'It’s always been something that absolutely mystified me - how in the hell we escaped that'

20 January 2020 by Claire Hunter

Dr Robert Milford

Dr Robert Milford still remembers the sound of 88mm shells cracking in the night sky around him as German anti-aircraft fire sought to bring down his Wellington bomber during the Second World War.

“First of all you saw it,” Dr Milford said. “Just black puffs in the sky, and then you got a bit closer, and you could feel it, you know, like a bit of air turbulence, and then you got a bit closer and you could hear it, crack, like a whip crack, or that’s how it sounded to me.

“Then when it got to the point where you smelt the cordite from the explosion, you knew it was bloody close, and that’s when you would get out of the plane after you’d got back, and run around and see how many holes you had.  So, yes, it was an interesting part of existence.”

Dr Milford served as a wireless air gunner with 150 Squadron (RAF) during the war, serving in North Africa, and then Italy.

He had begged his parents at home in Australia to let him enlist and volunteered to join the Royal Australian Air Force in March 1941.

“I guess [I was] like every other young fellow in that time,” he said. “I was 17 or 18 years of age then, and, well, we joined because that was what we were expected to do, so that was what we did in those days.

Dr Robert Milford

Robert Milford pictured in a Wellington bomber  during the Second World War. Photo: Courtesy Dr Robert Milford

“They asked you what do you want to be, and I wanted to be in the air force, so I pestered and pestered my parents to let me join.

“I’m an only child, and in those days flying was all sorts of awful things; they were starting the air war in Germany, and I said, ‘Let me go.’

“There was a doctor’s son who was in the air force at the time and he wasn’t flying, he was a ground wireless operator, so they said, ‘You can join if you go and become a wireless operator.’

“I went down to the recruiting office [in Brisbane] with my father … and we went through all of this rain dance, and everything that they do, and then we got down to the final thing.

“They gave me a handwriting test, and they couldn’t read my handwriting, so they said, ‘Oh, you can’t be a wireless operator [but] you could be in air crew.’

“I said, ‘Good,’ so they gave me the papers, and I filled them in, and I took them outside. My father was waiting on the footpath outside, and I said, ‘Well, they wouldn’t have me as a wireless operator, but they can put me in air crew,’ and he looked at me, and he signed it, and he said, ‘Don’t’ tell your mother.’ So that’s how it happened.”

Wellington bombers

A formation of Wellington bombers during the war.

When Japan entered the war, Robert was in the reserves and working as a field assistant for CSIR, the predecessor of the CSIRO, at the agricultural college in Gatton.

“They finally called me up in March of ’42, and as I was leaving the agricultural college, the Americans moved in,” he said. “They had taken it over, and the big army base hospital was there, and so off we went; we were going to be big, brave, bird-men.”

He completed his initial training at Sandgate, Queensland, and fronted a selection board for air crew.

“I knew there was no good me wanting to be a pilot,” he said. “They wouldn’t believe me, and anyway, I was too young, so I said I’d like to be a navigator because navigators got paid more than gunners and wireless operators.

“I had an advantage over most of the air crew there; they were kids and they hadn’t even been to high school, so I did very well in the course … but in mathematics … I missed one of the sums, so I didn’t get 100.

“We all had to line up in front of a big selection board … and the guy said, ‘Well, you were a bit weak in your mathematics,’ so I was made a wireless operator/air gunner, but I think 80 per cent of that course was made wireless operators …

“They were just building up Bomber Command at the time and that was what they needed … so that’s how I became a wireless operator, and the rest of that is more or less history.”

Wellington bombers

Mechanics overhauling and refueling a Wellington bomber in England during the war.

One of almost 27,500 RAAF pilots, navigators, wireless operators, gunners, and engineers, who joined Royal Air Force squadrons or Australian squadrons based in Britain, Dr Milford completed his wireless training at Maryborough in Queensland. He then attended the No. 1 Bombing and Gunnery School at the Evans Head in New South Wales before leaving for England, via the United States.

“We finally went on to a troop ship with a load of American marines who had been wounded in Guadalcanal and the islands,” he said. “It was in the middle of winter there in the States, and I’d never seen snow, but the hospitality there was unbelievable.”

They were camped just south of Boston, and were given a week’s leave in New York.

“You had to have 20 bucks to get to New York, so they lined us up, and the officer-in-charge came around to make sure every guy had 20 bucks,” he said. “Well, one guy had it, and then they passed it down the ranks, and we all got there; I went to New York for 15 bucks, and came back with 30, so the hospitality was quite something.”

He smiles as he tells how he met the fighter Jack Dempsey and the American singer Al Jolson.

“The town was open to us,” he said. “We went to the Stork Club [in Manhattan, one of the most prestigious clubs in the world at the time] and to Jack Dempsey’s [Broadway restaurant]. He came and bought booze for us, and then we went to [see the dance troupe] Rockettes and Al Jolson. It came to intermission, and I was a bit late getting back in, and he came on, and he and I were jousting. Or, as I like to put it, I was back-chatting with Al Jolson.”

Wellington bombers

Not long after, they sailed for England on board the troopship, RMS Queen Elizabeth, with Canadian and American forces. The threat of German U-boats was an ever present danger.

“That was what the U-boats were after, but they never got it,” Dr Milford said. “The Elizabeth could out run the German torpedoes at the time, but that’s all they could do, so we changed course about every 30 seconds, and the boat was constantly rolling, zig zagging across the Atlantic, so it was interesting; put it that way.”

When he arrived in England, he was sent to the Australian reception centre at Bournemouth. He remembers the pranks the air crew sergeants used to play on the officer-in-charge when they were meant to be marching through the streets of the town with him.

“I’ll never forget the time we looked down the road and there was this guy swinging his arms like this and there was no body behind him,” he said, laughing.  “The bus would go by with all the Australians. We would all hop on the bus and away we’d go, and gradually the numbers would be diminishing behind this poor bugger, but he never looked behind him. If he had looked behind him, he would have seen that he didn’t have anybody.”

Dr Milford also learnt to jump with parachutes and “banged away at Morse Code”, completing his advanced wireless training at Dumfries, Scotland, before being posted to the RAF’s operational training unit at Morten-in-Marsh, England, where they learnt to operated Wellington bombers and work together as a crew.

Western Desert, Egypt. 5 November 1942. One of our Wellingtons is being worked on by three ground crew members before a raid.

Western Desert, Egypt. 5 November 1942. A Wellington bomber being worked on by three ground crew members before a raid.

Wellington bombers

North Africa. c. 1944. A group of airmen of a Wellington bomber squadron.

In 1942, he was sent to North Africa to form part of the RAF’s new No. 205 Group.

“They put us on a ship – it was a French thing, the Champollion – and it must have been a ferry boat,” he said. “It was awful – very slow – and it wasn’t very nice going across the Bay of Biscay. That was a bit rough and rather dangerous, but we got to North Africa, and we landed in Algeria in a place called Blida.

“They said, ‘Who the hell are you guys? What are you doing here?’ And we found out later that they had sent an urgent message from North Africa back to England saying that they wanted 100 air screws.

“Well, they sent out 100 air crew instead, so there we were, and we were screwed. They didn’t know what to do with us, so the officers; they were fine, they put them in a little something somewhere, but all the sergeants, all they did was put us on a sand dune.

“We slept under the skies, and you had a ground sheet, and that was about it.

“It was a little bit cool at night, and you’d put the ground sheet down, and when you’d pick it up in the morning, up to 100 scorpions would be running around underneath it.”

He laughs as he tells how an enterprising Australian wireless operator took bets on scorpion races.  

“He made a packet on this thing because the scorpions never made it,” Robert said, laughing. “They’d just go, and then they’d burrow into the sand.”

Wellington bombers

Loading a Wellington bomber during the war.

They were loaded onto railway carriages, the squadron moving forward with the advancing army into Tunisia, before eventually reaching the mainland of Italy at the end of 1943.

“You talk about a slow boat to China, well this was a slow, slow, train, and it stopped for everything,” he said. “The Arabs were pretty smart, and on this trip they cottoned on to who we were. We had all our kit in the kit wagon in the back, but we were very militaristic, and we put a guard in there.

“They shunted us off somewhere, and we waited there quite a while, until finally we chucked off again, but we didn’t have the kit wagon behind us; it had gone.

“They’d got it you see, and when they opened the doors, these guys were waiting with trembling hands with their Smith and Weston 38s, so they foiled the attempt, and we eventually arrived in Tunisia, where we were allocated to squadrons.

“It was bloody sandy, and we were all messed in the one tent, and we had one jerry can of water per tent per day. You had to wash, drink and clean your teeth with it.

“I went down to southern Tunisia to a place called Kairouan [Qayrawan], which was a Muslim holy site. Our range was pretty limited, and then the invasion of Sicily happened.

“They moved the squadron up to northern Tunisia and then we headed off to Italy in November ’43 … This is where we joined up with the American 15th Air Force, and they consolidated our night bomber group, the 205 group, into the Mediterranean Allied Strategic Air Force.”

Dr Milford was involved in strategic bombing campaigns, flying over northern Italy, Yugoslavia, Romania, Hungary, Austria, and Munich in southern Germany.

“We were a strategic bomber force, but we were also called upon to do tactical bombing, supporting the army,” he said. “Our strategy was very much that you had to have individual targets – small targets – and we were dam good at it.

“Some of the historians have said that that effort of the Strategic Air Force in the Mediterranean on supplies could have shortened the war by as much as six months, and when you think of the little crappy force that we had, it was a pretty good effort, so I’m justly proud of being part of that.”

Wellington bombers

Italy. c1944. Wellington bombers lined up for an operation over the Balkans at dusk.

Wellington bombers

Italy. April 1944. The aircrew of an RAF Wellington bomber group based in Italy prepare to climb into their Vickers Wellington aircraft on a bombing run over vital targets in the Balkans.

They would mostly target important transport and storage facilities such as railway yards, ports, bridges and shipping.

“They were some easy ones and there were some rather nasty targets there too,” Dr Milford said.

