Hell from the skies, manna from heaven

The Riverine Herald - - NEWS -

A Doodle­bug (Ger­man V1 rocket-pro­pelled bomb) landed nearby and ex­ploded. I ended up un­der a ta­ble but have no idea how I got there. The blast was mas­sive and shat­tered every win­dow in the place. I un­der­stand it killed more’ about 40 and in­jured a lot

RE­TIRED dairy farmer Ron Pell lives qui­etly to­day, on a small block on the ru­ral fringes of Echuca. The World War II Royal Aus­tralian Air Force vet­eran has been be­lat­edly but of­fi­cially recog­nised by the Dutch gov­ern­ment and na­tion for mercy work he helped per­form dur­ing the fi­nal weeks of World War II. It would prove a shin­ing mo­ment in his­tory’s dark­est years

SE­RI­OUS war veter­ans sel­dom have a lot to say about their ser­vice.

The things they had to do, the things they had to see.

At 92, in his cot­tage at the back of the mud­brick farm­house he built 20-odd years ago, Ron Pell is in a lit­tle world of his own.

But 74 years ago he was a long way from the ru­ral out­skirts of Echuca and in the Royal Aus­tralian Air Force, caught up in the big­gest war in his­tory.

In 1943 War­rant Of­fi­cer Pell was sent to Eng­land with 115 Squadron to train in Welling­ton bombers be­fore tak­ing over a Lan­caster and join­ing the round-the-clock bomb­ing raids on Ger­many and oc­cu­pied Europe.

“We were based at Ely (about 130km north of Lon­don), which is home to Ely Cathe­dral, and we used its spire as a sighter when we were fly­ing back from mis­sions,” Ron said.

But the death rate of the bomber squadrons was off the charts – the lum­ber­ing planes made ex­cel­lent tar­gets for anti-aircraft fire (flak) from the ground and were sit­ting ducks for the Ger­man fighter planes.

First the ME109 then, as tech- nol­ogy and tac­tics de­vel­oped, the Ger­mans used up­graded ME110s and JU88s, fit­ted with radar and in­no­va­tions such as ma­chine guns set in the top of planes and an­gled to shoot up­wards, each mis­sion be­came a big­ger risk.

“We flew night mis­sions mostly, and where I was as bomb aimer/ nav­i­ga­tor at the front of the plane you never really saw them,” Ron re­called.

“You knew they were out there, you saw planes shot down, but they nearly al­ways came at us from be­low,” he said.

“I do re­mem­ber one time our rear gun­ner said there was one com­ing up un­der us and the pi­lot threw our plane in dives all over the place and we never had any trou­ble.” That time. Ron re­calls his plane limp­ing home on three en­gines after flak set one on fire dur­ing a bomb­ing raid deep into east­ern Ger­many and the pi­lot had to feather the en­gine.

Many times they landed and the plane was pep­pered with holes torn in the fuse­lage and wings by an­ti­air­craft fire.

“We would take off on mis­sions with 12 or so bombers but only five or six of us would come back,” Ron said softly, his eyes misted, the mem­o­ries of mates lost as raw to­day as the first news of their deaths back then.

Ron and his crew – from the Tas­ma­nian pi­lot to a pair of Poms who had some­how squeezed into the seven-mem­ber RAAF crew – would sur­vive 23 mis­sions.

An op­er­a­tional tour for a bomber crew was 30 non-aborted sor­ties after which the crew would nor­mally be bro­ken up and rested by be­ing as­signed to var­i­ous con­ver­sion or other non-op­er­a­tional units as in­struc­tors.

Although it was not un­com­mon for a rested crew mem­ber to vol­un­teer for a sec­ond bomber tour – and Ron knew one bloke who did just that.

“He was Edgar Pickle, he went back for more and flew 50 mis­sions by the time the war in Europe ended,” Ron said, still shak­ing his head in be­muse­ment.

If the war hadn’t ended, if Ron and his crew had made the mag­i­cal 30 there was no way he was putting his hand up for 30 more 10, 11 or 12 hour flights over hos­tile coun­try.

