As I headed north up the Hume Highway from Melbourne early on Saturday morning, thin mist was still settled in low valleys and smoke rose directly upwards from the chimneys of roadside homesteads. It was an atmospheric start to my journey to Canberra for the annual Bomber Command Commemoration weekend.
This was the seventh time that the first weekend in June saw Bomber Command veterans, families, researchers, authors and assorted hangers-on converge on the national capital for a weekend of remembrance and reminiscing.
My base for the weekend is no longer called the Rydges Lakeside. It’s been turned into a slick, shiny and slightly pricier hotel called “QT Canberra”, full of odd political references and surprise images of photographers in the lifts. But I digress. On arrival at the hotel I quickly found my first veteran for the weekend, a man named Kevin Dennis. He was wearing, amongst the more usual service medals, an unfamiliar decoration hanging from a light blue ribbon – a Conspicuous Gallantry Medal. More about him later.
Off to the weekend’s first organised event, then: the Meet & Greet function in the shadows of Lancaster G for George at the Australian War Memorial.
It was an excellent function. There was a good-sized crowd present, the speeches were (like a good skirt) short enough to be interesting but long enough to cover everything, the food was good and there were some very interesting people to talk to. At one point, down near George’s tail I was talking to Tom Hopkinson, a 463 Squadron veteran mid-upper gunner. Two ladies approached: Lorna Archer and her daughter Rowena. Lorna’s husband Ken was a 460 Squadron bomb aimer. He is still alive but, at 90, is now too frail to travel and stayed at home in Melbourne this weekend. Lorna wanted to know, if Ken was in a Lancaster and it was hit and he had to bail out, how would he do it?
A fair question. I had a pretty good idea of the answer, but, well, we were standing under a Lancaster and we were talking to a man who used to fly in the things and so… well… why not? I asked Tom if he would like to do the honours. So we weaved our way through the crowd to the nose of the great big black bomber. Tom pointed up. And there, under the nose was the big square escape hatch through which the bomb aimer would have, if the circumstances dictated, been the first out. Which answered the question in a most satisfying manner.
Towards the end of the event, I spied an old man sitting down surrounded by family under (of all things) the German 88mm flak gun that’s on display next to George. His name badge said Alan Finch, 467 Squadron. Good enough for me, I thought. So I sat down and introduced myself. When Alan said he had done his first operation in August 1943 and had remained with the squadron throughout 1944 his name suddenly sounded strangely familiar.
I love modern technology. I pulled out my phone and searched for his name on this website. And there it was: I’d used two of his interrogation reports in my 467 Postblog series. I asked Alan, “Where were you on 24 February 1944?” He responded, “In the air!” Correct! Specifically, Schweinfurt. “Oh yes”, he said, “that was a bad one.”
No kidding. As I wrote here, his aircraft was coned over the target by some 24 searchlights. “Target more formidable than briefed,” he reported nonchalantly on return to Waddington.
This is why I come to these events. I’ve become quite familiar over the last few months with the names of the aircrew who were operating at 463 and 467 Squadrons between January and May 1944. I never suspected that I might run into one of them, sitting under the wing of a Lancaster at the War Memorial.
Following the function, a fair sized group of those who were staying at the QT met in the hotel bar for a wee nightcap. What followed was one of the better sessions I can remember in some time. Holding court in the corner near the fire was, yes, Don Huxtable. Gathered around him, most of the younger crowd (that is, those under about 60…). Over beers, scotch and sodas the night passed quickly with many, many line shoots.
Numbers dropped off as the night got later but, still there as the bar staff called last drinks, were an old pilot and his entranced audience.
Dawn broke in Canberra the next day with cloud, mist and rain. Telecom Tower was disappearing into the grey skies.
This did not bode well for the morning’s ceremony, planned for the lawn in front of the Bomber Command sculpture at the War Memorial. The decision was made early to move the ceremony to the Commemorative Area, with rows of chairs placed in the cloisters under the names on the Roll of Honour.
At the back of the crowd, personnel of the current iteration of 460 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force, lined up under the leaden skies.
The Director of the Australian War Memorial, Dr Brendan Nelson, opened the service, delivering a moving tribute to the aircrew of Bomber Command. Speaking without notes, he quoted a letter written by Colin Flockhart, a 619 Squadron pilot, for delivery in the event of his death:
I love you all very dearly. Please don’t think I’m pessimistic but I do realise what the odds are and I have seen too many of my friends pass on without leaving any words of hope or encouragement behind. Cheerio and keep smiling though your hearts are breaking.
