Written September 2011
During World War Two, Australia sent out a relatively small number of young men who were going off to fight in a war that was not really ‘theirs’. Choosing to sign up with the airforce wasn’t an easy decision under any circumstances, especially not at the outbreak of World War Two, where prospects for Australian pilots looked very grim. The life expectancy for the average Australian pilot was dreadfully low, and the casualties were horrifically high, well over the acceptable ‘loss rate’ prescribed by RAAF officers. 51% of Australian pilots were killed in combat, 9%1 perished in crashes and accidents, 3%1 were seriously injured in crashes, 12%1 became prisoners of war, 1% deserted, with only 24%1 coming back physically unharmed. These losses were out of about 27,000 Australian men who served in the RAAF, 15,746 of which were sent to British squadrons and 11,6413 of which served in Australian squadrons. Thousands more also served in the RAAF as engineers and crewmen.
To understand the poetry that some men of the airforce wrote during their ordeal of fighting in Europe, one needs to be informed about their numerous challenges, operations and battles they faced. Perhaps the most distinguished and legendary aviation squadron that Australia ever sent out to fight during WWII was the No. 460 Squadron. Engaged in numerous battles above Europe and in particular Germany, the men of No. 460 Squadron are still honoured for their incredible bravery and skill during battle. Within this squadron, over 3000 men served, and of these, 9901 were killed in action, a great number were wounded, 1931 were taken prisoner, 211 evaded capture after being shot down, and a further 101 were imprisoned after being forced to crash-land their damaged aircraft in neutral territory. No. 460 Squadron normally flew in Halifaxes, Lancasters and Wellingtons. The squadron also had the privilege to fly the legendary “G” for George Lancaster, a plane famous for always bringing back its crews unharmed. They logged on Lancasters alone 5700 operational sorties. The squadron is also supposed to have dropped more bombs than any squadron in the RAAF. ( Click below to read more)
Other squadrons also endured heavy losses and frenzied aerial war experiences, and fully deserve to be remembered for what they have done for our country. The No. 454 Squadron was equipped with Blenheims and operated as a light bomber unit in Iraq. In July, 1944, the squadron was transferred to Italy in the role of a light bomber unit against targets in Northern Italy and Yugoslavia. During this time, it flew 1,420 sorties, dropped 1,013 tons of bombs and logged 2,539 operational hours.
The No. 455 Squadron, sporting the motto “Strike and strike again”, was the first Australian bomber squadron to be formed in Britain. This squadron often partnered up with other Bomber Command squadrons and attacked the ships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in Brest harbour.
No. 464 Squadron was known for raiding the Philips factory at Eindhoven, Amiens prison along with 467 (R.N.Z.A.F.) and 21 Squadrons. The prison walls were breached and 258 prisoners were able to escape, including partisans who were awaiting execution. This wonderful Australian squadron was also involved in the raids on Gestapo Headquarters at Aarhus, Denmark on 31 October, 1944 and Copenhagen on 21 March 1945. No. 466 Squadron laid mines off the Frisian Islands and in total dropped 6201 tons of bombs and laid 3301 tons of mines throughout the squadron’s existence. No. 466 also made 1701 raids against 921 different targets, including Berlin, Cologne, Essen and many others. Involved in numerous attacks on Nazi Europe, No. 467 Squadron is also worth taking a look at. Equipped with Lancasters, this squadron took part in all the major bombing campaigns against Germany, such as the Battles of the Ruhr, Hamburg and Berlin.
Reading through the brief operational histories of just some of the RAAF squadrons dispatched in Europe, it is clear that the men went through hell. The experience of wartime heavily inspired some of these pilots to write poetry and historical fiction. Their bitter experiences prompted them to pen some of the most moving words ever unleashed in World War Two by those that served. Some used it as an escape, some to vent out frustration, some in an attempt to carry on the airforce’s legacy in their own words or to remember fallen friends. These poems were incredibly poignant and are still remembered today for their honesty and heartbreaking account of the horrors of war.
One such poem was written by Sgt. Observer. H. L. Brodie, who was part of the legendary No. 460 Squadron (perhaps the most grief-stricken Australian squadron to fight in Europe in WWII):
AN AIRMAN’S PRAYER
Almighty and all-present Power,
Short is the prayer I make to Thee,
I do not ask in battle hour
For any shield to cover me.
