Bibby, Geoffrey Wallace (Geoff) Interview

This interview is being done on the life of Geoff Bibby. Today is the 20th August, 2014. Good morning Geoff. Just a few statistical things we need to know for a start and some of them – where were you born, where did your parents come from – we’ll develop those things as we go down the line.

I’ll go straight back to when my great grandfather died. He died in 1855 in a place called Quernmore [the name is spelt out] in Lancashire. He left three sons and nine daughters. The nine daughters were told to go and get a husband and one [son] inherited all the family business which was milling and very profitable milling up there in the north part of Lancashire.

The other two were told to get lost to the colonies. One went over to Charleston in Carolina and he bought a cotton farm there and of course he inherited a lot of slaves. After the War of Independence or the American Civil War or whatever you like to call it, all these slaves were released but none of them had a surname, not one. They’d be Bill or Mary or Joe or whatever it was but no surname at all. And then they said “What are we going to do? We must have a surname”. So they said “The boss has been very good to us, let’s take his”. So that is why in the bottom of the south, the south of the United States, there are millions of black Bibbys.

Is that right, it’s amazing.

The other one, of course, was my grandfather who in 1860 came out – he had done his apprenticeship as a cabinetmaker. When he came, he came, he sailed out in 1860 and had a look at New Zealand. He started off down in Nelson and then he came up to Hawke’s Bay and much to everybody’s surprise he decided to settle in Waipawa. Now Waipawa at that stage was just half a dozen people virtually but he got a bit lonely so he then sailed all the way back to England to get his bride. They were married there and they came back to New Zealand. Got back here about 1962 [1862] and of course they started a store in Waipawa but there was nothing else to do in Waipawa so they had eight kids, 4 boys and 4 girls. Those 4 boys, my father Edward Bibby, was the number 2 in the hierarchy and James Bibby, the eldest, he and my father started up the store in Waipawa but my father moved out west of Onga Onga to a place called Lunesdale and bought land up there and built a cottage up there.

Well now, he didn’t marry for a very long time but he’d been on trips to Japan to see another brother who was living in Japan at the time, but then he suddenly met this rather lovely girl who was being the companion of the local vicar in Waipawa. Even though he was 47 this was just the thing and so much to everybody’s surprise he married this young lady who turned out to be my mother. Her name was Fox and the Fox family too became quite famous, particularly with her brother who went over to the Melanesian Islands for many many years, and lived as a native for many years and at one stage spoke 48 languages and dialects.

Now that was my mother’s brother Dr Charles Fox, very well-known up in the Melanesian Islands and during the war he was a coast watcher. Went way behind the Japanese lines and of course the local people thought so highly of him they wouldn’t have dreamt of betraying him to the Japanese. But he got a CBE for it and all sorts of things and he was a wonderful character but he died about 20 years ago now and his body was taken back to Melanesia to be buried there.

But anyway, because of this union between my mother and father, in next to no time the family popped out and I was the fourth successive boy. Why I wasn’t shot at birth I just do not know but then they had one more go and he fathered twin girls so to a certain extent I was forgiven, but the girls got away with murder and of course I was the recipient of all sorts of brotherly condemnation because I was the fourth boy.

I was born on the 25th January 1922. Now the 25th January, to everybody – they know that this is Robbie Burns day. You knew that of course too, didn’t you? I was born actually in Waipukurau because at that stage Waipawa did not have any maternity facilities whatsoever. But in 1922, 25th January I appeared on this planet and lived in Waipawa because although my father and mother had been living right up at Lunesdale, 20 or 40 miles away, my mother, when she found she was pregnant for the 4th time, she said I am not going to be right out there again so my father had to build a house in Waipawa purely to move the family in because I was on the way.

Could I just ask you a question there Geoff? Lunesdale. It’s not a familiar name to me. Whereabouts is that?

Lunesdale. That is right away west of Onga Onga about 15 or 20 miles back in towards the mountains. You look down on to the Tuki Tuki. Not quite as far out as the Wakararas.

It’s just a name I’ve never ever heard of.

Blackburn Ridge.

I’ve got it now. I know exactly where you mean.

Anyway, I came into this world and living in Matthew Street in Waipawa. It was an absolute idyllic childhood. I went to the Waipawa School of course and much to my surprise and everybody else’s surprise wherever I was in the class I think mainly because they were so small I seemed to top the class every year. And in those days the person who topped every class in Waipawa was given the magnificent amount of 10/- as the top prize for that particular year. And 10/- was a huge amount to us but now of course it’s equivalent to $1. All that work for just $1.

Anyway I went through the Waipawa School and went to the 3rd form in the high school there but much to everybody’s surprise I managed to get a scholarship to King’s College up in Auckland, and so in 1935 I went up there and was up there for about 4 years, thoroughly enjoying my time, mostly playing cricket and shooting. Not doing much academic work.

