Archive for June, 2016

IBCC Interview #7: Col Fraser, 460 Squadron Lancaster Navigator

Things didn’t get off to a promising start when I met Col Fraser. It was October last year, and I was fishing for IBCC interviewees at the Empire Air Training Scheme luncheon in Melbourne.

“I was”, Col said when I asked if he had been in Bomber Command. A navigator, in fact, with 460 Squadron. But he politely declined my request for an interview, saying “I gave most of my stuff to the people in Canberra a few years ago and I think I’ve told my story enough. Besides, I didn’t do much anyway.” Disappointed but respectful of his decision, I thanked him for his time and moved on to see who I could find at the next table.

But about fifteen minutes later, when I was talking to another veteran in another corner of the room, Col came lurching up to me out of the shadows. “Adam!” he announced. “I’ve changed my mind.”

“That’s great”, I said.

“Yeah, I got shot down on Anzac Day 1945 so I thought I should say something.”

I’ll say. Anzac Day, 1945. The day of Bomber Command’s final raids of the war. And the day of Bomber Command’s final losses. Col Fraser, as it turned out, was in the second last Lancaster to be lost during WWII. And one clear spring day a few weeks later, he told me about it.

25 April 1945 was, as Col remembers it, a lovely day:

“Beautiful blue sky, no clouds, green fields and lakes and rivers down below, and on the right was the majestic Alps with snow shining on their tops. Absolute picture-book.”

Under the command of Flying Officer HG ‘Lofty’ Payne, Col and his crew were off on a daylight trip to visit ‘Hitler’s hangout’ near Berchtesgaden in the Bavarian Alps.

On a mountain overlooking the town of Berchtesgaden were mountain retreats and chalets belonging to elite members of the Nazi Party like Herman Göring, Martin Bormann and Albert Speer. Hitler’s own alpine lodge known as the Berghof was also there, and an SS barracks was nearby. While it is now known that Hitler himself was in Berlin at the time of the raid, there were very real fears that fanatical Germans would set up a mountain redoubt for a bitter and bloody last stand centred around the Berghof. So more than 300 bombers were sent to destroy it.

Approaching the target, Col got up from his navigator’s position and moved into the cockpit to have a look at the view. The flak looked light to moderate; “no worries,” he said. Then the bomb aimer took over:

“He said, ‘left, left’ and then ‘bombs gone, bomb doors closed’ – and as he finished that word we were hit.”

Something flew up past Col’s face and out over the roof, and when he looked down there was a jagged hole in the bundle of Window which was stashed under his navigator’s desk. The decision to come out of his little ‘office’ saved his life, at least for the moment – but they were not safe yet. The “light to moderate” flak had scored a direct hit, and though none of the crew were injured three of the Lancaster’s engines were destroyed. The pilot told everyone to get out.

“But we can’t do that Lofty,” said the flight engineer, “we’re over Germany!” Nobody wanted to jump while they still had a chance of making it back to the Allied lines. But then that last engine also gave up the ghost. “We were gliding”, said Col, “and we had to go.” And so out Col went.

Col Fraser always wanted to be a navigator. He reckons he’s not very good with his hands but was skilled with figures and calculations. And while actually flying an aeroplane could be “deadly” boring, as a navigator he’d be working steadily all flight. He got his wish, was selected for navigator training and earned his N brevet in Australia in February 1944. Then he went to war.

