Geoff Swindells was born in 1919 in Melbourne and grew up in Victoria and New South Wales. During World War II he trained in the Air Force in Australia before going to England for further training. He became a turret gunner on a Lancaster Bomber which flew missions over Germany. This is his story:
“I started my air force training in early 1942. It had got to the stage where people who weren’t in the services at my age were becoming anomalies, so I got to the stage when I decided I had to join up myself. Actually I had been called up in the Australian Defence Forces and I didn’t care much for the army so I decided to try the air force. So after a long struggle to get out of the army, I got into the air force and then I started air force training. I and the others of my batch were sent to Bradfield Park which was an initial training school. Bradfield Park is on the northern line Sydney, round about Lindfield. Then after Bradfield Park, I was sent to Maryborough for training as a wireless air gunner. Whilst in Maryborough, I caught Dengue Fever and went “off course” as they call it, while the others continued training. After I recovered from the dengue fever and had a convalescence period, I was given the choice of starting a new course with the next intake or staying with the people I knew and remustering to straight air gunner. I chose that course which I think was very wise in the end. After Maryborough, we moved to Evans Head for bombing and gunnery, had great fun shooting, flying up and down the beaches shooting at things and then we returned to Sydney for embarkation leave. After about 10 days, to a fortnight of embarkation leave, we railed back up to Brisbane and embarked in Brisbane on the “Matsonia” at the end of August 1943.
“The trip over to England was interesting. We landed at San Francisco and from San Francisco we were railed across America, which took over a week. The trains were primitive things that they’d exhumed from the wild western movies I think. They were old wood burning locomotives. We got to New York and had a few days in New York and then we embarked on the “Queen Elizabeth” and went across to Scotland, dodging the U-boats on the way across. And we went to Brighton. The Officers’ Mess at Brighton was in the hotel that Margaret Thatcher was bombed in, the Grand Hotel, Brighton. And then, interrupted by a couple of air raids in which was my turn to be bombed, we were posted to Lichfield at No. 27 Operational Training Unit and we arrived at Lichfield on 17th November 1943 where I started more training in air gunnery. “We were trained on Wellingtons in the rear turret because the Wellingtons didn’t have a mid upper turret. All our training in the rear turret, then from there on 15th February 1944, we started flying at Wigsley which was the No. 1654 conversion unit, converting from Wellingtons on to Stirlings which were four engine aircraft with a mid upper turret and obsolete for operational purposes. So we did a lot of flying on Stirlings. Subsequently went to No. 5 Lancaster Finishing School where we converted from Stirlings on to Lancasters. Then eventually we arrived at Waddington and we were then placed in 463 Squadron for C flight of 463 Squadron and we commenced training at Waddington on 13th April 1944. “After we left Wigsley we were posted to the Lancaster Finishing School – Syerston. Anyhow on 3rd April 1944 we took our first flight on the Lancaster which ended in disaster. The aircraft had just come back from servicing and the engine cowlings called the Nacelle on the starboard inner or between the starboard inner hadn’t been screwed on properly. The engine Nacelle had been removed and not replaced properly and the slip stream got under it and ripped it off the engine and part of the wing, crashed through the front of my turret, ripping the gun sight out from in front of my eyes and then fell through past the aircraft, hitting the tail fin as it went. The aircraft staggered round the circuit, sank below the level of the circuit in the river of the valley which was just beyond the edge of the runway and somehow the instructor and pilot we had with us, got the aircraft round, we lined up with the runway and the aircraft just crashed in a couple of hundred feet. Of course that was wrecked and that was the end of it. But a couple of days later, we were flying again and this time it all went well.
“We had a week or so’s training and on 22nd April, I did my first operation to Brunswick and the pilot was my regular pilot. On 24th April I did my second operation on Munich with Wing Commander Tate who used to visit the squadron and round up the few people who weren’t flying that night and make them up into a crew. Wing Commander Tate at that stage had flown over 100 bombing raids on Germany because early in the War, his wife and family living in London were bombed and killed by the Germans and Wing Commander Tate’s sole motivation from then on was to retaliate and kill Germans. So I flew to Munich with Tate and then following that on 28th April, four days later an operation at Bordeaux with my regular pilot.
