Think Piece: For we are young and free

Source: An excerpt from the speech delivered by the Director of the Australian War Memorial, Dr Brendon Nelson AO, at the 75th Bomber Command Commemoration, held in Canberra on Sunday 4th June 2017.

….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 is that which is most important to us that we have a tendency to take for granted; 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.

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. 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. 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.

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. Laura Bennet fell in love with one of the Australian aircrew, F/Sgt Ron Gooding, a wireless operator in 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 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 this 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”.

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. 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.

PER ARDUA AD ASTRA

For we are young and free

Bomber Command – Lincolnshire, England. 1944-12-08. Group portrait of members of air and ground crews at Lancaster No. 460 Squadron RAAF at RAF Station Binbrook, AWM- UK2415


Dr Brendan John Nelson AO (born 19 August 1958) is a former Australian politician and federal Opposition leader. He served as a member of the Australian House of Representatives from the 1996 federal election until 19 October 2009 as the Liberal member for Bradfield, a northern Sydney seat. A medical doctor by profession, he is a past President of the Australian Medical Association (1993–95), and served as a Minister in the Howard Government, serving as Minister for Education, Science and Training (2001–06) and Minister for Defence (2006–2007). Dr Nelson was elected leader of the federal Liberal parliamentary party in December 2007. In October 2009 Dr Nelson retired from politics and was appointed as Australian Ambassador to the European Union, Belgium and Luxembourg as well as Australia’s Special Representative to the NATO. On 10 October 2012, Dr Nelson was appointed as Director of the Australian War Memorial effective 17 December 2012.