The real meaning of ANZAC Day

I read this article in the newspaper today and thought it worth a share.

From From the Archives: ANZAC Day

It’s a lovely yarn of ANZAC Day comradeship, beautifully told by one of Australia’s most unique yarn-tellers, Peter FitzSimons. Well worth a few moments of your time.


Bomber Command at the Shrine of Remembrance

The Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne has gone all Bomber Command on us. As I’ve posted previously, there are a number of events happening there over the next couple of months. All tie in with a major temporary exhibition which opened earlier this month in the Shrine Visitor Centre. Bomber Command: Australians in the air war over Europe 1939-45 is open until 1 May next year. It’s only a fairly small exhibition but it covers much ground concerning the Australian experience of Bomber Command, from enlistment, through training to operations and afterwards, including a significant section on prisoners of war. There are photos, artwork and memorabilia that have all been put together in a professional manner, and it is already beginning to draw visitors from all across Victoria and other parts of Australia. I visited last week with Robyn Bell, one of my Bomber Command contacts in Melbourne.

13oct-robyn-bells-pics-393 copy

I suspect that if you hang around this exhibition for long enough you’ll see a fair number of Bomber Command veterans coming through for a look. And, happily, so it was when we visited. There was an older gent wearing a blazer and an Air Force tie looking at the mannequin in the photo above, talking to a middle-aged man about parachutes. Robyn recognised him as Gordon Laidlaw, a 50 Squadron pilot who she has been in touch with before, and talking to his mate later I discovered that they had come up from Mornington, an hour or so south of Melbourne, especially to have a look at the exhibition. It was great to chat briefly with Gordon. He was also talking to another pair of visitors who were in Melbourne on holidays from Perth who had come to the Shrine to see the exhibition:

13oct-robyn-bells-pics-381 copy

Rosemary Grigg (on the left) was overwhelmed to meet a real-life Bomber Command veteran – Gordon – because her father had been an airman too. Allan Joseph Grigg was killed on 22 July 1944 in a Wellington accident near Lossiemouth in Scotland, where he had been serving with No. 20 Operational Training Unit. She is keen to find out more about her father’s service so I’ve given her a few pointers on where to begin. As always, the fact he was Australian makes life much easier.

Moving around the exhibition, Robyn found her small contribution. She has been liaising with Neil Sharkey from the Shrine who was responsible for setting up the exhibition, and he was looking for some Window, the foil ‘chaff’ used to confuse German radar. As it happened Robyn had a small piece and was happy to allow it to go on display:

13oct-adamimport-183 copy

What was most unexpected for me, though, was in a frame hanging at the end of one of the exhibition partitions. We had almost finished our walk around when I found it:

13oct-adamimport-186 copy

Regular readers of SomethingVeryBig (those, at least, with very good eyesight) will recognise the lower photograph, the only known photo of the entire crew of B for Baker. And the one above it? It’s a portrait of a ridiculously young-looking Phil Smith, taken in London during the war. It was in fact sourced for the exhibition from this website, and has been credited to Mollie Smith at my request:

13Oct-MEL and Shrine 022

It’s clear that, in the last two or three years in particular, Bomber Command is finally receiving the recognition it deserves. An official memorial was opened last year in London. A Bomber Command clasp is now in the process of being awarded to surviving veterans, before being extended to the next-of-kin of those killed during service or who have died since. And the Canberra weekend is now the third largest annual event held at the Australian War Memorial (behind ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day). There’s no doubt that interest in Bomber Command, and respect and recognition for those who were involved, is growing. It’s great to see some of that interest manifesting itself in this exhibition. More people will visit and learn about Bomber Command and the men who were part of it. The stories will live on.

And that’s the most important thing.

13oct-adamimport-1841 copy

13Oct-MEL and Shrine 025


13oct-robyn-bells-pics-379 copy

© 2013 Adam Purcell

Look what I found!

13Oct-MEL and Shrine 026

So I’m visiting the Bomber Command exhibition at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne with Robyn Bell. Full report to come when I get home, but look what I found around a corner!
It is, of course, a portrait of a very young Phil Smith with the only known photo of the whole crew of B for Baker. Nice to see some recognition of them in a major Shrine initiative.

EVENT: Bomber Command Panel Discussion, Shrine, Melbourne, 03DEC13

In perhaps the most significant event to be held at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne alongside the current Bomber Command special exhibition, a group of veterans including Wing Commander Peter Isaacson will take part in a panel discussion about the experiences of Australians in Bomber Command. Chaired by Shrine of Remembrance Chairman Air Vice-Marshal Chris Spence AO (Retd). This promises to be a very interesting discussion. Details below:

Date: Tuesday 03 December 2013

Time: 12.30pm start, running for approx. 90 minutes

Cost: Free, but a gold coin donation appreciated.

Bookings are essential and can be made through this link on the Shrine’s website.

I’m normally in Sydney with the 463-467 Squadrons Association on ANZAC Day so, despite having lived down here for almost three years now, I still haven’t managed to meet many of the Melbourne-based Bomber Command crowd. This event should offer a good chance to redress that!


EVENT: Lancaster Men – a talk by author Peter Rees at the Shrine, Melbourne, 28 November 2013

I reviewed Peter Rees’ book Lancaster Men: The Aussie Heroes of Bomber Command on SomethingVeryBig back in May, and I reckon it’s one of the better Australian books about Bomber Command to come out in the last few years. As part of a number of Bomber Command-focused events scheduled at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne over the last few months of 2013, Rees will deliver a talk about his book at the end of November:

Date: Thursday 28 November 2013

Time: 17:30 for 18:00

Cost: Free, but a gold coin donation is welcome.

