Archive for the 'Events' Category

Event: FLAK by Michael Veitch, Alex Theatre St Kilda, 22-23 October 2016

If you read this blog there’s a fair chance you’re already familiar with the work of Australian broadcaster and writer Michael Veitch, who has over the last decade produced three books based on interviews with a large number of WWII aircrew. Each book contains 20 or so individual chapters, each focusing on one particular veteran.

“Inside the head of every pilot, navigator or gunner who flew during the Second World War is at least one extraordinary story,” Veitch begins Flak, the first book in the series. He made it his self-imposed mission to collect, and then tell, as many of those stories as he could, and the resulting books are an excellent record of them. They are well worth reading if you have the chance to get your hands on a copy.

But Veitch is probably better-known for his acting and media work, appearing on such 90s shows as Full Frontal, The D Generation and Fast Forward. This unique skill set has enabled him to turn the stories of six airmen featured in the first book into a searingly powerful, sometimes funny and overall very human one-man stage show, called Flak.

14523140_670398289792517_1938809881216295804_n

I managed to catch Flak in September last year, at the Gasworks Theatre in Albert Park. It’s a brilliant show. He takes on the characters of the veterans themselves, and manages to capture just what it is actually like talking to them: their mannerisms, their sometimes halting speech – but above all, their humanity. It’s highly recommended.

And it’s back in Melbourne.

Veitch will perform Flak in St Kilda on 22 and 23 October. Tickets here.

 

Declaration: I have no connection with Michael Veitch or the venue or anything associated with this show. I just enjoyed it and thought the audience for this blog might be interested too.

 

Behind the Wire – Photographic Exhibition at the Shrine

I went down to the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne recently to see their current exhibition, a photographic project by Australian documentary photographer Susan Gordon-Brown called Behind the Wire. It is a collection of some 50 portraits of Australian veterans of the Vietnam War, presented together with a short blurb from interviews completed with each veteran over a three-year period. There are cooks, dentists, drivers, gunners, infantrymen, pilots and civilian nurses, among other trades, in the collection.

Some of the portraits are beautiful. They’re not particularly flashy, taken with natural light in most cases, but it’s in part their simplicity that appeals. It’s clear to see that these faces have seen some terrible things – and, sadly, in one way or another, these people are all still coping with their experiences many decades later.

Indeed, part of why I wanted to see the exhibition was because of the parallels with my own post-interview photos of Bomber Command veterans. At the local Keilor East ceremony a week before Anzac Day in April I met a Vietnam veteran named Bill, a local man who was there with his grand-daughter. And that made me realise that there are parallels between the men of Bomber Command and the men who served in Vietnam. Both fought in campaigns that have become controversial. Once they came home, there was no official support – no counselling, no recognition. And both sets of veterans have only started talking about their experiences in much later years.

I spent a couple of hours soaking the whole exhibition in. Highly recommended.

The exhibition is on at the Shrine until 23 October at the Shrine of Remembrance, Melbourne. Further information can be found on the Behind the Wire website

Incidentally, wandering around the grounds outside the Shrine I finally discovered that there is, in fact, a plaque dedicated to 467 and 463 Squadrons. It’s on the southern edge, in what I’d call prime position – under the first tree on the right when you’re looking down from the Shrine’s southern steps. It’s a simple memorial, but it’s nice to have found a focal point for remembering the two Squadrons in Melbourne.

1609-shrine-003

1609-shrine-001

(c) 2016 Adam Purcell

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.

1606 BCCAV MEL-040

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.

1606 BCCAV MEL-023

“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.

1606 BCCAV MEL-038

1606 BCCAV MEL-057

Bomber Command veteran Laurie Williams

1606 BCCAV MEL-050

Students from Carey Baptist Grammar lay their wreath.

1606 BCCAV MEL-044

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.

1606 BCCAV MEL-060

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.

1606 BCCAV MEL-011

The Australian Air Cadets provided an honour guard

1606 BCCAV MEL-008

Shrine Governor Major Maggie More

1606 BCCAV MEL-017

1606 BCCAV MEL-014

Chaplain John Brownbill

1606 BCCAV MEL-027

A veteran comforts his wife

1606 BCCAV MEL-064

© 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:

1606 BCCDF CBR-013

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.

