Barney Greatrex by Michael Veitch

Second World War (1939-45)
Air Force

Join Michael Veitch and discover the extraordinary story of young Australian airman Barney Greatrex. Shot down during his 20th mission over occupied France and rescued by the resistance, Barney seized the opportunity to continue fighting.

Barney Greatrex: From Bomber Command to the French Resistance – the stirring story of an Australian Hero is available through Hachette Australia.


Voiceover: Welcome to the Shrine of Remembrance podcast, recorded live at our talks and events. This episode features writer and broadcaster Michael Veitch discussing the extraordinary life of the young Australian airman Barney Greatrex, who joined the Resistance after his plane was shot down over occupied France. There was a little technology glitch during this talk which meant that the visuals accompanying the talk stopped working halfway through, it didn't affect the audio recording which is why we are still releasing it but you will hear it mentioned a few times. Michael did an absolutely wonderful job of continuing this talk unabated and we really hope that you enjoy hearing more about this extraordinary story of Barney. So for now, over to Michael.

Michael Veitch: Thank you very much and lovely to be here in this wonderful, wonderful asset that the Shrine now has, this beautiful auditorium. As Leonie said my passion for this has been a lifelong obsession, many in my family have actually said this over the years. Previous to this work that I've done here on this story I’m about to illustrate, indeed it was a series of interviews with airmen who had not told their story before, but it was every chapter was a different gentleman that I managed to meet many who'd done extraordinary service and had an extraordinary story to tell. This story was the first long-form story I tackled and it is indeed an extraordinary one and again a completely hidden one, as we know so many of the stories that the men of the Second World War particularly or of all wars perhaps experienced were hidden from us until much much later in their lives, until a nosey parker like me came along and winkled it out of them.  But it is indeed a remarkable tale and I'll get straight into it and look if you don’t mind I'm actually going to read just the couple of pages of the prologue from the book itself, because it does set the scene and I'll go back to the context afterwards.

Barney Greatrex could bear the tension no longer, wincing through the cigarette haze he once again took in the handful of faces that surrounded him in the small wooden hut buried deep in the French forest.  Hard swarthy Gallic faces outwardly calm but long inured to explosions of sudden brutal violence. Even then, Barney had noted their expressions hardly changed.

Pale sunshine pushed its way feebly through the small grubby window, cutting shards of watery light through the permanent fog of smoke and stale sweat. Barney swallowed, his knee fidgeted a raw sense of dread washed over him, the stranger sat among them to orbiting indistinguishable from the others. Like them he talked quickly, gesturing forcibly with his hands, smiling even, offering up an occasional brittle joke, but he was not one of them and everyone knew it.

It was his eyes that gave him away thought Barney, darting from face to face from moment to moment, preparing for what? A sudden bolt from this bare little room that threatened to suddenly close in on him. Where though could he run, outside was nothing but trees, these endless woods besiege them like a gloomy army and the hard men of the Marquis knew their every meandering path and every dank hiding hole, in any case reflected Barney he'd probably never even make it to the front door.

Careful not to catch his eye Barney studied the stranger's face, like the others it was aged far beyond his 35 or so years but he was almost sure it was still unsuspecting. He risked another glance. How, he thought, could he tolerate this atmosphere? This grinning pall of false cordiality that dangled like a noose in front of him? Barney sent his eyes to the ceiling then to the floor. For how many weeks had these flimsy walls served as his home as well as his prison? How many weeks had these faces been his closest companions as well as his jailers? And when was it that he first counted himself among their number?

He strained to pick up the conversation humming around him. His French though a little better now could barely glean the gist of it. The only thing of which he was certain was that no one was saying what they thought. With an almost involuntary spasm Barney shoved back on the thin wooden chair scraping it noisily over the bare floorboards, unused to the young blonde Australian airmen doing anything very much besides sitting quietly and observing, the others glanced up for a moment then lost interest.

Barney excused himself and went to the door. Outside the air, though fresh, brought little relief. Wandering a short distance from the hut he picked up an axe and began to chop wood. The rounds of pine still too green to burn exploded satisfyingly under his blade blocking out momentarily the sound of the voices inside the hut.

