2003 History Conference - Air War Europe

The roundel: concentric identities among Australian airmen in Bomber Command
Peter Stanley

The Wellingtons, Halifaxes, and Lancasters that took off from Bomber Command airfields all had painted on their fuselages a roundel: the insignia of the Royal Air Force. The roundel can be seen as more than the distinctive emblem of the force in which their crews served and often died. It can also be used as a metaphor for the identities which they represented, a complex compound of loyalties to nation and empire, service and squadron.

Penetrating to the centre of the roundel might help to make clear who these men were and what they themselves felt about their place in the war, the Royal and Royal Australian Air Forces, their squadrons, their crews, and their musterings.* This question is important because the experience of the Australian crews in Bomber Command has proved to be more difficult to understand for subsequent generations, more prone to be seen in terms that confuse sentiment for reality. This paper represents an initial exploration rather than a definitive statement of questions of identity and loyalty among aircrew, revealing and suggesting possibilities rather than confident conclusions.

About twenty-five thousand Australian airmen served in the RAF flying from Britain, most in Bomber Command. Over three thousand Australians died in the bomber offensive – as the Roll of Honour in the cloisters of the Australian War Memorial describes it, “serving with the Royal Air Force”. These men have been portrayed as the victims of war twice over. Not only were they sacrificed to the epic losses of the bomber offensive, but also were “surrendered” by Australian governments, abandoned as pawns in an aerial war of attrition of little relevance to Australian interests.[1]

This interpretation derives from an Australian nationalism which grew to prominence in the decades after the Second World War, one which has become orthodoxy in itself. It is too easy, however, to consider these men from the perspective of a changed Australia. What did these men think themselves? What loyalties did they hold? The answer to this question is not simple. It is of course difficult to gauge the feelings and attitudes of so many men, all of them individuals. The evidence is elusive: mostly young men living in expectation of death, they were often disinclined to reflection. The task can and ought to be attempted, though, and this paper offers a tentative and by no means exclusive view of the identities they manifested.

The roundel on a Lancaster’s fuselage had four colours: a yellow outer circle, and the familiar blue and white rings and the red disc at its centre. These concentric rings suggest some of the many aspects of aircrews’ identities that we might explore – including gender, age, religion, and awareness of the Allied cause as a whole.

There are circles of the roundel that I will not deal with for lack of time and evidence. For example, airmen’s letters and diaries display little explicit interest in the Allied cause and even less in the morality of the bomber offensive. Don Charlwood explained, “We could not afford to fritter our strength on endless questioning”.[2] Nor did they expend much energy on abstract loyalty to the air force. Though many men volunteered for the air force because of its supposed glamour (and their jovial contempt for “brown jobs”) and many were proud of being members of the RAF or RAAF, airmen seem to have attached relatively little importance to their status as airmen. They were arguably more proud of the wings denoting their musterings (especially the observers, who hung on to their hard-won “flying arseholes” when their duties were split between bomb aimers and wireless operators).

The constraints of censorship caused many to avoid commenting on the details of service life in both letters and diaries. They did, however, relish the company of like-minded young men in the squadrons to which they were posted. “Squadron life is a great thing”, Pilot Officer Gordon Lee wrote home enthusiastically. “I think that crew teamwork and comradeship are two of the greatest pleasures a man could ever get from life.”[3] Membership of a squadron, however, was not the same as being a part of, say, an infantry battalion. A crew completing a tour would leave without regret. Letters and memoirs hint at differences between squadrons in their operational practices, command styles, and disciplinary regimes: what these differences were and whether they were significant remains unexplored.

Perhaps the most important relationship on a squadron (besides the bonds that united members of a crew) was the regard between an aircrew and their ground crew. Gordon Lee told his family how “the ground boys on your kite work their hearts out for you.… Nearly everybody on the station comes to the end of the runway to see the take-off.”[4] Geoff Berglund described how the “pathetic sight … touched me”.[5] But even their ground crew conceded that aircrew were different. Nutty Nuttall, a 460 Squadron airframe fitter, once stowed away on a raid on Krefeld. On his return he said, “They’re all crackpots, the whole bloody lot of them. Anyone who does that more than once ought to be certified.”[6]

For many, perhaps, being a survivor became an important identity in itself: many former aircrew remain conscious, even sixty years on, that they “should” have got the chop over Essen, or Mannheim, or Berlin. At its core of the roundel, perhaps, was the “loneliness” that one former wireless air gunner recalled as “the mark of nearly all aircrew”. Despite the sense of corporate endeavour and the comradeship of crew and squadron, Ron Greentree recalled the “loneliness … the way a man must withdraw into an untouchable inner sanctum and rely on no-one else to survive”.[7]

Today, however, I will explore only two of the most important rings in the roundel: nation and crew. I will work from the broader to the specific, beginning with arguably the most contentious element – nationality.

This paper draws upon both contemporary material (chiefly letters and diaries), on the oral history interviews compiled as part of the Keith Murdoch Sound Archive of Australia in the War of 1939–45, and on memoirs written by Australians who flew as part of Bomber Command. All of this material is held in the collection of the Australian War Memorial. For pragmatic reasons, I have concentrated on records created by men who served in several of the Australian bomber squadrons: 463, 467, and especially 460. It is important to acknowledge that members of these squadrons, not all of whom were Australians, constituted a minority even among the Australians posted to Bomber Command. On the basis of Australian Bomber Command deaths, about sixty per cent of Australian graduates from the Empire Air Training Scheme served with Royal Air Force units. It is unfortunate that we do not have a representative collection of their personal papers as we do for the “Article XV” squadrons.

National identity

When Robert Menzies announced in a wireless address in October 1939 that Australia would join the Empire Air Training Scheme, he expressed a common view. Predicting – rightly – that the scheme could become “the most decisive joint effort to be made by the British nations in this war”, he spoke to Britain on behalf of Australia. “We are with you”, he said. “Your danger is our danger; your effort is our effort; your success will be our success.” In making this response, Menzies concluded, “I believe that I have spoken as you would have wished”.[8]

The national identity of Australians in Bomber Command is the most contentious aspect of the airmen’s concentric loyalties, largely because the very nature of Australian understandings of national identity has changed so dramatically in the ensuing sixty years. In 1940 many Australians maintained a dual loyalty: to Australia and to Britain. They were proud both of their distinctive identity as Australians and of their membership in an imperial partnership. Britain was “home”: the great burst of enlistment in Australia occurred not when the war began, but when in 1940 Britain faced invasion and defeat.

Australian airmen who joined the RAF before the war also demonstrated an Australian consciousness. Squadron Leader Robert Bungey, who later commanded the first RAAF fighter squadron formed in Britain, had painted a kangaroo on the fuselage of his Battle light bomber in France in 1940.[9] Article XV of the Empire Air Training Agreement specified that “pupils … shall, after training is completed, be identified with Australia”.[10] By 1944 there were five nominally Australian heavy bomber squadrons: they were 460, 462, 466, 463, and 467. These units incurred the heaviest proportional losses of all of all Australian squadrons: 244 Australian deaths in 463, 284 in 467, 588 in 460 Squadron.

Australian airmen who joined Bomber Command served in wartime Britain. RAAF aircrew who were awarded the “Aircrew Europe” campaign medal overwhelmingly flew exclusively from Britain. Except for those who were shot down over Europe, or the few who followed the liberation as part of the Second Tactical Air Force, very few actually went anywhere else – except, of course, on operations. As well as the hazards of flak and fighters, they shared the hardships and inconveniences of British civilians: indeed, two thousand Australian airmen – just under one in ten – married British women.[11] Their reactions to and recollections of that place comprise a complex cultural fabric, one that demands care and skill to unpick.

It is important to set that exploration in a broader context. Australian encounters with Britain are, we must acknowledge, tinged with a profound ambivalence. For example, consider the recollection of the great Australian historian Manning Clark. In the late 1930s he travelled from Melbourne to Oxford, imbued with the idea that “the monarchy and the Empire, the British connection, and the local cult of Englishmanism, were … rather like the mountains, the sea, and the sky: they were from eternity and would not change”.[12] Clark’s account of his growth as an historian is partly the story of the erosion of that enduring certainty. Likewise, as Ian Britain shows in Once an Australian, his studies of several of the most celebrated postwar Australian expatriates, the challenge for young writers such as Clive James and Germaine Greer became the reconciliation of their romantic adulation for the metropolitan culture with its disdain for their antipodean values.[13]

