Archive for April, 2012

ANZAC Day 2012

ANZAC Day dawned cold and wet in Melbourne. The conditions didn’t stop 35,000 people attending the Dawn Service at the Shrine of Remembrance. I wasn’t one of them, though – instead, I got on board a Virgin jet and headed towards the north.

Descending into Sydney, the city looked an absolute picture. It was one of those sparkling autumn days that I don’t think you really get anywhere else in the world. Only the whitecaps on the rolling seas hinted at the presence of some wind.

I caught the train into the city. Emerging from the pedestrian tunnels out of St James station, I smelt rosemary and heard marching drums somewhere in the depths of the city. Yes, the March was well and truly underway.

The Air Force veterans traditionally hit the circuit around 11am so I had a bit of time to spare. A marching band moved past, its mighty horns echoing off the skyscrapers. Walking out of the tunnels I spied a familiar figure. It was Tommy Knox, a Stirling flight engineer from 149 Squadron who I had met in Canberra last year. He was clutching a free cup of tea that he’d been given by Legacy volunteers at the train station. I’d received a letter from Tommy just a couple of days before. We had a quick chat before he hurried off to find the rest of the ‘Odd Bods’, the group he marches with.

Returning to Elizabeth Street, I patrolled up and down the assembling throng, looking for people I knew. The first veteran I recognised was Hugh McLeod, a 49 Sqn rear gunner who, at “eighty seven and a half” says he is one of the youngest in the group. Hugh was adopted by the 463-467 Sqn Association some years ago and now joins them for the march and lunch each year. Once the banner arrived, safe in the care of Bryan Cook whose grandfather was a 463 Sqn mid upper gunner, it became the focal point and more familiar faces detached themselves from the growing crowd. In recent years it has become something of a tradition for Bryan and I to carry the banner for the Squadrons and we were again honoured to do so this year.

Only six veterans actually marched this year. Even the indefatigable Don Southwell was absent, having pulled a hamstring recently. He rode in an RSL-provided Land Rover instead. The rest of the bunch was made up by numerous families and friends of veterans, numbering perhaps a couple of dozen in all.

Some photos of the march:

After setting off up Elizabeth Street, we turned down Market Street– where, as has become normal each year, we halted for perhaps half an hour to avoid congestion further down the route. President of the Association Don Browning came prepared, wielding one of those walking sticks with a built-in stool. The other three in this photo took advantage of a handy window sill:

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Meanwhile the wind had picked up. While we were waiting to continue Bryan and I had a good chat with Hugh, our 49 Sqn rear gunner, while he clung gamely to one of the banner’s guy ropes to keep it under control in the breeze:

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Following the march, lunch was at the Sydney Marriott hotel, on the other side of Hyde Park. Once again it was a superb meal. 48 people were present, including the same ten veterans who we had last year. Again a group photograph was organised (ignore the two young blokes holding the banner up in the background!):

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Left to right, they are Don Southwell, David Skinner, Bill Purdy, Alan Buxton, Hugh McLeod, George Douglass, Don Huxtable, Don Browning, Albert Wallace and Harry Brown.

Five of these distinguished gentlemen will be travelling to London in late June for the dedication of the new Bomber Command Memorial in Hyde Park.

During lunch I sat next to Alan Buxton, a navigator. Alan never flew operationally with 467 Sqn – he actually flew his tour with 617 Sqn, the famed Dambusters. In late 1944 he baled out of his crippled Lancaster over Norwich after a harrowing return trip across the Channel with all four engines ablaze, a story hinted at by the tiny golden caterpillar badge with ruby red eyes that he was wearing on his tie. He proudly showed me his Caterpillar Club membership card, which he still carries in his wallet. After VE Day Alan was posted to 467 Sqn at Metheringham, in preparation for the planned Tiger Force operations against Japan. Thankfully the war ended before they were required to fight in that theatre. Alan appears in this photo on the left:

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And so another ANZAC Day passes. It is always wonderful to see these blokes each year, and long may it continue. President Don Browning made a toast to absent friends during the lunch – but added that, as long as there was someone to carry the banner, there would be someone to march with it, and so the spirit of the two Squadrons will live on.

