Norm Kobelke and the mystery of the man in the suit

Earlier this year I was sent a fantastic photo of a bomber crew standing in front of their Lancaster. It came about because of a comment I received on this post in my 467 Postblog series. Richard Kobelke, who sent me the photo, is the son of the man on the far left in this highly distinguished crew:

The Kingsford-Smith/Kobelke crew at Waddington. Photo courtesy Richard Kobelke
The Kingsford-Smith/Kobelke crew at Waddington. Photo courtesy Richard Kobelke

Because it is so unusual Richard’s surname rang a bell instantly: I’d come across it a lot while transcribing sections of the 463 Squadron Operational Record Book. His father, Norman Kobelke, was a navigator who flew in the winter-spring of 1943-44 with Wing Commander Rollo Kingsford-Smith. The entire crew in the photo, left to right, are as follows:

  • Navigator: Flying Officer N.H Kobelke
  • Wireless Operator: Flying Officer M.J. McLeod
  • Bomb Aimer: Flight Sergeant B.W. Webb
  • Pilot: Wing Commander R Kingsford-Smith
  • Flight Engineer: Sergeant A Fairburn
  • Rear Gunner: Flying Officer D Proctor
  • Mid-Upper Gunner: Flying Officer J.K.R. Rees

Norm Kobelke’s first tour of operations was with 458 Squadron, flying in the Middle East. In October 1943 however, he joined 467 Squadron as part of Kingsford-Smith’s crew, then went across with “C” Flight when it was split off to form half of the new 463 Squadron. Norm completed 55 operations in total, the last 20 with Rollo. His final trip was 24 May 1944 to Duisberg (“Last of 2nd tour,” he wrote in his log book. “You beaut!”) and about the same time he was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross. After the war Norm stayed in the Air Force but sadly, in February 1948 he was killed in the crash of a Lincoln bomber at Amberley, Queensland.

Richard has sent me a few really interesting photos including his father. Norm trained in Canada; here is his graduating class from No. 1 Air Navigation School in Rivers, Manitoba, Canada, in June 1941. Norm is eighth from the left (almost under the Anson’s nose) in the middle row:

RAAF Graduating Class Rivers No. 1 ANS, Manitoba, Canada, June 1941. Photo courtesy Richard Kobelke
RAAF Graduating Class Rivers No. 1 ANS, Manitoba, Canada, June 1941. Photo courtesy Richard Kobelke


Richard thinks the next photo may have been taken at Amberley. If that is the case it is almost certainly in the immediate post-war period: Norm is far right in the front row and he is wearing two rows of rank braid on his sleeves showing he was a Flight Lieutenant and the ribbon of the DFC:

Photo courtesy Richard Kobelke. His father Norm is seated on the far right.
Photo courtesy Richard Kobelke. His father Norm is seated on the far right.

This is probably the most interesting out of the photos in the small collection that Richard sent me.

Who is the man in the civilian suit? Photo courtesy Richard Kobelke
Who is the man in the civilian suit? Photo courtesy Richard Kobelke

In amongst a big group of airmen (Norm is there too, in the top right of the photo) is a man in a civilian suit. Clearly he is someone important, but we have not yet been able to pin down a definite identification. The best guess so far is Lester B Pearson, a Canadian politician who would go on to become Prime Minister two decades after the war. Certainly we know Norm trained in Canada and the rest of the airmen in the photo appear to be all Australian, and the man bears something of a resemblance to the two photos in this link, but for the moment his identity remains a guess at best.

Richard also sent me some extracts of his father’s wartime diary, covering the period when he was at Waddington. It’s a brilliant source. He describes some of his operations in the sort of detail you don’t normally read in letters:

And now a Berlin in the log book. […] A real bind of a trip. Met winds from all over the place – early at target and well north of track crossing French coast home… (19NOV43)

He describes his leaves:

Had a 48 [hour leave] last week whilst Smithy [Rollo Kingsford-Smith] was on leave. Went on car with rear gunner Proctor, spent night at dam-buster squadron + rest of time at the ‘White Horse’ in Braton. Spent all my money. (21DEC43)

There is some serious personal reflection as well:

Have practically decided to marry Biddy – will have to look around for money for rings. Future very unsafe financially, but have a grand pal in Biddy & I’ve told her my exact position. Here’s hoping. (05APR44)

The pair would marry a month later, with Kingsford-Smith attending and rear gunner Proctor the best man.

Norm even notes how the wider war was progressing:

Russians still winning. Stalemate in Italy due to bad, wintry weather… (19NOV43)

What is really interesting for me, however, is the talk of various rumours around the squadrons:

Many rumours flying about re Aussies flying home in Liberators before XMAS. Will believe it when it happens. (20MAR44)

Staying on squadron for a while but now a strong rumour about all tours extended to another 3. So I’d better get out quick. (29MAY44, after last operation of 2nd tour)

Diaries are really the only source of this sort of information. It is certainly never something you find in official records (because they were rumours) and is unlikely to make it to letters sent home, but it’s very much part of the life and times for Bomber Command aircrew. I can well imagine aircrew discussing the latest rumour in the crew room or over a pint or two at the pub.

A diary was the one place where aircrew could put down their thoughts and feelings if they wanted to. They are in many cases a great little uncensored snapshot of what was going on at the time. (Well, almost uncensored – Norm’s diary shows evidence of some parts being cut out, apparently cleaning up when he married Biddy!).

In all, it’s a great little collection of photos and documents and I’m grateful that Richard has allowed me to see and share them.


© 2014 Adam Purcell

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