Bomber Command wreath laying ceremony 2017

4 mins read
The Hon. Dr Brendan Nelson AO

At the other end of Anzac Parade across the lake, resides our Parliament, the political capital of our nation where we exercise the political, economic and religious freedoms that too often my generation in particular has taken for granted. 

But here is our nation’s soul. Here we reveal who we are.

It is not the building nor the relics and artefacts displayed. It is instead the stories of 2 million Australian men and women who wear – and have worn, the uniform of the Royal Australian Navy, Army and Royal Australian Airforce. It was at Pozieres, France that the official historian, Charles Bean was witness to Australia sustaining 23,000 casualties over six weeks, that one Australian dying – one of our 6,800 dead asked him, ‘Will they remember me in Australia?’. 

From there he conceived and resolved that at its end he would build the finest memorial to these men and women of the Australian Imperial Force. In 1948, after the events that bring us here today, he finally articulated the vision for the Australian War Memorial to which we remain true:

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

There is no more important part of that record than those of you who served in Bomber Command.

At the heart of the Australian War Memorial, in the Hall of Memory, are fifteen stained glass windows. Each a depiction of the service men and nurses of the First World War, silent sentinels above the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier.

Under the image of the airman, the antecedents of the Royal Australian Air Force, is one of the fifteen words informing character – Chivalry. Charles Bean and John Treloar had seen in these airmen the values and codes of the medieval chivalric knights. 

Of courage, honour, integrity, courtesy, justice and a readiness to help others irrespective of the cost.

And then in the opposite corner, in the Byzantine inspired mosaics of Ravenna, is one of your own - a young airman, a member of Bomber Command, standing in the ruins of a cathedral.  

Napier-Waller’s reflection of the moral ambivalence that many felt of what you did on our behalf, standing in the ruins of a cathedral, depicting the absurd futility of mankind. We build civilisations only to destroy them.

You did what was asked of you. 

You did it knowing that the chances of death far outweighed the chances of survival.  

And the gap between the reality of what you did and the commemoration and honouring of it has been far too long. 
Cologne. Lubeck. The Ruhr. Berlin. Hamburg. Dresden. 

Just one of those 3,486 dead of out of aircrews was Flight Lieutenant Kevin Hornibrook. 

On the night of the 23rd of August 1943 German anti-aircraft gunners and night fighters shot down 56 bombers. His aircraft was shot down by a German night fighter near Berlin. Two gunners had been killed, three other crew members bailed out. 

With the bomber in a death dive, Pilot Officer Allan Bryett, Hornibrook’s bomb aimer, was the only one left with him.

Hornibrook, despite the immense force of gravity pushing him back, reached the escape hatch in the nose, grabbed Bryett and he pushed him out the hatch. 

Bryett said, 

“Kevin never got out. We had been too low. My life hinged on that moment when Kevin pushed me out. When my son was born in 1951 I called him Kevin, to remind me every day of Kevin Hornibrook to whom I owed the rest of my life. Never a day goes by without me remembering that he was the first at the door and could have saved himself."

Kevin Hornibrook is buried in the Berlin War Cemetery. His two gunners, Sergeant Lawrence Chesson, age 21, and Flight Sergeant Graham McLeod, RAAF, age 20 are buried next to him.

This place, to which you come today, for many of you as you know your spiritual home, reminds us of two things.

Firstly to never succumb to the temptation, human beings that we are, to settle for the broad brushstrokes, headlines, popular imagery and mythology of our history. Our comfortable lives breed easy indifference to individual sacrifices made in our name, devotion to duty and our country.

This place will never allow us to do that.

The second, particularly in the shadows of our generation facing resurgent totalitarianism, this place reminds us we are Australian.

That there are some truths by which we live and they’re worth fighting to defend - politically, diplomatically and at times, militarily.

You are the best of the best generation.

Long after you have gone and joined your friends who came before you, we will guard your record and we will honour you. We will do so not only every year, but every single minute of every single day.

Last updated: