Leadership in history - Address to Air Force Senior Enlisted Leaders Summit

Tuesday, 31 October, 2017

Dr Brendan Nelson AO, Director Australian War Memorial
Adams Hall, ADFA

I am honoured to be invited to speak to you today, the senior enlisted leaders of the Royal Australian Air Force. Indeed I regard you and those whom you lead and represent as being the ‘backbone’ of our nation’s air capability.

It was on closer inspection of the invitation that I realised I have been asked to speak about leadership in history.

I rarely write speeches, but there are two I did which most of you will not have heard. The first was on the occasion of the centenary of the formation of the Australian Flying Corps in November 2016. The second was an address I delivered to 38 veterans of Bomber Command in Anzac Hall under ‘G’ for George on the 75th anniversary of the RAAF formally joining Bomber Command.

As both speeches cover the issues well, I will share with you what I said.

Before doing so however, there are some preliminary remarks I would like to make.

It may seem an odd thing to say, but in my opinion and experience, leadership is not something that can be taught.

But it can be learned.

To understand leadership and the purpose it serves is to know it.

It is absorbed through familiarity with and reflection upon, the leadership qualities of others.

The power is in the story.

Beyond the two global cataclysms, more than 60 names of your forebears are named on the bronze panels of the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial.

Just like us, each had only one life - one life that might be used to serve others and our nation.

They chose us.

These lives were given in Korea, Malaya, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

And then there is the shear courage.

I often think of those crews in the two Iroquois helicopters flying in driving monsoonal rain to resupply D Company at Long Tan. Without them, there would have been defeat and mass Australian casualties.

I remember as your minister for defence a decade ago, about to step into the belly of a C-130. I asked the young man helping me what he did. He replied, “I’m just a load master, sir”.

I said to him, “There is no such thing as ‘just’ a load master”. Without you there is no mission, there is no safety and if the aircraft is hit, I suspect you place the lives of others ahead of your own safety – by instinct and responsibility”. The look of pride on his face, I will never forget.

Similarly, I always made it my business to walk away from the air craft to the perimeter to speak to the airfield defence guards and pat their dogs.

Without them, there is no security of multi-million dollar assets.

I always remember an incident on one of my trips to the Middle East.

I had begun my day pre-dawn in Kabul, flown to Tarin Kot, Baghdad, Talil and finally well after midnight the aircraft touched down in one of the Gulf States where the RAAF was based.

Alighting from the aircraft, I noticed about 800 metres further on the outline of a C-130 with lights under it and people under it moving around.

I asked the CDF if it was one of ours. It was.

I said, well I better go and talk to our people.

So in the still oppressive heat of 40 degrees, I walked off with the CDF and ‘usual suspects’. I was wearing suit pants, shirt and tie.

There was light inside the aircraft and two guys working under the fuselage.

I said, “Hey guys, what are you up to?”

Neither looked up but kept working – “We’re trying to fix the bloody plane mate”.

To which I replied, “Well, I’m bloody proud of you. Thank you.”

At this point one glanced up, saw me and yelped, “Shit!! It’s the bloody Minister!”

Both jumped up and hit their heads as another poked his head out of the rear of the aircraft to see what was going on. Next thing another six tumbled out of the aircraft bathed in sweat and came to some kind of order.

I simply said to them, “I wish every Australian could see this. You are a credit to our nation. You are a credit to your uniform”.

I asked what the problem was they were fixing to which I received a non-descript reply. The senior NCO said, “Our guys desperately need this aircraft serviceable sir and we’ll be out here until it is”.

However, the CDF and I then went into their transportable ‘office’. On the blackboard was a cartoon drawing of a C-130 trying to take off with the title above it, 37 Squadron Busted Arse Tour.

I then learned what the problem was and how it had happened.

As they say, what happens on tour stays on tour!

Please also know that at the Australian War Memorial we are determined to give life to your service and your stories.

Never again will we wait decades to tell your story to the nation. The cost of failing to do so is immeasurable.

One junior Air Force officer said to me, “Sir, thanks for the Afghanistan exhibition”.

I replied, “It is our honour. There will be a lot more when we have more space”.

She then said:

Sorry sir, you don’t get it. One of the guys I work with has been flying C-130s across the Middle East for five years, including a few hairy moments. His wife hates him being away, hates the military and hates the Air Force.

