Posts Tagged 'Veterans'



IBCC Interview #5: Joe Shuttleworth, 50 Squadron Rear Gunner

You had to be lucky to survive a tour in Bomber Command at any time during WWII. But you had to be really lucky to survive a tour if you were operating in the winter of 1943-44, when the Battle of Berlin was at its height and the RAF were losing upwards of 30 or 40 aircraft a night.

A 21-year-old Australian named Joe Shuttleworth got lucky while heading to Berlin in the rear turret of a 50 Squadron Lancaster on 15 February 1944. It’s fair to say it would not have felt much like a stroke of luck at the time. “There was a flash about 11 o’clock high,” he told me when I interviewed him for the International Bomber Command Centre’s Digital Archive late last year. “I felt immediate pain…”

That was some time off, however, when a very young Joe Shuttleworth saw Bert Hinkler land at Brisbane’s Eagle Farm racecourse in 1930. Like many of his generation, that inspired an interest in flying so it was only natural that he would join the Royal Australian Air Force when war broke out. Unfortunately Joe had a deficiency in one eye which precluded him from becoming a pilot, but he was accepted as a Wireless Air Gunner and after training and receiving his gunner’s brevet in Australia he embarked for war.

Joe Shuttleworth in Brisbane pre-embarkation

Joe travelled across the Pacific Ocean, then across the US by train. He was very impressed with the trip. The scenery on the way was very nice, and he had “the biggest icecream of my life” in Salt Lake City. England was pretty alright too. “Lovely country”, he said.

“Lots of beautiful girls, lots of warm beer – it was pretty hard to get cold beer in those days – but the countryside was absolutely beautiful.”

Joe completed further training at 29 Operational Training Unit at Bruntingthorpe, where he survived a crash in a Wellington after a tyre burst on take-off. But something else happened while he was at Bruntingthorpe: something with far further-reaching consequences for Joe’s life.

Nearby the airfield was the village of Lutterworth. Having been to a party in the village one night, Joe was walking around the town when two girls came up. One of them asked if Joe had any change. He was able to oblige her, but it was the other girl, named Freda, who caught Joe’s eye.

“Of late I have been going out on a few occasions with a Lands Army girl (and very nice too I may mention)”, he subsequently wrote home in July 1943. “And here’s another tip, don’t jump to all kinds of conclusions!”

I know this because Joe let me borrow, to scan for the Archive, a wonderful collection of letters from his time overseas. There’s more than 40 all up, and in letters from the second half of 1943 there are plenty of mentions of “my little Lands Army girl friend.” So any conclusions to which his family may have jumped actually turned out to be correct: Joe and Freda became engaged during a leave in November and, on 30 December 1943, they married. I asked Joe what a wartime wedding was like. “We toasted with a bottle of Australian wine”, he said. “How it happened to be there I’m not quite sure, but it was there!”

Portrait Front copy

Joe and his crew were posted to Skellingthorpe on 15 January 1944. Over the next month the 50 Squadron Operational Record Book records Joe’s name against five operational flights. All five of them were against the same target.

Berlin.

“We’d be sending out about 750 aircraft [a night”, he said. “We’d generally lose about 50. So on a tour of 30, statistically it’s impossible to get through.” For Joe and his crew, though, things went relatively smoothly. After each raid they landed successfully at Skellingthorpe, feeling very relieved and thinking, “there’s another one towards the 30.” Everything went smoothly, that is, until that fateful night in February 1944 when Joe met his Waterloo.

The flash he saw in his turret on the way to Berlin was, Joe now thinks, the result of an attack by a nightfighter equipped with the as-yet-unsuspected upwards-firing Schrage Musik cannon. His turret was wrecked and he was badly wounded. “I think one of the crew dragged me out of the turret”, he told me, though there is a letter in the collection that suggests he actually insisted that he remained in the turret until they returned to Skellingthorpe. He did not lose consciousness until he arrived at the RAF hospital at Rauceby.

So what were Joe’s injuries? At this point, I’ll quote from what is probably the most poignant letter amongst the collection, written by Joe’s new wife Freda to his cousin Keith, who was serving in the Royal Australian Navy in London at the time. Understandably, Freda beats around the bush for a page and a half first.

Excuse me Keith for going all round to get to the point, but you see, I just can’t put into words the thing that is so hard to grasp. I hope it won’t give you too much of a shock Keith – he has had his right eye out and has also fractured his right arm.”