Bookings are essential and can be made online via this page.


EVENT: Flak – a talk by author Michael Veitch at the Shrine, Melbourne, 23 October 2013

Australian author, comedian and journalist Michael Veitch’s life-long obsession with the aeroplanes of WWII and the men who flew them manifested itself a few years back in a fantastic couple of books. Flak, published in 2006, and Fly, from two years later, are remarkable collections of short stories based on interviews that Veitch carried out with about a range of airmen who flew in many and varied parts of the Royal Australian Air Force (among them Pat Kerrins) – and even includes a couple of former Luftwaffe pilots who moved to Australia after the war.

The Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne will host a talk by Michael Veitch about his books and some of the airmen he interviewed later this month:

Date: 23 October 2013

Time: 5:30pm for a 6.00pm start

Cost: Free, but a gold coin donation appreciated.

For bookings, or for more information, follow this link.

Unfortunately I’m unable to attend this talk, but if anyone does, please leave a message here afterwards to let us know how it went.

The Unsung Heroes Project

The Temora Aviation Museum has begun a project they call Unsung Heroes.

“How many Heroes go unnoticed?” reads the blurb on their website. “How many stories go untold? How many memories are forever lost?”

To try and stem the tide of lost memories, the Museum is collecting stories of people who were involved, in one way or another, in Australia’s military aviation heritage. As the project gets underway the collection of stories on the website is so far not a large one, but there are some interesting people profiled in the entries currently there. At $85 a pop, though, the privilege is not cheap, and I’m not sure how I feel about compelling such a significant donation in order to submit content to the database. But at least the Museum is making an effort to recognise the creators of the heritage they preserve in the form of their flying warbirds.

135387-l-1348483478 copy

An offshoot of Unsung Heroes is a video database aimed at a similar group of people. According to the latest email from the Museum, the database “includes men and women who, although not given recognition in the history books, have been vital to the pioneering spirit of Australia’s military aviation heritage.” There’s thankfully no mention in the email of any fee for taking part in this part of the database, and it looks like the Museum is looking for veterans to interview. Selected interviews are it appears available to view via iPads installed in a permanent exhibit in the Museum’s galleries (see image above – from the website of the designer, Bob Shea).

And here is the reason for this post. The biggest event in the calendar of the Temora Aviation Museum is Warbirds Downunder, an airshow featuring all of the Temora Aviation Museum’s collection of aircraft and a whole host of other significant flying warbirds. This year it’s scheduled for Saturday 2 November, and the Museum’s videographer will be there, covering the airshow but also interviewing veterans for the database.

With limited resources it appears unlikely that the Temora database will ever even begin to approach the scale and sophistication of the excellent and extremely far-ranging Australians at War Film Archive (which had the backing of the Australian Government), but it’s perhaps an opportunity for veterans to take part in a less-formal interview situation. Temora is a long way away from any of the state capitals and getting there is a bit of a mission (unless you fly out there in a private aircraft, as I’ll relate in a future post), but if anyone is interested in taking part, contact the Museum by email or by phone on 02 6977 1088.

© Adam Purcell 2013

Hat-tip to Kevin Jacobs for the heads-up.


Henry wanted to be a pilot.

He learnt to fly gliders before the war and, when asked which branch of the Services he wanted to join, said simply that “I would like to fly aeroplanes because I already have a glider pilot’s licence”. Initially rejected for being too short, he served for a while on an anti-aircraft unit. But after a few months someone at headquarters evidently had a change of heart, and Henry found himself posted to pilot training school. Once he got there, so keen was he to learn everything he could about his new job that he would continue to study by torchlight, under the blankets, after lights out. After qualifying Henry flew many operational flights on a dozen or so different types of aircraft, ranging from twin-engined fighters and medium bombers to his country’s largest four-engined aeroplanes. Henry’s story is similar to those of so many World War II aircrew, and is included in Michael Veitch’s excellent book Fly (Penguin, 2008). But there is one key difference.

Henry’s real name is Heinz Hampel, and he was a pilot in Germany’s Luftwaffe.

What is eerily noticeable is how much Henry’s story parallels those of many Commonwealth airmen. Gil Pate, for example, served as a sapper in an anti-aircraft searchlight unit before enlisting as aircrew. Don Southwell told me of staying awake until one or two in the morning to study while at ITS. And a key motivation for many aircrew – for example David Mattingley (C07-052-015) – was the desire to learn to fly. The fighter pilots that the bomber aircrew would come up against in the skies over Germany were, in so many ways, just like themselves: ordinary young men who wanted to fly caught up in decidedly extraordinary circumstances. As Veitch writes in the same book about Peter Mehrtens, another German pilot, “sadly, it was the similarities rather than the differences with the people he was fighting that stood out for me the most”.

My friend Bryan, on a trip to Oktoberfest in Munich a couple of years ago, started chatting with a local lad of about the same age. Somehow the topic of the war came up. The young German had recently discovered a stash of his grandfather’s wartime memorabilia, including photos, medals and a Luger pistol. He had, as it transpired, been an anti-aircraft gunner in Dortmund. Bryan could relate a similar experience – his own grandfather, after whom he was named, was a man named Brian Fallon, a mid-upper gunner with 463 Squadron, and Bryan has his medals at home. “Brian had been on bombing trips to Dortmund so often”, he told me a few weeks ago, “that they called it the Milk Run.” He was staggered to realise that his grandfather and his new German friend’s grandfather had quite possibly been shooting at each other over the city. And now the two young men were sitting in a large tent, in the middle of a huge crowd of people, having a friendly conversation while drinking enormous steins of beer.

Seven decades earlier they might have met in very different circumstances.

© 2013 Adam Purcell