Flight Sgt. Grant McDonald
This interview was by James Holland in March 2011, sadly Flight Sgt. Grant McDonald passed away in May 2012. @James1940 on Twitter
Flight Sgt. Grant McDonald pictured standing far right back row.
JH: I’m here in Vancouver to see Grant McDonald, tail gunner on Ken Brown’s plane, ‘F for Freddie’ and one of the very last of the Dam Busters. James Holland (JH): Umm, can you just tell me a little bit about where you were born and brought up, to start off with?
Flight Sgt. Grant McDonald (GM): I was born and took my schooling in Grand Forks, BC – which is in the southern interior. And then I joined the army when I got out of school, and served with an infantry regiment for probably eight or nine months. Then I transferred to a tank regiment, and there I was able to get my discharge and re-enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force.
JH: And what made you want to join the army in the first place?
GM: Well, just as a young person out of school, I guess. No reason in particular.
JH: And had war already started at that point?
GM: I beg your pardon…
JH: Had war already started?
GM: Yes, yes… This was in 1940. Yeah.
JH: So when were you born?
GM: 1921. In Grand Forks.
JH: And a large family?
GM: A family of seven. Yeah.
JH: And where did you come in the pecking order?
GM: Second youngest. Yeah.
JH: And what about your father, what did he do?
GM: He was a carpenter.
JH: And did you, did you erm... grow up doing carpentry?
GM: No. No.
JH: And what made you want to leave the army and join the air force?
GM: Well actually, I wanted to be in the air force first but they weren’t taking many earlier in the war. It was difficult to get into the air force. Until I got the opportunity to re-enlist.
JH: And had you always had an interest in aircraft?
GM: Yes. Yes I was on…
JH: Did you read Biggles and things when you were younger?
GM: Yes, there was aircraft and we didn’t see very many of them but we were always there when they did come.
JH: So, sorry, from where we are here in Vancouver, where, how far away is it?
GM: Oh, about 300 kilometres.
JH: What, further east?
GM: Further east, yeah.
JH: But, a good childhood?
JH: So, it was happy was it?
JH: Always had enough to eat and…
JH: …and that sort of thing.
JH: And were you close to your brothers and sisters?
GM: Oh yes. Yeah.
JH: So, you used to sort of muck around together and…
GM: Yes, that’s right. Yeah. Yep.
JH: And what about things like sport? Did you play any sports?
GM: Not very much. I played a little. A little ball – baseball.
JH: Right. Yeah, I always forget that you play baseball in Canada, don’t you?
JH: It’s not just ice hockey.
GM: No. And I played a little bit of hockey, too, but just as a child.
JH: And you were left… I mean, it must have been quite a sort of free childhood wasn’t it. I mean, were you able to sort of you know…
GM: Oh yes, very much so…
JH: Run around and go into the hills and all that.
GM: Oh yes. Very much so. Very much. You do spend a lot of your time hiking in the hills and…
JH: Right. And fishing and things like that?
GM: Fishing. Yeah.
JH: So, you joined the air force, and you joined as aircrew, didn’t you?
GM: Yes, I joined up to… I wanted to really enlist as a wireless operator / air gunner, but when I went through the initial training, they said you had to go on a pilots course. So I went to the pilots course, and I got some time in at elementary, but I didn’t make it.
JH: Do you know why that was?
GM: Well, particularly landings were not good.
JH: And what were you flying in at that stage?
GM: They were Fleet Finches. Yes.
JH: And that was here in Canada?
GM: Yes, it was in New Brunswick. Elementary Flying School was in New Brunswick.
JH: So okay, so you didn’t get to be a pilot, so then you were retrained as a….
GM: As a gunner.
JH: So what did the training involve? I mean, how much gunnery practice did you get?
GM: Not a great deal for gunnery, no. They used the, they had the ground school. And then you flew. For flying purposes they used the Fury Battles, but with Vickers on them, mounted on. And that is what they used for the gunnery.
JH: What, you would be sort of chasing a drone would you?
GM: Yes, yeah, yeah, yes, yeah.
JH: And how was, I mean were you taught the principles of aim off and that sort of thing, or what was it that you were actually taught?
GM: At the gunnery school? Yeah. Well, mostly about the guns themselves.
JH: Right, so you knew how to strip them down…
GM: Strip them down and that sort of thing. Yeah, yeah, yeah. And also, some of the flying, of the direction of night fighter attacks and that sort of thing.
JH: Right, okay. Were you taught any German tactics or any flying tactics, or anything like that?
GM: Not that I recall. No.
JH: And so from there, from New Brunswick, what was the next stage?
GM: It was, we went over to England.
JH: And can you remember when that was?
GM: That was in May of… May ‘42.
JH: So when did you get out of the army and join the RCAF?
GM: That was in ’41. I was in the army approximately a year.
JH: And did you not enjoy the army very much?
JH: Why was that?
GM: I did not. No. Particularly, the infantry wasn’t very good for me. Marching, bad kind of rifle…
JH: So you got over in, when did you say, May 1942?
GM: Yes. You go to the receptions in, where was it, Bournemouth.
JH: Ah yes, of course. Do you remember the actual journey across? I mean, presumably, you all got on what, it must have been a train over to the east coast and then on a boat?
GM: Yes. We had to go to Halifax and got on a Polish boat called the Batory, it was using as a troop ship.
JH: And was it all air force on that, or was it a mix?
GM: No, there was a mix. Yeah.
JH: And any nerves about U-boats or anything?
GM: Well, we were in a convoy.
JH: Were you?
JH: So were you worried about them?
GM: Well we had to keep an eye out on our radar.
JH: But you didn’t see anything?
JH: So no one in the convoy was attacked at all?
JH: Gosh, that must have been one of the few in 1942 to get across the Atlantic unscathed. So presumably you…
GM: It was rather lengthy trip than when you go not in a convoy.
JH: Right. Yes, so how long did that take? Was it the best part of five or six days?
GM: Oh yeah, all of that.
GM: Yeah. Oh yeah.
