Aviation Heritage History Talk – John Caulton

Unknown Speaker:  Hawke’s Bay’s aviation history has produced some fascinating stories stretching back to the earliest days of aviation itself. For example, in the first decade of the twentieth century two largely unsung aviation pioneers from Napier came up with an idea about how to improve the control of aircraft while in flight. Their idea, the use of balancing ailerons, soon became incorporated into every aircraft built since that time. This is but one example of many Hawke’s Bay aviation stories that should be recognised and celebrated. So too, should we celebrate the stories about our local aviators who pioneered Aero Club and early airline flying in the years between the world wars. These were people who kept alive the romance of aviation, while at the same time helping transform it in the public mind from the domain of the daredevil into an activity within the reach of the ordinary person.

Then the dark days of World War II arrived, and large numbers of airmen of Hawke’s Bay served in nearly every theatre of conflict around the world. Their stories demonstrated time and again the old adage about ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Sadly many of them did not return. Stories like these need to be told, otherwise they risk remaining scattered, too soon forgotten, and ultimately lost.

A few years ago a group of people from across Hawke’s Bay informally got together to try and gather up some of our province’s aviation history. These were people with a love of aviation and who considered it important that the stories be collected and made more widely known. It soon became apparent to them that a more formal organisational basis would be needed to achieve these objectives. This led to the formation of the Hawke’s Bay Aviation Heritage Association in 2004; a not-for-profit group of enthusiastic members who enjoy each other’s fellowship while giving freely of their time in pursuit of our aviation heritage. Since then, and with the help of generous financial support from many institutions, the Association has been gathering, preserving and publicising stories about the aviation history of Hawke’s Bay. Our own website has so far been the main means of doing this, but we are now branching out into other ways of telling stories, such as exhibitions, and now for the first time we are using radio to do this. Roger Crowe, our secretary, will now introduce one of these stories.

Roger Crowe: We heard earlier the sound of the air war during 1939 to 1945 which, drawn by adventure and patriotism, hundreds of New Zealand youth entered to this theatre. The province of Hawke’s Bay gave its share to the Royal New Zealand Air Force. Over three hundred and sixty Hawke’s Bay youthful air crew did not return; died for the cause of freedom. Many did return though – names including Pat Tenant, Noel Sutherland, Bill Tacon, Keith Swailes, Bob Tier, Geoff White, Max Collett, Keith Dockery, David Fail, Keith Ellegdon[?], Jim Castles, Ron Ward, Dr Michael Davies, Vic Viggers, John Paterson, Charles Black, Max McKeown, and Charles Bovey. And the Hawke’s Bay Aviation Heritage have some of these men’s stories on tape.  We start this radio series with a recording of John Caulton, who like most potential air crew joined up for service in their late teens and early twenties. John Caulton, who became a Spitfire fighter pilot over the UK[United Kingdom] and German occupied Europe, takes up his story:

John Caulton: We were in three pairs. I was leading the right hand section and through the haze I saw, I could see [the] outline of an aircraft and I immediately turned – which was flying almost parallel with us and at about the same height, and as I turned, he turned, but he wasn’t going the other way. And it was all over, you might say, in a flash. I suppose the distance would be from here to the road when we first saw him and then by the time we’d turned it was all on. And it was a 110 [Messerschmitt Bf 110] . I’ve had a bit of a hurry up about being shot down by a 110, but he wasn’t supposed to be coming toward me as it turned out. And we both opened up, and the next thing I noticed was … well, he’d gone over my shoulder but there was a big hole in my wing inside the inboard for the right-hand canon. And then after that I turned to go back after him, and I noticed a big trail of vapour going to hit my ninety-gallon tank and [would’ve] taken the bottom out of it. So I got rid of that quickly, and then I noticed also that I was in a bit of strife because my oil was warming up and it was streaming past me and …

The oil coolant?

Well yes, as well – right underneath the nose. I didn’t know till later he had four 20s and two 37mm in front along the line of sight. And you know, they were mainly on two [?] at night; and then he had another two in the back.

As well?

Yeah. Two 20mms [millimetres] in the back that were fixed. They called them, what? Jazz music, I think, didn’t they? Used to come up underneath the ballast. Anyway, I realised I was in trouble so I called up the CO [Commanding Officer] and said I was going home, and Geoffrey said, “I’m sorry I can’t help you old boy, so start walking.”

