Anzac story worthy of Peter Jackson glory
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What Anzac Day means to me
Now that Peter Jackson has completed his Tolkien project I understand that he plans to honour World War II aircrews by remaking the 1955 classic The Dam Busters, with fibreglass Lancasters already lined up at Masterton.
Much as I loved the original film, three years of research into my dad's brief association with the Lancaster and No. 75 (New Zealand) Squadron have convinced me that Peter Jackson's considerable talents might be better served by paying tribute to a group of his fellow countrymen, whose efforts and sacrifices were every bit as remarkable as those of No. 617 Squadron.
As a child growing up in the 1950s I never tired of asking my dad about his experiences as a flight engineer in a Lancaster. I wanted to know where he sat, what his job was, what flak was like and even how aircraft were able to fly.
By the time I left primary school my interest had started to wane and when he died in 1974, at the age of 55, any chance of questioning him further about his experiences was lost. I was left with nothing more than a handful of photographs, his flying log book and the name of his New Zealand pilot, Bill Mallon.
In the spring of 2012, I acquired his service record and decided to document as much as I could of his war-time experiences so that his grandchildren, who never met him and for whom World War II was ancient history, could learn about this momentous part of his life.
This decision took me on an incredible voyage of discovery.
What was intended to be a single blog for the benefit of close family is now a story that has been viewed more than 10,000 times, has 27 published chapters and more than 50,000 words.
No. 75 (NZ) Squadron flew more sorties than any other Allied heavy bomber squadron and suffered the second most casualties - one of its airmen was even awarded the Victoria Cross.
But my story is not about the squadron, nor is it about individual heroism. It is about a small number of unremarkable men thrown together briefly during the last few months of the war, and the amazing way in which their tales are unfolding 70 years later.
Vic's dad in 1944, shortly after qualifying as a flight engineer.
Six months of research and the generosity of fellow enthusiasts enabled me to publish a detailed account of my dad's attempts to enlist, his initial training, his specialist training to become a flight engineer, his 'crewing up' with four men from New Zealand and two young gunners from the UK, and their posting to RAF Mepal in Cambridgeshire.
I discovered the names of all of the crew and was able to publish details of each of the operations in which they participated, including their targets, the bombs they dropped, the squadron's losses and a couple of near disasters of their own.
But that was when the really interesting part started.
The rest of my dad's crew: L to R Jim, Don, Bill, Frank, Denis and Ken
In the immediate post-war years everyone just wanted to get on with their lives and raise their families. How often do we hear people lament that their parents or grandparents never talked about what they did in the war?
This reluctance and the limitations of travel and communication meant that any suggestion that my dad should reconnect with any of his crew was unrealistic. How things have changed!
A couple of enquiries on the Wings over New Zealand aviation forum quickly led to email exchanges with Bill Mallon's son Barrie in Christchurch and he was able to tell me about the tragedy that led to his dad's premature separation from the crew in 1945.
Both of his brothers were also pilots and in 1940 Jack, the eldest, was shot down and killed while taking part in an operation over France. A few days after Bill started his tour in March 1945 he received news that his other brother Tom had also been killed after his Mosquito crashed shortly after take-off in Holland.
Bill's family in New Zealand immediately started procedures to have him grounded but Bill continued his tour and the war was over before they succeeded.
I obtained a transcript of an interview Bill had given in 2004 for the New Zealand Defence Force's Military Oral History Project.
He described how the three Mallon boys had developed their passion for flying in the 1930s watching Gypsy Moths at Bell Block airfield on Sunday mornings; how difficult life had been in New Zealand during the depression; and some of the details of his epic journey from New Zealand to England via the USA and Canada.
I also learnt of the life-long betrayal he felt over the refusal to award Jack the Battle of Britain clasp, read letters he exchanged with the mayor of a small town near Calais where Jack is buried and even discovered that the crew had made a trip to my home town in Lincolnshire to celebrate my dad's first wedding anniversary.