JH: And where did you… did you come into Greenock?
GM: Yes. Yeah.
JH: And that was your first… Can you remember what your first impression of Britain was?
GM: Yeah. Well it was all new to me.
JH: Was there a sense that, I don’t know, that this was a big adventure. Or, were you nervous or…
GM: No, not really. No, not really.
JH: Presumably, you were going over with friends you had made in training?
GM: Yes, yes.
JH: So there was a sort of sense of camaraderie.
GM: Yes, yes.
JH: So, when you get to Greenock, and then on a train down to Bournemouth?
GM: I came down to Bournemouth, yes. And, you know, trains were different to me, because we have the larger ones here. (Contemplative silence – 6secs)
JH: Can you remember at all what your impressions of England were, when you first got here?
GM: Bournemouth was a very pleasant city.
JH: Despite the kind of wire on the beaches and things?
GM: Yeah. The beaches were beautiful. Beaches, and the accommodation in the hotels, they used the hotels.
JH: I suppose what I’m driving at is that over here, in the east (west) coast of Canada, you know Canada was pretty untouched by the war. There’s no bomb damage or anything like that. But when you got over to England, we had already been at war for two-and-a-half years. And I just wondered whether you were, whether you could remember seeing any bomb damage at all, and wire on the beaches, and all that sort of thing? Sand bags?
GM: Not so much. There was a bit in Bournemouth. You didn’t really see any of the damage until you got to the larger cities.
JH: Right. So you were in Bournemouth for a bit, and that was just… You hadn’t been crewed up at this stage?
JH: So how long were you in Bournemouth for.
GM: Ooh just a few weeks. Just a few weeks, yeah.
JH: And what were you doing whilst you were waiting to be posted?
GM: We… well, not much of anything really. Not much of anything.
JH: So then you get your tickets called, so to speak, and then where did you go next? Did you go to an OTU?
GM: You go to…. There’s a repeat, actually, of the gunneries, again.
JH: Right. And where was that?
GM: It was in Castle Kennedy, in Scotland – near Stranraer. And there, you practically it was a repeat of what we had already gone through at the gunnery school in Canada.
JH: And was that frustrating, or were you quite…?
GM: No, it was quite. It was alright, yeah.
JH: And then what?
GM: And then we were supposed to do 19 OTU, in Kinloss, and that’s where I came and crewed up with Ken Brown, and the rest of the crew in Kinloss.
JH: I’ve heard stories about getting crewed up, and I understand that you were all just put in a big room and told to find your crew. But, I mean, can you remember how you all crewed up?
GM: No, I don’t remember how we crewed up, but the pilots I believe had a bit of a choice in who they were getting. They had a chance to look over what your results were of your classes.
JH: Oh really? Were yours quite good?
GM: They were quite good, yeah.
JH: We were talking about getting crewed up, and Ken Brown having some say in who he had. But did you have good results from your gunnery training then?
GM: Yes, oh yes, yes. Yeah, And the aircrafts used at Kinloss were Whitley Fives. They used them. And it was quite extensive, the training at OTU, both day and night.
JH: And was there anything that you would do differently at night from daytime? In terms of your approach to gunnery?
GM: I think the navigator was at the most, you know, had the most to do at night.
JH: And at Kinloss, can you actually remember meeting Ken and the rest of the crew for the first time?
GM: Yes, it was a… Ken and Dudley Heal, the navigator, and myself. That was the first three, as I remember.
JH: And I wonder whether the fact that you’re a Canadian too, like Ken, made any difference?
GM: I really don’t know.
JH: But did you all get on immediately?
GM: Yes. We got along well, yeah. We got along well.
JH: And OTU was how long?
GM: Several weeks. I don’t know just how long. From the OTU we were sent to St. Eval first of all, to do anti-submarine sweeps.
JH: In Whitleys?
GM: In Whitleys. And we were there a month. And then we were, from there we were posted to Lancaster Conversion Unit at Wigsley. And then from Wigsley to 44 Squadron.
JH: And were you pleased to be moving from Whitleys to Lancasters?
GM: Oh yes, yes. Yeah. The anti-submarine were long trips. They had auxiliary tanks in the fuselage, which gave them quite a range of maybe ten hours.
JH: And, that’s a long time to be up – and a long time for you as a tail gunner.
GM: It had two pilots.
JH: Right. And, who was the other pilot then?
GM: Oh he was… they were on the staff there. I forget his name.
JH: But otherwise, the rest of the crew remained the same?
GM: Yep. We would pick the… When you got to conversion unit you had to pick up the engineer and another gunner.
JH: Yes, so you went from five to seven. And your engineer and extra gunner, they were just – they were already at the Heavy Conversion Unit, were they?
GM: Yes, they were there, yup. Yes.
JH: And again, that was up to Ken to pick them?
JH: And then, so you went to 44 Squadron. And I seem to remember that you hadn’t done that many missions before you joined the 617 Squadron?
GM: No, not that many. 44 Squadron at that time, the Wing Commander was John Nettleton, who had already won a VC I think. And he was the CO there, of the squadron. No we didn’t do, no, I don’t remember how many – but we hadn’t done very many before we were posted to 617 Squadron.
JH: And do you know why you went to join 617?
GM: I don’t myself. I don’t myself. I’ve heard – I don’t know how they arranged for crews like ourselves to be sent there.
JH: Because I think it’s a bit of a myth that you were all highly experienced crews, because you were very much at the beginning of your career.
GM: As were some others.
JH: Can you remember your first mission with 44 Squadron? Your first mission in a Lancaster?
GM: Yes, it was to Munich. And we strayed a bit off course, I believe. We were late getting there and, consequently, the main force had left already before we went in – so we got peppered pretty good with the anti-aircraft fire. And corkscrewing and taking evasive action to get out of it we got down pretty low and run into another city called Augsburg, which was… and the flak was heavy there too. And then we got out of that and get back for another extended trip. That’s the first trip.
JH: Gosh. You must have been relieved to get back and see land again, weren’t you?