© 2012 Adam Purcell

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Vale Cliff Leach

I’m very sad to report that Clifford Leach, a 150 Squadron Pilot/Flight Engineer, died last week after a short illness. Cliff, perhaps unusually for his generation, plunged right in to the world of computers and forums in his later years, posting on a number of forums about his wartime experiences as ‘cliffnemo’. His magnum opus, however, was a thread that he started on PPRuNe in June 2008 called ‘Gaining an RAF Pilot’s Brevet in WWII’. Cliff posted about his experiences while in training, backed up with original notes and drawings. This drew a number of other contributors into the open, among them the much-missed Reg Levy, a 51 Sqn Halifax skipper who later  (among other things in a very long and varied career) flew Boeing 707s with Sabena. Four years and close to 2,500 posts later, that thread is still more than going strong, with a former Vultee Vengeance pilot named Danny now holding court.

On another forum, one of Cliff’s first posts was typical of the modesty of his generation:

I didn’t do much only three opps

Well, you might not have thought so, Cliff, but what a legacy you leave behind. The PPRuNe thread likely would not have come into existence without Cliff’s input. And it’s the interactive nature of those kinds of threads that makes them so valuable – being able to read experiences written first-hand, then asking questions either about those stories or on anything else even remotely related to the topic at hand. That little post in June 2008 brought into the open many fascinating stories and the thread now contains a goldmine of information for researchers like me – adding colour to the dry facts and figures.

His son Bill has posted on the thread following the death of his father, saying how proud Cliff was of the thread and how he had arranged for a printed copy of it to be left for his grandson. He also related the story of Cliff’s final flight, just a week before he died. A friend arranged for a local flying school to take him up, and he was, says Bill, “astounded that he was ordered straight into the pilots seat and took the controls for the whole flight. He was told that if it wasn’t for a strong cross wind he would have been allowed to land the plane.”

I never had the chance to meet Cliff, though we corresponded through the thread and through email over the last few years. His input assisted greatly in my earlier post on Flight Engineer training, and his recollections about the Lancaster contributed to th final look of the painting of B for Baker that I commissioned a couple of years ago. “On final check before switching off engines [the] engineers final check included raise flaps”, he wrote. “I think that if we had arrived at ‘dispersal’ and found the flaps down, we would have informed ‘Chiefy’.” And that settled it, so I asked Steve to depict B for Baker with her flaps up!

Another remarkable man has, in the words of the late Neptunus Lex, ‘stepped into the clearing at the end of the path’. Blue skies and tailwinds, Cliff. Blue skies and tailwinds.

Edit 25APR12: Link to a story in the local newspaper of Cliff’s final flight, published only a few days before he died.

(c) 2012 Adam Purcell

Event: Bomber Command Commemorative Day, Canberra, 2-3 June 2012

The Bomber Command Commemorative Day Foundation, with the support of the Australian War Memorial, will hold their 5th annual Commemorative Day in Canberra on the weekend of 2-3 June 2012. Three events are planned: a ‘Meet and Greet’ function on the Saturday night, then a Memorial Service and Luncheon on Sunday.

The Meet and Greet function takes place in the shadow of G for George, the AWM’s Lancaster, in the ANZAC Hall from 6 to 8pm on Saturday 2 June. Cost is $50, hot and cold canapes will be served with beer, wine, soft drink and juice also provided.

The Luncheon takes place at the Rydges Lakeside, Canberra, 12.30 for 1pm to 4pm. $55 covers a sit-down two-course meal with tea and coffee, with a cash bar operating.

To attend the Lunch and/or the Meet and Greet, contact Keith Campbell by 18 May: 142 Coonanbarra Road Wahroonga NSW 2076. Cheques to be made out to Bomber Command Commemoration Day Foundation.

The focus of the weekend, however, is the Memorial Service. This is held outdoors in the Sculpture Garden of the Australian War Memorial, by the Bomber Command Memorial. To allow the organisers to anticipate numbers, please RSVP to the AWM by 11 May: rsvp@awm.gov.au or 02 6243 4363.

In the group photo taken at this event last year, I counted 50 veterans. This is one of the largest gatherings of Bomber Command aircrew (and at least one WAAF) in Australia and for that reason alone it is well worth attending. Talking to so many veterans in the one place at the one time is an opportunity that doesn’t come around too often. I’ve been to three of the last four of these events (though at this stage it is looking unlikely that I’ll be able to make it to this one) and they never fail to impress. More information can be found at http://commemorativedayfoundation.com/.

Update 21APR12: I’ve managed to organise the weekend off so I’ve booked my flights to Canberra for this event. There are also events on in other parts of Australia, for those who can’t make it to Canberra:

VICTORIA: Hastings RSL, 11am Sunday 3rd June

QUEENSLAND: Memorial Gardens at RAAF Amberley, 11am Sunday 3rd June

I think there are also plans for NSW and SA, but I haven’t got details yet.