over and we arranged to meet him on day of the 50th anniversary of the crash. I met him at his house. He said, “Okay, well, we’re going to have a look at the crash site from the air. I’ve chartered an aeroplane.” He took us out
to the aerodrome and I was sitting and waiting and he said, “Well, the aeroplane’s in the air at the moment, Blue. It will be back soon. It’s just gone to do some test flying.” I thought, “Okay.” So I sat there and waited. And then he said, “Oh, here’s the TV crew now.” I said, “What TV crew?” He’d arranged with the local ITV station to be on this trip with us.
So the navigator was with me. We got in this aeroplane he chartered, he hired, he got in with us, the BBC television crew got in with us and we went for a fly. I got a fly of that aeroplane, incidentally, and we found the crash site. The paddock in which it crashed. And I couldn’t believe it. It crashed in the paddock, and across the road was a village. Quite a big village.
And I thought, “Isn’t that lucky? The width of a road and half a paddock, it could have been in that village.” And it would have been horrendous. Anyway, having done that, we got back on the ground and in the car, and we went back to that field and stood in the field. The TV crew came with us. They did a whole segment on it, and put it on the TV that night. The interesting thing was that whilst we were there,
we met an old lady who was an eyewitness to the crash. She was a nurse, and she was on leave from London with her family and she could tell us exactly what happened. She said it was horrendous. The plane went really, really low right over that village and landed. And she could tell us exactly where it landed. She said, “I’m so pleased, because I always wondered. We always thought there were seven people in that plane that had been killed. And I’m so pleased to know
that you’re not. That you got out.” And I still write to her. That was in 1994. It’s almost ten years. She’s an old lady now; she’s in a nursing home. But I still send her a Christmas card and get a letter every year. So it was just so lucky. The bloke that does this research—they’d cleaned up all the crash, of course, there wasn’t much left—but he dug around and he found some bits of the aeroplane. I’ve got a couple of bits
outside. But no, I didn’t have any trouble convincing myself that I ought to go.
You spoke about the D-Day preparations. How long before D-Day were you aware that something was up?
Oh, we were aware – the whole talk in England at the time was when the Second Front was going to happen. The Second Front was a great thing.
And we all knew it was going to happen, when people like Eisenhower and Montgomery and that calibre were appointed to start planning. Which they did, for a long time. We knew it was getting close when we were diverted from German targets to French targets: to railway marshalling yards; to road junctions, to fuel dumps, that sort of thing. I did the first one of those
in early April of 1944. So we knew then, once we started to do that, it wasn’t very far down the track. The fellows that actually accompanied the landing over in the morning, didn’t know they were on the D-Day until they were coming back and they saw all the boats in the channel. They thought they were just going over on another
trip to bomb some big guns on the beach. We didn’t know the night before that D-Day was cancelled for that twenty four hours because of weather. We weren’t cancelled. We went the night before because we were supposed to be going to drop bombs on gun emplacements. We didn’t have a clue, we knew that D-Day was getting close, but we didn’t know that was supposed to be the landing. Had the landing happened as planned, we would have found out the same way. We would have seen the ships in the channel,
when we were on the way home, perhaps. Our crew didn’t go until the evening. They landed in the morning, and we went that evening, so we knew by then that it had happened of course and what was going on. In fact at the briefing we were told the importance of what we were doing because the Germans were holding up the advance at Caen, and we went to try and root them out of there.
You’ve also spoken about mining?
Yeah, mining. They used to drop mines in German shipping lanes. Now I never did one of those trips, but they were quite different from bombing. They only ever went in small numbers of aircraft. There might only be perhaps two aircraft from our squadron that went mining. But they used to go to German waterways and drop mines in the German seaways, in the waterways, in the channels, with the idea of sinking German ships, of course.
I understand they were very difficult as far as precision was concerned. Because you had to get the mine in that sea lane, and they were always very narrow. So they always had a datum point that they flew from, and it was always a timed run, from that datum point, is what I understand. It was called ‘gardening’, for some reason or another. Nobody ever talked about a mining trip, it was always they were going gardening.
What it had to do with gardening, I don’t quite know.
What did you see of the destruction that was reeked on London and England by the Germans?
Well, you couldn’t be in London without seeing a lot of destruction. But there were some parts of London that weren’t hit. The intelligence office used to come and brief us from time to time, about
escaping, if we were shot down in Germany, or we were to escape from a prisoner of war camp. And they had stories about what happened when German aircrew got shot down in the UK. And one of the things they used to do was to take these fellows on a tour of London. They would go where there was no bomb damage. “You fellows haven’t done anything here.” And then they’d have some shopkeeper lined up, and they would walk in and give him an order for all sorts of stuff that ordinary people couldn’t get.
And there was no rationing either. They were trying to convince the German aircrew that this was a dead duck, that they hadn’t done any harm at all. “What are you wasting your time for?” In the hope that they could get them to talk. Well, of course, they told us about that because they knew the Germans were going to do the same sorts of things as us. You could go through lots of London and not see any damage. But there were other parts of it that were severely damaged.
Particularly later on in the war when the flying bombs came, of course. And they did a lot of damage. And later on from the flying bombs, the V2s themselves, which were the things that you never heard arrive. The first thing that you heard was the explosion. Oh yeah, London copped a real pasting, particularly with the flying bombs.
the feeling of the bomber crews towards fighter pilots and vice-versa?
I don’t know. I think we might have been a bit jealous of them. They were a different breed from us; they were much more adventurous than us. We used to think they were glamour boys, of course. Brylcreem [brand of hair pomade] Boys. We used to call them knuckle heads. They were a bit flash.
They always used to undo the top button of their tunic, to let everybody know they were fighter pilots. So we though they were a bit glamour boys. Brylcreem Boys. Show-offs. And I think probably to be a fighter pilot you might have had to be. They were all good at aerobatics and that sort of thing. I was never any good at aerobatics. It was a matter of personality
and character and attitude, I think. Most bomber blokes were fellows a bit more insightful as far as thinking was concerned. Fighter pilots weren’t dumb blokes at all. They were just a different breed, from us.
One of the fighter pilots that we’ve spoken to suggested that some of the pilots were young and didn’t really have enough experience to do what they were doing.
Did you ever feel like there was a similar thing?
No, I never ever felt that. I was one of the younger bomber captains. I was 21, 22. But having said that, there were a lot of bomber captains who were in that age group. Now there were bomber captains who were older than that, too. Somebody else asked me the question, “Did I ever feel less capable or less able to handle a situation than older fellows?” No, I never ever did.
I had the same training as they did. And I always considered myself just as capable as they were. As a matter of fact, we used to look at fellows who were thirty odd, still flying in bomber command. You’d think, “What the hell is he doing here? He’s a married bloke with a family. He shouldn’t be here.” But no, I never felt myself in any way inferior to older blokes. I never felt that being a young captain was a disadvantage.
I’d had the same training as everybody else. We didn’t have perhaps the maturity of the older man. But we had those nasty experiences that I told you about before, and we got through those all right. As a matter of fact, that’s given me a lot of confidence through life, from then on.
Because I always reckoned, okay, you’ve had those experiences and you’d be quiet close to where death is, and you handled that all right, Lionel. So you’re not likely to find anything else in the rest of your life that is going to test you as much as that. And you get a certain amount of self-confidence out of that. That’s not skiting, you just feel, okay, I can handle that. I’m going to be able to handle most things that happen.
