Bomber Command in Canberra 2017

“PER ARDUA AD ASTRA – For we are young and free.”

With these words, Director of the Australian War Memorial Dr Brendan Nelson closed a speech delivered at the Bomber Command lunch in the shadows of Lancaster G for George last weekend. He was speaking, specifically, to the 38 veterans of Bomber Command who were among the audience, telling them that the latter phrase can be in Australia’s National Anthem because of deeds done by the likes of them.

Dr Nelson’s speech – a rolling masterpiece, delivered with passion, skill and emotion (and just the right amount of self-deprecating humour) by a man who admittedly does this sort of thing for a living – will long be remembered by those who heard it. It received a standing ovation and was a clear highlight of a weekend that brimmed with them: the tenth annual Bomber Command Commemorative Day.

Ostensibly there were, perhaps, two reasons why a particular effort was made to make this year somewhat more special than usual: the fact that this was the tenth such event, and also to mark the 75th anniversary of Australian squadrons going into action as part of Bomber Command. There is some contention on this latter point (as author Kristen Alexander has pointed out) and in a way it’s unfortunate that someone felt the need to justify ‘extra special’ treatment by concocting an anniversary which doesn’t quite stand up to scrutiny. But whatever the justification for it, this was a very impressive event. The federal Department of Veterans Affairs were involved early on by making funding available to assist veterans to travel to Canberra, Royal Australian Air Force Association coordinated the DVA grants, Bomber Command Association in Australia were actively contacting all the veterans on their database to ensure that they were aware that assistance was available, Bomber Command Commemorative Day Foundation coordinated guest lists and arranged the Meet and Greet, and the Australian War Memorial hosted, ran and even paid for more than 300 people to enjoy lunch in the shadows of G for George. Each of those groups, and more, played a role in delivering the biggest and most significant Bomber Command event seen in Australia for several years.

It’s become traditional in the last few years to focus on an Australian Bomber Command airman in the ‘Last Post’ ceremony, with which the AWM closes each evening, on the Saturday night for this event. This year it was Flying Officer Charles Williams, who died on Operation Chastise in May 1943. Several hundred people were present, including a good number of Bomber Command veterans:

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I am more of a fan of the way the War Memorial used to mark the close of each day (a far simpler ceremony with a lone bugler or piper), but this Last Post ceremony was well done, with an all-Air Force catafalque party providing an honour guard and F/O Williams’ story told simply and well.

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Following the ceremony, we moved into the AWM’s Reception area, mostly to get out of the cold while waiting for the Meet & Greet cocktail party to begin. Dr Nelson, though, decided it was time to move, getting up onto a bench to ask the crowd “what are you waiting for? We need a navigator…” and exhorting everyone to move to the Anzac Hall.

There was a short delay while final preparations were being made for the night’s function. But once the Air Force jazz quartet started up, it was a very good night: talking with people I’d just met, seeing familiar old faces and soaking up the atmosphere of that big collection of metal known as G for George.

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RAAF Jazz Quartet
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Frank Dell
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Keith Campbell

It was lovely seeing a young Sydney couple (Josh – himself ex-Navy -and his wife Katie, both of whom who I’d met on Anzac Day this year) talking to Bill Purdy. Josh had a grandfather who flew with 463 Squadron. On mentioned his name, Bill remembered him immediately. I left them listening intently to his recollections.

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It was also great to catch up with Ray Merrill again. One of my favourite veterans, who I’d met at the Canberra weekend in 2014, Ray had come from Adelaide with no fewer than 16 relatives and friends:

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Sunday saw the sort of morning that, despite the rain that has affected it on some occasions, I most associate with this weekend: bright, sunny and cold. A big crowd gathered in front of the Bomber Command sculpture in the grounds of the AWM for the ceremony, the centrepiece of the weekend’s events. Plenty of veterans were scattered around the crowd, with a catafalque party provided by the Federation Guard and an honour guard of current 460 Squadron personnel making up the most visible uniformed presence. It was particularly pleasing to see no fewer than four veterans taking active roles in the ceremony, including Ray Merrill who delivered an excellent Reflections speech:

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Another impressive speech was given by Senator Linda Reynolds (representing the Prime Minister). Senator Reynolds, it turns out, has two Bomber Command connections in her family, and so her speech was heartfelt and honest.

