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Archie, his fighter planes and his gift to us all

Date

The Tomahawk fighter was a dog of a thing, a tough, unlovely junkyard dog. It lacked the graceful lines of the legendary Spitfire, but it was cheaper to produce and could keep flying long after the Spitfire ran out of fuel. It was a hardy warplane, so tough indeed that Soviet pilots who had run out of ammunition sometimes survived using it as a battering ram against the Luftwaffe's much superior Bf 109's and Fokker Wolf 190’s.

Archie Wilson loved it as an aircraft, particularly as a fighter-bomber. In May 1941, however, when flying with the RAF's 250 Squadron based in Egypt, the young pilot officer flew his Tomahawk as a pure fighter. On the morning of 29 May that year he was chasing after a JU 88 bomber, which was operating as a reconnaissance aircraft.

The Mediterranean sparkled 27 000 feet beneath him, some 42 miles north of Alexandria. Archie and his wingman, RAAF sergeant pilot Bob Whittle, had the advantage of coming up on their prey from behind and above, a fighter pilot’s idea of big rock candy mountain.

And then, it all turned to custard.

Archie blacked out, a victim of a fault in his oxygen line. He came to in a vertical dive, engine at full power, the wind roaring and ripping at his face because the canopy was gone. His plane was coming apart around him, and as it disintegrated he was sucked out of the cockpit and over the fuselage. He felt a massive impact, then darkness again.

He fell through space.

“When I regained consciousness again,” he later recalled, “although blinded, I had the distinct feeling that I was somersaulting backwards.”

He remembered silence, total and intense.

He grabbed for the D-ring of his parachute, but it would not deploy. After tugging frantically he changed his grip, as he had been taught, and with a ruffling flutter the chute deployed. Ten seconds later he hit the drink.

The silken canopy that had saved his life then tried to drown him as it folded all around and tried to drag him under. His life jacket would not inflate but there was just enough enough air in there already to keep his head above water, if he struggled. Whittle orbited the debris in his plane, calling in Search and Rescue which appeared in the form of a Sunderland Flying Boat two and a half hours later.

After three weeks in hospital Archie rejoined his squadron and took to the air again.

Earlier this week I drove out to RSL Care’s Fairview home in the bushland on the western edge of the city. It was a hot day, with the air shimmering above the eucalypts, but still humid from the storms of the weekend. Not like the dry, baking heat of the desert air bases from which Archie flew in 1941.

He was napping when I arrived, but gathered himself in short order and met me outside a conference room at Fairview in company with Pam, the care coordinator for the facility. He was old, very old, with red rimmed eyes and sun blotched skin, but his handshake was strong and his back remained parade ground straight. He ushered Pam in through the door ahead of us.

Fairview is a mixed facility. RSL Care, while still primarily concerned with easing veterans through their autumn years does now take in residents from the general community. But the majority are servicemen and women and it presents some challenges for the staff. For instance, they might answer 200 bedside buzzer calls on a normal day. But on Anzac and Remembrance Days that number can triple. Sometimes at night, when the lights go down, the screaming starts.

Post traumatic stress is a spectre that haunts the homes of returned vets in ways that simply aren’t an issue elsewhere. Nor is it restricted to the frail, aging warriors of long gone wars. The first casualties from our latest wars have already spent time at Fairview and its sister facilities, sometimes joining older relatives from older battlefields.

Interestingly, Pam confirmed that despite his wartime experiences Archie showed no signs of PTSD at all. When I asked him if it had been hard, climbing into primitive aircraft and flying into skies full of men trying to kill him and his mates he smiled.

“Oh we loved it,” he insisted, more than once.

He had some trouble following my questions and tended to circle back to those things that remained fresh in his mind. The squadrons he had flown with, the planes he had loved.

The Tomahawk, the Spitfire, the Hurricane.