Do you know exactly what was behind the theory of crews picking their own crews?
I just think it was
the chance that people that liked each other got together. And you had this proprietary feeling, they were your crew. They weren’t your crew because somebody said, “You’re going to fly with them.” They were your crew because you chose them, and they chose you. I mean, I was always flattered that the rear gunner came to me and said, “Well Blue, can I be in your crew?” I thought “Crikey.”
I think that’s what it was all about. It was getting people who wanted to be together, together. The other thing was they were your crew. If anything went wrong, who’s fault? Who picked them? You did.
How difficult were the conversions from one aircraft to another?
Not difficult at all. I had a little bit of bother going from an Oxford to a Lancaster.
But not a great deal. And I eventually conquered that. Sorry, Oxford to a Wellington, not Lancaster. I had a bit of difficulty, because that was a fairly big gap. The Oxford was a little training plane and the Wellington was a heavy twin engine, heavy operational bomber. So I had a bit of trouble there. Not a lot. But from Wellington to Stirling, and from Stirling to Lancaster, I didn’t have any trouble
at all. I thought I was going to have trouble with the Stirling, but I didn’t have any trouble at all. It was a fairly easy step up, really.
Can you tell me what it’s like, physically, in the plane, when you’re being hit by anti-aircraft fire?
Yeah. Well, you know that you’ve got to get out of the way in a hurry.
I don’t remember getting any more frightened because I was getting hit. You felt yourself under attack, and the urge to escape was the big thing. So you had to use all the skill you had to try and escape out of that. I never felt that it was all that – I suppose if the anti-aircraft fire got to the stage where it really disabled the aircraft,
but we never had that much damage from anti-aircraft fire, until Munich. For twelve minutes, I was so busy trying to keep that aeroplane in the air, and trying to get through that. I didn’t have time to be worried too much about it. I just knew that I had to get out of there. The whole of my urges
and emotions and psyche were saying, “You have to get out of there.” So all my effort and energy were focused in on that. I don’t remember being particularly frightened. Perhaps I should have been. But, as I was saying, the fear I had always came on the ground before we went. You can’t afford to let fear overtake you at that stage.
You’ve got to keep calm and do the best you can to escape from the problem you’re in.
Can you just explain to me, from a technical basis, why the wind-milling of the prop is such a dangerous thing?
Well, because it was wind-milling at such a rate of revs [revolutions]. It was just spinning on this spindle.
Normally, your maximum revs would be perhaps around about three thousand if you’re really flat out. I’ve talked to experts since then, and they said, “Well Blue, that was probably at about four and a half thousand, five thousand revs a minute.” That was a huge amount of revs. My fear was that eventually it was going to disconnect itself from the actual spindle it was on. The flight deck was ahead, it was back there. And I thought,
“It’s going to come off there, and the chances are that it is going to slice straight through the flight deck.” That’s what worried me more than anything. To keep that damp down, so it wouldn’t come loose and be loose in space. That was the intention.
And when you crashed in Corsica, crash-landed in Corsica, how did you feel about the difficulty
that you were encountering trying to get back to England?
We were a bit concerned about that. The great fear we had was that they would say, “Don’t bother to go back, we’ll use you out here.” There wasn’t any Lancasters out there, they were using Halifaxes and Wellingtons and we didn’t want to fly Halifaxes or Wellingtons. We didn’t particularly want to fly there. We knew what our operation was about. We didn’t want to fly in their operation.
So, we were pretty worried about – But all the same, we can understand why nobody wanted to own us. They had enough problems of their own. They didn’t want us giving them a hard time. We were a crew, we were air crew, we were supposed to have initiative and so forth. I was captain of the crew, and that was part of my responsibility. I had to get them back.
Can you tell me about the next day,
when you had a good look over your aircraft that had crash-landed? The condition it was in?
Yeah, it was in pretty bad condition then because when it crashed, the weak part of the Lancaster was in the back of fuselage, and it broke its back. Apart from the damage that had been done to us; we could see the
anti-aircraft damage that had been done. We could see the holes and so forth. But the damage of the crash was what we saw, and it had broken its back and it was just lying on the ground. It looked a very forlorn sight. But all the damage that we had, most of it was underneath and we couldn’t see that, because it was crashed on the ground. It was a sad old sight.
And how do you think crash-landing on that steel –
I don’t think that made any difference. That undercarriage collapsed underneath us, as soon as I touched the ground. The same thing would have happened on tarmac. I think there might have been a greater danger of fire, because on that steel thing, the sparks started to fly.
But no, I don’t think the fact that it was a short runway, and the fact that it was steel, made much difference. The thing I think that could have made a difference, I didn’t know whether I was into wind or downwind. There was nothing there to show me which way the wind was, or whether there was any winds. I think I might have perhaps been coming downwind, instead of into wind, which would have made the landing much more difficult, and would have made the contact, perhaps, a much harder thing.
But I don’t think it would have made any difference. That would have happened no matter where we were.
Were you surprised you were able to land there without ID-ing yourself, and that nothing was done –
It was a bit surprising, but they never challenged us. Of course, it was fighter aeroplanes. They don’t fly at night-time; they only fly in the day time. So I don’t think
it would have occurred to them – I was surprised they didn’t fire any anti-aircraft guns. Whether they thought they recognised the aeroplane as ours or not, I don’t know. Perhaps the sound of a four engine aeroplane over their aerodrome – Perhaps the Germans didn’t have any four engines. I don’t know what it was. But they never made any attack. Elba did. Elba fired some anti-aircraft, but the Germans were still entrenched there.
But Corsica never did. I’m not surprised that aeroplanes didn’t come up, because, as I say, they were fighter aeroplanes. They were Spits. And the Yanks were there with their fighters, too. They don’t fly at night-time. They’re amazed at anybody who does. Their attitude is not even birds fly at night.
Can you tell me about the Boomerang Club in London?
Yeah, I can tell you about the Boomerang Club in London. It was a great place. It was
in Australia House, in the back entrance. And it was a great place because you met blokes on courses and during training, and they get posted and you get scattered and you don’t see them. You go to London on leave – it was a little bit of Australia. But the big thing was that you went in there and you saw lots of fellows, also on leave. And most times you saw somebody that you knew, some friend that you made on training or something.
And you’d catch up with him. The thing I remember about it, I think it must have been Canadian ladies, used to have these waffles and maple syrup. I never went to Australia House to the Boomerang Club without having a waffle and maple syrup. But you could write notes, write messages in a book there. And somehow or other they were transmitted to your family. You could read all the latest
Australian newspaper that they had. They might be a few weeks old, but they were there. It was always Australians that were there, Australian air crew. So you always met fellows that you knew. It was a wonderful place. They used to have dances and parties, from time to time, if you wanted to do that sort of thing. They had hospitality, and you could go and put your name down. And there were always families and people who wanted to be hospitable
to Australian aircrew. We had a pretty good reputation over there, of course. Our uniform was different to start with. We had a dark blue uniform, and everybody else had this sort of grey-blue thing. But Australian air crew were fairly popular over there. There was always hospitality if you wanted it. That was all done there. Just around the corner in Kingsway was Australian Headquarters
at Kodak House, so you always went there to collect mail, if you were in London. And the Boomerang Club was just around the corner.
And the English girls and the Service girls and land army girls they were all quite keen on the Aussie fellows?
