Bill and the demons of Dresden

When I arrange to meet a Bomber Command veteran I typically try to find out beforehand some basic details of his service, to put the visit in some sort of context. It was no different when I recently met a former bomb aimer who had served on an Australian squadron in the closing months of the war.

The veteran – who I’ll call ‘Bill’ – flew his first operation on 13 February, 1945.

In hindsight, I probably should have realised the significance of that date much earlier than I did.

Dresden.

Even though in recent years there has been a re-assessment of the causes and consequences of the firestorm (most notably in Frederick Taylor’s excellent 2004 book Dresden: Tuesday 13 February 1945), the name of the city still induces a sharp, involuntary intake of breath. It would come to haunt Bill for the next seven decades.

On 9 February 1995, The Age newspaper published two articles marking the 50th anniversary of the raid. “Dresden put to fire and the sword”, said the headline on one of them, an article by Simon Jenkins. “The war was almost over and military installations round Dresden were not attacked,” Jenkins wrote. “Harris used incendiaries on Dresden to create a firestorm where in other cities he used high explosive.” And in dealing with the reaction after the raid, he wrote, even the Americans “distanced themselves from avowedly “terrorist” air attacks, after their own planes had gunned down people fleeing the burning city the morning after the British raid.”

The second article, titled “Unease lingers 50 years after a city’s ruin” by John Lahey, quotes a 463 Squadron navigator, Brian Luscombe. “Mr Luscombe says he become uneasy about 20 years after the war ‘when people would ask where you had been and what you had done. It was only then we realised the enormity of it. It was a holocaust.’” Bill underlined that paragraph in red ink. As the bomb aimer, he had been the man on board his Lancaster who pressed the button to send his munitions into the maelstrom below. Ashamed at the personal responsibility he felt for what happened to Dresden, he threw away his service medals and declared himself a pacifist.

But the irony is the two articles which apparently affected him so much demonstrate a view of the Dresden raid which is now well out of date. As 227 Squadron rear gunner Dennis Over – who also flew to Dresden – suggested to me a few years ago, how did anybody at the time know that the war was almost over? Squadron Operational Record Books confirm that bomb loads used at Dresden were no different to other raids on urban targets around the same time. And Frederick Taylor, in an appendix to his book, effectively blows the theory of post-raid strafing of civilians out of the water (see p.440 for a summary and explanation). The theory was raised in David Irving’s now-discredited 1963 book The Destruction of Dresden, but there is precisely no reliable documentary evidence that anything of the sort actually happened.

This is not the first time that I’ve met a veteran of Dresden. Indeed, given that it happened at the end of the war, I’d say most veterans still alive today would have been operating at the time. But Bill is one of the first I have met who has been affected by it this much. It wasn’t the only part of his wartime service which appears to have scarred him however.

Bill is well over 90 now and quite frail, and was sitting in an armchair reading a newspaper when his wife showed me in. She introduced us and his first comment was that “it was a very very very long time ago and my memory isn’t very good anymore.” Nevertheless we were able to have a conversation, however rambling and confused it might have been.

Prompted by a photo of his crew sitting on the engine of a Lancaster, Bill shared with me one of the more shocking events of his operational career. Just a couple of weeks from the end of the war in Europe, his crew was on the final leg to a target in Germany when they were attacked by an unidentified aircraft, badly damaging their Lancaster. As was standard practice, once the immediate emergency was over the pilot checked on the intercom to make sure everyone was ok. He managed to raise everyone but ‘Jock’, the flight engineer. He asked Bill to check on him.

Bill was within arm’s reach of his comrade. He reached across and placed a hand on his wrist and felt – nothing.

I don’t think Jock’s with us anymore.

Jock was dead. The crew later got permission to fly to Scotland for the funeral – but after that life (and the war) went on. They got a replacement flight engineer and continued flying on operations.