Australian airmen also contended with this tension. Airmen’s letters convey their excitement on encountering a place many had grown up to regard as the source of their culture. In 1941 Britain reminded Flight Sergeant George Hawes of “a picture book where everything is just so green”. He had seen photographs of Stonehenge at school, “but I never dreamed I would ever see the place”.[14] William Murphy told his mother that “the English countryside is beautiful”, adding “but there’s so little of it” – but he was from Queensland.[15]

The diary and letters of Errol Crapp, a navigator in 460 Squadron, a clergyman’s son from Singleton, likewise begin with adulation. His diary contains frequent admiring references to England, characteristically and fondly describing the “very quaint and picturesque, and very old”. In October 1942 Crapp went with a party from his squadron on a tour of a twelfth century priory at Coxwold, near York. He recorded in his diary some of its many historical associations. They included a complete uniform worn at the Charge of the Light Brigade, a Cromwellian connection, a nearby vicarage where Lawrence Sterne wrote Tristram Shandy, and a bedroom where King Edward VII slept as Prince of Wales in 1877, though with whom Crapp did not record.[16]

Once the excitement of seeing ancient monuments and picture-postcard scenery wore off, Australians saw Britain in a more complex light. They visited cities less picturesque and country less comfortable. Geoff Berglund, a gunner in 463 Squadron, spent a day in Leeds. Even on a summer afternoon he saw it as only “old buildings and full of trolls. I wouldn’t like to live here.”[17] The physical realities of living on wartime airstrips deep in rural England in winter affected their regard. In February 1942 William Murphy recorded the complaint of his mate, Freddy Breen: “This bloody country, to get warm a fellow has to sit over a fire day + night. I sleep in my dressing gown, with an overcoat over the top.”[18]

Entries in the diary of William Hooper, a pilot who flew with 463 Squadron in 1944, illustrate the transition from adulation to confusion to disillusionment through which some Australians passed. On arriving from Canada early in 1944 and travelling by train from Liverpool to Bournemouth, he wrote, “England is just the same as the picture books portray it … a grand sight”. A few weeks later he and a clergyman walked through the countryside near Clavering, in Essex. “We chatted about English tradition and custom. It is hard to understand from our viewpoint but there is a lot behind it.” Within a few months, however, Hooper’s patience had run out. From 27 OTU, the Australian operational training unit at Lichfield, he scrawled that “these English coots are pure dogs and I never want to … see them again after this show”. But Hooper’s scorn was not only directed toward his hosts. He wrote, “These English are bastards for discipline”, but also that “… the big bugs of the Aussies crawl to them like kids”.[19] Hooper’s reaction seems to have been common. Just weeks after his history lesson at Coxwold, Erroll Crapp was astounded to hear an RAF officer in the mess observe that “Australia doesn’t know there is a war on”. Crapp replied that he had been surprised to learn about the war when he arrived, telling his father that “the remark is heard too frequently to be completely ignored”.[20]

Australians (like Canadians but perhaps unlike New Zealanders) acquired a reputation for the high-spirited or undisciplined behaviour Australians call “larrikinism”. At an OTU at Wigtown, Australians obtained extra meals by giving names such as “Ned Kelly” and “John Curtin”. Their station commander told them that he would be “glad to see the last of you, you trouble-makers”.[21] It’s important to see this evidence in several contexts. Australians doubtless played up to the larrikin image established by the AIF in the Great War, but high spirits were evident among aircrew irrespective of their nationality, and would not be uncommon among any group of twenty-odd-year-olds, especially one believing it was destined for sudden and violent death.

These two strands of words – some written by young men in messes and reading rooms in wartime and others set down in reflection many years later and thousands of kilometres away – come together in one recent memoir. Earlier this year Rollo Kingsford-Smith published his self-published memoir I wouldn’t have missed it for quids. The nephew of the pioneer aviator, Kingsford-Smith has written a reminiscence of unusual value. It spans his country childhood in the “twenties in Sydney and the Riverina” and his career in aviation from the “forties to the eighties”. The heart of the book is his wartime career, in which he flew as a flight and squadron commander in 463 and 467 Squadrons and which he describes with candour. Throughout he remains conscious that Australia changed markedly between 1919 and 1999.

