April 25, 2008 was one of the first years that I joined the 463-467 Squadrons Association for the Sydney Anzac Day March. It was, as I remember it, quite wet.
There were a good few more veterans marching then than there have been in more recent times – I guess age catches up quickly for most people sometime between their late 80s and early 90s. And so that wet April morning seven years ago, back when the old blokes weren’t quite so old, the march was moving a little quicker than it now does.
One veteran, though, was falling slightly behind, so I dropped back to offer him the shelter of my umbrella. We chatted as we marched. His name was Harry, he said, and “I was doing ok until I lost my marbles a few years ago!” I had to admit he looked in pretty good shape to me, notwithstanding the ever-increasing distance between us and the main group of marchers ahead.
But Harry, determined to complete the march on his own two feet, had a plan for that.
Just after the Sydney Town Hall, the traditional march route passes St Andrews Cathedral and then turns left into Bathurst St. We watched the Squadron wheel left in something that may have once resembled parade ground style (it had been over sixty years for these blokes, after all). Cheekily, though, my new friend Harry led me and my umbrella not so much around the corner as across it, cutting the corner and neatly closing the gap (at least a little bit).
No problems with marbles there, then, lost or otherwise.
This happy memory came to mind recently when I learned that Harry – actually Henry Emanuel Brown – 106 Squadron Wireless Operator, died peacefully in hospital on a Sunday night in May.
Harry had completed a year at Teachers College training to be a science teacher (having not yet reached the age of seventeen years) when he enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force, using his brother’s birthday to try and sneak in four months underage. Alas, his family tell me, the duty sergeant knew him and ‘misplaced’ the paperwork until after Harry’s actual birthday. He was called up in August 1942, completed wireless operator/air gunner training in Canada and flew twelve operations with 106 Squadron from Metheringham. Then in March 1945 he went to RAF Warboys, in what is now Cambridgeshire, for a Pathfinder training course.
By the time this course ended, in late April 1945, the end of the war in Europe was but a fortnight away and Harry flew no more operations. He received a commission a week after VE Day and was posted to 467 Squadron, which moved from Waddington to (surprise!) Metheringham at around the same time. There Harry took part in the training for Tiger Force, the planned bomber offensive against Japan. Then the atomic bombs, as we now know, removed the requirement for that, and 467 Squadron disbanded at Metheringham at the end of September 1945. Shortly thereafter Harry returned to Australia and following discharge studied Physics at Sydney University under the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme and worked as a research physicist in atmospherics and minerals. Though he told his family that “the last time I saw Europe was out of the back of a bomber and I never want to see it again!” he did eventually return, well into his late eighties, to visit his children.
For the last few years Harry and I had corresponded occasionally after I posted him a copy of the group photograph of aircrew from Killara in 2013. He was one of the rare veterans with an email address (using dictation software rather than a keyboard) and this came in handy when I had technical questions about the role of wireless operator. There were many different types of radios in Lancasters and Harry was a great help in sorting out their various roles.
One of his emails mentioned using one of them to get a fix from “0512 East and 56 North when we were shot up over Hampden” (I suspect that was a dictation error from the software and it should have read Hamburg). My calculations place that position over the North Sea, rather closer to Denmark than to England. To my eternal regret I never got around to asking Harry to tell me more about that particular story.
Like many veterans though, most of the stories with which he did go into more detail concerned what could be called the lighter side of life in Bomber Command. As the wireless operator, Harry had a spare moment every 15 minutes or so. He had specially prepared an empty 7lb jam tin and would use that spare time, he told me at an Anzac Day lunch one year, to wander around between each man in the crew, offering them the use of it to answer calls of nature. “Not only was I the wireless operator”, so his punch line went, “I was the piss-pot too!”
Harry had broken his hip in a fall about a year ago and complications arising out of that had meant that he was in various hospitals and nursing homes more or less ever since. We didn’t see him at the Ladies’ Day lunch last November, but he was determined to come to Anzac Day this year, where his grandson Geordie, who is now a member of the Royal Australian Air Force himself, pushed his wheelchair during the march.
A little over two weeks later Harry passed away. He was the last remaining member of both his 106 Squadron and his 467 Squadron crews.
Thanks to Nancy (Harry’s daughter) and Geordie (his grandson) Jacobs for their help with supplying details and the wartime images in this post.
Text and colour images (c) 2015 Adam Purcell