We are anchored at the Gold Coast, our schooner has recently sailed across the Pacific to Australia from Canada but we are not alone or even aboard on this Christmas day. We are visiting the family of a friend, Keith Watson, and watching tropical birds flutter across the table while Keith throws bits of meat in the air for the Butcher birds. He is making sure that we are welcomed here, sixty or so years after he was similarly taken into my English family back in the Second World War. Keith will not live many years after this, but right at this moment he is much the same person that war time had brought to us and made a lifelong friend.
At his end of the festive table, Keith tells me a story about those years in England flying Lancaster bombers. He is describing lifting off for the first time with a full load of bombs. As he talks, his hand pulls back on the stick and his voice echoes the tension as, at last, the aircraft comes unstuck and he carefully banks into a climb to meet and then lead, with his fellow Pathfinders the stream of bombers headed across the Channel on another night raid deep into Germany.
|Keith Watson in centre with his aircrew|
I ask him if he knew he was sometimes dropping bombs on targets located within civilian areas and he nods, yes he did, and proceeds to tell us about being in a pathfinder squadron ( 97) that lead the raids and marked the target with flares for the following aircraft. How he followed the radio voice of his leader, fellow Australian Don Bennett, circling somewhere ahead over the target, into flack so dense you could have cut it with a knife, about a shell passing right up thought the cockpit but not exploding, and of seeing a spirit of my mother as his 'guardian angel' serenely hovering there before him on the other side of of the perspex. Dodging night fighters, throwing his big four-engined aircraft through the night sky to shake off attack, coaxing his crippled Lancaster back to a landing and then doing it all over again a few nights later. Over and over again. He was probably all of twenty-two years old. A kind of steady courage that goes far deeper that the occasional heroic reaction to danger. Something that deserves recognition.
My father picked up Keith and his navigator hitchhiking on the Great North Road (A1), trying to get to London for a short leave. He dropped them at our gate and later at supper time found them still there with their thumbs out, (V1 rockets were hitting London hard and the traffic was all going the other way) and said they should come in and spend the night. They stayed that first time and Keith kept coming back leave after leave. His hat would be tossed through the front door first, just to be sure it would not be tossed back again. His welcome assured, he would settle in and could often be found inventing children's adventure tales about Australia for my elder brothers and sisters. One of many young men who found a family welcome at our home during those war years, Keith was lucky to survive the terrible odds and to finally ship off home at the end of the war and to marry the girl he had met in Camp Borden in Canada while doing his flight training.
Interestingly, but not out of character, the most meaningful story for Keith was when bomber crews were asked to fly to Germany immediately after the war to pick up POWs who were too ill to wait around for regular processing. For the first time his crew flew low over the land they had bombed at night from high altitude. Destruction! Landing at a bomb-cratered airport littered with wrecked aircraft, picking up a load of men and then crossing their fingers and taking off again over a dangerously bumpy runway. The emotional moments for the ex-prisoners of seeing the white cliffs of Dover ahead and then a smooth landing. A shaking of every crew members hand as those men left the plane. Thank you!
His crew laughing, “Keith, how come you never landed that smoothly when it was only us?”
The best years of his life, Keith will say, when living another day was such a gift and comradeship was so intense. Proud of his crew, of his skill that increased their odds, of his fellow bomber crews who battled their way through to eventual peace and of the many who never lived to see it.
There has been much post-war discussion about the effectiveness of all this bombing: that, as in Britain, it only strengthened the will to resist. How any nation could be proud of sending men to carry out such destruction and if there were not some shame attached to those who carried out the missions. The same could of course could be said of the Luftwaffe who destroyed 80% of London and other British cities with great loss of civilian lives. The reality is that neither Germany nor Britain signed an international agreement not to use bombers as an instrument of total warfare and Keith and his fellows were doing their duty. It would be reported by the victors that that vast armada of aircraft played a vital role in winning the war sooner and with less eventual loss of life than would have been possible otherwise. Even the beaches of Normandy would not have been tenable during the landings without the bombing of beach defences and the rail-yards further back in France which prevented German reinforcements from getting to the coast. Civilians lost their lives as part of this too. War is a nasty thing; by nature destructive of people as well as property.
Men and women of Keith’s generation who fought for the succeeding generations will never be fully understood or appreciated by those who were not there beside them. Mostly though, they re-entered civilian life fairly smoothly, married, held down responsible jobs, continued to serve their country in the important matters of everyday. Were loving and caring parents no matter what their wives vaguely understood through their husbands nightmares and occasional strangely absent moods. A generation who went through hell, emerged blinking into the light and then resolutely marched forward to bring their children to adulthood in peace. A peace they themselves had first to labour at great cost in lives and peace of mind to create.