Archive number: 596
Date interviewed: 19 August, 2003
You are listening to the interview audio
Bob, if you could tell me a little bit about your childhood. Where did you grow up?
Actually I was born in Melbourne, and I was still, I reckon, be less than one year old when we moved to Perth, and
my mother had some uncles who were mixed up with the Duracks, and they retired in Perth. There were three of them and none of them married. And they wanted my mother to come and look after them. So they lived at Queen’s Park and we had a poultry farm which the uncles owned. My father, sort of had
the organisation. At that stage, I had a sister older than me. My brother was born here. And I think I was about four when they moved back to Victoria. And my father started a fruit and vegetable round. When I was six I had to
get up at three o’clock in the morning, and go into the Victoria Markets, three times a week. And then I’d get into trouble when I went to school and went to sleep. So that lasted a couple of years, and then he went broke…
What sort of things did you have to do at the Victoria Markets?
Stand in the street, watching to see that no-one pinched anything off the wagon. I don’t know what would have happened if a policeman came along
and seen a little kid like that, standing in a doorway. But I did that for a couple of years or so, anyway, and then the whole thing went bust. And my father spent a bit of time on odd jobs, one thing and another. And one of my uncles died and left my mother enough money for them to buy a dairy farm, which they bought in Victoria. I
escaped from that when I was about fourteen. That was three o’clock in the morning, milking cows. That wasn’t my idea, and I couldn’t go to school after that. I was thirteen, and I was kept home to milk cows and things, and I wanted more education than that. So at fourteen I disappeared, went into town, boarded with an aunt, and had a job.
And went to school at my expense, to get a better education.
Before we move on to how you managed to educate yourself. Can you tell me a little bit about your father and his involvement in the First World War?
Well, he was the youngest of four brothers. The two eldest ones were
both officers in the same company, and they were killed within twenty four hours of each other. The next brother was very badly wounded, and spent a year or more in a hospital in England. And my father was a stretcher bearer. And I think he was about as traumatised when he came back as anybody could possibly have been. And unfortunately he didn’t treat us very well…
Where was he situated?
In France. He was in France all of the time. The sights he had to deal with was unbelievable. And I can understand it, because I have been diagnosed with PTS [Post Traumatic Stress] myself, and as a result of the way he treated his children, I
deliberately set out to never treat my children the same way. That was a conscious effort on my part to…Even though there were times I lost it a bit, I never forgot the fact of how badly I was treated, in particular.
Anyway, that’s the story as far as that went.
What did your father tell you about his experiences?
Nothing. Never said a word to me about the war in any shape or form. My mother was a nurse. She was brought up as the child of a fairly wealthy parent.
I don’t think she ever reconciled herself with the fact that she was an ordinary housewife. She treated my sister very well, but that was about it. And when I was, say from about ten onwards, she used to disappear for months at a time, and my sister used to stay with some aunts in town. So I did the cooking, as well as
a lot of other things at times. I was an unpaid slave, I reckon. But that was the way he saw it, and that was it. There was nothing I could do about it.
What was the main reason that you broke away from your family?
Mainly because I wanted to get the education I wasn’t going to get, and I didn’t particularly fancy spending my life getting up at three o’clock in the morning milking cows. So
I got away as soon as I could.
And where did you go?
I went to stay with my aunt in town. And I stayed with one aunt for a while, then I moved to another one.
And how did you go about re-educating yourself?
Yeah, mostly at night. I originally started going to night-school, to try and get a bit further up. Actually I was, even if I do
say it myself, I was the top student in the school when I left. It wasn’t lack of brains that I didn’t get educated to the extent that I wanted to be. My father, prior to the war, was doing a veterinary course, he had one year to go, but he never, ever went back to it.
He was a champion bike rider in his younger days, and he was in partnership with a business (UNCLEAR). The business was still going when I left Melbourne, but he never went back to that, either. He lost it completely. And I can understand it, because I did that a bit myself, the same way, when I came back. So, it’s a story.
But it’s a pity that he didn’t talk. Either before I went, or when I came back. Because I really needed help when I came back, but that’s further along the story. I tried to join the navy in November of 1939.
Why did you want to join the navy?
It’s a bit strange, actually, because there was no real reason, just the war had started and I thought, “Be in it.” Sixteen years and four months was the youngest you could be in, and I turned sixteen at the end of Jan, and it was November when…I got my mother to sign to the papers.
And I was accepted, and I was being sworn in when somebody realised that my father hadn’t signed my papers. They called me out and said, “Take these home and get your father to sign them and bring them back.” So I took them, went out, tore them up and threw them in the gutter and went home. I knew damn well he wasn’t going to sign them.
Why wasn’t he going to sign them?
Because he wasn’t there.
Seems to be a strange recruiting process if you need that on a piece of paper and not everybody’s the same.
No, that’s right. But that’s what it was as far as that particular time, anyway. In those days, the male of the family was the boss. It’s different a bit now. It’s the other way around now. It is in our house, anyway.
It was just one of those things, so anyway, I didn’t bother. Then I had a job making parts for gas masks in a factory, for a couple of years, until I was eighteen.
What was the actual thing that you did as part of making these gas masks?
It was just a metal part. I was working on a lathe.
And I was making a metal part that fitted in as part of the gas mask. It’s a bit hard to explain. It was part of the construction of a gas mask. It was a metal part that fitted into the rubber sort of thing.
What other things did this factory make apart from gas masks?
They didn’t actually make gas masks. They made metal objects, like car handles for doors.
That was their main business. Car parts. And when the war started, they went into whatever they could, as part of the war effort. That was reserved occupation, so I had to disappear from there to get into the airforce, actually.
Why did you want to be a part of the war considering the fact that you’re father, clearly, did not have a very good experience with it?
Well, how I finished getting into the war was, I turned eighteen and it was a Friday, and me and half a dozen friends or so, we went out and had a few drinks in the pub. On a Friday night, in Melbourne, at that time,
everything was open, including the recruiting depot, so we decided we’d all go up and join the air crew and become pilots. You know, all the glamour and so forth.
Bob, were you drunk at this stage?
I reckon I must have been. I’d had a few, but I wouldn’t say I was drunk. Anyway, the upshot of it was, I was the only one that passed the aircrew exam. And all the others failed.
And what were they trying to
We were all going to be pilots. I got the papers and took them home, and filled in my part and my old man, much to my surprise, signed it. So I took the papers back on the Monday, and went through about three days of tests. They were very strict, they were then, at that stage of the war, in 1941. Very strict about who they took and who
they didn’t. And as I said, I was the only one of that group that passed.
Can you tell me the kind of testing process they put you through?
Well, apart from a medical examination, they put you through all sorts of…what would you call them? Psychological tests, if you like. You know, look at pictures and pick this and that. Aptitude tests, a whole heap of stuff. Three days
it took. And apart from anything else, they gave me an oral examination on various aspects of your life. What sports you played and all sorts of things like this. It was very selective. They only took about one in ten, I think, or something like that.
They had to change later on, because they just couldn’t keep up the standard.
Why did you want to become a pilot, rather than anything else in the RAAF [Royal Australian Air Force]?
From reading all the comics. When you’re a kid, you get the comics, and they’re all these guys shooting down planes. You don’t think about the fact that there are bodies in them, not at that stage. An eighteen year old with stars in his eyes, if you like. They took
them out later on, but still they were there at the time. I didn’t make it as a pilot, because I have an eye defect. They said I can’t judge the distance between there and there. And if I was in a plane I’d be landing either ten feet high or ten foot low, so that wiped that out. I didn’t know that at the time. Not until….
Everybody does the same basic training.
How disappointed were you?
Oh, you get over it. Not very, really. By that time there were other things to do. I thought I would have been chosen as a navigator. I was pretty high up on the exams. I never finished worse than fourth. I thought, “Well, I’ll be a navigator.” But anyway, they made me a wireless
Can you tell me about the process where you say you thought you’d be chosen as a navigator. Can you tell me how they choose people?
I wish I knew. No, they ask you, but they have this board, this group of people sitting around, and they ask you what you’d like to be and why, and so forth. And then they say thanks very much, we’ll let
you know. And the next thing I know I’m posted as a wireless operator. I did my basic training at Somers, in Victoria, then I was posted to Parkes for wireless school, and preparing for a gunnery course, because the wireless operators weren’t entitled to Wings, at that stage. So you had to do an air gunners
course to qualify to wear a piece of Wing. Like that one on the wall up there.
Can you tell me a bit about the training process you went through to become a wireless operator?
Well, it was a four year course, and we did it in six months. We did six days a week, for fourteen hours a day, for six months. We covered the ground that
in peace-time took four years.
What sort of things were they teaching you?
Well, Morse code, and how to operate the radio, and…..all about radio theory and so forth, which turned out to be pretty handy later on. That’s basically it. They teach you how a radio works, why it works and how to operate it,
and Morse code was the main means of communication in those days, so we had to do Morse code as well.
Can you tell me, in detail, what your job is as a wireless operator?
You sit at a wireless radio, and you can send and receive messages, mostly receive when you’re in action. Because if you start to send you’re liable to get
a German fighter on your tail pretty quickly. Which we discovered, because they decided that some of us would send a message back every so often. And every time I touched the keys, a fighter loomed up, so…It wasn’t a great idea. Apart from that you could take bearings and tell the navigator to get a cross bearings between two radio stations.
Because you get one from this direction, one from that direction and they cross. And you can get the bearing from where it’s coming from, because you have a little aerial, a little directional aerial, fitted to the plane. And you could get cross bearings, like that say, and you’re in there. And that was in early stages, but later on they developed other sorts of navigational aids which a wireless operator can use
as well to assist the navigator in locating where you were.
What are you actually listening for?
Well, they do send a regular message. Every fifteen minutes they send a message. Which, on some occasions, was important, but mostly was just a message to make sure your radio was working.
But then, if there was some information to be sent out, that was important. Like, it happened once or twice they cancelled a trip and return to base, and things like that. That was the only connection we had with our base, was our radio, otherwise, normally, you were on your own.
What would stop the enemy from hearing the messages that were sent to you?
They could hear them, but they were in code. If they were important, they were in code, and you had the code. You had to decode the message, turn it into plain language and hand it to the navigator, or the pilot, as the case may be. You could talk to them over the intercom.
So how often would the code change?
Every time you went out, it was different. It was only a group
of five letters. And each letter meant something different to what it was on the piece of paper. You had the code with you. You picked that up, it was part of your routine when you were going on a trip. The navigators went to the navigation office and got the maps and everything for the trip. And the wireless operators to
the wireless operators place and got the information they needed there. Every time you went out on a raid you had that information.
Did you have to commit the code to memory?
Oh, no. It was part of a kit. There was other things as well, beside the code.
An escape kit.
If you were flying over France, for instance, in a battle dress, you know the battle dress, brown uniform, it’s got two pockets. One pocket you put maps, on silk, and what they reckoned was emergency rations, which didn’t turn out to be very good. And the other one they had money, and
like French money, and a few other odds and ends, like a compass and things like that. Escape kits. The duty of every person is to escape, or so they’d tell you. And that’s another story, too, really.
Well, going back to your training, we’ve kind of diverged, it was fascinating. So you’ve done the training
in six months. Have you made any friends during this time?
Oh, quite a lot actually. We started together. You go to the initial training school, and there would be hundreds. Maybe three or four hundred people. You wouldn’t know them all. They were divided up into flights of about twenty.
And they slept in the same hut and had the same drill instructor, right through. So you knew everybody in that hut. And you knew other people that you might have known through, perhaps you met them at the recruiting office, or something like that. You finished up knowing quite a lot of people, really. The ones in your own particular hut,
you knew pretty well. And then when you’re divided up, the pilots go in one direction, and it might be two out of your hut, or it might be twenty, or it might be ten. Whatever they decide out of that particular hut, you’d have this many of that, and that many of that, and that many of something else.
You went in different ways. You may again meet, perhaps, when you’re on the boat to go overseas, or maybe not. Maybe they didn’t go to England, they might have gone up North. But you go to the wireless school and, of course, there’s a different group of people. Perhaps they were in other huts, that you didn’t have much to do with.
them. So there’s another group of people there. And gunnery school’s only a few weeks, so that didn’t make much difference there, and then they’re on the boat going over. As it happened with us, we left from Melbourne on an American ship, and went to San Francisco…
Just before you get into San Francisco. How politically aware of the situation with the war were you by this stage…
It didn’t enter into the situation
at all. I actually started off on a 23 Course. And that was when the Japs threatened Australia, so they decided they would hold us in basic training, in case we were needed to go and fight. So they gave us some
rifle training. They took us down to a rifle range, with a First [World] War rifle, gave us a clip of wooden bullets and showed us how to load the gun. Of course you couldn’t fire them. And that was our training. If we were necessarily required to fight the Japs, that was the amount of training we had, to be able to fight
as an infantry soldier.
Did this alarm you?
Well, I suppose it did. More so the people who were older than me and more aware. I didn’t think it was going to happen anyway. I don’t think many of us were too worried about it, because we didn’t think it was going to happen. What happened in the long run was that we overstayed
our time in the basic training, and the next course was due in, so they joined the two together. So we were held at basic training for an extra couple of months, that we normally wouldn’t have done.
What was your reaction the Japanese entering the war?
Well, I don’t think we really gave all this too much of a thought. It was
just something that happened. Pearl Harbour, for instance, happened the weekend that I actually went in. It was a long way away. It didn’t really….See, we were students, basically, for hours on end. We were there learning. Learning mathematics and physics and all sorts of things. What clouds were and
what the weather was going to be like. And all sorts of things that applied to flying that you don’t think about when…I think there was about fourteen subjects altogether, that we had to do, in three months. So it was pretty intense.
How prepared did you feel after going through this course?
I thought I knew a fair bit, actually. But I
didn’t know much at all it turned out. Because when we got to England, they didn’t use the sort of wireless sets that we trained on. It wasn’t quite the same flying around England as what it was flying around parts of Australia.
How did you get from Australia to England?
We got on this American boat in
Port Melbourne. We went to New Zealand and picked up a whole heap of American soldiers that had been evacuated from Pearl Harbour, legs off, and all sorts of things. Blokes that weren’t going to be in the war any longer. Landing in San Francisco, got off the boat, onto a train. That’s all we saw of San Francisco at that stage.
What were the conditions on the boat like when you were picking up….
Oh, not bad. It was pretty good, from our point of view. We were given the best of the accommodation, far better than what the Americans got.
What did you think of the Americans?
All right. We got on all right with them. That was our first real contact with large numbers of Americans. They were all right. We got on all right with them, no troubles.
What did you talk about with them?
Just about everything. Not too much about the war. Mainly things we were interested in, they were interested in. They wanted to know about Australia, we wanted to know about America.
How long did it take you to get to American, then?
It must have been a couple of weeks. Two or three weeks, I can’t remember exactly. But when we got there, we got onto a
train….What we were supposed to do was to go from San Francisco to New York and get on the Queen Elizabeth, and go across the Atlantic. Well, it didn’t happen. Because the Queen Elizabeth was in a collision with another boat at the time. And it was in dock. So we were put in a
camp. Just outside of Boston. It was quite a few weeks, a couple of months or so.
What was the camp conditions like in Boston?
It was in the middle of winter. The accommodation was very good. The food was very good. And we were on leave four days one week, and three days the next. Continuously.
What did you do?
Well, the first time we went in the bus, and I met ...(PAUSE) ... struggled mightily with it, but it came pretty easy to me. I don’t know why.
how they were recruiting gunners?
Well, if you failed the wireless course, or if you failed the pilots’ courses, you were sent to the gunnery school, and you did training in about a six week course. About six weeks and then you became a gunner. And if you weren’t a wireless operator, that was your job, a gunner.
Why was there
such a high drop out rate with wireless operators?
Well I think it was partly because of the intensity of the course. And partly because people couldn’t cope with it. Their ability to absorb the knowledge wasn’t as good as it should have been. If they failed the exam, that was it.
I don’t think it’s anything detrimental to a person if they can’t do Morse code, or they couldn’t handle the theoretical side of it, because, as I say, it was very intense. Well, it was at that time. Some people aren’t cut out for that sort of thing. Until you’re put to the test you don’t really know, do you?
Anyway, that’s the way it worked out. Later on in the war they had to recruit a lot more gunners, because there was two gunners to everybody else in the crew. You had one pilot, you had two gunners.
What sort of, going back to Boston, was there any training that you got in Boston?
What we did was, we arrived there, I think it was on a Friday, and a mate and I decided we’d have a look in the town, which was a couple of miles away. So we jumped the fence and started walking into town, and an American officer pulled us up and said, “I’ll give you a lift, boys. You better not stay around
the town, because they’ll be coming in after you.” He said, “I’ll take you around to the bus station.” And we hopped onto a bus that was going to Rhode Island. So we got talking to some people on the bus, and they said come home to our place, so we spent the weekend there, and we got a bus back on the Monday. And sneaking through the
fence again, and we got caught. And anyway, nothing happened about it. We just got back to camp in time to go on parade and get a relief pass to go into town. Actually, the whole lot of us…The whole of the Australian contingent, we marched into Boston. In Boston. We were taken there, and then
marched when we got in there. And as soon as we broke up, people said, “Come home to our place.” And all sorts of things. They treated us exceptionally well. “What would you like to see? Where would you like to go?” They treated us like royalty, they did. And I was invited home to a family. And the man of the house was a retired
Marine General, and he has seven daughters. So I went there quite often. In fact, the weekend we were told that you won’t be getting any more leave, on the Saturday night they threw a big party. They knew when we were going. And we didn’t know.
So the big party was for me, to farewell me, because we were going over to England on the Queen Elizabeth.
How did they know before you?
You tell me. That’s how secret it was. And when we were out to sea, about a day and a half, Lord Haw Haw put it over the ship that we were sunk.
And all of us heard it. Because he was broadcasting that we had been sunk, we could get a laugh out of it. Which we did, of course. We weren’t sunk. I can guarantee it.
What did you think of some of these propaganda broadcasts?
Just what they were. We didn’t take any notice of those. They were a bit of a joke, really.
Now, going back to the seven daughters…
You ended up knowing one of the daughters a bit better than the others?
I was engaged to one of them, actually. Eventually. We were going to get married but it didn’t eventuate.
What happened there?
Oh, separation more than anything, I think. We had a marriage licence at one stage, but anyway, it just didn’t work out.
Surely this would have happened quite quickly, Bob?
Well, I was back there again afterwards, you see. On the way home again. So as soon as I landed in New York, I headed straight up to Boston. Which is another story.
Well, we’ll get onto that. So, what happened after the party?
We went back to camp, and sure enough, were on the train, on the Monday morning, and straight onto the
boat. We went on the QE.
Sorry, a train to where?