“The Lancaster for its time was an advanced aircraft. It had four 1240 HP Rolls Royce Merlin engines. It carried eight machine guns, two .303 in the nose, two .303 in my turret and four .303 in the rear turret. The .303 had an effective range of about 200 metres or so. We were flying against Messerschmitt and other German aircraft which had 20 mm cannon and they had an effective range of about 300 metres or so. We just hoped we didn’t see one of those. As well as that we carried 2,154 gallons of petrol. That was a full petrol load and something like about, depending on the make-up of the bomb load, we had a 4,000 pounder incendiaries, 1,000 pounds would have had something like approximately eight tons of bombs and the crew of seven. And it was supposed to have an effective bombing height of about 22,000 feet. Our aircraft was a fairly aged aircraft which I think had done about 60 odd trips when we took it over and with a full bomb load we found ourselves bombing around about 18 or 18½ thousand feet. We couldn’t get any higher. That was all right, the rest of the mob up there dropping bombs on us.
“So we flew from then on right through April, May, June, July until 29th August 1944. We last raided on Konigsberg on the far eastern side of Germany on the Baltic and that operation took 10 hours 35 minutes of flying time. That was a helluva long operation. That was the finish as far as I was concerned. The crew was split up and posted to various places. “We stayed awake through long bombing missions by a terrific effort. Really that was one of the great problems, staying warm and keeping awake. It was fatal to let yourself lapse into a torpor as it were, because mid upper turret was the main focal point for safety of the aircraft, had to watch out what was going on in the air, possible fighters. And it was a terrific effort but it had to be done. It was exhausting too. That was one of the great things, worst things, about it, the effort of staying awake and staying alert was exhausting, completely exhausting. I kept on moving the turret and elevating and moving of the guns and turret kept doing things to keep awake and keep warm. They issued us with electrically heated suits, something on the similar principle of the electric blanket. The trouble was the wiring was electrical plugged in through the seat but of course it would fray and break because of the constant movement. So they were great when they were new but wear them a couple of times they’d probably break. The rear gunner had the same but the rest of the crew up in the front portion of the aircraft which was fed the heat from the engine, bit like a car heater so they were all right, well more or less all right. But still I wouldn’t have wanted to swap my position for theirs, cause if there’s any possibility of getting out of the aircraft, the rear gunner and I probably had a good a chance as anybody. The bomb aimer of course just had to open the hatch at the bottom of the aircraft and drop out, if you could find a chute of course.
“The technical description for our aircraft was JOU, JO for the squadron, U was the identification of the aircraft. Because it was U that was U Uncle, it was called Uncle Joe, because we were all cosy up with the Russians at that stage, so it was Uncle Joe. “Air crews disregarded rank when we were flying. The pilot was in complete charge, regardless of the fact that he might have been lesser rank than other crew members. For example, our pilot when we started off was a Sergeant but when we got to Lancaster Finishing School his commission came through and thereafter he was a Pilot Officer. But plus the fact that when we initially crewed up, I was a Pilot Officer, Eric Rosenfeld was either a Pilot Officer or a Flying Officer. The pilot’s always in charge regardless of what job you did. For example, if Wing Commander Tate had been flying, making up as a gunner, the pilot would still be in charge, despite the fact he’d be a Pilot Officer. In the other services, of course, it doesn’t work that way. The air crew worked that way and worked very well. There was never any problem or any friction or anything like that. There couldn’t be the team had to work as just one unit. So that worked very well.
“The second bombing mission Munich, Brunswick was the first. Munich turned out to be a very long trip. To avoid German fighters, we flew down into the south of France and across into Italy and when we got to Italy we used Milan as a turning point to fly north. So we fly into Germany from Italy, across the Alps at what I thought was a low altitude. I advised the pilot that there was very high ground all round us and I was looking up at these peaks above us and he said – 18,000 feet will take you over any part of the Alps. I thought, well maybe they do but I was looking up there and I wasn’t very happy about that. However, he knew what he was doing and I didn’t because I was very new at the game then. And then we hit Munich with a very successful raid. When you got to a target, it was like daylight. There were searchlights, there was flak, there were fighter flares dropped by German fighters to track you, burning aircraft, there were reflections of the fires down below and the target would be illuminated to such an extent it was just like daylight. Anyway we hit the target and then we flew out down through the south of France again up across the North Sea and Channel etc. to base and that took 10 hours 5 minutes for all that. “Unless the crew brought back a photograph of the aiming point, the point that had been marked by the pathfinders. If your photograph didn’t show the aiming point you weren’t credited with the raid. When the bombs were dropped, a photo flare was dropped with the bombs. The photo flare would take the picture of the ground below and would show