Australian Biography

Ray Whitrod - full interview transcript

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You told us yesterday about how you joined up. I want to begin today by saying, by asking you, once you were in the RAAF, what role were you given?

Oh I see. Robin, this requires me to explain it. We joined a thing called the Empire Air Training Scheme and you were then divided into three categories of aircrew: pilots, navigators, or air gunners, and I became a navigator, partly because my eyes were not good enough - a lazy eyelid - and because they tended to pick older men to be navigators. They wanted people who would be fairly stable and ... and mature I suppose is the word, and I became a navigator and I trained in South Australia, here, at Mount Gambier and Port Pirie and then immediately after my training I went to England. And one of the interesting things we did in Mount Gambier, before I left, was to do a month's training in astro-navigation, which was the use of stars and this became very useful to me because I did most of my time in the North Atlantic, where there were no directional finding apparatus in the early parts of the war, and you had to use the stars to steer by.

Why were you in the North Atlantic? Where were you based?

Oh well, our course was Eleven Course and we were sent to London and then we were split up. Some went into bomber command. I went to coastal command. I think I was the only one at the time into flying boats and we were then of course on coastal surveillance work and we eventually finished up at a place called Reykjavik which is in north Iceland. The Russian convoys were ... the Russian bound convoys were getting something of a battering and so the British Government wanted to reinforce them with some air cover. We went up to Reykjavik in northern Iceland. It's within the ... well within the Arctic Circle and for a navigator this is a fairly difficult area because in those days flying boats were equipped only with magnetic compasses and the closer you get to the north magnetic pole, the more sluggish your needle becomes and also you run into magnetic storms in which the needle swings round, round and round [laughs] and often of course you're in fairly violent storms that toss you around a fair bit, so it was a fairly difficult place for a young navigator to cut his teeth on. In fact my first ... first trip out was from Reykjavik to cover a convoy called P2-16, which was heading for Murmansk, in Russia, and we flew between two ... two cloud layers of fairly heavy rain, out looking for the convoy, mainly of ... of British oil tankers and some tanker parts and I never saw the convoy. We picked it up on radar. We couldn't get low enough to visually identify it, nor ... we couldn't climb above the cloud so for something like, I think, about sixteen hours we flew blind in rain and then had to come back to Iceland, which was a strange place for me. And flying boats need a fair bit of calm water in which to land, and we had quite some difficulty in getting back to Reykjavik which was closed down due to Akureyri, which was closed down by fog and we eventually finished up at Reykjavik, down in the south.

What kind of flying boats were you flying?

I was in Sunderlands at the time. They were quite big boats and we had a crew of twelve, two pilots and a navigator and we were able to do sixteen hour patrols on a four engine plane, propellor plane. But later on we changed over to Catalinas. These were American PBY's, with a much longer range and we could do ... In fact we did do some twenty-five, twenty-six hour patrols in Catalinas.

What kind of enemy were you looking for in the north?

The ... the Russians ... the Russian bound convoys had really been badly mauled, partly by ... mainly by German submarines who were operating out of Norway because Norway was then occupied by Germany and so they could get out from Bergen, very, very close to the track of the convoy. But we were also looking for pocket battleships. There were a couple of pocket battleships in the area and so they were our two main worries, but also we were looking for German planes, Fockewolfs, who were long range planes like us who were out looking for convoys. But the Fockewolf pilots and our pilots were very, very, very good I think. They ... because if you were shot down in the Arctic you didn't survive very long. Three minutes survival time in the Arctic. So we all kept a very, very courteous distance from each other. We only saw two Fockewolfs and they dodged into cloud and we did too [laughs] so that was my ... in the North Atlantic, that was my only experience with German aircraft. They were as scared of being shot down as we were, because it was sudden death in the Arctic and we never saw any submarines either in the Arctic, but we had some fairly difficult times with the weather. The weather was really bad.

Do you think the presence of the escorts kept, you know, some of ... some of them away, or was ... Do you think you were of any use in other words?

The theory was that ... that U-boats were scared of ... of air cover and I think they were because the aircraft had scored a considerable number of kills, particularly of U-boats on the surface, and so we were able to keep them submerged, which meant that they were travelling at a slower pace usually than the convoy and they might lose the convoy. So in a sense we were like scarecrows, I suppose. We were hanging around the convoy keeping the U-boats away.

And did you fly many missions? How long did they last? Was it arduous work?