Down to New York, from Boston to New York. And then straight off the train onto the boat.
First impression of New York?
Didn’t get any at all on that particular trip. Later on I did. It was like getting into San Francisco, off the boat onto the train. And this was off the train,
onto the boat. The train went, virtually, onto the wharf, or that close that it was sort of off the train and onto the boat. It was only five or six days and we were in England.
Are you still with the same group of blokes?
Well, we had a lot more by then. When we left Australia….
Keith Millen, particularly, he was one of the guys. And I ran into him later on, too. But anyway, the guys came down from Canada. A lot of them were training in Canada, so there were quite a lot of us. Several hundred anyway. By the time we got onto the QE, there was quite a big contingent. Seven or eight hundred. Some of them had come
from Australia, some had come down from Canada. But they weren’t in the camp with us, they came down on a separate train. And we went straight from the boat to another train, when we got to Scotland. Down to Bournemouth.
We did a lot of hopping from boat to train, from train to boat and so forth. There was nothing to see much in between. Just the countryside. Nothing of the towns.
What would you do during these journeys?
Oh, play cards, or whatever. Talk, look out the window.
What you usually do on trains, when train travel gets boring and so forth.
What was the general level of anticipation amongst the men?
I think it was more, sort of, excitement. The fact that we were there. Most people, anyway, wouldn’t have dwelt on what was ahead. It was
for now. We hadn’t really had any real contact with war, at that stage. That came very shortly after we got to Bournemouth. At that stage, we were a bunch of students really. It wasn’t like being in the army, where you were drilled and you went up and did all sorts of thing. Route marches. We didn’t do any of that sort of stuff. We were….
Interviewee: Robert Yates Archive ID 0596 Tape 02
So Bob, by this time you’re in Bournemouth, on the South Coast…
Which was a depot for aircrew from New Zealand and Australia, basically. We were billeted in boarding houses and hotels, and so forth. The most remarkable thing
we found was the lack of bathrooms. In what’s supposed to be an upmarket seaside resort, they had a public bath-house in the main street. And if you wanted a bath, you had to go there, and they said not more than five inches of water. No showers, of course. And they’d give you a bit of soap and a towel. And you paid a shilling or something.
The boarding house I was in, was in what was fairly close to beach. You couldn’t go onto the beach, of course, it was all barbed wire. It was within three or four minutes walk to the beach. They had one bathroom, for about thirty or forty rooms. We couldn’t understand it.
So what sort of training was happening here?
All sorts. Aircraft recognition and all sorts of small courses. We used to find a way out of the place and miss most them. They took over a picture theatre, and they used to march us into this picture theatre, which held quite a lot of people. And we’d walk in the front door, and then
search the place to find a way out, and we found that you could walk down the end of the thing, into the toilet, lift the window and dive into the alley outside and disappear. So there’s all these people going in the front, and when they got in there, half the seats were empty. There was a lot of that sort of business. But that was only for a few weeks, and then they sent us to….
We started to lose people almost immediately. They got posted quickly, and then the word would come back that they were missing or been killed, or something like that. It was amazing. Within a few weeks, we started to realise the war was more than just play around. And the Germans raided us on Sunday.
Where I was was just near a path that led down to the beach end of the park. And I was just walking down there and I was going to write some letters and the next minute these planes went hurtling across, with crosses on them. The German cross. Firing cannons and dropping bombs and things, but I
was safe. I was at the end where they were coming in from. And they created quite a bit of havoc, actually. As soon as things settled down, they got us all together to find out who was there and who wasn’t. And there was one guy, in particular, they couldn’t account for. Somebody said they saw him walking down this path.
And what had happened to him was he either got a direct hit, or it was that close to him it didn’t make any difference. It blew him into little bits. So the chap in charge of the parade gave us some buckets, half a dozen of us, and said, “Go and pick up what you can find.” So that was my first experience of fair dinkum war. Picking up little bits of uniform and so forth. I won’t tell you the guy’s name, I
still remember him….it doesn’t really matter. That was a pretty gruesome job. I was nineteen, then.
While you were writing your postcards, what went through your mind when you recognised these planes?
Well I got a shock. I thought, “They’re Germans.” And I could see the pilot’s head, I could almost recognise him if I saw
him in the street. It was all, sort of, it’s fair dinkum. They’re actually shooting at us. Well, not me, because I was safe. But they killed about seven hundred people, in a matter of about five minutes. Maybe even less. They were fighter bombers.
They just carried one bomb underneath, and they dropped that, and then they were fighters from then on. They hit hotels full of people, and various things like that. It was all over, before you realised what was happening.
It was a shock. But, as I say, I wasn’t in any danger whatsoever. And then after they were gone, we had to worry about what had happened. Because there was a lot of casualties. So we started with this poor chap that had got blown to bits. Literally.
It was hard to realise that anybody could be a human being one minute, and just bits of cloth and bits of meat, lying all over the place. That’s when you realise that you’re in a war. And later on it got much worse, but at that particular stage that was a….Anyway, I went from there up to Scotland,
to do a course on the English type radios, which were different to ours. That was a few weeks up there. That was in the summertime, I think. And one of the things we had to do there was put on a full flying kit and jump into a swimming pool and try and get into one of these rubber dinghies. And they reckoned it was
summertime. I tell you what, it was iced water. Cold, it was terrible. That was about ten miles away from Stranraer. We formed an Aussie cricket team up there, and Keith Miller was the bowler and I was the wicket keeper. We were an undefeated Australian team. We only played four or five games, but it was interesting while it lasted.
When we were in Bournemouth, there was a servicemen’s club which we used to go to, and another friend and I, we used to play a bit of table tennis. And there was a notice board, and people would put up a notice, inviting you out for a meal, and so forth. So we had a look at this notice board one day, and it said they wanted two Australians to come out for dinner and
then play table tennis. So we decided we would accept the invitation. Well, we got out to the place and knocked on the front door, and a lady came to the door and said, “Hello,” and so forth, and led us out to the kitchen, and there was a table set for two, with a bottle of beer at each end. The family ate in the dining room, and we ate in the kitchen. And I looked at this chap, and he looked at me,
will we shoot through? Or will we see it out? But that was the strangest invitation to dinner I’d ever had in my life, either before or since.
Well, what did they do?
They were important people. They thought the Australians were savages, or something. We didn’t investigate why they did it, but we thought it was so odd.
We only stayed out of curiosity. We were obviously very insulted. But anyway, we saw it through.
That’s quite bizarre, it’s like…
Absolutely, isn’t it? You just wouldn’t do that. I couldn’t imagine people doing it, but they did. Very strange.
We went out, another guy and I, we were invited to make up an old boys cricket team. They were two players short. It was a fairly big English type boarding school, and the old boys played the students every year in cricket. It was a
fair dinkum four day match. It was supposed to be. So anyway, we volunteered to go, and they fitted us out in creams and so forth, and we were the fielding side. So, we got all out there, and they bowled one over and down came the rain. So we all adjoined to the old boys part, the students weren’t allowed in there, and had a few drinks and so forth, waiting for the rain to stop. Which it didn’t.
Anyway, that was it for that day. And the next day out we went again, bowled one ball and down came the rain. And we adjoined back to the….They called the match off after that. Very funny.
So how long does it take you to complete this next bit of training in cricket?
Oh, that wasn’t very long. That was only
about a month. It might have been six weeks. And from there we were posted to the operational training unit, and that’s where you crew up, with the other members of your crew.
Tell me about crewing up.
Well, it’s a sort of haphazard business. You might know somebody, or you might talk to someone, and think, “Well, they’re
all right.” Get made up with them, if they’re interested. You’re sort of thrown together in a heap and you sort yourselves out. We finished up with five Australians, with a New Zealand pilot. And then a bit later on in the piece, when we went on the four engine aircraft, we picked up a Rhodesian engineer. So we were, what would you say? A colonial
crew. Anyway, we went through OTU [Operational Training Unit], and the final thing on OTU is to do an operation. A fair dinkum operation with bombs and so forth. So we completed that successfully. Then we went to what they called a conversion unit, where the pilot went from a two engine aircraft to a four engine aircraft.
And that’s when the thing came unstuck, as far as I was concerned. The rear gunner used to go to sleep, and the pilot would say to me, “Go down and give him a stir,” you see. Because when you’re at high altitude and your relying on oxygen, if the oxygen fails, you just fade off into the wild blue yonder. You’re dead, after a few minutes.
Fifteen, twenty minutes. So when he didn’t answer the call, we called every so often around on the intercom, to make sure everybody was on. This guy, three times I went down and had to wake up him up. So I wasn’t happy about that.
What is this guy’s problem?
He just couldn’t stay awake at night, I think that was his main problem.
Anyway, we had a bit of a discussion, and I said I wasn’t prepared to fly with him, and they were, so we separated. They went off and got killed, very smartly. And I stayed and got another crew.
So what was the actual problem? You weren’t happy with this guy falling asleep all the time?
Yeah, because it was too important,
for the rear gunner to be awake. That’s your main defence, if you’re being attacked, which obviously they must have been. One guy survived. The bomb aimer survived, and all the rest were killed.
It seems strange, though, that an entire crew would go against that decision that you had?
Well, yeah. When it really boiled down to,
if they wanted him, they weren’t going to have me. So that was it. So the pilot said that I wasn’t prepared to fly with them, he told the boss that I wasn’t prepared to fly, so they said, “Well, we’ve got a spare man. We’ll send him. And Bob can go with another crew.”
Can you describe the plane that you’re flying in at this point?
They were the Halifax. Four engine Halifax. And that was in preparation to go onto Lancasters, which were the ants pants as far as bombers were concerned in those days. And one of the exercises that you do is another raid, before you actually get to a squadron, where it’s raids all the time.
You do a raid from a conversion unit to make sure that everything’s hunky-dory. And we did that, and that’s what started the fight. Waking the gunner up. I wasn’t afraid. It wasn’t that I was afraid, it was that I just didn’t think, if anything happened we stood any chance if the gunner wasn’t on the job.
They took the risk and they paid the penalty.
I don’t know, but they got killed. They must have been attacked. Whether the gunner was asleep, or whether they were hit by an anti-aircraft, who knows. But they were killed, anyway.
How did you find out about it?
I found out because the bomb aimer who survived,
he was in the best position to get out, because his escape hatch, he was sitting on it. Or laying on it actually. If the plane got hit and caught on fire immediately, he could drop straight out. Which he obviously did. While the others were stuck in a plane, going up in flames. I didn’t know officially, I only knew because I met him after he got back, actually,
more or less the same time as I did. And he said they were all killed. We didn’t have a great deal of conversation, but that was one of them. That they all got killed.
Turns out you made a pretty good decision, then?
On the face of it, yes. But, you know, it was just one of those things. I didn’t
do it for any other reason than the fact that I didn’t think it was right that we should persevere with a guy who couldn’t be on the ball. Maybe they didn’t like me, I don’t know. We parted company, and that was it. Anyway, I wouldn’t have been able to go with them, because I had the flu. I wasn’t fit to fly anyway.
That’s just by the way. That was just incidental. Anyway, I stuck around and a crew came through, and the wireless operator of that crew dropped out. And they were looking for a wireless operator and I was looking for a crew, so we joined up and got posted straightaway to a squadron…
Can you describe these other people?
Yep. I’ve got a picture of them there.
That’s okay, just tell me what they were like.
Well, they were a mixture. The pilot was from Jamaica. The navigator was from Canada. The bomb aimer was from Scotland. The engineer was from Wales. An Australian wireless operator, and two English gunners. One from
London, and one from Lancashire. And I couldn’t understand any of them. But anyway, we got over that one all right. So we got the squadron, and they’d had a very bad week. There were five crews on the squadron when we got there, that had been there, because a whole heap of us had got there together, to make up the numbers. But
there were five of the original squadron left at that particular time. Anyway, in the following week we went out on a night trip. Coming into land nicely, a couple of hundred feet off the ground, and a German fighter hit us. Shot us down.
Before we go into that, Bob.
You’re on a Lancaster, now?
A Lancaster, yeah.
Would you just be able to step me through what a Lancaster looks like inside? What do you see when you go through the door?
On either side of the fuselage, were racks of equipment. Which by that time had advanced
to the stage where they had all sorts of navigational aids, and all sorts of gear to assist you to get there and back. Halfway along the fuselage there’s a gun turret. All you can see are gunner’s legs because the rest of him is up, the top part of him poking out of the
gun turret. And then there’s a door, and inside that door is the wireless operator’s desk, and the navigator’s desk, and then the cockpit. And past the cockpit there was the nose part. And that was where the bomb aimer laid to drop his bombs. So it’s a pretty sparse sort of thing. No luxury. Except that
inside that cabin, which was where the navigator and wireless operator sat, was heated. And the wireless operator had to control the heat. You’ve got to realise that you when you get up there, you’re talking about thirty or forty degrees below zero. It’s pretty cold up at twenty thousand feet.
Especially in Europe. So the wireless operator controlled the heat, and I’d turn that on so it was nice and comfortable for me, and they’d say, “It’s not hot enough.” Turn it up, turn it down, turn it up. All in good spirit of course. We got on pretty well together, the bunch of us.
When you say it was difficult understanding each other, was this because you all come from different countries?
No. That was because we had a mutual respect for each other, more than anything. Particularly the rear gunner. When we were attacked, well, this was over our own aerodrome coming in to land, he fired back, and it was the only thing that saved us, I reckon. If he hadn’t fired back, the Germans would have got us,
well and truly. And I wouldn’t be telling you about it.
Did you genuinely like these people?
Oh yeah. We got on all right. We had no arguments and no axes to grind. We got on all right. We were a crew and we realised that each of us knew his job, and
things were pretty good. After we got shot down, the second time, I never saw any of them, except one. A chap that lived in London. That’s a story in itself, I saw him after I got back. None of the others, because some were prisoners. I sort of got
spirited back home to Australia before there was any sort of chance to meet the others, or anything.
How many missions were you out on before you were shot down?
I’d done more than the others. I did twenty two or three, I think. I’m not sure, I can’t remember. One of them was only half a one. We didn’t get back. But that was
done in various amounts. Sometimes one of them would be sick, and we’d have to have someone else as a spare. For one reason or another, none of the others had done as many as I had. But there was a difference or two or three or four or five, something like that.
It seems like you did actually quite a
few missions, before you were shot down. Can you tell me about some of the missions that you were a part of?
Well, as I say, the first one we got shot down. Another one, the rear gunner shot a fighter down. He wasn’t attacking us, he was attacking another plane alongside us. And the rear gunner saw an opportunity to shoot at him, and he shot him down.
So he did a pretty good job. But basically it depended a lot on the navigator, how successful you were. And we had an exceptionally good navigator. He was actually, his parents were Jewish, German Jews, and they’d left Germany in the early ’30s, and
migrated to Canada and changed their name from the German type, Jewish type name to an Anglo-cised name. But he was a very, very clever man. Every time we completed a raid….You dropped the bombs, it automatically took a picture of where the bomb landed.
Every plane was fitted with a camera, which went off as the bomb landed, and the ground people could plot, overlay the photos, to find out where your bombs actually hit. And ours were always on target and in the middle of the target. And that was due to the navigator being so accurate with his navigation.
He was really a good man at the job. As I say, the gunner, the rear gunner in particular was really on the ball. I hope I was. The bomb aimer must have dropped his bombs pretty well. The engineer, the Welsh engineer, Welshmen are pretty good engineers.
The bomb aimer came from Glasgow, he got married when he was about seventeen, and had two children by the time he was nineteen, and he ran around with every bit of skirt he could see.
And the pilot?
The pilot, he descended from the governor of Jamaica.
All his friends were Cambridge students, a lot of them were dark. It doesn’t make any difference over there. He was a nice bloke. I wouldn’t say he was a real good pilot. We had a couple of accidents which, perhaps, we shouldn’t have had.
But he landed the plane when it was shot to pieces.
Can you tell me a bit about these accidents?
Well, we were going down the runway full bore, and he over-corrected because the plane started to drift, and ripped the undercarriage off it. Another time we were taxiing and he hit the wing of another plane.
These were minor accidents.
What would happen when there would be a minor accident like that?
Well, he’d get into trouble, wouldn’t he? Nothing to do with us. He would be all over the coals, but it didn’t make any difference. When we got the squadron, there was one crew that was about to finish. You had to do
thirty trips, and they were just about to finish. We had a brand new plane, which got written off the first time we used it, so we took over their plane. The ones who had just finished their tour.
How did your brand new plane get written off?
Because it got shot down. It got wrecked. It was a heap of scrapped metal. By the time it stopped, it was full of holes,
and lots of it was bent.
Can you go through that in detail, as to what happened?
Well, it turned out that when the pilot tried to land it, it had a flat tyre from a bullet, and numerous other holes in it. Two engines seized up. It all happened in the
space of a few seconds, sort of thing. We had time to get into position where it was the safest to land, which was over the wing, around where the (UNCLEAR) sat, was right over the wing. We got into that position and hit the ground, and the plane just spun round. Ground loop, what they call a ground loop.
With the undercarriage being damaged, the whole thing just slewed around and collapsed and spun round a couple of times. Why we didn’t get killed, I don’t know. The plane was so badly damaged, it was remarkable he even got it on the ground.
Can you tell me what happened in the battle that got it into this state of being shot up?
A German fighter must have come in behind somebody and saw an opportunity to shoot us, and did. As I said before, the rear gunner fired back at him. You see, the planes were dispersed around
the perimeter of the aerodrome, and to get back to base, you had to get a transport. And the ones that were back first, got the transport first, you see, so they didn’t have to hang around. But the ones that were in last, they might have had to hang around for an hour or more after they landed, before they could get taken in. Some of the gunners used to take their guns out. They had to clean them, every time
they went on a trip, when they got back they had to clean them. And our rear gunner wouldn’t take them out until we got onto the ground. And the fact that he fired back at this German put him off his aim a bit, and he didn’t actually cripple the plane sufficiently to stop us from getting it down onto the ground. So that was that.
What’s it like to be in an aircraft that is obviously going to come down on the ground, that’s been shot up? What’s the tension like in the plane?
Exciting, actually. I don’t think it really hit us until we got down, what it was all about. For instance,
he fired cannon shells, and they were supposed to go off as soon as they hit anything. They go off. Normally when we were coming into land, I would stand up and look out of the astrodome, which was immediately behind me. Just to keep an eye out, an extra pair of eyes in case another aircraft was going to hit us. It was a bit chaotic when they were all trying to come in and land. Anyway,
I was a bit behind in the log book, because I had to log every message that came, I had to write in the log book. And I hadn’t written the last message in, it was still in there. So I sat at my desk, finishing off my log book, instead of standing up and this cannon shell went in, where my head would have been, went right through the plane, grazed the top of the pilot’s head and went out through the front of
the plane. It never went off. We didn’t know that until the next day, because we went round and had a look at the plane. There were hundreds of holes in it. Bullets, and bits of this and that. It was a real mess. The only thing that happened was the engineer
said, “I’ve been hit,” when we got down. And, “Where? Where?” “On the knee.” No blood, so anyway we pulled his boots off and pulled his pants up and he had a bruise there. What had happened was a piece of Perspex that flew out of the astrodome, above my head, went through the plane and cracked him on the knee. He thought he had been hit by a bullet.