the aiming point in your photograph. Didn’t mean the bombs necessarily hit the aiming point, but it was then showing, this was the aiming point. And that was a raid. There was another thing that served to illuminate and turn night into day, the photo flares going off all the time. I don’t know how many aircraft were on the Munich raid but it would have been a big raid. I’d say probably six or seven hundred aircraft. “The idea was the target had to be a critical point where you aimed to destroy a factory or destroy an area which was a factory area and that was why you were supposed to have the aiming point in your photograph. But in Brunswick which was the first we made, and of course we were very “green” at that stage. When we were briefed at the brief takeoff, I can remember this vividly, we were told that Brunswick was a very old mediaeval city with sharp pointed roofs so snow could slide off where the homes of the workers lived and we destroyed all those. We killed the workers as well as their wives, women and children, babies, cats, dogs, parrots and all the rest of them, destroy everything, burn everything, as well as the factories which would ruin their production. So, it was “area bombing” in other words. At 20,000 feet, with the difficulties we faced, it was very hard to make an accurate bomb drop. I was a bit sort of stunned when the Briefing Officer said “destroy their homes” and so on. I thought – oh well, those are the orders and that’s what I have to do. The first time I was uncomfortable with it. After I got used to it – what the hell, they’re all Germans so, we were fighting them and that was that. You couldn’t let it worry you. Orders were orders. “Morale was high. Morale had to be high otherwise you wouldn’t be able to go and do the job. Mind you, we were a bit nervous at times, but I remember I had a good friend, I won’t bother with the name, but a very good friend, helluva of a nice bloke and he came to me when I was in bed asleep. He woke me up and said “Geoff”, he said “I can’t go, I can’t do any more.” He’d done, I don’t know how many he’d done, probably about the same number as I had and he said “What’ll I do?” So I said the only thing I could suggest is go and see the Padre in the morning and tell him that you can’t go on operating and they’ll post you. Anyway, I never saw him again. He just went, saw the Padre and that was the end of it. I never knew where he went or what happened to him. But that was called “lack of moral fibre”, which was very bad because he was a helluva good bloke and I mean some blokes just couldn’t handle it. That’s what it was called.
“The briefing room was in a large hall and all the crews from both squadrons were assembled there. Up against the wall at the end was a screen covering a large map. We’d sit ourselves somewhere. There would be a screen across the end wall. The Briefing Officer, the Met Officer, the Navigation Officer, COs and Base Command all march in. We stand up for them. Then all would be seated. The screen would be pulled apart and on the wall was a very large map of England and base and Germany and across there would be tape from the base of the route into the target and back home again. And then they’d talk and tell us about the weather conditions in Germany, they weren’t all that accurate. The radio Officer gave calls sign etc. Navigation officer talked about general problems navigating and so on. And that all lasted for about an hour. I can’t remember whether we went and had a meal after that. We had a meal. Then we assembled and were picked up by the WAFs who used to drive the transport and taken to our aircraft. Then we checked our aircraft over, climbed aboard, took our positions, checked everything, locked the aircraft doors up. That was my job. Then we started taxiing out from the dispersal point. We might have been half a mile from the runway and waited to take off. The aircraft ahead of us would take off. We’d taxi on the corner at the end of the runway, wait for our signal, we’d get the signal which was sent by Aldis lamp, a green signal from a caravan at the end of the runway, which had been in communication with the flight control. And we would be flashed the green light, bomb aimer would say to the pilot – there’s your green. The pilot would then push the throttles forward and away we’d go.
“The Germans were picking up our track on radar. So the scientists provided metal strips which they code-named “window” which were carried and were shovelled out of the aircraft, down the flare tube. These metallised strips were supposed to send a signal back to the Germans in the same way as the aircraft would send the signal back. Their radar would bounce off the aircraft, the radar would bounce off the metal strips and this was effective until the Germans woke up to the fact that if our metal strips, metal strips were say 20 cm long we were sending back the same signal as an aircraft. So they changed their radar. All these aircraft were pushing out thousands of these metal strips, there was thousands of aircraft flying over. So the Germans changed their wave length of their radar which meant that then we were sending back the real signal until we woke up to that. We had to change the length of our “window”. It was a cat and mouse game all the time. And the first time that was used, I believe was Hamburg in late ’43 and Germans completely lost us. Searchlights couldn’t pick us up. Their guns couldn’t pick us up because they had no radar guides, you see. So that was a big success. Of course, being smart cookies they didn’t take long to wake up to that once they collected these thousands of strips on the ground, they found out all about the “window”. But that went on during the War. And it was the bomb aimer’s job to feed the metal strips down the flare chute.
