For over a decade, for me Anzac Day has meant travelling to Sydney to gather with members and friends of the 463-467 Squadrons Association. There’s been a gradual change in format over the last few years as time finally caught up with so many of our veterans: in 2018 for the first time no veterans were able to march or attend the lunch and last year there was no formal 463-467 Squadron lunch at all.
Sadly but inevitably, the process accelerated somewhat in the last twelve months, with the deaths of three particular stalwarts of the group: first Keith Campbell, actually a 466 Squadron bomb aimer and PoW, in July 2019, then 463 Squadron navigator and long-time Association Secretary Don Southwell in December, and finally 463 Squadron wireless operator and the final President of the Association Don Browning in January. Don Southwell in particular had been instrumental in organising the annual gatherings, so despite his son David ably picking up that responsibility in more recent years, the very knowledge of his passing cast a heavy shadow on things. Anzac Day was always going to be very different in 2020.
And then a global pandemic intervened, and made it like no Anzac Day has ever been before.
Given the changing landscape of WWII commemoration as the originals of that generation leave us, I was very disappointed that a gathering in person was not going to be possible this year. So I suggested to David that we arrange a video call of interested people, using the suddenly ubiquitous Zoom conferencing service, to gather, remember and tell a few stories to keep the spirit of the two Squadrons alive.
And so we did, and I think it went really well. A little over 25 people were involved in the call at its peak, including two veterans: Alan Buxton, a navigator who flew his operations with 617 Squadron and was posted to 467 Squadron for Tiger Force training after the war finished in Europe, and the seemingly unsinkable Bill Purdy, a 463 Squadron skipper who is the only man I know still alive who flew on the 10 May 1944 Lille raid that I’m so interested in.
(Bill joined in our test call the day before, popping onto my screen comfortably ensconced in an armchair with a glass of something appropriate in his hand. He said g’day, waved, and disappeared again. No fuss, as usual.)
Bill even put up a very appropriate Zoom background:
I asked him how he managed to drag a Lancaster into his living room, and that triggered a fascinating conversation between our two veterans about the merits or otherwise of the restoration to flight of Lancaster NX611 Just Jane.
Over the next hour or so, we went around the room, as it were, to hear stories from those on the call about their connection to the Squadrons or to Bomber Command. Attendees were joining the call from five states and territories and different locations all up and down the East Coast and beyond, and it was particularly gratifying to hear from a couple of people who had never been able to travel to Sydney to join us in person, but were able to participate in a conference call.
I read the Ode to finish off, and we were done.
After the death of her father last year, Fiona Campbell observed to me that we have now arrived at a “changing of the guard” moment. The responsibility for remembrance is being passed from those who were there to us. Suddenly the immediate children of the veterans are finding themselves custodians of those memories. If the spirit of the Squadrons is to continue, it’s the families who will have to pick up the duty of remembrance.
The sort of response we saw on our virtual Anzac Day gathering suggests that responsibility is being taken seriously – global pandemic or no.
© 2020 Adam Purcell