JH: Did you, did you find it scary and terrifying doing these trips or did you take it in your stride?
GM: Well I, of course, took it in my stride. Of course, if something happens then you know, if you’re on to get going soon enough, it’s when they surprise you that… with blasts of fire that you notice it. But if you’re careful and watch you can get through it.
JH: So you think a lot of it is to do with experience – whether you survive or not? I mean, if you think when you’re first doing it, when you’re a new, inexperienced crew. You’re chance of getting through is less presumably?
GM: Oh I would think so yes, yeah.
JH: And I’ve always had a lot of admiration for people, like yourself, in the tail. Because, at least if you’re a pilot you’re in control aren’t you? You can do something. But, as a tail gunner, you’re at the back of the plane. You must feel very vulnerable?
GM: Yeah, I guess it would be. I’m not in a position to, particularly from the quarters you know – to feel left and right and from them coming up from under. You had to watch them pretty close.
JH: Do you think it was a mistake that they didn’t put an underside turret in the Lancaster?
GM: Yes, you sure could have used one. You could have used one, yeah.
JH: Because I know they were vulnerable to night fighters, weren’t they?
GM: Underneath, yeah.
JH: But in the tail, I mean were you – was it very uncomfortable? What was it like sitting out the back like that?
GM: Well, it wasn’t so bad. You had to dress accordingly. You didn’t wear those big, heavy Irvin jackets or something like that, you made your own. You more or less made your own outfit up. You had an electrically heated suit, which you could put on. I used to use that with a sweater over.
JH: Oh really?
GM: And maybe a pair of Irvin pants. You had to make up your own gear.
JH: But then didn’t you wear the jacket because it was too cumbersome?
GM: Too cumbersome, yeah.
JH: You couldn’t manoeuvre
GM: Yeah. You had to get out, particularly to get out of. If you had to get out in a hurry.
JH: And did you have any really close calls in those first few flights – where either the tail was hit or…
GM: No, we didn’t. No, we were fortunate, yeah.
JH: You were okay?
GM: Yeah, yeah.
JH: So when you joined 617, it wasn’t even called 617 then, I don’t think. I think it was called X Squadron. But did Ken ever explain what that was about? Or did he just say, “We’re moving squadrons”?
GM: No he… we didn’t know. We had no idea what it was going to. What we were going to be in for. When we went there…
JH: But you weren’t particularly worried or anything?
GM: No. No. No. If you were to get worried, at that time, then you wouldn’t be… you know, you wouldn’t be… you shouldn’t really be there.
JH: Yeah, so you need to be quite phlegmatic, quite …
GM: Basically yeah.
JH: And what were your first impressions of Scampton?
GM: Yeah, well it was quite a good station really. There was another squadron there, stationed there also. 57 Squadron, I think, were also stationed there. So yeah, it was alright yeah.
JH: And you knew you had this, that you were doing something secret, but you didn’t know what?
GM: Didn’t know what, yeah that’s right. Yeah. All this, particularly the low flying and bombing down on the Wainfleet.
JH: What do you remember of the low flying? I mean it must have been quite fun, mustn’t it?
GM: Oh yes, yeah. It was something alright. It goes by very, very quickly… the ground goes by very quickly.
JH: Yeah, I should think particularly if you were a tail gunner and you were going sort of backwards, effectively?
GM: Yeah, yeah. Yeah.
JH: So what was your… I don’t know, can you remember… What was your day like when you were in that training phase? I mean, you’d get up and have breakfast, presumably, and then what would happen?
GM: Yeah, well you could argue that we had a briefing-like room…
JH: Was that done as a squadron or in flights?
GM: No, it was just done individually. Like, you know… Yeah. You didn’t know whether you would be on doing anything in the morning, or you might be in the afternoon. On account of the aircraft. They didn’t have enough aircraft to go around.
JH: And who would be telling you what you were going to be doing? Would that be Ken?
GM: Yes. Yes, yeah.
JH: So presumably, he would have already been to a briefing before that?
GM: Yes, yeah.
JH: So there was no sense of you all being a squadron together, it seems, as such. I mean, you were operating quite individually…
GM: In the training?
JH: Mmm… yeah.
GM: Yeah. And you were together at times in the briefing room, the whole squadron. There were times when you were all gathered in there.
JH: But did you have much to do with any of the other crews? I mean, did you become friends with any of the other crews?
GM: Not very much, no. I mean you were with your old crew.
JH: And all of your crew were non-officers, weren’t they?
GM: All NCOs, yeah.
JH: So, did that mean you all spent all your time together?
GM: We had a house. One of the married quarters, for ourselves. The crew was in the house.
JH: The whole crew?
GM: The whole crew. Yeah.
JH: Because, in a way that must have been quite unusual. Because usually there was at least two officers, who would had to have been billeted separately. I wonder if that made you a closer crew than most?
GM: Maybe. I don’t know. Could be.
JH: And when you weren’t flying, did you tend to do things together?
GM: Usually, yes. Except when we went on leave. Everybody went their own way. When on the station, you usually went together.
JH: But that would mean eating together. You know, would you go to the pub in the evening?
GM: Well yes. Frequently yeah.
JH: And what other past times were there? You know, would you play cards, read a book, write letters.
GM: Movies were always a great attraction. You would go to the movies. I saw more movies over here. You would go into town, into Lincoln.
JH: Ah of course. Because Lincoln is not very far away…
And did you have a favourite pub you would all go to?
GM: Well, there was one called the Saracen’s Head, in Lincoln. But it got very crowded, because there was an awful lot of aircrew in that part of Lincolnshire!
JH: And you didn’t mind British beer?
GM: No, no!...
JH: And did you have any superstitions, yourself, you know or a mascot? Anything you used to take every time you went on a mission?
GM: No, no, no.
JH: Nothing at all?
JH: You just get in…
GM: Get in and go!
JH: I remember one person who always used to kind of have a pee on the tail before he… but nothing like that?
GM: No, no…
JH: And, erm, can you remember any of the… I mean, did you have any close calls on training? I remember Les Munro telling me about the time a bird flew in through the windscreen.