And then, afterburners twinkling, a 77 Squadron F/A18 Hornet screamed over the crowd to end the ceremony, pulling up to disappear in a vertical climb over Mount Ainslie.

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Alan Finch
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Murray Maxton
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Ron Houghton
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Richard Munro
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Howard Hendrick
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Bill Purdy
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Catafalque Party
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This year’s Bomber Command lunch was one for the ages. It saw the most people attend, I think ever, and the most Bomber Command veterans that I’ve seen in one place in a very long time. Seated under George’s starboard wing, the atmosphere was quite unique. As well as Dr Nelson’s outstanding speech, several veterans spontaneously got up to say a few words. There was Rob Jubb:

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Ron Hickey:

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And Don Browning:

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The most revealing thing? All three told stories relating to wartime service – but not about their own wartime service. The stories were about someone else.

That famous modesty of this generation, on display again.

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Jim Bateman says grace

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This was a particularly special weekend, the likes of which I doubt we’ll see again. Without going overboard, the focus was firmly on the veterans we had present. Absent friends were also kept close to mind throughout. While there was some confusion in the lead-up, probably because of the multitude of groups involved in putting it together, the actual events appeared to run smoothly and professionally in a genuinely respectful atmosphere. Though several needed to pull out at short notice on medical grounds, the effort to get as many veterans as possible to attend, from all over the country, was very successful. One man I met for the first time – Howard Hendrick – came all the way from country South Australia, which is not a particularly straightforward journey. This was the first time he’s ever come to a ‘reunion’ like this. Seeing how much he enjoyed himself will, I’m sure, reaffirm to everyone concerned the value of weekends like this.

Long may it continue.

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© 2017 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:

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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.

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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!”

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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.

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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.

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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 in Canberra, 2014

As I headed north up the Hume Highway from Melbourne early on Saturday morning, thin mist was still settled in low valleys and smoke rose directly upwards from the chimneys of roadside homesteads. It was an atmospheric start to my journey to Canberra for the annual Bomber Command Commemoration weekend.

This was the seventh time that the first weekend in June saw Bomber Command veterans, families, researchers, authors and assorted hangers-on converge on the national capital for a weekend of remembrance and reminiscing.

My base for the weekend is no longer called the Rydges Lakeside. It’s been turned into a slick, shiny and slightly pricier hotel called “QT Canberra”, full of odd political references and surprise images of photographers in the lifts. But I digress. On arrival at the hotel I quickly found my first veteran for the weekend, a man named Kevin Dennis. He was wearing, amongst the more usual service medals, an unfamiliar decoration hanging from a light blue ribbon – a Conspicuous Gallantry Medal. More about him later.

Off to the weekend’s first organised event, then: the Meet & Greet function in the shadows of Lancaster G for George at the Australian War Memorial.

The crowd under G for George
The crowd under G for George
Ailsa and Don McDonald
Ailsa and Don McDonald
The two Toms Knox
The two Toms Knox
Tommy Knox
Tommy Knox

It was an excellent function. There was a good-sized crowd present, the speeches were (like a good skirt) short enough to be interesting but long enough to cover everything, the food was good and there were some very interesting people to talk to. At one point, down near George’s tail I was talking to Tom Hopkinson, a 463 Squadron veteran mid-upper gunner. Two ladies approached: Lorna Archer and her daughter Rowena. Lorna’s husband Ken was a 460 Squadron bomb aimer. He is still alive but, at 90, is now too frail to travel and stayed at home in Melbourne this weekend. Lorna wanted to know, if Ken was in a Lancaster and it was hit and he had to bail out, how would he do it?

A fair question. I had a pretty good idea of the answer, but, well, we were standing under a Lancaster and we were talking to a man who used to fly in the things and so… well… why not? I asked Tom if he would like to do the honours. So we weaved our way through the crowd to the nose of the great big black bomber. Tom pointed up. And there, under the nose was the big square escape hatch through which the bomb aimer would have, if the circumstances dictated, been the first out. Which answered the question in a most satisfying manner.