They were very arduous in my first tour of operations. On coastal command flying boats you had to do a thousand hours of ops for a tour, and most of that time was night flying for us but then later on I went on to [the] Wellingtons, out in Africa, and that was a shorter, shorter period of time. But the flying boats were very good, especially the Catalinas, as I've said because they ... we had a twenty-five hour endurance.

Did you have any relief? Was there a spare navigator on board for when you needed a rest?


Did you have any break? Was there a spare navigator on board?

No, there wasn't and it was a fairly arduous job because you had to keep awake and know where you were, within a reasonable area of where you might land if you were shot down, or if you saw a U-boat, you had to signal its position at sea. And aircraft have more difficulty than surface vessels in plotting their position because they get tossed around in the air a fair bit. And so we ... we had quite some problems in that area.

How long would you fly for without a break?

Well, the longest trip I did was out of Gibraltar. We went down for the landings in North Africa and the longest trip I did there was twenty-seven hours, and what ... The worst problem there, Robin, was that you needed to be over a convoy at dawn because that's when the U-boats were around, so that meant that you had to fly out to pick up the convoy by dawn. If it was say 600 miles out, that meant something like five hours flying to get there, which meant that you took off five hours before dawn and then you had an hour's briefing and breakfast and so forth, so you'd be woken by an orderly about something like ten, nine or ten o'clock at night when you'd just got off to sleep and he'd say, 'Time to get up, sir', and then you'd get up and then you'd go and get briefed and then you'd fly all day, all night and get back to base at nine o'clock the following night. It was a pretty long time, and I ... towards the end, I got pretty jittery.

In the whole span of the war, how ... how ... how many years did this go on for?

Oh well, I did two tours with a brief spell in between when I did a staff ... a staff navigators' course. So that I would have spent, I suppose, a year and half on my first tour and then I had a short break of about five months, while I did the staff course, and then I did another year and a bit on Wellingtons out in Eritrea and in Socotra so that most, most of my time overseas was in fact with operational squadrons.

Did you get leave to come home?

No, that was one of the problems. I ... I never saw my family from about October '41 until I got here in late '44 and of course the two children had grown - grown considerably by that time and they didn't know me [laughs]. I was a strange man in the house and it was a difficult time. My father and my mother were living with Mavis and so the children had grown up thinking of my father as their sort of father, as it were. I mean, when they were crawling and learning to walk, they'd walk to him and not to me, so I was a strange man, come into the house with a loud voice and ... and a beery breath. My father didn't drink, neither did my wife, and I didn't drink before I went away and I came back and we had a fairly difficult time, maybe six months after I came home.

During the war itself, did you worry about them? Did you think about them a lot?

Yes, it was difficult, Robin, very difficult. I ... I managed to lock them away in one part of my mind, in my memory, and sort of put that aside and concentrate on surviving, but sometimes I'd get a bit depressed, especially in ... in Gibraltar where we had more free time, not flying, and I shared a room with my pilot, Dick, and he was ... he was very careful. He was single but if I got fairly depressed, he would take me down to the mess and we would play shovehapenny, which is an English game, and have a pint of ... of ... half a pint of weak beer. Not in Gibraltar because beer was very scarce, we'd drink sherry in Gibraltar, which wasn't very good for us. Or went and had a game of tennis on the ... on the courts in Gibraltar. Gibraltar's an old British protectorate and there are, it's well equipped with servicemen's needs, in the way of cricket pitches and tennis courts and so ... and we went swimming a fair bit. Dick Oldham was a good swimmer and we swam in the harbour, and it was oily [on] the surface of the harbour at Gibraltar because most of the convoys would put into Gib for refuelling and so we would swim in the harbour there. There was no sharks around. But at night time you were kept awake because there were depth charges being dropped by our patrol boats in the harbour because the ... the Germans had a little camouflaged spot nearby for their frogmen, and their frogmen would come out at night attempt to put limpets on ... on our Sunderlands or on our cargo boats and so all night long you'd hear boom, boom, boom, boom, which would be depth charges going off.

Were you very conscious of the danger, the personal danger to you, during the war?