So that was about … it was actually over Arnhem that most of that took place – over the edge of Arnhem; while the other side went over the top of it and got well and truly peppered from the anti-aircraft guns on the ground. So I left then, and I got to about Nijmegen which is about twenty mile away … twenty, yeah twenty mile … and it stopped running. And I picked a nice – it was all flat ground anyway in Holland, or pretty near all flat ground; and so I picked a run down through what appeared to be open ditches – a nice level piece of ground as I thought – but I didn’t notice through my oiled up windscreen that there was a piece of grass grown ditch; a large ditch, I suppose. It was only about three feet deep, and I went over the near edge and stuck in the other side just as I touched down. And that … you know, that rattled me round more than somewhat. It was a sudden stop. It was about a hundred and twenty, I suppose to a full … a hundred and ten to a hundred and twenty full stop.

And on our sudden harness we had a cable which allowed you to move forward with the catch off, so that you could move forward and pick up maps and what-have-you; and that’s supposed to’ve had a certain ton breaking strength; well that went round my head, so it broke. So there I was, you might say, with nothing on the clock, but the right way up.

Yes. Yes.

So anyway, I stepped out because it was very hot, and fell over because I’d smashed my knee as it turned out, into three pieces … my kneecap. And in fact I thought I had lost my leg because I had no feeling whatsoever, and I remember putting my hand down to see if it was still there.

Still there.

And it was. And sort of … events followed that in odd ways; a young fellow came running across – a Dutch boy – and you know, he was dead keen to help. And we got stood up, and then of course as soon as I put my right leg down again away it went; so it was just impossible, I just couldn’t walk.

And I had landed about four hundred yards from a tower … a wooden tower … which was staffed by Luftwaffe soldiers that [who] controlled the whole area. Anyone that [who] wanted to move out of the district had to go there for a pass and all that sort of carry on. There was about ten or twelve men in it apparently. Anyway, the next minute I heard someone speaking behind me, and I turned round and looked up, and he had this, you know, a little Tommy gun pointing right down at me, so … looking at the wrong end of that. So I told him to go somewhere else, or words to that effect; and then he came round just to check that I had no revolver or sidearms of any kind, and then he was quite happy. We had revolvers, which … a five-shot revolver was more of a menace than a use really.

So after getting my breath back, I was lifted up. And another person arrived in the form of a clergyman from the nearby village, and this German directed us back to this tower; two-storey tower it was … wooden tower. So I got back there eventually, after going across another fairly large canal. And yeah, it was a sudden jolt to the system, in more ways than one. I was still very dazed by the time I … I didn’t get knocked completely out, but the gun site was, you know, fairly close to you, and I hit that, I remember. I thought I had myself protected, but it was this hand as I landed – it threw me round.

And then I got just across the canal, and there was an elderly lady sitting outside in the sun, outside her house. She motioned me to come in, and I didn’t feel inclined to, you know – I didn’t want to. And she was Dutch obviously, in Holland. So I walked on with the support of these other two, and I handed them money ‘cause we always carried money of the country that you were flying over; not German money, but Belgian, Dutch, and French. And I handed that over to the clergyman, whoever he was. Then I heard a voice behind me, and I turned round and there was a girl with a lovely big glass of milk, about this size; and that put me right, you know. I wasn’t in shock, but I was still pretty dazed, and that put me on my feet, as it were, in a way.

I was taken back to this hut where I sat feeling very sorry for myself and far from home. And I don’t know how long I was there – it might have been an hour and a half or a bit longer – and I heard a car pull up. It was situated on a small canal, you know, about the width of this table here, this hut; and I saw a person walking across in uniform, [as] though they had just stepped out of, you know, a Blackmore’s window or something – full dress. And I thought, ‘Oh well’, you know, ‘they’ve come to collect me.’ And there was a knock on the door, and I said, “Come in.” I thought, ‘Well, you know, here I’m asking someone to come in and he’s the wrong side.’ And this chap came in, and he stood at the door and he saluted; and I stood up and acknowledged that. And then he said to me, “Are you flying the Spitfire?” And I said, “Yes”, and he said, “Well I was flying the other one.”

Is that right?

And that was … he was flying the other one. [Speaking together] We were on the same mission, yeah. Yeah. So what had happened, apparently these Luftwaffe soldiers in this … had rung through to Arnhem, which was the nearest ground, where he had just landed; and I’ll come back in a little bit [to what] happened to him in a minute, because that was also unusual. So he wanted to come out – the German units had a security, a political security medal like the commissars in Russia; a Nazi in other words – in charge of them, to see if they behaved. And he was told not to go, as he told me later on; said he was coming out, and there was four of them came out in the car; three of the crew and one other. And I think the other one might’ve been that political Nazi, and he spoke excellent English.

Anyway, this fellow, Achim, as I know him now … Hans Joachim – they all shorten names over there – but he said, “Well I’m going”. He said, “I just shot him down and I want to see what he looks like.” So that’s as he told me in later years. So anyway, we talked there for a while, and he said, “Well, would you come out and have some photographs taken?” And so I said, “Well what’ve I got to lose?”