GM: That’s right, yeah.
JH: But did you, you didn’t have any close encounters or…
GM: The only one where we got called back to OTU, we were on a night flight and we were down from Kinloss, we were down around Carlisle I think, and we were on our way back and we crossed the Firth of Forth, and we hit a bad squall there. And it blew open the hatch and threw the navigator’s papers all over the floor. And hail and rain. And we finally got through it, and we were on our way back to… and when we got to this field, and it was lit up, and Ken and Dudley must have thought it was Kinloss – but we got on the ground and I said, “Well, there’s no Wellingtons here.” We weren’t at Kinloss at all – we were at another field! It was a satellite of Lossiemouth, I think, they’re both close together there. And so, we landed alright. But apparently there were height restrictions in the circuit, which could have been very dangerous.
JH: But when you were in training for the Dam Busters raids, do you – you didn’t have any particularly worrying incidents or…
GM: Not that I’m aware of. No.
JH: Clipping treetops? Or…
GM: No, no.
JH: And can you remember doing night training as well?
GM: Yes, but there was not much night training. More day, yeah.
JH: And can you remember there being kind of rumours about what it was that you were going to be doing?
GM: Well, there were those rumours about the navy battleships…
JH: Oh I see… That you were going to bomb one of those?
GM: Well yes, that was one. But, no one ever heard of any other.
JH: Did you ever think of yourself as being in training for some, you know, elite mission – or did you just not think of it in those terms?
GM: No, you didn’t think of it. No.
JH: You just thought, ‘This is another job’?
JH: And how much did you see of people like Gibson?
GM: Well I didn’t see much of him because we’re being NCOs. You didn’t see much of him. You know, just in the briefings and meetings we had. Yeah, he would be there. But, other than that, no.
JH: And did you, kind of – I mean, did he make any impression on you at all?
GM: Oh no, no.
JH: Not really.
GM: No, no.
GM: Of course there was Gibson and there was Martin was another man. And Dinghy Young, Maltby… they were all up, more or less up in that upper class there.
JH: Right. And was there a bit of a, I mean did you all have a respect for them?
GM: Yeah, oh yeah.
JH: I mean, you knew that they were all highly experienced pilots?
GM: Yeah, yeah.
JH: But there wasn’t a sort of… Was there a sense of them and us? Or, was it not like that?
GM: No, I didn’t feel that, no.
JH: And can you remember the upkeeps arriving – the change, the difference to the Lancasters?
GM: Not whilst they were still on the trolley ships. You know… But er… We were able to… You see, we didn’t leave until after midnight, and so we were able to see the others go. They left a couple of hours earlier, around ten or so. And so we were able to witness that, which was quite something. Particularly when they went down – Scampton is a grass field, you know no big runways. So you took off. That first… no, it was usually the second wave, I believe they went first. That was the ones that went more northerly, and were supposedly going to the Sorpe. And then the other groups took off in threes. So, it was something to see. You’ve never seen it again. I don’t know if it’s ever been done before.
JH: So, was there a little bit of nerves at taking off with such a huge bomb underneath?
GM: Yes, I think there was. Yeah.
JH: I mean, it was a heavy, heavy thing wasn’t it?
GM: Yeah. I think it was, erm, we were on 9250lb I think it was weighing.
JH: And I remember Ken Brown saying that, you know, he was frightened before he took off…
GM: Oh yeah…
JH: …but, you know, you had no more nervousness than you might otherwise have been?
GM: Oh no. No, no.
JH: I mean, I know that both Les and Johnny Johnson both said that they viewed it very much as just another operation…
GM: Yeah, yeah…
JH: ...but would you agree with that?
GM: Yes, I agree with that, yeah. It would be hard, more difficult for the pilots I suppose. A little different. We had never carried that thing before.
JH: Can you remember anything of the final briefing?
GM: Not very much, but as far as… because we were all briefed together, you know – all the crews. And, of course, the pilots already know that when you find out what you were actually going to be doing, yeah.
JH: But did any of you think, ‘We haven’t got a chance of doing that’, or…
GM: Yup… No I… It… you didn’t hear about it very much. The low flying part of it was the most dangerous part, I felt. Because that does get in there .
JH: Well, flying at 100ft you’ve got no room for error, have you?
GM: No, you… Flying that low, you can’t go down, and you can’t go up. On account of the anti-aircraft fire. You can’t go up. Once you got up there – you’re a goner. And, of course, you’ve got no room to go down, so you just had to plough through it. And then you made like a wall of it, you used to have to go through it.
JH: And hope for the best?
GM: Trust your luck, yeah.
JH: Just to go back to the training, very briefly, do you remember doing - practising dropping the upkeep? You know, doing bombing training? Did you ever fly over Derwent water?
GM: Well we flew over there, but not with the upkeep.
JH: Yes, yes, sorry yeah. But you remember practising that?
GM: Yeah. Practising yes, yes. Yeah.
JH: So you knew it was some kind of bomb over water?
GM: Well, yes. Well that’s what we kind of considered it was, yeah.
JH: Which is, presumably, why you thought it might be a battle ship or a…
GM: Yeah, yeah, that was the general thinking, I think.
JH: And do you think it was harder to wait to take off all that time, because I think you didn’t fly until just after midnight.
GM: That’s right, yeah.
JH: I mean, that’s a couple of hours after the first ones and that’s a lot of hanging around.
GM: I know. It was a very pleasant night. The weather was very good that night. But that daylight, double daylight savings time made it quite bright for pretty well about eleven o’clock or so. You know.
JH: But when you took off, obviously, it would have been dark. And you reached the – can you remember reaching the Dutch coast?
GM: Yes, yeah, yeah.
JH: Because I think that’s where Burpee came down?
GM: No, he was in a bit. He was… We were between Eindhoven and, there was a base…
JH: (Interrupts) At Gilzes-Rijen!
