Joan Friend

Written 1946

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 ... for something.

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 so on.

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 news.

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 six weeks.

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 home".

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".