I think when I was not flying I was scared. When I was flying I was so busy and worried about my job that I somehow never thought about personal danger, except perhaps once off ... off Socotra, off Eritrea actually, on the Horn of Africa. We attacked a U-boat on the surface and it was a vrey brave U-boat crew. They stayed on the surface and they had a big bofus gun in the front. They kept firing at us when we approached them to drop our depth charges. When you drop depth charges you have to fly low and level for some time, so you're a very easy target for German gunners and I was really scared then. In fact that gave me another insight into ... into one of my personal animosities, I suppose. I didn't like the ... the English officers very much, the senior officers. And I flew with a wing commander when we were in Africa because I was the squadron navigation officer, and I flew with him as his navigator. And we got out to this submarine on the surface. It had been damaged by an earlier attack by one of our own Wimpy's at dawn, and so they couldn't submerge, so they stayed on the surface and fought it out. And our Wimpy got there and we circled around for, oh, maybe ten minutes without making any attack and then we were joined by two more Wimpys from the squadron, so there were three aircraft circling around. But since I was with the wing commander the other two pilots waited for the wing commander to ... to advise when he was going to attack, and he never did. He swapped seats with the second pilot, who was a Canadian and the Canadian actually made the attack on the submarine. And we dropped our depth charges, fairly accurately and I was ... I'm not sure how much damage we did but the submarine eventually beached itself on the shore and some natives rounded them up and eventually they got back ... the crew back to ... the U-boat crew back to Gib and they were put into hospital because they'd been rather badly wounded by our attacks. But later on the wing commander came to me and said ... asked me to write up the attack on the U-boat. He said ... and made it quite clear that he expected me to ensure that it was written up in a such way that ... the captain of the aircraft would get the ... would get all the kudos. I wrote it up and I don't think it was ever forwarded because I was still bothered by this need to tell the truth, so I gave a truthful account, which meant that his part was a fairly ... a fairly poor show. [INTERRUPTION]

I was scared. I sympathised with him but it was our job to attack and so that's what we did.

Why didn't ... why didn't the wing commander do, do the actual attack because he was in the aircraft anyway?

Yes, it was his job and clearly he should have set the ... set the pattern for the other two aircraft, who did in fact follow us and ... and dropped depth charges but it was Canadian pilot who made the attack. Mind you, Robin, it was a pretty hairy do. The ... the Germans were very good gunners and they had this very smart bofus gun and the shells were bursting around us and the aircraft picked up a few hits. I could sympathise with the pilot but it was his job. Like it was my job to know where we were all the time, it was his job to attack a U-boat and he ... I think, he just flunked it.

Looking back now at those war years, that experience of being in those situations and dealing with what you had to deal with in the war, what did you get out it?

I've thought about that recently, Robin. Well, I ... I got some [laughs], I suppose, naughty feeling that I'd done my job and some of the people back home hadn't done theirs and I was very bitter about the wharfies who wouldn't load the supplies for our men in New Guinea and so on, so, and ... but I'd done my job and so I had a pleasant feeling about that. But the war taught me a lot, Robin. It taught me, one thing was that I used to stay at a country residence in England. There was a hospitality scheme set up in England for overseas airmen who didn't have any friends and relatives in England and we ... I didn't have any there and I got allocated a ... a very nice county lady, aristocratic lady, who was looking after the family estate while her husband was in the services abroad, Lady Lillian Austin, and she was a sister to the Earl of Scarborough and I went to her place and it was a very, very much a upper crust place. I think I was the only young man who was a guest in the household there, who hadn't been to Eton and Oxford, and she knew I was just an Australian policeman, but she was very good. She set up ... She gave me my own little bedroom and it was always Ray's room, and when ... when she knew I was coming she would tell the local doctor I was coming, and I'd made friends with the local doctor, and he would always see somehow scrounge a little half case of beer and that would be in my room and Lady Lillian would also have some ... the new releases of Foyle's books and she'd have that in my room for me and then I'd have to produce all my socks for darning and shirts and they would sit: Lady Lillian, she used to have a nanny for her children, and Nanny Ward and Lady Lillian would sit and mend my socks for me and then write a letter home to Mavis and say, 'We've seen Ray, he's in good form. You needn't worry about him, we're looking after him'. And it was very good and, and I sought to learn some social graces because we used to dine in proper style and, and in a much more elaborate way than we did in Murray's Lane of course [laughs]. And we had a number of visitors there, upper class English visitors, and I was accepted as one of them, you know. I was a pilot officer, and then a flying officer, and then a flight lieutenant, and they accepted me in that rank rather than a policeman, but they were very good.