Well, 1939, I thought well I have to get some kind of qualification so I went down to Christchurch University to do a degree course. 1939 as everyone knows that was the start of the 2nd World War. I suspected that I would get involved in it somehow so I thought in 1940, until I was called up – I was still only 19 at the time – I would come back here and see if I could get a job in Hawke’s Bay waiting to be called up. So in 1940 I joined the staff at Hereworth School. Some magnificent people there – Sid Grant and Norman Elder and people like that who later on carried on and Lawrence Rickard taught at Hereworth for 20 or 30 years. Wonderful people all of them.

But in 1941 I was called up into the army. The army was being mobilised down to Greytown. This was the 12th Battery and the 12th Field NZ Artillery. When I went down there I loved every bit of the time mixing with all these young blokes, having a lot of fun. The girls in Greytown were magnificent. Very co-operative, and it was just the happiest time of my life. From there, much to everybody’s surprise, I was selected to go to OCTU [Officer Cadet Training Unit] and graduated as a 2nd lieutenant and wasn’t posted back to my own battery but was posted back to 14 Battery.

By the way, as a matter of interest, the chap, Mr William Sutch, he came into the next course after me and we were all told be careful what you said to this chap.

Even then?

Even then. 1943 I think it was. Anyway, then of course the threat to New Zealand by the Japanese declined and all of our units were being broken up and we were given the chance of either going out in civvy street or reducing rank and going away, probably as a gunner, or alternatively, keeping your commission and transferring to the Air Force. I thought the Air Force sounds pretty good so over I went, and I did my training up in Rotorua at the ITW [Initial Training Wing] there.

And then I had the most amazing bit of luck. Out of our course of about 30 they wanted about 15 people to stay behind in New Zealand and the other 15 could go to Canada and then on to England. Well naturally, most of us wanted to go on to England to see what the rest of the world was like. And so they decided well the fairest way was to put 30 pieces of paper in, half of them marked with ‘C’ and if ‘C’ came up off to Canada you went. Nothing – and you stayed behind here in New Zealand. With the name Bibby of course I had to put my hand in first and much to my delight I drew a piece of paper out with ‘C’ on it.

So away we went to Canada and then across Canada to Winnipeg where we did our training at a place called Portage la Prairie, which is about 80 miles due west of Winnipeg. Eventually, of course, we all graduated and down to States and I went down to New York, where strangely enough there was a woman there, a New Zealand actress, by the name of Nola Luxford. Have you heard of her?

Yes. I knew her brothers here – Sylvane and Maurice.

Well, Nola was there and she was the sister of the music master at Hereworth. So he said to me “When you go to New York, just say who you are and you’re a great friend of us here in Hereworth”. Spinney his name was. Anyway Nola just absolutely put everything on for me. I remember I was sent out to a magnificent home in a place called Westport. Not the New Zealand Westport. This is where all the ex-ambassadors and people like that lived and they of course turned it on for me and I had a wonderful time.

And also at that time too I went up to Boston because a cousin of mine, Basil Bibby – he was the No. 2 on the James Bibby side – he was doing a wonderful job up there as the professor of dentistry. He was the first person in the world to find out the beneficial effects of adding fluoride to the water and he made a terrific impact on that and I firmly believe he made a terrific influence on the dental health of all the millions of children all over the world because of this discovery about fluoride. Anyway, from there we went over to England and after a while…

Just a second. You trained on aeroplanes in Canada. What sort of aeroplanes did you train in?

I was on the Anson. Just a two engine plane. We had all been trained as navigators.

And I went over to the west coast of Wales. Now my first trip was just over the Irish Sea. It was a lovely day and I did it absolutely perfectly. I thought “Oh, Bibby, you’re a bloody good navigator”, you see. So they said “That was a great trip. Now I’ll tell you what we’re going to do. This afternoon we’re going to put you over England”. I said “Well that’s fine”. So I went … unfortunately in the meantime the whole of England was covered with cloud. I hadn’t got a clue where I was. It was the worst trip I ever did. At one stage I was shot at by anti-aircraft guns …

Friendly fire?

And I’m not sure whether it was friendly fire or we strayed over the channel because I hadn’t got a clue where I was and they very nearly dropped me from the course straight away because it was the worst trip I ever did in my life. Terribly lost, but it was the best thing that could have happened to me because I suddenly realised I was completely over-confident and I had to do a hell of a lot more work to get through.

Then we were posted to a place where we had to crew up with the rest of the crew who were going to be our mates for the rest of the war. I met up with a chap, Bob Benton, who was a pilot. He and I got together. He knew a chap from Auckland who wasn’t commissioned but he was a very good bloke, Ian Petrie, and he became our bomb aimer. He knew another New Zealander and this is how it went on and next to no time we had a crew but there were four New Zealanders. All of main parts of the aircraft were New Zealanders but the other three were English.