In a letter to a friend, Bill recalled an encounter with a night fighter on his first operation: "It frightened the hell out of me. I didn't think there was much future in this game."
In July 2013, just as I was coming to the end of Bill's story, I received an email: "Hi, our family has just found your blog - very interesting reading especially as my dad, Jim Haworth is mentioned. I have some information on the crew and their flights... Would you be interested?"
It was from the navigator's eldest daughter, Ruth, also in New Zealand.
Her dad, who was born in Timaru and educated in Christchurch, had written to his wife throughout his long separation from his family and Ruth sent me some of those letters.
As the only member of the crew with children he clearly found absence from his wife and two little girls very difficult and, despite a wicked sense of humour and attempts to make light of a difficult situation, his homesickness permeates everything he wrote.
I found Jim's letters amusing but very moving at the same time. I was also amazed by the amount of detail he included about their operations over Germany.
Over the next few months I was contacted by numerous interested parties. They included the son of a wireless operator who was posted to the squadron on the same day as my dad, and a member of a team from the Netherlands investigating servicemen 'missing in action' who had unearthed some shocking photographs.
I discovered the tragic fate of the RAF hero who had taken my dad up for his first few flights in December 1944, and the truly breath-taking story of a flight engineer who literally fell out of his Lancaster and was captured by the Germans. He went on to form a life-long friendship with a young German with whom he published a book in 2012.
I learnt more about the two near misses my dad experienced too - the first when their aircraft was hit by flak over the Ruhr Valley and the port inner engine was lost, and the second on their final operation when they suffered a burst tyre on landing.
Then there was the tragedy of their replacement bomb aimer whose wife died 11,000 miles away in Auckland in 1943, shortly after he had been shipped overseas. He was unable to return home again until the war was over, more than two years later.
My next breakthrough, in April 2014, was the unlikely result of an appeal I made in the New Zealand Woman's Weekly.
The short email read: "Hello. I am the daughter of Frank. Can I help in any way?"
Frank Symes, originally from Wairoa, was the crew's wireless operator and with the help of his daughter and grandson I was able to commence yet another piece of this amazing jigsaw.
The next challenge was to trace the family of Denis Eynstone, the rear gunner.
All I had known about Denis was that he was originally from Oxford in the UK, but I soon had information that he may have moved to the south west of England.
I posted a speculative letter to a likely address in Devon and in November 2014 I received an email from Wendy, who confirmed that her father was indeed a rear gunner with 75 (NZ) Squadron but that he had died in 2011.
She told me how being trapped in his car after a road accident 60 years after the war had triggered terrible flash-backs and how, towards the end of his life in a nursing home, he had expressed remorse for the consequences of bombing populated areas.
That left just two crew members to locate and, with the bit firmly between my teeth, I am determined the story will be completed. As I write this, I am awaiting replies from the nephew and son of Ken, the bomb aimer, whose grave I have located in Porirua. Initial contact has already revealed yet another tragic family story.
The final piece of this incredible puzzle is Don Cook, the mid-upper gunner, who was born in London and looks like being the most difficult to trace, although he could still be alive, aged about 90.
Sadly, the rest of my dad's comrades have died but by putting together as much of their story as possible I hope I have kept alive the small role that they played in this important part of our history.
Apart from the opportunity to share experiences with the families of my dad's crew there have been two highlights of this project for me.
The first was the opportunity I had in August 2014 to follow in my dad's footsteps and fly in a Lancaster on a 30-minute tour of Lincolnshire. The other was the discovery of a photograph, taken on the April 24, 1945, of a Lancaster from No. 75 (NZ) Squadron on the squadron's final war operation to Bad Oldesloe in northern Germany.
The aircraft's identifying letters are clearly AA-W and the squadron's ORB (operations record book) for 1945 shows that the crew assigned to that aircraft on that operation was Bill Mallon's.
I can just make out Bill and my dad in the cockpit and, despite the poor quality of the photograph, I treasure it far more than the formal pictures of him in his 'best blues'.
Picture courtesy of E. Ware, NZBCA Archives