Last week, Sydney got hit by the “storm of this century”. Extremely heavy rain – 255mm over three days, or almost exactly twice the average for the entire month of April – combined with flooding and winds of over 130km/h to cause eight deaths, thousands of fallen trees and untold millions of dollars of damage.
So it was with some relief that the city awoke on Saturday to one of those beautiful gin-clear blue sky autumn days for which it is so known. Patrons at the Grand Hotel, on the corner of Hunter and Pitt Streets, were well and truly into it even as I walked past just before 8.30am to the starting point for the 2015 Anzac Day march.
Just three veterans marched with the 463-467 Squadrons Association last year (with three more in trucks) and, with three of those having since suffered from deteriorating health, my fellow banner-carrier Bryan Cook and I were uncertain that we would have anyone marching at all this year. So we were both happy to find that numbers had in fact grown. In all there were eight veterans taking part. Bill Purdy missed last year as he was flying a Tiger Moth over the city. This year he led the 463-467 Squadron group. Don Southwell was back, feeling comfortable enough to march on foot for the first time in several years. Don Huxtable wasn’t going to let the trifling matter of a recent operation to remove a tumour from his neck stop him (he wore a beanie to cover the bandages). Riding in the trucks were Keith Campbell and Don Browning, and we had two veterans in wheelchairs: Albert Wallace and Harry Brown. Harry was pushed along by his grandson Geordie Jacobs, himself a member of the Royal Australian Air Force:
And we had a ring-in with us too. David Wylie, a wireless operator, radar operator and air gunner who served on Coastal Command, had been ‘adopted’ by the Southwells.
A Coastal Command veteran marching with a bomber unit? “Well, we did air-sea rescue patrols,” David said, “and when these blokes ditched into the ocean, we’d go to fish them out!”
Sounds reasonable to me, I thought.
There was a rather long delay while waiting for the march to get going. Bryan found Hux a couple of milk crates to sit on in the meantime, which caused much merriment:
But finally, we were off. There was just one thing missing.
“Where’s our music?!?” asked Bill Purdy from the front.
Just as he said that I heard a shouted command – and the Castle Hill Pipe Band appeared out of a side street and slotted themselves in behind us.
There’s our music, Bill.
With the pipes behind us and the cheers of the crowd the noise was spine-tingling, especially where Pitt St narrows just before we turned down Martin Place. It seemed to me, and to at least one or two others, like the biggest crowd ever, and it probably was. We heard later that there were some 220,000 people lining the streets. Hux – ably assisted by Hannah Beech-Allen, and I don’t think Hux was complaining at all about that – was determined to see through to the end of the march. I thought he had finally conceded defeat on the last leg up Bathurst St, but it turned out he just wanted to high-five some young kids who were hanging on the fenceline.
Intrepid leader Bill finally turned around when we reached the end of the march. I saw his eyes widen when he saw the rag-tag bunch of veterans and friends bunched behind the banner. “What a gaggle!” he said. We’d win no prizes for the crispness of our marching this year.
A short stroll followed across Hyde Park to the Pullman Hotel for lunch.
It was a bit squeezy. The room is built for about 45 guests – but we had almost 60, I think the biggest group ever, with more on a waiting list. Two more veterans joined the eight who had taken part in the march: Alan Buxton and my good friend Hugh McLeod. I’m not sure quite how I managed it but once again I had some extremely interesting dining companions. I was seated between Hugh and Bill Purdy, with Don Southwell off Hugh’s starboard wing. The conversation was as stimulating as you’d imagine with that calibre of gentlemen involved (“Did you ever have a nightfighter come in during the landing procedure?” Hugh asked Bill at one point, and I knew he was speaking from experience) and the lunch passed quickly.
I overheard an interesting conversation between Alan Buxton and David Wylie. They were talking about parachutes. David related the time when he and his crew were returning from a patrol in their Vickers Warwick (a development of the Wellington)and one of the wheels would not come down. The ground controller told them to point the aircraft east towards the sea and bail out, but they elected to try and land instead because, David said, “I’m afraid of heights”. Here Alan chuckled. He was wearing his little golden caterpillar badge, earned departing his Lancaster by parachute when all four engines caught alight crossing the English coast on the way home from an operation. “It’s different when you have to get out”, he said. “And we had to get out.”
And so another Anzac Day passes. The World War II veterans are getting fewer, and many of those who were there are much more frail than they were even a year ago. But they are still there, and while they keep coming to march, I’ll keep carrying the banner they so proudly march beneath.
Text and Photos (c) 2015 Adam Purcell