A Journey with George

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Churchill Fellowship Dinner
Mr David Crotty, Curator Qantas Heritage Airways Limited
Anzac Hall, Australian War Memorial

 

Dr Brendan Nelson, Churchill Fellows, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It’s both an honour and a pleasure to be asked to speak here at the Australian War Memorial and to be reunited with Lancaster ‘G for George’ which played such a large role in my life and my Churchill Fellowship story.

I’ve titled my speech ‘A Journey with George’ because I not only travelled to the UK in 1998 for my Fellowship but was fortunate enough to meet many veterans of Bomber Command who shared their stories with me and inspired my journey in the first place. This journey was just as important to me as the destination of dismantling and removing George from the old Aeroplane Hall in 1999.

During the 1990s, it was my privilege to work as a fledgling curator with the Military Technology Section of the Memorial. This was a particularly exciting time as it coincided with the Australia Remembers commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. New galleries were being installed in the old Memorial building. Apart from my usual curatorial duties I had a hands-on role in project managing aircraft conservation projects intended for the new Galleries, particularly the Mosquito and Wirraway now displayed in the Pacific Air War Gallery, which was the old Aeroplane Hall where George had rested since being installed in 1955.

The Mosquito was a great training project; about half the size of George but mostly made of wood and covered in fabric. Being young and stupid, I said yes when offered the chance to finish off the restoration and reassemble this amazing machine, something that hadn’t been done in Australia in 50 years.

I learned the ropes quickly enough and together with Senior Curator John White, even travelled to the South Island of New Zealand to track down a hermit with a Mosquito in his shed. We talked our way in and were able to get the information we needed to finish off the fabric covering and joining tapes, even the details of the seat cushions, none of which was covered in the technical manuals.

Here, I must also pay tribute to my old boss and mentor, John White. The incredible aircraft display you see around you is largely his work as senior curator for some 26 years prior to retiring a few years ago. John’s enthusiasm was inspiring and I learned a lot about aircraft and the need for attention to detail. Not just the aircraft components, materials and paint finish but the need for proper jacks, stands and handling equipment required to do a job safely.

Apart from this nuts and bolts work, it was evident that the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War and the aging of its veterans was prompting many of these men and women to reflect and engage with their own history. By now in their 70s or early 80s, they had lived full lives with families and careers but the anniversary seemed to provide an opportunity for them to open up about their wartime experiences.

This was certainly true of the Bomber Command veterans who visited the Memorial in greater numbers to look inside G for George. For most, this was a pilgrimage back to their wartime youth lived at the extremes of human endurance and the most intense experience of their lives. They came alone or with wives and family members. It was my privilege to show them into the cramped, dark fuselage interior of George. For most, this was the first time inside a Lancaster since 1945. It was usually the first time for their wives and children. Some wanted to talk about their experience, some just wanted to look and reflect, one just sat in the pilot’s seat and wept.

I was only slightly older than they had been during the war and often asked myself the question. Would I have had the courage to fly night after night into the most heavily defended airspace on earth with, at certain periods, a near certainty of death, over the course of a tour of 30 operations?

There were many stories, such as the one related by a gunner who, on a training flight, gave the pilot an instruction to ‘corkscrew’ over the intercom. This was a gut-wrenching spiral dive, losing thousands of feet in a few seconds, designed to shake off a German night-fighter. Instead of obeying, the pilot asked ‘why?’ After landing, the gunner requested assignment to a new crew and survived. His original crew didn’t.

More than one veteran spoke about seeing ‘scarecrows’, a German secret weapon causing massive yellow explosions, designed to look like a bomber blowing up in the night sky. The problem is that the Germans had no such weapon, they were seeing exploding bombers. Scarecrows were an invention designed to preserve aircrew morale. It’s hard to say if these veterans still believed it but I chose to say nothing.

There were some lighter moments, such as a visit by the late TV host Ian ‘Turps’ Turpie who was with a relative who flew with Bomber Command. We had along and pleasant chat sitting in the wireless operator’s position.

Another visitor was a crew member on one of the last two Lancasters shot own during the war and the last RAAF 460 Squadron aircraft lost. Flown by Flying Officer Henry Payne, it was part of the final large-scale daylight raid by Bomber Command on Anzac Day 1945. The target was Hitler’s house at Berchtesgaden and surrounding SS barracks and command facilities. Payne’s Lancaster was hit by anti-aircraft fire and after the rest of the crew bailed out, he discovered his rear gunner had accidentally opened his chute inside the aircraft and could not escape. Payne stayed at the controls and made a crash landing near Salzburg where they were both taken prisoner for four days before being liberated by US troops. One of the crew who bailed out told me during his visit that despite what happened, he was proud of the fact that the raid had put a new deep end in Hermann Goering’s swimming pool. He was more put out by the news he received from his captors that the flak gun credited with shooting him down was crewed by women.

