Monday, 9 September 2013

5. Bill Mallon - early years and his epic journey

In 2004, at the age of 84, Bill Mallon was interviewed by Martin Halliday as part of the New Zealand Defence Force 'Military Oral History Project'. On June 13th 2013 I acquired a copy of the transcript of this 6 hour conversation and it provides a fascinating insight into the challenges and opportunities faced by trainee pilots, particularly those from the other side of the world, but it is also makes a valuable contribution to understanding the history of New Zealand during the inter-war years, including the 'great depression'.

Bill also made some candid observations on his first operation, a bombing raid on Dessau, in which 18 aircraft were lost and the Lancaster in which he was flying '2nd dickie' with F/L Spilman "had a short, inconclusive encounter" with a night fighter. In a letter to the author Mike Garbett in 1998 he had said it "frightened the hell out of me" and in the interview for the Military Oral History Project he recalled that he "didn't think there was much future in this game!"

Bill was also able to provide more information about the incident that occurred during the raid on the Sachsen benzol plant near Hamm on the 27th March 1945. The crew were in the aircraft AA-L (HK562) carrying 11,000 lbs (nearly 5 tons) of bombs and Bob wrote in his log book "Port inner feathered - hit by flak". Bill's log book contains even less - "3 engines - flak". In his interview Bill described it as being "very close" to their last operation as they had "copped a bit of flak on the run-in to the target". "The flak went through the oil cooler and it started to lose pressure" so he told Bob to shut down the engine. They completed the bomb run and returned home safely - "It's no trouble for a Lanc to fly on 3 engines" he added.

One piece of information I had not come across before was Bill's description of an additional identity tag that he says was issued when they were flying to targets in the east of Germany, with a risk of coming down behind the Russian front line. He described it as "a great big plaque" with "a Union Jack on one side and Russian on the other side saying 'Don't shoot ... he is friendly'".

The interview also provides valuable information about the effect of supply and demand on the training of aircrew as the war progressed. It must have been a source of great frustration that it was almost 3 years after his induction to the R.N.Z.A.F. that Bill Mallon commenced operational flying.

By May 1942 a large surplus of trained aircrew had built up in the U.K. and measures were taken to extend the training period, particularly for pilots. Whether or not it was an intended consequence is unclear but this extension improved the quality of flying and the rate of training casualties was halved between 1940-41 and the end of the war, from 1 in every 11,156 flying hours to 1 in 22,388.

By the end of 1943 there were adequate reserves of aircrew, both fully trained and under training, and in February 1944 the Supervisory Board of the British Commonwealth Air Training Scheme decided that the output should be gradually reduced by 40%. By June 1944 a serious bottleneck had developed and a large backlog of pilots had accumulated in the U.K., New Zealand and Canada. By this time though Bill was already at No.3 (P)A.F.U. and well on the way to a posting to an operational squadron.

Here is a summary of his story, as told in the interview.
Bill and his twin sister Dora May were born in Bell Block, New Plymouth on the 9th April, 1920 to Alexander Mallon, an Australian, and Dora, nee Rogers. He attended Bell Block Primary School and then, from 1932 to 1936, he was a student at New Plymouth Boys' High School where he became a member of its Cadet Corps.

Bill and May at Bell Block (and big brother in the background?)
Bill, aged 11, with champion calf on
'Bell Block School Calf Day'

Bill and his two older brothers would visit Bell Block airfield every Sunday to watch Gypsy Moths taking off and landing and a fascination with flight developed in all three boys, particularly Jack who, according to Bill, was "very air minded".

New Plymouth High School 1935
    New Plymouth High School cricket team, about 1934.
    Bill is second from the left on the middle row.
    In 1936 Bill left school and started work at Newton King Ltd. in the spares department of the motor division and in 1939 he became a volunteer fire fighter, coincidentally the same year that Bob completed his apprenticeship and joined the fire brigade.

    By 1939 Brother Jack was already in England with No. 53 Squadron (R.A.F.) having learnt to fly at Bell Block and in 1940 Bill and Tom both applied to join the R.N.Z.A.F. However, Bill had a knee problem and in 1941 was conscripted into the army and posted to Great Barrier Island with the Waikato Regiment, which was to see action in Italy later in the war (1943-45), and brother Tom was accepted into the R.N.Z.A.F.
      In May 1942, after completing a correspondence course to confirm his aptitude and academic suitability and having a knee operation to improve his physical condition, Bill was eventually called up by the R.N.Z.A.F. He claimed the operation was unsuccessful but he was posted to the air base at Rukuhia, which did not officially open as a R.N.Z.A.F. station until the 12th August 1942 and building work was still going on.