Joe was the only man on his crew to be injured in the attack, and his turret was the only part of the Lancaster to be damaged. This probably felt like some rather bad luck at the time. But as it turned out, the eye that Joe lost was the bodgy one that had precluded him from pilot training. And with Keith’s support Freda remained relatively upbeat. Even though the surviving letters tell a tale of grief and uncertainty they also reveal a determination to keep positive about the future. As Freda wrote at one point, “From all the horror of this, I have one great consolation, this is, he will not be flying again.”

She was right. Once he had left hospital, Joe spent some months working in the office at RAAF Headquarters in Kodak House, London, before he came home via the United States towards the end of 1944. Freda followed him to Australia a year later.

As we approached the end of the interview I asked Joe what he thought about his time in Bomber Command. “Great experience,” he said without hesitation. “Great experience. I had a world trip… I saw places I’ve never been back to.” Indeed, since he returned from the war he has not once left Australia.

After Joe was removed from operational flying, the rest of his crew carried on. On 3 May 1944, they were in one of 42 aircraft that failed to return from the disastrous attack on the German Panzer depot at Mailly-le-Camp[1].

“I was one of the lucky ones,” Joe said, very quietly.

50 Squadron rear gunner Joe Shuttleworth at home in Melbourne

Joe Shuttleworth following the interview

Text and colour photograph © 2016 Adam Purcell. Wartime images used courtesy Joe Shuttleworth

 

 

 

 

[1] Thanks to Mike Connock of the 50 Squadron Association for copies of the Squadron’s Operational Record Books

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Bomber Command in Canberra 2015

The cabbie who picked me up from the airport couldn’t work out why I would be coming to Canberra for non-work reasons.

On a weekend.

In winter.

He perked up, though, as he drove me down Fairburn Avenue and through a big roundabout, pointing to a big domed building up the hill.

“That War Memorial. You must go there.”

Don’t worry, I said. I’ll be going there alright.

The Australian War Memorial, that big domed building on the hill in front of Mount Ainslie, is the traditional and spiritual home of much of the activity associated with the annual Bomber Command Commemorative Day. The weekend just gone saw the 8th edition take place, under blue skies for once.

It began, though, with sad news. While preparing to leave for the commemorations, Bomber Command Commemorative Day Foundation President Ross Pearson suffered a stroke. As I write it is still too soon to know much but the early signs are, I hear, not good. The knowledge of Ross’ illness cast a dark shadow on the weekend, and he remained in the thoughts of many of those present. But the show, as they say, must go on, and in the best spirit of Bomber Command, we pressed on regardless.

First up was the Meet & Greet function, in the shadow of the great black bomber named G for George. It was one of the bigger crowds in recent memory I thought, and was quite a good evening.

The crowd at the Meet & Greet

The crowd at the Meet & Greet

A highlight was seeing two old pilots sitting next to each other having a chat. Alan Finch (who I met at this function last year) was posted to 467 Squadron in August 1943 and completed his tour on 19 March 1944. Bill Purdy arrived at 463 Squadron two weeks after Alan left. So while they were not quite both at Waddington at the same time, they were there at the same time as the crew of B for Baker. There are not many men around these days who were operating around that time, so to find two of them sitting next to each other was a special moment for me.

Bill was telling a story when I passed by. After his tour ended in August 1944, he was posted to a Heavy Conversion Unit as an instructor on Stirlings. His first pupil, he said, could fly better than he did. “We didn’t even realise we had landed!” His second pupil was even better. But Number Three? There was much swerving all over the sky. “It was a controlled crash every time!”

Once they all got to their operational squadrons, though, it was a different story. The first man was lost on his first trip. The second man lasted three. But the third pilot survived his tour. “Maybe the other two were too good…” Bill mused thoughtfully.

It strangely makes sense. Flying perfectly straight and level in a combat zone could be fatal when flak and nightfighters were around.

There was an attempt to get a group photo of all the veterans present but it was less than successful. But seeing as everyone was gathered near the lectern at the tail end of George, 467 Squadron mid-upper gunner Albert Wallace took to the microphone to tell a few stories about Australians, WAAFs and sugar tongs. He mentioned being one of the last crews to fly S-Sugar, the Lancaster preserved at the RAF Museum in Hendon.

Bomber Command veterans gather to hear Albert Wallace speak

Bomber Command veterans gather to hear Albert Wallace speak

That brought Alan Finch to the front. “We were the first crew to fly Sugar on 467 Squadron!” he said. He wasn’t impressed: “I said it wasn’t fit for operational service…” As we now know, of course, Sugar would go on to fly over 100 operations.

Can’t win ‘em all, I guess.