And all he had was a big bruise. Lucky. We were all lucky, that none of us actually got hit on a trip like that. You would normally expect that if the plane was badly damaged, then some of the crew would be badly wounded, if not killed. And it didn’t happen. So we were lucky. We thought, “That’s our good luck. We won’t have any more problems.’
By and large, everything went fairly peacefully until the last time.
Did you have any good lucky rituals or any lucky….
Yeah, there was a superstition, never to be interviewed by reporters.
When we were brought back to the briefing room, after they come and collected us out of the plane, reporters were there. Actually, our big chief, our group commander, was there and the reporters followed him. And the reporters tried to make us give them an interview, which we wouldn’t do, because of this
superstition that you don’t give reporters the interviews. They chased us all over the place, trying to get us to talk, but we wouldn’t. We didn’t.
Any idea where this superstition came from?
Oh, it was just one of those things. There were all sorts of superstitions that developed, and no one knows where….They just happened. Perhaps it’s just coincidence that two or three crews
got lost because they’d given interviews, or they’d had something in the paper about them. But it was all propaganda stuff, a lot of it. Because the big story would have been us getting out of it, getting shot over our own drome, and getting out of it, on our first trip.
What other sorts of superstitions
did you know of?
There were all sorts of things. It’s hard to explain. A lot of them, wouldn’t go out with a certain girl, because she’d been out with somebody, and they’d been killed. Things like that. Very unkind, a lot of it. But by and large, we didn’t have any major superstitions ourselves. It was all a matter of fact. Because
we’d had our bad luck, you see. We got out of it in one piece. After that crew whose plane we took over, went, no-one ever caught up with us, until we got shot down ourselves. As far as operations. We had more operations than anybody else. Everybody else that came….Even everybody that came with us, didn’t last very long. They were all gone.
What do you mean, anyone
who came with you?
Well, we were a replacement for….There was about a dozen other crews came on at the same time as us. On the same day. And they didn’t last, and we did. And they kept bringing more crews. Every time some went, others came, and then they went. And we went, on and on and on.
We thought we were going to finish our tour, and everything would be all right.
So you would have been considered to be quite lucky?
Well, lucky, and senior too. Experienced. We were the king pins on the squadron. We were the ones that had all the operations without
getting shot down or anything.
How did people treat you differently because you had that experience?
It was respect, really. Because apart from any other considerations, as far as wireless operators were concerned, I was the second in charge. I was the second senior guy. A lot of the work that would normally have
fallen to an officer, was on a warrant officer. And if I had been on the squadron another fortnight, I would have been an officer, too. I was halfway through the process of interviews to get a commission, and I disappeared. It didn’t happen.
I think we’re running out of tape….
Interviewee: Robert Yates Archive ID 0596 Tape 03
Actually, our tour up was pretty hum-drum. We saw a fighter now and then, and it was pretty hectic over the target, with searchlights and guns and things. Planes getting blown up.
But it wasn’t us, it was them. And that was the thing about it. You’ve got to develop a philosophical attitude to it. If you start to worry about it, you’re not going to be able to do it. Well, that was our way of handling the thing, anyway. There were things that…
You see guys getting shot down, but it’s only a passing thought. “Well, they’ve copped it. We’re right. We’re heading for home. No trouble.” And off we’d go, you know. Lots of things were happening over targets. There were lots of people getting killed on the ground, too. When you stop to
think of it, a lot of them were women and kids. If you really start to worry about, and some guys did. Some guys jibbed on the thought of going on an operation at all. If they were officers, they just gave them a job on the ground. But it f they were NCOs [Non Commissioned Officers],
they were in trouble, if they wouldn’t fly. And one of my jobs, which used to bother me quite a lot, was to talk them into it. And mostly I was successful, but when I stopped to think about it, I was talking a lot of these guys into getting killed. And that bothered me quite a lot.
If I hadn’t talked them into it, they might have still been alive. That’s assuming they were killed. We didn’t really know how many of these guys were killed, and how many were taken prisoner. You never did know. But in the period that I was on the squadron, something like ninety crews went through. Which is a hell of a lot when you stop to think
of it. But we lost eighteen out of twenty seven once. When you stop to look at the odds, they’re pretty slim of getting through. Yet we didn’t have any trouble at all, on that particular night.
What was your target that night?
It was a target in France. It was a
military camp. We’d flown over it several times, without interfering with it. On this particular night, we flew past and did a return….It was not only a military camp, there was a damn fighter drome alongside it. And fighters were taking off and going straight up and ploughing into our guys, and they were just getting shot down, right, left and centre.
We weren’t attacked. The rear gunner shot down this fighter that was attacking somebody else, but as far as….it was like a commercial flight, as far as we were concerned. We flew over there, didn’t get in any trouble, dropped our bombs, and flew back home again, no problems. We never actually, other than the time we got shot down coming into
land, we were never actually hit, by another fighter. When we eventually did get shot down, it was by a bit of anti-aircraft fire, not aimed at us but aimed at something else, and we got hit on the way down. When we got hit it was on the way back down, and it was one of those rare things that should
never have happened. And it was one of those unexpected things that did happen in that sort of situation.
With the heavy losses on that earlier mission, would intelligence have been responsible, or to blame?
Possibly. It’s hard to say. They might have just dropped in there,
on the off chance….because it was on the way to other targets. They might have just been there waiting for a raid on another target. It was just that the target was there, and the way we attacked it was to bypass it the way we did on other occasions, and then did a hundred
and eighty degree turn and come back at it. They weren’t too prepared for us. And the other thing about it, it wasn’t dark. We mostly flew when it was dark. We took off late, maybe eleven, maybe midnight, and fly in darkness and do everything in the dark.
But this particular night it was still daylight when we went on target. So that was possibly one of the reasons why the casualties was so heavy. But it was just sheer coincidence that our particular drome….There were two squadrons on our aerodrome, and then eighteen, some were ours and some were from the other people. But out of what we put in the air at that time, that was a
pretty heavy loss. A very heavy loss, really. Sometimes you….very rarely send so many planes up and they’d all come back but it wouldn’t happen very often. Other times you’d lose quite a few. And there it would be. It was a matter of odds, you see. You had to do thirty raids to complete
what they called a tour. And the losses were averaging a minimum of about five per cent, which works out to twenty raids. So if you did more than twenty, you were on borrowed time anyway, you see. But really the odds were bad for the first four or five, because you didn’t have enough experience to know what you were doing. If you managed that lot, well you had
a chance to do more, and be smart enough not to get into the trouble that other guys got into.
What knowledge would you take from that experience, Bob?
Well, it’s indefinable, really. Just doing the right thing at the right time, rather than….Not getting caught in searchlights for instance. They had special radar controlled searchlights, which
had a blue beam. Now if one of those hooked onto you, about fifty other searchlights would grab you and then you were gone, because then they kept shooting at you until they got you. Experienced people saw a blue one coming at them, they turned into it, you see, and they couldn’t stop it and turn back to you quick enough to worry about you, they’d get onto somebody else. Things like that.
Being in the right place at the right time, instead of being in the wrong place. There’s still a big element of luck attached to it, at the same time there’s experience as well. It’s all combined. Being in the middle of….our navigator being such a good navigator, being in the middle of the mob, and the ones on the fringes are the ones that got hit, and
attacked by fighters and so forth. There were a whole heap of things like that. Having gunners that have their eyes peeled, and all that sort of business. Little bits of knowledge that you pick up as you go along. It’s the same in any job. You learn things that a person that knows what do to, who’s got experience,
you’ve got the advantage. It’s the same in any sort of occupation.
What sort of formation did you fly in?
None. We went in en masse. You were given a target and a time to be there. And others were either ahead of you or behind you. There might have been four or five hundred planes, all flying in a block,
maybe four or five miles wide, and a couple of miles deep and maybe a hundred miles long. And all these planes are flying in the same direction, and some of them are close to you, and some of them are a long way away. But you always had your eyes open, so that no-one got too close to you.
That was the system….The Americans used to fly in formation. But it takes a lot more petrol to fly in formation, than it does to fly on your own, as an individual, so we had more bomb load than they did, and less petrol. We bombed at night and they bombed during the day…mostly at night anyway, though we did do some daylight raids, but they were mostly
leading up to the invasion, to D-Day. We’d bomb some of them (UNCLEAR) submarine pens, targets like that.
Being the king pins, were other planes attracted to you in the sky?
No, I wouldn’t say so. They’d be given the route and then fly as close to it as what they could.
No, they wouldn’t single you out. They wouldn’t know who you were anyway. You were just there. We had enough confidence in our navigator to know there were planes all around us. We weren’t on the edge of anything, because he was on the ball. And others weren’t. It’s like everything else, some guys are better than others
at jobs, and he happened to be an extra good navigator. A very important man. Especially when there’s other people trying to shoot you down. They wouldn’t go right into the middle of a stream, to get to a target. If there was one straggler on the edge, they’d go for him. Actually, that’s where a lot of them got shot down by the fighters, by being
on the edge, instead of in the middle.
Just with the regards to crewing up, Bob, was there much conflict or any attempts to poach, say, a navigator from another plane if you were….
Not normally, there wouldn’t be anything like that. But there were occasions where some pilots would only fly with other officers.
Why they would do that, I don’t know. But mostly there was a mixture of officers and NCOs in a crew. It may well be the gunner’s an officer and the pilot’s a sergeant. It didn’t make any difference. When you’re in the air, the pilot’s the boss. When you’re on the ground, well….We didn’t have any,
like they do in the army, where you salute the officers and that sort of thing. You don’t do that in the airforce, not in air crew anyway. And so, you’re like a bunch of individuals, whatever your rank is, is immaterial. Really.
You mentioned losing crews and or planes. Were individual crew members often lost aboard a mission…
Oh, there were occasions during attack.
Gunners were vulnerable to some extent. Apart from the fact that there were two of them. There were casualties if they were attacked by a fighter. It might be any member of the crew. Our pilot wanted everybody to learn to fly the plane. Not to land it, but to fly it. The idea of that was it would
give the others a chance to bail out, or whatever. We could all keep it straight and level for a certain distance. Whether it got into trouble or not would be another matter. But basically we knew how to fly the plane.
When were you given the opportunity to fly the plane?
When we were training, mostly. But it would only be for a short period,
until the pilot was satisfied you could hold it straight and level, which is not all that difficult, really. But it’s something that…The good crew always had someone else part from the pilot….Earlier on in the war they used to have two pilots, then they decided it was more advantageous to have an engineer who knew more about the engines than pilots.
So they dropped the second pilot and substituted an engineer in his place. And that was far more satisfactory set-up than having two pilots.
You mentioned earlier, Bob, that you often found yourself in the role of encouraging somebody back up the sky off the ground…
What would you say to somebody like that?
Basically, talk to them why they didn’t want to fly. And if they thought that they were frightened of getting killed, well then you say, “We’ve done all these trips and we’re still here. So chances are that you will be, too.” But you knew damned well they wouldn’t be. You didn’t even get to know their names, in lots of cases. Here today, and
gone tomorrow, sort of thing. But basically, you know the fact that we’d kept ahead of everybody else, that people could say, “Well, that crowd there, they’re doing all right.” But you had a list in the crew rooms of who was on top, all the time. That was us, while we were
there. But we came unstuck, too. As a matter of fact, the night that we had to bail out, according to the papers there was something like four thousand missions flown that day, and they lost three aircraft. We were one, and another was a group of guys who shouldn’t have been flying at all. Because they’d done all their trips, they all had decorations and they were all
relatively senior officers, and they went on the trip for a lark, and they got shot down as well.
That was a shift of odds.
Well, experience is all okay in its place, but it’s not everything. No matter who you are, you can get yourself killed. I can remember an instructor saying to us, as pilots, we’re all together, getting
a lecture, all the crews together, this is a conversion unit. He said, “You people have got it easy. When I did my two tours of operation, it was pretty difficult.” Well, he took a plane up that day and got killed, on a training run. So you never know when you’re numbers up. Military flying is a dangerous operation,
even in peace-time. They make an aircraft do things in military circumstances that a civilian aircraft would never do. The more risk you put, the more chance there is of coming unstuck. It happens, as we all know. Experience has got nothing to do with it.
Can I just
ask you further, Bob, at what time and place did you take these men aside to get them back up into the sky?
Oh, it might be in the mess having a beer, or it might be in the crew room. We all had our own sections. Like, the wireless operators had a section, the gunners had a section. Their own rooms. And you could take a bloke in the quiet, there, and talk to him. Or you might be walking
along the track. You had to be a sort of a psychologist, to some extent. You had to sum a bloke up, whether he’s feeling the pressure. Or some people would come straight out and say, “I’m not going to do it.” There was an English squadron I was on. I was the only Australian on it.
And the way the English recruited their people, they were conscripted, and they chose to do an air crew course, if they qualified, if they were accepted. And they were sent maybe to Canada, or to South Africa, or somewhere to do their training. And it takes roughly two years to train a guy. And if they were fortunate enough to
get a commission, they knew in the end if they refused to fly, they would get a ground staff job. But if they were an NCO and they refused to fly, then they were in real trouble. They didn’t get a ground staff job. So it was a calculated gamble for a lot of these guys. And the fact that they were in the services at all, was because they had to be. And the fact that they took air crew was because they
were qualified educationally, or and physically, and the fact that they got a commission, good luck, and if they didn’t, well, we’d get out it if we can. There were things that happened….Some guys dropped their bombs in the sea, before they ever got to Europe. There were others that landed
in Switzerland or somewhere like that, a neutral country, you see. But these are the minority people, they weren’t the majority. They were the people that did these things, and we knew they did them, but I couldn’t see the point myself. If you were going to go on a raid, why would you want to drop your bombs in the sea? You tell me, I don’t know.
A thing like that wouldn’t have occurred to us. But it obviously did to some people because you could see them going off. There’s all sorts of circumstances that make people do things, that you’re no doubt aware. But why they did them. What’s the point? You might as well say, “No, I’m not going to fly at all,” as
take an empty aircraft over to Germany, and then turn round and come back again. Or whatever. It’s stupid, as far as I’m concerned. But it was done. The same as…they reckoned by the end of the war, Switzerland had the best airforce in the world. They weren’t all English of course. They were Americans, and whatever. But I couldn’t see the point of doing anything like that.
So I don’t know. It takes all sorts to fight a war, no doubt about it. As an individual, you do what you think is right yourself. Officially, we were supposed to get a week’s leave every three months, because we worked seven days a week.
Anyway, a week every three months. But the casualty was so high that it was usually a week every six weeks. We’d go into London and we’d paint the town red. Because you never knew if you went back, the next trip you were going to go. We were all young blokes, and we made hay while the sun shines.
We had good times, and we had plenty of money in our pockets, too. By comparison, to the English people, because they weren’t very well paid at all. So we had a real good time. Stayed at the good hotels, got stuck into the grog, and all the rest of it. Chased a bit of skirt and generally had a good time while it lasted, then back to the job again.
So were the young English
girls interested in young Australian…
If you were an American in uniform, or an Australian in uniform you were pretty right. And if you were air crew you were extra right.
Because they’re the elite. They’re the pick of the bunch and they got the most money. Oh yeah, if you were in the air crew it was pretty good. No trouble at all to get a girl.
Yeah, it was all right.
Returning to official matters. Can you tell me about pre-planning before a flight or a mission.
What happened was you’d get up in the morning, not too early, about half past six, or seven o’clock, go up and have breakfast, then go down to your respective
sections. And then there you’d be told if a raid was on, and if you were on it. Because you didn’t do every raid that…Any particular crew didn’t do every raid every one time it was on. If you’d done one the night before, you were pretty sure you wouldn’t be doing one the next night. Not always. Sometimes I did do three and four
nights, once. But that was unusual. It did happen. But anyway, if you knew you were on a raid, that night, you knew you’d have to go and check your aircraft. So the gunners would go out and check everything was right with their turrets. And the wireless operator would check everything was right with his radio, and all the rest of it. And the pilots would
check the engines, and so on. So then you’d go back to your own section again, and you’d get a briefing from the officer in charge of your section. He’d give you the information of…not necessarily where the target was, but the locality that you would be going into. Then
after lunch the whole of the crews that were going, got together, and they were told where the target was and what sort of enemy opposition you might encounter. Where the anti-aircraft fire would becoming from. In some areas they were heavily concentrated
and in others they weren’t. Things like that. And you were told what time you were going to take off and all the details of the actual raid. Then you’d go and have some dinner, and get yourself ready. If it was going to be a pretty late flight, you might go and have a bit of a rest for a while, but other times you wouldn’t.
You could possibly be on the go from say, seven o’clock, after breakfast in the morning, until that time the next day. Twenty four hours, you know. The raids being at night were quite often scheduled anywhere from about ten o’clock up until about midnight, for take off.
Actually, on the face of it, the time when you had to be at most alert was the time you were least likely to be, from a physical point of view. Because it’s a well known fact that people tend to be at their worst at two, three o’clock in the morning. Well, that’s the time you were probably over the target and should have been really on the ball.
Specially if you had been on your feet already for twelve, eighteen hours or whatever it might have been. I didn’t quite see the sense of it, but nevertheless, you get used to it. You just take that as it comes.
Okay, Bob, you told me what happens during the pre-planning. Can you describe the scene when all the crew’s there before dinner and they’re getting all their final information.
Yeah, well, actually,
you already had your private ones for your particular job, then when you get together, you sit as a crew, together, and you have an intelligence officer and a navigation officer and all sorts of people like this, one after another, coming onto the platform and going through…
You might have a great big map on the wall and you have lines on it to show you what routes to take and where not to go, and all this sort of business. So it’s a whole group of people paying a hell of a lot of attention to what’s being said by people that aren’t going to go on the raid themselves, but seem to know
all about where you’re going, and why you’re going, and all the rest of it. What the target is. It might last for a couple of hours, by the time you get through all the different things that you needed to know. So it’s quite an important business before you take off.
What was the mood like over those couple of hours?
Well, it depended where the target was, basically. Some targets were a lot worse than others to go to. Like Berlin, for instance. The period just before I….when I had the disagreement with the first crew I had,
they started on these Berlin raids, and they lost a hell of a lot of people on those raids, and possibly they would have lost me if I had been with this crew as well. But I don’t know if they were actually on a Berlin raid when they got shot down, but they could have been, because over that period of, probably a dozen or so raids
on Berlin, they were all pretty heavily defended, and there were a lot of casualties. They lost an awful lot of people. I missed out on all of those, I didn’t go on any of them. Not to Berlin. I went to Germany quite a few times, but not to Berlin. So I missed out on those, maybe that was a good thing.
It’s a matter of luck where you went and when you went and how often you went. Well, it’s luck from your point of view. It’s not luck from the powers that be. We raided Aachen one night, and they weren’t happy about the raids, so they had us back there the next night. Which was very unusual to bomb the same
target with the same crews two nights in a row. But anyway, apparently…I’ve seen Aachen on the computer and it looked all right to me. I don’t know why they bombed it. There must have been something there. They didn’t always tell you the truth. There were a lot of lies in these meetings.
We wiped out some places, completely, but when we did that we killed a lot of civilians. There isn’t any doubt at all about that. And I think, lots of our raids there were more civilians killed than any others. But you’ve got to pretend you don’t know that. You’re not supposed to shoot civilians, so they reckon. The Germans that dropped the
bombs on London, they were killing civilians, so I suppose they reckoned we kill Germans. On the face of it, waging war on women and children, doesn’t give you a very good feeling, does it? It’s not what you’re there. You’re there to do some damage to the war,
not to people. There’s never been a war before where so many casualties were caused so far behind the enemy lines. In both cases. The heavy bomber technique they developed in the Second World War was the first time ever
that civilians, in any war, were in danger so far behind where the fighting was. The people that was doing the damage, were getting damaged themselves, so far from home. If you’re in the army, you’ve got a bunch of guys that you’re living with and all the rest of it,
and if you go out on a patrol or something, and you come back with the same blokes, you’ve only been gone an hour or so and you haven’t really penetrated hundreds of miles into enemy country, have you? It’s a unique way of fighting a war, then, now it’s sort of standard in Iraq to dive in on Baghdad and shoot the
place up. That’s the way they fight wars these days. If civilians are in the way, that’s too bad. But when we started going through the process of being involved in the war, you didn’t visualise that you were going to drop bombs on women and children and babies, and all the rest of it. And the methods that we used
were designed to have maximum casualties. They set fire to places. They dropped high explosive on places, then dropped incendiary bombs and set the places on fire. And I reckon it must have been absolute hell down below for a lot of people. In fact I know it was. Because I was in one or two in London, myself. I know it’s not very funny.
Did tensions ever flare or were raised in those briefings, before a mission?
No, probably not. That would be, sort of, considered to be mutiny, I should reckon. No, everybody sat there pretty quiet and paid attention. Whatever their private thoughts were, I don’t know.
But some people could have been pretty unhappy about where they were going, or when, or whatever. You’re in uniform and you’ve got to obey orders. And whether you personally think it’s not a good idea, doesn’t really enter into the situation, does it? You’re resigned to the fact that
you will do this thing, because you’re told to do it. And if you start thinking about it too much, well, you’re going to get yourself into trouble. So the best thing is to do what you’re told, and when you’ve got some leave, you make a bit of hell, and then go back to it again. If you develop that sort of philosophy, you’re not going to harm yourself.
You can do your job….The thing about it is, of course, a lot of people never live long enough to develop that attitude in that sort of warfare, because the casualty rate was too high. The Americans, for instance, they used to train in America, and they’d be formed up as a crew in America, they’d fly their plane across the Atlantic,
as a crew. They had to do twenty five operations to complete a tour, in daylight. And at the end of that, they were sent home and they never saw the war again. That was it. On the other hand, a hell of a lot of them didn’t get back. That’s war. It’s a rotten business.
I don’t agree with it all. There’s far better ways of solving things than fighting a war. I think most people who are in the sharp end of the war would agree with that, too. It’s a rotten business.
I think we might stop there and change tapes.
Interviewee: Robert Yates Archive ID 0596 Tape 04
Actually, we were originally briefed to go out on 26th of June, which would have been my 21st birthday, but prior to that we were getting the gang together and we were going to go down the pub and have a bit of a session to
celebrate my 21st . Anyway, we were all set to go and they cancelled the trip. It was too late to go out anyway, and we were weren’t allowed out, so we had to stay in camp. And we actually took off on the same trip on the 27th. And it was fairly late. It was about eleven o’clock or something at night. And the raid was on a railway junction in Paris, which we thought was a pretty easy
sort of a trip. Anyway, on the way over, one of the engines started to run a bit hot, and they had a bit of a debate whether they’d abort the trip and go back, or keep going. Anyway, they decided, well, it’s only Paris anyway, so we’ll keep going, and drop the bombs and
then go home, you see. Well, we dropped our bombs, and we turned towards the south from Paris, and we started to head home, and then we got hit by this bit of anti-aircraft fire. And it wasn’t hit where the hot engine was, it was hit where the good engines were on the other side. What damage it did,
I don’t know, but those engines caught fire. And so, the pilot said, “Sorry fellows, but you’ll have to jump out.” But the idea was that….You didn’t argue about it. If the pilot said, “Abandon the plane,” you did it.
The rear gunner had to get out of his turret. The mid-upper gunner had to get out of his turret. And I had to go from my position towards the back. And all the others went in towards the front. The engineer, the pilot, the navigator and the bomb aimer went out the front of the aircraft. Anyway, we didn’t actually wear our parachutes when
we were in the plane, we wore the harness, and the parachute was alongside us, and we clipped it on, onto a couple of hooks. And you had to make sure you did that before you went down. And when we got down to the back and opened the door, we went out in order. The rear gunner went out first, then the mid-upper and then me. And in the meantime, the four other guys…the pilot
would have been last out because he would have been trying to keep the plane in the air. By that time the plane was in a pretty bad way and it was going down pretty quick. And I had no way of knowing whether they all got out or not, but as a matter of fact they did. Anyway, the plane hit the ground and I thought…It was pitch black, I couldn’t even see my hand in front of my face, and I thought
when I get nearly level with the plane, I know I’m going to be pretty close to the ground, you see, and the next minute, bang. I landed on top of a hill. It wasn’t a big hill, but it was about a hundred feet or so and I landed like a….I knocked myself out. I knew I was in open country because we’d turned away from the city, so we were out in the country. I didn’t know how far
from Paris, or whatever. Anyway, I found out then that I’d hurt my back, and I’d had a fair bit of gravel rash. And what I’d actually done was I’d landed in the middle of market garden, which had a gravel track in between two halves of it, and they had a lot of stakes where they growing tomatoes or something.
And I’d landed on this track and got dragged by the chute, and took a bit of skin off here and there, off my face and off my arms, and of course I was pretty shaken up. It would have been about, maybe, two o’clock in the morning, on the 28th by then. So I thought I’ll see what happens in daylight, so I
gathered up the chute and stuck it down a drain or something, got rid of it. And I found out that I’m in a little forest. And this market garden thing was in the middle of it. It wasn’t very big. Anyway, I worked myself over to the edge of it,
and I wasn’t too sure if I could carry on, with my back. I tried walking and I thought, “Well, I can get along, so we’ll see how we go.” Anyway, they tell you if you’re in that situation to stay where you are for at least a day, and settle things. So anyway,
I get over to the edge of this forest, and way over in the distance there’s all this wheat, or some grain growing, and on the other side of that was a sort of built up area. Apparently, for some reason or another, I got separated from the others quite a distance. Four of them got
taken prisoner, pretty well straight away, so the French told me later on. One guy walked over to a big farmhouse, and this was the Welsh guy. And the other guy, the mid-upper gunner, he worked for Cooks Travel Agency in London, and he spoke French and Spanish fluently. So he got his gear, I found out
afterwards. He got out his money and his maps and found out where he was, and walked over to the railway station nearest to him and bought himself a ticket to the Pyrenees. Got over the Pyrenees into Spain, walked into Spain a certain distance and the police grabbed him and chucked him in jail. There were three or four other guys in there as well, and being able to speak Spanish, he started screaming for the British console, and
about two weeks after he landed, he was back in London. And the other guys as well. The engineer walked over to a farmhouse. I could see it, but I thought I better not be going over there, but he did. And he found when he got there, there was an American colonel, or some ranking officer, who’d been shot down or something. They landed the plane in the paddock, and flew them out.
He was there for about three weeks or so. The four who got taken prisoner were the pilot, the navigator, one of the gunners and the engineer….no, not the engineer. The pilot, the bomb aimer, the navigator and the rear-gunner, were all taken prisoner. They would have been separated, when they got. They got out at
different times, of course, and the plane was still moving. Anyway, they all got taken prisoner. The French told me that. The next night I decided I’d start walking towards Spain myself. There was no way I could have gone over to the railway station or anything like that. I wouldn’t have known how to buy the ticket. I wouldn’t have known what to say.
I headed to walk to Spain. I spent about five or six days, maybe a week, heading there. No tucker and I had a drink of water out of a puddle in the middle of the road, one night, after it rained. It rained two nights. I only walked at night. I holed up during the day.
Anyway, I was getting to the stage where I was in physical struggle, and I was in this….paddock, with a haystack, and I got under this part of the haystack and covered myself up for the day, and I was going to keep walking that night. Anyway, a couple of teenage
farm blokes came along, and they were working around the stack, and I thought, “Well, I’m in a bit of trouble physically, I better say something.” So I popped out from under the haystack, and they could see I was an air crew fellow, I had my uniform on. They gave me their lunch. A lump of bread and a bottle of wine, home made wine.
And they said stay there, and they came back with a note written in English, “Stay where you are, and we’ll pick you up.” That night. And I thought, “It might be all right or it might be a trap.” I’m not in any situation by now to do anything about it. So I stayed there, and a chap did come that night and picked me up, and took me to a….He had
a garden which was separated from the house, completely surrounded by a fence, and he had a fish pond with some fish in it, and he had a rabbit hutch and vegetables and everything else and he was doing pretty well for himself. That was away from the house. Anyway, I stayed there for a few days, and sort of healed my wounds, sort of thing. And he came
over one day, and he had an old pair of sports pants and a jacket. But he didn’t have any shoes or a shirt or anything. So he says there’s someone coming out from Paris to pick you up and take you into Paris. He said, “You’ll be safer in Paris than out here.” And I thought well, I’m not really in a position to argue, so
I’ll just go along with it. Anyway, this lady came out from Paris and took me over to the railway station and gave me a ticket, and said, “You get into this carriage, and I’ll get into the next one, and when I get off, you get off.” I said, “Right, okay. No trouble.” And I’m waiting for the train, and just before the train came in about four truckloads of German
soldiers walked onto the station, and they all climbed into the train the same as me, and I’m rubbing shoulders with the Gerry. All the time I’m thinking, “If he looks up and sees I’ve got an airforce shirt on, or looks down and sees that I’ve got cut down flying boots, I’m gone.” And if you want to know what terror is, boy, that’s it. I can tell you, I was dead scared. Believe you me. Anyway, they didn’t
take any notice of me, and anyway, the train had to stop, before we got to….and everybody had to get off and walk along the railway line, and that was the place where we had bombed, and wiped it out, you see. The trains couldn’t run. So we had to get off that train and go about a mile down the road and get on another one. And there’s this German walking along beside me yapping away like mad about having
to walk, I suppose. I don’t know what he was saying. I ignored him completely. But he never stopped talking, all the way down, until we got on the train again. We went into Paris, and I saw the lady get off, and I got off, and she took me to this….This pretty poor part of Paris. As I say, I didn’t know where I was, but I knew I was in Paris. But that’s all I did know. I didn’t know the
locality. I wouldn’t even know if I could find it. But I there was sewerage, there was a hole in the ground. So it was a pretty old part of Paris. Anyway, I was there for a few days, and I’d had no tucker. They had a bag of split peas, and that’s what we ate, for the couple of weeks that I was there. Then they decided that I’d have to move, so they made arrangements
with someone to take over. So they took me to this place, and there was some other guys there. And apparently the scheme was that they were going to land a plane, a British plane, in some paddock somewhere near Paris and take us out. But anyway, we got a message to get out of the place quick,
because the Germans were going to raid it. So someone said, “Come with me,” and they took me across the other side of the road. It was a flat where I was, and I went across the road, to this other place, and I’m looking through the curtains and there’s the Germans. They raided the place and took the girls that were looking after us away. And, of course, they didn’t
get any of us, because we weren’t there. And that’s where I was, on the other side of the street. And I was only there for a few hours, and then somebody else came and got me and took me to another flat, in a different part of Paris, which turned out to be directly opposite a German camp. And I was,
this lady, another unit I was in, in a room about the size of a bathroom. And it just fitted a bed, with about this much space alongside. No window. I lived in that for about a month. And there was a lady, who lived in the place, her husband was a POW [Prisoner of War], she was away all day.
I was out at night.
NB. This section of transcript is embargoed. Embargo ends 01/01/2034
So anyway, I had to get back to England,
and I had a bit of trouble trying to get someone who would take me back to England, so I wandered around the streets a bit and eventually they set up some sort of organisation which I was told about, and I went to see this bloke. An airforce officer. And I told him who I was, and of course by this time I had a beard, which turned out to be a red beard,
long hair, scruffy looking clothes that you wouldn’t see on a tramp, and I said I’m warrant officer so and so, and the bloke was pretty suspicious of me, but I managed to convince him that I should be taken back to England. So I was flown back to London,
and there was another Aussie that they had collected as well, from somewhere. He’d been out in the country. But we got to this aerodrome, I don’t know which one it was, one of the London ones anyway, they put us into a thing, like a paddy wagon, a police paddy wagon, and they took us into this stockade thing with great iron doors and we finished up in a cell.
We were in prison. And the next I know, they’re interrogating me, who I am, where I’m from, what I’ve been doing. And I thought, “Blow this for a joke, I don’t have to tell them anything.” So I just said they hide me out until…I didn’t tell them anything about the resistance at all. Anyway, after about three
or four days they decided I was a fair dinkum Aussie, so they let me go. So, I run into the Red Cross then. I went up to the Australia House, there was a servicemen’s club. I walked up there. Well, before I left this stockade they gave me a note to say who I was and what I was, you see.
I wanted to get myself looking respectable. So they had a barber and everything in Australia House. So I go up there, and the doorman was going to throw me out. So I pull this piece of paper out, read this, “Oh, very sorry.” Down to the basement, get a shave and a shower. And they gave me a uniform, a shirt and
a uniform, and a set of underwear and a pair of socks. So then I went around to Australian headquarters in London, and told them who I was and all the rest of it, and could I have my mail. And while I’m waiting there for the bloke to get my mail, which had all been bundled up, ready to send it back, or whatever they were going to do with it,
some parcels went past with my name on them. I said, “That’s mine.” And he said, “Well, you can’t have it.” I said, “Why not?” He said, “After three months they’ve got to be broken up and distributed.” But I said, “I’m here.” He said, “It doesn’t matter. You’ve been away more than three months.” So all my 21st birthday presents went sailing down this thing and I never got any of them. So anyway,
they gave me month’s leave. I had one shirt and one set of underclothes and one pair of socks. I thought, “Well, I can’t go on leave like this. I’ll go down to Brighton and get kitted out with a uniform. A proper kit.” You know. So I go down to Brighton, go around to the quarter master’s store, and told them who I was and where I’d been and so forth, and can I have some
more clothes? And the quartermaster said, “No you can’t. You’ve got to have a statutory declaration to say what has happened to you uniform.” I said, “Well, you have to be joking, don’t you?” “No,” he said, “That’s the rules and that’s what you have to do.” I thought, “This is a bit strange. A bloke being treated like this.” So I thought, “Well, I’ll go and see the CO.’[Commanding Officer] So I went down and saw the CO. And I was bit upset by that time,
and I went into the CO. “Calm down,” he said. “Now what’s the trouble?” And I told him. And he picked up the phone and he gave this bloke on the other end of the phone the most awful blasting you can imagine. And he said, “Go down and get your uniforms, boy.” So I trotted down and got fully kitted. And I went on my leave. And as soon as my leave was over, they put me on a boat and sent me home. I had that photo taken just
before I left England, actually. It was my brand new uniform, and all the rest of it. So I finished up on a boat, the Mauritania, across the Atlantic, back to New York. And I was in New York for fully two days, I suppose, and I got a leave pass to go up to Boston to see the girlfriend. Because we were planning on getting married as soon as I got back there. Anyway,
she wasn’t at home. She was working in….a different town. So she had to come from there and one thing and another, and anyway….I was hanging around on a loose end and a bloke pulled up in the street and said, “What are you doing here?” I said, “I’ve got a girlfriend here.” He said, “Well, what are you doing?” I said, “Nothing. I’m just waiting until she knocks off.” He said,
“Would you like to come with me on a War Bond drive.” He said, “We’re going around these big factories and places and making speeches, to sell War Bonds.” I said, “Oh, that’s not for me.” He said, “Go on, you’ll be right.” So that’s what I did for a few weeks, going around these places. They’d get all the people together, and make about a thirty second speech, I reckon.
So, I finished up in the newspapers as an Australian war hero, making speeches at such and such a place. Oh, a lot of rubbish it was, but anyway. I did that for a few weeks, then I got a message to come back to New York. We’d taken out a marriage licence by that time, we were
going to get married, but it didn’t eventuate. Because I had to go, I couldn’t stay. I got out of New York, on another train, back to San Francisco, into a camp there, and I had to wait there for about six weeks. So I could have stayed in New York, or Boston or whatever, and it wouldn’t have made any difference. But that’s not the way it works, unfortunately. It changed my life, that did. But anyway,
I got on an American boat across the Pacific, and it took a fair while to get home, because we went up the islands, up New Guinea and around those islands, New Caledonia, dropping people off and picking people up. There were a lot of American girls on board there. Anyway, we finished up in Brisbane. Got on
a train, came down to Melbourne. And I was in the Melbourne Cricket Ground. It was a reception depot, then. And anyway, I had a bit of leave, and I was playing tennis one afternoon and my back went on me. And I was doubled over like this. So I staggered into the medical bloke at the Melbourne Cricket Ground,
and he said, “There’s nothing wrong with your back. It’s all right. All you’re trying to do is avoid active service.” And I nearly fainted. After what I’d went through in the last twelve months or so. And anyway, it never ever got right, from then on. It got better than what it was. But it’s always been trouble on me.
