Friday, May 18, 2012

Bomber Command and Edgar

"The fighters are our salvation, but the bombers alone provide the means of victory."
- Winston Churchill 1940.

On the 28th June this year Queen Elizabeth II will be unveiling London’s biggest military monument built in over two hundred years. It is a memorial to the young men of World War Two’s Bomber Command.

A total of 55,573 airmen died flying for the British Royal Air Force (RAF) Bomber Command during World War Two. Of the total Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) bomber crew who served with Bomber Command, 35 per cent or 3,486 were killed.

Well-known local identity Edgar Pickles was one of more than 10,000 Australian Airmen who served with Bomber Command between 1939 and 1945. Edgar piloted a massive Avro Lancaster heavy bomber powered by four Rolls Royce Merlin engines, night after night over Europe.

On 23rd May 1943 (69 years ago next Wednesday), Edgar flew his first op as captain over Europe to Dortmund, Germany to bomb a heavily defended industrial complex. It was very nearly his first and last flight over Germany when his Lancaster was “coned” (caught up in enemy searchlights). His skill as a pilot, well executed evasive flying tactics and luck saw Edgar and his crew escape the searchlights that night. He went on to complete two tours, a total of fifty sorties over Europe.

Edgar was twenty-two years old when he flew his first Lancaster and by the time the war ended two years later he had risen from a sergeant pilot to squadron leader with a DFC and Bar (Distinguished Flying Cross). The DFC is awarded for "an act or acts of valour, courage or devotion to duty whilst flying in active operations against the enemy" and the bar is added to the ribbon for holders of the DFC who received a second award.

Attending the dedication of the Bomber Command Memorial in Green Park, London next month means a great deal to the relatively few surviving aircrew. A significance that would ironically appear to be lost on the Australian Government Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA) who claims their mission is “to support those who serve or have served in defence of our nation and commemorate their service and sacrifice.”

The DVA originally declared they would fund a maximum of eight veterans to attend the London event with others wishing to attend offered subsidies of $3000 towards costs. The medical criteria veterans were required to meet is explained below in an excerpt from a letter by Dr Graeme Killer AO Principal Medical Adviser for the Australian Government Department of Veterans’ Affairs:

“The Department understands that veterans of this age group are likely to have pre-existing health conditions, however strict medical criteria will apply to the selection process and any condition viewed as significant or high risk may preclude veterans form being selected. As such, nominees should be free of any significant health problems (for example conditions relating to heart disease, circulatory disorders, respiratory difficulties and nervous conditions) and physically independent to the extent that they can climb and descend stairs unaided, walk distances of up to 500 metres without tiring (including on uneven ground) and climb in and out of buses and board aircraft without difficulty. Limited medical support will be available on the visit but there will be no provision for individual carers.”

For men who are now in their late 80s and 90s these are extremely unrealistic expectations; the criterion is nothing short of insulting.

Due to mounting public outcry the DVA is now offering to fund and fly up to 30 Australian veterans business class to and from London to attend the official dedication of the Bomber Command memorial. They are to be accompanied by a support team of doctors, nurses and RAAF personnel. Australian Bomber Command veterans not included in the official party but who still wish to attend the London dedication will be awarded $5,000 towards their costs.

Despite the DVA’s inept handling of this most significant event, Edgar Pickles is determined to be in attendance in London on the 28th June and a few days later travel to the north east of England to attend his 550 Squadron’s reunion at North Killingholme. Edgar has invited me to accompany him to England next month for what would undoubtedly be an excellent adventure of epic proportions. Stay tuned…

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