Bomber Command in Canberra 2013

It was a very wet weekend in south-eastern Australia.

It rained so much in Adelaide on Friday that the automatic rain gauge at the airport gave up. 70mm fell in Melbourne on the same day. It was still raining when I walked to the train station in Sydney on my way to the airport on Sunday morning and, as we were taxying out, the heavy jets weren’t so much ‘landing’ as ‘splashing down’. We were in cloud all the way to Canberra.

Things were not looking good for the sixth annual Bomber Command Commemorative Day.

Though the tarmac was noticeably wet on arrival, the sky showed signs of clearing as I took a taxi to the Australian War Memorial. On arrival I discovered that, because the grass near the Bomber Command sculpture was still rather squelchy underfoot, the ceremony had been moved to the Commemorative Area within the War Memorial itself. As the clouds gradually moved off parts of the crowd were soon sitting in that glorious autumn sunshine for which Canberra is famous.

The Commemorative Area was a spectacular location for the ceremony.

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The crowd was sitting underneath the thousands of names on the Roll of Honour. A statue of an airman, on the eastern side, in turn cast his bronze gaze down onto the gathered crowd. To the rear, immaculately dressed members of the current iterations of 460 and 462 Squadrons, Royal Australian Air Force, were lined up in parade order. Those veterans who could were invited into the Hall of Memory to watch and take part in the wreath-laying, at the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier. As the bugler sounded the Last Post, the notes echoed off the cloisters and faded away to silence. The singing of the Australian National Anthem, with the support of the Australian Rugby Choir, was spine-tingling stuff. The ceremony was enhanced by the atmosphere of the place it was in.

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The speakers, too were excellent: in particular, former Defence Minister and Leader of the Opposition Dr Brendan Nelson who is now the Director of the Australian War Memorial. His opening address, delivered mostly without notes, was impressive. He quoted the words of Charles Bean which are scribed on the wall in the Welcome Gallery of the War Memorial:

Here is their spirit, in the heart of the land they loved; and here we guard the record which they themselves made.

Some of those who made that record, of course, were the veterans of Bomber Command.

Following the ceremony itself came an organised photo opportunity in the shadow of G for George, with almost all the veterans present. My count is 32 (including one who is not in this photo):

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And then to lunch. Once again, the networking and reunion opportunities offered at this function for someone like me in this country are second to none. Among others, I met a Mosquito navigator named Alan Beavis, and his good mate Alan Pugh, who was training at 1661 Heavy Conversion Unit (Winthorpe – Jack Purcell was there in 1943) at the end of the war. And of course I also caught up with many of the usual suspects again – Don and Ailsa McDonald, the three other Dons Southwell, Huxtable and Browning, Keith Campbell, Harry Brown and Tommy Knox (the latter commenting to me, ‘you can really see it this year… age is certainly catching up with them!’). There was some good discussion on a few potential projects for the next couple of years, much reminiscing and many stories.

The Southwells dropped me off at the airport again, and I flew home to Melbourne with a notebook full of ideas and addresses to follow up on.

Bomber Command, over the last few years, is finally beginning to see some recognition for its deeds during the Second World War, and acknowledgement of the legacy it left. This was a common theme among many of the speakers at the weekend this year. Peter Rees (who recently published Lancaster Men and is rumoured to be planning a follow-up for the next couple of years) spoke briefly at the lunch and cited this as one of his key motivations. Air Marshal Geoff Brown, current Chief of Air Force, also gave a good talk at the lunch about what today’s Air Force can learn from the bomber offensive. His main points were that a coalition of nations in a common cause is far more powerful than trying to do it alone, a reminder of the importance of close links with technological and research organisations, how vital it is to gain and maintain control of the air in a combat scenario, the continued value of electronic countermeasures and the critical importance of teamwork and people all united by a common purpose and common aims. He effectively demonstrated that, while the airmen of Bomber Command fought their battles so long ago, and while they fought a battle so unique in scale and circumstance, what they did has continued relevance in current operations – and that in that very practical way their legacy will live on.

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Remembering the history – the raids, the stories, the men – is of course vital. But learning from that history and applying the lessons in practical ways in modern times can also form part of the legacy of Bomber Command. It is far too late for most of those who served, but I hope that some of the veterans who were in Canberra over the weekend can take some comfort in the knowledge that this legacy is living on and will continue to do so.

© 2013 Adam Purcell

A photoset by the Australian War Memorial’s official photographer is available to view here.

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