What about your knee at this point?

Well I was able to stand on my leg, but I wasn’t able to bend it, so I had a fair amount of pain if I moved my leg. And by that time it was getting colder. Anyway, we went out and we had some photographs taken, and he did say at one stage, “Well, don’t look” … you know, I was obviously unhappy … “Don’t look as though you’ve just been shot down.” So I sort of perked up a bit. And to finish the conversation I said, “Well, tell me your name”, and he told me, and I said, “Will you write that down? Because with my memory”, and it hasn’t improved, “I’ll forget.” So he wrote it down on a piece of paper, and I said, “Well they’ll probably take it off me”; so he turned it over and wrote on the back: ‘Let the prisoner-of-war keep this souvenir of *Major Jabs.’ He was a Major. So then they went off down to the aircraft, and the last I saw of them after that was going past, and they had my dinghy with the sail up, going past. They’d obviously liberated that from the aircraft. So that was the end I saw of him then.

So then the progression from there was I stayed there, and about another hour and a half or two hours another car pulled up, and out got the most dangerous looking couple of Hun bastards you ever want to see … [chuckle] thin featured, pale skins, in a uniform; Field Security Police they were apparently; and round the neck, which amused me, was a chain with a great big oval plaque, you know, telling … that was their badge of office as it were. I smiled at that, but they weren’t amused about anything; and I got put into the back of the small car and taken off … oh, I don’t know how long the journey was – I lost track of time and dates over that period – ‘bout an hour’s journey I suppose, before I got to this camp where I was put into confinement. And it turned out to be the same airfield that I had been shot down over – it was an Arnhem Airfield. I didn’t realise at the time.

So one little incident about that, they handed me over to the local Air Force jailer, I suppose; he was a Sergeant equivalent. And he was a nasty little man; he was old, he was about forty-five. [Chuckle] You know, and I was only twenty-four at the time. And he pushed me and he shoved at me; and there was no one can scream like a German – they really wind themselves up to screaming. And, you know, they all carry side arms and you don’t know what they’re screaming or what they’ve said; and you don’t know when you’re going to cop it, you know. So it was quite unpleasant. But why I’m telling you the story is because he pushed me and he shoved me, and that didn’t improve my knee. And I went into a cell and there I had just a bench and a stool. So I thought, ‘Oh, shit – how am getting up on that bench?’ You know, ‘cause every time the weight went on my knee and it wasn’t good to bend, it was quite unpleasant. So the stool was about I suppose, six inches lower than the bench. There was [were] no blankets, nothing else, and it was just [a] solitary cell. And so I found that I could get up on the stool; placed it over by the bench and stood up on that, and then I could step over onto the bench. And after a little while and a lot of grunting and groaning I could lay down. And I’d been there, I suppose, about half-an-hour, and the door opened and in he came again. And he’s screaming his head off: “Aus!” You know, and you understand what ‘aus’ is; and he called you, you know – there’s a lot of words that are very similar in German – Frau and kinder, you know – you soon got to learn a little bit. And he took me out, or made me get out – and that was a bit of a problem – into another cell exactly the same as the one I’d just got out of. He was just being bloody-minded.

Yes, yes.

So I thought, ‘Oh well, stuff him!’ And I put the stool over by the bench, got up on the stool, stepped over it, and it was a bit rickety and it went from under me. And I ended up against the wall – and I don’t know what he thought I was trying to do – and I couldn’t get my leg out from under. He came in the door, threw it open and went to help me. I took a swipe at him, ‘cause I wanted to get my leg out from underneath, myself – you know, it was really painful. You couldn’t have seen a person that changed so much from one personality to another; you know, to a very caring personality, well very caring person. Anyway, I wouldn’t let him near me, and he rushed out and left the door open – well I wasn’t going anywhere anyway – but he came back with a couple of Americans, and they lifted me up and I was taken back and I was put on a spring mattress. So that was my … and he called the doctor and the doctor came and … Oh, what I should’ve said earlier, was that why we went on that particular day … there was a thousand bomber raid on Berlin, so you know, most of the German Air Force was out defending, and occupied; and we’d hoped to get them at a disadvantage, I suppose. So that was the end. It was an amazing … he looked in every while to see how I was …

So the doctor did actually do ..?