Having experiences like this can badly affect people, especially young people. Bill was not quite 24 when this happened. Five or so years ago he became ill. His memory began to fail him and consequently when I visited the story was difficult for him to find in his mind. As he finished his story I began to feel like maybe he had shared enough, that the memories, as difficult as they were physically to find, were now beginning to get too much. He suddenly realised the time. “Oh, the football will be on,” he said, and shuffled out with his walking frame to watch it on a television out the back.

His wife came back in around that point, and over a cup of tea I found out a little more about him. “He was very difficult to live with,” she told me. It got to the point where their daughter would refuse to be in the house without her mother. It’s only been in recent years – since Bill became ill and, ironically, since his memory began to fail – that he began opening up just a little bit about his experiences. To try and better understand the sorts of things he would have gone through, she has begun to seek out more about his story. There’s an impressive collection of Bomber Command books on her shelf and, though Bill himself is now unable to travel she regularly attends Squadron reunions and Bomber Command events. Their daughter went to the UK for the opening of the Bomber Command memorial in 2012 (with replacement medals arranged through the Australian Department of Defence and her local Member of Parliament). His wife even went to the UK as well a few years ago to visit some of the sites associated with Bill’s service, including what’s left of the airfield his unit flew from. One day she had lunch at the Petwood Hotel in Woodhall Spa, most famous as being the one-time 617 Squadron Officers’ Mess. Hanging on a wall in the Squadron Bar inside the hotel, she found a framed print showing a Lancaster flying low over a Dutch windmill. It’s a painting called ‘And They Called It Manna’, done in 1989 by an artist called Howard Bourne, and try as she might, she has been unable to find a copy of it.

For Bill also took part in some of the food drops carried out by Bomber Command to starving Dutch civilians in the very final days of the war in Europe. They counted as full operations and were flown fully crewed and armed because no-one could be certain that the Germans, who still occupied western parts of the Netherlands, would not fire on the aircraft. And then there were two flights for Operation Exodus, the repatriation of Allied prisoners of war, following the German surrender. On one of these, one of the 24 or so passengers who had been picked up in Antwerp became so emotional when he sighted the White Cliffs of Dover that he gave Bill a German SS dagger he had souvenired. Bill still has it. It’s an evil-looking weapon, with a swastika in a red and white diamond-shaped enamel badge set in the hilt, and will soon find a home in an appropriate museum.

The football match had developed into a very one-sided contest but despite that Bill had regained his spark by the time I went into the back room to say goodbye. I left in a very thoughtful mood. For many in Bomber Command, the food drops and prisoner repatriations were some of the most satisfying trips they took part in, giving them the chance to be part of something constructive rather than destructive. Perhaps the joy at having survived the war (though an offensive against Japan still looked possible) had something to do with it.

But it is clear that for some, even seven decades on there are still some demons hanging around. It was not Manna or Exodus which Bill remembered. It was instead one particularly infamous raid on which he took part which would come to define his wartime service and, subsequently, his life. It’s a desperately sad story and very much one of the forgotten but longest-lasting effects of the war.

Super Special Bonus Post: Bomber Command in Brisbane, Part II

My sleuths in Brisbane have uncovered three more photos from the Bomber Command Commemorations held there on 1 June 2014. These images were taken by Vicki Gray, used here by permission via Diane Strub. As you can see the weather was more co-operative than what we ‘enjoyed’ in Canberra!

Ethel Braun - widow of 467 Sqn wireless operator William Braun - on her way to lay a wreath

Ethel Braun – widow of 467 Sqn wireless operator William Braun – on her way to lay a wreath

Ethel Braun and Bryan McGill (463 Squadron gunner) right of centre, with Allan Vial of the Pathfinders left of centre, amongst the crowd at Amberley

Ethel Braun and Bryan McGill (463 Squadron gunner) right of centre, with Allan Vial of the Pathfinders left of centre, amongst the crowd at Amberley

The Australian Squadrons memorial following the service

The Australian Squadrons memorial following the service

Thanks to Vicki Gray – Ethel’s daughter – for taking and giving me permission to post these photos, and to Diane Strub for chasing them down for me.

