Bomber Command commemorative address 2017

20 mins read
The Hon. Dr Brendan Nelson AO
Anzac Hall

Senator Linda Reynolds CSC representing the Prime Minister
The Honourable Amanda Rishworth MP Shadow Minister for Veterans
Keith Campbell OAM, President of the Bomber Command Commemorative Day Foundation
Dr Ron Houghton DFC, President of the Bomber Command Association of Australia
Air Marshall Leo Davies, Chief of the Royal Australian Air Force
Air Chief Marshall (Retd) Sir Angus Houston
Veterans of Bomber Command
The families who love and support you
Descendants of those who served in Bomber Command
Mr Kerry Stokes AC Chairman of the Council of the Australian War Memorial
Many Distinguished Guests

Ladies and Gentlemen

It is a great honour for me to be invited by you to deliver this address on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the entry of the RAAF into Bomber Command. It is also daunting.

To stand before you who made this history and those who have written books about it - an audience that has forgotten more about the subject than I will ever know is somewhat nerve wracking.

I found in my research that your training magazine offered advice on ‘staying awake’ on raids.

Why aircrews going to Nuremberg and Cologne with formidable German ground and air defences needed such advice, is beyond me.

A five point check list for staying awake advised:

  • Don’t eat too much at the flying meal – a moderate helping of soup, meat and veg, and sweet, and only have one cup of tea
  • Don’t eat your aircrew rations for at least three hours
  • Don’t be negligent about oxygen
  • Wear the recommended clothing – not too much, not too little
  • Caffeine tablets will help to keep you awake and are best taken when nearing the target on an average trip of 5 to 6 hours.

You were also instructed not to take Benzedrine.

Well, for the next 30 minutes you might need a liberal dose of caffeine!

When approaching this key anniversary and knowing how quickly your ranks are now thinning, we decided to offer this lunch to you. We would also offer it at no cost to you.

My staff asked if the ‘free’ lunch in Anzac Hall would be for veterans only.

I replied that no, we would offer it to everyone including partners, carers and families. I told our staff that anyone wanting to come to the event should be asked what his or her connection was so as to establish their bona fides.

They took me literally.

When I opened my ‘event brief’, having seen the list of VIPs, I turned to pages of quotes from those of you before me explain your connection.

Here is just some of what you said. It is not only humbling, it tells a powerful story:

  • My father was a pilot with 106 Squadron, reported missing on 6th October 1944. Lancaster aircraft PD 214.
  • I am a nephew of S/L G.W, Harding DSO, DFC, 105 Squadron RAF, Mosquito Pathfinders. Harding took over the role of Flight Commander in 105 Sqn after Sqn Leader W.W. Blessing DSO DFC RAAF was KIA in July 1944.
  • Uncle Hilton Bell, my father’s brother was RAAF serving with Bomber Command. Killed over France 1944 in a Lancaster Bomber
  • Son of Group Captain William (Bill) Brill 463 and 467 Squadrons
  • My father, F/O Henry Coffey (430317) was a pilot with 467 Squadron.
  • Daughter of veteran Gordon Sutherland Pyle. He received Legion of Honour medal posthumously
  • My Uncle, Max Lack was a Tail Gunner  463 Sqn. Shot down 24th June 1944 whilst targeting V1 sites
  • My Uncle was Pilot Officer (Billy Love)W.J Love DFC & Bar DFC
  • My late father, Dr Vernon Stuart Howarth was a Medical Officer Squadron Leader attached to 464/467 based at Waddington
  • I am the niece of Douglas Woods - Lancaster pilot who died 30 June1944 Service Number 420731.  Uncle Doug died after his plane was shot on the way back to his airbase from bombing Caen.  He was 22 years old and hadn't married - hence - his nieces and nephews are his only living relatives.  I have part of his plane that was found in the field where the plane crashed after having its wing shot off.
  • RAAF relative killed on operations in Feb 1944 - flew with 12 and 626 Squadrons.467 Sqn navigator RW Purcell was my grandfather's uncle - shot down over Lille and killed 10 MAY 1944
  • Flying Officer Douglas Austin Woods is on the Roll of Honour RAF 514 Sqn - my Father’s Brother
  • My Father served in 462, 466 and 467 Squadrons - completed 37 missions
  • My father, Max Johnson, Pilot, posted 467 Squadron 23 June 1944, his tour expired 17.1.45. Took ""S-Sugar" on its first daylight raid

Australians all let us rejoice, for we are young and free.