Like so many Australians Col crewed up at 27 Operational Training Unit, Lichfield. He’d run into a mate named Dan Lynch, a Tasmanian bomb aimer with whom he had been training in Australia, and they decided to fly together. “We discussed having a pilot and decided we wanted one who was big and strong, and he had to be mature – about 23 or 24 years old!” The man they chose was West Australian Harry ‘Lofty’ Payne, so-called because he was 6’3 tall. The wireless operator Bill Stanley was from Melbourne and both gunners, ‘Shorty’ Connochie and ‘Buck’ Bennett, were Sydney lads.Col Fraser and crew

After their very first flight in a Wellington, the instructor got out and told ‘Lofty’ to take it up for three more circuits. “Well we took off and landed twice,” Col recalled, “and the third time as we reached height the port engine failed.” This, I’ve learned, was not an uncommon occurrence with the battered old Wellingtons then found on OTUs. And they were in a particularly old one: when Col operated the emergency landing gear extension system it also disabled the aircraft’s hydraulics, a quirk that had been engineered out of later versions of the aeroplane. So having struggled around the circuit, when the pilot tried to lower the flaps for landing nothing happened.

“He finished up banging the aircraft down halfway down the strip, and we ran through the fence, across a road, through the fence on the other side and a bush or two, and finished up in a ditch with the [aircraft’s] back broken and up in the air.”

They all managed to walk away virtually uninjured, and the following day they were flying again. This experience left Col confident that he had made a good choice: “We’ve got a bloody good pilot who didn’t panic!”

Col learned an important lesson on another night at OTU when the heating failed in his Wellington, forcing him to work with frozen hands. As a result his navigation log was not up to the usual standard, a judgement communicated to Col in no uncertain terms by the chief navigation instructor. Col protested that given the circumstances it wasn’t too bad. But the instructor disagreed:

“In Bomber Command there are no excuses.”

Col says this lesson stayed with him for the rest of the war.

Col enjoyed England. It was “comforting”, he said (and of course they spoke his language!). One of the great things about being an Australian airman in England was that “there were no Australian army troops to stuff it up… by and large the Australians over there were middle class and educated, and were very popular with the local girls…”, he added with a twinkle in his eye. On leave, he and a small group of friends would obtain railway warrants to either Lands End or John O’Groats, which are at the extreme opposite ends of Britain. This would enable them to get off the train, unplanned, anywhere they wished to explore.

Col flew his first operation in March 1945, attacking a place near Cologne called Brück. The flak was fairly heavy over the target, and Col gave me an impression of his bomb aimer’s reaction after his first run into a target: “Left left”, he said, “steady… steaaaady… bombs gone, bomb doors closed (and here his voice rose an octave)… LET’S GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE!!!”

“I must admit that the rest of the crew, including me, was feeling the same way that he was,” Col said. “This is no place to be, for us nice blokes!”

On the way home, over France, an ack-ack shell went straight through one wing, leaving a jagged hole but failing to explode. They returned home shaken but unharmed, feeling “a bit guilty at bringing back an aircraft with a hole in the wing… as if we’d been a bit careless about the whole thing!”

Over the next few weeks Col and his crew would fly another five operations, during which they would be coned over Potsdam and recalled while over the target but before they could drop their bombs on a trip to Bremen, necessitating a hazardous landing back at base with a full load on board. And then came Berchtesgaden – Col’s seventh trip.

After parachuting from his aircraft Col landed on a field near a couple of houses. He unbuckled his harness and left it there, attempting to hightail it into a nearby clump of trees. But the occupants of the houses had watched him come down, and pointed him out to the Volksturm. Col was arrested and taken to an Army camp, and over the next few hours the rest of the crew trickled in (except for the bomb aimer who – the first one out of the aircraft – landed in the foothills of the Alps and was captured by mountain troops).

The most amazing story, however, belongs to ‘Lofty’ Payne. After everyone else had jumped, Payne was about to leave the cockpit himself when the rear gunner appeared behind the pilot, carrying his open parachute. He had caught the ripcord on something as he came forward, and the parachute was now useless. Deciding he couldn’t leave the gunner to his fate, ‘Lofty’ made the risky decision to try to land his crippled aircraft. Fuel was sloshing over the floor as they glided down towards a cornfield. A powerline clipped the top off the rudders but they managed to crash in a more or less controlled fashion, exited smartly and ran, expecting an explosion at any moment. None came – it seems the ploughed earth had put out the flames. They were arrested shortly afterwards.