He took her to see the Afghanistan exhibition at the Memorial.

She broke down in tears and said, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I get it”

In Revelation, the German physicist and philosopher Bernhard Philberth wrote:

Progress leads to chaos if not anchored in tradition.
Tradition becomes rigid, if it does not prepare the way for progress.
But a perverted traditionalism; and a misguided progressivism,
lead each other to a deadly excess,
hardly leaving any ground between them.

As we pause here, just over a century from the formation of four squadrons of the Australian Flying Corps, you - a new generation of airmen and women is conducting operations in the Middle East and distant parts of the world.

You are among more than 18,000 RAAF regular and reserve personnel who support and operate 260 aircraft across fifteen different types. From transport to fast jets and airborne early warning command and control aircraft, in the end all that advanced technology is transcended by character, values and traditions whose origins are at Point Cook.

Standing silent sentinels the Unknown Australian Soldier interred in the Hall of Memory at the Australian War Memorial are fifteen stained glass windows. Each is a depiction of a serviceman and nurse of the First World War.

Beneath each is a single word.

Australia’s First World War official historian was Charles Bean. Witness to it all from the Gallipoli Landing to Mont St Quentin, Bean and the Memorial’s first director – John Treloar a veteran of Gallipoli and France, asked themselves a very important question.

What were the qualities they had seen in these men and women they regarded as essential not only for victory in battle, but for character?

Character derives from the Greek word meaning the ‘impression left in wax by a stone seal ring’. The Greeks called it ‘the stamp of personality’.

Transcending all else in life – rank, power, money, influence, looks and intellect, is character, informed by worthwhile intrinsic virtues.

Beneath the image of the airman of the Australian Flying Corps is – Chivalry.

Bean and all who had observed these men, saw in them the chivalric codes of the medieval knights. The qualities seen in them were courage, honour, integrity, courtesy, justice and a readiness to help others in need, irrespective of risk to themselves.

When Lt. Frank Hubert McNamara landed behind enemy lines in March 1917 to rescue a wounded comrade under heavy fire, wounded and effecting the rescue despite his own significant blood loss, he did more than earn the Victoria Cross.

He and those pioneers gave the emergent, modern Royal Australian Airforce the noble traditions upon which it would be built.

Their legacy is that whatever technological progress it would make, the strength and success of this nation’s air force would be built on the character of those who would lead it and wear its uniform.

With the establishment of the Australian Flying Corps in 1912, Australia’s political and military leaders had shown great foresight in recognising the potential importance of air power, less than a decade after the Wright brothers had made their historic first manned flight.

Flying was still in its infancy.

By the time the First World War broke out the newly established Central Flying School at Point Cook – Australia’s first and, at that time, only military aviation base – had just two instructors and five flimsy aircraft.

Australia’s first military aircraft flight occurred on 1 March 1914 when Lieutenant Eric Harrison took off in his Bristol Box kite. Despite these lean beginnings, Harrison and many of the others who qualified for their wings at Point Cook were the pioneers of Australian aviation.

Their service in the AFC throughout the First World War forged the basis for the innovation and traditions that live on today in the Royal Australian Air Force.

Last year marked the centenary of the formation of the four operational Australian Flying Corps squadrons.

No. 1 Squadron left Australia in 1916 for reconnaissance and combat operations in the Middle East. It was followed overseas by squadron Nos 2, 3, and 4, bound for the Western Front.

An Australian training wing, comprising four training squadrons, was also established in England to provide pilots for the operational squadrons.

Before this, however, in 1915 the AFC sent what became known as the Mesopotamian Half Flight at the request of the Indian government.

This was the first Australian aerial unit to enter a war zone.

The professionalism and excellence of the Australian air and ground crews throughout the First World War was outstanding. No. 1 Squadron consistently out-performed all other RFC units in the Middle East.

Such performance began with the ground crew. RAAF historian Alan Stephens noted:

An aircraft which is not properly maintained and a pilot who is not properly prepared are unlikely to win. Australia’s ground crew established a tradition in the Middle East which was to prove no less enduring than that of their pilots and observers. Rigging airframes, tuning engines, loading weapons, and operating base camps constituted arduous and sometimes hazardous duty.

