Anzac Day 2021

Everyone looked up when the jet screamed over the city.

It was Anzac Day 2021, and once again I’d returned to Sydney to mark the occasion. First order of business was the march – and for once, first order of the march was the Air Force.

The Bomber Command contingent, made up of four veterans with banner bearers and assorted supporters, made their way down the route slowly and somewhat unsteadily. While it appeared that the WWII veterans in preceding groups had been pushed along the march in wheelchairs – these fellows aren’t old any more, they’re now ancient – two of the Bomber Boys made the journey on foot. Consequently they weren’t moving particularly fast, and a fair gap opened up between them and the group in front. You could be forgiven for thinking that they were leading the entire march.

Ron Houghton waving to the crowd

It was at that moment that the jet appeared. Flying north to south over the parade, the sound of its engines growled, roared and boomed off the surrounding buildings as it whistled overhead. It was an F-35 fighter-bomber – in the long lineage of Royal Australian Air Force bombers, it’s the current holder of the role once held by the Lancasters and Halifaxes of WWII – and for just a moment it looked like it was giving Bomber Command its very own flypast.

Travelling interstate in the midst of a global pandemic, however under control it might appear in Australia at the moment, is always a somewhat fraught business. And there were certainly signs that things aren’t ‘normal’ yet. Masks on planes and trains. Helpful people dotted around the city holding QR codes for contact tracing check-ins. Overall spectator numbers looked to be a long way down on usual. But the skirl of bagpipes, the smell of horse poo and that little chinking sound made by bemedaled chests made it feel like an almost-normal Anzac Day. There was more than one moment where I felt how lucky we are to live here, when compared with the rest of the world.

It’s been a year and a half since I’ve seen most of the veterans who were present this year, and I can say most of them have aged in that time. But they were there, still pressing on regardless – like Ron Houghton who, determined not to be pushed in a wheelchair, had the assistance of two of his adult grandchildren. Matt, on the right of shot here, is an RAAF Reservist, and flew down from Brisbane to march in uniform.

Then there’s the one who, in the words of one of my lunch companions, “always looks like he’s just stepped out of the gym”: Tony Adams. A 149 Sqn wireless operator (Stirlings! Lancasters! Oh my!), Tony’s one of the more switched-on veterans you’ll find these days. He’s also a bit of a film star: just the night before Anzac Day, A Current Affair featured him (and two others who were on the march, the previously-mentioned Ron Houghton and the rather incredible Frank Dell) in a short report (see here). That’s just the latest in a long string of recent TV appearances. Tony had no trouble completing the march and, yes, looked like he’d just stepped out of the gym at the end.

Off to lunch, after all that, with the Bomber Command Association of Australia. On the way, I ducked into the Anzac Memorial with Fiona Campbell for a quick look at the new RAAF Centenary exhibition they have there, which includes a silk ‘escape map’ that belonged to Fiona’s late father Keith.

Fiona Campbell with her father’s silk map (in the display case)

Then to the Royal Automobile Club for a lunch that was up to their usual high standards. There was good food and good conversation throughout. Speeches were short and to the point and the surroundings were comfortable and classy. Five Bomber Command veterans were present: Tony Adams (complete with what seemed like the entire, er, Adams Family), Rodney Higgs, Ron Houghton, Bill Geoghegan and Bill Purdy.

In front, Rodney Higgs. Behind, L-R: Tony Adams, Bill Geoghegan, Ron Houghton. Bill Purdy managed to escape my camera for this one.

Also present was a good-sized contingent of current serving RAAF personnel, from 37 Squadron at RAAF Richmond. This was a wonderful way for members of the current Air Force to get to know some of their predecessors, and it certainly seemed like the passing on of wisdom was well underway:

As I left the lunch to catch the train to the airport and fly back to Melbourne, I saw perhaps the best example of this. Bill Geoghegan – at 101, said some wag, Bill is older than the Air Force himself – was deep in conversation with a young 37 Squadron pilot, with plenty of ‘Top Gun’ hands in evidence from both sides.

Bill Geoghegan with a 37 Squadron pilot

It would appear that Bomber Command’s legacy in Australia is in safe hands.

See my full gallery of photos from Anzac Day at Melbourne Ceili Camera.

Tony Adams before the march
Bill Purdy – a 463 Squadron skipper who is the only man I know who was flying from Waddington at the same time as the crew of B for Baker.
Bill Geoghegan after lunch. The little pin on his lapel is a ‘Lincoln Imp’, the mascot of 61 Squadron in which he served.

Text and images © 2021 Adam Purcell

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