By 1998, George was much more than just an aircraft in my mind and I was honoured to be asked to co-ordinate the project to dismantle and move George from the old Aeroplane Hall in preparation for the new Pacific Air War Gallery. By then, it was evident that George required an extensive conservation and maintenance program to ensure he would be ready for exhibition in the new Anzac Hall then being planned.

Before that could happen, we needed the support of Bomber Command veterans, particularly 460 Squadron Association. G for George flew 90 operations with 460 Squadron between late 1942 and early 1944. This period includes the largest and most dangerous campaigns against the Ruhr Valley and Berlin. Between June 1940 and June 1944, Bomber Command was the only means available to Britain, under Winston Churchill’s leadership, to strike directly at Germany and disrupt the Nazi war effort. After our withdrawal of troops from North Africa in late 1942, the several thousand RAAF servicemen of Bomber Command became the largest group of Australians fighting against Germany and Italy. From late 1942, the Lancaster bomber was their primary weapon.

460 Squadron was an Australian unit of the Royal Air Force. It flew the largest number of operations of any Bomber Command squadron at a terrible cost. Almost 1000 of its aircrew were killed out of 3500 Australians who died while serving with Bomber Command. In all, some 55,000 aircrew were lost.

In light of this, we embarked on a consultation process with veterans to reassure them that George would not be placed in storage. John White and I travelled to Sydney and received final support from 460 Squadron veterans at a meeting held at the Milson’s Point Bowling Club, in the shadow of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

The years had not been kind to George. Although displayed within the Memorial since 1955, in the preceding ten years he had sat outside at Canberra Airport where corrosion and vandalism had taken a toll. Many wartime signatures on the fuselage interior were in danger of being lost as paint flaked off the aluminium skin.

Rather than re-invent the wheel when planning the complex removal of George from the cramped Hall, we could take advantage of the fact that, remarkably, the Royal Air Force still fly a Lancaster as part of their Battle of Britain Memorial Flight based at Conningsby in Lincolnshire. In the mid-1990s, this aircraft had been totally dismantled to replace the main wing spar, the only Lancaster ever to have flown long enough to need this done. Much of the work required to properly and safely disassemble a Lancaster had already been done for this project which inspired my Australian War Memorial funded Churchill Fellowship application.

This was also an opportunity to assess the internal equipment missing from George’s interior. Some of this was removed by small boys at Canberra Airport and from time to time we received items in the mail with an apologetic note. We were lucky to get a tip-off about a pair of fuel tanks at a plant nursery near the airport. These turned out to be the original long-range tanks fitted for the ferry flight to Australia in 1944. They were half-buried and in fairly good condition but we had to evict a couple of blue tongue lizards.

I promised not to get into the nuts and bolts of the project and I won’t. My time at Conningsby with the RAF and at Manchester with British Aerospace who hold the technical records at Chadderton where Lancaster were built, were hugely valuable. Everyone I met was interested in the project and wanted to help. The fact that each major sub-assembly was designed to be transported on a standard British railway flat carriage was also useful as these parts had to be transported this way during production or major repairs at dispersed sites across the UK during the war. The information received on the various frames required to transport these sections saved the Memorial time and money as well as safeguarding the aircraft.

During my time in the UK, I passed through Coventry and visited the ruined shell of St Michael’s Cathedral, destroyed in November 1940 by a Luftwaffe raid. There can be few starker monuments to the destruction of war than this. It is a place where the past feels very close. Soon after, I spent a weekend in Berlin, a city George bombed 15 times. In the centre of the city, the ruined Kaiser Wilhelm Church has also been preserved as a memorial and a warning from history. In one corner was a simple cross made from nails taken from the ruins of Coventry Cathedral.

I left the Memorial shortly after the project to dismantle and move George was completed. The aircraft you see here and the outstanding sound and light presentation have more than fulfilled the promise we made to the veterans to tell their story and preserve George in a place of honour.

George is a memorial within a memorial and a remarkable survivor, much like the veterans who visited him. Unlike them, not being made of flesh and blood, George can endure the ravages of time with the right care and attention to tell their stories to future generations.

On an occasion such as this, it is appropriate that the last word should go to Winston Churchill at the dedication of a memorial to the Royal Naval Division in London on Anzac Day 1925. His words can also serve as an epitaph to the the men of Bomber Command who fought the longest fight against the greatest evil of modern times at such grievous cost:

Churchill said:

“We are often tempted to ask ourselves what was gained by the enormous sacrifices made by those to whom this memorial is dedicated. But that was never the issue with those who marched away. No question of advantage presented itself to their minds. They only saw the light shining on the clear path to duty. They only saw their duty to resist oppression, to protect the weak, to vindicate the profound unwritten Law of Nations. They never asked the question, What shall we gain? They asked only the question, Where lies the right? It was thus that they marched away for ever.”

Thank you.