Ron enlisted in March, 1940. He was still on the Air Force Reserve
when we married in August, but that was not unusual. There were
so many enlistments at that time, and the training schemes were
not running with the smoothness they later achieved. So, as we
had no idea how long it would last, we decided to treat the position
as permanent. We took a flat and furnished it; and the days flowed
on, heedless of the battle Britain was waging so desperately to
save her very shores. Then Air Force Reservists' lectures commenced;
and as I sat there at night, uncertain how late the class would
be, I didn't realise that this was just the beginning - that for
the next few years I would spend all my waking time waiting ...
When Elizabeth was born in June, 1941, the flat had a new tenant
and our furniture was in store; Ron had been in camp at Bradfield
for nearly two months. He sailed for Canada just before our first
wedding anniversary; and after we said Good-bye and he was well
out of sight I cried till Elizabeth's tiny little face was all
wet with my tears. I could cry in those days; later when things
grew so much more menacing, when there was so much grief, it seemed
impertinent to cry because one was tired or dispirited or lonely.
Our street had only about a dozen houses, and of that group only
three girls had their husbands away - two sisters, Joan and Susan,
and I. We were a representative group. Ron was in the Air Force;
Tom, Jean's husband, had joined the AIF immediately war was declared;
he served right through the Middle East and then in New Guinea,
and was not discharged until after VJ Day. Bill was an officer
in the British Merchant Marine. He and Susan were married in
Bombay and had lived there for two years; when they discovered
Patricia was on the way, it was decided that Susan would return
home. Then one day, when Bill was away on one of his regular
trips up the Persian Gulf, Susan learned that the P. and O. ship
in the harbour would be the last to leave for Australia. Within
a few hours she had to decide whether she would stay and have
her baby in Bombay or leave India without a word to Bill, not
knowing how long it may be before she would see him again. Actually,
although she longed to talk it over with him, there was only one
decision; she knew what he would say. Bill, tall and lean, with
his browny-auburn hair and slow Cheshire drawl, thought only of
Susan's well-being. So she knew she must leave. It was a year
later before she was able to talk it over with him.
We had a lot in common, Susan and I, and most days we managed
to see something of each other. If mail arrived for either of
us it was a day of celebration; we shared our news and our expectations;
and together we grew wrath over the minor irritations. She was
not a person to make public criticisms. Of medium height, slim,
poised, with a most engaging smile, her conversation was tact
itself. But if she disagreed with a statement she'd say so - tactfully,
of course, and with the utmost charm - but she'd say so. You
knew exactly where you stood with Susan.
At this time the mails to Canada were very slow. Often it was
six months before we received replies to letters; and with a young
baby the happenings of six months previously are an incredibly
long way back in the past. The boys chafed at the delays. They
hadn't really settled down to being away from home, and the training
in Canada was not so very different from here. For the majority
of the lads this was the first time they had been parted from
their families; but the townspeople did their utmost to help then
forget this by inundating them with hospitality. I am sure none
of the boys will ever forget the kindness of the Canadian people;
nor will the wives and mothers forget the women, their hostesses,
who found time to write little notes home:
"... we had your husband staying with us last week-end, and
we were so delighted to meet him. He is very fit and in splendid
spirits and amused us with his stories of some of their escapades.
What charming snapshots you sent him of Elizabeth - my, but isn't
she a pocket edition of her Daddy! ..."
They were kind, those women; they knew just what it meant to us
at home to receive those notes.
Then Japan entered the war, and every day the papers showed maps
of the war's progress - and the Rising Sun seemed to be acquiring
huge areas in an incredibly short time. But we didn't worry because
we had Singapore, and Singapore meant to us what Gibraltar to
the Mediterranean. Confident of its impregnability, we believed
that the Roots of Empire were firmly embedded in its walls, But
the boys were growing restive. If the fighting were going to be
close to home, they wanted to be in it - posted, if not home,
at least to the Pacific theatre of war.
And then Singapore fell. Ron's brother was one of the thousands
upon thousands herded into inactivity in Changi and scattered
throughout Burma and Thailand. The privations these lads suffered
were intense, but at least they know what progress was being made.