He had always wanted to fly, he said, inspired by the tales in annuals and adventure stories for boys published between the wars. He and his mates had not wasted time on maudlin fears and self doubt. After every mission they gathered, those who still lived, to share a drink and talk through what had worked and what had not.

When things didn’t work, they died, or crashed and prayed for search and rescue to find them.

He was a remarkable man, old Archie. But then the entire home was full of remarkable men and women. Mostly forgotten one week after Remembrance Day. But it's worth stopping every now and then, and looking around, and remembering. All this is owed to them. The world as we know it. The breath in our bodies. All of it.

 

If you fly over to JB's personal blog, CheeseburgerGothic, you can read a longer account of Archie's adventures by the old boy himself.

68 comments so far

  • A worthy article, Mr Birmingham. In all the adulation and purple patriotic prose surrounding the exploits of our all-conquering professional military caste in Iraq and Afghanistan, we forget those ordinary men and women who signed up 'for the duration' and did extraordinary things in extraordinary times.

    And no Prime Ministers and Opposition leaders at their funerals, either - then or now.

    A bit of nit-pickery: that really should be 'Bf 109' (note lower-case 'f') - stood for 'Bayerische flugzeugbau'. And Anthony Fokker might or might not have been pleased to be credited with the Focke-Wulf 190 (actually designed by one Kurt Tank).

    I am reminded of the old joke about the ex-Free Dutch pilot at an RAF reunion breathlessly recounting (in heavily-accented English) a dogfight with ' ... de fokkers over France'. When challenged that he could not have been meeting Fokkers with the Luftwaffe, he answered exitedly: ' Ne, Ne - de fokkers was Messerschmitts!'

    Commenter
    GMcK
    Location
    Forbes C reek NSW
    Date and time
    November 22, 2012, 8:10AM
    • Very, very good GMcK.

      I was going to point out that the proof reader should be put against a wall and have Abbott, or not , lay a slap on it.

      Commenter
      J. Fraser
      Location
      Queensland
      Date and time
      November 22, 2012, 4:31PM
    • Good Article JB and comment GMcK

      We do owe a lot to all service men and women, when war happens the people in the street cannot do anything about it on both sides. They then try and do their bit if it is their country that will be affected. As part of the British empire for many years it was only natural to help in dire times.

      Some people should read about history, at the beginning of WW1 PNG was a German colony on Australia's doorstep and German raiders were sinking cargo ships off WA regularly.

      My father was a rear gunner in a Whitley Bomber he was shot down, wounded and made prisoner by Fokkers (Fokker G-1 first ever kill) over Holland in early 1940. He later escaped to England during the German invasion of Holland to fly again only to bale out of another damaged Whitley and survive a wheels up crash of a third. The dutch bullet he carried inside him till his death in 2006 saved his life in 1941 when he was posted to training Canadian aircrew (due to the bullet inching closer to his spine and being too risky for action over Germany) more than 55% of his squadron did not survive the war. To this day I thank the Dutch for my existance and are proud of all our veterans.

      Commenter
      VonBB
      Location
      Coasta Del Palmer
      Date and time
      November 23, 2012, 10:41AM
  • Nice article..

    Commenter
    Davo
    Location
    Langers
    Date and time
    November 22, 2012, 8:20AM
    • +1, well done on the article & we are forever indebted to all these men & women who fought & died for our freedom!

      Commenter
      Indeed
      Date and time
      November 22, 2012, 11:01AM
    • Lest we forget.

      Thanks JB, these stories are always welcome.

      Commenter
      J. Fraser
      Location
      Queensland
      Date and time
      November 22, 2012, 4:35PM
  • THE RSL, you have to give it to them and the likes of Archie too. We've just had the 70th anniversary for the battle of El Alamein and I have no doubt that Archie's type helped it become a victory. I hope JB you managed to glean more from him? I think we have failed to capture and note down for other generation enough of what took place, which is a shame.