GM: Yes… at Gilzes-Rijen. And we were in between them. And, he got a little lost – off track I think is what happened. Erm, he tracked a little north. And of course we had a very… you know, we saw everything.
JH: Did you?
GM: We were quite close. And er…
JH: When you say quite close, I mean how, what are you talking about – a few hundred yards, or half a mile…
GM: Oh no… I think maybe a mile, or a couple of miles or so.
JH: Okay. But you would be able to see them that far away?
GM: Oh yes, yes, yes. We were caught in the same anti-aircraft fire.
JH: But, as far as you were aware, did you cross the coast where you intended to cross it?
GM: I believe so, yeah.
JH: Even though there was all this anti-aircraft fire underneath?
GM: It was… that part was… there’s islands there you know, in that part of Holland. And er, no it, that was the very first – that incident with Burpee was the first real test for anti-aircraft fire. What we had before that wasn’t, wasn’t bad.
JH: And what’s it like for you, as a tail gunner, when you suddenly come under attack? I mean, do you see tracer coming towards you?
GM: Yes. Well, first of all I saw about maybe five or six feet off the rear turn, this red flash come by… And that, well, raises you, “What was that?!” And then, of course, they pepper the wall with the stuff, you know. Searchlights were very bad. Because you were hit by the searchlights.
JH: And they must have been pretty bright?
GM: Oh yes, yeah. I fired away at them.
JH: Did you?
GM: Oh you could, yeah.
JH: So, you used your tail gun as soon as your…
GM: Oh yeah. At searchlights too. Actually, the guns you would have a hard time seeing any guns at night out in the… where they were being fired from…
JH: Of course.
GM: Whereas the searchlights you could see.
GM: The actual searchlights.
JH: So you would aim for them. I mean, were you ever aware of having hit any?
GM: Oh I don’t know whether I hit any or not. No, no… But that light to administer with ease, not to er, for something like that.
JH: But does flak exploding around you – does that, presumably that low level stuff, you’re not getting exploding flak are you? It’s just cannon shells, just going past? So, it doesn’t affect the flight of the plane? You’re not being jerked around or anything?
GM: No, no. It’s just a matter of… I think, I don’t know to what height it was effective, but down there it was your worst enemy.
JH: Because you’re only a hundred feet high aren’t you?
GM: About a hundred feet high, yeah.
JH: …Which is nothing!
GM: And the searchlights with it.
JH: The other thing about searchlights, I wonder, you know, is if you’re flying across the Channel you get used to the moonlight, and presumably you can see quite well. But does the searchlight… do they then blind you a bit? I mean…
GM: Oh yes…
JH: So you then have to adjust…
GM: Oh yes, they blind you pretty well. You have to stay where you are, as far as height went.
JH: But if you were in a beam, and you’re a bit blinded, and suddenly you’ve got something that’s higher than a hundred feet in front of you, you’re going to be in trouble aren’t you?
GM: Well, it’s hard to say. We… As I say, at that little section there, it was like a wall of the anti-aircraft fire, the lights like the anti-aircraft fire…
JH: But then presumably, suddenly, you’re past it?
GM: Yeah, you’re out of it.
JH: And then you’ve got to…
GM: As a matter of fact, it was so low, we were so low there that you could see the trees silhouetted against the flashlight, the er spotlight, er the searchlights.
JH: Amazing! So then you continued on your way.
JH: And then didn’t you encounter a train at some point?
GM: Yeah, we took on a train, yeah. We gave them a few blasts of our rounds. You know, it’s .303 ammunition up there. We couldn’t do too much trouble to a train… But, we carried on and crossed the Rhine at Rees, and headed for the Sorpe. It wasn’t long after we had crossed the Rhine that we saw this other aircraft go down. But he was quite a bit farther away. He must have really been off track. That would be…
JH: So when you say you see that, what do you see – just a little flash of fire?
GM: Yeah, you could tell that it was an aircraft when it had crashed, and the bomb would explode.
JH: You didn’t hear anything on the radio… well, not you as a…
GM: No, no… we were far out. We were quite aways away from this one, other than seeing it – we didn’t know who it was.
JH: And what’s your own reaction to that? Is it just bad luck on their part?
GM: Yep. Yeah.
JH: Is it always rather shocking to see it, or again, are you able to take it in your stride?
GM: You just take it… well you think, those poor buggers are gone, you know.
JH: Did you ever think it would happen to you, or did you just not think about it?
GM: No, you didn’t think about it. No.
JH: And then you heard that you were going to attack the Sorpe, rather than…
GM: Yeah. It was shortly after two o’clock. It was after… maybe we had crossed the Rhine, or not. I think it was about twenty after two or so, that the wires began to come in. We didn’t know at that time where we were going. We were the reserve. And it was to go to the Sorpe, It was only one aircraft from that first group that had made it to the Sorpe.
JH: Erm, McCarthy?
GM: McCarthy – yeah.
JH: And had you all seen the models beforehand. You know…
GM: Oh yes, yes.
JH: So you all knew what to look for?
GM: Oh yes.
JH: Everyone in the crew?
JH: So you recognised it when you flew over?
GM: Yeah, because it was rather misty and foggy, over the water form… it was getting on through the night, and this fog was forming. But there was an open passage in it. And you just had to wait, and take some runs at it before you could drop the bomb itself.
JH: Why? Sort of practice runs just to get…
GM: Yeah, you would take them around yeah.
JH: And can you remember how many you did?
GM: No. No, but we did several.
JH: And there was no flak there, was there?
GM: No. The only thing I can remember telling them was, ‘Get out of here!’ You know, “Go on – get moving!”, because after what you had put up with coming in, you’ve got to face that going back, all the way back.
JH: And time is marching on, and it’s going to get light…
GM: Yes, yes. I don’t know if I was making that much difference in making the runs or not. The fog had rolled back, to the starboard side of the aircraft.
JH: So, you …
JH: Ah yes, so we were at the dam…
GM: Oh yes…
JH: And you could see that the end of the dam could you, and I can’t remember, were there towers on the Sorpe?