Tom Hopkinson explaining to Lorna Archer how a bomb aimer would evacuate a Lancaster
Tom Hopkinson explaining how a bomb aimer would evacuate a Lancaster

Towards the end of the event, I spied an old man sitting down surrounded by family under (of all things) the German 88mm flak gun that’s on display next to George. His name badge said Alan Finch, 467 Squadron. Good enough for me, I thought. So I sat down and introduced myself. When Alan said he had done his first operation in August 1943 and had remained with the squadron throughout 1944 his name suddenly sounded strangely familiar.

I love modern technology. I pulled out my phone and searched for his name on this website. And there it was: I’d used two of his interrogation reports in my 467 Postblog series. I asked Alan, “Where were you on 24 February 1944?” He responded, “In the air!” Correct! Specifically, Schweinfurt. “Oh yes”, he said, “that was a bad one.”

Alan Finch, 467 Squadron pilot
Alan Finch, 467 Squadron pilot

No kidding. As I wrote here, his aircraft was coned over the target by some 24 searchlights. “Target more formidable than briefed,” he reported nonchalantly on return to Waddington.

This is why I come to these events. I’ve become quite familiar over the last few months with the names of the aircrew who were operating at 463 and 467 Squadrons between January and May 1944. I never suspected that I might run into one of them, sitting under the wing of a Lancaster at the War Memorial.

Laurie Woods talking to Alan Finch
Laurie Woods talking to Alan Finch

Following the function, a fair sized group of those who were staying at the QT met in the hotel bar for a wee nightcap. What followed was one of the better sessions I can remember in some time. Holding court in the corner near the fire was, yes, Don Huxtable. Gathered around him, most of the younger crowd (that is, those under about 60…). Over beers, scotch and sodas the night passed quickly with many, many line shoots.

Don Huxtable, Nikki Harris and Don Southwell
Don Huxtable, Nikki Harris and Don Southwell
Hux and Nikki
Hux and Nikki

Numbers dropped off as the night got later but, still there as the bar staff called last drinks, were an old pilot and his entranced audience.

Dawn broke in Canberra the next day with cloud, mist and rain. Telecom Tower was disappearing into the grey skies.

Where's Black Mountain Tower going?!??
Where’s Black Mountain Tower going?!??

This did not bode well for the morning’s ceremony, planned for the lawn in front of the Bomber Command sculpture at the War Memorial. The decision was made early to move the ceremony to the Commemorative Area, with rows of chairs placed in the cloisters under the names on the Roll of Honour.

At the back of the crowd, personnel of the current iteration of 460 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force, lined up under the leaden skies.

The Director of the Australian War Memorial, Dr Brendan Nelson, opened the service, delivering a moving tribute to the aircrew of Bomber Command. Speaking without notes, he quoted a letter written by Colin Flockhart, a 619 Squadron pilot, for delivery in the event of his death:

I love you all very dearly. Please don’t think I’m pessimistic but I do realise what the odds are and I have seen too many of my friends pass on without leaving any words of hope or encouragement behind. Cheerio and keep smiling though your hearts are breaking.

Flockhart was killed on the way home from Munich on 7 January 1945.[1]

Attending the ceremony was His Excellency General the Honourable Sir Peter Cosgrove AK, MC (Ret’d), Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia, who spoke about how Australians in particular traveled so far from home to fly in Bomber Command. The veterans present were invited to move to the inside of the Hall of Memory to view the wreathlaying at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Ross Pearson delivered the Reflections address, paying tribute to those unsung support staff who also served: the armourers, the WAAFs, the parachute packers, the cooks (who worked miracles to make Spam palatable), the briefing officers. He also spoke eloquently on the unique “spirit of aircrew,” reading the citation for the award of the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal to Kevin Dennis, the veteran I had met at the hotel the previous evening. Kevin was a wireless operator who, badly injured by flak during an operation in March 1945, refused to leave his post until the damaged aircraft landed safely. In considerable pain with one foot almost severed from the explosion he had continued to carry out his duties, receiving the critical weather message which resulted in a successful diversion to an emergency airfield. For this, in the process saving his entire crew, he was awarded the CGM, one small step below a Victoria Cross.

