Daily Life


Magnificent men in their flying machines

Raised on Biggles and romantic notions of adventure and dare-devil flying exploits, young Australian men eagerly signed up to fight in Bomber Command. It would not take long for the reality of war to strip away their innocence, Kathryn Spurling writes

Arthur Hoyle joined the RAAF in World War II. It was not khaki ''digger'' uniforms which stole his imagination but those magnificent men in their flying machines. As a teenager he looked to the skies: ''Like many another boy, I was fascinated by the feats of the young airmen who had fought and usually died in the skies over France, and by the deeds of the aerial pioneers such as Kingsford Smith, Ulm, Cobham, Hinkler and Amy Johnson.'' Hoyle followed the 1935 Great Air Race from London to Melbourne and sitting at his school desk he would daydream - ''my pencil became a Zeppelin flying in the dark skies … and I was a daring young pilot intent on destroying the great raider.''

This was a generation raised on the adventures of Biggles. Biggles was the nickname for James Bigglesworth, an adventurer, pilot and hero, in the series of adventure books written by William Earl Johns. Biggles was a teenage World War I fighter pilot in the Royal Flying Corps who flew daring, heroic missions fighting the Germans, commonly referred to as ''Huns''. The first Biggles book, The Camels Are Coming, was published in 1932. Seventeen Biggles books filled the imaginations of teenagers who, from September 1939, formed long lines at air force recruiting offices. They were also of a generation who, unlike those who controlled military dogma, realised that this would likely be a more technological, aerial war. In 1935 a young Arthur Hoyle watched the crews of Avro Anson aircraft walk from their aircraft: ''I could not articulate it but I knew that the young men in their ugly flying suits, in their shining machines, were the chivalrous warriors of the 20th century. Far more than the marching infantry in their khaki uniforms or the jingling light horse with emu feathers in their hats, they were the future.''

As yet another war erupted in Europe there were only 3179 airmen and 310 officers in the Royal Australian Air Force; 450 members of the RAAF, mostly pilots, had been sent to Britain on short service commissions in the Royal Air Force. While it was initially decided the RAAF needed only 170 volunteers in the initial intake, recruiting offices were swamped, in Melbourne alone about 2000 coming to sign up. Harassed recruiters accepted the first 1000 and sent the others away to apply in writing. By March, applications for aircrew positions numbered around 11,500 and 56,000 sought ground crew places. Authorities indoctrinated with the minimalist training regimes of foot soldiers now struggled to catch up with the training regimes required to prepare civilians to crew aircraft for modern warfare. The Australian government initially approved a plan to raise a six-squadron expeditionary air force but Britain asked the dominions to contribute instead to an empire air force under RAF control. Australian prime minister Robert Menzies, without first consulting the Australian Air Board, agreed. The Empire Air Training Scheme was initiated, whereby Australia would provide and partially train about 10,000 aircrew a year for the RAF. Australians would provide airmen to fight battles but not the policy advisers on how the battles would be fought.

Hoyle and his generation soon found themselves attached to RAF Bomber Command, Europe, and their exploits would prove more thrilling than anything Biggles had attempted. Flight Lieutenant Roberts Christian Dunstan was very much of the Biggles genre. Dunstan enlisted in the Australian Army in June 1940, writing on enlistment papers that he was born in Bendigo, Victoria, on ''4 Nov 1919''. The army was satisfied it had found an enthusiastic, fit, 21-year-old sapper for 2nd 8th Field Company and after training Dunstan sailed for the Middle East. His war was short: he was hit by a shell splinter in January 1941 and his right leg was amputated. He then admitted to being born in November 1922: ''I had lost my leg … lied to get into the army … I had put up my age so that I could be here so that I could take my place among men. Now I was 18 with one leg.'' He was discharged from the army in early February 1942. A ''stirring RAAF poster that shouted 'It's a man's job!' '' saw him apply for aircrew. Though the initial interviewer was sceptical, Dunstan continued to pester the RAAF, insisting he was perfectly capable of fulfilling duties which did not require two legs. He wore them down and was accepted in June 1942, two years after he enlisted in the AIF - and he was still only 19.