Oh, the doctor came round, and – yes, he came, I don’t know how long afterwards … ten minutes, half-an hour … and he had a look and he put a splint on it and tied it up so that I couldn’t bend it at all; and then went round the Red Cross pack – and I’m not overly keen on injections – and he brought out the biggest bloody needle I’ve ever seen. [Chuckle]  He probably used it on a horse. But it was like a three inch nail size, and I thought, ‘Oh, I can just imagine that hitting the bone’, you know, ‘when it went in.’ But he said, “No”; he motioned to me to take my tweeds down and then he threw it like a dart. That was for lockjaw [tetanus], and then he left.

So from there I went … the next week the rest of us in that room went by bus up to Amsterdam; there another week, about, and then into Germany and into Dulag Luft which was the interrogation centre, and eventually over to the camp. And then I got to the camp and I went to hospital for about three and a half months, and then back to the camp again. And then … [of] course the Russians got near, so they sent us back to Nuremberg and then down to a place near Munich, a place called Moosburg. So I never got to seeing this character again and the war went on for another year, so I often wondered what had happened to him. And then I came back to New Zealand, and … I went back to flying for another year in England – I went back onto flying and …

So the actual Germans did fix your leg up properly?

No, we had our own doctors.


They were prisoners of war.


Actually, a New Zealander operated on me; he was a gynaecologist I might add, [chuckle] so I don’t know what sort of a job he did. It wasn’t too good because it was so full of infection. The burn cases amongst the people that came … you know, most of the aircraft caught alight at some stage … and by the time they got there they were fully infected, and that went round the hospital. It was very basic, the hospital. All the staff were under German supervision, but no, their doctors didn’t have anything to do with us at all, so we were in a little enclave of our own with our own doctors and male nurses. And that was at Merdingen. It was near Kassel.  But anyway, then I went back to the camp at Sagan [now Żagań, Poland] which … Stalag Luft III, you know, you’ve heard of The Great Escape or The Wooden Horse?


I was in the actual compound that The Wooden Horse took place from, but before I got there.

Then I went back to flying after I was released down in Munich. We made our own way back to Paris and stayed there; we could draw on our bank accounts once we got into Paris and through the airport, and so it seemed a good opportunity to have a look around the sights and to drink as much bubbly as … liquor … we could, which was pretty freely available, and cheap. And then back; although you had six weeks’ leave and then you were on a boat back home after being a POW.

But through my friend who was flying, Geoffrey Page, and who was one of McIndoe’s first guinea pigs – in fact he was the original committee of the Guinea Pig Club, at East Grinstead. And I met McIndoe, and he had his own rehabilitation office in the hospital, staffed by Air Force, and virtually run by him. So one evening after dinner, Geoffrey said, “What can you do for John?” And he had a look at my knee, and I said, “Oh, there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s all healed now.” He said, “How ‘bout letting me have a look?” So he said, “I’ll see you in hospital at ten o’clock tomorrow morning.” So I had to go and get into bed at the hospital. He came round, did his rounds; and then I got sent up to the orthopaedic specialist for the RAF, [Royal Air Force] and it went from there.

And then I had to go back and get my flying categories back. There’s another little one there which is interesting too, was an Australian Medical Officer; but anyway, I went back onto flying ’causes the war was still going out East at that stage. And after I joined the squadron there they dropped the bomb, and it was all over. So [I] carried on there for about a year and then decided there wasn’t any future so came on home. I got married over there, and then I came back to New Zealand.

Then I bought, as you probably know, Rush Munro’s [Ice Creamery]. So then … anyway, my family grew to three, and my eldest girl was nursing. And when she’d finished her nursing, came and … she did her OE [overseas experience] … she was obviously doing these tiki tours and that [a]round. I said, “Well when you get to Germany, go through the …” I had no further communication in any way with Jabs, ‘cause I didn’t know where he lived, and I didn’t know whether he’d survived the war ‘cause it went on for another year. So I said to Jill, “Well, when you’re going through have a look through the telephone directories.” And it’s an unusual name – although there’s one in Napier here; no relation apparently.

Anyway, she got back to England and you know, it was hopeless looking up through a telephone book, or trying to trace anyone. And she said to my brother-in-law, who was in RAF Security, “How can I find this person for Dad?” He was still serving, you see, and Brian said, “Well, you know …”; got his name and he got on to his opposite number – and this was twenty-five years after the happening, after [19]44. So he got on to his opposite number in the German Embassy, and they knew him by repute because of his war record; and also he was a member of Council in Ruedesheim, which is near Cologne; but they wouldn’t let the address come out until he’d okayed that. And then I got his address; and I had photocopied the piece of paper that he’d given me, which I’ve still got; and sent it off to him, and within ten days the photographs that had been taken twenty-six years before, turned up.  So then the next year – that was ‘71 when Jill was there, and ‘72 we decided to go over for a trip and met him again for the second time.

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Radio Interview – Introduction by the Hawke’s Bay Aviation Heritage Association

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