While all this was going on, I noticed Don Southwell sitting on a convenient ledge in front of a painting of a flight engineer. He had some interesting light falling on his face from a set of lamps that were ostensibly there to illuminate the speaker at the lectern.

Don Southwell

Don Southwell

I got an idea…

VETERAN PHOTO BOOTH!

Tom Hopkinson and Don Browning

Tom Hopkinson and Don Browning

Tommy Knox

Tommy Knox

Alan Finch. What a brilliantly relaxed pose!!

Alan Finch. What a brilliantly relaxed pose!!

As the event wrapped up I also dragged the lights over to get a nice portrait of two of the key organisers of the event, Don and David Southwell:

Don and David Southwell

Don and David Southwell

The ‘official’ hotel for the Bomber Command group had changed to the brand-new Avenue, in the heart of the city. A small group repaired to the hotel bar there following the function for a few drinks. The group was down a little on numbers from previous years, partly because some were still staying at the QT hotel as usual and also because some of the usual suspects were missing (Don Huxtable being a very noticeable absence, being in hospital in Sydney). The ghosts of absent friends were very evident. But it was still a very useful and enjoyable evening. At one point I asked Keith Campbell, who had just been served the biggest ‘little’ beer he had ever seen, what he thought of wartime English beer. Not much, as it turns out. “It was weak and tasteless!” he said.

The grass in front of the Bomber Command memorial sculpture in the western grounds of the War Memorial is the original venue for the Bomber Command Commemorative Day, and given it is a dedicated memorial to Bomber Command it makes sense to hold the ceremony in its shadow. But having experienced the heightened atmosphere and mood in the cloisters of the War Memorial for the last two years, I reckon it’s much better up there. And so I was almost hoping for rain when I awoke this morning. But for the first time in three years the ceremony on Sunday morning was held outside under blue skies, and it went rather well.

1505 BCCDF CBR 123

I’m told there were 600 seats provided, and they were all full well before the ceremony kicked off at 11:00, with other people standing around the periphery. Sitting behind me was Tom Stewart, a Canberra local who was a 77 Squadron (Royal Air Force, not the Australian fighter squadron!) wireless operator. I snapped a quick photo before the ceremony started:

Tom Stewart

Tom Stewart

A representative flight of the reformed 460 Squadron ‘marched on’ to open the ceremony. Dr Brendan Nelson, AWM Director, again spoke well and mostly without notes, quoting the words that end Striking by Night presentation in which G for George plays such a starring role. “My memories are of young men, Aussie men,” it goes, “laughing, dancing, singing and enjoying the moment…  Never to be heard of again.”

Well, Dr Nelson told us, setting the theme for the weekend, “they are to be heard of again: here, today.”

I was most impressed, however, by the speech from Dr Peter Hendy, the Federal Member for Eden-Monaro. It started off the usual way and I was a little worried that it would be a typical politician’s speech, saying the right things but without really knowing or believing in what was being said. But then he veered off into much more personal territory. Dr Hendy, it turned out, had an Uncle Jack, actually a cousin of his father’s, who was a rear gunner in Bomber Command. And so, just like I did, Dr Hendy grew up with stories of “Uncle Jack,” bombers and gun turrets. He said that while it’s tempting to speak of Bomber Command airmen as being superhuman, they were actually ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. “The extraordinary, ordinary Australians”, he called them, and I thought that a most appropriate description.

Keith Campbell (who at breakfast that morning was singularly unruffled by the short notice) gave the Reflections address in place of Ross Pearson. He spoke of the WAAFs who would issue parachutes to the airmen with the old line “if it doesn’t open, bring it back!”, of “the longest ten seconds you would ever know” after the bombs went down, waiting for the camera to tick over, and of listening to a Master Bomber’s voice on the radio over the target one night: “Goodbye chaps, we’re going in – we’ve been hit by flak and we’ve had it.” And he spoke of his demob: “There was no tickertape parade. Just a suit, new hat and best wishes.”

Keith Campbell giving the 'Reflections' address.

Keith Campbell giving the ‘Reflections’ address.

But it was Keith’s conclusion that rang most true for me. He was speaking to the veterans present, urging them to tell their stories while they still can. “Maybe you can pass the torch on to others,” he said. “Make sure that their name lives forevermore.”

Bill Purdy and Alan Finch

Bill Purdy and Alan Finch

1505 BCCDF CBR 099

The Australian Rugby Choir led the singing

The Australian Rugby Choir led the singing

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

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

Bomber Command veterans in Canberra

Bomber Command veterans in Canberra

The luncheon was moved from the War Memorial at quite short notice to the QT Hotel because of high demand. More than 180 people were there.

