The Empire Air Training Scheme, or How I Got To Have Lunch With 40 Veterans At The Same Time

The Empire Air Training Scheme was an agreement between Britain and its Dominion countries that trained ab-initio aircrew and put them into a joint ‘pool’ from which they could be drawn to serve with various RAF units. Some 37,000 Australian aircrew were trained under the agreement, serving in Coastal, Fighter and Bomber Commands. And I recently had lunch with almost 40 of them.

My post written after the Bomber Command Commemorative Day Foundation (Vic)’s Cocktail Party in March started thusly:

“I love collecting veterans.”

It was a throw-away line, really. I was referring to my habit of coming away from Bomber Command-related events with a few new contacts, addresses and things to follow up on. But the line obviously tickled the fancy of Fay McPherson. While we were organising my visit to her husband Gerald a couple of months ago, she mentioned that she and Gerald are involved in running the biannual Empire Air Training Scheme luncheon.

The what?

Fay told me that a lunch is held in Caulfield, Melbourne, every six months for trainees and staff of the Empire Air Training Scheme. In other words, just about any member of Commonwealth aircrew from WWII can attend. Would I like to go along too, she enquired?

Would I what!

I had no idea that such a group existed. I’ve been pretty happy with groups of ten or so veterans from various lunches and events, and we might reach 40 on a good year for the Bomber Command Commemorative Day in Canberra, but the old blokes are usually well and truly outnumbered by family, friends and assorted hangers-on like, well, me. But I felt quite special to be invited to this one: fully two-thirds of those present had served in the Royal Australian Air Force in some capacity during WWII. Such a concentration of veterans I haven’t seen in a long, long time.

Al Beavis, a 608 Squadron Mosquito navigator

Al Beavis, a 608 Squadron Mosquito navigator

And so it was that, a few weeks ago, almost sixty people descended on the Caulfield RSL. As it turns out the RSL isn’t even in Caulfield. It’s housed in a handsome 90-ish-year-old mock Tudor building in neighbouring Elsternwick, and when I turned up last week people were already starting to gather in the bar, where the staff had set up jugs of beer with glasses for a very civilised serve-it-yourself opener. I recognised one or two people but decided I’d go introduce myself to someone new.

John Missen was his name, a genial man with a big white beard and a hearty laugh. John had been in Course 55 at 1 Initial Training School at Somers in Victoria in late 1944, right before the Empire Air Training Scheme began to wind up (I believe Course 57 was the final one). Just 18 years old, he and a mate reckoned they’d have a better chance of seeing action if they volunteered directly for training as air gunners but as you couldn’t be posted overseas until you were 19 someone talked them out of that. John ended up at Signals School at Point Cook and did eventually see service on the ground as a RAAF signaller in Borneo. The war ended before some others from his course, who had been accepted as gunners, got to an operational squadron. A writer and a painter, John told me he’s written a novel and is wondering if he should try to get it published. “It needs a good editor”, he said, “but the problem is that once you get to my age…”

The RSL had decided on this, of all days, to renovate its kitchen, so the meal was a somewhat slap-up affair cooked mostly on a BBQ. But it was hearty enough and the conversation was great. I’d asked to be seated next to “someone interesting”, and Fay more than delivered. At my table were two Halifax skippers (Laurie Larmer of 51 Sqn and Ralph White of 192 Sqn) and a Mosquito navigator (Ken Munro). One of the others at the table was Geoff Clark, who while not a veteran himself was pretty close: he’d completed his National Service in the RAF in the 1950s, working in the Photographic Section with reconnaissance cameras. And the other person was a man named Ian Stevenson, who’d brought along a logbook belonging to his uncle who had been a Spitfire pilot killed over Italy. So we all had plenty to talk about, and even more so when I discovered that Laurie lives just two suburbs over from me.

Ralph White, 192 Sqn Halifax pilot

Ralph White, 192 Sqn Halifax pilot

I wandered around to some of the other tables between lunch and dessert. Someone mentioned the primitive conditions when the Initial Training School at Somers first opened. Apparently it was quite cold and the buildings were very draughty. At this point I heard Ken Wilkinson, a 77 Sqn Kittyhawk pilot, snort. “I was there in July…” he said. Ken thought at first that, as my interest is mainly Bomber Command, he wouldn’t be of much use to me, and pointed me to the two 460 Squadron men across the table. But then he said he had also done some air traffic control while in the Air Force… I’ll be seeing Mr Wilkinson again for a deeper chat, methinks!

Ken Wilkinson - a 77 Sqn Wirraway pilot - calls a taxi to go home after the lunch.

Ken Wilkinson – a 77 Sqn Wirraway pilot – calls a taxi to go home after the lunch.

I also talked with Jack Bell, who I had heard speak during the Bomber Command Panel Discussion at the Shrine of Remembrance in 2013.I mentioned how happy I was to see so many veterans in the one place, and he concurred. But he had a very interesting point too. “A lot of these blokes haven’t told their stories”, he said. “This isn’t the place for it though – too many distractions. You really need to get them on their own.”

Jack Bell, 216 Squadron Vickers Valencia and Bristol Bombay Wireless Operator/Air Gunner

Jack Bell, 216 Squadron Vickers Valencia and Bristol Bombay Wireless Operator/Air Gunner

Which, I thought, is very true. I go to a lot of these sort of functions (indeed I’m madly trying to get this post finished in time before heading to Canberra for a whole weekend of them) and, while they are an excellent way to meet people initially, they are not usually the right sort of environment for a detailed talk. If the old blokes are up for something like that, as Jack said, you really do need to go and visit them.

So six old men will shortly get a letter from me requesting just such a visit. And hopefully I’ll get the chance to go and get some stories from them.

Words and photos (c) 2015 Adam Purcell

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