Oh yes. We had lots of friendships with English ladies. They were very nice people. They were very supportive and very kind and very generous to us.
No trouble at all.
What sort of trouble did the blokes get up to?
The usual sort of trouble, lots of relationships. Lots of fellows married over there, of course. Lots of us didn’t. But there were lots of relationships that went on. There were lots of fellows that played the market, like fellows still do. But there are other fellows that had, well I suppose they were in a
serious relationship. Serious in the sense that we both knew this was a war time thing, and eventually we were going to go home and separate. But there were some serious relationships that occurred in that time. And the sort of life we were living, I think it was a very necessary part of our life. There was
somebody that cared.
How often did you get to write home, or receive stuff?
We could write home. They had these aerograms they used to call them, I think. We used to get these aerogram forms, one page, and you could write on those, and fold them up and post them. But they were all photostatted on small things, and that was mailed home,
or got home to Australia somehow, when it got to Australia, they were all developed and posted to your family. I think it took a couple of weeks from when you wrote them to when your family got them. And families could do that, they used to write these aerograms and they’d be posted over, and we’d get them, too. So there was no difficulty in keeping in touch with family. You couldn’t phone or anything of that sort. When I was decorated, my English family,
they had no trouble sending a cable to Australia. My Mum already knew of course. Communication wasn’t a big problem. I used to write to my mother. It was supposed to be every week. Sometimes it got to a couple of weeks and I’d backdate one of the letters. But I kept in touch with my mother. You didn’t always tell your family – I didn’t tell my Mum I was on operations. The first time I was injured at the
Corsica landing, I got a slight injury, and that was signalled back to my base and to headquarters. And she got a telegram to say that I was slightly injured. That was the first she knew I was on operations. Then the second time when I was hurt, with the train, would you believe she got another telegram? That was ‘slightly injured’. Mind you, I was in hospital for six months. But it was a slight injury according to them. What they meant by that,
it wasn’t a severe burn or an amputation. It was something that I was going to get over. But in that sense, it was right. But again, she was shocked. She thought I hadn’t gone back on ops from when she got the first telegram. So you didn’t tell your family what you were doing. You could write about all sorts of things. You had to be careful what you wrote, because they were all censored. But no, I didn’t have any trouble keeping in touch. Nor them with me. I got mail. My mother was much more disciplined
about it than I was. She would write a couple of times a week. So I was getting a flow of mail all the time. She didn’t know I was cheating on her. But no, I didn’t have any trouble. Communication was great.
And how did you go keeping up with news of the war?
Only what you heard on the BBC or what you read in the newspapers. You’d get what the situation was at your briefings, of course. And that was why
we were at a bit of a disadvantage when we tried to go to Italy from Munich. We hadn’t taken a lot of notice of what was happening in their war. We were tied up on in our own war. We roughly knew that the Allies had landed. If somebody said to me, “Do you know how far up Italy they are?” I wouldn’t have had a clue. I didn’t know they’d taken Corsica. I wasn’t all that interested. It wasn’t my war. We got the BBC news. We got the newspapers,
if we cared to read them, most of us didn’t. As I say, we got briefings, so we roughly knew how the war was going.
When you spent that month with the Fusiliers, who were training up towards D-Day, what was that like?
That was quite a lot of fun, because they were out doing field exercises. And they were trying to get these fellows used to being shot at, of course. And they would go out to do these field exercises, and
we always went out. We were mates with the company sergeant major. And they had these cracker things. You used to have to strike it and throw it. You were supposed to throw it so that it would give them the idea of ammunition going off. I don’t know how accurate it was. We had a lot of fun, and we got into a lot of trouble with those blokes, saying, “Don’t aim them at us, mate.” So we were having a ton of fun, aiming at the army.
But I had a lot of fun with the army before that. I had a training flight, a training crash, when I was at Kew. I had done the whole course, except the low flying exercise, which we had to do with an instructor. I did my low flying exercise with the flight commander. He was totally mad. We were told, low flying,
don’t go below five hundred feet. And being a well disciplined young Australian pilot that was what I was doing. He informed me no, that wasn’t the way you went low, and down he went. We were having a whale of a time, and we found a lot of army blokes on a field exercise, and we gave them a real good beat-up, I can tell you. All sorts of things. Until, we came across a cross country power line. We weren’t high enough to go over it.
We saw it too late. Back we went. And the old Oxford had wooden props. And it cut the props off, both props, clean off, bang. So there we were, in the air, the aeroplane is shuddering like anything, engines going like made, but there were no props going around, there were no props left. So he put the aeroplane down. I knew what army exercises were like. We had a lot of fun that day. We’d given the army hell.
So who got the rap for that accident?
I don’t know.
I reckon he got the rap. He got demoted. But when I got back, I was told, “Now, you’re going to be questioned about this, Rackley. You say that he was flying the aeroplane,” which he was. “And that you had your head in the cockpit looking at the map and you didn’t see what happened.” So when the inquiry came, I said, “Well, I didn’t see what happened, sir. I was looking at a map, so I didn’t see what happened.”
So that let me out of it. But not long after that, I was promoted from sergeant to flight sergeant, and he was promoted to flight lieutenant. And of course, the word went round, the way to get promotion? You crash an Oxford. That’s the way to get quick promotion. But I’d heard later on that he lost his promotion, he went back to flying officer. So whether that was true or not, I don’t know. But I never heard anything more about it.
We’ve been told about the flying conditions in England. How poor they were.
Can you back that up at all?
No, I don’t think flying conditions in England were poor. The weather was poor, from time to time. And that was a real big problem. It was very cloudy and ‘dampus clampus’, or fog, was a big trouble. But the facilities for flying in England was good. They’ve got them throughout the country, red beacons and white beacons, called pundits and occults, and they used to flash by Morse code
a letter or two letters depending. Each aerodrome had its own pundit, and it used to flash the letters of that aerodrome. Our aerodrome was East Kirkby, so our pundit flashed E-K. You could have a map. I’ve navigated around England with a map, with just the pundits and the occults marked, and what letter they were flashing. No trouble at all, you could do it. So night-flying conditions like that were good.
Day flying conditions were different from here, because there were so many little villages and so many roads and so many railways. Flying here in Australia, you strike a railway? There’s only one railway, and that’s it. But over there it was different. So that was a little bit difficult. But they had the facilities. Their aerodromes, they had electric flare paths, but right around the aerodrome
was this great big outer circle of lights, and it led straight into the funnel of the runway. You got back there, all you had to do was you keep your wingtip on the outer ring of lights as you fly around, and you’re going to get led into the funnel and line up the with runway. And the funnel lights were there. And on the end of the runway was what they called a glide path indicator. There was an amber strip and a red strip and a green strip.
You could tell – If you were flying in and you saw red, your approach was too low. If you saw amber, you were too high. The idea was that you would fly in so that you could see that green light. And it was a piece of cake. They never had that sort of stuff in Australia. The only thing about England was the weather. You didn’t know when the fog was going to settle in, or when the clouds were going to settle in. When the fog settled in, they could be good ones.
And clampus-dampus, the cloud could come down for days, and you wouldn’t fly. I’m amazed there weren’t many more crashes. Because out here you’ve got aerodrome control telling you where you can fly and when you can’t fly. There was no aerodrome control. You just took off. And there were thousands of aeroplanes flying all over England. You ought to see a map of England with all the aerodromes on it. It was huge. Aerodrome outer circles meshed.
