Exhibition Opening: Over the front: the Great War in the air Peter Isaacson


Minister Alan Griffin, General Steve Gower, ladies and gentlemen:

It was a brilliant thought to add to the wonderful World War Two Lancaster G for George exhibition in the Australian War Memorial, this new display of British and German aircraft flown in World War One by airmen of the Royal Flying Corps of Great Britain, the Australian Flying Corps and the German Air Force.

The exhibition adds to the AWM’s acknowledgement of the role played by airmen in the conflicts in which Australia has been involved since 1914.
While the five aircraft are the items of display and attention, they are inanimate objects designed to be flown through the air by humans, at the time of World War One, only by men. And so I think it is appropriate that, as we stand here looking at and admiring these aircraft, the forerunners of the fantastic aircraft of today, we think of the valiant aviators who flew them and to those in the Royal Australian Air Force who followed them.

I knew one Australian Flying Corps airman. He was Tommy White, Captain Thomas Walter White DFC in World War One, later Group Captain Sir Thomas White DFC, aviator, author, poet, politician, cabinet minister and Australian High Commissioner in London.

Tommy White was typical of the men, German, British and Australian who jousted in the air above the battlefields of Europe and the Middle East from 1914 to 1918.

White enlisted in the Australian  army as a trumpeter in Major John Monash’s Garrison Artillery Battery in North Melbourne, progressed through the ranks until as a captain on August 17, 1914, he was selected as one of  four officers to be trained  as airmen, as ‘flying men’ as they were picturesquely called in those days, at Point Cook, Victoria. In 1915 White commanded the first half-flight of the Australian Flying Corps, operated constantly against the Turks until being captured by Arabs and incarcerated as a prisoner-of-war. With an English airman he escaped, stowed away on a Ukrainian hospital ship eventually reaching Britain. Post-war, Tommy White married Vera Deakin, daughter of Prime Minister Alfred Deakin (which, no doubt, helped his later political career!), wrote ‘Guests of the Unspeakable”, the story of his escape and period of imprisonment.  

In 1940, White took leave from Parliament to serve in the RAAF during World War Two. As Commanding Officer of the Initial Training School at Somers and later the Personnel Depot in Bournemouth England White mentored and nurtured the thousands of Australian aircrew sent to Britain under the Empire Air Training Scheme, to augment the Royal Air Force squadrons operating against the German and Italian enemy.

While he was in this posting White wrote the epic narrative poem ‘Sky Saga” which reflected the lives of aircrew in the early 1940’s. One evocative stanza is

Forever young, they flew in far outnumbered fight to the heights of sacrifice
Until the day the many gained the mastery; and thus avenged the few.
They gave their all. We who are left have not
Forget them never; or be yourselves forgot

Those graphic words apply equally to aircrew in both world wars.

The Australian War Memorial is a constant reminder of all the men and women who have served Australia in the armed services.

I have told you of one of them – Tommy White. Now I am going to tell you of six others, six men who served in the Royal Australian Air Force, six men who were typical of all those who flew in conflict whether in the aircraft we are viewing and admiring tonight or in the multitude of bombers, fighters, flying boats.

Bob Nielsen was a clerk in the NSW Water Board before he joined the RAAF. I chose him as my navigator while we were at 27 OTU Litchfield. He was rated exceptional on both 460 Squadron and on 156 Squadron of Pathfinder Force and graduated from a Spec N course the highest test of a navigator in the Royal Air Force. He was always cool, calm and collected even when the clouds prevented him from getting an astro fix or when a change in the wind made his pre-prepared flight-plan useless. When we were in trouble dodging flak or a night fighter, Bob kept his head down. He was awarded a Distinguished Flying  Medal and commissioned.

Bill Copley, my wireless operator was a cabinet-maker from Perth, rough- hewn, loud-voiced, hard swearing, hard-drinking but skilled in using the communications equipment we had in Wellingtons and Lancasters. Bill was awarded a DFM and commissioned.

Bob, Bill and I stayed together for 15 months of operational flying and the flight out to Australia.

Ed Wertzler, was our first bomb-aimer. I chose Ed because of a mass of co-incidences. Ed came from Regina, Canada. Regina, as all you erudite people know is Latin for Queen. Our aircraft was designated Q for Queenie, Bob Nielsen’s mother was named Queenie, my father’s office was in Queen Street Melbourne and my parents lived in Queens Road. With Ed coming from Regina, how could we not ask him to join us? His flying career ended when he was wounded in the leg and temporarily blinded while shooting down a JU88 which was paying us too much attention while we were on our way back from Karlsruhe in Germany. Ed recovered from his wounds, was awarded a Distinguished Flying Medal but confined to non-operational Flying.

Ed’s place as our bomb-aimer was taken by Alan Ritchie whose sister Judy is with us tonight. Alan was a slow speaking Sydney lawyer, who was meticulous about dropping our markers and bombs in the right place and caused us minutes of concern as he directed me on to the aiming point. Alan was awarded a Distinguished Flying Medal for guiding us out of a maze of searchlights and the perils of anti-aircraft fire as we dodged our way at low level across Germany and Occupied France after have been hit and damaged over Berlin.

We had a series of rear-gunners. Johnny Swain was the first. He stayed with us until we went to Pathfinder Force. Johnny who had done a great job protecting our rear was engaged to be married. Understandably he decided to stay with 460 Squadron and continue flying with the Main Force Instead of coming with us to Pathfinder Force. Regrettably he made the wrong decision and died on his first operation with his new crew. His place was taken by others, the last of whom was Archie Page

Don Delaney, the flight engineer was the oldest member of the crew. He came from Sydney where he was a motor mechanic with the NRMA. He joined the RAAF as a fitter but with an Irishmen’s fire in his belly, hankered for something more adventurous. At the age of 44 he volunteered to transfer to aircrew. For us that was a lucky decision as he made sure the ground staff  did their job, that the engines, fuselage and instruments in successive Q for Queenies were always in first class condition. Don was Mentioned in Despatches.

When Joe Grose was posted to us as mid-upper gunner he had only 26 hours flying time, had never flown at night and had not been through an Operational Training Unit. However he soon proved his worth. On the first operation he flew with us we were attacked by a German fighter as we crossed the Zuider Zee. Joe, who was violently airsick at the time, overcame his illness sufficiently to open fire and hit the JU 88 which broke off the engagement and dived toward the ground with smoke pouring from the fuselage. Joe was never airsick again.

My crew were an example of the great diversity of Australians and I guess of the Germans too; no different from those who flew the aircraft in this Anzac Hall and in any of the Allied Air Forces. We came from a wide range of callings, social environments and religions. Delaney, the Roman Catholic mechanic, Ritchie, the Anglican lawyer, Grose the Methodist student, Copley the agnostic artisan, Page, the Anglican farmer and Isaacson, the Jewish publisher. Like the flyers in the days of Tommy White and the men who flew the Albatros, the DX11,the SE5A, the Avro504K and the AircoDH displayed in this Anzac Hall, we gave no thought to where the others came from, how they prayed, what school they went to. We lived then, as all people SHOULD live now, in harmony and respect for each other. This exhibition, in fact the whole of the Australian War Memorial, is a symbol of that cause

All those associated with Over the front - The great war in the air – those who conceived it, those who restored the aircraft, the designers and the producers of the multi-media program, the Director and staff of the Australian War Memorial are to be congratulated on the concept and the implementation of this exhibition which I have great pleasure in opening for all Australians to view.

Minister, Director, Ladies and Gentlemen – the Exhibition is now open.