GM: No. There were no towers on the Sorpe. No, it was an earth-filled dam with a concrete core and sloping earth on both sides. The reservoir side and down the other side. Sloping. I don’t think that bomb was capable of breaching that dam. I don’t know many who did.
JH: But you did cause crumbling to the top.
GM: Yeah, some crumbling along the top.
JH: I mean you must have been in the best position to see the explosion. Weren’t you?
GM: Yes, when we left and started to circle up – we went up and, yes a good view of it, yeah. It was quite a big water spouting.
JH: How high?
GM: Oh that would be high alright! Yeah.
JH: I mean, that must have been an incredible sight wasn’t it?
GM: It was, yeah. It was so good to get it over with.
JH: Really? And the aircraft, as soon as you get rid of the weight of something that big, then presumably it rises up? And were there any distinguishing features at all in that little valley over the Sorpe?
GM: Not really. There… You had to come down and the approach was not all that good. You had to come down the, on quite a steep hill to the dam. And then climb up quite sharply to get out of it again.
JH: Right. But you had a different approach to McCarthy’s plane though, didn’t you?
GM: No, it was the same. It was the same.
JH: Straight, just curving, straight down through the reservoir?
GM: No, straight down and then along parallel with the dam on the reservoir side.
JH: And then you went from the Sorpe to have a look at the Mohne?
GM: Yes. Yeah.
JH: And why was that?
GM: Just to see it. We were quite far out.
JH: But had you been ordered to go and have a look, or was it just…
GM: I think he just wanted to have a look.
JH: And can you remember that?
GM: Yes. Yes. Of course I… they were still firing but the distance was too great. We were too far. No problem.
JH: And did you fire back?
GM: No. no.
JH: But could you see the water gushing through and flooding beyond?
GM: Yeah, but at a distance though. We were quite a way. We didn’t get too close.
JH: And when you say at a distance, you know what kind of distance are you talking about? Half a mile? Quarter of a mile?
GM: Yeah, it would be all that.
JH: And then it was heading for home?
GM: Yes, yeah.
JH: What can you remember of that return trip?
GM: Well, the first part wasn’t so bad. There was a lot of anti-aircraft fire like that but not that much, until we got to northern Holland and we hit an awful spot of it there.
JH: Yes, because you had to go through the Zuiderzee, didn’t you?
GM: Yeah, across the Zuiderzee and then that patch Den Haag, you know Den Haag? Well that’s where they really let us have it. And searchlights and the light flak – that’s where we got hit.
GM: Yeah. One large hole.
JH: Where was the hole?
GM: Oh, it was right about, oh like… it was on the right hand side, opposite say where the Wireless Operator would be, on the right hand side. Not too far from the cockpit really.
JH: Gosh. But no effect on the flying of the plane?
GM: No, no. Someone did some damage maybe to the hydraulic lines or wire, but no effect on the aircraft itself.
JH: Yeah. So it must have been a great relief to actually get over the coast again?
GM: Yes, it was. To get over the coast, and get back over the North Sea.
JH: And you touched down again okay?
GM: Yeah. Second to the last I think. I think Bill Townsend was after us.
JH: And there must have been such a sense of relief, wasn’t there?
GM: Yes. Yeah, yeah.
JH: I mean, in terms of the amount of flak you encountered, and the height you were flying, was that one of the more dangerous missions that you went on do you think?
GM: Oh yes, yes.
JH: And was there a… do you remember what the mood was at Scampton when you got back? I mean was it – was everyone pleased or was it…
GM: Oh yes, I… The only thing that bothered you the next day, of course, was that the lorry or truck came around to pick up the effects of the crews that didn’t come back. And that was not a good sight at all.
JH: And all guys that you knew obviously.
GM: Yeah, yes. All the fifty… er, fifty-three.
JH: That’s a lot of people.
JH: When did you realise what a big thing it had been? I mean can you remember it being written up in the papers, or in the news?
GM: Oh yes. I remember seeing the headline in the paper all right!
JH: Did that make you feel proud or…?
GM: It was just about you being there. That was about it. You were a part of it.
JH: It was a good feeling was it, to be part of that?
GM: Yeah, yeah.
JH: And do you remember the king coming up?
GM: Yes, he came up. That was where we lined up the pilots. The pilot was in front, of course he met – and you were at the back and like… rest of the crew were lined up behind him.
JH: And afterwards you stayed on the squadron?
GM: Yeah, yeah. I didn’t do very much for some time. I don’t know whether they converted them aircraft back into… or not, the ones that were left. I don’t know.
JH: You weren’t involved in the Dortmund-Ems Canal…
GM: No. no.
JH: Lucky enough to miss that one.
GM: Yeah, yeah. I’m afraid I wouldn’t, might not be sitting here if I had had to go on that… That was rather a disaster.
JH: But 617 continued to… it acquired a fantastic reputation, didn’t it – as a squadron.
GM: Yes, yes.
JH: I mean, I know you left in the Spring of ’44, but were you aware that you had become a specialist squadron, you know, an elite squadron?
GM: Well they always spoke of us as that you know. I don’t think in wartime it was mentioned that much, as it was after the post war.
JH: Right, so it was just another squadron, just another job?
GM: Another op. completed.
JH: And what do you remember of Cheshire?
GM: Cheshire, yes. Cheshire came along. He was, of course, a different personality to Guy Gibson altogether. Clever man. And he was a very fine fellow. A very fine.
JH: And you must have been pleased that Ken got the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal?
GM: Yes, yeah.
JH: I mean one of only two out of a whole squadron.
GM: Yep, yeah.
JH: I mean, was that – did you feel that reflected on the whole crew, as well as just him?
GM: Well, I would say there are egotists and there is ego. The bomb aimer and the navigator got DFMs. But, no it didn’t bother me anyhow.
JH: But you must have been pleased for them?
GM: Oh yeah. Very pleased for them, sure.
JH: And, can you remember any other missions that you were involved with, with 617, before you left?