This led to the most moving, unplanned, part of the service. After the notes of the bugler’s Rouse echoed off the stone cloisters, Brendan Nelson made his move. It was a breach in protocol, he said, “but we’re Australian and we can breach protocol occasionally.” He invited Kevin to come to the front while he explained why. Kevin is one of just ten RAAF personnel to be awarded the decoration during WWII. But because he required an extended hospital stay to recover, he missed the investiture and instead received his medal in the post. It had never been properly presented to him. Since we had the Governor-General present, Dr Nelson reasoned, it offered a good opportunity to fix that. Kevin came forward, shook Sir Peter’s hand and occupied a position of honour amongst the official party for the remainder of the ceremony.

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This was one of those things which have become typical of Dr Nelson’s time at the helm of the War Memorial. I may not have agreed with him while he was in politics but it’s clear he has a sense of history and a sense of occasion and is a good fit in his current role. This was an inspired moment and it was fantastic to see Kevin being honoured in this very special way.

Kevin Dennis in the media scrum post-ceremony
Kevin Dennis in the media scrum post-ceremony

ABC Canberra had sent a camera crew and, following the ceremony, they interviewed a number of veterans, including Don Huxtable. Given the weather, Hux was wearing a long blue greatcoat. 14Jun-BomberCommandinCanberra 195 copy

Believe it or not, it’s part of his original RAAF-issue uniform.

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Further photos from the ceremony:

Tpm Hopkinson and Angus Cameron
Tom Hopkinson and Angus Cameron
Don Huxtable
Don Huxtable
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Angus Cameron (214 Sqn wireless operator)
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The Group Photograph with the Governor-General
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Kevin Dennis amongst the group
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Dr Brendan Nelson speaking with Don Southwell

Back to the hotel, afterwards, for the lunch. As well as catching up with some of the usual suspects (the McDonalds, the Toms Knox, Knox and Hopkinson, and various assorted Dons) I met a few new people. Stories were shared with Richard Munro, who is the man to contact for 460 Squadron queries. I had a good chat with Wing Commander Tony Bull, the outgoing air attache at the British High Commission in Canberra. And I met Tony Buckland, who was the son of a camera operator with the 463 Squadron film crew, and was carrying his father’s logbook and a spectacular album containing a collection of still photographs from operations.

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Bob Buckland operated with 463 Squadron from June 1944. Among the pilot’s names listed I recognised that of Freddy Merrill, who was another one of the skippers I mentioned in my Postblog. Tony had seen on the guest list that a Merrill was present at the lunch, and wondered if it was the same person.

I thought it probably wouldn’t be. I’d earlier been speaking to Ray Merrill, who is on the right here:

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Ray was a 218 Squadron rear gunner and he is pictured here with Jim Clayton, a wireless operator from the same unit.

As he was not on 463 Squadron at any stage, Ray would not be the Pilot Officer Merrill in Bob’s logbook. But, amazingly, he was connected.

It turned out that Freddy was Ray’s brother. Here’s a photo of Ray pointing his brother’s name in the logbook:

Ray Merrill pointing out his brother's name
Ray Merrill pointing out his brother’s name

A good lunch, then – good food, good conversation and good conversation. It was an enjoyable finish to a fantastic weekend. There were many highlights over the two days. Catching up with many good friends. Meeting new contacts. Drinking with Hux late into Saturday night. Kevin Dennis’ CGM. The Merrill coincidence.

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Ross Pearson, Wing Commander Tony Bull, Don Southwell and Pete Ryan
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Don McDonald, Don Southwell (background) and Angus Cameron

But the main purpose of the weekend, of course, was commemoration and remembrance for and of the men of Bomber Command. In this it was most successful. One of the more poignant moments happened at the Meet & Greet on Saturday evening.

After the speeches the lights dimmed and the sound and light show centred around G for George began. I was talking to Don Huxtable at the time. At the end of the presentation Hux was suddenly quiet for a moment.

“I don’t know how the hell I flew straight and level through all that,” he whispered.

Either do I, Hux. Either do I.

But I’m glad you did.

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© 2014 Adam Purcell

 The Australian War Memorial has further photos available on its Flickr stream, here.


Bomber Command in Canberra 2013

It was a very wet weekend in south-eastern Australia.