Those in Changi had secret radios right from the very beginning
of their captivity; and many will admit that the worst feature
of work on the railway was their lack of radio contact with the
outside world. Imagine then the mental anguish of the wives and
mothers who for years had to carry on with no knowledge of the
boys - not even to know if they were alive or dead.
When their training in Canada was completed and before leaving
for their postings, Ron and the boys had a week's leave in New
York. And New York turned it on for them! Night clubs and sporting
fixtures, shopping expeditions and downtown dives - there was
so much of New York to see in seven days that sleep had no part
in the plan and had to be made up later on! One of the highlights
of the trip was the recorded messages the boys made at the Anzac
Club, arranged by Miss Lola Luxford. And it was from this message
that I learned where Ron was posted. For, as with jellied knees
and thumping heart I listened to his message, the last sentence
came: "I'll be seeing Margaret soon"; and Margaret was
in London. So the boys went on to England.
In the meantime things had been anything but pleasant in Sydney.
The N.E.S. had sprung into activity and anti-bombing preparations
were in progress everywhere. There were several air-raid alerts;
a couple of Jap submarines came into the Harbour and proved our
Navy was on the qui vive; and the Government was urging people
with young children to remove themselves from danger areas. Elizabeth
slept in a sun-room, with windows forming the walls of two sides;
and the more I thought of this the more I worried. I was assured
that a 'bomb quite some distance away could shatter the glass.
So eventually I "evacuated" with her to Katoomba, to
a little room in which we slept and cooked and ate.
Thinking over it now, one wonders why we thought Katoomba would
be so much more safe than Sydney. However it was difficult to
know what to do for the best, and at least it relieved the inactivity
of sitting around at home and waiting for we knew not what. But
that business of evacuating was a grim affair. People on the
Mountains could let any sort of room with any sort of conveniences
for just about any sort of rental. I was lucky in that I had a
gas ring for cooking the baby's food, and was also able to share
the fuel stove in the kitchen. Even that "luxury" was
strange to me, who had never in my life seen a fuel stove in action,
nor had ever lived more than 10 miles from the G.P.O. However
plenty of the girls with young kiddies were in far worse circumstances.
Many of them went to boarding houses where they were refused
access to the kitchen even once a day to boil the baby's milk.
The Clinic Sister was a tower of strength, but she was just about
desperate trying to arrange for dozens of girls some method of
feeding their children. They realised that, compared with what
European women were suffering, their troubles faded away; but
we were not faced with dire emergency. The attitude of the majority
of boarding house and apartment house keepers will always remain
a nightmare in their memories.
My room was really very adequate, but an apartment house is no
place for a baby. Elizabeth had just started teething and was
in no mood to have her sleep interfered with. But the radio was
in the hall right outside our door; the room opened on to a verandah,
the favourite rendezvous of the other tenants; and in the next
room was a mother with two very young and very exuberant children.
Elizabeth had been a clinic baby, brought up very much to schedule,
but before we left that apartment house she used to sleep in my
bed, sprawled across my chest, and I patted her whenever she stirred.
She didn't sleep properly and I had hardly any sleep at all; but
at least I didn't have to face a barrage in the mornings: "Baby
was very restless last night!" "You couldn't have slept
much last night, Mrs. Friend; is Baby teething again?" and
The bright spot was the kindness the people showed to one another.
After a few weeks I felt fairly tired and not particularly anxious
to cook meals for myself and eat them alone. Very frequently
at dinner time I would find something prepared for me, and one
family always shared their desserts, I was spoilt, I know, but
I was just in the mood to take it.
It was while I was staying at Katoomba that I met Pat, Roy's wife.
As soon as Ron left Sydney he teamed up with Roy and for three
years they kept together. Through the various schools in Canada
they were training partners; in England they were posted to the
squadron; they finished their first tour of operations within
a few days of one another and were then the two chosen to do radar
instructional work; except that Roy once had to hit the silk,
their records were practically identical; they were decorated
by King George VI at the same investiture and three years after
leaving home returned on the same ship. All those three years
my mental picture of Roy was built up of snapshots and imagination;
yet when I met him he seemed an old friend.