1606 BCCDF CBR-050

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!”

1606 BCCDF CBR-038

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.

1606 BCCDF CBR-052

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.

1606 BCCDF CBR-063

1606 BCCDF CBR-072

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

 

 

 

 

Bomber Command Commemorative Day in Melbourne 2015

“Here they come!”

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.

The RAAF Museum Flight passing the Shrine of Remembrance

The RAAF Museum Flight passing the Shrine of Remembrance

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.

The Royal Victorian Aero Club formation passes the Shrine of Remembrance

The Royal Victorian Aero Club formation passes the Shrine of Remembrance

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:

Master of Ceremonies Brian SMith

Master of Ceremonies 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.

Shrine Governor Ron Ledingham

Shrine Governor Ron Ledingham

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:

Chaplain John Brownbill

Chaplain John Brownbill

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:

BCCDF (Vic) Committee Member Jan Dimmick

BCCDF (Vic) Committee Member Jan Dimmick

 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.

                -R.W Gilbert

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.

The Hon Ted Baillieu

The Hon Ted Baillieu

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.

Students from Carey Baptist Grammar School laying a wreath

Students from Carey Baptist Grammar School laying a wreath

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:

Bomber Command veterans following a commemorative ceremony held at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne

Bomber Command veterans following a commemorative ceremony held at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne. Left to Right: Laurie Larmer (51 Sqn), Jim Cahir (466 Sqn), Laurie Williams (460 Sqn), Alan Day, Gerald McPherson (186 Sqn), Jack Bell (216 Sqn), Arthur Atkins (625 Sqn), Colin Fraser (460 Sqn), Don McDonald (578 and 466 Sqns), Don Southwell (463 Sqn), [Unidentified] at rear,  Steve Downes (467 Sqn – seated), Maurie O’Keefe (460 Sqn), Peter Isaacson (460 Sqn), Lachie McBean (467 Sqn)


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:

1505 BCCDF MEL 88

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.

The RAAF Museum Heritage Trainer Flight taxis at Point Cook prior to their formation flypast of the Shrine of Remembrance. Photo courtesy Alex le-Merton

The RAAF Museum Heritage Trainer Flight taxis at Point Cook prior to their formation flypast of the Shrine of Remembrance. Photo courtesy Alex le-Merton

The RAAF Museum Heritage Trainer Flight turns towards the Shrine, Melbourne. Photo from one of the CT-4s in the formation courtesy Matt Henderson

The RAAF Museum Heritage Trainer Flight turns towards the Shrine, Melbourne. Photo from one of the CT-4s in the formation courtesy Matt Henderson

The Shrine Guard

The Shrine Guard

Bomber Command veterans assembling for a group photo

Bomber Command veterans assembling for a group photo

The Bomber Command Commemorative Day Foundation (Vic) Committee

The Bomber Command Commemorative Day Foundation (Vic) Committee

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.

© 2015 Adam Purcell.

Bomber Command in Canberra 2015

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.

In winter.

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.

The crowd at the Meet & Greet

The crowd at the Meet & Greet

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.

Bomber Command veterans gather to hear Albert Wallace speak

Bomber Command veterans gather to hear Albert Wallace speak

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.

Don Southwell

Don Southwell

I got an idea…

VETERAN PHOTO BOOTH!

Tom Hopkinson and Don Browning

Tom Hopkinson and Don Browning

Tommy Knox

Tommy Knox

Alan Finch. What a brilliantly relaxed pose!!

Alan Finch. What a brilliantly relaxed pose!!

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:

Don and David Southwell

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.

1505 BCCDF CBR 123

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:

Tom Stewart

Tom Stewart

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.”

Keith Campbell giving the 'Reflections' address.

Keith Campbell giving the ‘Reflections’ address.

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.”

Bill Purdy and Alan Finch

Bill Purdy and Alan Finch

1505 BCCDF CBR 099

The Australian Rugby Choir led the singing

The Australian Rugby Choir led the singing

Tom Hopkinson and Don Browning, laying a wreath for 463-467 Squadrons at the Bomber Command memorial. Don's daughter Jocelyn providing support.

