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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
Last Friday night I went to see the local Super Rugby team, the Melbourne Rebels, play South Africa’s Cheetahs at the imaginatively named “Melbourne Rectangular Stadium“. While it was great to see a sadly-not-too-common Rebels victory, something odd happened just before the game.
Stephens is the secretary of the Honest History coalition of historians and others “supporting the balanced and honest presentation and use of Australian history”. There’s a very long but illuminating transcript of a speech he gave in Kogarah in June 2015 on the Honest History website, and it’s a very useful read at this time of year. Among other things, he argues that Anzac should be “about the private, within-family, remembrance of – and caring about – people who have suffered in war, both those who have been killed and not come home and those who have come home but who are injured in body or mind – and those who live with the memory of the dead and the reality of the presence of the living.” In other words, Stephens sees Anzac as a primarily personal thing that is connected with those affected by war: both the effects on those who were actually there and the effects on the direct families who lived with them. “For families who are directly affected by war,” Stephens writes, “commemoration isn’t parades and wreaths and speeches by politicians; it is something they live every day and every week.”
As we move further and further away from the events being remembered, though, those private, individual stories seem to become lost in the mass. The Great War is now beyond living memory, and in a few short years WWII will go the same way. Meanwhile, Anzac Day continues to increase in popularity, at least if the crowds at the big marches are anything to go by. “The obsession about remembrance has grown stronger the further away we get from the reality,” Stephens writes. “It has grown stronger as the number of people who actually remember the reality of total war has got fewer and fewer.”
Why? Perhaps because Anzac has become almost a secular religion in Australia. We’re in danger of losing the quiet remembrance of individuals and of the terrible things war did to them – and continues to do to them – lost amidst all the cheers, the flag-waving and tears.
This is a part of what the Honest History crowd likes to call “Anzackery.” Stephens again:
Anzackery… is public, very public. It’s marches and flags and hymns and speeches. Nowadays it’s also projections of pictures of Diggers onto buildings, it’s battlefield tours and Gallipoli cruises […] it’s ministers and prime ministers and war memorial directors making emotional speeches to nostalgic audiences about the Anzac legend, it’s Anzac football matches in whatever code you fancy… Anzackery is sentiment and it’s nostalgia and it’s nationalism – which people think is patriotism but which is really jingoism.
I was struggling to articulate ideas like these when I wrote this post last week. That remains an important piece of writing for me because it attempts to deal with the future of my own personal remembrance, both of the great uncle I never knew, and the Bomber Command veterans I did (and still do) know, and all their family members who had to cope with the effects the war had on them. But if I’m being truly honest with myself, it does not say completely what I think I wanted to say. That out-of-place Anzac observance at the rugby last Friday night, though, made me realise how uncomfortable I’ve become with many of the things that go along with Anzac Day these days. The problem is that I’m not quite sure how I can reconcile that realisation with the act of taking up the banner and marching down Elizabeth Street in Sydney tomorrow morning.
I maintain my desire to continue doing so while we still have 463-467 Squadron veterans capable of marching because supporting them, particularly as they get older and older, is an important thing, and many of them have become friends. But once they’re done, so am I. It’s time to find a quieter, more personal form of commemoration.
These days I choose to head out into the Australian bush surrounding Canberra. Well before dawn’s first light I make my way to a piece of high ground overlooking a valley floor. I stand too with dawn’s first light, sitting silently and generally shivering in the pre-dawn chill.
To the cacophony of bush noises, I reflect on those who made the ultimate sacrifice while on operations, or after they’d returned home. I think about the cost of our service: both the physical and psychological. I remember our stories, good and bad.
After the sun’s rays warm me up I make my way back to my car and return to my family.
This, clearly, would resonate most with ex-service personnel, which I am not. But it’s a lovely concept, and it’s perhaps something to think about as you watch the Anzac Day march on television tomorrow morning.
– Eric Bogle, And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda
Once again Anzac Day approaches. Once again I will board an aeroplane and fly to Sydney. Once again I will pin my great uncle Jack’s medals to the right side of my chest. Once again I will hoist the 463-467 Squadron banner high, and once again I will march.