It was with the greatest diffidence that I contacted Pat in the
first place. She lived at one of the smallest townships on the
Mountain line; and as no-one had thought of evacuating when the
boys sailed, I presumed she had always lived there. I presumed
she was a country girl with whom I would have very little in common
and in any case I wasn't in the mood to look for a new friendship.
Then as Ron's letters made more and more mention of Roy, I realised
that we had in common the most important thing in our lives at
that time. So we met.
Nothing could have been further from the truth than to call Pat
a typical country girl. Being a very early "evacuee"
accounted for her address, but she was as steeped in city as I,
and had held an important secretarial position before her marriage.
Standing five feet nothing in her nylons and tipping the scales
at about 7 stone, she was one of the most vital people I have
ever met. Conversation never flagged with Pat about, nor was
it forced. Her comments were shrewd, her suggestions practical,
her humour dry and to the point. Add to this the fact that she
spoke at approximately twice the speed of the majority of people.
The result was a very good companion. She made no bones of her
feelings for Roy. "We may have had differences of opinion,"
she told me one day, "But they are all forgotten. There
he is!" She pointed up about six feet. "See him up
on that pedestal? That's where he is" And that was where
she kept him!
Actually we often marvelled at her good spirits, She was so completely
on her own with little Pattie - and it was not a good thing to
be alone. Later on, when we all drifted back to the city, she
managed to get a flat only a few minutes from where I was living
with Mother, Dad and my sister. That was really good. Every
few nights I would slip down after dinner and chat with her for
an hour or so. Mail days became even more important as the months
sped on, especially as four or five weeks would often elapse between
the arrival of letters. Code tables saved our lives! Looking
back now, it seems amazing that we could read anything very personal
into the code tables. Thousands upon thousands were sent and the
same phrases used again and again. Yet I can remember poring
for minutes over the pamphlet, wondering whether my mood demanded
61 ("You are more than ever in my thoughts at this time")
or the more flippant 63 ("Good show keep it up"); Whether
32 ("All my love dearest) conveyed my sentiments more truly
than 35 ("Fondest love darling"). We all sent them,
and the boys sent them in return. Taking only a week or ten days
to be delivered, at least they had the virtue of being recent
Once the boys arrived in England their whole attitude changed.
This was the real thing. They had been a training unit of about
40. Now they split up and became cogs in the amazing war machine
- into Coastal, Transport or Ferry Command, on to Fighters or
night Fighters, and so on. Twenty-six of their number went into
Bomber Command (and THREE came out - Ron, Roy and Harold, who
wait so badly knocked about on his first, "op" that
he spent the greater part of the next three years in hospital.)
Ron and Roy were posted to Squadron 460 and did their first operation
in a Wellington. Then the whole squadron transferred to "heavies"
and a couple of months later blossomed forth as the First Australian
Lancaster Squadron. The next few months were not much fun. The
First Australian Lancaster Squadron was news, and almost every
morning the papers would publish accounts of its doings. In those
days it was the custom to publish a list of: "Sydney boys
who went on the raid included ... so and so." It was wonderful
when Ron and Roy mentioned, but not so good when they weren't.
We quickly learned that casualties were never mentioned in this
list; so if their names weren't published, the question was: Didn't
they go on the raid? ... or didn't they return? One thing we
knew quickly. The Air Force casualties were notified to next-of-kin
within three or four days. So after a raid we would tick off
those slow-moving three or four days ... and then breathe a sigh
of relief! That is, of course, if there hadn't been another raid
reported during those days. There usually was!
But it was heartbreaking to see the names of their co-trainees
appearing in the lists. For months at least one name, and often
three and four, were included in every list published. Sometimes
I felt it was like an octopus - that it would get them all In
the end. Missing ... missing ... missing ... and although the
boys assured us that 75% of those reported missing were safe
- either returned to England through the Underground, or prisoners
of war - we soon learned that that was merely a morale-booster,
that the figure was nearer 10%. Essen, Berlin, Stettin, Milan,
Berlin again - it seemed that the first tour (of 30 raids) would
never finish. As Ron's figures crept up to the middle 20's the
raids became fast and furious, the casualty lists longer, and
it seemed impossible for him to make the 30. But the cable arrived
at last: "Screened. No more worries" Pat's arrived from
Roy, too. It was wonderful to breathe deeply again, even if only
for a while.
