In late April 1944, an Australian pilot in England wrote home excitedly about the anticipated invasion of Europe. “You have no idea of the feeling in the air,” he told his family, “it is electric.” The pilot was Flying Officer Russell “Rusty” Leith, then an instructor in a training unit. Posted previously to No. 453 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), he was eager not to miss the invasion. “If you were here,” he concluded, “you would realise why I am dying to get back to the Squadron.” He would rejoin the squadron in July in Normandy, France, only to be forced down behind German lines three weeks later.
Leith was one of several thousand Australian airmen who participated in the Normandy campaign. On D-Day, 6 June, there were more than 1,800 RAAF pilots and aircrew serving in operational squadrons in Britain. Just over half were in Australian squadrons; the rest were serving in Royal Air Force (RAF) squadrons. Another 13,500 RAAF personnel were in training and non-operational units. There are no records for the unknown number of other Australians who enlisted directly into the RAF.
Given the vast resources available to the Allies, Australia’s contribution is easily overlooked. The ten Australian squadrons then serving in Britain – No. 10 Squadron, RAAF, as well as nine nominally Australian “Article XV” squadrons – constituted only a small portion of the RAF’s 306 squadrons in Britain. When considering the sizeable effort of the United States Army Air Force (USAAF), the Australian story is further dwarfed; and No. 453 Squadron was only one of the 171 British and American fighter and fighter-bomber squadrons available for D-Day.
Raised as an Article XV squadron in mid-1941, No. 453 Squadron was nearly destroyed by the Japanese in Malaya and Singapore the following year. The survivors were evacuated before Singapore fell and the squadron was disbanded on returning to Australia, only to be re-formed in Britain in June. The squadron usually had a complement of 16 operational aircraft with two or three in reserve and 25 pilots.
At the time of the Normandy invasion, 27 pilots were posted to the squadron (two were in hospital) and it was equipped with the Supermarine Spitfire Mk IX. These young men, with an average age of 23, came from a variety of backgrounds. There were farm hands, labourers, a grocery assistant, a radio mechanic, and an apprentice boilermaker – as well as the university students and clerks represented in the popular image of pilots. Seven had served in the Militia before joining the air force and another had been a schoolboy cadet.
Their commanding officer, 28-year-old Squadron Leader Donald Smith, was the squadron’s oldest and most experienced pilot. A South Australian farmer, he had flown in the defence of Malta in 1942. He was credited with several victories before being shot down and severely wounded. In April 1944 he was awarded the USSR’s Medal for Valour – an unusual award for an Australian. In the coming months, Smith would claim at least two more German aircraft.
Flying Officer Roger Bush was another of the squadron’s key officers. The English-born 25-year-old supervised the ground crew and was described by one pilot as the “master of scroungers” and the “wizard of engineers”. After the war, Bush was ordained as a Methodist minister and became a media identity. In Normandy, however, his ground crew – half Australian and half British – worked 16-hour days to keep the aircraft serviceable.