One of those mechanics serving in the ground crew of No. 1 Squadron was my great-grandfather, First Air Mechanic William Robert Beecroft. He had earlier survived the Gallipoli landing and campaign as a member of the 12th battalion.

Early on in the First World War, when in combat with enemy aircraft, opposing pilots and observers would shoot at each other with pistols, then rifles; it was only later that machine-guns began to be added as a modification by pilots and crew.

One member of No. 1 Squadron described a dogfight as:

Every man for himself. We go hell-for-leather at those snub-nosed, black crossed buses of the Hun, and they at us. ... Hectic work. Half-rolling, diving, zooming, stalling, “split-slipping”, by inches you miss collision with friend or foe. Cool precise marksmanship is out of the question.

The innovative and technologically savvy Lieutenant Lawrence Wackett mounted a Lewis gun on his plane prior to a bombing raid on Beersheba, and during the raid fended off two attacking German fighters.

Wackett went on to serve on the Western Front with No. 3 Squadron, where he mastered the method of accurately dropping ammunition to ground forces by parachute. This proved to be a crucial piece of the operational jigsaw in Lieutenant General John Monash’s plans for the battle of Hamel.

With casualties mounting among the pilots, preparation provided to airmen was not always of a desirable level.

Australia’s leading air ace in the war, Captain Harry Cobby, commenced operations on the Western Front with just 13 flying hours. Others were known to have as few as three hours’ flying experience.

Cobby spoke of his fear of being posted to the front:

the nervousness that assailed me during the months of training in England, when I gave thought to the fact that as soon as I was qualified to fly an aeroplane, or perhaps sooner, I would be sent off to the war to do battle with the enemy in the sky and on the ground. I quite freely admit that if anything could have been done by me to delay that hour, I would have left nothing undone to bring it about.

The most spectacular encounter for the AFC on the Western Front occurred on 29 October when 15 Snipe aircraft of No. 4 Squadron encountered 60 German Fokkers. The ensuing battle was one of the largest air battles of the war. Ten Fokkers were shot down in the dogfight for the loss of one Snipe. Several badly damaged Snipes managed to scrape through safely.

Cobby wrote of operations on the Western Front in 1918:

The job consisted of getting to the “line” … as fast and often as one could, and letting the enemy on the ground have it as hot and heavy as possible … All this flying was done under 500 feet and our targets were point-blank ones … The air was full of aircraft and, continuously while shooting-up the troops on the ground, we would be attacked by enemy scouts … The smoke of the battle below mixed with the clouds and mist above rendered flying particularly dangerous … On top of this there were scores of machine-guns devoting their time to making things as unpleasant for us as they could.

In the final year of the Great War, these deadly battles were fought in the sky over France and Belgium; this was the new battle ground. The flimsy flying-machines of a few years earlier had evolved into hardy, mass-produced combat and reconnaissance aircraft. In the mornings hundreds would take off from grassy fields along the Western Front. The Germans, even when finally outnumbered and facing defeat, still introduced new and deadly fighters. Australian pilots and gunners fought them to the last days of the war.

The AFC’s four operational squadrons claimed to have destroyed or driven down 527 enemy aircraft. In total the corps produced 57 flying aces.

But the price was high.

By the armistice, some 880 officers and 2,840 Other Ranks had served overseas in the AFC. At least 600 more Australians had served in the RFC or RNAS (including men such as Charles Kingsford Smith and Bert Hinkler).

Casualty rates for aircrews on the Western Front were shockingly high. The life expectancy of a new pilot on the Western Front was just three weeks.

207 members of the AFC are listed on the Australian War Memorial’s Roll of Honour, either killed in action or dying as a direct result of their war service.

The founding members of the Royal Australian Air Force brought with them the proud traditions established during their time in the Australian Flying Corps. They shaped the organisation and its culture and laid the foundations for its role in the defence of Australia. Their experiences in aviation with the Australian Flying Corps during the First World War were invaluable when, in 1939, the world was once again at war.

Australia had been desperately underprepared for the Second World War.

But some 215,000 men and women would serve in the Royal Australian Airforce which, by 1944 flew 6,200 aircraft in 61 Squadrons.