From there we converted on to Lancasters and then eventually on to the squadron. We got to the squadron after D-Day and so we were not involved in the D-Day work but even so we still had quite a lot of trips to do in that time. Quite a lot of our blokes were killed, of course. But we managed to survive. The best trip, I think, of all was the last one which was on April 25, Anzac Day 1945 when the RAF sent 400+ Lancasters to bomb Hitler’s hideout. And do you know, you’d think each one was loaded with bombs and a beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky, and flying over Germany was a breeze, then we went into Austria and that 400 all missed.

You’re joking!! Is this, what did they call it, the Eagles Nest? They missed it?!

We missed it, we all missed it. A bit of damage, of course, was done but the idea was to blow it off the face of the earth.

When you think 400 Lancasters accumulatively – the amount of bombs…

Exactly. It was terrific. But anyway, what we did do and why I don’t know – at the bottom of the mountain retreat they had a huge billet for the SS and there were a hundred of them there and luckily, we feel, we absolutely blew that off the face of the earth and so we all thought that was a bloody good job because the SS had a terrible reputation for all their cruelty and so on and so we thought that was the best end for them.

Anyway, in the meantime I had met a very nice young lady and I came back to New Zealand and a little while later, after one year down again in Christchurch studying to be a teacher as well as doing a bit of work at the University, she came out and we were married at the end of 1946. In 1947 our first child arrived, a son, and then unfortunately she became very, very ill in about 1952/53 I think it was, and the doctor said there’s only one thing to do, you must go back to England for special treatment. So could I afford it? We had to afford it.

So back she went to England and while she was there she saw an advertisement for the RAF. Wanted people to go back into the RAF. Would I be interested. I said “Well, why not?” So I went back to England, sailed back to England, and I applied for this job with the RAF and much to my delight I was accepted into the RAF and given the rank of Flight Lieutenant which I thought was pretty good seeing I had retired from the Air Force as a Flying Officer.

Anyway I was posted to the Air Defence side. That was where you take over the control of a fighter and control it to intercept something that’s coming in that we don’t know what it was. At the time the Russians were sending bombers into our air defence area purely really to test our defences, I think, and we always had to go out and intercept them and so on. But that was good.

From there I went out to do a tour in Hong Kong, watching the Chinese aircraft over Canton, seeing what they were doing and studying their movements and so on but most of the time, I must admit, we were out in the cricket nets playing cricket and even though we only had about 30 in the unit we developed, thanks to hours and hours of practice, we became very proficient as a cricket team. I’m not sure about a radar team but certainly as a cricket team and we challenged a big British cruiser which was in at the time and thrashed them. We had a total number on the unit of about 25 so we had to get 11 out of that 25 and we did.

From there I went back to Singapore and then back to England. Did a tour on the ordinary radar stations and then… I’m covering a lot of time now … but when the Russians were really getting nasty over Berlin and so on I was posted to a mobile radar station based on the city of Celle. From there – it was a mobile radar – and we used to go out to our operational stations which was about, there were three corridors going into Berlin, one from Hamburg, one from Hanover and one from Frankfurt and we went about half way between the Hanover and the Hamburg and that was our operational site. And we were watching all these aircraft going into Berlin.

Now, why I don’t know, but at one stage they were getting very nasty, the Russians, so they decided we had to do something about it and they wanted some controllers to go up into Berlin itself, and I was the CO of this particular unit so I went up to Berlin and met up with a specially selected American and a specially selected Frenchman and we three had to work completely together, working out of the airport called Frankfurt, no I’ve forgotten the name of it, it’s gone, I’ll come back to it. And we were going to operate there and the idea was that if the Russians interfered with any of our aircraft we would be sending fighters to escort them and we would be controlling them [from] Berlin, from this airfield using its radar. Now, from there, of course the Russians didn’t do anything, but we had a wonderful time up in Berlin. The three of us were not allowed to go anywhere without the other two and if we went out to a café or anything like that or a bar at night the other two were always with us.

So that if something happened you were all together. So the cold war was real.

The cold war was very real at that stage. And, of course, to get into Berlin was quite an interesting occasion too because the forces were allowed to go into Berlin but we never allowed the East Germans who were manning the posts to interrogate us. We had to deal with the Russians so we just by-passed the East German check point, went to the Russian check point and then right into Berlin, called in to the Russian check point to say we had got there and ignored the East German one and went straight into Berlin.

And then, of course, we came back eventually, and my tour finished at a place called Bawdsey where Sir Robert Watson Watt actually invented radar. He was based at Bawdsey. In fact, at that stage I was a Squadron Leader so I was senior person in the mess so I actually had Sir Robert Watson’s bed and bedroom.