The vast unalterable way
From which the stars do not depart
May not be turned aside to stay
The bullet flying to my heart.
I ask no help to strike my foe,
I seek no petty victory here,
The enemy I hate, I know
To Thee is also dear.
But this I pray, be at my side
When death is drawing through the sky,
Almighty God, who also died
Teach me the way that I should die.
– Hugh Brodie
This poem, An Airman’s Prayer, addresses a difficult question head-on that many pilots asked themselves while they were up above, flying high in the skies, “Where is God?” Amidst the ever-stretching, blue panorama through which they glided, the answer seemed tantalisingly close, yet out of reach. This young poet and pilot doesn’t ask for some magical, impenetrable shield to keep him safe; instead, he reluctantly yet readily accepts that a bullet may enter his heart at any moment and also consents that even his enemies are human so he cannot simply pray for them to be wiped out. All he wants is to know in which way he will die. The stalwart and artistically talented pilot Hugh Brodie perfectly captures the state of confusion that practically everyone involved in a war encountered as they questioned how they were to meet their end. These men also grappled with issues such as God’s existence and the mortality and humanness present even in their foes who were completely dehumanised, denigrated and vilified through propaganda. The poem is a mighty piece of work, spurred by the scribe’s time in the RAAF, showing the sort of mentality that these pilots had whilst in the stressful situation of war.
Hugh Brodie was killed in action on the 3rd of June 1942, over Germany.
Another poem written by the talented R.W. Gilbert (possibly a pilot who battled over Europe, though not much information is given about him) is this short, striking and bitterly emotional lament:
REQUIEM TO A REAR GUNNER
My brief sweet life is over,
My eyes no longer see,
No Christmas trees,
no summer walks
No pretty girls for me,
I’ve got the chop, I’ve had it
My nightly Ops are done,
Yet in another hundred years
I’ll still be twenty one.
– R.W. Gilbert
The poem is told from the perspective of a deceased 21 year old rear-end Charlie who is trying to accept the fact that he will never see again, never celebrate Christmas again, never again go on casual strolls in the summer heat, never mingle with pretty girls again and never engage in his regular nightly operations. No matter how many years pass, he will remain ageless, forever beneath the ground. It is incredibly distressing to think of this man’s fate, and the way that R.W. Gilbert wrote the poem, using the voice of the dead, makes it even more chilling. Requiem to a Rear Gunner perfectly encapsulates the tragedy of the deaths of every single person to be involved in the war and reminds us that they are not just another statistic; they were a real human being with dreams, families, friends, lovers and ambitions. It is also clear that the poet himself must have been through some sort of ordeal during their service in the airforce, or perhaps R.W. Gilbert was just a civilian who was able to sympathise strongly with the lost men of the RAAF.
Paul Brickhill was another pilot who served in the RAAF and went on to write many well-known novels, the most famous of which was turned into the film The Great Escape. It was modelled on his trials in a prisoner of war camp, Stalag Luft III in Germany. Brickhill himself did not participate in the tunnelling escape depicted in the book and film, for he had claustrophobia. The war-related works that Paul Brickhill churned out shows that he was deeply impacted by his time as an RAAF pilot, fighting in Europe against the Nazis.
Understandably, such scarring experiences as war spark many feelings within a person, and in the case of the three men that have been mentioned above, and hundreds like them, brilliance is ignited within them and incredible words gush out from the mind, to the pen and finally to the paper, words that they never even knew they had the power to release so beautifully.
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– Gordon Stooke. (1998). History of 460 Squadron – Timeline. Available: http://www.gordonstooke.com/460squadron/history.htm. Last accessed 2 September 2011
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– Unknown. (1994). Kingfisher Aircraft. Available: http://www.fiddlersgreen.net/models/aircraft/Vought-Kingfisher.html. Last accessed 3 September 2011
– Peter Firkins (1964). Strike and Return: 460 RAAF Heavy Bomber Squadron . 3rd ed. Riverwood NSW: Ligare Pty. Ltd. All.
1) 460 Squadron Website
2) Royal Australian Air Force Official Website
3) AVRO Lancaster W4960
4) Oz at War