….for we are young and free - first line of our national anthem.

We sing it often. We sang it this morning. 

We hear our children and grandchildren sing it.

But how often do we pause to reflect on what it really means?

The paradox of life is that often it that which is most important to us that we have a tendency to take for granted; Families who love and support us, giving meaning and context to our lives.

Being an Australian citizen, whether by birth or by choice conferring us with political, economic and religious freedoms. Too often we take these for granted.

With awkward humility, abiding respect and immense pride, we gather here under the wings of just one aircraft flown by you, friends long gone and the very best of a generation that gave its all for us, our freedoms and the ideals of mankind.

The Second World War was no mere extension of the First.

This was not about emerging national identity or Australia’s place in the world. Our vital interests and values were at stake.

Fascism, Nazism and then from December 1941, expansionist, militarist Imperial Japan – it had to be fought.

We were 7 million people in 1939 of whom 1 million men and women mobilised in defence of all we hold dear. We sent 500,000 overseas, emerging six years later victorious but mourning 40,000 dead. 

One in five of our combat deaths were yours in bomber command.

You know why you enlisted and you did so for many reasons – patriotism, novelty, adventure and perhaps the glamour of flying.

But you were in the main, sons of those men who had fought in the First World War.

William Pearce’s father had fought at Pozieres, Moquet farm, Broodseinde and the Passchendaele Ridge. He returned to Australia with a badly damaged leg and permanent limp. He told his son:

You can have a go at joining the air force if you like. If anything happens there it will be quick, sudden and you won’t suffer at length.

More than 27,000 Australians went through the Empire Training Scheme, supplying the 10,000 pilots, engineers, navigators, bomb aimers, wireless operators and gunners that formed the air crews.

Although we know of the RAAF heavy bomber squadrons – 460, 462, 463 and 467 squadrons, some three quarters of you served in British, Canadian or New Zealand squadrons.

You were the brightest and the best.

Selection was stringent and the training rigorous, intense and dangerous. Yet your greatest fear was being ‘scrubbed’ - failing exams. And 18 per cent did fail the initial written tests and a further 26 per cent the initial flying tests.

You adopted advanced, state of the art technology.

You served in tightly knit crews where you had utmost faith in one another, in the knowledge that a moment of inattention could result in tragedy.

You also experienced the extremes of peace and war simultaneously.

As remarkably young men you were responsible for decisions that could kill yourselves or many, many others.

You suffered the greatest battle losses of any Australian units of the Second World War. You went into your tour of 30 missions knowing the chance of survival was less than that of death. At a 3 per cent loss rate on each sortie, you had a 40 per cent chance of surviving the tour of 30.

In 460 Squadron alone, 11 per cent of those who would be lost died on their first operation and almost half by their sixth.

From the second half of 1943 until mid-1944, the statistical chance of survival was nil.

At its end, 4,050 Australians in Bomber Command air and ground crews would be dead, 650 more again were killed in training.

There were also 1,821 awards and decorations – 98 with bar.

These included 2 Victoria Crosses, 3 Distinguished Service Orders and 6 Conspicuous Gallantry Medals.

And yet you also received ‘white feathers’ and suffered the insults from some back in Australia of being ‘Jap dodgers’.

The power is in the story.

In 1942, Laura Bennet was a 20 year old typist from Winterton, near Scunthorpe. She made regular visits to her cousin Madge Waterworth at North Duffield near Breighton once the Australians had arrived.

She said after the war:

We lived in villages where nothing very exciting happened normally, so to have all these glamorous young men in fetching dark blue uniforms from the other side of the world right on our doorstep was pretty wonderful to us. Madge helped my Aunt Harriet at a canteen and knew so many of the aircrews…….. Friday was baking day and as fast as things came out of the oven they were snapped up. My aunt didn’t mind because she realised how far they were from home and from day to day they never knew who would still be there. In the evening we would hear the sound of the bombers as they set out on a raid.