GM: Well, there was a couple of shuttle trips to North Africa. They bombed in Italy once, and another time to the south coast of France, and carried on to Bleeding. And the first time, we went to, on the return trip, we went to Lake Horn. And the next trip we went over to Rabat. And then flew all the way back to England. All in, non-stop.
JH: Yeah, big trips.
GM: Yeah, long trips.
JH: And you were involved using 12,000lb-ers?
GM: Yes. We used 12,000lb-ers on the Antheor viaduct, that sort of…
JH: Oh yes… were you involved in that one?
GM: Yes, yeah. Three times.
JH: Yes. That’s another big mission.
GM: Yeah, yeah. That was er… one aircraft was hit there. See once you’ve been over the first time there would be no anti-aircraft fire to speak of. But once you had been, then of course the next time there was a great deal of it.
JH: Yeah, of course.
GM: And you hit it. You couldn’t go down low. You stayed up at around 12,000ft or so. But one aircraft was hit in the… and I think they carried on to, where would they be – Sardinia, or something.
JH: That’s right.
GM: That was Martin, I think.
JH: Yeah, I think it was. And I think after that, he didn’t fly again, I don’t think?
GM: Oh he didn’t, did he?
JH: No, I think he came off the squadron after that.
JH: So when you finished, how many ops had you done?
GM: Well, counting those anti-submarine patrols, I think about twenty-six. If you count those.
JH: And why did you leave at that point?
GM: Well, I believe that Ken was having some problems with his hearing, I think. I’m not sure, but the er…. Said you could go.
JH: You’ve more than done your bit.
GM: Yeah (chuckles)
JH: So what happened to you?
GM: I went to 29 OTU, Bruntingthorpe to instruct there.
JH: And you stayed there until the end of the war then?
GM: For a couple of years. I got out about, I don’t know February or so, ’45.
JH: And then went home?
GM: Finally out, sent me home!
JH: And that was it?
GM: That was it, yeah.
JH: And you left the RCAF then?
GM: Well, I stayed in for a little bit here on Vancouver Island, but I was discharged in June ’45. I was still in on VE Day. I was still in the air force.
JH: And what did you do with yourself after that?
GM: I did a few different jobs, but I spent most of my time as a Customs Officer in the Appraisals Office.
JH: And you got married?
JH; That was after the war?
GM: ’48, yeah 1948.
JH: And you stayed as a customs officer until you retired?
GM: Until I retired, yeah yeah.
JH: But where was your job? Where were you living? Here?!
JH: In Vancouver? And stayed here ever since?
GM: You work at… you had the main Customs House downtown. You have the docks, and the airports, of course.
JH: And can you remember the film being made? The 1950s film? On the Dam Busters?...
GM: Oh yeah, I remember going to see it, yeah.
JH: It must have been slightly peculiar wasn’t it?
GM: Yeah – I was kind of anxious to get to see it.
JH: And do you have a sense of pride in being part of 617 Squadron and part of the most famous raid of the war?
GM: Well, it was pretty something. What you did stayed with you, that’s for sure.
JH: I guess as you took off that night you would hardly think, nearly seventy years later, that you would still be talking about it.
JH: Ah, amazing. Well thank-you very much.
GM: Well, I hope I’ve done alright?
JH: Yeah, yeah. It’s brilliant.
JH: So on the Dams Raid, you could hear the flak could you? And the sound of the guns?
GM: Yes. The sound of the anti-aircraft fire. Yes, yeah. That assumes that you were quite close. Must have been quite close.
JH: Yeah, definitely. And was it quite noisy being in the Lancaster? I mean could you hear – was there a sort of moan?
GM: Oh yeah, it was very noisy, yeah.
JH: And what did it smell like? I mean was there a kind of oily smell or?
GM: Well not, well there was some… I think maybe more hydraulic fluid rather than anything else you could smell.
JH: Right, but the seat you were on – was it reasonably comfortable?
GM: Well, not really. No, not really.
JH: I mean, by the time you had gone out again after a mission, would you be a bit stiff and…
GM: Yeah, yeah.
JH: And presumably, you would have to actually jump out of the hatch at the back of the plane, don’t you?
GM: No, I used to climb up and go through the door.
JH: Oh, did you?
GM: You see the difficulty of getting out, you’d be alright if you were bailing out, to fall out if you’re already untied and everything. Both the intercom and oxygen, and take your helmet off altogether, and then fall out backwards – you could do that. But you still had to get your shoes outside from the wall, outside the turret. Usually on the floor.
JH: And was there… Different crews seem to have had different styles. So, some people would talk more than others – but you could obviously hear and communicate with the rest of the crew if you wanted to.
GM: Well, Ken kept contact with you. He kept calling you, pretty well. Every few minutes he would come calling.
JH: What would he say?
GM: Well, he would just say, just, ‘Are you okay?’ Yeah.
JH: And if you saw something that they might not have done would you tell everyone?
GM: Yeah, yeah. You would let them know, yes.
JH: And just to come back to that house you all shared. It was a married quarters house.
GM: In peacetime yeah, we were in what would have been a married quarters, yeah.
JH: But it was on the station?
GM: It was on the station, yeah.
JH: And, how would you go about? I mean would – did you have a little… would you just walk, or bicycle or…
GM: Ah, we… I don’t think we had any bicycles there. We had some at the station, but we didn’t – I don’t think I had one there. We walked. We walked, yeah.
JH: It wasn’t too far.
GM: No, not very far, no.
JH: And say you haven’t got a mission that night so you’d go to the pub, perhaps. And then come back. Would you just turn in or would you stay up and…
GM: I, Myself, never spent much time in the mess. In the Sergeants’ Mess. I would rather go out, locally.
JH: Why was that? Just to get a change of scene?
GM: Change of scenery, yeah, yeah. Just a factor – you’re going to go to the mess to drink beer, I guess. Whereas we would like to go out to be sociable.
JH: So you wouldn’t go back to the house and have a whiskey and play cards or anything?
GM: No… no.
JH: And were you a smoker in those days?
JH: But the conditions. I mean - did you feel they were okay? Had you got enough to eat
GM: Oh yeah, yes.