      On the 11th July 1942 he was posted to R.N.Z.A.F. Tauranga, the home of the Central Flying School which trained flying instructors, and for 7 months Bill and his colleagues served as the air defence unit, manning Bren guns on anti-aircraft mounts.

      On the 4th February 1943 he was posted to the Initial Training Wing (I.T.W.) at R.N.Z.A.F. Rotorua and at the end of 2 months training and assessment an interview with the selection board led to Bill being recommended for training as a pilot. He was then posted to No. 1 Elementary Flying Training School (E.F.T.S.) at R.N.Z.A.F. Taieri, about 20 miles from Dunedin, on the 3rd April, 1943, Bob's 24th birthday. Three days later on the 6th April 1943 Bill flew for the first time, in a Tiger Moth DH82 piloted by a P/O Wilson. On the 12th April he took the controls himself and flew solo for the first time.




      Tiger Moth DH82





        On the 29th May 1943, after just over 6 weeks flying training (60 hours flying, 24 of them solo) Bill was given a week's pre-embarkation leave before sailing from Auckland across the Pacific on the U.S.S. Matsonia, a liner requisitioned by the U.S. Navy and refitted as a troop carrier in 1941.
          The U.S.S. Matsonia in San Francisco harbour 1943
            He arrived in San Francisco in June to be met by what Bill described as "paranoia". They were all finger printed, a guard was posted on the ship and no-one was allowed ashore - apart from Bill, who managed to accompany the baggage truck. After a short ferry trip to Oakland they were on a train for a 2 day journey to Vancouver where they made a quick transfer from the American Railroad to the Canadian National Railways before continuing their journey to Edmonton.

             There followed a brief stay at No.3 Manning Depot in Edmonton, Alberta and then a 4 day train journey to Ontario. Towards the end of June 1943 Bill arrived at No. 5 Service Flying Training School (S.F.T.S.) in Brantford, Ontario where, having been selected to fly multi-engine aircraft, he
            The Avro Anson
            spent the next 4 to 5 months improving his flying skills in a Mk II Avro Anson, carrying out his own navigation and bombing practice.
               During this time he managed trips to Detroit and New York and the school was visited by Guy Gibson, just a few months after the Dam Busters raids.
                Bill was presented with his wings in November 1943 by the Chief Flying Instructor, a Squadron Leader whose name Bill could not recall, and he then embarked on another epic train journey that took Bill and his fellow pilots to Halifax, Nova Scotia for a rendezvous with the S.S. Mauretania. This Cunard White Star liner was launched on the 28th July 1938, sailed on her maiden trans-Atlantic voyage from Liverpool on the 17th June 1939 and was requisitioned as a troop carrier just a few months later. It took Bill and his fellow pilots, as well as thousands of U.S. and Canadian troops (D-Day was only 6 months away), to Liverpool, England.
                .
                RMS Mauretania 1938







                    On the 2nd December 1943, after a relatively short train journey, Bill arrived at No. 12 Personnel Reception Centre in Brighton, where he was billeted at the Grand Hotel, made famous in 1984 by the I.R.A. bomb attack on prime minister Margaret Thatcher and her government. 
                      The Grand Hotel, Brighton, in March 1943
                      He was in Brighton for about 3 weeks and then posted to R.A.F. Manston in Kent, where he carried out 'flying control duties' (later to be called 'air traffic control') for about 6 months. Whenever he had leave he was keen to visit the New Zealand Forces Club** on Charing Cross Road, London and during one leave was able to meet up in London with his surviving brother, Tom.


                                                            ** These were 'all ranks' clubs and generally considered to be very good for morale wherever they were established. Bill described it as "a great set-up".