When you con­sider they mostly flew around 20,000 feet in tem­per­a­tures of -30C where ex­posed flesh stuck to any­thing metal­lic and oxy­gen masks were your life­line, it was phys­i­cally as well as men­tally drain­ing.

HE SAID the Ger­mans got very good at night fight­ing, their flak was very ac­cu­rate and their tech­nol­ogy deadly.

“If you got caught in a cone, when over­lap­ping beams tar­geted your height and di­rec­tion, they would ad­just their shells and you were in trou­ble.”

Re­mark­ably, apart from the shotup en­gine and some flak holes, the clos­est Ron came to be­ing in­jured, or killed, was one af­ter­noon at the rear of Aus­tralia House in Lon­don.

“A mate and I had gone to the Boomerang Club at the back when a Doodle­bug (Ger­man V1 rock­et­pro­pelled bomb) landed nearby and ex­ploded,” Ron said.

“I ended up un­der a ta­ble but have no idea how I got there.

‘‘The blast was mas­sive and shat­tered every win­dow in the place,” he said.

“I un­der­stand it killed about 40 and in­jured a lot more.

“As soon as we got over the shock we rushed out­side to see if we could help, there was this one cop­per try­ing to sort the mess out on his own.

“Where we were stand­ing there was a girl on the foot­path, her chest had been torn open and you could see her lungs work­ing.

‘‘There was a young fella next to her, dead. We as­sumed he was her boyfriend or hus­band.”

Ron and his mate stayed with her un­til the am­bu­lance came, but never knew if she had sur­vived.

“I have of­ten thought of her, won­dered what hap­pened, but I’ll never really know.”

It was a mem­ory, an emo­tional scar, as Ron low­ered his voice and changed the sub­ject.

On his lounge room wall is a framed fam­ily me­mento to fam­ily ser­vice that has been given in two wars – his fa­ther would be badly wounded in World War I, his brother with the army in World War II and him­self.

He doesn’t want war ser­vice ide­alised, but like many veter­ans he has that quiet sense of com­plet­ing an im­por­tant job, and do­ing a good job of it.

Yet some of his fond­est mem­o­ries of war were the mercy mis­sions he flew dur­ing 1945 and for which the Dutch gov­ern­ment has been be­lat­edly recog­nis­ing with medals.

Ron re­ceived his at Echuca’s Legacy House from the Mem­ber for

‘ We were fly­ing really low but the Ger­mans held their fire, we dropped the food and we got home

Mur­ray Plains Peter Walsh, on be­half of the Dutch gov­ern­ment.

“The Dutch were lit­er­ally starv­ing by the last months of the war,” Ron said.

“The Ger­mans still held most of the coun­try and they had stripped it of pro­vi­sions to help feed their own army,” he said.

“So a lo­cal cease­fire or amnesty was ar­ranged and we flew sev­eral mis­sions to drop food. We were fly­ing really low but the Ger­mans held their fire, we dropped the food and we got home.

“It was a really im­por­tant job – by that stage many of the Dutch were lit­er­ally eat­ing grass to have some­thing in their stom­achs – and I am glad I was part of it, putting a bomber to good use.

“It was called Op­er­a­tion Manna and we were the ones drop­ping manna from heaven.”

It is the first mem­ory to bring a real smile to this old vet­eran’s face.

An­other was hav­ing his chil­dren, and their chil­dren, with him on the day in Echuca he re­ceived the medal for the work he did feed­ing starv­ing al­lies.

That smile was one of deep sat­is­fac­tion.

His face also comes alive when he talks of his years of ser­vice to Legacy, the wid­ows he helped look after, his 25 years with the or­gan­i­sa­tion.

And now, when his grand­chil­dren, and great grand­chil­dren, ask what he did in the war he has his Dutch medal, some­thing he will be happy to show them, and a story he will be proud to tell them.

BAT­TLE LE­GEND: The Lan­caster bomber would be­come one of the most fa­mous heavy bombers in mil­i­tary his­tory and was at the front­line of the Al­lied air of­fen­sive in World War II.

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