It rained so much in Adelaide on Friday that the automatic rain gauge at the airport gave up. 70mm fell in Melbourne on the same day. It was still raining when I walked to the train station in Sydney on my way to the airport on Sunday morning and, as we were taxying out, the heavy jets weren’t so much ‘landing’ as ‘splashing down’. We were in cloud all the way to Canberra.

Things were not looking good for the sixth annual Bomber Command Commemorative Day.

Though the tarmac was noticeably wet on arrival, the sky showed signs of clearing as I took a taxi to the Australian War Memorial. On arrival I discovered that, because the grass near the Bomber Command sculpture was still rather squelchy underfoot, the ceremony had been moved to the Commemorative Area within the War Memorial itself. As the clouds gradually moved off parts of the crowd were soon sitting in that glorious autumn sunshine for which Canberra is famous.

The Commemorative Area was a spectacular location for the ceremony.

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The crowd was sitting underneath the thousands of names on the Roll of Honour. A statue of an airman, on the eastern side, in turn cast his bronze gaze down onto the gathered crowd. To the rear, immaculately dressed members of the current iterations of 460 and 462 Squadrons, Royal Australian Air Force, were lined up in parade order. Those veterans who could were invited into the Hall of Memory to watch and take part in the wreath-laying, at the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier. As the bugler sounded the Last Post, the notes echoed off the cloisters and faded away to silence. The singing of the Australian National Anthem, with the support of the Australian Rugby Choir, was spine-tingling stuff. The ceremony was enhanced by the atmosphere of the place it was in.

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The speakers, too were excellent: in particular, former Defence Minister and Leader of the Opposition Dr Brendan Nelson who is now the Director of the Australian War Memorial. His opening address, delivered mostly without notes, was impressive. He quoted the words of Charles Bean which are scribed on the wall in the Welcome Gallery of the War Memorial:

Here is their spirit, in the heart of the land they loved; and here we guard the record which they themselves made.

Some of those who made that record, of course, were the veterans of Bomber Command.

Following the ceremony itself came an organised photo opportunity in the shadow of G for George, with almost all the veterans present. My count is 32 (including one who is not in this photo):

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And then to lunch. Once again, the networking and reunion opportunities offered at this function for someone like me in this country are second to none. Among others, I met a Mosquito navigator named Alan Beavis, and his good mate Alan Pugh, who was training at 1661 Heavy Conversion Unit (Winthorpe – Jack Purcell was there in 1943) at the end of the war. And of course I also caught up with many of the usual suspects again – Don and Ailsa McDonald, the three other Dons Southwell, Huxtable and Browning, Keith Campbell, Harry Brown and Tommy Knox (the latter commenting to me, ‘you can really see it this year… age is certainly catching up with them!’). There was some good discussion on a few potential projects for the next couple of years, much reminiscing and many stories.

The Southwells dropped me off at the airport again, and I flew home to Melbourne with a notebook full of ideas and addresses to follow up on.

Bomber Command, over the last few years, is finally beginning to see some recognition for its deeds during the Second World War, and acknowledgement of the legacy it left. This was a common theme among many of the speakers at the weekend this year. Peter Rees (who recently published Lancaster Men and is rumoured to be planning a follow-up for the next couple of years) spoke briefly at the lunch and cited this as one of his key motivations. Air Marshal Geoff Brown, current Chief of Air Force, also gave a good talk at the lunch about what today’s Air Force can learn from the bomber offensive. His main points were that a coalition of nations in a common cause is far more powerful than trying to do it alone, a reminder of the importance of close links with technological and research organisations, how vital it is to gain and maintain control of the air in a combat scenario, the continued value of electronic countermeasures and the critical importance of teamwork and people all united by a common purpose and common aims. He effectively demonstrated that, while the airmen of Bomber Command fought their battles so long ago, and while they fought a battle so unique in scale and circumstance, what they did has continued relevance in current operations – and that in that very practical way their legacy will live on.

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Remembering the history – the raids, the stories, the men – is of course vital. But learning from that history and applying the lessons in practical ways in modern times can also form part of the legacy of Bomber Command. It is far too late for most of those who served, but I hope that some of the veterans who were in Canberra over the weekend can take some comfort in the knowledge that this legacy is living on and will continue to do so.

