Visiting George

This was originally posted by me on the Lancaster Archive Forum, 28APR10. I thought it appropriate for a cross-post.

After spending most of a Wednesday morning and a fair proportion of the afternoon at the National Archives of Australia in Canberra making copies of the Casualty Files belonging to three of the Australians on my great uncle Jack’s crew, I drove across Lake Burley Griffin to the Australian War Memorial. The purpose, ostensibly, was to make a recce of the Research Room for the upcoming meeting of the Lancaster Archive Forum brigade. But something else happened while I was there.

I found myself being drawn towards the ANZAC Hall, the impressive display space at the back of the Memorial where the large-technology objects live. The largest of these, of course, is Lancaster bomber W4783 G-George, a 'high-scoring' Lanc from 460 Squadron – and it was this aircraft that was drawing me in.

The first thing that you notice whenever you stand in close proximity to one of these aeroplanes is just how big it is. I moved to the floor underneath the bomber – just walking around it in circles, looking up.

Every hour, on the hour, the lights around George dim. You begin to hear the sound of Merlin engines being run up. It’s the start of the AWM’s impressive Striking by Night exhibition, a sound and light show representing one of George’s many operations. A few years ago I was standing next to a Bomber Command veteran watching the show. He said it was pretty realistic – “but much louder than I remember it!” The show started as I was standing under one of the engines. I stayed there and watched and listened. When it ended the small crowd that had gathered to watch it dispersed – but I found myself frozen to the spot.

Just looking up.

I visited RAF Waddington for ANZAC Day 2009. This was expected to be one of the highlights of my time in Europe. It was, after all, the place at which Jack and five of his comrades set their last foot upon the Earth. And though it was a fantastic experience, there was something that I was missing. After Phil Bonner dropped me off at the Horse and Jockey to pick up my hire car, I tried to drive back into Lincoln. But something wasn’t letting me drive away. Something was keeping me there. I drove again around the outside of the perimeter of the station, but I left feeling very unsettled. There seemed to be unfinished business at Waddington.

As I tried to leave George, I felt that same unsettled feeling. Like something was calling me back. I can't explain for sure what it was. But the aeroplane – a collection of metal, shaped and bolted together in just the right way – had something else to it. Something I could sense. I walked slowly up the stairs nearby, lingering for a time at the top, just gazing at the Lancaster. Even as I turned and walked away, I felt the need to look back over my shoulder. The unsettled feeling stayed.

Each day as the Memorial closes there is a simple ceremony as the sun sets. Still feeling troubled, I stayed to watch. A lone piper stood under the Roll of Honour. He began to play an old Scottish lament, took perhaps a dozen steps forward, then turned to face the silent crowd. His haunting notes echoed around the courtyard. The piper was nearing the end of the piece as I watched him turn about face and slow-march up the steps leading to the Hall of Memory, which houses the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

He crossed into the Hall.

The doors swung silently shut behind him as the last notes rang out.

I looked up at my great uncle’s name, forever engraved on the Roll of Honour.

I smiled, nodded, turned on my heel – and walked away.


Original location: 

(c) 2010 Adam Purcell

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