    You mention no sign of PTSD and thats an interesting one. I wonder two things with that, firstly are fighter pilots or pilots in general not perhaps exposed as much, and thats a hard question for a lot of reasons and no slight is intended. Generally, pilots shot down do not return, the survival rate was rather low, so the possibility of having PTSD pilots about was lower again.

    But another one, I think is that the conflicts now, unlike the tow world wars are a lonesome solo event for the troops when they return. The 2 world wars where on everybody's mind and like minded serving persons where everywhere and I guess the ability to get shite off your chest and the likes would have been far easier. Today.....well they arrive, but there is really no greeting party, its all low key and I suspect that this lack of recognition and mental release is a major cause as well. H the amateur Pshycological Dr

    Commenter
    HAVOCK!
    Location
    HOME
    Date and time
    November 22, 2012, 8:25AM
    • Havock, PTSD and the like would have been a fascinating thing to study in more detail immediately after big wars. The pilots are a particularly interesting area I believe because of the context and contrasting nature of their war! It is very difficult to imagine what it would have been like on the mind to constantly go from relative comfort, dry land, cups of tea, and not an enemy in sight 50 miles from the front to repeatedly climbing into an aircraft day after day and engage the enemy in the air knowing the high percentage chance of you not returning through some gruesome event or another. Every day must have bordered on feelings of a suicide mission at certain times during the war. The pilots and gunner crews that could not put that continually and effectively out of their minds must have had a tough time of it, also the officers that had to keep sending their boys up. It surely is a different mechanism to deal with mentally than the millions that were in trenches, with footrot, raining bombs and bullets non-stop day after day.

      Commenter
      eyeswideopen
      Location
      earth
      Date and time
      November 22, 2012, 9:10AM
    • @ HAVOCK!

      There are some elements in what you write that are appropriate.

      As a Vietnam Vet, I have been 'diagnosed' with PTSD. Since my return I have studied at tertiary level, and amongst several degrees one was an Arts/Psychology.

      I do not claim to be a psychologist, but at least have some understanding.

      It is my view that all war service veterans are exposed to events that haunt them. For some it is lifelong, others progress through the memories.

      Clearly, the more one is exposed to extreme danger, traumatic events, and death, the more likely the impacts will exacerbate long term memory stress.

      Some veterans find a way to live with the memory stress, others don't.

      From my experience, several attributes come into play.

      First, some minds are like rocks - negative emotional impacts appear not to impress.

      For the others, support and motivation are central.

      Unlike later conflicts involving Australian servicemen, those returning from the 2 great wars not only had the nation behind them as they departed, but they returned to universal support. The governments of the times, albeit with considerable nudging by entities such as the RSL, provided considerable support benefits and work opportunities.

      After both the great wars, a person wearing the returned serviceman badge in their lapel was immediately acknowledged and offered discounts on purchases, etc. The mood of the nation made them feel supported.

      The second aspect is motivation.

      The word limit here restricts, so I'll send a 2nd post.

      .....

      Commenter
      Dalliance
      Date and time
      November 22, 2012, 9:33AM
    • I have also wondered about that.

      Was there less PTSD compared to today or was it just not diagnosed? Are today's wars more bloody or intense? I doubt it. Shellshock as it was known then, was a common experience following WW1 - more so than after WW2 strangely enough and the scale of war then was far greater than today's conflicts.

      What about the Vietnam conflict where you never knew who your enemy was and were never safe - even whilst on rec leave? This was something no previous warriors had to contend with. They were very badly treated by the civilian Australian population AND the RSL.

      With no disrespect intended, does that mean that the older soldiers were tougher than today's men?

      Maybe too the guys are more exposed to unintended civilian casualties in today's conflicts - which would have adverse psychological impacts.

      Certainly old drill sergeants and officers who've seen generations come through recruit courses say that GenY are much softer than previous cohorts. Just saying..

      Commenter
      Bombardier
      Location
      West End
      Date and time
      November 22, 2012, 9:39AM

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