Tom Hopkinson and Don Browning, laying a wreath for 463-467 Squadrons at the Bomber Command memorial. Don’s daughter Jocelyn providing support.

Bomber Command veterans in Canberra

Bomber Command veterans in Canberra

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.

Air Marshal Geoff Brown, Chief of Air Force

Air Marshal Geoff Brown, Chief of Air Force

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”.

Tony Worth from IBCC

Tony Worth from IBCC

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.

Ron Houghton launching a new book, called Severed Wings about a Bomber Command crew who were shot down and bailed out over Germany. Four members of the crew were subsequently murdered by German civilians. Looking on is the RSL's Ken Doolan and Peter Rees

Ron Houghton launching a new book, called Severed Wings about a Bomber Command crew who were shot down and bailed out over Germany. Four members of the crew were subsequently murdered by German civilians. Looking on is the RSL’s Ken Doolan and Peter Rees

Veterans at the Lunch gathered for a group photo with the two top-ranking members of the current Royal Australian Air Force. Front row, L-R: Tom Hopkinson, [unknown], Keith Campbell, Max Barry, Rex Austin, Ray Merrill, Jim Clayton.  Back row L-R: Deputy Chief of Air Force Air Vice Marshal Gavin 'Leo' Davies, Tommy Knox, Angus Cameron, Bill Purdy, Chief of Air Force Air Marshal Geoff Brown, Ron Houghton, Don Southwell.

Veterans at the Lunch gathered for a group photo with the two top-ranking members of the current Royal Australian Air Force.
Front row, L-R: Tom Hopkinson, [unknown], Keith Campbell, Max Barry, Rex Austin, Ray Merrill, Jim Clayton.
Back row L-R: Deputy Chief of Air Force Air Vice Marshal Gavin ‘Leo’ Davies, Tommy Knox, Angus Cameron, Bill Purdy, Chief of Air Force Air Marshal Geoff Brown, Ron Houghton, Don Southwell.

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.

Ian Coffey (left) talking to Keith Campbell and Tom Hopkinson at the lunch

Ian Coffey (left) talking to Keith Campbell and Tom Hopkinson at the lunch

Tommy Knox, Angus Cameron and Rex Austin. Angus and Rex have just recognised each other for the first time in about 20 years. In the early 1950s, both rejoined the Air Force and were on the same ITS course together.

Tommy Knox, Angus Cameron and Rex Austin. Angus and Rex have just recognised each other for the first time in about 20 years. In the early 1950s, both rejoined the Air Force and were on the same ITS course together.

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.

They were still at it as I left the room.

 

© 2015 Adam Purcell

The official photos from the AWM are now on their Flickr stream, here

The Empire Air Training Scheme, or How I Got To Have Lunch With 40 Veterans At The Same Time

The Empire Air Training Scheme was an agreement between Britain and its Dominion countries that trained ab-initio aircrew and put them into a joint ‘pool’ from which they could be drawn to serve with various RAF units. Some 37,000 Australian aircrew were trained under the agreement, serving in Coastal, Fighter and Bomber Commands. And I recently had lunch with almost 40 of them.

My post written after the Bomber Command Commemorative Day Foundation (Vic)’s Cocktail Party in March started thusly:

“I love collecting veterans.”

It was a throw-away line, really. I was referring to my habit of coming away from Bomber Command-related events with a few new contacts, addresses and things to follow up on. But the line obviously tickled the fancy of Fay McPherson. While we were organising my visit to her husband Gerald a couple of months ago, she mentioned that she and Gerald are involved in running the biannual Empire Air Training Scheme luncheon.

The what?

Fay told me that a lunch is held in Caulfield, Melbourne, every six months for trainees and staff of the Empire Air Training Scheme. In other words, just about any member of Commonwealth aircrew from WWII can attend. Would I like to go along too, she enquired?

Would I what!

I had no idea that such a group existed. I’ve been pretty happy with groups of ten or so veterans from various lunches and events, and we might reach 40 on a good year for the Bomber Command Commemorative Day in Canberra, but the old blokes are usually well and truly outnumbered by family, friends and assorted hangers-on like, well, me. But I felt quite special to be invited to this one: fully two-thirds of those present had served in the Royal Australian Air Force in some capacity during WWII. Such a concentration of veterans I haven’t seen in a long, long time.

Al Beavis, a 608 Squadron Mosquito navigator

Al Beavis, a 608 Squadron Mosquito navigator

And so it was that, a few weeks ago, almost sixty people descended on the Caulfield RSL. As it turns out the RSL isn’t even in Caulfield. It’s housed in a handsome 90-ish-year-old mock Tudor building in neighbouring Elsternwick, and when I turned up last week people were already starting to gather in the bar, where the staff had set up jugs of beer with glasses for a very civilised serve-it-yourself opener. I recognised one or two people but decided I’d go introduce myself to someone new.

John Missen was his name, a genial man with a big white beard and a hearty laugh. John had been in Course 55 at 1 Initial Training School at Somers in Victoria in late 1944, right before the Empire Air Training Scheme began to wind up (I believe Course 57 was the final one). Just 18 years old, he and a mate reckoned they’d have a better chance of seeing action if they volunteered directly for training as air gunners but as you couldn’t be posted overseas until you were 19 someone talked them out of that. John ended up at Signals School at Point Cook and did eventually see service on the ground as a RAAF signaller in Borneo. The war ended before some others from his course, who had been accepted as gunners, got to an operational squadron. A writer and a painter, John told me he’s written a novel and is wondering if he should try to get it published. “It needs a good editor”, he said, “but the problem is that once you get to my age…”

The RSL had decided on this, of all days, to renovate its kitchen, so the meal was a somewhat slap-up affair cooked mostly on a BBQ. But it was hearty enough and the conversation was great. I’d asked to be seated next to “someone interesting”, and Fay more than delivered. At my table were two Halifax skippers (Laurie Larmer of 51 Sqn and Ralph White of 192 Sqn) and a Mosquito navigator (Ken Munro). One of the others at the table was Geoff Clark, who while not a veteran himself was pretty close: he’d completed his National Service in the RAF in the 1950s, working in the Photographic Section with reconnaissance cameras. And the other person was a man named Ian Stevenson, who’d brought along a logbook belonging to his uncle who had been a Spitfire pilot killed over Italy. So we all had plenty to talk about, and even more so when I discovered that Laurie lives just two suburbs over from me.

Ralph White, 192 Sqn Halifax pilot

Ralph White, 192 Sqn Halifax pilot

I wandered around to some of the other tables between lunch and dessert. Someone mentioned the primitive conditions when the Initial Training School at Somers first opened. Apparently it was quite cold and the buildings were very draughty. At this point I heard Ken Wilkinson, a 77 Sqn Kittyhawk pilot, snort. “I was there in July…” he said. Ken thought at first that, as my interest is mainly Bomber Command, he wouldn’t be of much use to me, and pointed me to the two 460 Squadron men across the table. But then he said he had also done some air traffic control while in the Air Force… I’ll be seeing Mr Wilkinson again for a deeper chat, methinks!

Ken Wilkinson - a 77 Sqn Wirraway pilot - calls a taxi to go home after the lunch.

Ken Wilkinson – a 77 Sqn Wirraway pilot – calls a taxi to go home after the lunch.

I also talked with Jack Bell, who I had heard speak during the Bomber Command Panel Discussion at the Shrine of Remembrance in 2013.I mentioned how happy I was to see so many veterans in the one place, and he concurred. But he had a very interesting point too. “A lot of these blokes haven’t told their stories”, he said. “This isn’t the place for it though – too many distractions. You really need to get them on their own.”

Jack Bell, 216 Squadron Vickers Valencia and Bristol Bombay Wireless Operator/Air Gunner

Jack Bell, 216 Squadron Vickers Valencia and Bristol Bombay Wireless Operator/Air Gunner

Which, I thought, is very true. I go to a lot of these sort of functions (indeed I’m madly trying to get this post finished in time before heading to Canberra for a whole weekend of them) and, while they are an excellent way to meet people initially, they are not usually the right sort of environment for a detailed talk. If the old blokes are up for something like that, as Jack said, you really do need to go and visit them.

So six old men will shortly get a letter from me requesting just such a visit. And hopefully I’ll get the chance to go and get some stories from them.

Words and photos (c) 2015 Adam Purcell