Col and his crew were taken to Stalag VIIa at Moosburg, where after perhaps the shortest time as Prisoners of War ever, on 29 April 1945 elements of the American 14th Division arrived and liberated the camp. General Patton himself arrived on the front of a truck on 1 May, where with a hundred photographers and correspondents surrounding him he promised that all the prisoners would be back in England in two or three days. In the end it took closer to a week (Col was in the camp under the Americans for longer than he was under the Germans), but eventually they were transported to the great airfield at Juvencourt to be flown home in a DC-3. Col sat up the front with the pilot – a New Zealander with whom he had trained at an Advanced Flying Unit in the UK six months before. “All the debris of war was still spread out across the countryside,” he said. “You could see what war had done…”

Col was one of the more organised of the veterans I’ve interviewed. When I’d turned on the microphones in a small sitting room in the great big old nursing home where he lives, he pulled out a thick sheaf of papers – and began reading from a prepared speech. I suppose he wanted to make sure he didn’t forget anything. It worked, because he told his remarkable story in detail and in an entertaining way.

But as happens in these sort of interviews, it’s the unscripted answers that are sometimes more revealing. “The thing that hurt most of all,” Col said when I asked him about the legacy of Bomber Command, “was Churchill deserting Bomber Command.”

“…not one word, one way or the other, was [mentioned] in Churchill’s speech of the Victory over Germany. That hurt most of all… When the war was close to finishing, all of a sudden all the … bishops were saying ‘oh we shouldn’t have bombed… bombing’s not supposed to be that, it’s only supposed to be drop a little bit in their garden or something – look at all the houses you’ve knocked down!’”

“The point is that it should always be remembered,” Col said.

And who can disagree with that?

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Col Fraser

 

(c) 2016 Adam Purcell

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Bomber Command Commemoration Day 2016: Melbourne

It was raining steadily while I waited at Canberra Airport for my flight to Melbourne last Sunday morning. As we boarded our aeroplane a Qantas International B747 – an unusual visitor to Canberra – not so much landed as splashed down, unheralded but spectacularly, on the main runway.  It turns out it was a flight from Hong Kong that had missed out in the atrocious weather conditions prevailing in Sydney and diverted. The weather – caused by a pair of big fat low pressure systems sitting just off the south eastern coast of Australia – had already forced the Canberra Bomber Command Commemorative Day ceremony to move into the cloisters of the Australian War Memorial, away from the sodden lawn. It was just as wet in Melbourne.

One could be forgiven for thinking that the appalling conditions might have kept people away from the fifth annual Bomber Command Commemorative Day service at the Shrine of Remembrance.

One would be wrong. This year saw the biggest turnout yet in the southern capital. Twelve veterans of Bomber Command were among more than 160 people who attended. There were veterans and their wives and families – one veteran headed a party of no less than ten of his extended family. There were politicians and serving members of the Royal Australian Air Force. There were members of the Australian Air Cadets and there were staff and students of BCCAV’s partner school, Carey Baptist Grammar. And there were members of the general public, with or without a direct connection to Bomber Command. In the Auditorium it was standing room only. At least it was dry.

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There were speeches from Shrine Governor Major Maggie More and Chaplain John Brownbill. But the keynote address was from the Royal Australian Air Force’s Air Commodore Geoff Harland, Commander of the Air Force Training Group. In an excellent address (available for download here), Air Commodore Harland highlighted some of the statistics of life in Bomber Command: 125,000 aircrew served, of which 55,573 were killed:38,462 Britons, 9,980 Canadians, 4,050 Australians, 1,703 New Zealanders and 1300 from Poland, Free France, the USA, Norway and India.

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“It is crucial that we remember the sacrifice these numbers represent,” Air Commodore Harland said. “As a modern aviator I marvel at the bravery of these young men… the example they set for is in terms of commitment, valour and sacrifice is instructive to us all and, I would argue, sets an unmoveable foundation for the values we hold so dear in our modern Air Force.”