There was a lot of brass there. The soon-to-retire Chief of Air Force, Air Marshall Geoff Brown, delivered an intriguing address looking at current capability of the Royal Australian Air Force, including some very rare bombing footage of recent operations in Iraq.

Air Marshal Geoff Brown, Chief of Air Force

Air Marshal Geoff Brown, Chief of Air Force

Where in Bomber Command’s day 1,000 aircraft might be sent to one target, these days one aircraft might engage four individual targets on a single sortie. He even showed an example of the requirement to avoid collateral damage, when non-combatant vehicles were observed nearing a target and the laser targeting system was used to push the munitions off target after the weapons were released. A capability, one suspects, which Bomber Command would have found quite useful.

Also speaking was the Chairman of the Trustees of the International Bomber Command Centre, Tony Worth. Tony was in Australia as part of a delegation of IBCC people who are working on “an international story of Recognition, Remembrance and Reconciliation”.

Tony Worth from IBCC

Tony Worth from IBCC

The Centre, in the early stages of being established on a hillside within sight of Lincoln Cathedral, will consist of a Memorial Spire (which was erected last month), steel walls engraved with the names of those who died in Bomber Command, an education and exhibition centre, ‘Peace Garden’ and, most significantly for me, an ambitious digital archive that aims to become a comprehensive research resource – the ‘go-to’ point for Bomber Command information into the future. As such they are looking for people worldwide to scan documents and interview veterans and it’s possible that I may become a point of contact for this in Melbourne. It’s a big project with very lofty goals but it certainly looks like they have an enthusiastic team behind it and it will be very interesting to watch their progress.

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

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

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

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

The increased interest in Bomber Command and events of this type can easily be seen in the numbers attending this year. While not the “biggest ever” I think it was a modest increase on last year, even with those notable absentees. While I didn’t come away with as many ‘new’ veterans as I have in the past I still made a lot of contacts and there were many family, friends and hangers-on present. (Including, incredibly enough, one of my high school PE teachers whose wife has a 467 Squadron connection).

The news of Ross Pearson’s stroke concentrated some minds on thoughts of what the future might look like for the organisation of this event and others like it, and there was discussion of this important question at various points over the weekend. The intention of the group of veterans – led by the late Rollo Kingsford-Smith – who developed the concept for the first Bomber Command Commemorative Day was that it would continue “in perpetuity”, and this intention was restated a couple of times on the weekend. Certainly the numbers present demonstrate that the demand is there and indeed is growing for events of this type. Much of the burden of organising this event already falls on the younger generation, but the inspiration for it is still drawn from the hardy but dwindling band of Bomber Command ‘originals’. Some hard questions will need to be answered when the last of the ‘extraordinary, ordinary Australians’ finally leave this life.

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

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

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

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

The luncheon was beginning to wrap up and the crowd was thinning. As I prepared to leave I saw two old blokes, the last people sitting at a table. They were Angus Cameron and Tom Hopkinson, two Canberra-based veterans, and they looked very relaxed.

Two extraordinary, ordinary Australians, sitting back and having a lively chat.

They were still at it as I left the room.

 

© 2015 Adam Purcell

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

Before it’s too late

Tony Wright, National Affairs editor at The Age newspaper here in Melbourne, usually writes about the goings-on in and around Parliament House in Canberra. His series of Sketch columns usually throw an interesting light on the events of the day (and, if you’ve been following Australian politics, he’s had a not inconsiderable amount of material for inspiration recently).

But every Saturday, Wright gets the opportunity to write about something other than politics. One week last year it was about Mike Druce, the man who made a modern-day escape from Colditz Castle in September, then walked unsupported to Switzerland. Wright wrote another interesting one early in February.

“They are disappearing fast now”, he wrote, “the generation who experienced a world war.”

It seems not so long ago that those who had lived through World War I and had seen horses step aside for internal combustion engines and a lot more were being put in the ground, but memory plays tricks – it’s 100 years since that war began.

Those who knew it, even those who lived to astonishing ages, breathed the last of this earth’s air a long time ago.

Now it is the turn of the last of the survivors of World War II.

Some of those shuffling off into the sunset in recent times, of course, were well-known in life and widely mourned in death. Giants of politics like Gough Whitlam (an RAAF navigator) and Tom Uren (a survivor of the Burma-Thai Railway). Journalist and Korean War correspondent Harry Gordon. “These are, of course, big and extraordinary lives”, Wright says:

…generous spirits well documented, celebrated on a broad stage, their stories teaching us something that transcends the experiences that will go into books about their achievements: call it wisdom.

