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…


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.

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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

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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

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.


Event: Bomber Command Commemorations in Canberra, 31 May – 1 June 2014

Following are details for the Bomber Command Commemoration Day events to be held in Canberra on the weekend 31 May – 01 June 2014. There are three key parts to the weekend:

  • Meet & Greet
  • Ceremony
  • Luncheon

The Meet & Greet:

  • ANZAC Hall, Australian War Memorial
  • Saturday 31 May 2014
  • 6.00pm to 8.00pm
  • $50 Canapés, hot & cold with beer, wine, soft drink and juice.

The Ceremony:

  • Sculpture Garden, Australian War Memorial
  • Sunday 1 May 2014
  • 10:50am for 11:00am
  • Wreathlaying: Contact Anna Henry

The Luncheon:

  • Rydges Lakeside Hotel
  • Sunday 1 June 2014
  • 12:30pm for 1.00pm until 4.00pm
  • $55 Two course, sit‐ down lunch with tea/coffee. Private donation wines with cash bar.

Contact and RSVP:

If you are planning to attend any of these three events, please contact Ros Ingram:

  • (02) 9570 6176
  • RSVPs close 26 May 2014

Full details, including payment information, on this document (PDF).




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!

Bomber Command in Canberra 2012

The 2012 Bomber Command Commemoration Weekend has just wrapped up in Canberra. There were slightly fewer people present, to my eye, than on previous years but I think it was still a fair turnout. Perhaps the forecast rain kept some away – it certainly was a wet welcome to Canberra when my Virgin E-Jet broke clear of the thick cloud that we’d been descending through just before landing.

This was the fifth such commemoration to be held in the nation’s capital and the event has settled down into a familiar but effective pattern. G for George provided the setting for the now traditional ‘Meet & Greet’ function. There were indeed many people to meet and greet. Tommy Knox and Pat Kerrins, who I’d met here last year, were both there again. Don Browning and Ross Pearson traded their usual good-natured banter about which between the Halifax and the Lancaster was the ‘proper’ aircraft to have flown in (at least we all thought it was good-natured…). And I met a few new people too.

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Early in the evening as I was wandering around to see who else I recognised, out of the shadows of the Lancaster’s nose came a man named Don McDonald, a 466 Sqn Halifax skipper from Melbourne, a veteran I had not yet met. He was a lovely bloke and we chatted about all sorts of things for a good while – and upon learning that I now also live in the southern capital he and his wife Ailsa promptly invited me to visit them for dinner sometime. You never do know who you will meet at these events! I also spoke with the former Commanding Officer of the reformed 462 Squadron, which was previously a Halifax squadron of Bomber Command and is now an electronic intelligence unit based at RAAF Edinburgh in Adelaide. The superb Striking by Night sound and light show was again played at the end of the event. The final moments of the production feature a WAAF speaking about the Australian airmen she worked with. “They were young… handsome…” she says, “…and full of life.” At which point Don Huxtable was heard to mutter “well two out of three ain’t bad…”12-jun-bomber-command-in-canberra-012 copy

Many of us repaired to the hotel bar at the Rydges after returning from the AWM. It was a memorable night, sharing beers with the two Toms Knox sitting on one side and Hux on the other as a great variety of stories, of both tall and short varieties, were told.

Canberra received almost an inch of rain on Saturday and it looked very much like it had set in for a week. But upon peering out of my hotel room window in the morning I saw a scene that was wet, but not actually raining. The clouds gradually cleared as the morning went on and in fact it turned out into a delightfully mild Canberra morning. The Commemorative Address was given by Air Marshal Mark Binskin, Deputy Chief of  Defence Force (and a former Chief of Air Force), who spoke about the legacy of teamwork from the men of Bomber Command, and how the Air Force has reformed two Bomber Command squadrons as a tribute. Fittingly a large group of 460 Squadron personnel were present standing in three neat rows at the back of the crowd. There was an attempt to get an official photo of all the veterans who were present but it was not as organised as last year’s effort:

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Back to the Rydges, then, for the luncheon, always for me the highlight of the weekend. Despite the slightly lower numbers present this year, it is still one of the largest gatherings of Bomber Command veterans, families and other interested people in this country. Once again there were many extremely interesting people to talk to. I finally met Diane Strub of the Queensland Branch of the 463-467 Squadrons Association, and Fred Murray-Walker, whose father was killed in the crash of 463 Squadron Lancaster JO-G on the Scottish hillside in 1944. Peter Rees, a Canberra-based author who is currently finalising a book focusing on Australians in Bomber Command, was also there, and brought with him a magnificent folio of target photographs cheekily entitled “The Collected Works of 463 Squadron, as told to the Third Reich, September 1944 to May 1945”.

Perhaps the most remarkable person I met was sitting at a table at the back of the function room with her son and daughter in law. An Englishwoman, her name was Maude and, as it turned out, she had been on the staff at Bomber Command Headquarters – she was Deputy Commander in Chief Sir Robert Saundby’s secretary from 1943 until the end of the war. I asked her what the atmosphere was like at Bomber Command HQ. She said it was always busy – she was at work whenever her boss was and might – might – get the occasional half-day off on a Sunday if she was lucky. It was only a short conversation but it was an absolute pleasure to meet and talk to a unique lady. I even managed to convince her to get up for the group photo of all present who had served in Bomber Command (she is front right here, wearing red, behind Tommy Knox):

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Some more photographs from the weekend:

Some of the crowd at the Meet & Greet function in the shadow of Lancaster G for George:

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The Ceremony, in front of the AWM’s Bomber Command memorial:

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The Three Dons: Don Southwell reading a copy of a ‘Tribute to Mr Don Huxtable’ as tabled in NSW State Parliament recently, while Don Browning and Don Huxtable himself look on:

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Bryan Cook, Don Huxtable, Don Browning and Adam Purcell in Canberra, 03JUN12:

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Part of the 220-strong crowd at the Lunch that followed the Ceremony on Sunday:

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In all, then, another fine weekend of commemoration and friendship. Another pile of things to follow up on. Another piece of proof that, even after almost seventy decades, the deeds of Bomber Command live on. I’ll leave the closing words to Don Southwell, who delivered the Reflections address during the Ceremony on Sunday.

“I will always be proud”, he said, “that I flew with Bomber Command”.

Text and images (c) 2012 Adam Purcell