And eventually, as I say, I went back to Repat in Melbourne to get treatment, and I was in the Heidelberg Hospital, being treated, and one thing and another, and the orthopaedic surgeon in Melbourne, eventually wrote me a letter and said there was nothing wrong with my back, it was all in my head, and I wasn’t eligible for treatment for psychiatric problems. Well, I was involved in a car
accident around about that time and I had to see an orthopaedic surgeon about a whiplash injury, you see, and I was telling him about this Repat guy, and he took some x-rays, this doctor, and he said, “There’s your injury.” He said, “And this is your car injury. And the guy that’s treating you in Repat is the laughing stock of Melbourne, as far as
as an orthopaedic bloke goes.” And I thought, “Well, that’s great.” So, anyway, I eventually came over here. All my kids live here. They drifted over one at a time. The eldest girl came over first, then John Curley got
transferred over here, so that brought another daughter over. Then my son came over. So we were travelling back and forwards from Melbourne to Perth, several times a year. So I thought, “Well, I better think about getting a transfer over here myself.” And instead of getting a transfer, I got
superannuated out of a job. Medically unfit. I was fifty-four, then. So they superannuated me from the PMG [Post Master General’s Department], so I haven’t worked since. All I’ve been doing is going in and out of Hollywood Hospital. Fifteen times I’ve been in and out of there, in the last few years. Apart from seeing psychologists and psychologists, and
you name it and whatever. So that’s it.
We might stop there, Bob.
End of tape
Interviewee: Robert Yates Archive ID 0596 Tape 05
Bob, in that you were picked up by the French resistance. They’re complete strangers. Can you tell us about the relationships that developed between you?
Yeah, well, these two blokes that I met first, they weren’t involved. They just knew somebody that knew somebody. And I never saw them
again, after I told them who I was, what I was, and they gave me their lunch and they disappeared. And they didn’t come back after…they gave me this note that was written in English, then they disappeared. And the chap that came that night, after dark, and picked me up, he was some sort of a businessman, and he must have been, with a bit of cash, because he had this,
what would be a normal suburban bloke, completely fenced in, with a high fence, and in that he had his garden shed, of course, a pond where he had fish, edible, and a rabbit hutch so he could get a bit of meat. And all sorts of vegetables. And they had a gardener who used to come there, and do a bit of work there. And he lived about two or three hundred
yards away in a separate house altogether. And it was in a rural area. As far as I could see there was no village. There could have been one not far away, but it didn’t appear to me, as far as I could see. It was not all that far from the railway station. But anyway, this girl who came out to pick me up, she was a French woman married to an
Englishman, and lived somewhere in the Middle East. I can’t remember where. And she was actually home visiting her folks when war broke out, and she stayed there, and got herself involved, somehow or the other, with these people, and she was the one who did most of the escort work for me, and she was the one that came out to pick me up, bought the railway ticket, then took me to,
I think it was her sister’s place. As I said, they had nothing much to eat. They had a bag of split peas, which they used to stew up, and that was about it, twice a day, and the coffee was made out of acorns or something, I think it was, and the bread wasn’t made out of proper flour.
It was sort of a starvation diet, really. You couldn’t exist on it for any great length of time. One day, I went with this woman to a Protestant minister’s house, which was not all that far away, and she asked him for some help, and he slammed the door in her face. He wouldn’t have a bar of us. He was English.
But he had been living in France for a long time, apparently. So he was about the only one, really, who point blank refused to help, at any stage. But anyway, it was obvious that I couldn’t stay at that particular place, even though the company was okay. The wife was teaching me French, on so many words a day basis, and I had a few discussions with her husband about
politics. Went to the local tavern a couple of times, and I was the country cousin that was deaf and dumb. Try playing that part, completely. Someone comes and speaks behind you, you totally ignore them, because you can’t hear them. And you can’t sort of be pretending to be listening to the conversation, because you’re deaf and you can’t hear them. It’s
pretty difficult to do. But later on, it wasn’t so bad. It depended on where I was. When I changed places, this lass, the first time she took me from this place where I had been to this new place which the Germans raided shortly after I left.
From then on, I never saw her again, and I was in this flat with this lady whose husband was a POW. Well, I hardly ever saw her. She was away all day, and I was in this room on my own, I suppose, for, probably twenty hours a day. Or something like that.
It’s a strange existence. Virtually, I never saw daylight for a month. It was like living in a dungeon. Not a real pleasant experience. Particularly with the night-time activities. You’re on your own all the time, and you’ve got plenty of time to think about yourself. Not good. But when the Germans raided that place, I went out the back door, as they came in
the front. That was a pretty close go, that one. Nevertheless….I don’t know how they knew I was there. The trouble was you didn’t know who you could trust and who you couldn’t. A chap might pretend to be quite friendly, but it was worth their while to give people away, because the Germans rewarded them with extra rations and all that sort of business. But
no-one was openly hostile of the people I mixed with, at all. Everybody I contacted seemed to be friendly. I could quite openly walk around. Early on in the piece and later on, you could walk around as long as you don’t make yourself conspicuous.
They don’t take any notice, nobody takes any notice. Even though the Germans were all over the place, they didn’t take any notice of me. At all. Any time. They never stopped and asked for…what do you call it? An identity card, which I didn’t have anyway. But I had no identification to say I was a British
airman. If I had been taken at that stage, I would have been taken as a French person. And the consequences of that wouldn’t have been all that pleasant, I don’t suppose. But there was no way I could prove that I was entitled to be a POW, for instance, because I had no identification whatsoever at that stage. Everything had been dumped, that identified me as a
uniformed person. I was just a civilian.
What risks did you take with the Germans and your anonymity at the time?
Well, every time you walked down the street, you took a risk. Any time that you were in contact with a German, if you were walking down the street. I mean, they were walking down the street. As I said, just before lunch, these black uniformed guys, they walked down the
footpath, past the Eiffel Tower. And I was going in the opposite direction, and into the gutter you would go. You don’t stay on the footpath while they’re walking towards you. Arrogant. But the ordinary troops, they were rather strange, really. Because if the war news was good from their point of view, they were all
very smart. And when they were called out on parade out on the street….but if the war news was good from our point of view, they would slouch about, and reluctantly obey their officer’s orders and that sort of thing. It was quite remarkable, really. I think they had realised at that stage that the war was lost, and
that it was only a matter of time, you know. Nevertheless, they were still rounding up people and doing nasty things to them. I saw a German soldier come out of a tavern one day, and there was a bike there, a push bike. And he grabbed the bike, and the French owner of the bike grabbed it and tried to stop him from taking it. And he pulled his gun out and just shot the bloke in the
street. He might have been drunk or whatever, but it’s not the right thing to do, under any circumstances. And that’s the sort of thing that some of them would do anyway. I don’t think the ordinary guys were different to anybody else, really. I had one
funny incident before I’d contacted anybody. I had been walking in the dark down this sort of country lane, and I came across a village. And I thought I’ll get out the….there was a paddock with a lot of high grass there, and I thought I’ll get out there and hide out for the day, and if I see someone I might be able to make some contact and get some food,
or something. Anyway, I’m sitting there in the grass, and a bunch of German soldiers were marching down the road. And you wouldn’t believe it, they stopped right opposite me and they broke up to come into the paddock to have a pee. And one of them had a dog, and it came dashing through the grass right up to me.
So I’m patting the dog, and the guy that owned the dog, he didn’t know I was there. He just gave a whistle and the dog took off again. I thought that was….If he only knew what was happening to his dog, not that I was going to hurt the dog. Because I thought it was pretty funny at the time. If he only knew.
Mostly, they ignored you. Another time I was with this chap, he said, “Come on, we’re going to this tavern to have a drink.” And it was all boarded up, this place, and it turned out that it was owned by an Australian digger that married a French girl during the First War and stayed there. And he’d been closed down by the Germans for black-marketing or whatever. But there was a little
walkway alongside the tavern, and then he had the bar set up in the back room, you see. And I was in there with this friend having a drink, and there were Germans alongside me having a drink, too. In the black-market bar. They didn’t take any notice of us, and we didn’t take any notice of them. We had our drink and went on our way. It was just like normal.
The secret of the whole business was you can be conspicuous, but you must not be unusual. If you do something different to what other people are doing, you will attract attention. But I’m quite sure you could walk around, especially in a crowd. When there’s people around, they’re not going to take any notice of you. But if you’re in a small group, they might say that there’s
something about that guy. And you get used to it, but….It didn’t bother me, really, until I was back home. Then it suddenly hit me what had been happening. And my nerves cracked up a bit. But you can live on tension for so long, then you’re going to pay for it.
You can’t live on the edge, for such a long time and then think you’ll get away scot-free, because you don’t. Even if you think you do. It’s just not possible for humans to….Unless they don’t think at all. Or they’re not capable of thinking. They can’t exist in that sort of situation without
something going wrong. In my particular case, I would have been far better off if I had given myself up, as far as being treated when I got back. POWs were treated a lot better than I was. They didn’t do anything for me at all, when it’s
all boiled down. They just threw me to the wolves. A doctor friend of mine lent me a book, written by another doctor who had been in a situation. He’d done five or six operations before he got shot down. And he spent the war as a POW, and swapped identities with a fellow, and he was out
working out in farms, and having a good time and when he got back to Australia, they sent him out to Yanchip, to the rest home there, and treated him very well, as if he was a hero. And I thought the contrast between the way they treated him, and the way they treated me….I wrote a bit of a story about it, actually.
It’s kicking around somewhere, about the difference between treating a POW who, after all, spent the war sitting on his backside, against people like us who made an attempt to get away. There’s quite a big story there.
Excuse me, Bob. Can you tell about the people that you spent
that time with in Paris, and how your relationship developed?
Well, the first person, apart from these two lads who put me in contact with this fellow, he was very friendly and quite anxious to do everything he could for me. Then when I went to this lady’s
place in Paris, they were very friendly. There’s two sorts of people. There’s people who will just go along with authority, it doesn’t matter whether it’s….Well, you take this country. You’ve got a Liberal government at the moment, next year it might be a Labour government. Now, people mightn’t like
one type of government or another, but they’ll just go along with it. It won’t worry them. But there will be a group of people who will worry about it. And that’s how the resistance sort of develops, because there’s people who will actively do all they can to upset the authority. And there’s other people who will look the other way and do nothing. And there’s other people who will do
something, if they get the chance to. And they’re all separate groups, but they’re all the same people. And you don’t really know, when you first meet them, whether they’re people that don’t really care that you’re from another country and on the run, and if they look after you and get caught, they’re going to get to get executed,
they don’t think about that. They think, “Oh well, we’ll help this guy if we can.” And there’s obviously others in the group who pretend to be on your side, but in actual fact will give you away pretty quickly if the opportunity arose. And they’re not going to get found out. Traitors….Even the
guys in the resistance network found that there were people giving them up to the Germans, on the way through. I never got in with that particular group of people. It’s just by accident that I got in with the sort of people that I did get in with, who had nothing to do with the people that ran a resistance network
where they handed you down from one to another until you got out of the country. I had no contact with those sort of people at all. I wouldn’t know how you would get in touch with anybody. They don’t ever give you any information, when you go over a foreign country like that, if you get shot down, go to such and such a place. It doesn’t happen.
It’s just luck.
Bob, you’ve had a long time to reflect back on those experiences and the kinds of people that you were meeting. As a young Australian at the time, what was it like of learning of these people, and how they operated?
Well, you have to admire them, really, because they’re very brave people. Especially when you realise the penalty for getting caught was
death. And the penalty for doing what they did was, sharing rations that they didn’t have with you, and doing all they could to help you, you have to say they were very brave people, and admire them greatly. But there again, you see, when you’re mixed up in the politics of a thing.
The people that I was mixed up with were against the Germans, but they were also against the French. The French government, I mean. Even though they hated Germans and they would do anything they could to upset the Germans, they would have done the same thing to the French
government if they had the chance. So that’s a different group again. But whatever sort of people, they’ve got a lot of courage. There’s no doubt about that.
Bob, could you perhaps
discuss with me the analogy you used with me earlier of an invasion of Australia? On Australian soil?
Yes, what I found was that if your country were invaded, going on my experience, you would find the great majority of the people would accept the rule, if you like to call it that,
of the foreign power over you. But there’d be a group of people that would try and make life difficult for them. And there would be a group of people who would actively oppose them in every way they could, and by whatever method they could, to make life difficult for them. Even at the risk of being executed
if they got caught. And I’m sure that the same thing would happen in Australia. That the great majority of people would go along with whoever was ruling their country. If the Japs had come here, for instance, as long as they didn’t actively hurt everybody, in whatever way they could, most people would just carry on in their normal life. The engine driver still drives the train, and the
the baker bakes the bread, if he’s got the flour, and so on and so forth. They live normal lives. But some of these people who appear to be living normal lives, have got two lives. They’ve got the one that everybody knows about, and the one they don’t. For instance, the person who was in charge of the group I was involved with actively worked with the Germans. For the Germans.
With his transport business. And no doubt others did the same. The girls that rounded up the people, were just ordinary girls. They weren’t out of the ordinary. And some of those were unfortunate enough to be caught by people who thought they were working for the Germans, and had their hair shaved off, and all this business.
I don’t know what you’d call it. They didn’t treat the girls right, because some of them might have been just going along….That’s another thing, you see, the girls will just go along. Some of them will just go out with whoever’s there, Germans or whatever. And most of them won’t. Human nature….not everybody’s
got the temperament to actively oppose authority. And regardless of the consequences the majority of the people….they’ve still got wives and families to look after, and they’ve got to make a living whatever way they can, whichever way they can. It’s just human nature.
The ones that are actively and definitely opposed will do everything they can to upset the other people. And by and large, I think, the occupying forces, in general, won’t interfere with the local population. Some will. As I said before, they did nasty things,
and I think that’s human nature, too. People get very arrogant when they’re….well not everybody, but some people get very arrogant when they’re in supreme command. When they say jump, and you say, “How high?” But that applies in ordinary living, doesn’t it? In their own countries, or wherever.
You can promote a person to a boss, and he can be a pretty nasty boss, and so on.
Bob, for a young Australian, were you surprised to learn there were these members of these groups living, as you put it, double lives?
No, not really, because you hear about them. I knew that there were resistance
groups around, in Greece and other countries. Even in Germany, there were people who were actively opposed to the regime there. So no, it wasn’t really a surprise, but how you contacted them was
the big mystery as far as I was concerned. How did you make contact with somebody who was going to help you, and not hand you over? That’s the quandary. You’ve got to think twice about, will I approach these people or won’t I? And the chap I told you that spoke the language pretty well, when he got
down to the Pyrenees, he was approached by somebody, asking him if he wanted help. And he said, “Yes.” And he said, “Well, I’ll take you to my house, and I’ll go out and get some help.” And he looked out the window while this chap was away, and saw him coming back with some Germans. So he shot through out the back, and over the back fence, and away. So you couldn’t really trust people, I don’t think.
But it was a chance you took. It was a chance I took. I was lucky. I picked the right people to talk to.
How many people could you trust during that time?
Well, when you say, “How many people could you trust?” You have to be suspicious of everybody, to some extent. So you never wholly, and solely,
trusted anybody. But you weren’t suspicious of anybody in particular. If you follow my meaning. I dealt with a dozen people, and I couldn’t say, well, eleven of those guys are pretty good, but this guy’s obviously going to do the wrong thing. I couldn’t pick them out like that. For one thing, I didn’t have enough contact with them. We were there to do a job. We did the job, then
we separated. I didn’t know their names or anything else about them.
Bob, how many people did you deal with there and how often did you have contact them?
Some people I had daily contact with. And I suppose when the Germans were actually in control, I might have had contact with perhaps fifty people, altogether. Not all at the same time.
It could have been a bit more than that, it wouldn’t have been any less. And they were all sorts of people. Some were family members of the people that I was staying with. Obviously trusted by their relatives anyway. You’ve got yourself in the hands of those people
because….they’re your salvation. Whether they’re good people or bad people, or honest, or whatever, you’ve got to take that on trust. And that’s the point. You couldn’t walk into a situation like that, and think you’ve got…
you know, that everybody’s going to treat you well and you’ve got to be totally honest with them and they’ve got to be totally honest with you, because that’s not the situation you’re in. They would be suspicious of me, that’s probably why I didn’t have any knowledge of localities or names. Because, they couldn’t
trust me not to give them away if I got caught.
What information would they trust you with?
What was on at the moment. The dealing I had mostly with was the leader because after the place was raided, where I went out the back as the Germans were coming in, I went to where the chap
lived in, I think, it was about a twelve story block of units. His wife and himself lived on the top floor, in the penthouse, and the two sons lived, I think, it was about on the sixth or the seventh floor, in a separate flat. They were both killed, as I told you before. I moved into their unit. And that’s where I spent the rest of the time I was there, on my own.
And he used to bring a meal down to me, when he came home from work. And the rest of the day I was on my own. And he’d come and pick me up at night. And I came back there after. That was the worst, when you talk about it, that was the worst feature of the whole business, was the amount of time I spent on my own.
Under the circumstances. That was the worst part of the lot. Because the one thing you never knew if somebody was going to bash the door in, at any tick of the clock. You couldn’t make a noise. You couldn’t even flush the toilet, because nobody was supposed to be in there. And somebody else in another unit might query why the toilet was being flushed.
There were a lot of things that were not normal that you’ve got to put up with. It’s not easy, really, especially when you’ve got a lot to think about.
Excuse me, Bob, how would you negotiate those plans for the evenings that you spent together?
He’d come and tell me whether we were going out that night.
I knew why. I didn’t know where. He had it all organised. And the other people were all informed. You’d never gather in a group, like you’d might expect. We arrived there independently, and we left independently, and that was it. Secrecy was the key to the whole business, really, I suppose. The less people knew,
the safer it would be, I suppose. Because you’re not supposed to be out at night. it was curfew. But they knew ways, ways to go where they weren’t going to be challenged, and things like this. An awful lot can go on under their noses, and they didn’t know about it. They probably
knew it was happening, but they couldn’t do anything to stop it. That’s another part of it, you see. They say, “Well, no-one’s allowed on the street after nine o’clock.” And a lot of people say, “I’m going to go out at nine o’clock.” It’s just like here at Northbridge here now, they’ve got a curfew on kids. It doesn’t mean a thing. If the kids want to go there, they’ll go there. You can’t control everybody
a hundred per cent of the time, and keep them under the thumb. Because some people aren’t going to do it. This is the thing now in Iraq. They reckon that they won the war in Iraq, well, they’ll never win the war in Iraq. Because you’ll always have some of these people blowing up this and blowing up that, or whatever. They’ve been fighting in Ireland for
four hundred years, and they couldn’t stop them. If people want to do something, somebody’s going to do it and get away it. And there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Nothing. And that’s why it’s possible for people in my situation to get away with what I got away with. And
other people as well, in the same situation, got away with it. Because you can do it under their noses, and they don’t know who you are. You’re dressed up in the same clothes as everybody else, and look like everybody else. How are they going to identify you? They stop you in the street and say, “Show us your identity.” But how often would they do that? Only if you’re doing something suspicious.
