Saturday, April 24, 2010

Anzac Day 2010

This Anzac Day I'd like to pay my respects to Mr C's father. He died many years ago now, so he lives for me only in story. But he seems like family and I'd like to get to know him.

Edward 'Tony' Roberts joined the RAAF when World War 2 broke out, and was soon seconded to 61st Squadron of the RAF. He flew 42 war time missions over occupied territory, most of them over Germany, usually in daylight. In other words, dangerous missions.

Tony flew in Lancaster Bombers as a navigator bombadier and was also what they called the CO. In this additional role he was trained to perform all the roles of the six other crew members, ready to take over. During one mission, four hours from home, with all the crew dead and himself shot in the stomach, he flew the plane solo back to base.

The flyboys were the glamour people of the war - a tag that annoyed Tony. Everyone wanted to join the RAF. But flying was miserable. Lancasters were made of the lightest fabrics possible and so had virtually no defensive armour. Conditions were cramped, unbearably noisy and you could fly for hours on end - all night to get to a target, maybe 13 to 17 hours all up. You'd be tired and cold - temperatures frequently fell to about minus 40 degrees F and frostbite was not uncommon. There would be so many planes the sky would turn black. There were so many planes that they had to fly in tiered rows. When the upper level planes loosed their bombs, they frequently fell straight on the planes below. Many, many men lost their lives to this friendly fire.

It was also, needless to say, dangerous. After the first mission you had a 90% chance of coming back. This decreased by about 17% every mission. So by about 6 missions your chance of return was pretty much zero. The bombers had a 44.4% death rate. So almost half the men who went out didn't come back. A Bomber Command crew member had a worse chance of survival than an infantry officer in World War I.

They spent a lot of time waiting for friends to come home - who never came. So in between missions they got pissed and, er, entertained the ladies. They used to get rotten drunk because they'd drink to the memory of those who didn't come home from the previous mission.

Tony was shot down three times, shot in the body twice and once shot down over enemy territory in occupied France. He ditched the plane and was picked up by the French Resistance. He worked with them for six months, helping paratroopers, before he escaped to England by submarine. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross - amongst other campaign ribbons - and was asked to join the 617 Dambusters Squadron - an offer he refused as he felt he could be more effective where he was. He was soon promoted to Wing Commander? or Flight Lieutenant? memories get a bit hazy here.

There are other stories. For his first digs in England he was billeted in a castle. One night, he woke to find a wild moor cat - a nasty feral beastie - attached to his face. He fought it off single handedly and hated cats ever since. He was next billeted with the Bonham-Carters, where he had an affair with Helena Bonham-Carter's grandmother. "Lovely people", he said - as well he would.

With the end of the war he worked transporting POWs from camps around Europe then went to work as Aide de Camp for the Field Vice Marshall of the Pacific Theatre, who he accompanied to the United States. Here he had lunch with Walt Disney, met Abbot and Costello, the Marx Brothers and met and hated Laurell and Hardy.

He left the Airforce when there were no more promotions on offer. But he didn't want to go home, so he stayed in the US - working as a short order cook in a greasy spoon, a ski instructor and the manager of a prize fighter (a black fighter called Sugar Ray Robinson, a daring partnership in the 50s). He returned to Australia to sell real estate by the side of the road - but that leads to other stories.

He wasn't necessarily the best of men, or wisest or fairest but people often aren't. But he was a branve man and he did what he thought was the right thing to do and this isn't always the easiest path. On this Anzac Day I think of him.

I shouldn't have to say this but here goes... What ever your politics, I'd like to ask that you respect this blog. You are welcome to voice your opinions on Anzac Day but I ask that you do so on your own blogs. There's plenty of space on the internet for everyone to play. You're now in my space so remember to take your hat off at the door and to say 'please' and 'thank you'.


Anonymous said...

Love the pics. My grandfather had some great photos from when he was based in Italy... of random stuff like him and a lady who gave him a sandwich! He also had a bottle of ash from Mt Vesuvius that he collected from his truck - which nana presumably still has in the china cabinet back in Vegas!

Anonymous said...

Your account of Kim’s dad is excellent and very moving. And of course there’s so much more than the brief summary you did. What a lovely tribute. M

carole grant said...

Interesting tribute, since that's my own father you are blogging about!