And I remember when I was ... on my last visit there, Robin, was, [when] we'd come down from Reykjavik in Iceland I'd had with me some surplus gear and I was going out to Socotra, and the gear I thought was surplus was the silk woollen underwear we'd ... we'd been given for the Arctic: long johns and long singlets and I'd never worn them because I thought it wasn't ... it wasn't an Australian thing to wear long underpants and the whole thing, and they were brand new. So I left them behind with Lady Lillian, put them up in the ... in the loft and said, 'Lady Lillian I'll be back for these', thinking that I'd come back from the Middle East and pick them up. I never came back to England. I went home from ... from Aden actually and then later on when I went to Cambridge, Mavis and I called on Lady Lillian and we stayed there overnight for a weekend and I just happened to mention to Lady Lillian, 'Where was my ... where was my very expensive silk woollen underwear?' 'Oh', she said, 'My brother came down soon after the war' ... this is the Earl of Scarborough, 'and because he didn't have enough clothing points, he was short of underwear, so he's being wearing yours ever since'. So I thought that was nice. An Australian policeman's underwear was now up in the upper crust, upper crust, covering up his bottom. [Laughs]

Did this in some ways get you over that feeling of inferiority that you'd developed at school?

Oh yes, very much so, in a number of ways, Robin, because I'd grown up in Murray's Lane and as I think I told you, if the doctor came it was very rare and he was treated with a great deal of status by my mother and the whole of Murray's Lane. Doctors were a superior class and so were clergymen, but on the squadrons, particularly on the flying boat squadrons where I was at Gibraltar, there was in fact a padre and a doctor and they were the same rank as me and so I had meals with them and talked to them and we drank beer together, played shovehapenny together and so on, and they were in the mess but not really part of it. The mess was dominated by the air crew. They ... that's what the squadron ... that's what the base was about: flying boats and air crew, and so we were the sort of little princes of the place and there were people who looked after us like the ... the fitters and the turners and the signallers and so forth, but also the padre and also the doctor. They were there to look after us, and so they were almost inferior in status to us. Not quite. They were always called padre and doc, never, Ray or Whittie or Dick or whatever it was, and so they tended to be, you know, slightly inferior to me. Any rate I ... I ... I got on well with them, we had lots of happy half pints of beer and talked about the world and ... and I found them both very nice chaps and so, ever since then, I've always looked upon doctors as being one of us, or ordinary men, and clergymen - people that you ... you'd argue with if you thought you had a good point of view. You just didn't kowtow to ... to, and then of course when I was at Lady Lillian's, the local doctor was just a drinking mate and he'd been a Macquarie Street specialist who'd been bombed out of London during the Blitz and so he'd come down to Lady Lillian's village and was there. And so he represented quite a high position in English society, but he and I were just, just companions and we'd go for walks together and drink beer and talk and ... and ever since then I've always thought of clergy and doctors and so on as just, you know, same as us. It's been very helpful to me. I'm not sure it's been helpful to my acquaintances who are clergy and who are doctors because in Australia, those two professions tend to want to be regarded as something special. It's not so in England. It wasn't so during the war at any rate, and perhaps I've developed a little friction at times because I've not been prepared to kowtow to the words of advice from the clergy and the doctors.

Did you learn anything from being in foreign parts? Like Africa's a pretty exotic place for you to have gone to, in North Africa. Did you ... did you see anything about the ordinary civilian society there that you learnt from?

Yes, we had local bearers who looked after us: cleaned our rooms and ... and served meals and in the sort of permanent airforce bases, like Aden, there was a long history of ... of native servants and they were very, very well-trained and so forth, and I learnt a few things. Our ... our ... I shared a, a double room with the squadron signal's officer, a Canadian, Bob Roach, and we were very good mates and we had one bearer looking after us called Abdul. And we would sing out, 'Abdul, Abdul', and usually he'd come but sometimes he wouldn't come and ... and we ... we would get annoyed about this and he'd be praying to Mecca. Five times a day, he would get down on his prayer mat and face Mecca and pray to Mecca and nothing would disturb him and ... and ... nothing at all, so I ... you know, I grew accustomed to, to a few different things in life. Abdul told me about his life in the village in the hinterland and how miserable it was, and I grew to like Abdul very much. We ... we got on well ... very well together and I was sorry to ... to lose him.

Did you get any insights into different forms of justice and the law?