Laura Bennet fell in love with one of the Australian aircrew, F/Sgt Ron Gooding, a wireless operator on 460 Sqn. They had met at a local dance. Ron had been an electrician in Bendigo before the war. They became engaged.

Laura prayed in winter for fog so that ops would be cancelled and of the Australians said;

“I saw the boys at dances and in the pubs. We had great times. They were a super bunch and thoroughly enjoyed themselves”.

But she would find herself worrying in the coming weeks as she heard the bombers set out in darkness.

Flight Sergeant Ronald Gooding flew in G for George in 460 Sqn squadron several times. He was killed on the night of 4th April, 1943, on a mission over Kiel, Germany. 

He was 21 years old. He is buried in the Garrison cemetery at Kiel alongside his crewmates.

Noble Franklin was a navigator in 50 Squadron who would be appointed British Official Historian of Bomber Command.

Just one story of the Australians he recorded:

The pilot of an all-Australian crew on one of their early missions decided that the state of the aircraft was so bad and the conditions prevailing so adverse that he would abandon the sortie.

He asked the navigator to give him a course for home.

The navigator, supported by the rest of the crew, refused to do so.

To resolve this deadlock, one of the crew knocked the pilot out and he was removed to the casualty bed and strapped down.

Flying the aircraft as best they could, the crew proceeded to the target, bombed it and returned to base. They then released the pilot and ordered him to land the aircraft, which none of them could have done.

They told the pilot that if he promised never to turn back again, unless they all agreed to that course, they would say nothing about the incident…..they flew a very successful tour of operations; the pilot was awarded the DFC. The rest of the crew received no recognition.

Kevin Dennis was a bank clerk in Adelaide when he enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force. He trained as a wireless operator, serving in 462 Squadron.

In a Halifax bomber on a raid to Frankfurt on 13 March 1945, the aircraft was leaving the target when it was hit by heavy flak. The flight engineer was killed and the plane sustained heavy damage.

Kevin Dennis was seriously wounded – one foot was almost completely severed and his other leg shattered. Although bleeding profusely, he refused to leave his post. He continued to send and receive messages until the aircraft’s forced landing in France.

During his long hospital convalescence in England, a Conspicuous Gallantry Medal (CMG) arrived in the mail from the King.

The citation read in part, ‘for courage of the highest order when he must have been experiencing extreme agony’.

Kevin Dennis is one of only ten Australians awarded the CMG for actions during the Second World War, six of which were awarded to members of Bomber Command.

Kevin Dennis never went to Anzac Day services or any other commemorative services. He never wore his medals.

Then finally, his family persuaded him to come from Adelaide to the Australian War Memorial for the Bomber Command commemorative service in 2014.
Kevin Dennis’ son, John said,

I was over 40 before he told me anything. I said to him if you don’t tell me, it’s going to die with you….I have two sons and I need to pass it on to them.

Kevin Dennis simply said,

I could only think of all the people I knew during the war and who aren’t here.

One hundred Australians have been awarded the Victoria Cross. From Neville House at Vedrafort in 1900 to Cameron Baird in Afghanistan in 2013, remarkable qualities and bravery beyond the comprehension of most of us gathered here.

Currently, 78 of those VCs are displayed here in the Memorial’s Hall of Valour. Thanks in no small way to the passion, commitment and generosity of Mr Kerry Stokes, you – the Australian people, own 63 of those VCs and medal sets.

The bravery of these men was extraordinary. In most cases though, split second decisions were made to risk life for others and to change desperate circumstances.

But there is another kind of bravery. Decisions made over a longer period of time with the conscious, deliberate decision to certainly die.

In the same way it is dangerous to choose a favourite child, it is risky to have a favoured VC action.

However, I confess to that of Rawdon Hume Middleton being my greatest inspiration. He was one of yours.

As many of you know too well, Pilot Officer Rawdon Hume Middleton was Captain of a Stirling Bomber, ‘H’ for Harry of 149 Squadron.

On 28 November 1942 he was on a raid to the Fiat Aircraft factory works at Turin. It was his 29th combat sortie.

The flight had been difficult. A full bomb and fuel load through bad weather over the Alps. The Stirling of course did not have the capabilities of the Lancaster before us.

Middleton took the aircraft on three low level passes over the target for positive identification.