The irony of the scene was not lost on him. Like the man with the yellow skin and the darting eyes, Barney too was a stranger thrust into an alien world of danger and uncertainty over which he had no control whatsoever. A month earlier he had watched the south coast of England passing below him through the perspex astrodome of the great black Lancaster Bomber. The familiar outline of Beachy Head dissolving into a wintry evening haze, less than three hours later came the frenzied few seconds that he had long dreaded but long expected. The punctuated conversation over the aircraft's intercom as the night fighter stalked closer. 900 yards skipper, 800 the voice of Reg, the now dead wireless operators still rang in his ears. Then the sickening tear of cannon shells splitting metal, the sudden fire and those surreal moments as the doomed aircraft gripped him in its centrifugal death spin.

The miracle of his escape. The shock of a freezing black wind. The parachute blooming white above his head in the night sky. The snow. Then, the almost unbearable realisation that out of his crew of seven he alone was now alive.

A few days later cold, hungry and exhausted he had emerged from another forest much like this one to take the biggest gamble of his life, opening the back door of a small house in a tiny mountain village and stepping inside. The middle-aged Frenchman who met him stood frozen to the spot as if encountering a ghost.

That was a slightly longer reading than I meant but it does sum up the situation that this very ordinary young man, as all the young men of the Second World Wars generation basically were, finding themselves in utterly extraordinary situations.

Barney Greatrex was a Sydney boy from a well-to-do family. This is him as a child, a handsome sweet looking boy as all warriors were at one stage. We tend to forget that even those of our enemies were often sweet little boys at one stage. Grew up in Sydney and as his generation was that picked to fight the dreadful struggle of the Second World War, his father who had been in the Great War was an Englishman and he didn't actually want him to join up at all and like many of the young men whose fathers had been in the Great War he said: look join the Air Force, it’s the safest way to be. Because in the First World War, it possibly was. Having experienced the carnage of the trenches and seeing those RAF and Royal Australian Air Corps people flying above the trenches they thought that's the life for me.

Well of course in the Second World War, particularly in the great moor of Bomber Command the situation was reversed and as many of you probably know to survive the mandatory tour of 30 operations in Bomber Command over Europe, the survival rate was often one in three at best at various times in the war. Barney though did want to fly, oddly enough when he joined up and went to basic training. Put his name down on the list and the inevitable interview came. ‘Well what do you want to be son?’, and everybody said, ‘I want to be a fighter pilot’ to the exhausted sort of admin officer going, ‘yes, oh well we don't really have many jobs for fighter pilots most of you are going to be in bomber crews’. But Barney said, ‘I want to be a bomb aimer’, which made the admin nearly drop his drop his pen, ‘why is that?’ He said,

Well, I’ve just been looking at a copy of flight magazine and this new Lancaster Bomber's come out and the escape hatch is right where I work directly underneath me.

And he said, ‘you sound like a sensible lad’, so he was fast-tracked.

He was fast-tracked, he did not even have to try out to be a pilot because he didn't want to be one. So he actually went into Bomber Command quite early. He did a little bit of training here in Victoria. He was an air gunner as well I think, He was down at, um, Evan's Head—I’ve forgotten where it was—where was the bombing and where the fairy battles flew up near Nambucca Heads? Somewhere around that the bombing and gunnery school he had to train for as well. When he was overseas he ended up beginning his operations at the end of 1914. Have I done something wrong?

Leigh Gilburt: No, its just we've dropped the image.

Michael Veitch: What do I have to do?

Leigh Gilburt: I’ll fix this.

Michael Veitch:  He joined Bomber Command, he joined 61 Squadron, which was a RAF (Royal Air Force) squadron. Of course, many of you know many thousands of Australians were dispersed through the squadrons of the Royal Air Force and many of course flew in designated—I think the four or five designated correct me if i'm wrong—Bomber Command Squadrons that were uniquely Australian that were formed during the Second World War as well.

Barney joined 61 squadron just in time to begin one of the most dubious and controversial aspects of the air war of the Second World War the so-called Battle of Berlin. Not the battle of Berlin that happened in 1945 with the Russians, but this was the RAF’s. This was Bomber Harris’s attempt to shirk off his growing critics—of which there were many—who despite his earlier claims to have been able to finish the war quickly he decided, he said to Churchill, ‘Look you give me a free hand to attack the German capital and I will be able to do it.’ Of course it didn't work as we now know, it cost him a thousand Lancaster Bomber crews to actually do so and basically it was a terrible situation for all concerned.

Barney began his tour at in one of the first raids of the Berlin campaign and just the experience of it itself was extraordinary. I mean, to actually begin operations in a European winter, at the beginning of a European winter, play extremely long flights of 12–13 hours—sometimes more depending on the weather to Berlin which is on the eastern part of Germany, much closer to Poland than France say—where temperatures were absolutely freezing absolutely freezing, to touch bare metal was absolutely died any part of it. To use the loo, you virtually couldn't use the loo. Your urine froze virtually as soon as it came out of you. Men literally had terrible skin damage because their buttocks got caught on the frozen seat of the loo, I mean awful things.

The Germans knew that it was one of the most audacious campaigns in aviation military history because there weren't even any diversions on the Berlin range. They just went straight there and straight back. It was almost like a dare. 

So, Barney's first few trips, or almost or his logbook is basically Berlin night after night after night, a couple here and a couple there. He had some wonderful recollections of actually flying. One of the most dramatic occurred on one of his later trips. I'll just read what happened to that one. This is after that they dropped their bombs over the target at night in sub-zero temperatures, of course. Barney of course being the Bomb Aimer, he’s a fella that sat on his stomach with the what they call the tit in his hand saying, ‘left, left, steady, left, left’ and he was more or less verbally guiding the aircraft. The Americans, I learned recently, the bomber had to actually physically guided the aircraft with a little toggle that they had. But the RAF had to actually communicate it verbally to the pilot just behind him and he adjusted the aircraft very slightly for the target as he looked through the side.

Barney jammed the little button in his right hand and the Lancaster lurched upwards.  Bombs gone. Stand by for the photo flash. Every man froze in the aircraft as Barney counted down the seconds watching the blinks and flashes of more anti-aircraft fire erupting from the ground. ‘Come on, come on’ he willed.

What they had to do to confirm the bombing, they had to drop a flare and take a picture of it and that was another 30 seconds they had to stay hanging over the target flying straight and level. If they didn't get that picture they'd often have to do that trip again. It wasn't counted for them.

Then suddenly in his headphones the urgent voice of Allen his mid-upper turret, Lancaster right on top of a skip, ‘turn to port now’. With his excellent all-round viewer high atop the aircraft's backbone, Allen's value as a lookout was worth as much as the two browning machine guns he operated in his gloved hands. Even when formations of Lancaster's were perfectly coordinated, their assigned heights for the few deadly minutes over the target mid-air collisions were frequent. This night with a formation buffeted and out of order at the end of a long flight to Berlin it was particularly perilous.

Allen peering into the night sky, rotating his turret constantly over the target area and trying not to look at the fires below to preserve his night vision was probably a little stung by the 88 millimetre shell exploding at the front of the aircraft.

Yes a minute before that they had a near miss.

As usual skipper Wally had done a quick roll call over the intercom. ‘Navigator, okay. Skip, wireless operator, okay. Skip.’ and so on but the flash had spoiled Allen’s ability to cut through the wintry gloom. Seconds later in his peripheral vision he sensed rather than saw the weak moon suddenly vanish followed by the great black shape of a Lancaster oblivious to what was underneath descending towards them almost directly overhead. So close was the other aircraft that Allen could see the dull glow of the motor's exhaust stubs and even make out the pilot's face barely illuminated by the soft green light of his instrument panel. ‘Port, skipper, port!’ shouted Alan dropping all pretence at staying calm. Wally the pilot instinctively hit his right rudder bar hard and turned the wheel over. The speed of his response undoubtedly saved both aircraft and their crews but a second later a ghastly metal-tearing crash reverberated through the aircraft and then suddenly the noise of the engine seemed to drop away.

‘Jesus!’ shouted someone over the intercom. As much as he tried to slide under the Lancaster, Wally’s quick manoeuvre couldn't prevent the port wing of the adjacent bomber slamming into the starboard wing of his own. Barney could barely bring himself to peer through the small window above his bomb position. Sparks were cascading between the two wings which for a moment appeared to be locked together shining metal hacked by the spinning props of their two starboard engines hung in shreds from the leading edge of the other Lancaster's wing.

With another terrible lurch and a sound like a metallic roaring the great black aircraft slid away into the night. Barney could just make out the now frantic expression on the face of the neighbouring pilot and the red letter codes of the side of on the side of his fuselage PO denoting four six seven squadron—an all Australian unit based at Waddington in Lincolnshire. ‘Another bloody Aussie,’ thought Barney. For the briefest of seconds he pondered whether he might know the man and what he might say to him regarding his careless flying if he ever happened to meet him.

That was one of the most dramatic aspects of Barney's tour and it was common to. I mean, you can imagine what it was like. All right for us today with satellite navigation and all sorts of things like that but these aircraft were basically told loosely to fly off by yourself, turn up somewhere over the target all together and drop your bombs simultaneously, I mean it's a wonder that many, many more aerial collisions in Bomber Command didn't happen during the Second World War. I’m sure many actually more did than were accounted for officially that is.