“To forget is not an option.”

The wreath-laying ceremony followed the Air Commodore’s address.

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Bomber Command veteran Laurie Williams

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Students from Carey Baptist Grammar lay their wreath.

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For the formal commemorative part of the ceremony, Carey Baptist Grammar Middle School Co-Captain Sophie Westcott read the Ode. It was the first time that a student from Bomber Command Commemorative Association Victoria’s Partner School has carried out an official role at this service and it was well-received.

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Sophie Westcott of Carey Baptist Grammar recites the Ode

By the time it was over we came outside to discover that the weather had closed in even more. The top half of nearby Eureka Tower (975’) had disappeared completely into the murk. We knew that the Royal Victorian Aero Club contingent were grounded at Moorabbin, but there was some hope that a lone Mustang, flying from Tyabb, might yet be able to get through. There were a lot of people squeezed into the foyer enjoying a chat with some light refreshments, and as one of the organisers I was in some demand, talking to people I already knew, some I’d been corresponding with and several I’d not met before. Then I got tapped on the shoulder.

“There are two TV crews set up in the forecourt!”

Oh boy. As the Media Officer for the Bomber Command Commemorative Association Victoria, I’ve been busy drafting and distributing press releases and emails to various media organisations over several months, hoping for a bit of coverage. And someone had actually turned up! So I trekked around to the front of the Shrine where there were, indeed, two camera crews, one from the ABC and one from Channel 7. I was able to brief them about the flypast.

Sadly, at the appointed hour, nothing happened except that, if it were possible, the cloud base seemed to lower even more. The Mustang did actually get airborne at Tyabb but, restricted to VFR flight only, could not find a safe way through the clouds. The pilot made a very prudent decision to return to base, and the skies over Melbourne remained quiet. It was disappointing that we had some media interest but they were unable to get the shots that they wanted. But there’s nothing we can do about the weather, and I was thankful enough that it had been sufficient to get a) out of Canberra and b) into Melbourne on time earlier in the day.

We did get some other media coverage though, and this led directly to one of my favourite stories about this year’s ceremony. A few weeks ago, I got a phone call from a reporter from the Mornington News who had heard about this ceremony but was looking for a local angle. I subsequently facilitated contact with Jean Smith, a 94-year-old veteran of the Womens’ Auxiliary Air Force who lives on the Peninsula (who I interviewed for the IBCC in March). The resulting coverage in the News was pretty good (link here).

The best bit? Jean told me after the ceremony that she had told the reporter she was so keen to attend the ceremony that she was saving her pennies to pay for a taxi to the city, a journey of an hour and a half each way. “It was a throwaway line really,” she said – but the reporter printed it. Within days, no fewer than three members of the public had separately contacted the newspaper offering to drive Jean to Melbourne for the ceremony.

And so on Sunday morning, Jean arrived at the Shrine of Remembrance, driven by a friendly member of the general public. It was the embodiment of Air Commodore Harland’s words:

We must take pause to remember the collective sacrifice of this group, we must remember those who perished and cherish those who survived and those who are still with us and say ‘thank you’ and know that that will never be enough.

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The Australian Air Cadets provided an honour guard

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Shrine Governor Major Maggie More

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Chaplain John Brownbill

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A veteran comforts his wife

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© 2016 Adam Purcell

 

 

Bomber Command Commemoration Day 2016: Canberra

It was an unfortunate fact that the Bomber Command Commemorative Day ceremonies were on the same day this year in both Canberra and Melbourne. While in previous years I have prioritised travelling to the nation’s capital, in part because it has tended to attract Sydney-based Bomber Command types who I count as friends, with the recent incorporation of the Bomber Command Commemorative Association Victoria and my deeper involvement with that group in Melbourne, I needed to be in the southern capital on Sunday. But neither that nor the big rain band that’s been chucking it down at the entire east coast of Australia all weekend stopped me making a flying visit to Canberra last Saturday.