But we used to just get off and fly, day and night. There was no air traffic control bloke saying, “You should be here at that time.” And giving you airways clearances like they do now, you just flew. And everybody did it. Sure, there were collisions and so forth, but for the number of aeroplanes that were flying, it wasn’t real bad.
When you are returning from a successful bombing mission, at what point do you feel safe again?
When you get on the ground,
because the Germans used to follow us back with their Intruder aircraft. You didn’t know when you were getting back what the weather was going to be always, and sometimes you would be diverted to other aerodromes. Around the aerodrome pundits, if there were Intruders around, they’d put lights around the pundit, so you’d know. Your own aerodrome might be blacked out, but the pundits were still there,
with the lights around. So you knew the Intruders were around. So if you were wise, you got out of there and went somewhere else. Or perhaps you might get a radio direction from base to divert to so and so. When you got on the ground, you didn’t always know what sort of landing you would have. You didn’t know what sort of damage you had. You could have been damaged and not know.
So, when you got on the ground, was when I always started to feel safe. You couldn’t be sure until then. I had a mate who, on his last trip, went in. On approach to the aerodrome, he had been told to go around again for some reason. Something happened on the way around and he crashed; his whole crew were killed. And that was his last trip. I always thought when you got on the ground, you could start to feel a bit safe.
Interviewee: Lionel Rackley Archive ID 0853 Tape 07
You mentioned something before about how you did a banking search, if you thought there were aircraft in the area? How often did you have to do that? To check?
Every few seconds. It depends. Some captains didn’t do it at all. They just went straight in, because they thought that was an advantage. But I used to do it every few minutes. Navigators didn’t like it because it tended to interfere with the course you were flying. But Lancasters didn’t have any downward vision.
And I liked to do know what was around me. So I used to do these banking searches so that the gunners could see down. I would do it every few minutes. It depended on where you were. I wouldn’t do that all the way. Once I crossed the enemy coast, I would do that fairly frequently. Just to make sure there was nobody there. The old Jerry [German] was a very wily old bloke. You had to be up with him. He would try
all sorts of tricks. But what we didn’t know, of course, was about this Schräge Musik, and had we known that – I think the authorities thought that might demoralise us a bit. But thirty seven out of a hundred and thirty three aeroplanes is enough to demoralise you, of course. But that was
the first and only time I ever experienced it. I don’t think it had been going very long before then, but it was very effective. So banking searches were pretty important.
Have you talked to other pilots since the war who experienced that fire from underneath?
Yes. But most of the fellows you talked to during the war are fellows who operated in the later stages, that’s the only fellows that stayed alive, of course. In the associations that I’m in at the moment,
I don’t know anybody that was operating in my time. They were all blokes that were operating towards the end, and they didn’t experience that. It’s the same when you go to a squadron reunion in England. The fellows that you see there are not the fellows that you operated with. Because most of them got the chop. The last time I went, and that was almost ten years ago,
there were two other captains there that flew when I flew. All the rest were post D-Day people. And since then, one of those fellows has died. The other bloke’s still alive. So you know there’s not a lot of opportunity to talk to a lot of those fellows. I think of the fellows that I know now, most of them are post-D-Day blokes. You see,
the casualty rate fell off very steeply, after July. When they got into France and re-occupied France, and they were able to get into the continent going through France, instead of going across the coastal defences of Holland and those places. And also at that stage, the German Air Force was less active than it used to be, and it was pushed back. It didn’t have any more bases in France, they were all bases in Germany. So they were at a
big disadvantage. So the casualty rate fell off. So when we say that fifty percent were killed during the war, it doesn’t allow for the fact that those last few months the casualty rates weren’t very high. The casualty rates before then were perhaps accentuated more than the figures proclaim. But most of the fellows you meet now are post-D-Day blokes, because so many people that were pre-D-Day –
didn’t see it. Of course age is catching up with them now. They’re all eighty and older, and there’s not a lot of them around. This is what’s happening to squadron associations and aircrew associations. Membership is falling off, because blokes aren’t around anymore.
What was it like on the 50th anniversary of your final crash, going and actually
touching a piece of the plane?
Very emotional. It was very emotional. And going back and seeing the actual field where it crashed, and talking to the old lady who actually saw it happen, and to hear her say, “Look, I’m so pleased to see you because I always thought you were dead.” It was a very emotional time. And talking about the gunner that
was killed on that particular occasion. His name came into the conversation quite a lot. And the thing that affected me was, we went into the field and the television crew did an interview of the navigator and myself in the field. But when you see it on TV, and of course we saw it at the time, the field was full of red poppies. We noticed that, and it added
to the emotion of the day. It was a very emotional day.
Did you ever imagine you would be holding a piece of that plane?
No. I got such a surprise when John said he had some pieces, and gave me a piece. They’re only small pieces, just little bits out of the engine, but they’re part of that plane. I really don’t know how so long after the crash; that was supposed to have been cleaned up. He must have done a bit of digging around
there and found stuff. But the aeroplane was completely burned out of course. You could tell that the pieces that I have have been through a fire. They have that burned glazed look.
When you got your bombing missions, what sort of targets were you given?
We were just given the name of the city, really. We were told, “The target tonight is Berlin,” or, “The target
tonight is Essen.” Or Munich, or Brunswick. At the briefing they would sometimes say, “Well, the aiming point is here.” In a particular part of a big city. But that wasn’t a big concern for us, because the Pathfinders would mark the aiming point with their coloured flares. It was all right for them to say, “This is a Gestapo Headquarters and that’s the aiming point.” I couldn’t have cared whether it was
a Gestapo Headquarters or not. All I wanted to do was hit the coloured flares. It was somebody else’s worry where the coloured flares were.
How difficult was it to hit those coloured flares?
It was fairly difficult because you go to a place like that, and there’s hundreds of anti-aircraft guns firing at you, and searchlights all over the place. And fighters operating there, more often than not. These Germans had these single engine fighters that they called ‘Wild Boar’. They used to operate over the targets.
Even though the anti-aircraft fire was there. Once upon a time, I believe, you used to be able say, “Oh, there’s an anti-aircraft fire over the target. There won’t be any fighters.” But not so by the time I got there. The Wild Boar people were actually operating in the same environment in which we were operating. So yeah, bomb aimers had a bit of a task. They had to guide the pilot into the right position.
And they had a bomb sight, and get the flares running down the bomb sight line. It wasn’t all that easy. Also, you set in the bomb sight the wind speed and stuff like that. It was okay for air speed. Because the air speed that the aeroplane was registering on its instrument was fed directly into the bomb aimer’s bomb sight. But wind speed and outside temperature was something that was
set in manually. So if your wind speed was something different from what it actually was, you could aim at the red light all right, but if the wind speed’s not correct, then the sights off set and you don’t get a good result. So it was fairly difficult. I never used to bother, but some blokes would try and pick a way through the target. I always thought that was a waste of time. I used to say, “Okay, you’ve got to get across there,
you turn in and you go.” And if you got hit, well, you got hit. I could never see the point of trying to find a track through the target, because I never thought there was one.
How much of the job was technical, and how much did your intuition come into it?
Oh, a lot of it was technical, of course. Because you were flying an aircraft by instruments, and the bomb aimer had this bomb sight that was instruments, mainly.