But while these were some of the better-known men whose lives intersected with some of the biggest conflicts in the history of mankind, so many others were there too. In Wright’s words:

…each day others whose lives were not destined to be celebrated so publicly or granted obituaries pass beyond this existence. Every one of them has a story, and in those stories we can often find ourselves enriched, because wisdom often resides there.

He’s dead right.

This is more or less why I flew to Sydney last month to have lunch with a Bomber Command veteran who also happens to be a good friend of mine. Hugh is a former rear gunner and we arranged to meet at one of those very old and very exclusive clubs in the city, all cedar panelling and leather Chesterfield armchairs. Hugh has been a member for a quarter-century.

He’s clearly well-known here. As we entered the bar the bartender poured my beer but gave Hugh the bottle and an empty mug. “I like to pour it myself”, he explained. Somehow, I imagine, with its sharply-dressed, exclusively male clientele, beer in pewter mugs and discreet murmur of conversation, the atmosphere in the bar at a wartime Officer’s Mess (in one of its quieter moments) might have been something similar. And perhaps for Hugh that’s at least part of where the attraction lies.

With that thought in my head, it’s not surprising that our conversation very quickly turned to flying. As we drank our beers we shared experiences flying the Tiger Moth and I mentioned my recent visit to Nhill and the Anson that is under restoration there. “I loved the old Aggie”, he said simply. We continued talking in the dining room as we waited for and then enjoyed a scrumptious meal while looking out over the State Library across the street.

Hugh is a little unique. He actually trained as a pilot but when he arrived at his squadron, he was one of twelve who were asked/chosen to re-train as gunners to operate a special ‘secret weapon’. It turned out to be ‘Village Inn’, an automatic radar-guided gun system. Despite what you might read on that link, Hugh’s opinion of the equipment is not very high. It was unserviceable half the time, he said, and the rear turret was not a nice place to be. Nor was it safe. On his first trip – to Bremen, in October 1944 – two of the twelve Village Inn men failed to return.

Hugh flew on his last operation – his 32nd – a matter of weeks before the end of the war. There followed the traditional fortnight’s end-of-tour leave, part of which coincided with the regular 12-days-every-six-weeks leave of a good friend at the squadron called Johnny Garrett. Hugh had arranged to meet up with Johnny in Cardiff but was a bit surprised when he did not show up. On return to the squadron he found out why.

On 22 April 1945, 49 Squadron was moving from Fulbeck to Syerston. As happened frequently on these occasions, on departure each bomber “beat up” the control tower before setting course for their new home. One aircraft flew past at extremely low level. Johnny, like Hugh a pilot/rear gunner, was in the rear turret.

The pilot pulled the Lancaster up into the air.

Too late.

The tail of the aircraft hit the MT shed. The Lancaster fell to the ground, killing all six on board. Fifteen more people – part of the works party which were about to begin runway extentions at Fulbeck –  were killed on the ground.(1)

It was a sobering story to hear over an otherwise very civilised lunch. But that’s just the point. Such was life, and death, in Bomber Command. Tragic as they are, stories like these actually happened. While official records like the squadron Operational Record Book reveal something of what happened to the aircraft, they won’t include the personal details – like the friends of those killed who wondered why they did not show up for an arranged meet-up while on leave.

These are the sorts of details and stories that can only come direct from those who were there at the time. So I see part of my role, as a Bomber Command researcher, but also as a member of the human race, to collect those stories while I still can. Hugh is one of the younger Bomber Command veterans I know, but he turned 90 last year. He’s no spring chicken. And one day I’m going to want to ask him something… but he won’t be there anymore. So in the meantime, says Tony Wright as he finishes his piece:

…the rest of us could do worse than sit with those close to us and explore what they might have to share and teach before they are gone and we find ourselves turning, bereft, to their shadow.

Amen to that.

 

Hugh McLeod, 49 Squadron rear gunner and my good friend, died on 7 July 2015.

 

(1) The ‘Fulbeck Tragedy’, as it is known, is described in Ward, J 1997: Beware of the Dog at War: Operational Diary of 49 Squadron Spanning Forty Nine Years, 1916-1965, pp. 542-5. Thanks to Colin Cripps for the steer.

 

© 2015 Adam Purcell

Ten Veterans

At the 463-467 RAAF Squadrons Association lunch which followed the 2014 ANZAC Day march in Sydney last Friday we were privileged to have no fewer than ten Bomber Command veterans amongst the 50 or so people present. I’m still putting together You can find a full post about the day here, but for now here is a collection of photographic portraits, one of each veteran:

Don Browning

Don Browning

Don Southwell

Don Southwell

Don Huxtable

Don Huxtable

Keith Campbell

Keith Campbell

Alan Buxton

Alan Buxton

Albert Wallace

Albert Wallace

Hugh McLeod

Hugh McLeod

David Skinner

David Skinner

Harry Brown

Harry Brown

George Douglass

George Douglass

 

Photos (c) 2014 Adam Purcell

Bomber Command Panel Discussion at the Shrine

The Panel Discussion On Tuesday a large crowd of at least 150 people gathered at the Shrine of Remembrance here in Melbourne to take part in perhaps the largest of the events to be held in conjunction with the Bomber Command exhibition currently showing at the Shrine. I was particularly looking forward to this one, and it didn’t disappoint.

The occasion was a Panel Discussion about Bomber Command, chaired by Air Vice Marshal Chris Spence (Retd), Chairman of the Shrine Trustees. The panel was made up of three veterans, covering the entire period from the beginning of the war to the end. Jack Bell was a Wireless/Air Gunner who served in the Middle East early in the conflict before being shot down in a Bristol Bombay and becoming a prisoner of war in Italy and then in Germany. Peter Isaacson was a Pilot with 460 and 156 Squadrons, later famous as the man who flew Lancaster Q for Queenie to Australia (and under the Sydney Harbour Bridge) on a War Bonds tour in 1943. And Maurie O’Keefe was a Wireless/Air Gunner who served with 460 Squadron at the tail end of the war.

Left to Right: Jack Bell, Peter Isaacson, Maurie O'Keefe and Chris Spence

Left to Right: Jack Bell, Peter Isaacson, Maurie O’Keefe and Chris Spence

With Air Vice Marshal Spence asking questions and gently prodding the veterans along, over the next fifty minutes or so the discussion covered the entire war: from enlistment to training to operations and beyond. Peter joined up, he said, after seeing a mannequin wearing an Air Force uniform in a recruitment display in the window of Myer in Bourke St, Melbourne. It was a very smart blue suit, he said, and he decided that he would like one of those. So he enlisted. Maurie concurred. “You used to go to dances,” he said, “and the girls made a bit of a fuss of you if you’d joined up… so that was the main attraction, really!”

The theme continued. Peter related a story of landing a Tiger Moth in a farmer’s field so he could sneak an illicit smoke while at 8 Elementary Flying Training School. Unfortunately he was seen by an overflying aircraft and was as a result confined to barracks, the indiscretion, he said slightly wistfully, “rather spoiling a little romance I had going with a girl in Narrandera…” Once aircrew, always aircrew.

But there were also some desperately sad stories. Jack was shot down after his aircraft stumbled over the German 15th Panzer Division in Libya. The navigator was killed in the ensuing crash and, after he returned to Australia following three years, three months and three days as a prisoner of war Jack went to visit his dead crewman’s family. He could see in the mother’s eyes the unasked question, ‘why my son and not you?’ It was, he said, the hardest thing he ever had to do.

Following the formal part of the discussion, the microphone was opened to questions from the floor. And there were some very good questions, too. One was relating to Schräge Musik, the fixed upward-firing guns fitted to nightfighters which were so devastatingly effective and utterly unsuspected by Bomber Command until quite late in 1944. What was it like, the questioner asked, to encounter Schräge Musik? Incredibly enough, a first-hand answer was available. In the audience were at least ten other veterans, and one of these – Jim Cahir – was actually in Stalag Luft III with Jack Bell. Jim’s aircraft was shot down by Schräge Musik over Germany one night. He first became aware of it – “too late, of course” – when shells started hitting his aircraft. Having someone there who, well, was there, gave the answer a real meaning and brought the subject home in a very personal and tangible way.

Inevitably at a public event of this nature the discussion eventually turned to Dresden and, as Peter Rees emphasised both in his book and in his talk last week, there were some passionate defences of the rationale and of the attack itself, both from the floor and the panel.

Following the discussion someone suggested organising a group photograph of all of the veterans present. In all there were thirteen in the photo, though I suspect one or two others may have slipped off before we had a chance to get everyone gathered near the front of the room. Unfortunately I was unable to get everyone’s names so only the following are identified in the photograph below: Back row, L-R: Peter Isaacson, Bruce Clifton, Wal McCulloch, [unknown], Gerald McPherson, Allan Beavis, John Wyke, Gordon Laidlaw, Jean Smith, Maurie O’Keefe. Front row, L-R: Bill Wilkie, Jack Bell, Jim Cahir(Most of) the veterans Other veterans who were present but for whom I cannot match a name with a face were Jim Carr, Col Fraser and Ron Fitch. (If you are able to identify any of the unknowns in this photo, please get in touch)

The opportunity then arose to mix a little bit over a cup of tea. I knew a few veterans (among them Allan Beavis, a Mosquito navigator who I visited at home in Geelong earlier this year) but most were new to me. Most notably, I recognised a tiny golden caterpillar with ruby red eyes on Bill Wilkie’s tie. When I asked him about it he immediately opened his wallet and pulled out his Caterpillar Club membership card, which he carries around with him everywhere even today. He had been a 15 Squadron rear gunner flying out of Mildenhall when his Lancaster was shot down over Germany in January 1945.

There were of course other people to see as well. Robyn Bell was there and I finally got to meet Neil Sharkey, the curator at the Shrine responsible for the current Bomber Command exhibition. Happily I was also able meet a man named Geoff Easton. His father was Arnold Easton, a 467 Squadron navigator who was operating at much the same time that my great uncle Jack and his crew were at Waddington. Arnold’s logbook, which I have a copy of, is one of the most precise examples I’ve ever seen and has been a great help in my research so far. But apart from a few emails about five years ago I’d never actually met Geoff. We had a good chat and he offered to send me copies of his late father’s wartime correspondence and a few photos of a very special visit he made recently to what’s left of ‘Old Fred’, Lancaster DV372 in which Arnold completed 20 sorties (and Phil Smith flew at least once), at the Imperial War Museum’s Duxford site. That will be the subject of a future post (it’s a wonderful story). Geoff has since sent me the files and I’m going to enjoy diving into them to see what nuggets come to the surface.

On my way out, I saw Gordon Laidlaw, the 50 Squadron pilot who I first met when visiting the exhibition a few weeks ago. He was waiting for his lift to arrive and I couldn’t resist one last photo of him: Gordon Laidlaw In all, a fantastic event. The Shrine of Remembrance has embraced the Bomber Command theme in the last few months and the interest from the public has been obvious, with big crowds turning out to the two events which I’ve been able to attend in the last week. Peter Rees said to me in an email after his talk last week, “It really feels like the book has tapped into something out there. Maybe people have long sensed [the airmen] were given a bum deal; if I’ve made it accessible for them to understand, then that’s a good outcome.”

The same could be said of the Shrine’s efforts over the last few months. It’s quite strange – but also very encouraging – to see big banners around the city of Melbourne emblazoned with the legend ‘BOMBER COMMAND’ with a photo of a crew in front of a Lancaster. It’s far too late for the vast majority of those who were there, of course, but while we still have some left, events and exhibitions like these allow the stories to be told and the memories to live on.

Download a podcast of the discussion from the Shrine website here.

© Adam Purcell 2013

Ladies’ Day with 463-467 Squadrons Association, Sydney

The 463-467 Squadrons Association (NSW) holds a luncheon every November, on the Sunday after Remembrance Day. For as long as anyone can remember it’s taken place in the rather classy surroundings of the Killara Golf Club in Sydney’s North Shore, and this year was no different. I was able to wrangle the day off work so I flew up from Melbourne last Sunday to attend.

I was staying at my sister’s place in Marrickville so I travelled to Killara by train, walking to the station in teeming rain. One of the stops along the way was Town Hall and here I noticed a tall, slim older gent and a middle-aged woman among the passengers getting on the train. I caught a fleeting glimpse of his tie and it looked rather familiar. They sat across the aisle from me in an otherwise nearly empty top deck compartment and continued the conversation they had been engaged in when they boarded the train. First I overheard the word ‘Killara’, then, a little later, ‘Southwell.’

Clearly, I decided, we were going to the same place. So I moved across the seat and introduced myself. The older gent was Tom Hopkinson, a 463 Squadron mid-upper gunner. He was up from Canberra for the function, staying with his second cousin Pamela who was travelling on the train with him. We had a great little chat on the way and while sheltering from the rain waiting for our lift to arrive at the station to take us to the golf club. It’s not very far away and last year, I thought to myself, I got sunburnt as I walked it…

A nice little crowd had gathered in the atrium area when we arrived. Most of the usual suspects were around, though there had been one or two cancellations as a result of the weather (it was still bucketing down outside).

The next couple of hours saw some good conversation amongst forty-odd guests with twelve veterans in total present. I found myself seated between Ron Houghton, a 102 Squadron Halifax skipper, and my frequent neighbour at these sorts of events, 49 Squadron rear gunner Hugh McLeod. The Golf Club put on a good meal again and, as is traditional, Don Browning proposed a toast to the ladies, present and elsewhere, for their support of their veteran husbands, fathers and grandfathers, which is the reason that this function is known as Ladies’ Day.

A remarkable photograph followed. By my count we had three pilots, a navigator, a bomb aimer, three wireless operators, two mid-upper gunners and two rear gunners in the group. Between them they covered almost every position in a typical heavy bomber crew. Unfortunately there were very few Australian flight engineers, and none were present here or I would have suggested we find ourselves a Lancaster and go flying.

Bomber Command veterans in Killara, November 2013

Seated, left to right: Ron Houghton (102 Squadron Halifax pilot), Don Huxtable (463 Squadron pilot), Don Browning (463 Squadron wireless operator), Harry Brown (467 Squadron wireless operator)

Standing, left to right: Hugh McLeod (49 Squadron rear gunner), Roy Pegler (467 Squadron bomb aimer), Max Barry (463 Squadron rear gunner), Albert Wallace (467 Squadron mid-upper gunner), Ross Pearson (102 Squadron wireless operator/air gunner), Bill Purdy (463 Squadron pilot), Tom Hopkinson (463 Squadron mid-upper gunner), Don Southwell (463 Squadron navigator)

I also made sure that I got a photo with Albert Wallace. In June last year I received a comment on somethingverybig.com from a veteran called Albert Wallace. Unbelievably, it was a different Albert Wallace, who lives in Canada. At the opening of the Bomber Command memorial in London earlier that year he (Canadian Albert) was amazed to meet an Australian veteran of the same name who had also been a mid-upper gunner. I helped both Alberts get in touch with each other, though unfortunately they did not get a photo with both of them together!

Bomber Command veterans at Killara, November 2013

Left to right, in this photo we have Ron Houghton, Hugh McLeod, Albert Wallace and myself.

A couple of photos to finish off, then. Bryan Cook and Don Huxtable:

Bryan Cook and Don Huxtable

Hux had a minor heart attack a few months ago but though he looks a little more frail than I have seen him in recent years it clearly has not affected his mischievous nature. Here he is clowning about before the group photo:

Don Huxtable

Again, a great little function and well worth making the trip up from Melbourne. I’ll be back next year.

© 2013 Adam Purcell

The Unsung Heroes Project

The Temora Aviation Museum has begun a project they call Unsung Heroes.

“How many Heroes go unnoticed?” reads the blurb on their website. “How many stories go untold? How many memories are forever lost?”

To try and stem the tide of lost memories, the Museum is collecting stories of people who were involved, in one way or another, in Australia’s military aviation heritage. As the project gets underway the collection of stories on the website is so far not a large one, but there are some interesting people profiled in the entries currently there. At $85 a pop, though, the privilege is not cheap, and I’m not sure how I feel about compelling such a significant donation in order to submit content to the database. But at least the Museum is making an effort to recognise the creators of the heritage they preserve in the form of their flying warbirds.

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An offshoot of Unsung Heroes is a video database aimed at a similar group of people. According to the latest email from the Museum, the database “includes men and women who, although not given recognition in the history books, have been vital to the pioneering spirit of Australia’s military aviation heritage.” There’s thankfully no mention in the email of any fee for taking part in this part of the database, and it looks like the Museum is looking for veterans to interview. Selected interviews are it appears available to view via iPads installed in a permanent exhibit in the Museum’s galleries (see image above – from the website of the designer, Bob Shea).

And here is the reason for this post. The biggest event in the calendar of the Temora Aviation Museum is Warbirds Downunder, an airshow featuring all of the Temora Aviation Museum’s collection of aircraft and a whole host of other significant flying warbirds. This year it’s scheduled for Saturday 2 November, and the Museum’s videographer will be there, covering the airshow but also interviewing veterans for the database.

With limited resources it appears unlikely that the Temora database will ever even begin to approach the scale and sophistication of the excellent and extremely far-ranging Australians at War Film Archive (which had the backing of the Australian Government), but it’s perhaps an opportunity for veterans to take part in a less-formal interview situation. Temora is a long way away from any of the state capitals and getting there is a bit of a mission (unless you fly out there in a private aircraft, as I’ll relate in a future post), but if anyone is interested in taking part, contact the Museum by email or by phone on 02 6977 1088.

© Adam Purcell 2013

Hat-tip to Kevin Jacobs for the heads-up.


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