But for how much longer?
I’ve been struggling to write about the future of the Anzac Day march – or specifically the future of my part in it – for several years now. At around this time each year I’ve grappled with it, starting something but failing to come up with a coherent argument. So I’ve put it off. Chickened out. Relegated it to the ‘too hard’ basket. But sure as eggs, once again here I am. And the question has become more urgent. So this year I’m going to finish it.
I’ve been involved with the 463-467 Squadrons Association in Sydney for about a decade now. Long enough that I now consider friends many of the veterans, friends and family that make up the group. This is why, despite living in Melbourne for the last five or so years, I still prefer to go to Sydney for Anzac Day: it’s one of only a handful of chances I have each year to catch up with them.
As time has passed, so too has a fair number of veterans I knew. Men like Reg Boys, Rollo Kingsford-Smith and David Walter, among several others, have all gone to the Great Crew-Room in the Sky. In the last year or two however, as those who are left have grown very very old indeed and as age wearied them more and more, the trickle has turned into a flood: George Douglass. Harry Brown. Hugh McLeod. Albert Wallace. And now Don Huxtable. And these are just Sydney-based 463-467 Squadron Association veterans I knew personally.
As year follows year, more old men disappear.
In 2014 just three veterans started the Anzac Day march with the 463-467 Squadron banner. That was the first point at which I began actively wondering about the future of the Squadron banner in the march. One of the three that year was unable to complete the course – and the other two have since died. Improbably in 2015 numbers actually grew to eight, including two riding in trucks and two in wheelchairs, but given the numbers who have died in the intervening year that is likely to have been an aberration. Don Huxtable’s recent passing has further focused minds on a difficult but inevitable truth.
There are now very few 463-467 Squadron veterans left who remain capable of marching behind the banner on Anzac Day. One day, sooner than we all would like, they too will pass.
Someday no-one will march there at all.
And what then?
There’s been a fair bit of controversy in recent years about marching on Anzac Day, and specifically how descendants of veterans, such as myself, fit into it. Originally, of course, it was only the veterans themselves who were allowed to march – and that was highly appropriate. But those were the days when there were a significant proportion of veterans of conflicts like WWI still alive. Those first Diggers are long gone now, and descendants have begun marching in their place. But as the WWII Diggers now slowly fade away, the few who remain sometimes seem in danger of being swamped by the ever-increasing crowds of descendants.
In 2008 it all got too much for the RSL in Sydney. They began politely suggesting that descendants go to the back of the parade instead of marching with their ancestors’ units. In more recent years that polite suggestion has become more assertive, and changes have been made to the traditional format so that WWII veterans are given more prominence at the front of the march (with a strict limit of one carer each allowed with them). Instead of the WWI banners leading the march, they now bring up the rear. This year it’s spread to Melbourne, with similar adjustments on the cards for the southern capital’s march.
Far be it, of course, for me to criticise the involvement of descendants in the Anzac Day march. I have, after all, been one of them for several years now. There’s no doubt that it’s been a special experience. The noise made by the crowds that lined George St during last year’s march during the Centenary of Anzac was, genuinely, quite exhilarating. But at the same time I’ve felt a little uneasy. The applause and the cheering from the crowd is for those original veterans we have marching with us. Once they can no longer march, then what?
The answer, I think, is that once we no longer have any originals capable or willing to march, the time has come to bring down the curtain. The fellowship evident at the 463-467 Squadrons Association luncheon each year – and indeed the increasing numbers seen at that and other functions in the last few years – shows that there remains a place for events of that type. And of course other Anzac Day traditions such as the Dawn Service must also continue. But the March should be for the veterans themselves. While we still have veterans marching with us, I’m very happy to carry the banner for them.
But on the day the last 463-467 Squadron veteran in Sydney dies, it’s time to retire the banner.