Well, I was interested in that area of course being a ... being a copper and we were ... we were stationed for a short time on a little island called Socotra which is right on the Horn of Africa. It's the ... it was a landing strip, refuelling strip there for our Wellingtons because we were then covering the Indian Ocean and in 1943, '44, a number of German U-boats were leaving Europe and going out to help the Japanese and so we had a fairly busy time there. And we had a ... we had a mess on Socotra, fairly crude mess but it was ... It served up food and a little drink, not much and that was staffed by local natives and in order to get the ... the native bearers and the cooks we had to do liaison with the local sheik who was there, and we paid the sheik so much money for ... for the labour that he provided. And I remember once we'd been losing some meat, which was very scarce on Socotra of course, from our mess and I was the senior Australian officer there at the time, and I went to the sheik and said, 'Look, sheik, we're losing meat from our refrigerator. I don't think it's been thrown away because it's bad. I think perhaps that some of your men are eating it'. So he said, 'Oh sahib, leave it with me', and about two days later he came to me and he said, 'Sahib, would you ask your brother officers to come to the front of my little tent', he had there and we went there and he produced a native and he said, 'This is the man who has been stealing your meat'. So I said, 'Well, what are we going to do about it?' He said, 'Well we will punish him Arab-style', so with that he took out his long sword they carried and chopped off his wrist ... the wrist ... the hand dropped off in front of us and plunged the remains of it into a ... a bucket of boiling pitch that they had there and that sort of scarified the end. And I was horrified with this. I mean, as a copper I was very crooked on thieves, but I thought that was a bit rough for stealing meat and I said to him, 'Sheik, that's very harsh punishment by our standards'. He said, 'Do you have things stolen in Australia?' And I said, 'Yes'. He said, 'Do you punish them?' and I said, 'When we catch them we do'. He said, 'Do they sometimes offend again?' And I said, 'Yes, sometimes they do'. He said, 'Have you ever seen an Arab with both hands chopped off?' and I said, 'No', and I suppose that's one way of making sure that thieves don't steal. You chop off both hands, but it was horrible.

So in relation to the rest of the war, you said it was pretty busy over the Indian Ocean and so on. During the course of the war did you ever lose any mates?

Oh a few. Coastal command where, where ... It was a fairly safe job, except those who were on torpedoes, who had to attack with torpedoes and that was pretty disastrous and then mid way during the war they fitted up some Wellingtons with big searchlights on the wings so they could attack at ... at night by switching on the searchlights and drop depth charges. But when the aircraft had to approach from some distance away with two headlights on the ends of its wing and fly in a steady, stable direction ... and this was just sitting ducks for the German gunners. And so the lead light Wellingtons got shot down in big numbers. My ... my little intake from Adelaide that I joined up, the navigators, there were twelve of us. We went away together overseas. Eight of them were killed and two were POWs and only two of us got through the war unscathed. So it was a pretty, you know, heavy loss and sometimes ... sometimes you felt a bit depressed about that, and I guess it comes back to you sometimes.

How lucky you were.

Of course, of course, I agree, partly because I'd managed to get crewed up with a good pilot, Robin. You've got no idea. If you're part of a crew like a navigator or wireless operator, how much you depend upon your good pilot. He takes you off the ground and he puts you back on the ground and, you know, every time you leave the ground you ... you offer a little prayer and then when you land again you offer another prayer. It's the pilot gets it back to you [sic]. I mean I might give the directions, where to go and where, what we do and so forth. In fact we used to refer to our pilots as taxi drivers because we were the brains, the navigators, but that was just a cordial thing. But we ... we had a wonderful pilot and, Dick Aulder, and he became a wing commander. From joining up with me as an aircraftman grade two, he became a wing commander and I ... we were lucky. Some got lost in training, the air crew. I think, two of my mates got killed just in training, never, never got on operations. Two ... two ... The two POWs I told you about got lost off Malta. They were in torpedo Wellingtons, going in to attack Germans, German surface vessels, off Malta. It was their first trip and they flew in, in formation and Doddie, Keith Doddie, who lives down Victor Harbour, he came back. It was his first trip and his aircraft got hit by a torpedo from his squadron flying above him, and he never even fired a shot. He'd been trained for twelve months in Australia. He'd done six months training unit in England, got out to Malta, then without ... without ... without firing a shot he became a prisoner of war for three years after that.

Were you a good navigator? Did you ever get lost?

Robin, you shouldn't ask navigators questions like that. Yes, I did, I'm sorry. Only once, only once and it really wasn't my fault. We always say this of course. We were flying out from Gibraltar to pick up a convoy, which was coming across from America, and we flew out from Spain. Cape St. Vincent was the southern most point of Spain and that was our departure point. And I had to fly out using what we call the ... the met wind because they couldn't work out my own wind because we were flying between two layers of cloud. Upper layer, we couldn't get above it. Flying boats have got a ceiling and ... and Sunderlands were ... about 10,000 feet was their ceiling and we couldn't get down to the drink because the ... the cloud was right down on the drink. So I had to rely upon the ... the forecast wind which had been given to me just when we left Gibraltar.

[end of tape]

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