© 2013 Adam Purcell

A photoset by the Australian War Memorial’s official photographer is available to view here.

Event: Bomber Command Commemoration Weekend, Canberra, 1-2 June 2013

Details have just been mailed out for people interested in attending the sixth annual Bomber Command Commemorative Day weekend in Canberra, 1-2 June 2013.

There are three parts to this weekend:

  • The Ceremony

Grass area in front of the Bomber Command Memorial, in the grounds of the Australian War Memorial

Sunday 2 June 2013

Ceremony begins 11am (please be seated by 10.50am).

Attending the Ceremony is free but if you intend to be there please RSVP to Don Southwell, details below, by 27 May.

  • The Meet & Greet Function

ANZAC Hall, Australian War Memorial (under the shadow of G for George)

6-8pm Saturday 1 June 2013

Canapes, beer, wine, soft drink all included, $50 per head.

  • The Luncheon

Rydges Lakeside Hotel, Canberra

12pm for 1pm lunch, until 4pm, Sunday 2 June 2013

Two-course sit-down lunch included – note a cash bar will be in operation on the day. $60 per head.

To book for the Meet and Greet and/or the Luncheon, please contact Don Southwell on (02) 9499 6515 or

RSVP for the Meet and Greet and/or Luncheon closes 17 May 2013.

RSVP for the Ceremony closes 27 May 2013.

This is by far the largest gathering of Bomber Command veterans, relatives, friends, family and other interested parties in Australia and is always a good event. Highly recommended!

Book Review: Bomber Command – Australians in World War II


In June the Australian Government’s Department of Veterans’ Affairs released a book called Bomber Command: Australians in World War II. Launched at the Australian War Memorial in the presence of three Bomber Command veterans, it’s DVA’s second book in a series looking at Australians and their experiences in World War II (the first looked at Greece and Crete). Dr Richard Reid, of the Department’s Commemorations Branch, was the author (though interestingly he is not credited on the front cover). A couple of weeks after the launch DVA gave a copy of the book to each of the Australian veterans who went to London for the opening of the Bomber Command memorial.

The first half of the book contains an overview of Australia’s role in Bomber Command. Starting with a description of a raid over Berlin, it goes on to cover in some detail the typical path followed by many aircrew, from enlistment to training and right through to their operational squadrons. Reid makes good use of the Australians at War Film Archive (another DVA project in which he was involved) among other resources, to build a picture of ‘what it was like’, with a focus on individual Australian airmen. Unfortunately, though a well-respected and experienced military historian, Reid is not a Bomber Command specialist, and in places it shows. For example, on p. 150 he mistakenly calls the Avro Manchester the “prototype” of the Lancaster. While the Lanc was indeed a development of the Manchester, the final product was an entirely different aircraft – ergo, not a prototype. There are also some editing errors (which I admit may not be the historian’s fault): throughout the text, altitudes are converted to metres, an annoying move that betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of technical terminology (in the Western world altitudes are and have always been measured in feet, regardless of whether the country uses metric measurements elsewhere). And, unforgivably, the airfield from which the Dambusters took off on the Dams raid is misspelt as ‘Scrampton’ and, on at least two occasions, the name of Britain’s first four-engined heavy bomber is misspelt as ‘Sterling’. Though minor errors in isolation, they all add up to an overall impression of a certain amount of ‘slapdashery’.

But then you reach the imagery. The entire second half of the book is taken up by a rather impressive collection of photos and other artwork, mostly taken from the Australian War Memorial’s collections. And this part of the book is very good. There are the obligatory photos that everyone has seen before (like the one of S-Sugar being bombed up at Waddington) but there are also many that are more unusual. They cover the entire journey through Bomber Command: enlistment, training, operations and homecoming (or, for those less fortunate, burial and remembrance). It’s a good collection, reproduced in high quality and with informative and comprehensive captions.