Attached to RAAF 460, Dunstan used crutches to get to his aircraft and then crawled through the fuselage to reach the rear turret. He was not deterred by the unlikelihood of his escaping a crashing bomber, and completed a full tour of 30 operations, the day before his 21st birthday. The citation for his Distinguished Service Order included the words ''unique determination''. He was discharged from the RAAF on October 2, 1945. In 1956 Dunstan was elected to the Victorian Parliament as the Liberal Party member for Mornington, served in two ministerial positions, left Parliament in 1982 and died in October 1989, aged 66.

Unfortunately too many Australian Bomber Command aircrew would not return.


Lieutenant Robin Ordell, DFC, was a natural to play Biggles in any post-war movie. Not only did he have the dashing good looks of a matinee hero, but he had the presence and confidence of someone who had already appeared on the silver screen in a starring role, as well as coming from Australian entertainment royalty. His father ''Tal'' Ordell worked extensively on Australian stage and screen. Tal Ordell's work largely featured the bush ethos, playing characters like Dad Rudd twice on film; he starred in movies such as On Our Selection, The Gentleman Bushranger, While the Billy Boils, and The Sentimental Bloke. He wrote, acted, produced and directed The Kid Stakes in 1927. Based on the popular comic strip, Fatty Finn, the film starred his six-year-old son Robin as the leader of a gang of irrepressible, scruffy, Woolloomooloo kids. Tal Ordell continued to be heavily involved in film, vaudeville and stage productions, but recognising the demise of the theatrical business he became a radio storyteller. After education at Sydney Grammar School his son, Robin, established himself as a radio announcer and looked to continue his own career under the bright lights of theatre and cinema.

Owing to his father's reluctance to sign the enlistment form Robin needed to wait until he was 21 before joining the RAAF. His confidence impressed recruiters and few Australians were not familiar with his father's starring roles if not his own in Australia's last silent movie, and he was put into the pilot stream. By April 1944 Robin was in England with RAF 27 Operational Training Unit, choosing his crew. Perhaps it was due to his sense of fun that Robin chose Ian Ronald Osborne, later pilot officer, as his navigator. Osborne enlisted at 18 in September 1942 and was a former student of North Sydney's Church of England Grammar School. There were loads of gibes between the two about whose school was superior and then the wireless operator air gunner, 21-year-old flight sergeant Keith Kevin Reynolds, would cut in and say they both had it wrong because he attended The King's School. Reynolds had represented King's in tennis, and had been one of the 1st XI and XV. It was certainly unusual to have members of three of Sydney's most prestigious private Protestant schools represented in the same crew, although it was common for the RAAF to choose the most educated of wartime volunteers.

The bomb aimer, pilot officer John Gordon Treatt Killen, 24, had his own pedigree, and was working with his father, John, on the family property at Goobragandra via Tumut, NSW. Melbourne was the home town of both gunners, 19-year-old mid upper gunner, flight sergeant Ray McKaskill, and 20-year-old rear gunner, flight sergeant James Harper. McKaskill couldn't claim to attending a top school - he spent his education at Boolarra State, and no one had the slightest idea where that was. When he enlisted at 18 in June 1943 he had been working as a grocer's assistant. Harper too did not come from the comfortable lifestyle enjoyed by his skipper, navigator, wireless operator air gunner, and bomb aimer. He was 18 when he applied for RAAF entry. His education was modest - Belmont State School, Victoria - before leaving to get a job. He was studying at Geelong Tech at night and was an apprentice cabinet maker. Sharp tools could be risky and Jim lost a joint from his left ring finger. A referee recommended Jim because he was ''honest and reputable'' with ''a clean interest in life''. The RAAF originally thought Jim Harper should be placed in a trade, but tests were mixed, and he was delighted when they decided not only to send him to aircrew training but also selected him as a trainee pilot.

Unfortunately the pilot bit did not jell. Whereas he tested well on ''persistence'' and ''endurance'', he did not do well on ''leadership''. He excelled at gunnery and aircraft recognition, so an air gunner he became, and was pleased to be selected by Robin Ordell as his rear gunner. The crew was complete when RAF sergeant Charles Scurr, 24, from Durham, England, was appointed flight engineer. They joined RAF 100 Squadron and five months of demanding operations. In June 1944 Ordell was commissioned pilot officer, then flying officer, and by November the confident, good-looking pilot was flight lieutenant. He received a Distinguished Flying Cross in February 1945 with the citation: ''Ordell has completed and been captain of aircraft for numerous operations against the enemy, in the course of which he has shown the utmost fortitude, courage and devotion.''