They were supposed to be down for six months - we counted on that!
Imagine our feelings then when, about six weeks later, their names
were published as having been to Peenamunde - that raid
which is said to have done so much for the progress of the war.
Pat and I were simply furious - we could cheerfully have throttled
those Air Force chiefs. Actually the newspaper had made a mistake
- the list they published was of officers who had completed their
tour, But we took quite a lot of convincing about that.
Elizabeth had been so tiny when the boys went away that I had
had no opportunity of getting to know the wives and mothers of
the other trainees. However when their numbers were narrowed
down to the group that went into Bomber Command, many of us became
friendly. My principal contact was by telephone - and one of my
best friends was Mrs. Richards. We hadn't met - we haven't ever
met - but we knew one another quite well. Her son was with Ron,
and although she must have been much older than I, her voice was
remarkably young. Excitable in the extreme, she thought my good
news just as wonderful as hers.
Ron and Stan finished their tours at about the same time, they
were both decorated, and then we settled down to a short period
of relaxation. Stan was instructing at an R.A.F. station, and
one day decided to accompany one of the crews on a cross country
training flight. Nothing was ever heard of them. There was no
radio message. All those lovely lads and the Lancaster, possibly
the most modern machine operating at that time, just disappeared.
Poor little Mrs. Richards. When she told me about it, her voice
was so flat and incredulous - it seemed unbelievable that this
could have happened when he had just finished his tour, Of course
we held very high hopes of their being found. But they weren't.
With so many boys grouped together there were, inevitably, some
very good tales. If Roy calls on us now, it's no time at all
before he and Ran are in a huddle, and there's lots of laughing.
Somehow, though, the talk always seems to get around to the Christmas
1942 they had at Breighton - I think that must have been an all-time
high. "... and then when the motor cycles drove onto the
dance floor ... " we hear them say. They had to play hard
- they'd have cracked up if their leisure had been devoted to
brooding. So they used to the full the six days they had every
Actually in my imagination I always had the boys on leave. Whenever
I thought of Ron I would automatically think in terms of London
time. Thus, if I woke at, say, 3 a.m.: "That's 5 o'clock
last night in London," I would think (or 7 o'clock if it
were double summer time), "I bet those boys are at the Regent
Palace or Codgers having a drink before dinner and a show!"
I didn't dare think of Ron as being anywhere else but on leave;
and I don't suppose it mattered - I must have been right occasionally.
The hospitality of the people in Canada had been marvellous; the
hospitality in England was, if anything, more amazing, because
the people were so generous - and having so little to offer they
must often have parted with their own rations. Ron was one of
a number of boys adopted by a family near Pulborough, Sussex,
and they were simply kindness itself. I feel I could never repay
that woman for what she did for me - for making a home from where
Ron knew he was always welcome. There was no question of being
invited; if the lads had leave they just rang: "I have leave.
Have you room for me?", and I'm sure she never said "No."
Included in the photographs Ron brought home is a tiny one which
makes him look rather strange. With an ill-fitting sports coat
and idiotic spotted tie, he would have looked peculiar, even without
an enormous walrus moustache which reminded me of the old man
in Bridge Street who used to drive Sydney's last hansom cab.
However the little photo had an interesting history. It seems
that every lad flying over occupied territory had to carry a passport-sized
photo in civilian clothes. The Underground could furnish forged
passports and papers, get transport and accommodation and everything
else necessary. But they were desperately short of photographic
material for the passport photos. So the boys carried their own
- just in case. Of course, very few of the lads had civilian
clothes - they had to be borrowed from one of the English boys
- and it is said that every man Jack on the squadron, regardless
of his shape or size, was duly photographed in that same sports
coat and spotted tie!