Suddenly they were hit with heavy anti-aircraft fire.

Both pilots and the wireless operator were wounded.

Middleton sustained grievous wounds including shrapnel wounds to his legs, arms and body. His jaw was shattered and his right eye was blown from its orbit. He passed out.

The 2nd pilot Flight Sergeant Hyder was given first aid by the crew. He managed to get control of the plummeting aircraft at 800 feet and drop the bombs.

Middleton regained consciousness. Although losing blood, he helped recover the plane. Determined to fly the aircraft home, he said repeatedly to his crew, “I’ll make the English coast. I’ll get you home”.

They took further flak over France. More damage.

After four agonising hours they reached the coast of England. Middleton turned the aircraft parallel with the coast and ordered the crew to bail out. Five did so and landed safely.

But two stayed – the front gunner and the flight engineer. They tried to persuade him to a forced landing on the coast. 

Determined not to risk civilian casualties, Middleton turned the aircraft back out over the English Channel off Dymchurch and ordered the two crew to bail out.

Both did but did not survive the night in the water. 

Middleton stayed with the aircraft, his body being washed up two months later. He was 26 years old. He is buried at Beck Row, Suffolk.

Awarded the Victoria Cross, the citation read:

‘His devotion to duty is unsurpassed in the annals of the RAF’

Indeed it is.

Then there is Denis Kelly.

Kelly joined the RAAF at 19 years of age. He was already married with an infant son.

From his initial training at Victor Harbour and Ballarat he would crew-up in Bomber Command at RAF Lichfield with Australian Pilot, Tom Davis.

They began their flying ops in April 1944.

Kelly was on a raid to Revigny, France on 18 July. 

He told the International Bomber Command Centre oral historian in 2015,

Every op you completed brought you closer to the one that would get you. We were just turning for home when BANG – we were hit.

The radios exploded and the aircraft was burning. Pilot Tom Davis yelled, “Bale out!”

Kelly made his way to the back of the aircraft, pulling on the leg of the mid-upper gunner to signal he was about to go.

He then pulled the doors to the rear turret to help the 19 year old rear gunner escape:

“His head was…..well, he…he..was dead.”

Kelly’s parachute opened late. He sustained compression injuries to his spine and legs in landing.

“I thought, my wife’s not going to know I’m here. She’ll think I’m dead. She’ll get the telegram and I can’t do anything about it.”

Two crew members landed nearby. Kelly, knowing he was a liability, told them to go on.

He crawled in agony, travelling about 50 yards every three hours. In a canal, he came to a bridge manned by Germans, carefully retreated in the water, finally getting himself out. Having passed out, he was found by a French resistance fighter and would pass from safe house to safe house.

Coincidentally on his 21st birthday he was reunited with his two crew members and a Frenchman produced a bottle of Moet Champagne for the occasion.

He would finally be arrested in a café desperate for food with and American.

Suspected of being spies, they were to taken by train to Berlin for interrogation by the Gestapo. However, they overwhelmed their two guards, the American shooting and killing both.

Kelly was ‘on the run’ for weeks. Using a remnant of parachute to tie himself to a tree high in a forest, he hid in it for days avoiding a column of German tanks camped below. Not one of them had looked up.

Finally, after weeks whilst scrounging for food on the edge of the forest, a British accented voice levelled a submachine gun at him and snarled, “You German bastard, stop where you are.”

Kelly replied, “I’m not German. I’m Aussie!”

British commandos were operating well behind enemy lines.

Kelly’s ordeal had lasted three months. He would finally find his way back to England and then Australia to home.

He never spoke of his experiences. He never told his wife. He suffered nightmares almost every night until finally, under pressure from family, he wrote a manuscript in the mid-2000s. He finally told his story to the International Bomber Command Centre in 2015.

Denis Kelly did a pilgrimage with his son to the London Bomber Command Memorial in 2014 and then on to the French villages who helped him in his escape. They were feted at receptions, ceremonies in town halls and even met a woman who, as a girl had been there at his impromptu 21st birthday.

The emotion was intense.

Most important of all, they visited two lone war graves in two separate churchyards: those of rear gunner Sgt Col Allen and pilot, P/O Tom Davis, the two members of Kelly’s crew who did not survive the crash.

Before the assembled villagers and standing next to the grave of his brave pilot, Denis Kelly broke down:

“I bless all of you for coming here today in memory of my comrade, but also very important on my plate today is to say thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Colin Flockhart was very young when he enlisted in the RAAF, needing his parents’ permission to do so. He was a pilot Flying Officer, flying Lancasters in 619 Squadron.

In Late 1944, he wrote a letter and put it in an envelope. In pencil he wrote:

To be posted in the event of my death.

Flying ‘M’ for Mike, Colin Flockhart was killed in a raid on 7 January 1945.

His letter read:

To My Loved Ones at Home,

….if, by some chance, I should not finish my tour, you will know just how I feel about things and it may help to ease the suffering and sorrow you will endure at my loss…

….this war was inevitable and I could never have been content unless I did my share, so never regret having given me your consent to enlist. I have been very proud to wear my uniform and have always striven to bring credit to the service as a whole.

I believe in the cause for which we are fighting and I am equally sure that our actions are justified in the eyes of God……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.

Colin Flockhart was 20 years old.

And then through all this, you had to endure ‘LMF’ – the hurtful indignity of those manifesting signs of pressure being labelled as suffering ‘Lack of Moral Fibre’.

Then there was ‘The Committee for Readjustment”. Friends who did not return would very quickly have all their personal effects removed and all signs of them removed lest it ‘contaminate’ morale among those remaining.

I had the privilege of taking Murray Maxton up into the Lancaster on Friday morning. I arrived to find him – age 96, sitting on a bulkhead in the fuselage wearing his jacket and medals. Murray had flown 30 missions as a pilot in Bomber Command (including a transport flight in G for George), then he’d come back and flown ops in New Guinea.

He and our staff had decided he was not up to getting over the big Spar in the centre of the aircraft.

I looked at him and I looked at the obstacle.

I said, “Murray, would I be right in thinking that if you fell, broke your neck and died in here, you’d be a happy man?”

His look said it all. We got him over and up into the cockpit.

At the spellbinding press conference afterwards beside the Lancaster, he was asked about the civilian deaths.

He said,

“Well, I’d been there in the blitz (on London). We had heard about what they (the Nazis) were doing to the Jews. We had to hit them and raise morale. Hitler had declared total war.

I’ll tell you something about war – you don’t want to come second”.

The great paradox of life is that the most fragile yet powerful of human emotions is – hope.

We all have to believe in a better future.

We have to believe that tomorrow will be better than today, that next week and next year will be better, not so much for ourselves but for those whom we love, our community and our country.

Hope is most sustained by men and women reaching out in support of one another. Those – you, even when gripped by fear and knowing the risks, who support one another.

The further paradox, which I explain especially to young people, is that this place is called the Australian War Memorial.

But it’s not about war.

Although it’s in a context of war, it is instead about love and friendship.

Love for friends and between friends.

Love of family and love of our country.

It is about honouring and remembering men and women whose lives are devoted not to themselves, but to us - and their last moments to one another.

You are almost gone.

You were the best of the best generation this nation has ever produced.

Born in the aftermath of the war that was; you grew up through the hardships of the great depression and then came to your young adult lives under the shadows of the war that was coming.

You mobilised to defend our values and vital interests.

Then following the war you set about the economic and social reconstruction of the nation, building foundations for the prosperity enjoyed by subsequent generations.

You placed principle above position, and values before value.

Your responsibilities to one another, our nation and its future transcended and defined your rights.

At the end of the Striking by Night display recreating one of the raids done by ’George’ here and so familiar to you, a young women speaks.

‘George’ has returned again from a raid in which more than fifty bombers were lost.

As still images of crew alighting from the aircraft are displayed and a group shot of young airmen looks out at us, she says:

My memories are of young men, Aussie men – laughing, dancing and living for the moment….then gone, never to be heard of again. Shot down, killed in action. They were young, handsome – and so full of life.

She is wrong about one important thing.

They are ‘heard of’. They, their names and stories are heard, remembered and honoured here every minute of every day.

They always will be.

We will be at our best in facing new and threatening horizons if like you – we triumph over fear.

That is your legacy – your ‘record’.

And here we guard it – we always will.


For we are young and we are free.

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