I’m terribly sad to report that 463 Squadron veteran Lancaster pilot, Hornsby legend, knockabout old bloke and all-round nice guy Don Huxtable died in a Sydney hospital in the early hours of this morning. He’d been unwell for several months but the end was, I’m told, rather swift.
I’ve written about Hux before, when I went to visit him in Sydney eighteen months or so ago. He was one of the first veterans I befriended amongst the Sydney-based 463-467 Squadrons crowd. For many many years he was a stalwart of Anzac Day commemorations, marching in front of the squadron banner with medals, among them the silver insignia of the Distinguished Flying Cross, proudly clinking on his chest. Probably my favourite memory of Hux is that most years he would be the first to reach the bar for a beer before the traditional post-march lunch.
Hux had many, many stories, and a bar was probably his favourite place in which to tell them. I especially remember a night in the hotel bar in Canberra after the Saturday night Meet & Greet during the Bomber Command Commemorative weekend in 2014. Numbers dropped off steadily as the night wore on, but still there, scotch and soda in hand, when the bar staff finally kicked us out at 1am was, you guessed it, Hux and his entranced audience of young people. Some of the stories he told us may have even been true… like the one about flying solo in a Tiger Moth one day, with a princely 14 hours in his logbook, when he decided to fly his aeroplane between two trees at very low level. (As Hux told it he got 28 days in the Holsworthy military detention centre as a result.) He also spoke of flying circles around a tree in a paddock “like I was tied to it”, and of herding (with the aeroplane) all the sheep into the middle of a paddock… and then dropping empty bottles onto them.
He was most distressed a few years ago when I told him that the Horse and Jockey, which during the war was the pub most frequented by aircrew in Waddington village, had closed down. “You hadn’t started until you’d had 16 pints, the beer was so weak”, he reminisced. “It couldn’t go flat ‘cos it was flat already… and it couldn’t go warm ‘cos it was warm already too!” Happily I was able to report the next time I saw him that my contact in Waddington had told me that the pub had new owners and was back in business.
He was very proud of his crew, four of whom after the war bought adjacent blocks of land in Hornsby and then helped each other build their houses on them. In later years Hux, perhaps always feeling the captain’s sense of responsibility for his crew, was always looking out for Mary Fallon, wife of his late mid-upper gunner Brian, and was very close to Mary’s grandson Bryan. After the war Hux worked in the meat trade and became such a respected member of his beloved Hornsby RSL that they went and named a room after him.
The tales Hux told were mostly about the lighter side of life in Bomber Command. Every now and then, though, something happened that reminded you that for all the humour and good times, it was a war that Hux had been involved in, and war isn’t all beer and skittles.
At the night-time function at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra one year, I was talking to Hux after the speeches when the lights dimmed and the sound and light show centred around Lancaster G for George began. At the end of the presentation I noticed that Hux had uncharacteristically gone quiet for a moment.
“I don’t know how the hell I flew straight and level through all that,” he whispered.
Blue skies and tailwinds, Hux. Anzac Day will never be the same without you.
The International Bomber Command Centre (IBCC) is a very significant project currently underway in Lincolnshire in the UK. It’s made up of multiple strands: a Memorial Spire (recently erected) and steel walls which will be engraved with the names of all Bomber Command aircrew lost flying from Lincolnshire bases in WWII, the “Chadwick Centre” to house exhibitions and education facilities, and Peace Gardens and sculpture parks.
Of most relevance to this blog, however, is the Bomber Command Digital Archive. The Archive aims to hold digitised copies of documents, photographs and stories about the people who were part of and affected by Bomber Command, bringing together things held by museums and other institutions with information in private collections. In the process it hopes to become the leading source for Bomber Command information in the world.
There are already a lot of sources of Bomber Command-related information out there. Some of them are even pretty good. So this is a very ambitious goal. But one of the most interesting parts of the Archive is a large-scale oral history project, being completed in conjunction with the University of Lincoln. And this, somewhat alarmingly, is where I come in.
