The cry went up among the crowd waiting outside the Shrine of Remembrance in the blustery winds of early last Sunday afternoon.
And there they were, right over the target and bang on 1:00pm as briefed. Five aeroplanes from the RAAF Museum’s Historical Trainer Flight – two Harvards, a Winjeel and a pair of CT-4s– swept down St Kilda Road and roared over the crowd. The ‘Sound of Round’ echoed off the buildings. The formation continued south, made a big left-hand turn and then came back across the Shrine again, this time from east to west. The crowd broke into spontaneous applause.
A few minutes later the second formation appeared, out of the south this time and made up of seven Warriors and a Cessna from the Royal Victorian Aero Club. Flying lighter aeroplanes than the Air Force pilots, these guys were copping the full force of the windy, bumpy conditions as they turned to the west from dead over the Shrine. But it looked and sounded fantastic. The old flyers on the ground certainly appreciated the dedication and commitment of the pilots from both formations.
It was a fitting conclusion to the Bomber Command Commemorative Day ceremony which had finished in the new Auditorium inside the Shrine just a few moments before.
The Auditorium was only officially opened last year and this was the first time it has been used for ceremonial purposes. With cold and blustery conditions outside it was certainly a much more comfortable venue for the estimated 140 or so people who packed it to the rafters for the service.
The MC was the unflappable Brian Smith:
Squadron Leader Ron Ledingham, Shrine Governor and Bomber Command Commemorative Day Foundation (Vic) committee member, opened the ceremony by discussing its importance to the Shrine and to the Bomber Command community.
John Brownbill RFD KSJ, an Army chaplain, looked after the religious aspect of the service and set the scene with a few words on Bomber Command and its part in the Second World War:
Committee member Jan Dimmick – her late husband Frank was a 460 Squadron navigator – read the Epitaph from a poem called Requiem for a Rear Gunner:
My brief, sweet life is over, my eyes no longer see,
No summer walks, no Christmas trees,
No pretty girls for me.
I’ve got the chop, I’ve had it.
My nightly ops are done.
Yet in another hundred years, I’ll still be twenty one.
The guest speaker for the ceremony was former Victorian premier and current Chairman of the Victorian Centenary of Anzac Committee, the Hon Ted Baillieu. He picked up on Jan’s “21 years” theme, remarking that WWII started 21 years after the Great War ended. We commemorate anniversaries like Anzac and the end of WWII, he said, for three reasons: to honour those who served, to educate current generations, and to pass the torch of remembrance on to future generations.
Then came the wreathes, including one from Carey Baptist Grammar School, which has now officially adopted this ceremony as part of the Shrine’s ‘Adopt an Ex-Service Organisation’ initiative.
This was their first involvement with the ceremony, and it’s a partnership we hope can continue long into the future – first-hand evidence of the passing on of Mr Baillieu’s metaphoric “torch of remembrance”.
On the way out following the service we just had enough time to take a group photo of all the veterans present:
And then the roar of radial engines heralded the arrival of the flypast.
Afterwards afternoon tea was served in the foyer area. And it was here that something remarkable happened:
On the left of this photo is, of course, Don Southwell. He’d come down from Sydney with his son David for the ceremony, representing the ‘national’ Bomber Command Commemorative Day Foundation. He’s talking to Steve Downes, centre, and Lachie McBean, right. Steve, a wireless operator, and Lachie, a pilot, were on the same crew. The only two Australians in the crew, they were posted to 467 Squadron right at the end of the war so they never flew any operations. But they had gone through training together. Then the war ended and everyone was posted away or discharged from the Air Force entirely. “We were best mates while we were on the same crew”, Lachie told me, “but we never knew much about what each other had done before the war, and then we were all posted away and lost contact.”
Until recently, Lachie thought that Steve had been killed in a post-war car crash. But about three months ago Lachie’s wife died.
Steve – very much still alive – saw the death notice and recognised his old pilot’s name. He contacted Lachie through the funeral director, and their respective daughters conspired to arrange a meeting at the ceremony– and so the two old crew mates saw each other again on Sunday for the first time in seventy years.
I was lucky enough to be the proverbial fly-on-the-wall as the two old men chatted. Seven decades simply melted away as they just picked up where they had left off.
It was a lovely moment to cap off a most memorable day.
Many thanks to Matt Henderson and Alex le-Merton, the crew of one of the RAAF CT-4s, for the airborne photos.
The Bomber Command Commemorative Day Foundation (Vic) Committee sincerely thanks both the Royal Australian Air Force and the Royal Victorian Aero Club for their critical parts in making the commemorative flypast happen.
On Sunday 1 June 2014, Bomber Command commemorations took place all around Australia. In Queensland, the ceremony was held at the Memorial Gardens, near the front gate of RAAF Amberley. Tiana Walker-Adair, whose father was a Halifax navigator, sent me these photos:
Thanks to Tiana for these photos. Only Perth to go now, and I’ve collected the whole set!
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Believe it or not, it’s part of his original RAAF-issue uniform.
Further photos from the ceremony:
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.