Bomber Command in Brisbane, 1 June 2014

On Sunday 1 June 2014, Bomber Command commemorations took place all around Australia. In Queensland, the ceremony was held at the Memorial Gardens, near the front gate of RAAF Amberley. Tiana Walker-Adair, whose father was a Halifax navigator, sent me these photos:

Ron Hickey DFC, a pilot with 462 and 466 Squadrons, giving his address

Ron Hickey DFC, a pilot with 462 and 466 Squadrons, giving his address

Ron Hickey DFC with his son David

Ron Hickey with his son David

Her Excellency The Honourable Ms Penelope Wensley AC, Governor of Queensland, with Ron Hickey

Her Excellency The Honourable Ms Penelope Wensley AC, Governor of Queensland, with Ron Hickey

Joanne Adair (who was a former Secretary for Winston Churchill) with Her Excellency The Honourable Ms Penelope Wensley AC, Governor of Queensland

Joanne Adair (who was a former Secretary for Winston Churchill – and is Tiana’s mother) with Her Excellency The Honourable Ms Penelope Wensley AC, Governor of Queensland

Group photo of Bomber Command veterans at Amberley

Group photo of Bomber Command veterans at Amberley

 

Thanks to Tiana for these photos. Only Perth to go now, and I’ve collected the whole set!

 

Bomber Command in Sydney, June 2014

While many of the Bomber Command veterans who still live in Sydney travelled down to Canberra for the commemorations held there in early June, a small number attended a ceremony held at the Cenotaph in Martin Place in the middle of the city. I’m still waiting for ‘official’ photos from one of the organisers but, in the meantime, here are three photos from the 460 Squadron Veterans and Friends Group, courtesy of committee member Ray Berghouse.

460 Squadron veteran Fred Sargeant with his wreath

460 Squadron veteran Fred Sargeant with his wreath

Fred Sargeant laying 460 wreath

Fred Sargeant laying the 460 Squadron wreath at the Cenotaph

A rare photo of the four Bomber Command banners together in Sydney: Left to right, they represent 460 Squadron, the Bomber Command Association, 463/467 Squadrons and 462/466 Squadrons.

A rare photo of the four Bomber Command banners together in Sydney: Left to right, they represent 460 Squadron, the Bomber Command Association, 463/467 Squadrons and 462/466 Squadrons.

 

Images passed on to me via Richard Munro, Honourary Historian, 460 Squadron Veterans and Friends Group.

Bomber Command in Adelaide, June 2014

This is the next post in what I hope will be an occasional series following the events at the various Bomber Command Commemoration Days that happened around Australia earlier this month. This time it is Adelaide’s turn.

The ceremony was held at the Air Force Memorial at the Torrens Parade Ground, just north of the centre of the city. Some 70 people were present, including the Hon Martin Hamilton-Smith, the South Australian Minister for Veterans Affairs. The following photos by Arthur Jeeves were sent to me by Dave Helman, President of the Royal Australian Air Force Association (South Australia), who was one of the organisers.

Bomber Command June 2014 011

Cadet Guard at the Memorial

The Marion City Band at the Bomber Command Ceremony in Adelaide

The Marion City Band at the Bomber Command Ceremony in Adelaide. They donate their time to play at this ceremony each year.