Kingsford-Smith was aware of the dynamic relationship between Australia and Britain. Even as he contemplated a career in the permanent RAAF, an escape from a dead-end clerical job and a demanding mother, he recalled entertaining misgivings about “whether our loyalty to the ‘mother country’ was reciprocated”.[22] He therefore does not represent the archetypal airman, prepared to serve without demur in a British Commonwealth air force. Kingsford-Smith’s significance lies in the conjunction in his memoir of a contemporary document and a reflective recollection. That he was untypical serves to illuminate the ambiguity of the relationship and the way it changed during and as a result of war.

Kingsford-Smith recalls reading correspondence at 5 Group headquarters in April 1944. Keith Sinclair, an Australian wing commander serving in the RAF, had shown him correspondence from British authorities that he considered “petulant”. In effect, it directed RAF posting officers to starve Australian squadrons of reinforcements in favour of RAF squadrons and those of more compliant dominions.[23] The significance of this recollection – and indeed, whether it accurately reflects the relationship – needs to be tested. For instance, it needs to be recalled that early in 1944 there was no shortage of aircrew, and that the Australian depots were full of unposted aircrew kicking their heels: why fail to use aircrew as the bomber offensive and the liberation of Europe gained momentum? Still, it hints not only at a cultural or individual ambivalence, but at an institutional tension over the use of men, late in the war, who had been sought specifically as an imperial resource. In the bomber offensive as in other campaigns and theatres, service in a common cause exacerbated differences as well as built relationships.

The crew

Airmen’s identification with their crews also needs to be viewed in perspective. Comradeship – the bond forged by shared endeavour – is of course a common element across centuries and across cultures. It was, however, manifested with a peculiar intensity in the bomber crews’ war. The practice of posting men to squadrons as crews, combined with the reality of the air war, meant that operations became a matter of a crew’s individual experience. Ken Gray, reflecting on his time with 101 Squadron (a neighbour of 460), remembered, “We weren’t together as a squadron. We were all individuals ... you didn’t really have a squadron spirit. You had an individual crew spirit ….”[24] Though crews were aware of being a part of a squadron on the ground, and of flying as part of a “bomber stream” in the air, their immediate reality was of seven men sharing a plane and a task and being connected by an intercom. Ken Gray recalled that “outside one’s own crew you didn’t have too many friends. You deliberately did not because you quickly learned that if … he didn’t come back … you’d have [lost] a strong friend. So they were acquaintances rather than friends.”[25]

Airmen became aircrew through the processes which the air force called “crewing up”. In contrast to popular impression, this could occur in many ways. Don Charlwood described the laconic, haphazard process of formation:

"Are you flying with anyone?"


"How about flying together?"[26]

Others recall being detailed to a crew: “Okay”, Ross Parham was told at OTU at Oban, “you’re it; you’re a crew!”[27]

At the point of crewing up nationalism sometimes intersected with the desire to form a good crew. William Murphy, an early volunteer for the RAAF, found himself looking for a crew for a Wellington at 27 OTU. “The Englishmen do a wonderful job,” he conceded, but “Aussies would rather fly with Aussies”.[28] It has to be said that his was one of the very few all-Australian crews to serve, even in 460 Squadron. Between the policy of mixing up British and dominion aircrew and the small proportion of Australians in any course, nationalism received little encouragement.

In any case, the RAF discouraged “national crews”.[29] Just over half of Bomber Command’s aircrew were British. Martin Middlebrook in The battle ofHamburg reflected the views of the crews he interviewed and corresponded with who believed that Australians were happy in mixed crews and did not think in terms of national rivalries.[30] This is probably true. They thought in terms of national identities – as the number of “Jocks”, “Taffys”, “Diggers”, and “Aussies” in airmen’s recollections testifies – but the degree of integration was such that loyalty to comrades in a mixed crew far outweighed abstract loyalty to national groups. The air force’s pragmatic needs often prevailed over individual preferences. For example, Maurice Dalton and his crew were posted to 44 (Rhodesian) Squadron because his bomb aimer was Rhodesian and he surmised that the RAF wanted to concentrate its few Rhodesians in this nominally Rhodesian squadron. But his crew included a Welsh rear gunner (later replaced by a Londoner), a Scottish navigator, an English flight engineer, and a Canadian mid-upper gunner. Dalton and his wireless operator were Australian.[31]