And the navigator had some electronic devices that were helping. So it was fairly technical. The engineer, of course, was dealing in engines. So he had to understand the engines. And the pilot and the captain had to understand the engines. Because they were vital. And engine handling was very important. Not only to keep the engines running as they should, but to make sure you
weren’t eating up fuel at a terrific rate. So you had to try and be using your engines economically. It was very technical. The air force was a technical service. It’s much more so now, of course.
So besides the technical aspects of each of the jobs, what is it about certain teams, the teamwork and working as one?
Crew discipline was a lot.
If you had good discipline in your crew, and our crew did have – you could get crews that would cackle away on the intercom and create all sorts of diversions. Our crew didn’t. Nobody spoke on the intercom unless they had something vital and important to say. We used to enforce intercom silence. But everybody had to know
their jobs. Gunners had to be people who could see, and could do something about it when they’d see – if you had gunners that were careless, or didn’t look around, or didn’t react when they saw something, you could be in real trouble. There was a lot human skill, human attitude in it. Bomb aimers. If the bomb aimer didn’t really want to hit the target, well, what hope did
you have of getting anything like accurate. If he was careless or thought, “Oh well, near enough is good enough.” I spoke to a mate of mine who used to go out with training on young crews. He was a navigator. He used to go out with young crews, to give them a bit of an inkling. And he said, he could
always tell whether crews were going to last or not, because if they weren’t disciplined crews, he reckoned, they were going for the chop, and he said that a lot of times they did. So I think crew discipline and responsibility to each other was a vital part of it. You had the training and you had to stick to it. And to know, if I don’t do my job properly, and I don’t do it well, the crew’s at risk. Not just me, the whole crew. You’ve got other peoples’ lives.
And that weighs heavily. I thought it weighed heavily. I’ve had great difficulty since the war, worried about the gunner that didn’t have the parachute, because I decided I couldn’t land the aeroplane. And I’ve searched my soul a lot, since then, and thought, “Had you just had the courage to try to steer
that aeroplane with motor, you might have got away with that. He might have still been alive.” And that affects you a lot. If I had just had that little bit of extra courage to try that, I might have got away with it. I decided not to do it, because I thought I wasn’t going to get away with it. But post-war, thinking in the cold light of post-war times, sitting in an armchair thinking about it, which is a bit different, I know.
I often think what would have happened if I had done that. If I had been game to try and do that, I might have saved Taffy’s life. It weighs pretty heavily.
But I guess if you had tried to land, with the plane being so bad, it could have had other consequences?
Yes, but if I could have steered that plane back to one of those aerodromes that were designed for crash, I could have bailed the crew out, and tried to land it. And that’s the bit
that worries me. I might have gotten away with it. And you don’t know, whether you would have or not. You’ve just got that doubt. I might have. If I had been game to try, I might have. And it weighs a little bit on your conscious. Silly, I know. I know it’s silly. People tell me it’s silly. I talk to people and they say “That’s silly.” I talk to other air force blokes and they say, “That’s silly, Blue.” It’s silly to them, but it’s not silly to me.
In terms of making those kinds of decisions, and you must have made many difficult decisions, and had to do it very quickly, was that something you had to learn to do as you went along?
Well, the training helped you do that, of course. If the training was there, there were things that you just did automatically. The training was there, and the decision to fly across to Switzerland and out, I don’t think I had a lot of
difficulty taking that decision. It was quite clear to me at the time. That’s one of the things that happens. When you get in trouble like that, it’s almost like watching a slow motion movie. Seconds feel like minutes, and you feel this calmness. Coolness seems to come on you, and you have this ability to make decisions
and to keep cool. It just seems to happen. And I think that has to with training. You just feel in control of the situation. You don’t have any trouble summing it all up, and keeping it all in your mind as to what’s happening everywhere. You’re getting damage reports and you’re getting this and you’re getting that, and it all seems to come into your mind, but you just feel totally in control. But seconds are minutes and you seem to have all that
time to take those decisions and think about it. I’ve talked to psychiatrists and I said, “What causes that?” They don’t know. They think it’s perhaps the adrenaline flowing that helps you to do that. But nobody’s given me a sensible answer, but I can tell them that’s what happens.
Does a crew become more confident with each successful mission?
Oh I think so.
They get faith in the skipper.
How do you see that?
Well, I know because my adjutant told me. When my crew, after the second episode, got back to the squadron, I was still in hospital of course, and they were debriefed. And I know from what they said to him, because he told me, that I had their confidence. And I’ve met them since
the war, and I’ve talked to them and we’ve sat down and rehashed this and that, and I know I had their confidence. I had their confidence first because I got them out of Munich and across to Corsica. There was a certain amount of confidence, if they didn’t have it before. But crews are not silly. They can tell whether the skipper is up to the mark or not. And I think they’d tell you, if they didn’t think so.
They’re not silly. So I never had any doubt that I had their confidence. And, as I said, the adjutant told me what the debriefing was all about, and I saw the comments that they made. So I know that I had their confidence.
Were there times as the skipper that you had to motivate your men, or perhaps be a confidante for them?
No, I don’t think so.
I think they were as motivated as I was. I never had that difficulty with them. I never had any trouble with the people. The poor wireless operator, after Munich, he gave it away. But then, he got physically sick. He couldn’t fly. He just got sick, as soon as he got into the aircraft. He was physically ill.
It was not only good for him to get out of it, it was good for us. We couldn’t have coped with somebody that was going to be – if you’re going to fly in an aeroplane in a bomber crew, you’ve got to be on the mark. You can’t afford to be ill. So it was as much for our benefit, as much as it was for himself. He was the fellow I was saying to you that was being pursued for a lack of moral fibre so long afterwards. And I think the authorities probably saw that. He’d done twelve trips at that stage.
How anybody can do twelve trips and then be physically ill and say, “I can’t go on with this,” and then be charged with lack of moral fibre? That’s beyond me. I don’t understand it. I thought that was just terrible. But anyway, he had done that action over the target that I thought was worth a decoration. And said so, and he didn’t get it. Neither did I.
But I found out later, about this RAF bloke, he got an immediate DFC for an event that was even less hazardous then what we done. But old Jock didn’t get it either.
Were there ever crews that sort of became over confident to the point of where it was dangerous?
Yeah, and some of them went down as a result, yeah. Well, that’s when discipline breaks down, when you get to that stage, I think. Oh yeah, I’m sure that happened.
We had crews that were gung-ho, and they didn’t come back sometimes. Overconfidence is not a good thing. But there were fellows who got away with it. Some of aces like Mickey Martin or Dave Shannon. Mickey Martin, he used to boast that he never flew in the stream; he used to fly low-level all the way. That was overconfidence, but then he was a very experienced bloke.
But there were some fellows that were ‘press on regardless’ types, as we used to call them. A lot of them came to grief. And I’m quite sure, that overconfidence breeds carelessness. But yeah, that happened. And it wouldn’t be hard to do if you were that way inclined. Some blokes were that way inclined, even on the ground.
I don’t have any doubt that that happened.
Do you miss flying today?
No, not really. When I first joined and started to fly, I thought, “This is it. This is going to be the career for me.” But having been through what we went through, I got back home and I decided no, that’s not for me. I had lost my nerve.
My nervous system was wrecked. So I didn’t have the nerve to do it again. And I decided not to. I flew as a passenger eventually, but I didn’t do any flying until the early 1970s and I decided to go back and get my private license. Which I did. And I flew for another ten years until I retired. The only reason I stopped flying was because my superannuation doesn’t pay for aircraft flying, which was very expensive.