The Padre, Squadron Leader Mark Butler

The Padre, Squadron Leader Mark Butler

Bomber Command June 2014 015

Squadron Leader Dave Helman

Ms Nikki King - daughter of Australian Dambuster pilot Squadron Leader Dave Shannon

Ms Nikki King – daughter of Australian Dambuster pilot Squadron Leader Dave Shannon

Bomber Command veterans and other VIPs amongst the crowd: Left to Right: Squadron Leader Lyne Skinner, Dudley Mitchell, Wing Commander (AAFC)  Peter Gill OC AAFC, Group Captain Ross Bender (92 Wing), Hon Martin Hamilton-Smith (State Minister for Veterans Affairs), Wing Commander Martin Ball (24 Sqn), Wing Commander Bob Macintosh AFC MID. 2nd row far left Squadron Leader David Leicester OAM DFC* (behind right shoulder of Martin Hamilton-Smith)

Bomber Command veterans and other VIPs amongst the crowd: Left to Right: Squadron Leader Lyne Skinner, Dudley Mitchell, Wing Commander (AAFC) Peter Gill OC AAFC, Group Captain Ross Bender (92 Wing), Hon Martin Hamilton-Smith (State Minister for Veterans Affairs), Wing Commander Martin Ball (24 Sqn), Wing Commander Bob Macintosh AFC MID. 2nd row far left Squadron Leader David Leicester OAM DFC* (behind right shoulder of Martin Hamilton-Smith)

Squadron Leader Dave Helman with Group Captain Robert Black AM RFD and Wing Commander Bob Macintosh AFC MID

Squadron Leader Dave Helman with Group Captain Robert Black AM RFD and Wing Commander Bob Macintosh AFC MID

Kevin Fisher and Bill Burnett

Kevin Fisher and Bill Burnett

Squadron Leader David Leicester OAM DFC*, of the Pathfinders

Squadron Leader David Leicester OAM DFC*, of the Pathfinders

Following the ceremony there was an opportunity for drinks and conversation at the Combined Mess at the Parade Ground.

So it looks as if the Adelaide ceremony also went well. I’m hoping to source some photos from the three other events that were held around the same time in Western Australia, Queensland and New South Wales. I’ll post them when I get them.

All photos on this post courtesy Arthur Jeeves via Dave Helman

 

Scredington and the crew of Lancaster ED439

It is right, that the nine men who perished that day, ready and willing to defend the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and all those standing with us… are remembered with honour and dignity on the quiet walls of an English church.

With these words, Reverend Chris Harrington closed the service held last year to dedicate a memorial stone to the crew of 83 Squadron Lancaster ED439, which crashed in the English village of Scredington 71 years ago today.

I’ve posted about Scredington before, but I recently received a small package in the mail from the UK. Mike Galvin – Honorary Secretary of the National Service (RAF) Association, Lincolnshire Branch – sent me a DVD made up of footage that was taken on the day. It’s quite a production.

St Andrews Church in Scredington is fairly small, as these things go, though it does have an imposingly tall steeple. The building – decorated for the occasion with red white and blue RAF standards – can nominally seat 145 people, but somehow on the day they managed to squeeze 185 inside, including 33 relatives of six members of the crew. The ceremony appears to have gone off to plan. A reading from a book written by a local man who was a young lad at the time of the crash set the scene. Neil Trotter, the man whose childhood memories and dedication sparked the memorial project, addressed the congregation and made a point that resonates with the ethos behind somethingverybig.com.

Having retired after 37 years serving in the Royal Air Force, Neil wanted to find out what he could about the crash he remembered as a child. He wrote a letter which was posted online and, eventually, seen by someone who knew more of the story and got in touch. This contact came about because of the extraordinary reach of the internet. I’ve had similar success connecting with people from all over the world as a direct result of posts I’ve made on this blog. In part, that’s why I write here. It lets me get the story out to a much wider audience than has ever been possible before, and the power of search engines means that anybody with an internet connection can find it and get in touch. It’s certainly been a really useful concept for my research so far, as it was for Neil.

The main section of the video ends with the bugler inside the church. It’s been over-dubbed and merged with footage of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Lancaster making a fly-past over the village. The Merlins swell as the Last Post rings out.

It’s spine-tingling stuff, even if you weren’t there.

 

There’s a television news report from ITV available online here, and footage of the Lancaster flypasts here.