We need to recognise that the picture is as varied as the individuals are numerous. Individuals often seem to counter our expectations. For example, while serving in an Australian unit helped to maintain contact with home through newspapers, shared comforts parcels, and access to padres and welfare officers, not all Australians wanted to mix with their compatriots. Mervyn Scope remembered that when in London “the one place I didn’t like was the ‘Boomerang Club’”, where he found “too many Australians”.[32]

Likewise David Leicester, who would be awarded a DFC at nineteen, recalled how he crewed up haphazardly, finding himself the only Australian in an otherwise all-English crew. He believed that RAF squadrons were superior because “whether you got an Irishman or a Welshman or a Scotchman or a London policeman for a crew didn’t really matter.” With Australians, however, Leicester found that “each one was trying to outdo the other and … well they often weren’t very popular”. David Leicester’s judgement does not, of course, accord with the assumption that Australians in Bomber Command itched to serve together, envied the Canadians their own group, and sought out the company of their fellow Aussies. It hints at the existence of a more complex range of attitudes, ones able to be recovered only by carefully listening to what these men have revealed of themselves, both in writing at the time and in writing and on tape in retrospect.

The evidence, then, is perplexingly varied. Memoirs mirror the ambivalence of the wartime record, but they also diffract it. Reflecting on his experience of forty years before, one of the men whom Steve Dyer interviewed for his account of 30 Course observed that “what was true then isn’t always true now”.[33] The airmen’s view in retrospect needs to be carefully distinguished from their contemporary impressions. Cliff Halsall, a gunner of 460 Squadron, recorded in his diary his exhilaration at arriving in London. “London! Headquarters of our Empire.” “Remember”, he added forty years later, “this was written in 1944”.[34]

Some former airmen looked back on their part in the European war with an awareness of broader themes which have become prominent only in retrospect. The threat which Australia faced from Japanese attack coloured some men’s perception of the need for them to serve in what some saw as a different war. Peter Dale, a 463 Squadron rear gunner, looking back on the war from the 1980s, believed that “England had no right to draw us over to Europe when we were wanted here” in Australia.[35] How widespread this sentiment was at the time is difficult to establish. About one hundred Australian aircrew requested postings back to the South-West Pacific: whether this meant “only” one hundred or “over” one hundred is debatable.[36]

Memoirs, both in manuscript, in print, and on tape suggest an even greater variety of opinion and emphasis than does the contemporary record. The difficulty of reaching and reflecting an adequate understanding of both the diversity and the coherence of these individual views gives particular point to Hank Nelson’s work. Clearly, we cannot assume one RAAF or Bomber Command view, and it will take the skill and empathy of an historian of Nelson’s stature to arrive at an understanding that does justice to that complex and changing reality.

It seems, then, that the rings of the roundel were variously coloured and were thick or thin depending upon various individual considerations. All of Bomber Command’s airmen, however, shared a sense of corporate endeavour that helped to sustain them at the time and which nourishes their pride in retrospect. It makes the roundel on the fuselages of their planes an appropriate symbol as well as a handy metaphor for their identity. Laurie Field survived two tours with Bomber Command to write the first general account of Australia in the Boer War, but sadly did not live to complete a history of 460 Squadron. Included in the collection of papers he compiled for the squadron history are his own letters to his mother in Bedgerebong, near Forbes in the central west of New South Wales. In December 1943 he had written describing the awesome sight of Berlin burning during the great RAF offensive which was to cost the lives of so many aircrew. “I consider it a privilege”, he wrote, “to have seen those sights … and to have flown alongside the best lads in the world – the Boys of the R.A.F., R.A.A.F., R.C.A.F., and R.N.Z.A.F. all of which work together as one big unit”.[37]

* That is, the jobs they did within the crew, such as pilot, wireless air gunner, navigator, etcetera.


[1] This interpretation is now widely accepted. The “surrender” argument was first advanced by John Robertson in Australia at war 1939–1945, Melbourne, 1981, pp. 54–55. Robertson argued that the EATS was “a disaster” in terms of Australian defence policy. Robertson’s colleague, Dr John McCarthy, developed the thesis most eloquently in his article, “The ‘surrender’ of aircrew to Britain 1939–45” in the Journal of the Australian War Memorial, No. 5, October 1984, pp. 3–8, and in his book, Last call of empire: Australian aircrew, Britain and the Empire Air Training Scheme, Canberra, 1988.