While it was only a short visit, I made sure it would be well and truly worthwhile by arranging an early flight on Saturday morning and doing a sneaky IBCC interview with 466 Squadron bomb aimer and prisoner of war Keith Campbell. I’ll get around to writing about Keith’s story in more detail one of these days (I’m afraid there’s a six-month backlog on that series of posts at the moment!), but at this point I must acknowledge the superb support cheerfully given by the staff of the Australian War Memorial in arranging a suitable venue for the recording. We’d hoped to be able to get an early check-in at the hotel but as this could not be confirmed until very late in the piece I thought I’d ask a contact at the AWM about the possibility of finding an appropriate spot somewhere in the building.

To AWM Events and Ceremonies Coordinator Pam Tapia, Media Relations Manager Greg Kimball, Duty Manager Richard Cruise and the staff at the front desk go my grateful thanks. We had the use of the Memorial’s BAE Systems Theatre for a couple of hours and it made for a very comfortable and appropriate location. Keith was the only survivor of a mid-air collision over Stuttgart in July 1944 – he still doesn’t know how his parachute was clipped on or how it opened – and it was wonderful to listen to him telling his story in detail, and get it on tape.

The prize for ingenuity goes to Adam, the AWM’s Theatre Manager who, noticing my struggles with the low light in the room, suggested, supplied and operated a theatre spotlight for the traditional photo:

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Keith Campbell OAM LdH in the BAE Systems Theatre, Australian War Memorial

After all that excitement we had a brief respite at the hotel (back at the QT again after last year’s experiment further down Northbourne Ave), and then it was back to the War Memorial for the evening’s cocktail party. This has always been my favourite part of this weekend: the atmosphere provided by Lancaster G for George is second to none. There was a reasonable crowd, though veteran numbers were somewhat lower than we have seen in recent years with eight present.

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A notable absence was Don Southwell, who had been taken to hospital on Friday with a mild infection. Long a stalwart of the organising committee of this weekend, Don was devastated at missing the event, and he was certainly missed both at the AWM and at the post-function drinks back at the hotel. Apparently he’d been on the phone to his son David every three hours to make sure everything was going smoothly in Canberra, so we hope to see him back on his feet soon.

Geoff Ingram provided MC services on the night and the guest speaker was Air Vice Marshal Kim Osley. He hit precisely the right note with a short address that was informal enough for the social nature of the occasion yet thoughtful enough to touch on some important issues. He started on a humorous note, telling the crowd that his father had been German. “So I’d like to thank those of you who attacked Stuttgart,” he said, pausing for effect, “…and missed!”

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The airmen of Bomber Command, Air Vice Marshal Osley said, were to the modern Royal Australian Air Force role models, leaving a legacy of moral courage in adversity and professional mastery. “Bomber Command shortened the war – end of story,” he declared, and no-one in the crowd could possibly argue with that.

I was happy to renew acquaintances with some veterans I know well: Tommy Knox, Bill Purdy, Tom Hopkinson, Ray Merrill and Jim Clayton (who claimed after AVM Osley’s Stuttgart quip that “we didn’t [miss]!”). And I managed to meet a new one too: Les Davies, a 466 Squadron mid-upper gunner, a lovely bloke who I found sitting under G for George.

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The night ended with the return of the Striking by Night sound and light show, which finished things off with a nice little punctuation mark.

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Jim Clayton, Ray Merrill and some plane called George

There were a small band of people in the QT hotel bar when we got back to the hotel for a nightcap or three. That distinctly Huxtable-shaped hole in proceedings again made its presence felt, but there were some passionate and very useful conversations in progress as the night wore on.

And then the next morning I got up early, Geoff Ingram drove me to the airport and I flew, in cloud the whole way, back to Melbourne. The next part of the Bomber Command Commemoration Day events was about to begin.

 

(c) 2016 Adam Purcell