His father was pleased as punch and everyone heard of Robin's starring role in the RAAF. Ordell, Killen and Osborne were all commissioned and looking forward to the time when the rest of the crew would be also. That extra bit of gold and slightly more dapper tailor-made uniform certainly was worth having. The good-looking Australians were popular and having a ''movie star'' as a skipper certainly helped socially. Even if his father's very Australian films were unheard of in the finer English establishments, let alone his own ''Fatty Finn'' character, his crew were sure to let everyone know and they were happy to be guilty by association.

Lancaster PB569 shook to the full roar of the Merlin engines, Robin Ordell released the brakes and the bomber gained momentum until it lifted skywards with the slipstream flattening the grass. It was 1605 on February 3, 1945: destination, the Benzol works at Bottrop, Germany. Little did they realise the dwindling view of the English coastline would be the last for all bar one. Even this late in the war German anti-aircraft defences were lethal. For the last five months this crew, like others, had danced with searchlights. Ordell saw the searchlights and knew they would be relentless in their pursuit of bomber targets.

As they moved towards his Lancaster Ordell followed the standard drill of turning towards and through the light. In the excitement of the moment inexperienced pilots did not heed the learned advice of seasoned veterans, instead trying to outrun the searchlight, only to be found by the master beam, a great wide blue thing which enabled anti-aircraft guns to fire on a target which was lit up as brightly as daylight.

Once coned by the light a pilot could weave, or even climb, but not dive, which seemed more the natural tendency. The searchlights came and went and the Ordell-skippered Lancaster was buffeted by light flak, but then it all went horribly wrong and they were hit. The bomber burst into flames which engulfed the fuselage with incredible speed. Jim Harper heard no voices acknowledge what he believed was Ordell's faint order to abandon aircraft. He had begun to turn ''the rear turret by hand in order to get out'', the bomber was diving fast from an altitude of around 12,000 feet. Next thing he knew he was ''seeing the stars and cloud'' as he regained consciousness at about 3000 feet and pulled his ripcord. Harper was unaware he was the only survivor of his handsome crew. The Lancaster crashed into a minefield and disintegrated. Advancing British troops found the wreckage and carefully recovered the shattered remains of five airmen - Ian Osborne's body lay a distance away.

Harper landed in a field with the sound of battle all around and took shelter in a barn. The following morning he was startled by German soldiers and was lucky not to be shot. They were excitable, menacing, and in retreat. He was marched off and soon there were more POWs and more German soldiers. It was raining, they had no food, and it was clear that if they couldn't keep up they were likely to be shot and left. As the column of forlorn POWs approached a small town, American P51 aircraft screamed down in an attack, and some POWs died with some of their guards. Those who survived arrived at a prison barracks which was ''filthy and crawling with lice and bed bugs''.

Two months later the young Australian was freed by American troops, flown back to England, and told his crew had perished. Asked if he required immediate evacuation to Australia, his response was an emphatic ''Yes''. Still only 21, his adventure had been ''memorable'' but he had no answer for the question which humbled him, ''Why me?''

Tal Ordell received the dreaded telegram in March followed quickly by a letter written by Robin before his last flight. Tal's health weakened and months later he asked the RAAF for more information about how a son he believed could have achieved so much, had died. In May 1946 Tal Ordell found the strength to write again asking why he had not received ''my boy's effects''. The bodies of his son, Ian Osborne, John Killen, Keith Reynolds, and Ray McKaskill were exhumed and reburied in Mierlo British Cemetery in the Netherlands. RAF engineer Charles Scurr had been buried elsewhere; George and Sarah Scurr, in concert with the other families, decided their boys would have liked to be buried next to each other - because in life they had so enjoyed each other's company. When asked what inscription they would like on headstones, Tal Ordell and Ron and Mabel Osborne decided to continue the fun and competitive spirit between Robin and Ian, so below Robin's name was inscribed ''Sydney Grammar'' and below Ian's, ''SCEGS''. Tal Ordell was described as ''a versatile actor, proudly Australian, and above all a comedian'', but the pride and laughter had gone from his life with the death of Robin, and Tal Ordell succumbed to coronary vascular disease on June 8, 1948.