                        Bill was promoted to 'temporary flight sergeant' on 29th March 1944 and remained at Manston until 6th June 1944 (D-Day) when he was posted to R.A.F. Padgate near Warrington in Lancashire, coincidentally where Bob had had his unsuccessful interview in 1942. Bill says he heard about the D-day landings on the train to Padgate!
                        On the 8th June 1944 he was transferred to No.3 (Pilots') Advanced Flying Unit (A.F.U.) in South Cerney, near Cirencester in Gloucestershire and was billeted at R.A.F. Bibury, where there was a relief landing strip. Here he was to become familiar with navigation, map reading and night flying in 'English conditions' or, as Bill put it, "bloody awful English weather". For the first time he carried out night flying under complete blackout, something that clearly stuck in his memory. He was flying the Airspeed Oxford, a 2-engine aircraft used extensively in the training of Commonwealth aircrews.
                          An Airspeed Oxford II in 1942

                            By August 1944 Bill was ready to take on a crew of his own and he was posted to No.11 Operational Training Unit (O.T.U.) at R.A.F. Oakley in Buckinghamshire, to 'crew up'. Once he had assured the 'Officer in charge of airmanship' that he was fully conversant with the Wellington bomber


                             he joined his new crew for their first flight together on September 7th.



                            There was now just one vacancy to fill, a flight engineer, before they could fly a Lancaster bomber but they would have to wait another 3 months before they recruited Bob, who would not complete his training until November.

                              The Vickers Wellington bomber
                                Bill clocked up 76 hours in a Wellington before the end of November 1944 and the crew was then posted to R.A.F. Langar in Nottinghamshire at the beginning of December 1944. It was there that they would familiarise themselves with the 4-engine Avro Lancaster. Bob had been there since the 25th November and when he joined Bill's crew he had accumulated only about 13 hours of flying time. Bill took his crew up in a Lancaster without an instructor for the first time on the 29th January 1945 and in his interview said that he "was one of the lucky ones" - "I managed to form a very compatible crew".
                                  Bill and his crew had less than 35 hours flying time together, though they did fly with other pilots for various training exercises, with 16 hours of night flying crammed into the last 2 days of February, before they were posted to No.75 (NZ) Squadron in Mepal on Tuesday, 6th March 1945.
                                    Ground crew working on the port outer engine of 75(NZ) Squadron Lancaster JN-X at Mepal (1945) (I.W.M)
                                      The very next day Bill saw '2nd dickey' action alongside pilot F/L 'Buzz' Spilman in a raid on Dessau and on Friday the 9th March he took his crew on their first 'war op' to Datteln. His brother Tom was killed 3 days later. It is not clear exactly when Bill learnt of Tom's death but his family back in Bell Block immediately contacted the local air force C.O. and the wheels were set in motion to offer him a 'compassionate posting' to New Zealand. He later said he only agreed to the posting on condition that he was posted to New Zealand immediately and he returned to No. 12 Personnel Reception Centre in Brighton after his last operation on the 24th April.
                                        He was still in England on the 8th May 1945 , V.E. Day, and he recalls meeting up with some of his crew and going to Bolton to celebrate.
                                          On the 30th May 1945 he eventually set sail from Liverpool on the S.S. Arundel Castle, a Union-Castle liner, and with Australian and New Zealand P.o.W.s crossed across the Atlantic once again, passing through the port of Cristobal at the Western end of the Panama Canal on the 16th June.
                                            The RMS Arundel Castle after the 1937 refit reduced the number of funnels from 4 to 2
                                              Bill was commissioned while still at sea on the 23rd June, back-dated to the 25th March, and became a Pilot Officer (temporary). He arrived in Wellington on the 3rd July 1945, disappointed that they hadn't dropped off the Australians first at Sydney because he said he would have liked to have had "a look around Aussie". The ship set off for Sydney two days later and spent nine days there. Thanks to Pete Tresadern's research these dates are confirmed by the Arrival/departure Schedule of the Arundel Castle.
                                              Arundel Castle, arrivals and departures 1945
                                              He was then driven to New Plymouth in an army vehicle having missed the train because of delays in receiving clearance. He was eventually discharged and returned to civilian life, his epic journey over.
                                              Bill's epic journey


                                                Bill in New Plymouth after the war
                                                  Bill said he was proud to have had the opportunity to captain an aircraft and be in charge of a crew. "They depended on me and I depended on them" he said. Although it seems a waste that after nearly 3 years of training he was only operational for less than 2 months, it is more of a waste that after his return to New Zealand he never flew again - but the biggest waste of all was the death of his two brothers.

                                                  The picture on the right was taken by Swainson's Studios in New Plymouth and must have been quite a while after the war as he has his medal ribbons sewn onto his uniform. The Puke Ariki museum/library currently has an exhibition of the Swainson/Woods Collection (13th April - 28th July 2013) and a search of the on-line catalogue suggests it was taken as late as the 12th November 1946. Is it my imagination or is there a serenity on Bill's face that wasn't there in the photograph taken during the war? (see below)


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