In Canberra for the Bomber Command Commemorative Day event at the end of May I met Nicky Barr, who is the Director of the International Bomber Command Centre. She was there as part of a delegation from Lincolnshire who were raising awareness of the project, and recruiting people to volunteer. She was very excited when she discovered that I was from Melbourne. “We don’t have anyone there yet…” she said thoughtfully.
Well, they do now. The long and the short of it is that I’m now officially a volunteer interviewer for the IBCC’s Bomber Command Digital Archive, and I’m just about ready to begin interviewing veterans. Interviews will be recorded and the sound files sent to the UK for eventual inclusion in the Digital Archive along with a transcription and scanned copies of any other documents or photographs.
While the statistics and the overall narrative about Bomber Command is reasonably well known, it’s the personal stories that ensure that the memories of the people who contributed to it lives on. The Bomber Command Digital Archive will be a very important record of the personal stories behind the Bomber Command experience. While the focus is obviously on the veterans themselves, the Archive aims to cover anyone who was part of, or affected by Bomber Command, and that includes people from both sides.
I have a small list of veterans in and around Melbourne with whom I am already acquainted, and I will be sending them letters in the near future to invite them to take part. But if you were part of the Bomber Command story yourself, or if you know of someone else who might be interested, please get in touch.
When I was growing up it was always tradition that my parents would give each of my sisters and I a book for Christmas. In 1996 mine was a large-format paperback with a blue cover and a picture of a scared-looking bloke in the rear turret of a Stirling bomber. It was called Australians at War in the Air 1939-1945, Volume One*, and it was in fact the first book about Bomber Command in my now not insignificant collection.
Twelve years old at the time, I would not have even considered that one day many years later I would meet the book’s author, and indeed would come get to know him quite well. Sadly, Ross Pearson OAM, a 102 Squadron wireless operator, died on 13 June 2015.
Ross started collecting stories in the form of recordings, diary excerpts and written reminiscences when he began attending reunions with the Air Force Association’s Halifax Branch in the late 1980s. Based entirely on primary sources – direct from ex-servicemen living in Australia and only lightly edited – those stories formed the basis of two books that were published in 1995. One of them, concentrates on Coastal Command, the Middle East, South-East Asia and the Pacific, and the 2nd Tactical Air Force, and the other – about training, the journey to war, Bomber Command and PoWs – was the book that I was given that Christmas.
Like many eventual aircrew, Ross was in the Army first and his time in the bush, perhaps, influenced his decision to join the Air Force. That and, as a Sydney boy, “training at Bradfield [meant] being able to see my girlfriend regularly”, he wrote to me in January 2014. As usual, though, the Air Force had other ideas and Ross ended up at 1 Initial Training School, Somers – in Victoria. “Picture my feelings of disappointment,” he wrote.
Told he could not become a pilot because he had not attended Morse code classes while on the Reserve, he was selected instead (and somewhat ironically) as a wireless operator and sent to 2 Wireless Air Gunners School in Parkes, NSW. Here he decided that, because of his self-described lack of technical ability (“I’m all thumbs…”), he would put in for training as a straight gunner… until he spoke with a few operational gunners who were on leave. “They’re hosing them out of the turrets up north”, he was told.
Cue a rapid change of mind. Ross suddenly found a new enthusiasm for his studies, eventually passing out at 30 words per minute in Morse and with a top-level assessment.
“And so”, he wrote to me, “to the UK and finally a Squadron.”
In Ross’ case, it was 102 Squadron, flying Halifaxes. Ross remained an extremely proud Halifax man throughout his life and I well remember the banter each year at the Bomber Command Commemorative Day Meet & Greet functions, when Ross would defiantly put on his Halifax cap and from the lectern poke fun at the majority of the veterans present who flew “that other four-engined bomber”, an example of which, of course, was over his shoulder at the time.
Ross was a story-teller. I received a very good letter from him a couple of years ago in which he covered many of his wartime adventures.