But from there, of course, I decided I’d had enough and so I came back to New Zealand. But they still talk about, we were all dined out, anybody leaving the service -we all dined out with a special meal and they’re still talking over there about my dining out night because we all had to do something special. I thought “What on earth can I do there? I know – I’ll do a haka”. So I did, I thought, a pretty good haka and they all loved it.

And then I came back. By that stage our family had increased by two. We had two girls and when we came back here I bought a house next to Hereworth School and from there I taught at Hereworth for a few years then went down to Scots College and taught there and finally, for all my sins, I went back to teach at Woodford where I found teaching girls was very, very different from teaching boys.

Well, after that of course, I found that at the age of about 65 to 70 it was about time to call it a day so I retired and still live in the house next to Hereworth School.

Now, during this period I guess you’ve had quite a lot to do with the RSA and some of the trips you made on behalf of the Air Force to England. You might like to make mention of those.

I hate blowing my own trumpet but I did do for a long time, I think about 12 or 13 years, I was in charge of visiting the people in the hospitals in Havelock North. We had a team of about half a dozen and we just took it in turns and I was in charge of that but they all appreciated our visits. In fact, I went to one of the homes yesterday and met up with people that I used to visit many years ago. They’re still there and they still remember us and what we did and still grateful for it.

But I don’t think it was that so much but all the time that the RAF had been operating against the Germans with Bomber Command, at the end of the war even though, oh goodness gracious, the amount of damage that was done by the RAF to the German cities was incredible. I remember flying over Cologne once just after the war and we were allowed to take the ground crew there to show them what we and they had done and we flew up the Rhine river very low, probably about 500 feet and then we circled all round Cologne and round and round Cologne which is a huge city, twice as big as Auckland, and we did not see a single building with its roof on. The whole lot had been damaged in the war.

And then the last big thing was, of course, because the RAF never acknowledged – not the RAF – the British forces or British people never really acknowledged what the RAF had done during the war, one or two people got together and raised a huge amount of money to buy a memorial for the 155,000 RAF people who had been killed. When I say RAF I include New Zealanders, Australians, Canadians and everybody else.

So about two years ago the New Zealand Air Force arranged for a party of about 30 of the old vets averaging age of about 90 at that stage and they took us over to London for the opening of this memorial for all those people, many of us had friends who were killed of course, and that was the most amazing and most moving ceremony I’ve ever been to in my life. Because to look at those …. there are seven big people or monuments all dressed in RAF flying gear, carved of course – not real – and there they are and you could see the expression on their face – they had just come back from a raid and they’re all (like this) and not happy or anything. They’ve just gone through hell themselves and they are just coming back and so grateful to be back on the ground again.

The Queen opened this memorial and it was marvellous to see her and all the other members, I think there were about a dozen of the Royal Family were there, and really, when the only surviving Lancaster flew over, all of us I think started to cry. A rather strange thing, of course, it flew over and just as we did many years before, often we undershot with our bombs, and so did the Lancaster. It was meant to drop poppies all over us but it dropped them too soon and they fell all over Piccadilly instead. But it was a wonderful occasion and we met a lot of wonderful people and that is something I will always remember for the rest of my life.

I’ve heard several comments from people who saw you being interviewed on television and they were saying, “Would you have rehearsed what you said because they said it was really from the heart?”

No. In fact what had happened was after the ceremony had been finished I was just going along, hoping to get in and have a look at the people and there was a television crew there, and unfortunately I couldn’t pass them and I got cornered and I just had to speak, as you said, from the heart.

It was obviously the feeling you had from the ceremony was still with you.

Oh very much so.

So you work still going on with the RSA. You still have contact there?

I still have the contact with the RSA. We have an Air Force Association and it’s quite an active one. We have a meeting every month and they have been – and for my sins I don’t know why – but I have been asked to be the patron of that and I’m also the patron of the ATC [Air Training Corps] here in Havelock North.

It’s probably because of your maturity.

You must be joking.

My wife unfortunately, we were out here, got leukaemia, acute myeloid leukaemia and that took her very rapidly, so I’ve been on my own now for well over 30 years. But the two girls are living in England, one has just lost her husband but they are both great friends. The one who lost her husband – they had a villa in Spain so they often go out there and my son who is now 67 – he lives in a flat underneath my house and he is absolutely marvellous to me. I could not live here by myself but he does so much for me, cooking and so on. It’s incredible. But as he said one day “You used to do a hell of a lot for us so now it’s payback time.”.

Well that’s great. And grandchildren?

I’ve got 4 grandchildren. One has just come out to see me here and she’s been with me for about 4 or 5 months and she is marvellous too. She sorts all my computer problems out.

Was this the lass I met the other day?

Yes. And she is brilliant at the computer side and before you came she came through and cleaned up. You mightn’t believe it but she cleared up the whole of this room for you. But I’ve got 2 grandchildren – one in Australia, two here at the moment and another one back in England. So 4 grandchildren altogether.

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