According to the press release that accompanied the launch, the book is “an invaluable resource, helping Australians learn about the important history of Bomber Command, including stories of those who served and died”. I’d agree with almost all of that. It will certainly make many of the stories of Bomber Command more accessible to Australians in the future – and in that sense, the Department have achieved something worthwhile – but it can only be an ‘invaluable resource’ if its facts are correct. Being a Government publication, it can be seen as an official record of what happened, and therefore it needs to be done right. Their hearts were in the right place, but unfortunately it would appear that those who produced this book settled for merely ‘close enough for government work’.

Bomber Command: Australians in World War II – which is, if you can look past its problems, still worth a look simply because of the images – is available from the Australian War Memorial Online Shop


(c) 2012 Adam Purcell


Niet weggooien!

There’s an interesting campaign underway in the Netherlands at the moment, spearheaded by a loose conglomeration of WWII museums. Called ‘Actie Niet Weggooien’ (translated to ‘Don’t Throw It Away’), the aim is to bring to light the ‘stuff’ from the war years that people might have hidden away in a box somewhere. What better place to save these historical artefacts and documents for the future, say the organisers, than in a museum?

It’s an admirable sentiment, and the campaign has brought many amazing bits and pieces out of the woodwork – the website (link above) has photos of an SS flag from a public building in Groningen, for example, and a pair of ordinary-looking scissors with a story: they were recovered during the war from the wreck of a 150 Squadron Wellington that crashed in Friesland. Both artefacts would have sat, forgotten, in a box somewhere, perhaps until their owners died and the stories associated with them had been forgotten and a little piece of history lost. But thanks to the campaign by the Dutch museums, the stories of the flag and the scissors can be shared and the history lives on.

You never really know what might still be out there undiscovered. Just recently Kerry Stokes purchased and donated to the Australian War Memorial the ‘Lost Diggers’ collection of some 3000 glass photographic plates taken in the French village of Vignacourt on the Somme. The collection had been lying in an attic of an old farmhouse once owned by the French couple who had made them – whose descendants had no idea of the historical significance of the collection. On a level a little closer to home, Leo McAuliffe’s letter recently sent to me by William Rusbridge had been hiding in a box of his late mother’s papers and was only discovered recently. Gil Thew knew of a box of letters and documents relating to his uncle Gil Pate, B for Baker’s rear gunner, but said no-one had touched it for thirty years – until I contacted him out of the blue a few years ago.

What has been lost forever, forgotten or even thrown out by people who didn’t realise what they have? And on a brighter note, what else might still be in a dusty box in an attic somewhere, waiting to be found? Each new find adds a layer to the story of these men and each layer adds to our understanding of who they were and what they did – so helping to ensure that their stories will live on.

© 2012 Adam Purcell


Sam Alexander

In September 1916, Private Sam Alexander, of the 9th Brigade, 34th Battalion, 3rd Division, Australian Imperial Force, began writing in a diary. Over the next three years or so he would scrawl a few lines on most days about his experiences as a soldier on the Western Front.

Two decades later, as the world was plunging into yet another global conflict, a young neighbour called Kevin Jeffcoat sat spellbound as Sam showed him spiked helmets, medals, gas masks and guns, amazing him with stories of the trenches. “It was awful, it was terrible”, Sam told him. “But it was a grand adventure!”

Kevin would eventually become a professional author, writing books like More precious than gold: An illustrated history of water in New South Wales and Burrinjuck to Balranald: The Early Days. But he also wrote an unpublished manuscript based on his memories of conversations with his childhood neighbour. Called From Kangaroo Valley to Messines Ridge: A Digger’s Diary 1917-1918, it’s a remarkable mix of transcripts of Sam Alexander’s diary entries, with context added by explanatory notes based on research and on Kevin’s own memories.

My parents live in the NSW Southern Tablelands town of Goulburn, where my father is the Principal at one of the two state high schools in the town. Dad transferred to Mulwaree High School almost two years ago, though it took a year before he and my mother moved there. When we visited them a few days after they moved into their new house at Christmas last year, Dad managed to find a little time to show me one of Mulwaree’s hidden secrets. In an unassuming little cinder block building near the school’s main entrance is the Mulwaree High School Remembrance Library.

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Started in 1992, it’s a collection of some 4,000 artefacts, photos and documents relating to local men at war, dating from Vietnam all the way back to the New Zealand-Maori War of the mid-nineteenth century. The Australian War Memorial has described it as perhaps the best collection, outside its own, of war memorabilia in Australia.