“I had some instruction from a very arrogant pommie instructor who claimed he could fix anything,” he wrote:
What a mistake he made so boasting. Someone (I won’t say who) tampered with the Morse key by going back one evening and doctoring the instructional key – pulled it apart – put a little varnish on the contacts and painted over this. Next day our boastful instructor was called to help find a key fault – he couldn’t and spent considerable time searching for the fault.
They had to return early from their first operation, Ross said, because their “Gee” set went on the blink. Ross had to use his equipment to get “QDM” bearings to find their way back to base, and they were in the circuit when their R/T radio also broke. Ross’s pilot was not happy, wanted Ross to fix it and gave him what Ross called a “vivid set of advice”. Predictably, the pilot’s transmitter was jammed on and all the colourful language was relayed to base.
“I understand the WAAF operator learned a few new words…”
After 34 trips Ross was posted to 27 OTU, Lichfield, as a “screened” instructor. This, he reckoned, was almost as risky as ops. “Indeed, I was on the verge of requesting to go on a second tour.” When on training flights over the Irish Sea, the procedure was to report in every 30 minutes to confirm everything was ok. Instructing the trainee to do this on one occasion, he said, he then retired to the back of the aeroplane to have a snooze. But 40 minutes later the trainee woke him up to tell him that he had not been able to make contact because the frequency was so congested by other callers. So Ross sent his message at ten words per minute, much slower than the usual, thus indicating to the ground operator that this caller was clearly not a wireless operator and needed priority, so he got straight through.
I later heard that the trainee told his colleagues of this great Aussie WAG who could get through almost immediately despite the crowded channel – great for the ego.
In recent years Ross was one of the original group of veterans who conceived of and then established what we now know as the Bomber Command Commemorative Day. Indeed he was the President of the Foundation that was set up to organise the event each year. So it was especially sad that he suffered a stroke on the morning that he was to leave for Canberra for this year’s event.
I, and I think a great many more people, will deeply miss hearing Ross telling more of his stories.
The cry went up among the crowd waiting outside the Shrine of Remembrance in the blustery winds of early last Sunday afternoon.
And there they were, right over the target and bang on 1:00pm as briefed. Five aeroplanes from the RAAF Museum’s Historical Trainer Flight – two Harvards, a Winjeel and a pair of CT-4s– swept down St Kilda Road and roared over the crowd. The ‘Sound of Round’ echoed off the buildings. The formation continued south, made a big left-hand turn and then came back across the Shrine again, this time from east to west. The crowd broke into spontaneous applause.
A few minutes later the second formation appeared, out of the south this time and made up of seven Warriors and a Cessna from the Royal Victorian Aero Club. Flying lighter aeroplanes than the Air Force pilots, these guys were copping the full force of the windy, bumpy conditions as they turned to the west from dead over the Shrine. But it looked and sounded fantastic. The old flyers on the ground certainly appreciated the dedication and commitment of the pilots from both formations.
It was a fitting conclusion to the Bomber Command Commemorative Day ceremony which had finished in the new Auditorium inside the Shrine just a few moments before.
The Auditorium was only officially opened last year and this was the first time it has been used for ceremonial purposes. With cold and blustery conditions outside it was certainly a much more comfortable venue for the estimated 140 or so people who packed it to the rafters for the service.
The MC was the unflappable Brian Smith:
Squadron Leader Ron Ledingham, Shrine Governor and Bomber Command Commemorative Day Foundation (Vic) committee member, opened the ceremony by discussing its importance to the Shrine and to the Bomber Command community.
John Brownbill RFD KSJ, an Army chaplain, looked after the religious aspect of the service and set the scene with a few words on Bomber Command and its part in the Second World War:
Committee member Jan Dimmick – her late husband Frank was a 460 Squadron navigator – read the Epitaph from a poem called Requiem for a Rear Gunner:
My brief, sweet life is over, my eyes no longer see,
No summer walks, no Christmas trees,
No pretty girls for me.
I’ve got the chop, I’ve had it.
My nightly ops are done.
Yet in another hundred years, I’ll still be twenty one.