“What we were aiming to do was to try and stop the flow of Romanian oil to the Wehrmacht because the Germans really were dependant on that one supply of fuel oil for their fighters …

“They needed high-octane fuel, and that’s where they had to get it from, and in that context our guys did a pretty marvellous job … They were high-loss, high-value targets and we had to do them.”

It was dangerous work and the targets were often heavily defended.

“If you had time to think about it, you could be shit scared, but you had so much to do,” he said. “As you were flying over a target there was the flak … and the 88mms would be pooping away at you.

“We dropped windows [or chaff], so that the radar couldn’t single out anybody, so they just put a box barrage up, and you had to fly through it, and that was it; you either got hit, or you didn’t get hit. And you did that every time you went out.”

He came face-to-face with a Messerschmitt pilot one night as his crew were preparing to drop bomb over airfields in Austria.

“We were cruising into the target and there were a lot of fighters up there,” he said. “We were going one way, and this guy was coming down the other way … He looked at me, and I was in astrodome, and I looked down at the pilot, and the German pilot looked at me, raised up his hand to say g’day, and I said g’day, as he went that way, and we went that way.”

A German Messerschmitt

A German Messerschmitt.

German Focke Wulf FW 190A-3

German Focke Wulf FW 190A-3 refuelling during the war.

Another night, they were returning from an operation over Bucharest when they found themselves surrounded.

“We got over this silly target and it was extremely unfriendly,” he said. “We were coming back along the Danube … and the rear gunner said, ‘Oh, god, there’s a fighter.’ The next thing there was a fighter there, a fighter there, and one in the rear. We were boxed in. We couldn’t believe it, and this is true, absolutely true. I looked and they were bloody Focke-Wulf 190s.

“Well, we didn’t know what to do … If we took evasive action this way, the other guy would get us … and this was all happening in the split seconds, so [the tail gunner] Billy poured a burst into the one in the rear. That was only the second time in his whole tour that he’d ever fired his guns, and he hit this fellow, and he broke away, and you wouldn’t believe it, these other two guys broke away too.

“It’s always been something that absolutely mystified me, how in the hell we escaped that.”

Wellington bombers

Italy. April 1944. An informal portrait of an all Australian crew which flew Wellington bombers with an RAF squadron based in Italy.

When asked if he was frightened, he pauses, and refers to what he told author Paul Long for his book, Always ahead: the search for 150 Squadron RAF.

“The most certain thing about our daily lives was the uncertainty of making it to the end of one’s operational tour. It was something that few of us cared to talk openly about except maybe in jest or in abstract terms – anything could happen to the next person …

“As in all battle situations, I was no exception, with fear a constant companion which one learned to handle every day. For me, it was not necessarily ‘getting the chop’ but, if it happened, how it happened.

“If I ever allowed myself to dwell on friend fear I could have found myself constantly terrified of being trapped in a burning wreck, unable to get out.

“The thought of a slow demise from shrapnel wounds was also something I tried not to contemplate in those days.

“As depressing as our fears may have appeared, most of us were fortunately able to ‘keep the lid on them’ and get on with everyday life on squadron.

“However we felt inside, we were too proud to admit to them, and too loyal to our crew to allow suppressed fear to disrupt the close teamwork of which our crew was justly proud.

“Indeed it was this interdependence between each crew member and the confidence we had in each individual’s abilities that gave us that extra confidence and skill which enabled us to weather many a dicey situation during our tour and to complete it successfully.

“In this context, fear was a friend for it was that fear which gnawed at the pit of one’s stomach on each op, which sharpened the senses to top pitch and got the adrenalin flowing.”

Dr Robert Milford laying a wreath at the Memorial in 2018.

Fire was the thing he feared most. He remembers having nightmares after the war – “I used to kick around in the bed at night” – and visions of being trapped in a burning Wellington while visiting a dentist after a run in with the British 78th Division in Cairo.

“I happened to get my teeth rather damaged by a boot, so they needed to come out,” he said. “I went to this dentist, and he put me under the gas… When I came too, the mechanic, who used to make the teeth then, and two nurses were sitting on me, and I was screaming; I was in this Wellington, it was in a spin, it was on fire, and I was trying to crawl up and get out of it.”

After the war, he returned to his research work at the CSIR, completed his PhD in England, and joined the World Bank, working on agricultural development around the world.

He had completed 38 operations during the war and volunteered to go back during his last nine months in England.

“We were flying with these awful pilots who were just learning how to fly twins, and we reckoned it was more dangerous than being on ops, so we volunteered to go back,” he said.

“We were warrant officers by then, and we got hauled up to air ministry. We went up to this guy’s office, and we thought, ‘Great, we are going back on ops,’ which was stupid.

“And then this guy said, ‘You’re mad; we appreciate it, but why in the hell do you think I’m here?’ He said, ‘You’re not going back, there’s plenty of guys who haven’t done anything yet,’ so we never did get back on ops, which was very lucky too …

“In the long run our chances of finishing a tour were about the same as Bomber Command.

“But in those days it didn’t hit me, how lucky I was.”