Flockhart was killed on the way home from Munich on 7 January 1945.
Attending the ceremony was His Excellency General the Honourable Sir Peter Cosgrove AK, MC (Ret’d), Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia, who spoke about how Australians in particular traveled so far from home to fly in Bomber Command. The veterans present were invited to move to the inside of the Hall of Memory to view the wreathlaying at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Ross Pearson delivered the Reflections address, paying tribute to those unsung support staff who also served: the armourers, the WAAFs, the parachute packers, the cooks (who worked miracles to make Spam palatable), the briefing officers. He also spoke eloquently on the unique “spirit of aircrew,” reading the citation for the award of the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal to Kevin Dennis, the veteran I had met at the hotel the previous evening. Kevin was a wireless operator who, badly injured by flak during an operation in March 1945, refused to leave his post until the damaged aircraft landed safely. In considerable pain with one foot almost severed from the explosion he had continued to carry out his duties, receiving the critical weather message which resulted in a successful diversion to an emergency airfield. For this, in the process saving his entire crew, he was awarded the CGM, one small step below a Victoria Cross.
This led to the most moving, unplanned, part of the service. After the notes of the bugler’s Rouse echoed off the stone cloisters, Brendan Nelson made his move. It was a breach in protocol, he said, “but we’re Australian and we can breach protocol occasionally.” He invited Kevin to come to the front while he explained why. Kevin is one of just ten RAAF personnel to be awarded the decoration during WWII. But because he required an extended hospital stay to recover, he missed the investiture and instead received his medal in the post. It had never been properly presented to him. Since we had the Governor-General present, Dr Nelson reasoned, it offered a good opportunity to fix that. Kevin came forward, shook Sir Peter’s hand and occupied a position of honour amongst the official party for the remainder of the ceremony.
This was one of those things which have become typical of Dr Nelson’s time at the helm of the War Memorial. I may not have agreed with him while he was in politics but it’s clear he has a sense of history and a sense of occasion and is a good fit in his current role. This was an inspired moment and it was fantastic to see Kevin being honoured in this very special way.
ABC Canberra had sent a camera crew and, following the ceremony, they interviewed a number of veterans, including Don Huxtable. Given the weather, Hux was wearing a long blue greatcoat.
Believe it or not, it’s part of his original RAAF-issue uniform.
Further photos from the ceremony:
Back to the hotel, afterwards, for the lunch. As well as catching up with some of the usual suspects (the McDonalds, the Toms Knox, Knox and Hopkinson, and various assorted Dons) I met a few new people. Stories were shared with Richard Munro, who is the man to contact for 460 Squadron queries. I had a good chat with Wing Commander Tony Bull, the outgoing air attache at the British High Commission in Canberra. And I met Tony Buckland, who was the son of a camera operator with the 463 Squadron film crew, and was carrying his father’s logbook and a spectacular album containing a collection of still photographs from operations.
Bob Buckland operated with 463 Squadron from June 1944. Among the pilot’s names listed I recognised that of Freddy Merrill, who was another one of the skippers I mentioned in my Postblog. Tony had seen on the guest list that a Merrill was present at the lunch, and wondered if it was the same person.
I thought it probably wouldn’t be. I’d earlier been speaking to Ray Merrill, who is on the right here:
Ray was a 218 Squadron rear gunner and he is pictured here with Jim Clayton, a wireless operator from the same unit.
As he was not on 463 Squadron at any stage, Ray would not be the Pilot Officer Merrill in Bob’s logbook. But, amazingly, he was connected.
It turned out that Freddy was Ray’s brother. Here’s a photo of Ray pointing his brother’s name in the logbook:
A good lunch, then – good food, good conversation and good conversation. It was an enjoyable finish to a fantastic weekend. There were many highlights over the two days. Catching up with many good friends. Meeting new contacts. Drinking with Hux late into Saturday night. Kevin Dennis’ CGM. The Merrill coincidence.
But the main purpose of the weekend, of course, was commemoration and remembrance for and of the men of Bomber Command. In this it was most successful. One of the more poignant moments happened at the Meet & Greet on Saturday evening.
After the speeches the lights dimmed and the sound and light show centred around G for George began. I was talking to Don Huxtable at the time. At the end of the presentation Hux was suddenly quiet for a moment.
“I don’t know how the hell I flew straight and level through all that,” he whispered.
Either do I, Hux. Either do I.
But I’m glad you did.
© 2014 Adam Purcell
The Australian War Memorial has further photos available on its Flickr stream, here.