Some three decades ago, the 463-467 Squadrons Association (NSW) (Inc) needed to find a new venue for their Annual General Meeting. One of the squadron veterans was a member of the Killara Golf Club in what’s usually described as Sydney’s ‘leafy’ North Shore, and suggested that the salubrious surrounds of the art deco clubhouse there might be suitable. So they tried it, and it was. After a few years the meeting would be followed by lunch at the club and eventually wives and partners were invited along too. The gents had their meeting in the Billiards Room while the ladies got stuck into drinks in the Dining Room. And then they would all share lunch together.
Such were the origins, says veteran 463 Squadron wireless operator Don Browning, of the now-annual ‘Ladies’ Day’ luncheon. AGMs are no longer required following the winding up of the official body some years ago but the loose association continues to hold the lunches on the Sunday nearest Remembrance Day each November. This year’s edition took place yesterday. And I was there, one of about 55 people in the crowd.
There was a little shuffling of the seats happening at Table 3 when I arrived to stake my claim. No fewer than three Bomber Command veterans were at the table so I cunningly found a spot in between two of them. Don Southwell apologised as he took his seat on my left. “Sorry you got me,” he said. “I thought you’d want to sit next to someone interesting!” I raised an eyebrow. Sitting next to me on my right, was Ron Houghton, who flew a full tour as a Halifax pilot on 102 Squadron and after the war had a long career flying Constellations and B707s with Qantas. To his right, Keith Campbell, a bomb aimer who was the only survivor when his 466 Squadron Halifax was shot down over Stuttgart in June 1944. Keith wore the little gold caterpillar badge that denotes a member of the Caterpillar Club. Don Southwell himself, of course, flew nine operations as a 463 Squadron navigator.
I reckon I’d have a hard time finding anyone more interesting than this trio.
I was, in reality, extraordinarily lucky to have three veterans at my table. In all there were nine present, down three on last year, mostly through illness both short and long-term. Most obviously missing for me were Tom Hopkinson, who had to cancel at short notice, and Harry Brown, who is still recovering from complications after breaking a hip a few months ago. Even some of those who were there have been a little in the wars lately. Keith Campbell got the most points for effort though. He’s had a hip operation recently but managed to wrangle a leave pass from hospital for the afternoon.
After a superb meal at which, as you’d expect in this company, the conversation was free-flowing, it was time for some speeches. Don Southwell welcomed the reasonably significant number of visitors, and proposed the traditional Toast to the Ladies:
Annette Guterres responded on behalf of the Ladies, both present and not:
The day’s main speaker was Bill Purdy. Before he spoke, however, Don Browning shared a story about him:
Following his tour of operations, Bill was posted to a Heavy Conversion Unit at Wigsley as an instructor. Returning from a training sortie one day Bill found himself close to Waddington and decided it would be fun to buzz the control tower there. So he did. Word of his indiscretion, of course, made its way back to Wigsley, where the Commanding Officer there happened to be the former CO from 463 Squadron, Rollo Kingsford-Smith. Kingsford-Smith gave Bill a good dressing-down and told him that Group Captain Bonham-Carter had demanded an apology in person.
“You are to go to Waddington”, Rollo said.
No problem, Bill thought. It’s only about nine miles away as the crow flies, a short hop in a Lancaster. No sweat.
But Rollo wasn’t finished yet.
Bill says he hasn’t forgotten that bike ride.
Apart from Phil Smith, of course, Bill was the first Bomber Command veteran I had met who actually flew on the Lille raid of 10 May 1944 from which the crew of B for Baker failed to return. He’s also the only Bomber Command airman I know who still has a pilot licence, flying around in a Tiger Moth from Luskintyre, north of Sydney. But this talk was about his experiences in June of this year, when a delegation of seven Australian veterans went to France to take part in the official 70th anniversary commemorations of the Normandy landings.
Bill had been on the raid on the morning of the invasion against Pointe du Hoc, a very large German gun emplacement, and it was in this capacity as a veteran of D-Day that he was selected. Interestingly another one of the seven was present at Killara: my lunch companion Ron Houghton.
In any case, Bill gave a good talk. Security on the French trip was tight, he said, with multiple checkpoints to negotiate on the way to the official ceremonies, and traffic was a nightmare with half a million people in the area. But it was one of the best-organised events he had ever been part of and a most memorable occasion, particularly seeing first-hand the damage their 1,000-pounders had done to Pointe du Hoc. Having been there myself a few years ago, he’s right – there are craters everywhere.
Bill was wearing his medals, and they included a particularly impressive-looking one hanging from a red ribbon. While the veterans were overseas the French presented each of them with the Légion d’Honneur, one of the country’s highest honours. It’s the one hanging from his left thumb in this photo:
Following the talk there was one more bit of official business to take care of: the group photo. Once again, all we were missing was a flight engineer… and a Lancaster, otherwise I would have suggested they all took us for a fly.
I really enjoy the company of these ‘old lags’ and I feel very lucky that I’ve been able to make the trip up from Melbourne to catch up with them a couple of times a year. May it continue for a good few years yet.
Text and images (c) 2014 Adam Purcell