So I stopped. But it wasn’t the same as it was when I was a young fellow. I was more aware of what might happen. I didn’t have that same confidence that I had as a young man. But I did it, and enjoyed it. But as a career, it wasn’t for me, at that stage. And I think there were so many
ex-pilots, most of them fellows that got in towards the end of the war and hadn’t done any operational training, got into the airways. Lots of people wanted to fly but there weren’t all that many vacancies. But I didn’t try. I didn’t want to. I’d had enough.
Can you tell me a little bit more about the English family that you had, and how it came about that you were allocated those people?
we were all in Bournemouth. It was just after we arrived at this reception depot. But there was a lady there, her name was Lady McDonald of the Isles. She was an aristocrat of some sort. And this was her war effort. She had all these names of people that wanted to offer hospitality to overseas air force people.
When you go to air force stations, you do what they call ‘clear in’. And when you leave you ‘clear out’. You get this paper with all these names of all these sections on that you’ve got to go to to book in and let them know you’re there and get it signed. On this clearance into Bournemouth was this name, Lady McDonald of the Isles. So we went to see her and she said that she had English families that wanted to offer hospitality. And my mate, he was a bit
older than I was. I was for going to London. He said, “No, we don’t want to do that, Blue. Let’s get one of these families and we’ll go to London and we’ll live with them.” He was a very staid sort of a bloke, old Merv. So that’s what we did. We went to Lady McDonald of the Isles. “We would like to have a family.” “Where would you like to have a family?” “Oh, in London, please.” And so she said, “Okay, here’s a note, and you take that to the Victoria League.”
And she gave us the address in London, Northumberland Avenue. “They will give you the name of a family that will be host and hostess to you.” So we went to London, and we found Northumberland Avenue and we went around to this Victoria League. “Oh yes, we’re expecting you. We’ve got a family, a man and his wife who will do that. Now, we’ll ring them up and tell them you’re here, and they’ll meet you at the other end.”
So she told us how to get there, and away we went on the Tube train. My grandfather was a Cockney, and he was a great storyteller. As a kid, I heard him talk all about London and all these places. We had to get on the Tube train, on the Piccadilly Line and go out to Hounslow Central; on the Underground. We went through Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square and Ealing, and all these places the
old man used to talk about, and I was just fascinated with all these names. Eventually we had to get out at Hounslow and catch a bus. And sure enough, we knew the stop we had to get out at, and there was the old fellow. He was waiting for us. He took us home and there was his wife, who was much younger than he was actually. And they became our family, really. They became my sort of
war time Mum and Dad.
What sort of people were they?
They were lovely people. He was a professional man. He was a managing law clerk. She was a housewife, but she had worked in his office before they were married. So she had been a secretary in a legal office. But they settled down. There was just the two of them. There were no children.
They were wonderful for us. We used to go there and we had the run of their house. If we wanted to sleep in in the morning, well, we slept in in the morning. We’d say okay, we’ll go to London today. We’d go down to breakfast and the old fellow would say, “Now, where are you going today?” “We thought we’d go into London.” “Now these are things that I think you should see.” And he would have all the stuff. He knew London like the back of his hand. So he would tell us
places, historical places to go and see, and how to get there and so forth. It was just like home. We stayed there. The whole time I was there, I went to London on leave, I would ring up and say, “I’m coming down.” “Yeah, sure.” I was just like one of their family. I came and went when I wanted to and got fed and got listened to if I wanted to talk.
It was like having a family. They were wonderful people. Lovely people they were. He was still a managing law clerk, but he was a fire watcher at night-time, on London. She was mixed up in all sorts of community work. They were lovely people. I kept in touch with them until they died. I didn’t go back to England for the first time until 1969, twenty five years.
They had retired and moved into the country by then, but I went and stayed with them. I kept in touch with them by letter until they had both died. They were my family.
You spoke before about when you went to San Francisco. What was the scene like there when you arrived?
We went off the wharf and straight into a train, so we didn’t see anything of San Francisco, the town itself. But I imagine it was like any other American town, full of troops. But we didn’t get into the town itself. They whisked us straight off into this ‘you beaut’ troop train that they had. And we were on our way. It was five days travelling
through the American country, having stops here and there.
Was there many ships at the wharf?
Oh yeah. The place was full of ships. Merchant ships and war ships, yes. See, the Pacific war was well and truly on by then, and it was a very important war time port. There were lots of ships there. When we went to New York,
there were lots of ships in the docks there, too.
Can we go back to when you were growing up now, during the Depression. I was fascinated that you were walking the streets for nine months trying to get a job. How did that impact upon you as a person?
Everybody else was doing it, too. Some blokes were lucky and got jobs. But there were a very limited lot of jobs.
Some blokes that left school the same time that I did, they got lucky and got a job. But I wasn’t Robinson Crusoe; there were lots of us doing that. It got pretty demoralising from time to time. You started to lose a bit of confidence in yourself. But when I finally did get a job, it didn’t take long for it to rejuvenate itself. But they were bad times. Everybody was doing it. People were put out of their homes
because they couldn’t pay their rent. I remember there were four of us kids and Mum and Dad. We were getting fruit to eat, Mum and Dad weren’t. They couldn’t afford that. My ration of fruit was half an apple a week, because Mum would buy two apples and divide it between four kids. So I got half an apple a week. People just couldn’t afford – People today, I don’t think
realise how bad that was. My father was a labourer; he was never out of work. But he was working two weeks out of every three. So two weeks wages had to last three weeks. And two weeks wages weren’t very big either. They were trying to educate kids and they couldn’t afford text books. So teachers would write up the text books on the board, and we’d sit behind after school and we’d write it down, because we couldn’t afford text books. The government didn’t have a lot to spend on
education. The scholarship exam entitled you to high school, but the government was making sure that not too many people passed the scholarship exam. If fifty percent of the people that sat the scholarship exam passed, it was a big year. It was mostly forty-five of the people who sat that passed. That was how they controlled the number of people that went to high school, because they had to pay the fees to the high school. That’s how it was done. That’s why people didn’t get an education.
I never went past junior, which is Grade Ten now, I think. I don’t know any of my mates that went beyond that. When I went into the air force, I had a junior pass. Compared with some of the fellows that were in there, I was highly educated. They were blokes that were older than me and felt it even more than I did. It was pretty bad. I remember my father was a World War I
digger, so he had what was called a war service home. Now he had a war service home, and Mum was just struggling to pay the rent. But he was supposed to paint it after so many years, but he couldn’t afford to paint it. And so the threat was, you paint your house or you will have to get out of it. The fights with the War Service Homes Department, I can remember it all the time when I was a kid, was my
Mum battling with War Service Homes Department, so we didn’t get put out of our house. And this was the general thing, for people in our socio-economic level, living in our sort of suburb. Things were pretty tough.
What other things did War Service Homes ask of your family?
People couldn’t play the rent. They were trying to buy – the War Service Home was you paid so much rent, and eventually the house became yours.
And people couldn’t afford to pay the rent. My father bought that house in 1921, and it was well into the 1960s before he managed to pay that off. Because not only was the principal gathering interest, but the interest on the back payments that he couldn’t pay were gathering interest. It was just
snow-balling. So in the end I think he owed more interest than he owed principal. And that was the story all the time. The governments weren’t as sympathetic then as they perhaps are now. And they couldn’t afford to be. There was just no money. There were lots of people in that situation. In those days, all the tradesmen used to call. The grocer used to call, and the milkman used to call, and
the ice-man used to call, and the butcher used to call. I remember the big thing with us kids, when the grocer called with the weekly order, there was always a little bag of boiled lollies for us kids. That was the treat we got. That was the only sweets we got. So things were really bad. People were living virtually hand to mouth.