“We really didn’t know what the casualties were unless they were mates of yours which didn’t appear. For example, I had a room mate at one stage, a Canadian boy. I forget what he was now. He might have been a bomb aimer. I’m not sure about that, or navigator. But he just didn’t come back. And I was wakened in the morning by a bunch of people tramping in. An officer fellow came in, said “I’m the effects officer.” They collected all this chap’s gear, out and that was the end of that. So we never knew. You’d pick it up on the wireless, the BBC, listening. But that was rarely discussed, unless you were looking for somebody and say “Where’s so and so?” And they say “he went for Burton or got the chop” or something like that. There’s no point in putting a list up of those that were missing. I mean it was a high risk game and that was the end of it. You just accepted it. When you were there, a culmination of many months of training at vast expense and then we finished up in the squadron. That was the job, had to be done. War was a serious business. “Mailly-Le-Camp was an important mission. It was on 3rd May 1944 we were briefed to attack a Panzer camp at a place called Mailly-Le-Camp, which was about 60 or 70 miles north of Paris. This was particularly important because a Panzer army had been refitted and refurbished and poised to go to the beaches. So we had to destroy this Panzer base which was awaiting the invasion which was scheduled for, so we know now, was 6th June. You can imagine what would have happened if this Panzer army had been operational and hit the boys as they were landing on the beaches. They would probably have been driven back in the water, all killed. But we wiped out the Panzer base, but what we didn’t know was that there were two or three Luftwaffe bases just not far away from us, a bit north of where we were bombing and things went a bit wrong but the target, the markers were bombed out, I think a master bomber or pathfinder aircraft backing up was shot down. The target became obscured by smoke and we were directed to stop bombing and head north so they could sort out the mess. Unfortunately ordering us north took us over very close to the German Luftwaffe fighter bases and there was a lot of problems going up there because aircraft were being shot down right, left and centre. Like being handed to the Germans as a gift. And so my pilot looked up and said “We’re not going up there.” So we went south which was a very wise move, saved our necks that time and we orbited south until the master called us back in to bomb. Of course when the master bomber said “Don’t bomb” it was highly unpopular. We were there to bomb and get out of the place. We didn’t want to hang round. So we were ordered not to bomb, so we couldn’t bomb. Pathfinders re-marked the target, we were called in to bomb, which had the unfortunate effect of aircraft coming down from the north, aircraft coming out from the south which we were and sort of all fusing in to one bomber stream over target and of course, there was the inevitable risk of collision.
“But when we were initially briefed for Mailly, we thought – oh this is great, it’s just across the Channel near Paris, drop our bombs, get back, be home for breakfast. But the actual raid took five hours 18 minutes from the time we took off and time we landed. And the casualties were approximately equal to the casualties on the Nuremberg raid which had taken place earlier. We were waiting at a place called Le Scampton for posting to the squadron, didn’t know where we were going just standing by waiting till we were sent for. And it came over the air, the BBC that 97 aircraft had been lost that night. That sent a chill right through me, everything, chilled me anyway. And that was by far the heaviest casualties of the War, something like about 13% of the bombing force were shot down over Nuremberg. Mailly, we had about 12, approaching 13% casualties, so it was actually the second most costly raid of the war. And it was absurd because we were only over in enemy territory for about five hours or so. But it was just the conjunction of circumstances and we lost very heavily that night. From memory about six or seven aircraft from our squadrons got lost.
