Tony Wright, National Affairs editor at The Age newspaper here in Melbourne, usually writes about the goings-on in and around Parliament House in Canberra. His series of Sketch columns usually throw an interesting light on the events of the day (and, if you’ve been following Australian politics, he’s had a not inconsiderable amount of material for inspiration recently).
But every Saturday, Wright gets the opportunity to write about something other than politics. One week last year it was about Mike Druce, the man who made a modern-day escape from Colditz Castle in September, then walked unsupported to Switzerland. Wright wrote another interesting one early in February.
“They are disappearing fast now”, he wrote, “the generation who experienced a world war.”
It seems not so long ago that those who had lived through World War I and had seen horses step aside for internal combustion engines and a lot more were being put in the ground, but memory plays tricks – it’s 100 years since that war began.
Those who knew it, even those who lived to astonishing ages, breathed the last of this earth’s air a long time ago.
Now it is the turn of the last of the survivors of World War II.
Some of those shuffling off into the sunset in recent times, of course, were well-known in life and widely mourned in death. Giants of politics like Gough Whitlam (an RAAF navigator) and Tom Uren (a survivor of the Burma-Thai Railway). Journalist and Korean War correspondent Harry Gordon. “These are, of course, big and extraordinary lives”, Wright says:
…generous spirits well documented, celebrated on a broad stage, their stories teaching us something that transcends the experiences that will go into books about their achievements: call it wisdom.
But while these were some of the better-known men whose lives intersected with some of the biggest conflicts in the history of mankind, so many others were there too. In Wright’s words:
…each day others whose lives were not destined to be celebrated so publicly or granted obituaries pass beyond this existence. Every one of them has a story, and in those stories we can often find ourselves enriched, because wisdom often resides there.
He’s dead right.
This is more or less why I flew to Sydney last month to have lunch with a Bomber Command veteran who also happens to be a good friend of mine. Hugh is a former rear gunner and we arranged to meet at one of those very old and very exclusive clubs in the city, all cedar panelling and leather Chesterfield armchairs. Hugh has been a member for a quarter-century.
He’s clearly well-known here. As we entered the bar the bartender poured my beer but gave Hugh the bottle and an empty mug. “I like to pour it myself”, he explained. Somehow, I imagine, with its sharply-dressed, exclusively male clientele, beer in pewter mugs and discreet murmur of conversation, the atmosphere in the bar at a wartime Officer’s Mess (in one of its quieter moments) might have been something similar. And perhaps for Hugh that’s at least part of where the attraction lies.
With that thought in my head, it’s not surprising that our conversation very quickly turned to flying. As we drank our beers we shared experiences flying the Tiger Moth and I mentioned my recent visit to Nhill and the Anson that is under restoration there. “I loved the old Aggie”, he said simply. We continued talking in the dining room as we waited for and then enjoyed a scrumptious meal while looking out over the State Library across the street.
Hugh is a little unique. He actually trained as a pilot but when he arrived at his squadron, he was one of twelve who were asked/chosen to re-train as gunners to operate a special ‘secret weapon’. It turned out to be ‘Village Inn’, an automatic radar-guided gun system. Despite what you might read on that link, Hugh’s opinion of the equipment is not very high. It was unserviceable half the time, he said, and the rear turret was not a nice place to be. Nor was it safe. On his first trip – to Bremen, in October 1944 – two of the twelve Village Inn men failed to return.
Hugh flew on his last operation – his 32nd – a matter of weeks before the end of the war. There followed the traditional fortnight’s end-of-tour leave, part of which coincided with the regular 12-days-every-six-weeks leave of a good friend at the squadron called Johnny Garrett. Hugh had arranged to meet up with Johnny in Cardiff but was a bit surprised when he did not show up. On return to the squadron he found out why.
On 22 April 1945, 49 Squadron was moving from Fulbeck to Syerston. As happened frequently on these occasions, on departure each bomber “beat up” the control tower before setting course for their new home. One aircraft flew past at extremely low level. Johnny, like Hugh a pilot/rear gunner, was in the rear turret.
The pilot pulled the Lancaster up into the air.
The tail of the aircraft hit the MT shed. The Lancaster fell to the ground, killing all six on board. Fifteen more people – part of the works party which were about to begin runway extentions at Fulbeck – were killed on the ground.(1)
It was a sobering story to hear over an otherwise very civilised lunch. But that’s just the point. Such was life, and death, in Bomber Command. Tragic as they are, stories like these actually happened. While official records like the squadron Operational Record Book reveal something of what happened to the aircraft, they won’t include the personal details – like the friends of those killed who wondered why they did not show up for an arranged meet-up while on leave.
These are the sorts of details and stories that can only come direct from those who were there at the time. So I see part of my role, as a Bomber Command researcher, but also as a member of the human race, to collect those stories while I still can. Hugh is one of the younger Bomber Command veterans I know, but he turned 90 last year. He’s no spring chicken. And one day I’m going to want to ask him something… but he won’t be there anymore. So in the meantime, says Tony Wright as he finishes his piece:
…the rest of us could do worse than sit with those close to us and explore what they might have to share and teach before they are gone and we find ourselves turning, bereft, to their shadow.
Amen to that.
Hugh McLeod, 49 Squadron rear gunner and my good friend, died on 7 July 2015.
(1) The ‘Fulbeck Tragedy’, as it is known, is described in Ward, J 1997: Beware of the Dog at War: Operational Diary of 49 Squadron Spanning Forty Nine Years, 1916-1965, pp. 542-5. Thanks to Colin Cripps for the steer.
© 2015 Adam Purcell