Bob, did you ever feel
any hesitation towards co-operating with the resistance on these jobs at night?
No, in the situation I was in, and the circumstances that brought it about. No. I just went along with it. It’s war, isn’t it? It’s war. If you’re in the wrong uniform, that’s your bad luck. What would the situation be if I
said, “No, I’m safe. I’m right.” If you’re in an awkward situation….you go along with, whatever. And that’s it. There’s no….The other side of it is you can’t afford to be afraid.
If you show fear, you’re going to get caught. You’ve got to be normal. Under the circumstances, whatever normal might be, that’s what you’ve got to be.
You mentioned that the leader of this group would come home from work in the day, and meet you in the evening. His normal life, what was that? What was his job? What did he do during the day?
He had an office in town, and as I said, he was actively working with the Germans. And no doubt, he contacted important people and things. But he always appeared in a pretty expensive looking suit. So he was obviously a business man of some substance.
He wasn’t alone, because a lot of other people did, or led a double life. Like most of the police were co-operating with the Germans and at the same time passing information onto the resistance people. That’s how we got away from the first place they raided. It was
a policeman who rang the people living in the unit, and said, “Get the boys out, quick.” The police also informed the people who needed to know not to go down certain streets because the Germans were going to block it off and check people, and things like that. They helped, even though the Germans thought they weren’t.
I think the tape’s about to stop there, Bob.
Interviewee: Robert Yates Archive ID 0596 Tape 06
Bob, did you encounter any other Allies that were taking refuge with the Underground?
Yes, I did, as a matter of fact. I ran into a Russian. A fight pilot, who had been shut down on the Russian front, had been
transported into France, as a labourer, to do some sort of labouring work for the Germans. And he was on a train, and we bombed the train, and it got tipped over, and he got away. And he found his way into Paris. And I met him when I left the place that was raided, that I talked about first, when I went across the road,
that’s where he was staying, with a Russian lady. He was staying with her, and she was a white Russian, who was a refugee from the communists. And he was a communist, he was a major actually, in the Russian Army, but his background was a rural labourer type background, and he’s been
brought into the services and reached officer rank. And major’s a pretty high rank. And that never would have happened if he had been in Russia under the old regime. Under the king, and so forth. So, they were two completely different opposite types of people. The same country, but
completely different backgrounds, and completely different results of their life. It was very interesting. The Russian lady spoke French, German, Russian and English. And she could carry on a conversation, if like there were three of us here, she could switch from one to the other, and never miss a beat.
It’s very difficult to do. To think in four different languages at the same time, is most remarkable. But Russians are good linguists. Or so they say.
Bob, how much of a barrier was language to you at the time?
Initially, it was difficult with some people, but
most people I contacted had some knowledge of English, and I acquired a certain amount of French. After I’d been there a short time, I never had any real problems at all. There was always someone who spoke English, or I could make myself understood, in
French. But the only trouble I had was French women. Especially Parisians, they speak too fast for me. But I had one interesting experience. Which was actually after Paris was back in our hands again. A French Canadian bobbed up, who thought he spoke French, and the French couldn’t understand
him. But he spoke English, so he would tell me what he wanted to say in English, and I was telling the people what he wanted to say in French. Which considering he was supposed to be able to speak French, but he spoke French that was about two hundred years old, or thereabouts. And they just couldn’t understand him at all. It was very strange. Incidentally, he was living in the same block of flats that I was,
but he had absolutely no connection with the organisation that I was with. But he bobbed up, after the thing was over. I said earlier on that I had all these women, when they were told that I was there, men were shaking me by the hand,
and women were kissing me. And I attended a French flag raising ceremony, and I was standing in the crowd. In front of the crowd, actually, and just as a boy stepped in front of me, a shot rang out and it hit the boy. It was aimed at me, and he stepped in front of it at the psychological moment, he stepped in front
of me, and he took the bullet that would have hit me. The only reason they would have shot at me, was because everybody was coming up to me, and they must have thought that I was someone important. Anyway, we worked out where the shot came from and we went after the chap, and the boy’s father shot him. I don’t know whether he was
a renegade Frenchman or a German in civvies. Because there were quite a few people left behind like that. Snipers. As I said, it was pretty dangerous to walk around the streets of Paris, in those few days before someone took control. As I said
before, people seeking revenge for various reasons, or politically, or just because they didn’t like their neighbours or whatever. There was no control, they could do what they liked and there was no-one to stop them. Just for that brief period of a few days and after that it was all right.
Bob, were you were aware of other Allied soldiers participating in these underground operations like the ones you did?
I’d run across a few of our people, like air crew fellows, but nobody else except for that Russian. He was the only one I had anything to do with. I briefly ran into these other chaps, they were trying to gather to send back, by landing a plane there and flying them off. They did that
quite a bit, actually. There was quite a lot of activity. Planes landing in France, and various other places, picking up people and dropping off people. It’s amazing what you can do, when you’re country has been taken over by another country,
just what you can get away with. But it was a mistake made by Germany to take over so many countries, all of them hostile, and there had to be garrisons, and attempts made to control the populations. They finished up having so many troops engaged in that occupation, that they ran short of people on the
front lines. Apart from the logistics of the thing, supplying them, and sending them on leave and the whole works. It must have been a nightmare of organisation. You can bite off more than you can chew, really. That’s what it boils down to.
It’s something they obviously didn’t think of. If they thought that everybody was going to welcome them with open arms, when they treated the people so badly, well, they were on the wrong tram, weren’t they?
Bob, I can’t imagine what it must have been like to have been alone in the streets of Paris, at night, co-operating with the Underground….
Well, it’s just something that you did. You don’t think about it. If you start thinking about it, well, you can’t do it. It’s the same as if a soldier’s in a trench, and the officer says “Charge!” And they jump out of the trench. If they stopped to think of it, half of them are going to get shot as soon as they jump up. But you can’t do that. You
can’t do that. You’ve got to get yourself into a state of mind that you do these things without thinking of the consequences. It’s as simple as that, really. These kids drive their cars around the streets and get themselves killed. Doing exactly the same thing. Not thinking of the consequences. It’s not a matter of being brave, it’s a matter of being
not afraid, if you can follow me. It’s not bravery, it’s something that you do because it’s got to be done. And the consequences, well, as I say, you don’t dwell on those. You take it for granted that you’re going to get away with it. That’s what we thought when we were flying. After the initial
business, we thought that we’d be right from then on. And to a certain extent we were. We were extremely unlucky to run into trouble. If we hadn’t run into that trouble, or if we had turned back when the engine run hot, all of this wouldn’t have happened. But we’ve had three cars written off in accidents,
none of which was my fault. We survived. You know, like, it doesn’t stop you driving a car, and you can’t let it. Because that’s too big a penalty to pay for something that you didn’t do, because it wasn’t your fault.
Maybe I’m a bit queer, but that’s the only way that I could survive a situation is to think I’m going to get away with it, really. I never consciously thought that they were going to grab me, even when they came bashing in the front door, as I was tearing down the back steps. I didn’t think I was going to get caught.
If I had stopped to think about it, I would have run twice as hard. But I knew that I had been there on my own….I got into a horrible situation when I was transferring from one place to another, one time. The girl that was leading me got too far ahead of me, and she turned the corner,
and walked down the street and in the doorway where I was supposed to go. And I hadn’t turned the corner when she turned into the place. So there I was. I turned the corner and the street was deserted, and I had no idea which house she had gone into. Fortunately, she realised that I wasn’t coming behind her, so she
come back out again. And I found out that if she had thought I was grabbed, and so forth, I would have been in an awful pickle. I wouldn’t have known what to do. But it didn’t happen. You’ve got to be philosophical about it.
It sounds like these operations were incredibly planned for timing?
They have to be. They have to be, because you’re doing something under their noses,
that if they knew you were going to be there, or saw someone setting the thing up, you’re gone. They would have been on us like a shot, and that would have been it. But, it was well planned. They had to pick the spots where other people would mind their own business.
They knew where they were dealing with it, and all the rest of it. It was a planned operation. No noise, no signs. You could walk past us at the spot and not know that anything was on. But that was the only way they could have done it.
Later on, towards the end….The last week, I suppose, before Paris was actually recaptured, there was a lot of street fighting. German troops and French regulars, hand to hand fighting, virtually. But the French had to be sure
that the Allies were going to come in, otherwise they would have been wiped out. But a small number of people in a lot of different places can cause a lot of havoc, with an organised army. You nibble here, you nibble there, you nibble there, well, they can’t control it all. They can do an awful lot of damage with quite a small group of people.
But as for sticking a machine gun on a barricade and trying to stop a tank, well, I didn’t think I would see that night out. That was ridiculous. But I could never, and I still can’t, ever admit I’m afraid. That’s the thing with me, I can’t admit that I’m afraid
to do it. Even if I am, I can’t admit it. But that’s just me. I’ve never been any different since I was this high.
Bob, before those secret Underground operations at night, had there been any training in your Service that had prepared you for those operations?
Not as such, no…
I knew what I had to do. I was told what I had to do and how to do it, and that was it. No, I don’t think you can…I think you have to be a very special group to train for that sort of thing. To go in and do it without….They did have people like that. But no….
it’s organised and planned to the umpteenth detail, and it has to be, otherwise it won’t be successful. I don’t know how the other guys got on, but they obviously knew what they were doing.
I just wanted to ask you about the leader of the group who you were involved with. How much of his operations were based on, perhaps, the revenge of his sons as opposed to his political beliefs at the time.
Oh, I think the loss of his sons was the critical factor that really
would have changed him, I would imagine. Because it would have been a terrible blow, to have the only two members of his family, just wiped off the streets for nothing. They weren’t even involved in anything. They were university students. And I just can’t imagine
how he felt when he got the news of that, of what they had done. They probably wouldn’t have done it, if they had known they were his sons. But it was done, and that was it. I don’t know how often they did it, but they certainly did it
on occasions, as a reprisal for something that somebody else probably did. And they were the sufferers. The only answer to that is revenge. But I think there were two motives, apart from his personal motive. The political motive of
dealing with the enemy. I don’t think there were many Frenchmen who were actively and sincerely happy about the Germans being there. There were probably a very small per centage, but there was only another small
per centage who actively did something about it. And that’s the way it was. But guerrilla warfare in an urban situation is a lot different to guerrilla warfare in the country. It has to be. The whole set up is different altogether. It’s got to be a different type of warfare.
Ambushing people in the country and blowing up trains, and that sort of thing, like you see in the pictures, no doubt happened. But you can’t do that in the city. It’s not possible. There were no doubt individual Germans who went down the wrong street and didn’t come out the other end.
If the Germans knew that had happened, then they would take reprisals. They might take everybody in the street, or every second person and shoot them. That’s the sort of things they did. They did terrible things to people. If you were going to conquer the whole of Europe, they didn’t go about it the right way. You want to get the population
on your side, not against you. If you want to be successful, that is. But when you’ve got a maniac running an organisation, strange things happen. Don’t they?
Bob, did you talk to the leader of this group about his politics at all?
No, I didn’t actually. The big discussion
that I did have was with the first guy, who was a pretty small cog in the wheel. We had quite good arguments, actually. He was an upholsterer, by trade. And he had a workshop in the back of the yard, and it was pretty isolated, so we were in there, for hours, arguing
about it. But it was good humoured arguing. It wasn’t heated. I disagreed with them, and he disagreed with me. But other than that, it didn’t come into it, until the plan that I talked about before, when we were waiting for the Germans to come down. That was the only other time that
politics reared it’s ugly head actually. After that it was….In those few days between the exit of the Germans and the law and order by the outside, that all the anarchy took place. And, as I say, it wasn’t safe to walk the streets,
for those few days. Even if you had to.
How did you spend those few days?
Mostly, going around looking for a way back out of the country. I contacted quite a few organisations. Anybody that wore an airforce uniform,
I contacted to see if I could get any help, to get back. I spoke to five or six different organisations. Some of them said, “Well, come with us, further into Germany.” And I was tempted once or twice. I thought I might be more likely to get out of the place by going with some organisation,
then I heard that there was this other office set up. And I went to that place and talked to the officer there, to get back. But it wasn’t really…There must have been quite a few of us, kicking around the place. You would have thought that of the first things they would have done would be to make some
arrangement for us to contact the right people to get us back out of the country. It took them a while to organise it.
Bob, just in brief, can you describe the sort of political debates that you had previously?
Well, it was really a discussion on the merits of communism as against capitalism.
That was basically what it was. He took the communist side and I took the capitalist side. He would say how much benefit it would if the country was under a communist set-up. And I would say it was pretty good the way it was.
It was just a difference of opinion about politics, without getting heated over it. It filled in the time.
Can you tell, Bob, when your loyalty towards the Underground group that you were involved with began to shift?
Well, really, that’s not the proper way to put it. They had this discussion, and I got the idea that that’s what they intended to do, but I really wasn’t totally
convinced that they would actually do it. And it wasn’t until the actual day that he came marching down the street, that I was aware that they actually intended to do it. And that’s when I said, well, “I can’t go along with it.” Because, there’s a
difference between murdering somebody, and killing somebody. If you can understand that. There’s a justification for killing someone who’s in a different army to you, but there’s no justification, in my opinion, to murder one of your own. Regardless. And so, I didn’t want it to happen, and I did what I thought
was the right thing to do to stop it. Now, as I said before, I don’t know whether I actually did stop it, or whether they would have found out, and checked the place, without me saying anything. But I couldn’t take that risk. So, that’s what happened. I
interfered with the plan, and it didn’t happen. But they wouldn’t have known, even at the total ending of the business, they wouldn’t have never known it was me….As I said, they could have been picked up by somebody else, too. I’ve got my share of the business
on my conscience. When it’s all said and done it might have been totally unnecessary for me to blame myself for it. Because I don’t know for sure….I know that if I had been the only one that said something, then I would been responsible for what eventually happened. But I don’t know that.
I only have to assume that they found out because I said something. Because, after all, the great majority of the people that were lining the streets were waving and cheering and thinking, what a good thing it is for him to be walking down the street. And Paris was free, and all the rest of it. But there were some people that weren’t. And the fact
that De Gaulle gave….not my leader, but the big chief of the whole organisation, gave him a medal for the work they did on the Resistance is rather ironical, when you stop to think about it. So, what happened to the leader of the organisation, I don’t know.
I would have liked to have gone back, because I could have traced him, and maybe perhaps traced others back through him, but I wasn’t given any opportunity. I was hustled out of England before I could have any real plans to try and get back to France and look people up. But I owed a lot of people
at that stage, who I would have liked to have done something for. But I couldn’t even write to them because I didn’t have any addresses. I didn’t know how I could contact them. But they probably think I was pretty ungrateful or something, I don’t know.
But really, it just wasn’t possible for me to….
You mentioned earlier Bob that you witnessed varying degrees of resistance in the French Underground, and some people took their resistance to different extremes. What would you say to the leader of that group you were involved with if you did meet up with him post-war?
for one thing. Because without his assistance I would have been well and truly gone. We could have had an interesting conversation, a very interesting conversation. Because he was a well-to-do businessman, and he was mixed up with, what was rather paradoxically, really, with a communist unit. Whether he had
political plans or not, I wouldn’t know. We didn’t, as I say, discuss it with him. We had other things to talk about. And considering the fact that any contact I had with anybody was fairly brief, most of the time, it was sort of strange. I’m co-operating
with them, but I don’t know them. All I know about them is that they don’t like Germans, and neither did I. It took a while to sink in that I was dealing with a group that had aspirations to be the government of the country in
the future. And they probably still have. There is still a communist party in France. Not very strong. I don’t think it ever was very strong. Maybe they over-estimated how strong it was. I don’t know. It’s pretty strange to be on the fringe of this business, and so much to happen, and not know very much about it.
Or their ideas.
Bob, you mentioned that your actions may or may not have foiled that plot to assassinate De Gaulle. Can you maybe describe the scene through that day and perhaps give us an explanation of your actions?
Yeah, well, it was made known that he was going to make an entry into the city, and,
of course, everybody that makes a big entry into Paris comes down the Champs Elysses. And he started off, towards the outer end of it, and the whole of the sides of the streets were lined with people, cheering and clapping and carrying on. When he started off,
there weren’t sort of any places where he could have been ambushed. It was only when he got further up the track, there were buildings there that were suitable for the purpose. I joined the crowd, well away from the place, and
saw a bloke, an officer who was obviously someone you could tell what was going to happen. And after that, I just vanished from the scene, because my life wouldn’t have been worth tuppence if they had have put two and two together and got four. So I just had the discussion and vanished back into the crowd.
There is a film of it, of the crowd. And I thought I could see myself there a few times, but it might be imagination, too. I know where I was, when I see the film, but I can’t describe it to you without having the film, say, running, where I was.
But then they photographed these guys being taken out of the building. I forget now, six or eight of them, anyway, something like that. But what they didn’t film was the fact that they took them around the next corner and shot them. Which I didn’t expect would happen either. They hadn’t actually done anything. They were planning to do something, and after all, they were patriots, and they
had done an awful lot to upset the Gerries. But that wasn’t taken into consideration, obviously, by the people that grabbed them and led them around the corner and shot them. Well, that’s what happened at that particular time. A lot of people got shot, without a trial. Yeah, I don’t know.
It’s a bad situation to be in. As I say, if I had been a POW, I would have missed out on all this sort of business. And not been involved. And treated properly when I got back to Australia. You’ve got to go with what goes, don’t you?
Calling it a dilemma would be an understatement.
When you enlist in a military organisation, you don’t know what’s ahead of you. But I would venture to say that there wouldn’t be one in a million who would have been able to predict the situation that I found myself in, and the consequences and all the rest of it. I should have stayed making parts for gas masks in the factory, and not worried about it.
So that wasn’t my cup of tea, either, really. I wanted to be a lawyer. I went back to school to try and get a university education. My father’s brothers were nearly all professional men. Doctors, dentists, accountants, and things like that. And he would have been a vet if he had gone back to uni and finished his course.
But, you know….
I think you probably had too good a conscience to be a lawyer.
Yeah, well maybe that could have been the case. But I had an uncle that was a lawyer, and his name was Robert, and I thought I would follow in his footsteps. He was a country lawyer, and
dealt with the sort of things a country lawyer would involve in, and not criminal law.
We can stop there, I think.
Interviewee: Robert Yates Archive ID 0596 Tape 07
How did you get back from Paris to England?