Arthur Hoyle became a navigator and in 1943, at just 21, was attached to RAAF 460 Squadron. Hoyle, who had been so enamoured with those magnificent men in their flying ''shining machines'', quickly realised the reality of war, and the toll it exacted. He watched from above ''the first city that I had witnessed burning to death'', and romantic notions he had held as a teenager evaporated with the yellow and red fires which raged below. ''The Battle of Berlin'' was under way and the rookie navigator quickly realised the commanding officer of RAF Bomber Command, air chief marshall Arthur Harris, nicknamed by some as ''Bomber'' Harris and others as ''Butcher Harris'', had a ''fanatical determination to bomb Germany into total destruction with no apparent regard to the losses among his crews''.

Quickly his long-held dream turned into a nightmare. Hoyle continued to do his duty, but reported for midnight take-offs with a heavy heart and ever increasing sense of hopelessness as more and more of his Australian aircrew mates failed to return from operations: ''I soon found that I hated these departures for a rendezvous with death in the middle of the night.''

He knew he wasn't the only airman who ''felt low spirited and quite without desire to destroy Nazis'', as they silently pulled themselves into the crew bus, encumbered with bulky clothes and heavy gear, always wondering if his knowledge and courage would find a way through the moonlight.

The prospect of early death made men react in different ways, Hoyle noticed. ''Some got drunk … some gambled when the weather was too bad for flying'', married men it seemed ''wrote long letters to their wives'', a few ''became religious'' and others like Hoyle ''retired into themselves''.

Hoyle survived his first tour of 30 operations and was fast approaching the end of another. He was nonetheless increasingly unhappy with the RAF bombing campaign and when his crew were ordered to attack the city of Dresden he had the strength to stand during the briefing and ask why were they being ordered to ''destroy a non-industrial target''. His audacity was not well received by commanding officers, who offered only a weak ''inadequate answer''. Hoyle's crew were sent to bomb Dresden. By now Hoyle's nerves were ''quite bad''. He would jump at the slightest sound and ''wake in a cold sweat with my heart pounding''. His crew approached their 50th operation mercifully unaware that the odds of achieving this were in the order of one in 14. But, survive they did: it was August 1945, Hoyle was still just 22, and he wore a Distinguished Flying Cross. He ''sometimes resented the fact that my youth disappeared so quickly - that one day I was a lad and a few weeks later I was a man'', but ''fear and the frequent sight of death stripped away many of the illusions about myself''. His yearning for adventure and ''shining machines'' was completely satisfied. Most of all he realised how fortunate he was to be alive. He would move to Canberra and become the third academic staff member appointed to the then Canberra College of Advanced Education, becoming a senior lecturer in public administration and part of the CCAE's evolution to the University of Canberra. His book Into The Darkness would be one of the more insightful memoirs.

Arthur Hoyle will not attend Bomber Command commemorations in Canberra, tomorrow, as he had done so often. Arthur died on May 2, just a few months shy of his 90th birthday. Hundreds will gather around the stark memorial which stands in the grounds of the Australian War Memorial. Most will be relatives and friends as few remain who can speak first-hand of the air war, but the frail, bent bodies weighed down by campaign medals, and aided by walking sticks and walking frames, who stoically move forward to lay a wreath, are all who remain of the best of the best. There is a long list of statistics for Bomber Command Europe but the most important is that 55,573 were killed with their average age being just 22. An estimated 20,000 Australian airmen served with Bomber Command, and 3486 died - more than 500 were killed in training. Seven hundred and fifty Australian aircrew were released from German prisoner of war camps at war's end. Against Germany 9572 Australians were killed in action or as POWs; 5117 of these were RAAF. Although only 2 per cent of Australian World War II volunteers enlisted in Australia's air force they made up 20 per cent of Australia's World War II dead. Not only did these young men never really live, but they were the best of the best, and Australia would have been profoundly richer for their presence.

Kathryn Spurling is a visiting scholar, School of History, ANU. Her book Graves Too Far Away: Australians in Bomber Command, Europe will be released in September by New Holland.