“The Americans flew in the daylight. They were based much further south than we were, round about Cambridge or places like that and they were flying in daylight and we would fly at night which gave the term “around the clock bombing” and I remember one day we were flying, coming back and we ran into a lot of American aircraft taking off in cloud and there were aircraft all over the place, practically scraping past each other. That wasn’t very pleasant, that didn’t last long. But the American aircraft was quite different to ours. They had designed for daylight, with very much heavier armament. They flew higher and they couldn’t carry the bomb load that we could carry. But they were, apart from that, they were very effective aircraft. “The main German defence line was under control of General Kammhuber. He designed the series of what we termed “boxes”, containing, guns, batteries of guns and searchlights and radar box controlled fighters and these boxes were set up from Denmark right down through, probably could have reached northern France. I’m not sure about that. This was the Kammhuber line, under General Kammhuber and we had to fly through that to get to our target quite often. We tried to avoid it if we could but as we did with the Munich raid taking us very far south, or with Konigsberg we flew very far north. But quite often we had to fly across the Zyder Zee and the Kammhuber boxes must have extended down past that. So they were a menace and then apart from the radar controlled boxes from the Kammhuber box, they had “wild boar” which is the code name for free ranging fighters which would be directed towards the bomber screen and they found their own targets. So we had the radar controlled fighters, we had the “wild boar” fighters and we had the boxes with searchlights in the front. And then of course we had all the target “I did 36 missions, two extras or three extras. I did one with Wing Commander Tate, one with a fellow who subsequently became a QANTAS pilot. There were just the two training extras so, the crew I think did 34, the pilot did a couple of extra ones without our crew for spare bod. So he might have done 37 I think. When you flew the specified number of missions, the crew was dispersed, unless you were sent to Pathfinders, the crew was dispersed and the pilot went to training air crew at Lichfield. I went to Moreton in the Marsh. The other members of the air crew were sent to various places, instructing on their special skills, don’t know where they were. So we never saw each other again. “We did extremely well with our general living conditions compared with the general public because we were very well fed. We got the pick of everything. I was fortunate enough to be based at Waddington which was a permanent RAF Base, very large and imposing structure, officers’ mess and we had our own rooms, batwomen to look after us. The sergeants in dispersed huts which were Nissan huts were, round top Nissan huts and they live in comparatively worse conditions, than the conditions we worked in because our mess was centrally heated, so we did the War in comparative comfort when we weren’t flying, not so good for the other boys. “Leisure activities were always a bit of a problem because we didn’t have transport till I got my own car. I got a Morris Roadster, used to scrounge for petrol, beg borrow or steal a few ration tickets and do a bit of limited motoring around the place. Otherwise we stayed in the mess and had the occasional mess party and got a girl and went down to the pub and so on. Well, time passed. The trouble was the bases were 4 ½ miles south of Lincoln on what is known as the Fossway, which is an old Roman road, a dead straight Roman road, and unless there was transport going in there and coming out which you knew about, you couldn’t get there, you couldn’t walk 4 ½ miles there and 4 ½ miles back. “Before the War ended, I volunteered to join what is known as Tiger Force which is a group of Lancasters to fly out to Australia and then fly north to fight against the Japs. And we did some training, we loaded up the aircraft, spare engines and all the things we weren’t able to get in Australia, in the way of equipment and we were waiting at a place called Predannick in Cornwall to start flying across the Atlantic and the next morning the Japs surrendered. Of course the whole operation was immediately scrubbed there and then to my great disappointment, and I was looking forward to flying the Lancaster back to Australia and so that as I say, the thing was abandoned and then we just parked somewhere waiting for a ship to become available in a matter of only two or three months and we were shipped back to Australia on a vessel called the “Stirling Castle” through the Suez Canal, across the Indian Ocean, back to Perth and that was the end of the War. I got back in the summer of ’46. I was discharged from the Air Force on 1st March 1946.
“I take my hat off and give full credit to the pilot who was the fellow who had to fly us into the target. I mean I just went where the aircraft went and what happened to the aircraft happened to me. But the pilot had to actually fly the aircraft in to the target which took a lot nerve anyway to do that. “Bomber Harris was not given due recognition as other members of the High Command because of the swell of public opinion had turned against the Air Force, after the War, despite the fact that the British public suffered from the bombing. They all started weeping tears for Dresden. Some people called for Bomber Command to be labelled as “war criminals” because we bombed civilians, which is what war is all about, destroying the enemy at all cost. And so Bomber Command was not elevated, Harris was not elevated as he should have been Marshall of the Royal Air Force. But I was back in Australia and there was none of that in Australia. But those people, and historical revisionists, keep on bringing up Dresden as an example of the brutality and ruthlessness of the Air Force. War is war. It’s got to be fought to be won, no half measures. You don’t go to war and try to lose it. You do everything you can to win the war.
“Some of my crew are still alive. The pilot is still alive. The engineer, the wireless operator and myself. Four out of the seven survive. The rear gunner was English and he retired in England. The navigator died in Australia and Eric Rosenfeld the bomb aimer has also died. So there are four of us left. Don Brett the engineer is in England and Bill the pilot, Cyril Davies and myself are in Australia. I keep in touch with Bill, occasionally with Cyril. Don Brett keeps in touch with Bill too. Bill got the Distinguished Flying Cross which he earned. He maintains it as a crew gong, we used to call them gongs. It may be partially a crew gong, but he was the one who was flying and as I said we were just going along for the ride. I think they get about a dollar a week or something for the Award of the Distinguished Flying Cross, I mean some ridiculous amount. It might be a penny a day, or some stupid amount and, but that about wraps it up I think.”
(Geoff Swindells was interviewed in October 2010).
Geoff died in June 2019. He was 100 years old.