John Eppel, Bomber Command navigator on 30 missions
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John Eppel, Bomber Command navigator on 30 missions

John Eppel's Catholic upbringing, his education at St Brigid’s Convent and Marrickville’s De La Salle College, the depression years and the 30 missions he flew as a navigator in Bomber Command were powerful influences that shaped his 95 years.

John and his much younger brother Patrick, who predeceased him by some decades, grew up amongst an extended family of first cousins whom he thought of as siblings.

Possessing a good head for numbers and things technical, at 17 he went to work at Wormald Brothers, the fire protection company, having passed the leaving certificate with trigonometry and calculus.

John Eppel and fellow crew members taken at their 550 Squadron base , North Killingholme 11 Nov 1944. From left to right: Johnny Harris (23) pilot, John Eppel (21) navigator, John Conway (25) bomb-aimer, Charlie Simpkins (30) flight engineer, Bob Bickford (20) wireless operator, Bill Waddell, (19) mid-upper gunner, Brian Barby (19) rear gunner.

John Eppel and fellow crew members taken at their 550 Squadron base , North Killingholme 11 Nov 1944. From left to right: Johnny Harris (23) pilot, John Eppel (21) navigator, John Conway (25) bomb-aimer, Charlie Simpkins (30) flight engineer, Bob Bickford (20) wireless operator, Bill Waddell, (19) mid-upper gunner, Brian Barby (19) rear gunner.

Apart from his time served in the RAAF in World War Two, he worked as a Technical Officer for Wormald’s until 1988, capping his career with a two-year posting to the USA where he designed and supervised the construction of a hydraulics research laboratory at the Fire Technology Centre in Marinette, Wisconsin.

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John Eppel circa 1946.

John Eppel circa 1946.

At just 18, he was dispatched in 1941 to Port Moresby to make a site survey for the installation of foam extinguishing equipment at the Naval Oil Depot and his further work on naval installations at Brisbane and Freemantle meant his initial attempt to enlist in the Army when called up that year was thwarted by Wormald’s decision that his technical knowledge was too valuable to lose.

His embarrassing expulsion from the Marrickville Drill Hall, when stripped for his medical examination, was fortuitous — the 53rd Militia Battalion which he was about to join was decimated eight months later on the Kokoda Trail.

He served as a member of the Fire Service Sprinkler Reserve, a technical unit formed as a result of lessons learnt when further destruction by fire occurred during the British Blitz through the lack of organisation to put sprinkler systems damaged by air raids back into action.

He was called out in the night when the Japanese midget submarines entered Sydney Harbour, and on another night when Bondi was shelled by a larger submarine.

Survival became more uncertain when he persuaded Wormalds to release him to join the RAAF in February 1943. His experience highlights the toll the war took on Australia – of the 89 men who sailed with Eppel from Brisbane to the UK, 18 died in service.

John trained under the Empire Air Training Scheme which produced over 130,000 airmen at 333 training schools and by war’s end, made the RAAF the fourth largest air force in the world.

His training was extensive and expensive – eight months of courses in Australia as he proceeded through Initial Training at Kingaroy, Air Observers School at Cootamundra, Bombing and Gunnery School at Evans Head then the Air Navigators School at Parkes.

Now attached to the RAF, he crossed the Pacific in the US Army Transport General Grant and the Atlantic in the Queen Elizabeth, arriving in Britain in March 1944, where he endured five more courses as he honed his warfighting skills, joined a crew and learnt to operate Wellingtons, Halifaxes, then Lancasters, with many accidental deaths occurring at every stage.

Finally, he and his crew joined 550 Squadron in September 1944, which operated from North Killingholme, a wartime RAF base by the Humber River near Grimsby – one confused crew later landed in the river, having mistaken the leading lights for their airfield.

Eighteen months, nine training courses and 250 hours flying had prepared him for his 30 missions bombing targets in Germany, Holland and France, which added a further 200 hours of flying time, completed in the next four months.

John Eppel with Major General Philippe Leonard, Commander of French Armed Forces at ceremony  to award John Eppel the insignia of Chevalier in the French National Order of the Legion of Honour, 2015.

John Eppel with Major General Philippe Leonard, Commander of French Armed Forces at ceremony to award John Eppel the insignia of Chevalier in the French National Order of the Legion of Honour, 2015.

Eppel saw many friends killed. Fortuitously, winter darkness shielded them. The Luftwaffe was forced on to the defensive after D-Day and missions far into Germany were curtailed in this period.

His crew completed their tour in mid-January 1945, just a fortnight before the requirement was raised to 35 missions. Many airmen died on their extra five. Once, above Holland, he witnessed a V2 rocket lifting off and later, in London on leave, he was on the receiving end of both V1 and V2 attacks.

Following his tour, he undertook further training and gained a Transport Command Navigator’s Certificate which entitled him to civilian airline employment. The course was suspended in May to allow members to celebrate the end of the war and John later described his exuberant time in a flood-lit London. He was commissioned as a Pilot Officer before returning to Australia and discharged in December 1945, at the age of 22 after two years and four months service.

Resettlement was not easy for young men who had expended so much emotional energy during their service. He returned to his employment at Wormalds, married Eileen Dickson in 1949, raised three children, found a block of land, designed a house and part built it.

As his two older children finished secondary school, old pastimes of making model aeroplanes, photography and building photo albums as a form of visual diary were revived.

In December 2015, he was awarded the Legion of Honour – the highest French order of merit – for risking his life for the Liberation of France. Presentations to Allied veterans were initiated to mark the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings and Eppel's award recognised his role in four bombing missions against German strongpoints in the Boulogne-Calais area.

The French Ambassador to Australia and the Commander of the French Armed Forces in New Caledonia presented the medal at a function on board the French frigate Vendémiaire at Garden Island.

John Eppel is survived by his children, Elizabeth, Peter and Helen and three grandchildren.

Dr Jo Bunce

John Eppel: March 23, 1923 -  December 15, 2018.

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