Well, after several days of asking questions of different units that I came across, trying to find someone who could get me back, I was told
that there was an office in a different part of town where I could report, and be sent back. So I tracked this place down and spoke to the officers who were in charge of the place, and he arranged for me to be flown from Paris to London,
where I was met by some people. And put in a vehicle similar to what police cart prisoners away in, which I was rather surprised by this. Then we were taken to London, and we were taken into one of these military intelligence places, and
treated virtually as a prisoner. And that chap that was with me, he still had his uniform. He’d been out in the country somewhere, and he had all this uniform. Because I was in civvies and rather unkempt, with long hair and a red beard, and dirty, and
whatever. And anyway, they took me to a room. You’ve probably seen in films, where the prisoner has had a light shone on his face, and there are people behind him in the dark, and all that sort of…I didn’t believe it was real. I thought it was just a film. But they actually did it. And they
not only did it once, they did it for about three days on end. Much the same as we’re doing now. For most of the day they were at me, asking me all sorts of questions, and I gathered that they possibly thought I was a German deserter, trying to sneak through the works.
What sort of questions did they ask you?
All sorts of things. Where I’d been, what I’d done.
Who I was. What was my number. What was my name. What was my squadron. And what was the crew’s name, all sorts of things. But they didn’t ask it once, they asked it several times. Perhaps an hour later, they’d ask the same sort of questions. It was quiet weird. Well, I thought it was anyway. The point
that I was upset about was, they knew that the gunner who lived in London and had got back so quickly, was within a few minutes reach, and he could have identified me immediately. And yet they put me through all this rigmarole, and
made life pretty uncomfortable for me, before they were satisfied….or they decided to let me go, anyway. And then gave me a piece of paper that said I was not to be molested, or interfered with, by anybody, for any reason. So I made a beeline for the
Australian Club, in Australia House, it was, in the Strand. And the doorman tried to throw me out until I pulled out the piece of paper, then in I went, and sat in the barber’s chair and about half an hour later or more, I was haircut, and shaved, and had a shower, and put the uniform on that they had given me.
What sort of questions did you not answer in relation to the interrogation? What didn’t you tell them?
I didn’t tell them who I was mixed up with. I just said I was hidden with different families, until the war was over.
How much did you trust the people who were interrogating you?
I didn’t trust them
at all, because of the fact that I was in that situation. Why did they treat me like that? Why did they think I was….? If they thought I was someone who shouldn’t have been there, why did they transport me back to England in the first place? Why didn’t they interrogate me in Paris?
I didn’t tell them that I had hurt myself, and all that sort of business either. Which was probably a big mistake. The medical officer didn’t examine me.
And what did they say?
When you had the medical examination.
All he was worried about was whether I had scabies or something, because I was dirty, see. Some sort of skin disease or something.
He didn’t say anything about, how was the parachute descent? Or did you hurt yourself? Or anything like that. I was very unhappy, I must admit. I was extremely unhappy. And I was even more unhappy when I got down to Brighton and they said I’d have to write out a stat dec to say what had happened to my uniform.
That would seem to be quite a bizarre piece of paper to have to fill out. How did that make you feel
about the RAAF?
I was furious. Until I went to the see the CO. And he was a fighter pilot from the First War, and he was also a politician. A fellow by the name of White, and was group captain. He was in charge of the whole thing. I thought, “Well, blow this for a joke. I’m going to see him.” So I went down to see him. And
I saw the adjutant, and I asked the adjutant if the CO would see me, and told him the circumstances. And so the CO said, “Come in, boy. Tell me what the trouble is.” And I started and he said, “Just calm down, and tell me the whole story.” And so I did, and he rectified it, then I went off on my leave. Because they gave me a month’s leave,
and I went back to the squadron, and said hello to a few people.
What was that like returning back to the your squadron?
Well, rather strange, because there was no-one there that I knew. The personnel had changed, because this was month’s later. And there were a lot more Aussies on the station, and they were all agog at the fact that I’d
gotten down and come back and so forth. And I still hadn’t done anything. I’d rescued out of airforce identity, was the parachute D-ring. It’s hanging up in the shed there now. For some reason or another, I kept it. They reckoned if you hung onto it and took it back, they’d give you another parachute or something. Some silly
nonsense. Anyway, I hung onto it, and I’ve still got it.
How were you viewed by some of the other Australians in the airforce when you went back to your squadron?
Oh, I think it was a bit of hero worship, I think, if anything. Because I’d been here, done that. And they were, by and large, the war was virtually
over by that time as far as bombing and that was concerned. There were a lot of people on active service, but it was just like a mail run, nothing to do, no opposition or anything. It was quite different to the earlier stages. I was only there for about twenty four hours
and I went. I just called in to say hello and I was off again.
Where did you go for your leave?
I’ve got relatives there, in England. An uncle of mine who was a doctor, migrated in 1912. He was my father’s eldest brother or
close to that, anyway. And he went to England for further training, and married a nurse and stayed over there. He reared a family, and most of them came out here, eventually. But at the time I looked them up. I’ll tell you another bizarre story, which is almost unbelievable.
My father and his brother were on leave in London, together, in the First War, and they decided to go to Scotland. So they got on the Scottish Express and went up to Edinburgh, and got out of the train and were, sort of, must have been looking a bit bewildered as to what to do next, and the engine driver came along and spoke to them, and said, “Well come home and stay at my place.” And his name
was Murray. And for some years after the war, they corresponded, then they sort of lost track. But when the Second [World] War started, a chap was talking to my father’s tailor, and said to the tailor, “Did you know anybody
named Yates?” And he said, “The chap standing next you is a Yates.” And it was one of my father’s brothers. And it turned out that this chap had sent a parcel to England, and it had got to the son of these Murray’s, who was in Iceland, and he’d written to thank the person for the parcel, and mentioned that
his parents knew a soldier named Yates from the First World War, and it was the other brother of my father, that was standing next to this fellow. So they corresponded again, and when I got to England, I went up to Scotland and stayed with them. So work that one out. It’s incredible, isn’t it? Unbelievable. That
was just a couple of days before I left to come back, I saw them for the last time.
Did you actually go back into your squadron officially?
No, I was posted back to the embarkation depot in Brighton. When I’d finished
my leave, that was where I had to report. I was only there for a few days, and I was sent up to Liverpool to get on the Mauritania, and go back to America.
How did you investigate what happened to the rest of your crew?
They told me that the gunner was alive. A telegram was sent to my parents to say that
the engineer had got home. And I don’t know how I found out the other four were taken prisoner, but I was told somewhere along the line that they were all….Oh, the French people said that four airmen had been taken prisoner in the locality, that’s right. But I didn’t know they were my people, but that’s who
they turned out to be. But apart from the gunner, from London, I never had any contact with any of the others. For one reason, I wasn’t sure that they were going to survive. I didn’t know how to get in contact with the engineer. And the four that were prisoners, unfortunately…
The Canadian chap had a brother who was in the Airforce and a few weeks before we got shot down, he got shot down, and his sister wrote to my parents to see if we had any news as to what had happened. Because at that stage we were all missing. Unaccounted for. And she was asking after news of anything that
my parents might have heard about the crew. So I don’t know whether that brother survived. The four that were prisoners should have been home pretty soon, but we didn’t contact each other for whatever reasons.
What were your family and friends informed of? Was it just that you MIA [Missing In Action]
when you in France?
Yeah, missing. Reported missing.
How were they informed that you were found?
The same way, actually. That’s another….Some of these stories I don’t believe myself, but my sister was in the airforce, and she was stationed in Melbourne, in some sort of signals depot, and she was
walking along past a friend of hers, who was sitting in front of a teleprinter, and the message coming over the teleprinter was the fact I had been returned to England. You wouldn’t believe it, would you? Incredible, some of the things that happened. So she knew, before the parents.
But they sent a telegram out saying that I was back. That was all just the bare outlines that I had returned safely. A few months late, but nevertheless.
At this stage, how were you dealing with what you’ve been through? And trying to get your head back together around moving back into society?
okay, until they discharged me. When they discharged me, and I had no-one to talk to, I fell in a heap. And I was sort of a….what would you say? A hermit, if you like. For about eighteen months or so. Then I thought, well, I have to pull myself out of it, so I started
going out with my wife, we got married.
We’re kind of jumping ahead here. We haven’t got back to America yet.
Oh, no, it was all right while I was in uniform. The minute I got mixed up in the War Bond business that was a bit of a joke. Dining with governors and things. We went around some of the Northern states, like Massachusetts, and New Hampshire and a
few of those places, selling War Bonds, making speeches. I was more scared about that than going on operations. Then, at that stage of the game.
How were they using you to sell War Bonds?
Just to make a little bit of talk about how good the Yanks were, and so forth.
What sort of things would you say?
That’s it. They’re doing a good job in England, and they’re helping to win the war, and they need all the support you can
offer. And that’s it.
How were you introduced?
I was an Australian war hero. It was in a hundred and nine newspapers. Warrant Officer Robert Yates, an Australian war hero, was making speeches. A great joke.
How did you feel about being called a war hero?
I didn’t think one thing or another about it. In fact, it wasn’t until the girlfriend sent me
some clippings that I knew about it. But it wouldn’t have worried me anyway. I don’t consider myself a hero. Just an ordinary guy.
So you’re also meeting back with this girl you left behind in Boston?
Yeah. She wrote to me all the way through.
Well, you wouldn’t have got any correspondence from her, in France?
Not in France.
No, I had a stack of letters waiting for me when I got back. I think there was something like fifty letters, because it was my birthday, my 21st birthday. It was a big occasion, and everybody wrote and sent things, and all I got was the letters. Never got the things.
It’s not fair.
No. Not when they were and being
sailed past my eyes while I was waiting for them to get the letters. Because if you hadn’t collected them by three months, then they had to be broken up. And they wouldn’t bend the rules, and say, “Well, here they are. You’re here so they can have them.”
Interesting army rule. Airforce.
Well, it’s just like wanting a man that’s come back from France to sign a stat dec
that he’s lost his uniform. Stupidity. That’s all it is, when people act like that.
So how long did it take you to get out of America and back to Australia?
About three months, altogether. Something like that.
Came over on the boat?
Came over on the Lurline.
That was another funny story. My sister and her husband were going on a Pacific cruise, and we went down to see them off, and I walked on the boat, and I said, “I’ve been on this boat before.” And they said, “It’s a Greek boat, you couldn’t have been.” I said, “It’s not a Greek boat. It might be under a Greek boat now, but I bet you it’s the Lurline.” And I walked around and there was a plaque on the bridge. The SS Lurline. And
I knew it. I was on it for about six weeks.
What sort of things did you do when you on the boat?
Well, we tried to sneak down onto the next deck, because that’s where all the girls were. But we weren’t allowed. We were travelling first class, so we weren’t allowed to go down off the top deck. So the troops had a good time, and the
first class passengers didn’t. We called in at New Caledonia and we had Christmas there, I think.
And how did you pass your time?
Laying out in the sun, I suppose. Nothing to do.
Were you at all apprehensive about coming back to Australia, or were you excited?
Oh, I suppose I was glad more than anything, to get
back. I’d had enough of going away, but I would have been quite happy if they had sent me up North. After a reasonable period. I would have gone if they wanted me to go. I wasn’t too worried about things at the time. I didn’t realise
the effect that the whole thing would build up to. And it was sort of a bit of a shock when I got home, and I didn’t get anybody to talk to, that I could talk to. Which was probably my fault to some extent. My old man wouldn’t say anything, my mother was dithering around. She was a nurse, she should have had some idea I was in trouble.
What about your mates?
I wouldn’t talk to them. They kept asking me questions that I didn’t want to answer. So I just dropped out. Buried myself.
There is a good side to this. You meet Norma.
Yeah, I actually met her when I was still in uniform. She was on holiday from Tasmania, and my father knew her
relatives, and he said, “I’m going to the races, do you want to come? You can get in for nothing if you’re in uniform.” I said, “Well, I may as well, I’ve got nothing better to do.” I was home for the weekend, so I went up to the races and met Norma and her mother, and won a lot of money. So it all turned
out all right.
So roughly how long did it take you to settle back into as normal a life as you could?
Until about the middle of 1947. And I saw an ad in the paper for the PMG looking for people with radio or
electrical knowledge. I thought, “I’m not going to do what I wanted to do, and I know a bit about that.” So I applied for the job and I got it. And that was a few weeks before we got married.
What sort of duties did you have as part of this new job?
I started off as training to be a technician, then qualified, then finished up as a technical officer,
then they kicked me out. They didn’t want me.
But you were there for a while?
Yeah, thirty odd years.
Just a little while….
I started off installing telephone exchanges in Melbourne, then I applied for a transfer to Tasmania. And I went over a lot of Tasmania, in charge of a crew putting telephone
exchanges in country areas around Tassie. And then we had a daughter that got meningitis, and we went back to Melbourne to try and get a treatment for her there. So that’s where I spent the rest of my career, there. That was from 1960 to ’78, back in Melbourne. Then they didn’t want me any more. Too much sick
leave. Troubles, back troubles. I wasn’t psycho, either, in spite of what that doctor said.
And why did you decide to move to Perth?
I followed my kids. The eldest girl came over here. She worked in the pay office at Myers, and she thought
she’d travel. So she came over to Perth, and became a computer pay expert. Still doing that sort of thing. The second daughter married John, and he came over here, and she came with him, of course. And then they went back while the World Series Cricket
was on, then they came back here again. Fell out with Channel Nine, and Channel Seven offered him a job, and here he is.
I’m just going to go backwards a little way, to some questions that I thought of. Can you just describe, when you’re in the Lancaster what sort of clothing you’re wearing to protect you from the elements?
You wear a flying suit, which is a sort of a
rubberised sort of thing. Not always, though. It depended on what plane you were in. In the Lancaster, actually, you just wore ordinary uniforms. Battle dress uniforms, with a parachute harness over the top. And you carried your parachute, and you clipped it on if or when you needed it.
With the possibility,
and obviously there was a high possibility of you coming crashing down into France, or other territories, what sort of training were you given if that should occur?
You were taught how to get out of the plane quick, full stop. Every time you went in to a different type of a plane, you were given drill on how to get out quick. But they didn’t tell you what was at the other end.
No. They said, “It’s your duty to escape if you can.” You’re not supposed to give yourself up as a prisoner, and that was it.
So what choices did you have, considering the fact that you didn’t speak the language, you couldn’t hand yourself over as a POW….
That was the only choice, other than try
and find your way out of the country. I had two choices. I could have headed towards Normandy, where the fighting was, or I could head South. Seeing as I was already twenty or thirty miles south of Paris, I thought well, I’ll see how far I can get. Because I found out where I was with the maps, and I knew pretty well to the inch, virtually, where I was.
And then I started to walk. Well, if I had some access to some food or water I would have got there eventually. I found that you could walk around without being disturbed, even at night. Providing you didn’t go into built up areas or anything. I just went down
the country roads and skirted around villages and so forth. Walked at night, and holed up during the day.
I’m also interested in how you become invisible. I’m imagining that there are black shirts walking along the street, and you’re walking towards them…
You’re invisible if you don’t do anything wrong. If you don’t attract attention, they won’t
take any notice of you.
What do you do with eye contact?
Well, you don’t. You’re a Frenchman, you don’t make eye contact with black shirts. You put your head down and you get in the gutter. I didn’t meet them very often. Other than that you’re just an ordinary person walking down the street. Whether you’re walking down the street of Perth or Melbourne or Sydney or Paris, you’re still an ordinary person. There’s no way of….
Unless I’d done something furtive, or outlandish or something like that, they wouldn’t take any notice of me. There were other people about. If they were specifically after somebody, they might have rounded you up. There was a risk. It wasn’t without a risk. If you wanted to travel on the train or anything, you had to do it in daylight,
you couldn’t do it at night. So if somebody bought a ticket for you and said to you, “Get off when I get off,” well, that’s what you did. And a lot of the time, we walked, to different places. It would have been interesting to see if I could….it’s probably too late now, of course, sixty years or thereabouts is a long time,
if I had gone back, say, a few years after, and tried to track down where I was. I might have recognised a few things and so forth. But not know the localities and not knowing names, made it virtually impossible in a city of millions. And a lot of them didn’t know my name either. So,
it was an exercise in futility to try and track people down. I would have liked to have gone back and thanked a lot of people, but then the other side of the story was, perhaps they worked out what my part was in the other business. I don’t know. I don’t think
they would have, but they could have.
At what point did you actually make the connection this was not only the French Resistance, it was like a radical branch of communists?
Well, it was virtually what was said when we were at the barricade, that it really got to the stage that things were going to get pretty nasty,
And then, of course, groups of them set up barricades on the streets after Paris was liberated. They set up street barricades and requested identification off people. And they shot a lot of people. Things were pretty sticky, so I thought they were a pretty drastic sort of a crowd. But, of course, the
leader wasn’t involved in any of this, but the others were, quite a lot of the others. Some I knew and some I didn’t. It was the ones I didn’t that I had to be wary of, because if they suspected that I wasn’t what I said I was, well, I wouldn’t have lasted two minutes.
What was their major gripe against De Gaulle?
They wanted to be the government of France. The communist party as a whole, wanted to be the next government. They were a pretty strong group then. De Gaulle was only the figurehead. He was like Churchill, the figurehead of the set-up.
How close do you think they got to assassinating De Gaulle?
They never had a chance, because they were discovered before he got within range. But as I say, whether it was because of my efforts, or whether they would have been found anyway, I don’t know. I have to assume it was because of what I said. I would probably have been better off saying and thinking, “Well, they would have got caught anyway.’
It was pretty foolhardy thing to do, anyway. Really. But whether they would have been successful if they had have got rid of him is another matter as well.
Before you actually, literally, landed on France, how aware were you of the French Resistance and the communist
Not very. I didn’t know anything about communists, as such, but I knew there were resistance organisations. There was some sort of a network set-up to get people like me out of France, by handing me on from one party to another. They weren’t a shooting resistance, they were, more or less,
an escape route for people. Catholic nuns and people like that were involved in hiding people, and all that sort of business. It’s strange….Those sort of people and brothels were safe. I was only
ever in one once. That was passing through, there was a hotel, that we went through, and we were a bit dubious about going out again for some reason or another, so we went right through. And there was a connection between the back of the brothel and the back of the hotel. So we walked through. And that was the one and only time I was ever in one. A very conservative person, I am.
This is a question for when you were up in the Lancaster. When you shoot down another plane, do you look to see if the pilots and their crew escape?
Well, if we shot one down, it would be a fighter, but no, we weren’t worried about that. We were only worried about what happened to the plane. If the plane went in and
crashed and burst into flames, we reckoned we had a victory. But actually, the time when you saw people having to jump out of aircraft, was when you were over targets. We’ve flown through a puff of smoke that five seconds before was a Lancaster with a bomb and seven people, and just
blown to smithereens. If they happened to hit the bomb, four thousand pounds of high explosives, it makes a big bang. But, you see, you felt sympathy, that’s all, for these guys. You think that poor bloke’s bought it, but it’s only temporary. You’re busy. I had nights going
around three hundred and sixty degrees looking for potential hazards, whether it was a fighter or whatever. I had no wireless work to do when we were over the target, I was an extra pair of eyes. It was all experience to make sure you were that little bit safer than what you would otherwise have been, if you weren’t looking.