I have to ask. How on earth did you team up with a blind man?
My father found him. I was doing
anything, anything to get a few bob. Anything. And the old man came and said that he had found this blind man who was looking for somebody, because the fellow that he had that was walking him around, had left him and he needed somebody to walk him around. I wasn’t so much asked whether I’d do it or not, I was told, “That’s what you’re going to do.” So that’s what I did. Until I found something else to do. As I said, I was billy boy for some carpenters.
I was points boy on the tramways. Anything, you would do anything to try and get a few bob, because your family needed it.
When you did your medical to get into the air force, you said it was quite thorough –
Oh yeah, it was an all day thing.
Can you explain in a bit more detail what happened?
Well, I can remember all sorts of x-rays and physical examinations. Running on the spot to see how long you could run on the spot. The big one I remember is that they had a tube of mercury, in a glass tube, with a rubber extension on the bottom of that with a mouthpiece on it, with a hook across the mouth piece, so you couldn’t get your tongue in there. And you had to blow up the mercury,
up to the level that they said and hold it for a minute. And if you couldn’t do that, you didn’t pass the medical. I don’t know what that was supposed to do, except test your lungs or test your endurance. To try and blow mercury up a glass tube, it’s not all that easy. And then you had to hold it, and you couldn’t get your tongue across this aperture, because they had this little hook that stopped you from getting your tongue there. So you had to hold it with your lungs. That sort of thing.
It just took all day. All sorts of measurements they took; colour blind tests, yeah, all sorts of stuff. There would be a bit of waiting time in it. There were more than us going through. There were whole groups. Eye tests, all sorts of tests.
It was pretty thorough. I believe down in New South Wales they used to put them in a chair and spin the chair. They never did that to us. Co-ordination tests, because they reckoned if you were going to fly an aeroplane you had to have co-ordination. They’d throw a ball at you to see if you could catch it.
What percentage of fellows that joined up wanted to be pilots?
Everybody. Everybody wanted to be a pilot. Everybody wanted to sit in the pilot’s seat. But such a small percentage of people were chosen. And I was just plain lucky. The only thing that got me through was that I had good examination results. They would try anything to try and persuade you to do something else.
“How do you know you can fly an aeroplane if you can’t ride a motorbike or drive a car?” “Well, I just know that I can.” And, “Well, you’ve got good examination results in your electrical science. Don’t you think you could be a wireless operator?” “Yeah, but I got good navigation results as well.” So you had to sort of argue your way through it a little bit.
I was in the first ten out of three hundred people, so I knew that I had that behind me. But I’m sure if I hadn’t been there, I don’t think I would have been categorised as a pilot.
How competitive was it?
Oh, very competitive. Blokes would have done anything, I’m sure. There were a lot of disappointed people, when they found that they weren’t – I felt for a lot of the fellows, because I know they were so, so disappointed that they weren’t categorised as pilots.
Everybody wanted to be a pilot. This is why people were so keen to do examinations well. I had the advantage there. I was only nineteen. I hadn’t long left school. And since I left school I had been studying accountancy. I had never stopped studying. And you know how it is if you stop studying and you try and go back, it’s difficult. And some of these blokes were twenty five and twenty six,
and they’d been left school ten years and more. They’d got out of this study thing, and they found it difficult. But I hadn’t stopped studying. I just loved it, from the day I got in. And they had all these extra night classes that you could go to; over and above what you were doing in the day time. We always went for those, and did well. But,
older blokes were saying, “Oh, crikey, blow that, I’m too tired.” They were tired, because it was pretty rigorous. We had physical training sessions and rifle drill session and marching drill sessions. It was a pretty physically demanding course. And these fellows, they were twenty five, twenty six, twenty seven. They tried to study during the day; they hadn’t studied for years. Night-time came, they just wanted to stop.
But we were young, so we took advantage of that. So we had an unfair advantage, really.
Interviewee: Lionel Rackley Archive ID 0853 Tape 08
Can you tell us about the Sandgate Station?
I would reckon it was the best run air force station during the whole of the war. It was a fairly new site. It was built on a rectangular piece of land. It was well planned. All the huts were in line and so forth. The parade ground was right along the waterfront. The whole width of the station on the waterfront was this parade ground.
It was a very big parade ground. They were all fairly new, wooden huts. But it was well organised, well run, well disciplined. Of course there were drill instructors there and we were new recruits and we had to be transformed from “a civilian rabble into an ordered military force,” they would tell you. So everything was focused, discipline-wise. Everything had to be
discipline. There were all sorts of places where there were saluting areas and non-saluting areas. There were areas where you had to run and not walk. There were areas where you had walk and not run. At night-time there were areas where you had to wear a cap and areas where you didn’t have to wear a cap. It was all focused on this discipline thing. So this whole station was run in this very disciplined way. And so we had a very well ordered,
well run station. It was never allowed to get dirty. We used to have panic nights, every Monday night. And I tell you, when those huts were cleaned up by we recruits, you could have eaten a meal off the floor. It was terrific. None of us had ever done any housework before, but we learned in a hurry how to polish windows and how to polish floors and how to keep the dust off. We used to have metal lockers, painted this
sort of khaki green. On the CO’s inspection, the WOD [warrant officer, discipline] would be there, and he’d have a white glove on. And he’d run those across the lockers and anywhere else, and boy, if he got any dust on those white gloves, you’d be back the next night doing that hut. Everything about it was well run and well organised. The food was good. It was the best air force station from that point of view that I was ever on. It was a wonderful place. It was a good place to go.
It gave us a good grounding, it really did.
Can you tell us a bit about your post-war RAAF relationship?
Yes. I was never demobilised. I was what they called ‘transferred to the reserve’. Which didn’t mean anything for a while, but eventually the reserve became an active thing. So I linked up with the active reserve. And I was involved in that
from 1948, I think, until 1962. I was on the actual Reserve. I was mixed up with Air Training Corps cadets. I was mixed up with 82 Wing at Amberley. I was mixed up with a central reserve, an explosive depot at Helidon. By then I stopped flying. And there was no flying for us to be done anyway. They didn’t want us flying around. I was an administrative officer. So I had an arrangement with the
adjutant at Helidon, when he wanted to go on his fortnight’s leave – We had to do, I think, twelve weekends a year and twenty eight days continuous training. So I used to do mine in two fortnightly blocks. I’d ring Helidon and find out when the adjutant there was going on leave, and he’d say, “Oh, okay. I’m due for some leave.” And I’d arrange it, and I would go up and be the adjutant at Helidon while he was on leave.
And the same thing happened at 82 when Helidon closed down. I got transferred to Amberley. And the adjutant at 82 Wing would go on leave, and I would go up and do my fortnight, while he was having his fortnight’s leave. So I did that until the active Reserve closed down, and in the meantime I was doing training work with the air training corps kids, and I did that until 1962.
