Remembering the Aussie Air Force Personnel Who Died in World War Two

Steve Waterton, in The AUSTRALIAN, Special Magazine Edition, 31 March 2021

Stella Bowen, one of the few Australian women to be appointed an official war artist, began her preliminary pencil sketches for the painting on this magazine’s cover on April 27, 1944. Her subjects were the crew of a Lancaster bomber of 460 Squadron, six Australians and their English flight engineer. That night their raid took them over Friedrichshafen, an important German industrial centre; the next morning they were reported missing, presumed dead.

In fact one of the men had survived: Pilot Officer Thomas Lynch, the rear gunner, second left in the back row of the painting. He was allowed to send a postcard to his parents in Queensland from a Dulag Luft prisoner of war transit camp in September; when he was repatriated in a prisoner exchange the following February, Lynch reported that his aircraft had been shot down near the Swiss border. He was pulled unconscious from the wreckage and regained consciousness a week later in a German air force hospital in Baden-Baden, to discover his right leg had been amputated. A doctor told him the rest of his crew had been killed in the crash.

Bowen was determined to complete her painting, working in her London studio from her sketches and official photographs of the crew, including the one reproduced above. It was a poignant and harrowing exercise: “It was horrible having to finish the picture after the men were lost,” she wrote to her brother. “Like painting ghosts.” Almost 10,000 other RAAF airmen would match their sacrifice by the end of the war.

I am grateful once again to the staff of the Australian War Memorial, particularly Greg Kimball, who has assisted with a number of magazines over recent years. And the advice of Squadron Leader Bruce Chalmers has been invaluable, as has the generously shared expertise of the RAAF’s History Branch.

It has been a pleasure and an honour to pay tribute to the service that, in the words of historian and former RAAF pilot Alan Stephens in his opening essay, “took the fight to Germany”. Failure to defeat the Nazis would see the world sink, said British PM Winston Churchill, “into the abyss of a new Dark Age”.

The 27,000 Australian airmen who served in Europe paid a terrible price in young lives; but had they not beaten back Hitler’s tide of genocidal tyranny, the world we might be living in today does not bear thinking about.

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Filed under accountability, heritage, historical interpretation, life stories, meditations, military strategy, patriotism, self-reflexivity, trauma, war reportage, world events & processes, World War II

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