When the Queen last year unveiled a new memorial to the 55,000 men who died in Bomber Command during World War II, 92-year-old Australian Edgar Pickles was there. As historian Damien Williams learns, Pickles’ journey was one of many that Australians have undertaken to Second World War sites around the world.
It is never an easy task fixing the wings of an Avro Lancaster to its fuselage. In the dining room of an ageing farmhouse near Barham in southern New South Wales, a “Lanc” lies on its back while Trevor Taylor fiddles with struts and screws to put the aircraft together. A musician and retired dairy farmer, Taylor indulges this pastime as secretary of the Cohuna Model Flying Club. After nearly 20 years’ work, this one-sixteenth scale model of Britain’s most famous bomber of the Second World War is nearing completion.
As Taylor and his friends go about their work, a bachelor farmer sits at the nose of the aircraft. He knows Lancasters better than Brickhill and certainly better than anyone else in the room. Edgar Pickles flew 50 missions in them over Europe between May 1943 and April 1945 as a member of Royal Air Force Bomber Command.
The walls around him testify to those years, when Pickles commanded one the most technologically sophisticated pieces of machinery in the British war effort. Citations for his two Distinguished Flying Crosses sit in a frame by the door. Photographs of his crew hang on an adjacent wall. They show young men in flying suits, dwarfed by the size of the aircraft behind them. Nearby there are the crests of his three RAF squadrons: 100, 625 and 550. A portrait of the young Queen Elizabeth watches from the opposite side of the room. In the adjoining lounge room, Winston Churchill sits in a frame above the mantelpiece.
Churchill’s enthusiasm for Bomber Command faded quickly when peace was restored in 1945. For Pickles, the dangers that he and his comrades faced remain fresh in his mind.
“The Jerries could sit off with their cannons at 800 yards and just pick you off,” he says, as his voice drops.
“You’d just see this little bit of tracer across the sky and the little flame about two-thirds of the way [along the aircraft] … and the next thing, you’d see it going down in flames.”
Some 67 years after he flew with Bomber Command, Pickles flew back to London in June 2012, this time in a Qantas Airbus, to watch a much older Queen Elizabeth from across Green’s Park. There, the Queen unveiled Britain’s latest memorial to Bomber Command, comprised of men and women from the UK, the Commonwealth and the allied nations.
Of all the British and Commonwealth units that fought between 1939 and 1945 – army, navy and air force – Bomber Command took the highest proportion of losses. In all, 55,573 men took off with their squadrons only to be killed by shrapnel, cannon fire or misadventure. Of them, 4,050 were Australians.
Death rates in some squadrons were so high that they were replaced several times over during the course of the conflict. According to the war planners’ brutal arithmetic, this was an acceptable loss, particularly when Soviet military personnel and civilians were being killed in their millions on the Eastern Front.
Strategic bombing – the practice of dropping high explosives and incendiaries over wide areas – bought the allies sufficient time to prepare for the D-Day landings in June 1944. Officially, British Government policy throughout the war remained one of precision bombing: targeting specific industrial and military sites in order to grind down the Nazi war machine. But in practice, things were different. Bomber Command’s chief from March 1942, Arthur Harris, would stand for none of the cant that sought to maintain that the old policy and present actions were one and the same. His aim was to destroy as much of Germany as he could in the time he had available.
The thousand-bomber raid on Cologne on the night of 30 May 1942, set the pattern for future attacks. The first waves of aircraft dropped high explosives on the mainly wooden city, breaking windows and smashing roofs. They were followed by even more deadly payloads of incendiaries: small bombs containing phosphorous and other substances designed to start fires and resist extinguishment. The flames that were stoked all over Cologne joined together to become massive firestorms. A total of 384 civilians were killed, 5,000 injured and some 45,000 made homeless. As the Lancasters, headed for England, rear gunners could still see the glow of the burning city as they crossed the Dutch coast.
Lancaster crews were highly vulnerable to fighter attack, search lights and anti-aircraft fire. Death and injury could also come from other Lancasters. Most missions were flown at night without navigation lights. Collisions and the threat of falling ordnance were constant hazards.
It was as much Pickles’ skill in the air as it was the number of officers who were killed in Bomber Command that saw him rise from the rank of flight sergeant to squadron leader in less than three years, from 1943 to 1945.
“I was operating towards the end of the war and our losses weren’t as bad then,” he explains.
“We did 15 trips on our first tour and we were the senior crew on the squadron … We’d lost the entire squadron except for two crews. That was pretty sticky. The squadron strength was about 24, I think. So we’d probably lost 20 or 22 crews by the time I’d done 15 trips.”
Pickles survived his two tours but not all those who flew under his command were so lucky. One night during the northern summer of 1943, Pickles captained his aircraft in a raid over Hamburg. Out of the darkness, Luftwaffe fighters emerged and opened fire on the Lancaster. Two of Pickles’ crew were killed and a third was seriously injured. With only four of the seven crewmen able to operate and defend the aircraft, Pickles nursed it safely back to England.
It was for that action that the then 22-year-old won his first Distinguished Flying Cross. At war’s end he was awarded a second. The citation for that award noted his “zest, enthusiasm and determination for operational flying” that he displayed “during the worst winter weather, and in the face of the enemy’s heaviest defences”.
Cologne presaged the devastation that would over the next three years come to cities and towns such as Bremen, Hamburg, Lubeck, Berlin and, perhaps most famously, Dresden. Pickles and his crew from 550 Squadron flew a 10-hour round trip to bomb Dresden on February 13, 1945. His recollection of the night in Bruce Anderson’s Ploughshares and Propellers (2009) is simply that there was “very extensive damage”.
Pickles returned to Australia in 1946 at the controls of a modified Lincoln bomber, flown home with a crew of six other men. In the 1950s he purchased “Cadell”, near Barham.
There he has stayed ever since, growing crops such as rice and sorghum and raising sheep. Aircraft, however, have remained a constant presence in his life.
While farming, Pickles flew a P51 Mustang and, later, a silver Beechworth Bonanza. Returning home was as simple as landing on the driveway and taxiing to the door of the homestead, where the photos of those who never came back adorn the walls.
As Pickles makes tea in his kitchen warmed by a wood-fired cooker, the old man looks on with admiration at the machine in front of him, assembly complete.
“Well,” he says, “now it’s looking more like an aeroplane.”
With Taylor and the Cohuna Flying Club members gone it becomes quiet enough for one of Pickles’ cats to return to its favourite position on the stool by the island bench. He shoos it away, but the cat hardly moves.
“Just ignores me,” he says.
‘Cadell’ has recently been sold yet its new owners are happy for him to stay on in the homestead. Without the responsibility of running the farm, his thoughts turn to the Bonanza parked in its hangar nearby.
“I’ve got plenty of friends about the place,” he says, “and I can easily fly around to visit them. I think that’s what I’d like to do in my retirement.”
Dr Damien Williams is an historian in the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University.
This article is drawn from Anzac Journeys: returning to the battlefields of World War II (Cambridge University Press, 2013), which he wrote together with Bruce Scates, Keir Reeves, Alexandra McCosker and Rebecca Wheatley, available in bookstores now.
Find out more:
- National Centre for Australian Studies
- Dr Damien Williams
- Professor Bruce Scates
- Dr Keir Reeves
- Rebecca Wheatley
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