The guest speaker for the ceremony was former Victorian premier and current Chairman of the Victorian Centenary of Anzac Committee, the Hon Ted Baillieu. He picked up on Jan’s “21 years” theme, remarking that WWII started 21 years after the Great War ended. We commemorate anniversaries like Anzac and the end of WWII, he said, for three reasons: to honour those who served, to educate current generations, and to pass the torch of remembrance on to future generations.
Then came the wreathes, including one from Carey Baptist Grammar School, which has now officially adopted this ceremony as part of the Shrine’s ‘Adopt an Ex-Service Organisation’ initiative.
This was their first involvement with the ceremony, and it’s a partnership we hope can continue long into the future – first-hand evidence of the passing on of Mr Baillieu’s metaphoric “torch of remembrance”.
On the way out following the service we just had enough time to take a group photo of all the veterans present:
And then the roar of radial engines heralded the arrival of the flypast.
Afterwards afternoon tea was served in the foyer area. And it was here that something remarkable happened:
On the left of this photo is, of course, Don Southwell. He’d come down from Sydney with his son David for the ceremony, representing the ‘national’ Bomber Command Commemorative Day Foundation. He’s talking to Steve Downes, centre, and Lachie McBean, right. Steve, a wireless operator, and Lachie, a pilot, were on the same crew. The only two Australians in the crew, they were posted to 467 Squadron right at the end of the war so they never flew any operations. But they had gone through training together. Then the war ended and everyone was posted away or discharged from the Air Force entirely. “We were best mates while we were on the same crew”, Lachie told me, “but we never knew much about what each other had done before the war, and then we were all posted away and lost contact.”
Until recently, Lachie thought that Steve had been killed in a post-war car crash. But about three months ago Lachie’s wife died.
Steve – very much still alive – saw the death notice and recognised his old pilot’s name. He contacted Lachie through the funeral director, and their respective daughters conspired to arrange a meeting at the ceremony– and so the two old crew mates saw each other again on Sunday for the first time in seventy years.
I was lucky enough to be the proverbial fly-on-the-wall as the two old men chatted. Seven decades simply melted away as they just picked up where they had left off.
It was a lovely moment to cap off a most memorable day.
Many thanks to Matt Henderson and Alex le-Merton, the crew of one of the RAAF CT-4s, for the airborne photos.
The Bomber Command Commemorative Day Foundation (Vic) Committee sincerely thanks both the Royal Australian Air Force and the Royal Victorian Aero Club for their critical parts in making the commemorative flypast happen.
The cabbie who picked me up from the airport couldn’t work out why I would be coming to Canberra for non-work reasons.
On a weekend.
He perked up, though, as he drove me down Fairburn Avenue and through a big roundabout, pointing to a big domed building up the hill.
“That War Memorial. You must go there.”
Don’t worry, I said. I’ll be going there alright.
The Australian War Memorial, that big domed building on the hill in front of Mount Ainslie, is the traditional and spiritual home of much of the activity associated with the annual Bomber Command Commemorative Day. The weekend just gone saw the 8th edition take place, under blue skies for once.
It began, though, with sad news. While preparing to leave for the commemorations, Bomber Command Commemorative Day Foundation President Ross Pearson suffered a stroke. As I write it is still too soon to know much but the early signs are, I hear, not good. The knowledge of Ross’ illness cast a dark shadow on the weekend, and he remained in the thoughts of many of those present. But the show, as they say, must go on, and in the best spirit of Bomber Command, we pressed on regardless.
First up was the Meet & Greet function, in the shadow of the great black bomber named G for George. It was one of the bigger crowds in recent memory I thought, and was quite a good evening.
A highlight was seeing two old pilots sitting next to each other having a chat. Alan Finch (who I met at this function last year) was posted to 467 Squadron in August 1943 and completed his tour on 19 March 1944. Bill Purdy arrived at 463 Squadron two weeks after Alan left. So while they were not quite both at Waddington at the same time, they were there at the same time as the crew of B for Baker. There are not many men around these days who were operating around that time, so to find two of them sitting next to each other was a special moment for me.
