Memories from WWII Bomber Command veteran
The 79th anniversary of RAAF squadrons joining combat operations with the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) Bomber Command in WWII was usually commemorated in June, but this year has been delayed until July at RAAFA.
About 10,000 Australians were part of the RAF’s Bomber Command, working as pilots, engineers, navigators, bomb aimers, wireless operators and gunners for Nos. 455, 458, 460, 462, 463, 464, 466 and 467 Squadrons.
But the odds weren’t great for Bomber Command aviators – with many heavy bombing missions over enemy territory, the losses were great.
Overall, Bomber Command experienced losses of about one in three and more than 4000 Australian aircrew died as a result of their service.
But RAAFA’s Gordon Lodge resident John Lyall was one of the lucky ones.
John flew with an RAF Squadron as a rear gunner, in several different aircraft including Stirling heavy bombers and American B17s.
“I never served on an Australian unit, I flew with the RAF the whole time, where I was the only Australian. The rest of my crew were English, though there was one Canadian,” recalls John.
“A good proportion of the boys were in these mixed squadrons and mixed crews were generally agreed to be the best crews. The rivalry was on, but we all became very close friends, and I was very lucky in so much as my captain was a very experienced RAF regular officer, and when we did get into a few scrapes I believe it was his good leadership and experience that got us out of them.”
A highlight of John’s war years - and one he still remembers clearly over 70 years later - was meeting the then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, an honour that his father had also enjoyed during WWI, when Mr Churchill was the then First Lord of the Admiralty.
“The story goes back to WWI, where my father was badly wounded at Gallipoli and was evacuated to Wandsworth hospital in London,” explains John.
“In his hospital ward were two other Australian officers and they got a message that a vehicle would collect them first thing in the morning, though they didn’t know at that time where they were going.
“They were taken to a building and ushered into a lounge room where, on a small table, there were four glasses, a jug of iced water and an unopened bottle of Scotch whisky, and the attendee announced that Mr Churchill would be with them shortly.
“When he did walk in, apparently the first thing he said was ‘haven’t you taken the top off the bottle yet?’, which he went on to do and then served everyone a decent shot. After that, he asked about their experience at Gallipoli, and he was told a few home truths.”
John explains that his story then forwards to a winter’s night in England, during October 1943.
“It was about 10.15pm and we were outside our aircraft, sitting on our parachutes having a last cigarette and waiting for a signal to take off on a bombing mission,” explains John.
“Just then, a staff car pulled up and we were told it was the British Prime Minister. We all stood up and I remember I was at the end of the line, given I was the rear gunner. The station commander introduced me last to Mr Churchill, and explained I was an Australian. I told him that he’d met my father many years before, and with that he shook my hand and said: ‘now I know two Lyall’s’.
“It was a real honour and a moment I’ll never forget, but we didn’t have long to dwell on it, as soon after we got the signal and took off to Germany on a mission, and that was that.”
John explains that he ended up being promoted to a Commissioned Officer in February 1944, something that was unusual for a rear gunner.
“Perhaps it was because I kept my nose clean,” chuckles John.
“I ended up becoming very close friends with all the crew and stayed in touch with many of them. I still feel so fortunate to have been selected as a rear gunner by Jeff Bray, my Captain and the pilot, who was very accomplished. We became the closest of friends and my wife and I visited him several times in England after the war.
“It does seem such a long time ago now, but I still get occasional flashbacks and there are many moments that I can still remember so clearly.”
In total, eight Australian squadrons formed part of the RAF’s Bomber Command, with 4100 of those involved paying the ultimate price. The Air Force that we know today has been shaped by these brave aviators and RAAFA is just one organisation throughout Australia that will ensure their sacrifices – and the service of men like John Lyall - is never forgotten.