Well of course, the most and why we’re here is Barney’s war took a very, very different turn a few weeks later when as was alluded to in that first preface there, he was shot down by a Night Fighter. Not, oddly enough, on an attack to Berlin, but on a trip to Augsburg which he had to fly over the Voge Mountains and to the big German industrial city in the sort of central west of Germany. He was shot down but we have actually in the research managed to pinpoint the German pilot that flew a Messerschmitt 110 that night. He was an experienced pilot and he wrote quite extensively about his view of the kill and it was, apparently, a kind of a gloomy, hazy kind of night. There was a strong moon and a kind of a foggy sky illuminated the aircraft quite clearly and he could follow it for quite a while before firing at it and the aircraft caught fire.

Barney’s escape in itself—and that was the subject of some interest at the end of the story because no one quite knew how he could get out of the aircraft—the aircraft went into a centrifugal spin and for which the RAF did not think it was possible for a human body to actually open the hatch and slide out. But Barney somehow managed to do so bailing out just in time pulling his cord and coming down somewhere amongst pine trees in the middle of a forest and having no idea where he was of course. He knew that the aircraft had crashed because he could see it a half a kilometre away on fire. He followed his nose through the forest and saw his aircraft burning, a couple of bombs had gone off on his approach and he knew pretty much well that there were no survivors around and he was the only one.

So then this young man just sort of considered his options and what do you do? He stared walking. It's amazing how much they were not trained for this either. They were given, from what I understand, they were given one afternoon's lecture in training as to what to do if you’re shot down. They had interesting things they were equipped with. Things like on one of their tunics they had a little compass that was screwed into one of their service buttons which they could tell where they were. They had things like—and an airmen gave one to me just before he died I'm just so honoured to receive it—one of the maps, these beautiful exquisite silk maps. It could compress into the size of a matchbox but opened up to something like that of the area over which they were flying. They were given little photographs of themselves in civilian clothes.

(Is this, is this not working, I’ll just try it again.)

Leigh Gilburt: No it's it's not working.

Michael Veitch: Oh that's a shame because there is a picture of him in civilian clothes. But basically, his parachute training was one jump from basically on top of a ladder which was done at the base into a sand pit and I remember asking another bomber, ‘yes oh well you know they didn’t really expect us to survive so what was the point in training us’ and those were his words. But basically it was jumping off a kind of a wooden stepladder like you know 10 feet high or something into a sand pit and that was your parachute training. So the first jump Barney Greatrex did was the one he had to do in earnest to save his life. 

He started wandering around, he didn't know where he was. Didn't know if he was in France or Germany. He assumed he was somewhere close to both countries. In fact, where he'd actually come down was in Alsace Lorraine and the much contested area of the of the French German border, which the successive wars have always been slogging since the 1300’s have been fighting over Alsace Lorraine. Which is why, I think, it has two names like that. And in 1940, Germany after the invasion they annexed his part. So it was officially German territory and he walked westward so he assumed. He saw some bombers going back the next night and he just basically followed them as they're obviously heading west back towards home. So I’ll follow them, and a night later he came to a kind of a barbed wire fence where there was a kind of empty pill box and he crossed that and what he was doing he was actually crossing over from Germany into France.

He then was high in the mountains. He was getting hungry. He was extremely wet and miserable and uncomfortable so he decided to take a gamble. Remember the instructions drummed into him in training as well as in the occasional escape and evasion lecture he chose just to make his appearance and seek help. To further add to his discomfort his feet and legs were now soaking as he had misjudged the little stream he had crossed which was nearly up to his waist. This is in February, sorry I should say it's in February 1944.

Approaching the first house in the street he drew a breath and walked up to the front door to make the most important decision of his life. If these people were German sympathisers and—he was told France was riddled with them—he could be in the hands of the Gestapo within hours. He paused, thinking better of things, Barney went around to the back. He knocked twice loudly and waited. Nobody came to the door. He then tried the second house which was also empty. Feeling his sails very much deflating he began to wonder if the village was deserted as no sign of light could be seen anywhere. Only the very last house in the street revealed a chink of light from the back door falling on the snow. This time he didn’t even knock and just pushed it open carefully. He found himself standing in an empty kitchen under an electric light, feeling most unsure of what to do. Now he banged several times with his hand on a heavy oak table. A door opened and in walked a very sturdy, very French-looking middle-aged man wearing a waistcoat and a bushy moustache (so something out of Allo Allo hello isn't it really). He stopped, frozen and looked him up and down as if seeing an apparition. Barney tried to glean the nature of the expression on the man's face. Quickly he pulled out the scarf and began to point. The scarf also had some phrases on it that, ‘ I am an Australian airman etc.’ Suddenly the Frenchman smiled broadly. Seconds later, however, he disappeared back behind the door and closed it. Barney heard voices. He later reflected, ‘I knew that my fate perhaps my life depended on what was going on behind that door.’

After a seemingly interminable period during which Barney considered simply walking off and heading back to the forest, the door opened and in walked the Frenchman now accompanied by a woman Barney assumed to be his wife then another much older woman appeared followed by another and finally a grandfatherly figure with an identical moustache to Barney's host but pure white. Barney wondered how many more individuals could be secreted into this tiny house. They each examined him in open mouth silence, finally one of the old women approached him, put her arms around his neck and kissed him on both cheeks. This apparently broke the ice and all of them came to hug him or shake his hand. From somewhere bread appeared along with cheese, coffee and wine. Barney sat down to eat with gusto it was unquestionably the best meal of his life.

Barney’s gamble he thought might just pay off. And so began this, and this was about this was in  February 1944, so began this extraordinary ordeal in which Barney. Unlike most or many—I've never actually quite worked out the numbers of Allied airmen who were shot down that weren't actually captured, and that was by far most—and there was only a tiny percentage that were on the run they were usually sort of put through the rattle. Some hid through the entire duration of the war. They just sort of hid in barns and things and found a local and who took care of them. Many were, of course, secreted back through Spain which was very, very risky for all concerned. Back to the Allies, back to England. They could never fly again by the way. They were not permitted to go back in the air because they could give too much away if they‘d been shot down again.

But Barney was incorporated into the Resistance. He spoke not a word of French. He learned on the go. He was a clever boy he was very academic so he was highly intelligent. He was given a Resistance number. He was given a rank, he was given a unit and he was something of a celebrity for many, many months. And he then became embroiled in the quite bizarre internal politics of the French Resistance.

I talk about the French Resistance quite a lot in the book because learning about how undoubtedly brave, undoubtedly unspeakably brave, and terrifically courageous the French Resistance were, they were a very, very fractured organisation. France, remember, had collapsed to the shock of the world even though their army was as strong as the Germans and the Germans rolled in in May 1940. Nobody thought what was going to happen was what actually happened. Numerically speaking, France was roughly on a parity with Germany and yet they went through it like a dose of salts. They did in six weeks what they couldn't do for four years twenty years earlier. Many historians now agree, France of 1940 simply had reflected France in the past ten years: one of the most fractured, bitterly divided, polarised socially, economically and politically countries certainly in Europe.

Whereas Germany, well you have to admit it, was pretty united in the middle of the ghastly reign of the Third Reich. France, however, had something like 37 literally changes of government in seven years. It was quite chaotic and its society and its military reflected that. Its resistance movement, that did not spring up overnight in France. It took a long time to get going and there was no one single resistance movement for several years. It was all based on social strata politics. There was the left resistance, there was the right resistance, there was de Gaulle's resistance, there was the trade unions resistance, there was the communist parties resistance which ended up doing most of the dirty work, and then there was the remnants of the French Army that had been so humiliated in 1940. And they all detested one another and the Allies knew this and that's why they, in one of the most underrated meetings, one of the most important meetings I think of the whole Second World War held in a flat right near in an apartment in the seventh arrondissement right next to Notre Dame Cathedral about 200 meters from the local Gestapo headquarters, one of the chief resistance leaders in London was parachuted in and forced these people to come to a meeting about six months before D-Day. They had never met each other. They all hated each other and he said,

Look you must work together or else assistance from us will not be forthcoming and we mean it. And you need our assistance because if you try and tackle the Germans on your own you won't survive.

And it worked of course. That was, oh who was the famous the famous French resistance figure who was then murdered by Klaus Barbie in Leon a few months later? Because he was caught just after that meeting, his name was… Jean Moulin!  One of the great heroes of the French Resistance. A true hero, and that was the meeting that he organised and that became the one solid resistance movement that coalesced around all these other ones that were hitherto very, very fractured and it kind of worked.

Now some of the assistance I alluded to, and I’m not digressing too much because Barney Greatrex where he was was in one of the most interesting parts of France bec