©2014 Adam Purcell

Guest Post: Bomber Command June Commemorations in Melbourne

This post written by Squadron Leader (Retired) Ron Ledingham, Shrine Governer, Shrine of Remembrance, Melbourne, who I worked with on the committee which organised the Melbourne event

The annual Victorian Memorial Bomber Command service was held at the Nurses Memorial Centre (NMC) St Kilda Road Melbourne at 2 PM Sunday 1 June 2014.

All up some 100 people attended and we all but bulked out the NMC facility. The Shrine of Remembrance was unavailable due to the significant extension works currently underway there so the nearby NMC facility was chosen instead. The NMC staff were very helpful and of great assistance.

Of interest, as we did not have the traditional direct support of the Shrine facilities, we ported all of the service music requirements, etc to a lap top computer and ran this through the NMC integrated IT network-worked well. We also introduced specific Bomber Command popular band music and pictures from the Bomber Command Memorial in London-all well appreciated by those attending.

The Shrine did provide direct support in the form of:

  • SQNLDR RAAF (Retired) Ron Ledingham, Shrine Governor, as the convener of the service on behalf of the Shrine Trustees.
  • Supply of 100 poppies.
  • Printing of a number of Order Of Service (OOS) booklets.
  • Printing and distribution of a flyer for the service particularly since it was being held off site from the Shrine.

We also received support from the Air Cadets and had some 8 boys and girls with adult escorts who held banners and basically assisted with seating of guests and general support during and after the service.

The list of dignitaries was most impressive including the Hon.Josh Frydenberg MP, Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister who laid a wreath before departing to Canberra. Some 12-15 wreaths total were laid.

Wreathes at the Bomber Command Commemoration in Melbourne. Photo: Ron Ledingham

Wreathes at the Bomber Command Commemoration in Melbourne. Photo: Ron Ledingham

The service was opened and managed by Ron Ledingham . He explained why we were holding the service at the NMC in lieu of the Shrine and also pointed out that it was for this year only due to the extension works current being done at the Shrine.

There were three speakers being Wing Commander Peter Isaacson AM DFC AFC DFM (key speaker), Group Captain Terence Deeth as RAAF PAF Representative and the Hon Ted Baillieu, Chairman, Victorian ANZAC Centenary. All were very well received. Peter in particular was actively sought out by many after the service for signatures and conversations and delivered a very moving talk.

Peter Isaacson giving the Keynote Address Photo: Ron Ledingham

Peter Isaacson giving the Keynote Address Photo: Ron Ledingham

 

Group Captain Terrence Deeth, RAAF. Photo: Ron Ledingham

Group Captain Terence Deeth, RAAF. Photo: Ron Ledingham

The following people carried out official roles during the ceremony:

Key Guest Speaker                 Wing Commander P.S.Isaacson AM DFC AFC DFM

Chaplain                                     John Brownbill RFD KSJ

Jan Charlwood                          Daughter of Don Charlwood

Laurie Williams                        Ode

Jan Dimmick                             Bomber Command Poem

Brian Smith                               MC

Following the service light refreshments with hot finger food were provided.  This was also very well received and created a very interactive and friendly opportunity for people to mingle and catch up. A group photo was taken of all veterans present and many, many photos were taken.

Bomber Command veterans in Melbourne, June 2014. Robyn Bell, Committee convenor, front left. Photo: Ron Ledingham

Bomber Command veterans in Melbourne, June 2014. Robyn Bell, Committee convenor, front left. Photo: Ron Ledingham

The after service get-together proved to be just as important as the service itself and was considered by all to whom I spoke to be a key component and opportunity to care and share. I was personally approached by a number of people who really appreciated the service and efforts taken to pull it together as well as other questions and offers relating to the Shrine and memorabilia.

Overall it was a very moving and very well attended and received service function. The numbers were up by about 50% on last year even though it was held off site.

In 2015 the annual memorial service will return to the Melbourne Shrine of Remembrance.

 

Words and photos (c) 2014 Ron Ledingham, on behalf of http://www.somethingverybig.com



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