You were also mentioning before that there were some crews that dropped their bombs before they flew over Germany….
And also crews that flew into Switzerland, onto neutral territory. How were they viewed by people such as yourself?
The way they should have been. Damned cowards. That’s what they are. Contempt, utter contempt, for people that do those sorts of things. Nothing
else. The whole exercise is futile. Why go? If you’re not going to use your bombs to try and do some damage, what’s the point in going? Stupid. There weren’t a lot of people that did that, there were some, and I wouldn’t know what per centage, but it would be
extremely small. And they reckon the Swiss….
Interviewee: Robert Yates Archive ID 0596 Tape 08
When you were in Paris and undercover, so to speak, what were you frightened of the most?
Probably somebody bursting in the door and getting me unexpected. Getting trapped. That’s why I don’t like sitting with my back to the door,
because….it’s probably pretty stupid, but you think if you can see the door, you can get out. But you probably couldn’t anyway. That’s the thing. It’s an unreal existence, because normally if you go inside a house and you shut the door, you feel safe. In those circumstances you feel trapped, because you don’t know
when someone is going to bash the door in and grab you. Every little sound you hear outside, you think, “Is someone coming in? Is someone going to knock on the door?” What are you going to do, if they do? It’s unreal, and an unnatural way to live.
When you were stuck in that small room for hours and hours on end, what did you do?
Read the history of the French in the First War. In French. That’s how I occupied most of my time. There was nothing else to do. I couldn’t walk anywhere, because all I had was about one foot by six foot to walk up and down. And I couldn’t make a noise anyway.
It’s quite an ordeal to live like that. As I say, you couldn’t even flush the toilet.
What did you do about that? I mean, at some point you would have had to have flushed the toilet?
I had to wait until someone came home, then did it.
Any other precautions that you would take like that?
Well, turning taps on and so forth. Anything that would make a noise that would indicate that there was someone
on the premises. That the next door neighbour, or the one underneath, or the one above, or the one outside the door, might think strange. That lady’s gone to work, so there’s no-one in the house. Her husband is a POW, so she’s on her own. It wasn’t so bad when I was
in the place where we would have political discussions because there was the two women and him, and that was enough to make enough noise…And that was a house, too, not a unit. Flat. And his workshop was up the back of the yard, so we could have a discussion.
In his belief system, politically, what did you disagree with the most?
Oh, it was more a bit of a joke as far as I was concerned. He was keen on communism, and I took the opposite view, but it wasn’t serious. It wasn’t serious at all.
It’s a strange existence that you were living. How did you get hold of food? What did you eat?
All the food I got was what somebody else got. I didn’t get any for myself, at all.
There was no way that….What we ate was whatever was available, and sometimes that wasn’t very much, and other times, well, it was enough to eat. Apart from the time when all we had was the split peas,
I can’t remember much about the rest of it. But it must have been whatever was available. It wasn’t split peas, I know that. It took me years after the war before I could eat split pea soup, but I got around to it eventually.
What about the restaurant?
The black market restaurant? That was a funny one, actually.
He came down and said, “Come on, we’re going for a walk.” So we went over there, and this guy ran the restaurant, and it was full of Germans. And he must have been forewarned that I was coming, because he took us to a table, right at the back, near the kitchen. Out of the way of everybody. I could see everybody, but they couldn’t see much
of me. Anyway, that wasn’t a bad meal. I saw a woman…you know, ate a small chicken, whole, I saw her pick it up off the plate and start munching it like that and I thought, “Oh, good heavens above.” I think once or maybe twice we went there. I think it was once while the Germans were there, and once afterwards, I think.
And that’s about it.
When you were watching them just interact with the locals, did you fear them more than you hated them, or hate them more than you feared them?
No, I didn’t fear them. I just thought that they were a despicable mob, doing what they were doing, that’s all.
Hate’s a pretty strong word really. They hadn’t really done anything to me. I’d more to do them then they’d done to me. They probably hated me more than I hated them. I was pretty disgusted with some of the things….Like shooting two boys for walking around the streets, minding their own business,
is a pretty rotten thing to do. And they did a lot of worse things than that, too. Shooting the guy because he wanted to steal his bike. But I wouldn’t say I hated them, as such, really. I didn’t like them.
Did you feel like you had some sort of a one up man-ship because you were getting away with it?
No, not really.
I thought at the time they would get an awful shock if they knew who I was. Specially when we were in this bar, tavern, or whatever you wanted to call it, and it was all boarded up in front, and they’re in there having a drink in there against the law, and I’m doing the same thing, alongside them. I thought it would be funny if they knew who I was. You’ve got to have a sense of humour, now and again.
But they were only ordinary people, really. They were no different to us. You stuck yourself down in the middle of France, and didn’t open your mouth, and no-one could say whether you were French, Dutch or whatever. Europeans look the same, in general, they do.
When you have a look
in present times, or even a little bit in the past, movies about the French Resistance? What do you think? Does it make you angry?
No, not really. I think a lot of its overdone, exaggerated. The American ones are the worst. I saw one on a DVD we got the other day.
It said “Behind the Enemy Lines.” It was about a guy that got shot down in Bosnia, and on his antics before he got out. And I thought, “Well I wouldn’t have lasted two minutes if I had done what he did.” He did everything that you shouldn’t have done, and got away with it. Of course, it’s on film, but he wouldn’t have got away with it. In fact, he would have last a very short time.
You’ve got to be inconspicuous in the crowd to get away with it. But you’ve got to be wary all the time. Not that there’s much you can do, if someone says, “Hey, you! Come here!” What can you do? If you turn and run, they shoot you. If you go over there they’re going to shoot you, too, when they find out who you are. You don’t think about it.
your morale up throughout this time?
Well, I knew that we were winning the war, because we used to listen to the BBC [British Broadcasting Corporation]. Everybody listened to the BBC, even the Germans. That’s how they found out what was going on. What they put over the German radio was just rubbish. And I thought, “Well, this isn’t going to last forever.’
I was quite happy not to be cooped up, all day, every day. The way I was. It was getting a bit too much. The last three or four days before Paris was actually evacuated by the Germans, there was a
German long range artillery battery, some distance behind the block of flats, which was twelve stories high. They were firing over the top of it, and I was bit worried that one of the shells was going to be a dud and fall short. But it didn’t. Because it if it had, we were in direct line of it. We probably would have been wiped out. It would have been just my luck,
to get wiped out by the drop-short. I worried about it a bit, but then I thought, “Oh well, it’s not going to happen anyway.”
During your time in the war, did you see any acts of heroism or courage that really inspired you?
The only thing I would say about that, were guys who were afraid to go, and yet still did it.
I admired…I admired people that were prepared to have a go, against people that wouldn’t. And there were some didn’t, and wouldn’t, without ever trying to see what it was like. I admired a guy that was dead
scared out of his wits, and yet he still did it. Because I never felt that sort of thing myself. I was armour-plated myself. My mind didn’t envisage that anything would happen to me. As far as I was concerned, I could have done a hundred trips, and it wouldn’t have made any difference
because nothing was going to happen to me, anyway. And if it did, it was going to be quick and I wouldn’t know about it. Fatalistic, you see. A lot of the guys that had religion were apt to pack up. And yet really you’d think, well, they’re going to heaven, so they’re right. And I’m not going anywhere, so I’ve got something to worry about, maybe, but it didn’t work
out like that. It was the other way around. I didn’t ever think I would get into the situations I got into, it just happened. And I went along with it. Because there wasn’t a great deal of alternatives. Or the alternative was worse than the situation, put it that way. What do you do? It has to have a reaction eventually, and that’s the point. As long as I had the uniforms
around me, and I had people I could talk to, it’s all right, you know? Because you don’t have to talk about the particular subject, you can talk about something else, but you were all right. But when you were cast out of the protection of the group, and you were out on your own, well, then things started to bother you. Especially when people started asking you questions that you don’t want to answer.
Did you find when you came back to Australia,
lots of people were asking you questions you didn’t want to answer?
Yes, too many people were asking too many questions. And so I just didn’t mix with people, that’s what it really boils down to. Because I wasn’t going to answer the questions, for a variety of reasons.
With the situation that you had with the leader, would you be able to tell me,
of course this is possible embargo material, would you be able to tell me what the situation was, how his sons lost their lives, and what revenge he seeked out?
As far as I know, the details that I was told, and I’ve only got his word for that, was that they were both university students, they weren’t involved in any sort of
underhand business, and they were walking along the street, and the Germans sealed the street, and grabbed a certain number of people their age, lined them up against the wall and shot them, as a reprisal for what somebody else had done somewhere else. And that’s all I know about that. That’s what I was told and I can only believe that it was true.
They certainly weren’t involved in any activity. In that time, the father was involved in sabotaging whatever he could, in his trucking business. Whatever he was doing, I wouldn’t know either. But he was working for the Germans, but he also did various things underground.
Even if it was only carting arms and things backwards and forwards. Whatever he could do to sabotage their efforts, he was doing, but then he got involved in this other business, as a matter of revenge. Pure and simple.
Would you like to share with me the other business?
Ah, well, I don’t know.
You can say no.
Well, it depends how far you want to go?
We can embargo the entire material, if you’d like. Or we can not discuss it. Either way, it’s up to you.
Yeah, well, I think I’ve said enough on it, really. It’s not something that you really want to talk about.
Do you think that
the leader of the group had the right to seek that sort of revenge?
Yeah. It’s a pretty drastic thing to have two sons swept off the street. He was a soldier in the First War. He told me he was a liaison officer between the Australians and the French, actually. That was his job.
He spoke English pretty well. My point of view, and the view of a lot of others, but not necessarily everybody, was that if they’ve got a different uniform on to you, that you’re fair game. Regardless of whether you’re armed or otherwise. And a lot of people say that the other guy’s got to have a gun
before you shoot him, and I don’t think that’s got anything to do with it. And that’s my point of view. But that’s not necessarily the point of view of the powers that be. You know the story of Breaker Morant? He was obeying orders, and they still executed him.
So, they say, “All’s fair in love and war.” Don’t they? Well, this ain’t love.
The leader. How did you feel about him as a person?
I thought he was a pretty good bloke, actually, because he did a lot for me, one way or another. And I repaid him to some extent, I suppose.
I helped him.
Yeah. Well, I don’t know…..You see, to some extent, those people were just as unfortunate as his two sons, because they weren’t doing anything to him, either. They had the wrong uniform on.
Can you explain what it was like to be in Paris when they started celebrating the release from the Germans?
Oh, it was amazing. An amazing couple of days, actually. The Germans said that you weren’t allowed to have a gun, of any sort. Everybody had a gun.
Literally, everybody. I didn’t ever see anybody that didn’t. Men, I’m talking about, didn’t have a gun in those couple of days. So they had one somewhere, somehow, they got their hands on it. And they also had champagne. I was kissed by literally hundreds of women, and I drank I don’t know how many glasses of champagne, in that
couple of days. It was unreal. It’s hard to explain….It’s relief, in one respect, and it’s exhilaration to think that, well, they’ve won. Because the Germans didn’t defend Paris. That’s they only thing they could take the credit for, that they didn’t destroy it because
it is a beautiful place. They walked out. Nevertheless, there was a quite a number of people that were left there, and they were shooting at people. And, as I say, if that kid hadn’t stepped in front of me at that critical time, well, I would have been one of them. Whether it would have been fatal or otherwise, I
wouldn’t know. No-one would know. I don’t know whether the boy was killed or not. Because he was taken away to hospital, and the father and…we worked out where shot came from, and the father and myself and a few others, went after him. And he surrendered. As soon as he saw that we knew where he was, he surrendered.
And what happened to him?
He got shot.
How far did you actually remove yourself from the Resistance? Because obviously you started to talk to people trying to get back to England, so…
Oh yeah, well, I wasn’t bound by anybody. Like the chap, the leader, he
knew that I had to go back. And he did all he could to try and help, to get me back. I didn’t have any contact with the troops, the other people. They were manning barricades around the streets, and all that sort of thing, and making sure that everybody that went through from
one side of the barricade to the other had a legitimate purpose, or could explain themselves very, very quickly, or otherwise they shot them, then asked them who they were, or why they were there. I tell you, it was a worst time in those few days than any other period as far as danger was concerned, because there were too many people had guns, you see. And there were too many people
prepared to shoot somebody. And they weren’t Germans they were shooting. They were Frenchmen.
Where were most of the tensions coming from in those days?
I suppose most of it was political, between one faction and another. And there would be some people who had been collaborating, I think the word is, with the Germans.
Or suspected of, perhaps, telling the Germans something that was against somebody. And they wanted revenge. It’s pretty hard to say. There was a whole heap of things involved in this. And for all I know, it was because somebody didn’t like
their face. I don’t know. But certainly the political aspect, and whether they were collaborators, or just suspected of it, or whatever, would have played a part in it. But I’m sure also that, without any proof, some people were shot because somebody didn’t like them.
Or they might have been the boss at work, and they wanted to get rid of him. Or something like that. There was no law. It was lawless, for that period, until they actually moved in and took control of the place. It was just the hiatus between
a strict German rule and going back to normal, with people from our side, whether they were French or American or whatever. Black marketers, and people like that. All these people exist as an under service of an occupation army.
German soldiers were just as keen to do a deal as anybody else. Some of them. I’m not talking about everybody, I’m talking about some people. Some people would do whatever they can to benefit themselves, in any sort of circumstance.
When you got back to Australia, did you find that the Australian public were somewhat naive about the activities that
happened in Europe as part of war?
I think they were remote from it, unless they’d lost somebody, or a relative was a casualty of war, or something, I think they carried on pretty well as normal. I don’t think they were drastically affected by the war any more than what the Americans were. They were too remote from it.
After the Japanese advance was halted, I think people got a different slant on things. But a civilian can’t really relate to a person in uniform. It causes an awful lot of strife afterwards, I think, you know, settling back into civilian life again is a pretty difficult thing to
do. In lots of cases.
What did you think when the atom bomb was dropped on Japan?
I thought it was a terrible thing to do. Because they didn’t need to kill all those people. They could have dropped it in the sea and said, “This is what will happen to you if you don’t quit.” Without wiping out people. Hundreds of thousands of people.
It’s a terrible thing to do. And it wasn’t necessary to do it. I mean, the excuse that they give…..wasn’t legitimate, in my opinion anyway. No, I was glad the war was over, but I don’t think the way they finished it was the right thing to do. When I think back on it, I don’t think it was the right thing to do, what we were doing, either. Wiping out
whole cities, and killing innumerable people of all ages. I mean, we were dropping things for kids to pick up and explode in their hands.
What were they?
Just gadgets that somebody….As an offshoot. Drop them down the chute as you going along,
along the way. Just drop these things down, just bundles of them. All sorts of things.
What did they look like?
Well, anything. A pencil, or a piece of paper, with a fluorescent spot on it that burst into flame. All sorts of stuff we used to throw out. War’s a dirty business. And
there’s no way you can fight a clean war. If you go into war you try to win. And you win by whatever means is possible. The Americans have never, ever signed a treaty not to use gas and things like that, you know. When they had this Geneva Convention after the First War
and everybody signed that they wouldn’t do this and that, the Yanks never signed it.
NB. This section of transcript is embargoed. Embargo ends 01/01/2034
Anzac Day is obviously a very important day for all veterans,
what does it mean to you?
I think they should devote more time to the living rather than the dead. I mean, okay, you lose a lot of mates and so forth, but they’re dead. They’re gone, you can’t do anything for them. The only thing you can do anything for
is the living. And there is enough living, maimed, mentally, physically, or whatever, that they could do things for, and don’t…Though it is getting better, in some respects. And that’s what they seem to forget. They say
“Honour the dead.” Well dead men can’t help you. I don’t think that it ought to stop. But I think that the politicians when they start talking about the dead and all the rest of it, I always say “Well, what about the living? They still need help. And the dead man doesn’t.”
See, Anzac Day was an absolute disaster, and it was doomed to be a disaster before it ever started. And it was hare-brained scheme by Churchill, that the thing ever got started in the first place. Everyone from one end of the enemy forces to the other knew that it was going to happen, and if they hadn’t
have landed in the wrong place they would have all been killed. And it was useless. It was futile. It was a hare-brained scheme of one ratbag, and there it is. We lost thousands of….See, the trouble is about war is they don’t take anybody but fit people.
Physically fit, and mentally fit people. And everyone of those that gets killed, it weakens the gene pool. So if it went to a logical conclusion, all the fit, mentally capable people would get killed, and all it leaves is the weak and the maimed and the crippled and the whatever, to carry on. The human race is
the only race that fosters the people that needs help. Every other animal race does away with them. Not that I’m advocating that, but that’s the situation. But by the same token, the human race in general says these people should be kept
alive, but they think, “Well, it’s your problem, and not mine.” So, you know…We’re getting into philosophy now.
While we’re being philosophical, considering the fact that the Archive Project is going to continue for perpetuity, what would you like to say to generations of the future about your
life experience and of war?
By that time I hope that people have enough sense to find another method of solving their problems other than killing each other. Because killing people doesn’t solve problems.
How do you think war has changed you?
Well, I don’t think my life would have been anything like what it has been, if I hadn’t been foolish enough to join up. I think that is an effect on every person. Sometimes people get good out of it, but the majority of people, it’s an experience they would have
rather have done without. It’s just an unnatural thing for an ordinary person to go through. It’s not the sort of thing that you would want your son to do.
It might be to join the army and all the rest of it. But to get into a war when you start shooting people and all that sort of thing, it’s not to be recommended to anybody. If you’re a psycho, it might be all right, but most people aren’t. You see, the Americans have killed seventeen
war correspondents. So far, it’s going well, isn’t it? How you can mistake a camera for a rocket launcher, I don’t know. That’s what they reckoned. The man was pointing a rocket launcher at them, and it was a camera. So they shot him. The Americans kill more of their own than the enemy, anyway. It’s a fact.
of life. Never go near an armed American camp. It’s dangerous.
By that comment I would suggest that you don’t particularly like…
It’s the way they’re trained. I’ve got nothing against Americans, as such. I had some good friends that were Americans, and they were good to me. But put a gun in their
hand, that’s another story. It’s their upbringing, it’s their way of life and everything else, that leads them to do things….they shouldn’t do. That they otherwise wouldn’t do. Because they’re invincible, anyway, I think. And I’m not.
Bob, thank you so much for talking with us today, You’ve been absolutely fantastic, and philosophical, and extremely generous with your comments. Thank you.