Honouring heroes of Bomber Command

RAAF personnel deployed to the United Kingdom during World War II prepare a Lancaster bomber for a bombing mission over occupied Europe (Defence Photos)

Australia’s contribution to the war effort in the skies over Europe during World War II was commemorated recently at RAAF Base Amberley. Air Force personnel joined with ex-Service members to honour and recognise the sacrifice and service of aircrew and ground crew who served with pride and distinction in Bomber Command from 1939 to 1945.

Bomber Command flew countless bombing missions against targets in enemy-controlled Europe during World War II. At the height of its operations in late 1944, Bomber Command comprised over 80 operational squadrons.

About 10,000 Royal Australian Air Force personnel served with Bomber Command; 3,486 of those were killed during the war.

The deaths of aircrew flying missions over Europe during the war were huge, with most aircrew believing their chances of surviving 30 missions were slim indeed. More than 55,000 Bomber Command members were killed during the war in raids, training exercises and accidents.

Of particular historical significance is that Flight Sergeant “Ron” Middleton, the first RAAF member to be awarded the Victoria Cross, was a member of Bomber Command. As a bomber pilot, he flew missions over occupied Europe, including his heroic sortie with No 149 Squadron Bomber Command over Italy in November 1942.

On this fateful mission, Middleton took off in his Short Stirling bomber on his 29th operation, to bomb the Fiat works in Turin, Italy. Middleton’s aircraft was struck by flak over the target, one shell exploded in the cockpit wounding Middleton in the face and destroying his right eye. The second pilot and wireless operator were also injured.

Middleton lost consciousness and the aircraft dived to just 800 feet before the second pilot brought it under control. They were hit by more flak as they tried to escape the target.

When Middleton regained consciousness he began the long and gruelling flight back over the Alps towards England, knowing that his damaged aircraft had insufficient fuel to complete the journey.

As they approached the French coast the Stirling was again hit by flak but flew on. Over the English coast with only five minutes of fuel left Middleton ordered the crew to abandon the aircraft. Five men left the stricken plane, and two remained on board to help Middleton before attempting to parachute to safety; unfortunately, both drowned.

The Stirling then crashed into the sea, killing Middleton. The classic irony is that Middleton was only one operation away from completing his first tour on bombers.