Bill was telling a story when I passed by. After his tour ended in August 1944, he was posted to a Heavy Conversion Unit as an instructor on Stirlings. His first pupil, he said, could fly better than he did. “We didn’t even realise we had landed!” His second pupil was even better. But Number Three? There was much swerving all over the sky. “It was a controlled crash every time!”
Once they all got to their operational squadrons, though, it was a different story. The first man was lost on his first trip. The second man lasted three. But the third pilot survived his tour. “Maybe the other two were too good…” Bill mused thoughtfully.
It strangely makes sense. Flying perfectly straight and level in a combat zone could be fatal when flak and nightfighters were around.
There was an attempt to get a group photo of all the veterans present but it was less than successful. But seeing as everyone was gathered near the lectern at the tail end of George, 467 Squadron mid-upper gunner Albert Wallace took to the microphone to tell a few stories about Australians, WAAFs and sugar tongs. He mentioned being one of the last crews to fly S-Sugar, the Lancaster preserved at the RAF Museum in Hendon.
That brought Alan Finch to the front. “We were the first crew to fly Sugar on 467 Squadron!” he said. He wasn’t impressed: “I said it wasn’t fit for operational service…” As we now know, of course, Sugar would go on to fly over 100 operations.
Can’t win ‘em all, I guess.
While all this was going on, I noticed Don Southwell sitting on a convenient ledge in front of a painting of a flight engineer. He had some interesting light falling on his face from a set of lamps that were ostensibly there to illuminate the speaker at the lectern.
I got an idea…
VETERAN PHOTO BOOTH!
As the event wrapped up I also dragged the lights over to get a nice portrait of two of the key organisers of the event, Don and David Southwell:
The ‘official’ hotel for the Bomber Command group had changed to the brand-new Avenue, in the heart of the city. A small group repaired to the hotel bar there following the function for a few drinks. The group was down a little on numbers from previous years, partly because some were still staying at the QT hotel as usual and also because some of the usual suspects were missing (Don Huxtable being a very noticeable absence, being in hospital in Sydney). The ghosts of absent friends were very evident. But it was still a very useful and enjoyable evening. At one point I asked Keith Campbell, who had just been served the biggest ‘little’ beer he had ever seen, what he thought of wartime English beer. Not much, as it turns out. “It was weak and tasteless!” he said.
The grass in front of the Bomber Command memorial sculpture in the western grounds of the War Memorial is the original venue for the Bomber Command Commemorative Day, and given it is a dedicated memorial to Bomber Command it makes sense to hold the ceremony in its shadow. But having experienced the heightened atmosphere and mood in the cloisters of the War Memorial for the last two years, I reckon it’s much better up there. And so I was almost hoping for rain when I awoke this morning. But for the first time in three years the ceremony on Sunday morning was held outside under blue skies, and it went rather well.
I’m told there were 600 seats provided, and they were all full well before the ceremony kicked off at 11:00, with other people standing around the periphery. Sitting behind me was Tom Stewart, a Canberra local who was a 77 Squadron (Royal Air Force, not the Australian fighter squadron!) wireless operator. I snapped a quick photo before the ceremony started:
A representative flight of the reformed 460 Squadron ‘marched on’ to open the ceremony. Dr Brendan Nelson, AWM Director, again spoke well and mostly without notes, quoting the words that end Striking by Night presentation in which G for George plays such a starring role. “My memories are of young men, Aussie men,” it goes, “laughing, dancing, singing and enjoying the moment… Never to be heard of again.”
Well, Dr Nelson told us, setting the theme for the weekend, “they are to be heard of again: here, today.”
I was most impressed, however, by the speech from Dr Peter Hendy, the Federal Member for Eden-Monaro. It started off the usual way and I was a little worried that it would be a typical politician’s speech, saying the right things but without really knowing or believing in what was being said. But then he veered off into much more personal territory. Dr Hendy, it turned out, had an Uncle Jack, actually a cousin of his father’s, who was a rear gunner in Bomber Command. And so, just like I did, Dr Hendy grew up with stories of “Uncle Jack,” bombers and gun turrets. He said that while it’s tempting to speak of Bomber Command airmen as being superhuman, they were actually ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. “The extraordinary, ordinary Australians”, he called them, and I thought that a most appropriate description.