[2] Don Chalwood, No moon tonight, London, 1956, p. 64.

[3] Letter, 11 Jul 1942, AWM 3 DRL 6147

[4] Letter, 3 Jul 1942, AWM 3 DRL 6147

[5] Diary, 7 Jul, 14 Jul 1944, PR00402, AWM

[6] Gordon Stooke, Flak and barbed wire, Loftus, 1997, p. 12.

[7] Sep Owen, (ed.), 10-course Wags: stories of the Wireless Air Gunners, Newcastle, 1986, p. 55.

[8] Prime Minister’s Press Statement, 11 October 1939, AWM 138, item 5.

[9] Frank Johnson, RAAF over Europe, London, 1946, p. 12.

[10] John Herington, Air war against Germany and Italy 1939–1945, p. 4.

[11] Frank Johnson, RAAF over Europe, London, 1946, p. 187.

[12] Manning Clark, The quest for grace, Melbourne, 1990, p. 14.

[13] Ian Britain, Once an Australian, Melbourne, 1998.

[14] Denise Rope, (ed.), For the duration, Canberra, 1984, pp. 31, 33. Hawes, who flew on an RAF squadron, was killed on his 25th operation in July 1942.

[15] Letter, 15 Sep 1941, 3DRL 7733, AWM

[16] Diary, Pilot Officer Errol Crapp, AWM PR00144, entry for 29 Oct 1942.

[17] Diary, Flying Officer Geoff Berglund, 1 Aug 1944, PR00402, AWM. Murphy was posted missing on 29 May 1942.

[18] Letter, 7 Feb 1942, 3DRL 7733, AWM. Breen was killed over Germany in July 1942.

[19] Diary, William Hooper, entries 15 and 24 March and 21 and 24 Jun 1944, PR00336, AWM

[20] Letter, Pilot Officer Errol Crapp to his father and family, 19 Dec 1942, AWM PR00144

[21] Steve Dyer, A thirty course war: airmen of the RAAF at war 1941–1945, Canberra, 1997, p. 191.

[22] Rollo Kingsford-Smith, I wouldn’t have missed it for quids, Exeter (NSW), 1999, p. 12.

[23] Ibid, p. 74.

[24] Ken Gray, Interview, Australian War Memorial Keith Murdoch Sound Archive of Australia in the War of 1939–45, S539

[25] Ken Gray, Interview, Australian War Memorial Murdoch Sound Archive of Australia in the War of 1939–45, S539

[26] Don Charlwood, No moon tonight, London, 1956, p. 22

[27] Steve Dyer, A thirty course war: airmen of the RAAF at war 1941–1945, Canberra, 1997, p. 200.

[28] Letter, 17 Oct 1941, 3DRL 7733, AWM

[29] John Herington, Air war against Germany and Italy 1939-1945, p. 182.

[30] Martin Middlebrook, The battle of Hamburg, London, 1980.

[31] Maurice Dalton, An adventure of a lifetime: my service with the RAAF, 1942-1946, np. nd, p. 51.

[32] Mervyn Scope, As luck would have it: with the RAAF in World War 2, np, 1992, p. 56.

[33] Steve Dyer, A Thirty Course war: airmen of the RAAF at war 1941–1945, Canberra, 1997, np

[34] Papers of Flight Sergeant Cliff Halsall, AWM PR00791, memoir, p. 13.

[35] Peter Dale, “Memories of a World War II, Ex-Army and RAAF Serviceman”, AWM PR90/135

[36] John Herington, Air war against Germany and Italy 1939-1945, p. 126.

[37] Flight Sergeant Laurie Field to Mrs O. Field, 14 Dec 1943, AWM MS 1489


Dr Peter Stanley is Principal Historian at the Australian War Memorial, where he has worked since 1980. He is the author of many articles and fifteen books encompassing interests in medical history, imperial military history and the world wars, including recently Alamein: the Australian story (with Mark Johnston) and For fear of pain: British surgery 1790–1850. He has recently become a Visiting Associate Professor in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Australian Defence Force Academy. This paper was first presented to the 11th British–Australian Dialogue, Lincoln, May 2000, held under the auspices of the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, London.