At the war’s end Australia boasted the fourth largest air force in the world after the US, USSR and UK.

The war claimed the lives of 9,870 Australians in your uniform.

One was Bill Newton.

Bill Newton was posted to No. 22 Squadron in 1942, flying Boston light bombers from Port Moresby.

He flew 52 operational sorties during his career, most were “against difficult targets under intense tropical weather conditions and enemy fire”.

Newton was known as a “well-balanced” man with a “cheerful, natural and infectious personality”.

He also possessed extraordinary courage.

On at least three occasions he dived through intense anti-aircraft fire to bomb his target.

On the 16th of March 1943, his Boston bomber was leading an attack on Salamaua through intense shell-fire. Though hit repeatedly by enemy fire with major tears to its fuselage and wings, a holed petrol tank, badly damaged engines and one burst tyre, Newton continued the attack. He then nursed the plane 200 miles back to base, landing it with a flat tyre.

Two days later he attacked the same location.

Hit by flak, the aircraft burst into flames.

Newton flew along the shore and brought the plane down on the water. Sergeant Basil Eastwood was killed in the crash, but Newton and Sergeant John Lyon escaped, swimming to shore.

Newton and Lyon were captured by the Japanese and taken to Lae, where Lyon was executed by bayonet. Newton was taken back to Salamaua on the 29th of March 1943 and beheaded by the Japanese.

He was 23 years old.

On his last home leave, he had told his mother that he didn’t think she would see him again:

“If you hear – when you hear – there’s a bottle of sherry on the mantelpiece. Have a drink for me….don’t make a fuss.”

William Newton’s body was later recovered and now lies in the Lae Cemetery.

He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.

I had the great honour in June this year to deliver the commemorative luncheon address on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the entry of the RAAF into Bomber Command.

It was also daunting.

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

This is what I said to them on that day under the Lancaster Bomber, G for George in Anzac Hall.

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 in which you 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; the magic vitality of youth, not appreciated until it has gone; 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 insult 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 the 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, 82 of those VCs are displayed 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, now own 64 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.

Desperate for food, he would finally be arrested in a café 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.”

On the night of 23 August 1943, German antiaircraft gunners and night fighters shot down 56 bombers.

One of those was a Halifax from 158 Sqn. It was flown by a 21 year old RAAF Flt Lieutenant, Kevin Hornibrook

It was shot down by German night fighter near Berlin.

The aircraft’s two gunners had been killed, 3 other crewmembers had bailed out.

With the bomber in a death dive, Pilot Officer Alan 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 pushed him out of 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 easily.”

Kevin Hornibrook is buried at the Berlin War Cemetery.

His two gunners, Lawrence Chesson age 21 and Flt/Sgt Graham McLeod RAAF age 20 are buried next to him

Colin Flockhart – a Canberran, 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 in 619 Squadron, 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.

His final words you will see inscribed on the wall of the Memorial’s exit corridor.

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 bomber 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. He was very emotional.

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.

You’ve never been in total war, I hope you never are. But I’ll tell you something about war – you don’t want to come second”.

To the audience before him in the Mystic Park Hall in Kerang, rural Victoria late in 1945, former Flight Lt John Grey Gorton – a fighter pilot, spoke on behalf of those with whom he had served who did not survive the Second World War:

We bought your freedom with our lives. So take this freedom.
Guard it as we have guarded it; use it as we can no longer use it,
and with it as a foundation, build a world in which meanness and poverty, tyranny and hate have no existence.
If you see and hear these men behind me – do not fail them.

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.

They will forever be honoured and remembered by the next generation of the Royal Australian Airforce.

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.

At the Australian War Memorial we honour those who served and you who now serve across a century from the Australian Flying Corps to the Royal Australian Air Force.

They served, fought, suffered and died for us, our freedoms and in the hope of a better world.

At our daily Last Post ceremony in which we remember just one whose life was given for us, we gather in renewed commitment to one another, our nation, the ideals of mankind and the hope of a better world.

In this, the traditions of the Australian Flying Corps are the foundation for progress of the Royal Australian Air force.

Should you ever lose sight of those who made who gave you what you have and made you who you are, you will fail the uniform you wear and our nation whose values stand behind it.


For we are young and we are free.

Lest we forget.

Read more transcripts of official talks and speeches