Kevin Jeffcoat’s granddaughter is a student at Mulwarree. And in August 2012 she donated to the Remembrance Library a signed copy of her grandfather’s manuscript. It is beautifully written and a fantastic resource for the school. Kevin Jeffcoat has put Sam Alexander’s story into an easily understood form and so has ensured that those stories that he was lucky enough to hear ‘from the horse’s mouth’, so to speak, will remain accessible to new generations into the future.

© 2012 Adam Purcell

460 Squadron in Brisbane

I was in Brisbane for a work trip for the last week or so of January. It didn’t stop raining all week.

I had a short chance to stop by the Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith Memorial that is on the road leading to Brisbane Airport. Under a large curved roof, preserved in a glass ‘hangar’, is Smithy’s original Fokker Fokker F.VII/3m three-engined aircraft, the Southern Cross. It’s a very important part of Australia’s aviation heritage and it is fantastic to see the old aeroplane is being well looked after.

But what does this have to do with Bomber Command, I hear you ask? Well, if I’m honest, very little. But a short distance from the Southern Cross is a tree. Under the tree are three plaques dedicated to 460 Squadron, arguably one of the most famous of the Australian bomber units.

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Beneath one of the plaques is a representation of a boomerang, symbolising the motto of the Squadron: ‘Strike and Return’. Sadly, many of the airmen of 460 Squadron struck… but did not return. In fact, the Squadron suffered by far the highest casualty rate of any Australian unit in WWII: out of around 2700 airmen who served in the Squadron, more than 1000 were killed in action – 589 of those being Australians. 181 aircraft were lost on operations in the four years of the Squadron’s existence.

One of 460 Squadron’s aeroplanes survives. It is, of course, W4783 G for George, today forming the centrepiece of the Australian War Memorial’s Striking by Night sound and light exhibit. It is an extremely impressive memorial. And in Queensland, under a tree near Brisbane Airport, those three plaques also help ensure that the deeds of this Squadron are not forgotten.

© 2012 Adam Purcell

Event: Bomber Command Commemorative Day, Canberra, 2-3 June 2012

The Bomber Command Commemorative Day Foundation, with the support of the Australian War Memorial, will hold their 5th annual Commemorative Day in Canberra on the weekend of 2-3 June 2012. Three events are planned: a ‘Meet and Greet’ function on the Saturday night, then a Memorial Service and Luncheon on Sunday.

The Meet and Greet function takes place in the shadow of G for George, the AWM’s Lancaster, in the ANZAC Hall from 6 to 8pm on Saturday 2 June. Cost is $50, hot and cold canapes will be served with beer, wine, soft drink and juice also provided.

The Luncheon takes place at the Rydges Lakeside, Canberra, 12.30 for 1pm to 4pm. $55 covers a sit-down two-course meal with tea and coffee, with a cash bar operating.

To attend the Lunch and/or the Meet and Greet, contact Keith Campbell by 18 May: 142 Coonanbarra Road Wahroonga NSW 2076. Cheques to be made out to Bomber Command Commemoration Day Foundation.

The focus of the weekend, however, is the Memorial Service. This is held outdoors in the Sculpture Garden of the Australian War Memorial, by the Bomber Command Memorial. To allow the organisers to anticipate numbers, please RSVP to the AWM by 11 May: or 02 6243 4363.

In the group photo taken at this event last year, I counted 50 veterans. This is one of the largest gatherings of Bomber Command aircrew (and at least one WAAF) in Australia and for that reason alone it is well worth attending. Talking to so many veterans in the one place at the one time is an opportunity that doesn’t come around too often. I’ve been to three of the last four of these events (though at this stage it is looking unlikely that I’ll be able to make it to this one) and they never fail to impress. More information can be found at

Update 21APR12: I’ve managed to organise the weekend off so I’ve booked my flights to Canberra for this event. There are also events on in other parts of Australia, for those who can’t make it to Canberra:

VICTORIA: Hastings RSL, 11am Sunday 3rd June

QUEENSLAND: Memorial Gardens at RAAF Amberley, 11am Sunday 3rd June

I think there are also plans for NSW and SA, but I haven’t got details yet.