Keith Campbell (who at breakfast that morning was singularly unruffled by the short notice) gave the Reflections address in place of Ross Pearson. He spoke of the WAAFs who would issue parachutes to the airmen with the old line “if it doesn’t open, bring it back!”, of “the longest ten seconds you would ever know” after the bombs went down, waiting for the camera to tick over, and of listening to a Master Bomber’s voice on the radio over the target one night: “Goodbye chaps, we’re going in – we’ve been hit by flak and we’ve had it.” And he spoke of his demob: “There was no tickertape parade. Just a suit, new hat and best wishes.”
But it was Keith’s conclusion that rang most true for me. He was speaking to the veterans present, urging them to tell their stories while they still can. “Maybe you can pass the torch on to others,” he said. “Make sure that their name lives forevermore.”
The luncheon was moved from the War Memorial at quite short notice to the QT Hotel because of high demand. More than 180 people were there.
There was a lot of brass there. The soon-to-retire Chief of Air Force, Air Marshall Geoff Brown, delivered an intriguing address looking at current capability of the Royal Australian Air Force, including some very rare bombing footage of recent operations in Iraq.
Where in Bomber Command’s day 1,000 aircraft might be sent to one target, these days one aircraft might engage four individual targets on a single sortie. He even showed an example of the requirement to avoid collateral damage, when non-combatant vehicles were observed nearing a target and the laser targeting system was used to push the munitions off target after the weapons were released. A capability, one suspects, which Bomber Command would have found quite useful.
Also speaking was the Chairman of the Trustees of the International Bomber Command Centre, Tony Worth. Tony was in Australia as part of a delegation of IBCC people who are working on “an international story of Recognition, Remembrance and Reconciliation”.
The Centre, in the early stages of being established on a hillside within sight of Lincoln Cathedral, will consist of a Memorial Spire (which was erected last month), steel walls engraved with the names of those who died in Bomber Command, an education and exhibition centre, ‘Peace Garden’ and, most significantly for me, an ambitious digital archive that aims to become a comprehensive research resource – the ‘go-to’ point for Bomber Command information into the future. As such they are looking for people worldwide to scan documents and interview veterans and it’s possible that I may become a point of contact for this in Melbourne. It’s a big project with very lofty goals but it certainly looks like they have an enthusiastic team behind it and it will be very interesting to watch their progress.
The increased interest in Bomber Command and events of this type can easily be seen in the numbers attending this year. While not the “biggest ever” I think it was a modest increase on last year, even with those notable absentees. While I didn’t come away with as many ‘new’ veterans as I have in the past I still made a lot of contacts and there were many family, friends and hangers-on present. (Including, incredibly enough, one of my high school PE teachers whose wife has a 467 Squadron connection).
The news of Ross Pearson’s stroke concentrated some minds on thoughts of what the future might look like for the organisation of this event and others like it, and there was discussion of this important question at various points over the weekend. The intention of the group of veterans – led by the late Rollo Kingsford-Smith – who developed the concept for the first Bomber Command Commemorative Day was that it would continue “in perpetuity”, and this intention was restated a couple of times on the weekend. Certainly the numbers present demonstrate that the demand is there and indeed is growing for events of this type. Much of the burden of organising this event already falls on the younger generation, but the inspiration for it is still drawn from the hardy but dwindling band of Bomber Command ‘originals’. Some hard questions will need to be answered when the last of the ‘extraordinary, ordinary Australians’ finally leave this life.
The luncheon was beginning to wrap up and the crowd was thinning. As I prepared to leave I saw two old blokes, the last people sitting at a table. They were Angus Cameron and Tom Hopkinson, two Canberra-based veterans, and they looked very relaxed.
Two extraordinary, ordinary Australians, sitting back and having a lively chat.