You know how some people just feel like they’ve always been there?
That they always will be there?
It makes it all the more heartbreaking when, suddenly, they’re not there anymore.
Don Southwell was one of those seemingly immortal people. He was one of the first Bomber Command veterans I really got to know, and until a couple of years ago he was, well, always there: always at functions and ceremonies, always on the end of the phone for a chat. Always there.
But now he’s not anymore.
Don Southwell died last week in a hospital in Sydney at the age of 95.
There’s a lot that can, and no doubt will, be said over the next few weeks about this man. He was involved with the volunteer Coastal Patrol for a very long time, and after he retired, he continued working part time for “the MLC”, as he called it – the company that he returned to when he came back from the war – until well into his 90s.
It’s for his Bomber Command work that he’s perhaps best known though. Don was a driving force in the Bomber Command community, and particularly the 463-467 Squadron community, in Sydney and around Australia. He was always organising things: Anzac Day lunches in Sydney, ‘Ladies Day’ lunches in Killara, and of course the annual commemoration at the War Memorial in Canberra. It meant that at the events he was always busy and it could be difficult to pin him down for a proper chat. In 2016 I conspired to fly to Sydney the day before Anzac Day, taking my laptop and a pair of microphones to Don’s home for a proper interview. You can find the resulting recording here if you want to hear some of Don’s stories in his own words.
He was a great story teller, and he had some good stories to tell, too. Like, for example, the one about crawling through a hole in the fence while at Initial Training School in East Lindfield in Sydney and removing the white cap flash that marked trainee airmen (in order to travel incognito), then walking down the road to catch a train to his family home to stay the night. In the morning he reversed the journey to make it back to camp in time for morning parade, with no-one in authority being any the wiser.
Then there’s the one about his first solo flight in a Tiger Moth (Don was originally selected for pilot training), when the wind changed while he was up there and Don didn’t notice. His instructor came up beside him in another aeroplane, pointing at the wind sock, and Don went down and pulled off a ‘pearler’ of a crosswind landing. Despite this demonstration of his skills, he was scrubbed shortly thereafter and sent to navigation school. It hurt at the time but was probably for the best; “I probably would have been killed as a pilot, I reckon,” he told me during the interview.
And then there’s the one about how, on an operation, Don took a ‘wakey-wakey’ pill over Bohlen to stay alert for the flight home. After the war, the drug in the pills was revealed to have been Benzedrine, the first amphetamine. On the come-down after arriving back at base in the early hours of the morning, Don crashed into bed and slept all day – thereby completely missing his 21st birthday.
I first discovered the continued existence of the 463-467 Squadrons Association by the simple and lucky method of seeing their banner march by in Sydney one Anzac Day, well over 15 years ago, and deciding to follow it. I started going to the Association lunches that traditionally followed the march, first at the NSW Sports Club and later at what eventually became the Pullman Hotel near Hyde Park. This was how I got to know Don (who took a couple of years to stop mentioning me in his annual list of visitors, presumably once it became clear that I wasn’t going anywhere!!). I’ll always treasure my memories of him. Over the years he was a great one for ringing up occasionally with little tidbits of information to pass on, questions he’d received from people, or just for a chat. Those random phone calls from Don are what I’ll miss the most, I think. And probably not just me either; my best guess is that there were at least 250 people at his funeral, such was the measure of the man.
Don was one of a fair number of highly distinguished Bomber Command veterans who in 2019 departed on what someone once described as “that great final flight, about which we know very little.” It was only a couple of months ago that I sat in a very similar church elsewhere on Sydney’s North Shore at the funeral of Keith Campbell, for example. The fact of the matter is that now, those who remain are not just old. Now they are ancient. It won’t be too many years before none remain at all. The work that people like Don Southwell did, for so many years, ensures that the deeds of those who served with Bomber Command remain in people’s memories. It’s absolutely vital that the rest of us continue that work, to keep that legacy alive – in memory of Don Southwell, and of all the others.
(c) 2020 Adam Purcell