JH: And, generally speaking, as a crew you would stick together socially?
GM: Pretty well, yes. Except going on leave. They went their way and everybody went their own way.
JH: And was there – I mean were you all on first name terms? I mean, would you all call each other by your Christian names or nicknames?
GM: Well, Ken, the pilot, tried to shorten everything up. Like he would call me Mac instead of Grant Mac. And he would call the engineer, his name was Basil and he called him Baz. He tried to pick out names that were quick.
JH: But you would call him Ken? Or Skip? Would you call him Skipper?
GM: Yeah, I would call him the skipper. I remember that. I didn’t call him by his first… by Ken, no.
JH: But you were all quite sort of informal with each other were you?
GM: Oh yes.
JH: And presumably, you all had to trust each other?
GM: Yes, yes.
JH: And you rated Ken as a pilot?
GM: I thought he was really good.
JH: And your navigator?
GM: Yes. And Dudley, yeah. He was very good. A little older, mind you, than we were.
JH: Was he?
GM: In fact, he was older than me.
JH: Well that’s the thing, you were all so young. Because, I think Ken was only 22. And it’s a lot of responsibility for someone that age, isn’t it?
GM: Yes, it is. Yeah. And I think there were younger than that, you know. I guess they would get in at eighteen and, you could well be nineteen or twenty.
JH: Were you relieved when you finally left 617? I mean, was there a case of – a sense of you know, thank goodness we made it?
GM: Yeah. Yes, there was yes. I’d had the… it’s such a long spell there from the time we went there to the time we left, for the number of operations that we did. It was a long time in between.
JH: Yes, if you did twenty-six missions, and twenty-two with 617 over a year – that’s 340 days when you’re not.
GM: Yeah, yeah.
JH: So did you, was it – did it get a bit boring, you know – in between?
GM: Well it was usually, they kept you pretty well busy. Flying most of the time you know. Across country and bombing exercises.
JH: Right. And the winters must have been hard as well, I suppose? You know, the winter of ’44 – ’45 was a hard one, I mean ’43 – ’44, rather.
JH: Can you just tell me what the mood was like when you finally touched down again? I mean, it must have been light mustn’t it by the time you arrived back at Scampton?
GM: Yes, yes it was after five I think, in the morning. No, it was a very good deal. As I said before, the only thing was that the next morning you knew by the number of crews that were missing. You didn’t know when… that evening. You didn’t know. Because you just ate and went to bed. It really wasn’t until the next morning that it hit you, that there were fifty-three people missing – or dead. Two or three prisoners of war…
JH: How did you find that out? I mean did you just…
GM: Oh yeah, you just … you just heard.
JH: I mean, were you friendly with some crews more than others presumably?
GM: Yeah. Well, not really but in the mess, and eating in the dining rooms you all eat together.
JH: And I remember, I know we touched on it earlier, but I know that Ken Brown said he thought that you’d had some premonition that two crews weren’t going to come back…
GM: No, I… I’ve heard that, I saw that – but I don’t recall ever saying anything like that. You know. I don’t recall that at all. I wouldn’t say anything like that. No.
JH: Yeah – memory changing things!
GM: Oh, I don’t know!
JH: No, you don’t strike me as the sort of person who would say that, to be perfectly honest.
GM: Actually that part when you’re younger… It didn’t really hit home, you know, too much at all. You just went.
JH: And I suppose, it must be harder for some people because, you know, they’re crewed in a big room and then suddenly there’s an empty bed. For you guys it would have been different because you were all in one house together. So you would have been spared that a bit, I suppose?
GM: Yes, yes.
JH: And would you say all the rest of your crew was, you know, took things in their stride as much as you did? I mean, was there anyone who was more anxious than the others, or…
GM: No, I don’t recall any, no. But going back to what you mentioned there, when we were at OTU at Kinloss, we lost aircraft there. And we were in a hut. There was maybe thirty or forty in… and that’s where you noticed it more. Those empty beds, and they were killed whilst they were at OTU… On cross-countries. And the chap that was slept next to me, he was a gunner, his name was Hatch. He was a boxer, a professional boxer – Tiger, they called him. Tiger Hatch. He was already a… And half of his stuff was underneath my bunk, you know. And spread all over the floor. And I sure noticed that, you know. Because he used to get up, and he would be shadow boxing, and grunting and groaning and punching.
JH: And one day he didn’t come back?
GM: He didn’t. They were killed at OTU.
JH: It’s amazing how many people were killed in training.
GM: Oh yeah, yeah. I think it must have been three or four crews out of our class that were killed.
JH: It’s a dangerous business, flying aeroplanes.
GM: Yeah, yeah. In that part of the country, the weather is awful bad, and tricky, a bit tricky.
JH: But you liked the Lancaster, did you? I mean you think it was a good aircraft?
GM: Oh yeah, yeah.
JH: I mean, you were lucky to be in the best one that we had…
JH: I mean, better than a Stirling or a Halifax. So there was relief was there, when you were sent to the Heavy Conversion Unit?
GM: Yes, yes.
JH: Glad to get rid of those old Whitleys?!
GM: Oh the Whitley’s, yeah yeah.Pretty slow, the Whitleys.
JH: Yeah, because a Lancaster could you know, could go at quite a good speed. What, 200 miles plus per hour? Something like that.
GM: Anyway, apart from this, I just happened to look at last night’s paper. There was a Canadian who, an obituary there, a Canadian that – it was a big, long write up like that… He was, I think a navigator. But he was at Tetford, that’s where they had the Special Operations Unit. And I can remember Tetford because 617 sent three crews down there for, to do some trips. And I think McCarthy was one of them, and the other two were later. And we, and another chap… And by gosh, two of them didn’t make it the first night. They were shot down on the first night. And one crew were killed entirely and the other crew all but one were able to bail out. All but one or two were killed. But, we were sent down there to replace them, the crew that had… but we only did the one run. We didn’t – nobody saw anything – we all came back! It’s around the Somme, the area of the Somme.