Hell from the skies, manna from heaven
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.