As youngsters, Jim and I went to the same kindergarten, He was
a lovely little lad then and he grew into a fine man. He was one
of those people who always made me very conscious of his absolute
decency and kindliness. I saw him only very occasionally when
he grew up; then he and Phyl were married and he was in the same group as Ron at
Bradfield, and we all went to a show one night, and they came
to a "Bon Voyage"(!) party we had at home not long before
Ron left. I didn't know Phyl and I thought she was very lucky
to have a husband like Jim; later I realised he was just as lucky
- she was charming and so loyal and generous. When Ron had been
in England a while and had been posted to Bomber Command, she
rang me one night. "Joan," she said, "I do wish
you would write and try to persuade Ron to transfer to Coastal
Command. Jim is on Sunderlands, and they haven't lost one Sunderland
since the War started." Coastal Command had certainly had
wonderful luck with Sunderlands, but it couldn't continue indefinitely.
They started mine-laying operations in French harbours, and the
Nazis weren't going to let that go unopposed. It was only a few
weeks later that an account appeared in the daily press of a dramatic
air battle - some high-ranking Air Force official described it
as an epic fight that would go down in history - of Jim's plane
being attacked by nine Junkers. Many of the crew were injured,
but they got the plane back to base.
Then, some little time later, Phyl rang me one night. We were
talking for a while, comparing notes about the children - Bruce
was only a couple of months older than Elizabeth - and then Phyl
said "Joan, Jim's missing". I spoke to her for a little
longer, then left the phone and tried to make myself realise what
she had said. It seemed impossible - but then if they could get
Jim they could get anybody, and any feeling of security I had
for Ron was swept from under my feet. We heard later that Jim's
plane was attacked, they radioed that more planes were coming
to the attack, then nothing more.
There was never anything more. Months later Phyl was advised
that he could only be presumed dead. But of course there was
always the chance that he could have been picked up and taken
to France and to some German camp. Things like that happened.
Phyl didn't ever mention it. But, after VE Day, as our liberating
forces moved across France and Germany, lists were published of
airmen who were free again. And every day there were new lists.
But Jim's name wasn't there.
It was about this time that I was coming home from town one day
when two men opposite me in the tram struck up a conversation.
One had a snap of an airman. "That's the baby of the family,"
he was saying. "He was always a game little bloke. And now
the little fellow is sleeping at the bottom of the English Channel
The wives and mothers of our boys spent many anxious periods;
but no less anxious was the life of the mothers-in-law. At a
time in their lives when they could well have done with a little
peace and quietness they opened their homes to daughters and grandchildren.
With their daughters they suffered the loneliness and the frustration.
Having gone through it all once before, 25 years previously,
they felt even more keenly the pangs of separation.
They had to be psychologists - to know when to bully, when to
ridicule, and when to mete out just a few scant drops of sympathy.
With anxious eyes they watched when the babies were coming; then
they had to take the girls to hospital at the appointed time;
and they paced the floors even more vehemently than expectant
fathers, because they themselves had been behind those closed
doors. They were morale builders - and they did a grand job.
As the months went by and there was still no word of the boys
coming home, Pat and I started to despair. We realised that the
Air Force couldn't train lads and then use them for only a few
months, but it seemed such ages since we had seen them. Two years
... two and a half ... and still no word. Then, after nearly three
years, out of the blue, the cables: "No more letters. Coming
EVERYONE knew the boys were coming home. Our friends were so used
to speaking in terms of Ron-and-Roy that they often had to stop
and think which one they knew; but the fact remained that they
were coming home. No more anxiety for cables and letters; no more
sending socks and pullovers, movie films and recordings of the
children, food parcels and cakes. No more waiting.
Excitement ran high over the next few weeks. We had no idea when
they would be coming - all we knew was that they were on their
way. As the time drew closer I wouldn't even leave the house -
I was sure that if I as much as went to the nearby shop Ron would
arrive. One Friday morning Mother left early to join the butcher's
queue, saying as she went: "I wish Ron would arrive while
I am out - then the three of you could be all alone together."
And of course he did! When I opened the door to him, all we could
do was to just look at one another; but Elizabeth, now nearly
three, who had been brought up on a steady diet of Daddy's photos
and snapshots, said very quietly: "Hullo, Daddy!" and
the tension disappeared. Ron was home.
I was so grateful to have him back with me. It had been a long
wait, but then not many of the boys had returned at all. My thoughts,
of course, were also with Phyl and those hundreds of other wives
and mothers who waited ... and waited ... and waited ...
"They also serve who only stand and wait."
- John Milton "On His Blindness".