I never lost that contact with them. You joined RAAF ex-war associations, with people that know. And Amberley always kept contact with those sorts of people. They would come and be our guest speakers. I’ve been in contact with the senior officers at Amberley, always. As a matter of fact, last February,
the air commodore who’s there now, who read about my train story in a book, invited me to go up and be their guest speaker at their dining in night. And I said to him, “They won’t be interested in this stuff. It’s sixty years old.” He said, “Don’t you believe it. They will be interested.” So I just went up and told a simple story about bomber command and about some of the things that I’ve done. I got a standing ovation. They couldn’t get enough. I couldn’t believe it.
So I’ve kept that contact with them. Especially in the early ‘90s when we formed a committee to put up an air force memorial in Queen’s Park. Amberley were very much involved in that. I got involved with ever so many people there then. Some of those contacts have been handed on; there’s been new COs and you get handed on to the next CO. And I’m still in touch
with Amberley. I often say to Maureen, “When I first joined the air force in 1941, I thought a corporal was so close to God, it didn’t matter.” But in my old age, I’m first name mates with air commodores. It’s silly, isn’t it? I’ve kept that air force contact ever since. My own son went into the air force.
And did twenty two years in there. So I had that contact all the time he was in the air force. He wasn’t in aircrew, he was in engines. So that contact has always been there. The air force makes a boast, once you become part of the air force, you become part of the air force family and you never leave it. And I have to admit that in my case that’s quite true. I’ve never left that air force family, and it’s still there.
What are your thoughts on Anzac Day?
Oh, I think it’s important. I know it’s important. I think that there’s too much emphasis on World War I. I know World War I was important and that’s where it all started. But you know, there’s been World War II, and there’s been Korea, and there’s been Vietnam and there’s been the other things since then, I just think there is too much emphasis on World War I.
I just hope that now, we’re getting to the stage where there’s not too many World War I blokes around, perhaps the pendulum will swing and World War II blokes will get a little bit of recognition. Because I don’t think they do. You can talk to people out here about bomber command and they say, “Bomber command, what’s that?” They haven’t got a clue that that’s an arm of the service that thousands of Australians were in, whose casualty rate
exceeded anything else, any other British Empire service. The only people that had greater casualties than bomber command were the German U-Boat crews. People out here don’t know that. There’s never been that sort of recognition, for people who served in Europe. I’m disappointed about that, on Anzac Day. To me it doesn’t seem to be universal enough. There isn’t enough attention paid
to things outside World War I. I know that’s where it started. But there’s been a lot of other blokes involved than that. Another thing that disappoints me about Anzac Day now, and not everybody agrees with this, but there is this emphasis to get families to march, kids to march. And I just think that’s fine, if kids want to march fine, but let the kids march together. If they want to march and wear their grandfather’s medals, fine.
I don’t like them being in amongst the units. I think it takes something away from the units themselves. But Anzac Day will always go on. It’s amazing, in Brisbane, to see the increase in the number of people who turn out for Anzac Day. Particularly kids. They are there by the thousands. And the noise from them, it’s terrific. But Anzac Day is getting bigger every year. The crowd is bigger every year. The crowd used to start,
we march from the corner of George and Elizabeth Street. And we march up George Street to turn into Adelaide Street. And once upon a time you would never meet any people until you got to Adelaide Street. They’re way down where the march starts now. Ten deep. So it’s much more recognised than it was. But I would just like to see a more universal coverage of the people that are marching and that are involved. I would like to see the Korea and the
Vietnam and the World War II blokes get a little bit more coverage than we get. The emphasis away from World War I a little bit. Not taking anything away from them. They’re great blokes. But there are other people involved and they lose sight of that, I think.
When you think about World War II, if someone mentions anything about World War II, what are your very first thoughts?
I don’t know. In retrospect, I think our generation was born and bred to be in World War II. I just think it’s a shame that all that young life was lost. The air force figured out aircrew, trained Australian air crew, were about four percent of the total Australian uniformed enlistment.
But they were twenty seven percent of those killed. By the very nature of what they were, they were young men, in a technical service, which was up the front of technical advancement at that time. Most of them were pretty bright blokes. Nearly thirty percent of them were killed. The nation’s lost that.
I just think that’s bad. The other thing, I just wonder what we achieved. I look around at what’s happening to this country now, and I think – There seems to be all this stuff that’s going on, and all this political nonsense that’s going on, all this crime, all this drugs, all these things that are going on. I know that’s negative thinking, Maureen tells me all the time it’s negative thinking. But I often wonder,
was it worthwhile? Was all the effort and all that loss of life, was it worthwhile? And I have some doubts.
When you think about all you went through and all you survived, at the end of the day, how do you look at what you accomplished, by surviving the war?
For me personally, I think I accomplished a lot. I was a young working class boy,
in a socio-economic environment that had there not been the war, that’s where I would have stayed. I would have been a clerk or a labourer or something like that. The air force opened up a new world for me. The air force gave me skills that I would never have been able to acquire, had it not been for the air force. It opened up
a social world that I would never have been allowed to enter, had it not been for that. It finished off my education, more or less. It gave me an education that I would never have got otherwise, in technical schools and so forth. The other thing it did was it gave me a self-confidence that I would never have had. When the war was finished
and I looked back on the things that had happened to me, on the closeness that I’d been to death, I think, “You handled that okay, Blue. You did that okay. You didn’t do your block. You didn’t run away. You kept your cool and you handled it okay. You’re not going to meet anything in the rest of your life that is going to test like that tested you. And so you’re going to do all right. You’re going to be okay.” And I found that’s true. I now have
the self confidence that I wouldn’t have had, if I hadn’t done that. So for me, it got through. It’s a plus. You’ve got disabilities and you’ve got health problems as a result of that. You’ve got emotional and mental problems as a result of that. But by and large, I think I came out on the winning side. Not everybody did.
With your post-war career, working for Shell for thirty years and stuff like that,
were there things that you learned in the air force that helped you in your career?
Yeah, you learned how to think in the air force. I learned how to think outside the square, how to do some lateral thinking. So when you can do that, and you’ve got a bit of self-confidence – yeah. It helped a lot, to cope with all that. Especially when you were looking for promotion, and that’s what people were doing. You were competing, it was a very competitive market.
So yeah, it was a plus. So the things I learned in the air force, stood me in good stead in civilian life.
Has there ever been any films or things like that that really take you back, and put you back in those situations that you were in?
Not so much films, but books.
I’ve got to stop reading books. Now I never used to be able to read that. I could read books. I used to go looking for books. Have a look on my bookshelf, they’re all there. But now I find, in old age, your emotions are so close to the surface, so I don’t read a lot of books. Maureen discourages me from reading books, because she knows what’s going to happen. And
when I do read books, it’s a bitter time. I can’t pick up one of those books now and read it through. I’ve got to read a little way, and when I feel it’s starting to affect me, okay, I put it aside, pick it up again later on. It just seems, I don’t know, the older you get your emotions become so close to the surface, that you can’t always control them. So you’ve got to be careful.
So I don’t watch a lot of films, for that reason. I particularly didn’t go and see this [Saving] Private Ryan, that the Yanks put out, because I knew what it was going to be about. So I knew that I wouldn’t be able to cope with that emotionally. So you know. So I don’t go to those films a lot. I watched the Dambusters documentary last night, but I knew that I might have to turn that off. As it so happens, I didn’t.
But your emotions just seem so easily stirred.
Is there anything that you want to say that you haven’t said yet?
The last thing I did,
was to set up this monument in Queen’s Park. We had representatives of fifteen RAAF organisations. ... TAPE ENDS