Standing up for Canberra

Bomber Command

I second the motion. I thank the member for Murray for her motion and I too rise to acknowledge the Australians who served as members of the Royal Airforce Bomber Command in World War II. The role of an airman in Bomber Command involved operations where they were at great risk of being shot down by the enemy or from engine failure. The young men in Bomber Command, normally only in their late teens and far from home, flew over enemy controlled Europe in the dark of night and implemented planned attacks on the enemy. 

Their chances of survival were bleak. Around 10,000 Australians served in Bomber Command, joining aircrews from Britain, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and elsewhere. At the height of its operations in late 1944, Bomber Command consisted of over 80 operational squadrons. The young men of Bomber Command made up only two per cent of Australian forces in World War II. However, they made up 20 per cent of air combat casualties. In fact, Bomber Command had the highest casualty rate in Australia's military history.

The tremendous courage of our servicemen in these operations cannot be understated. Indeed, two of the 20 Victoria Crosses awarded to Australians in the Second World War were awarded to servicemen attached to the Bomber Command. One of them, a 26-year-old pilot, officer Ron Middleton, was posthumously awarded the VC for his gallantry in saving the lives of his crew at the expense of his own life. While flying to Italy on 29 November 1942, Middleton's aircraft was struck by a flak over the target. One shell exploded in the cockpit, wounding Middleton in the face and destroying his right eye.

Middleton lost consciousness and the aircraft dived to just 800 feet before the second pilot brought it under control. When Middleton regained consciousness he began the long and gruelling fight back over the Alps towards England, knowing that his damaged aircraft had insufficient fuel to complete the journey.

The crew discussed the possibility—and you can just imagine what was going through their heads—of abandoning the aircraft or of trying to land in northern France. But Middleton decided to head for England, where his crew would have the chance to bail out. As they approached the French coast, the Stirling was again hit by flak but flew on. Over the English coast, with only five minutes worth of fuel left, Middleton ordered the crew to abandon the aircraft. Five men left the stricken plane and two remained on board to help Middleton before attempting to parachute to safety. Unfortunately, both were drowned. The Stirling then crashed into the sea, killing Middleton. His VC citation reads:

His devotion to duty in the face of overwhelming odds— And they were overwhelming— is unsurpassed in the annals of the Royal Air Force.

Dr Alan Stephens, an Australian historian and former RAAF pilot has also noted that no single group of Australians from any service did more to help in World War II than the men who fought in Bomber Command. These men, who took off on dark and dangerous missions at high risk of being shot down, sadly, have not been recognised appropriately over the years. It is to be welcomed that their service and their sacrifice was acknowledged through the creation of the Bomber Command Memorial, which was unveiled in 2005 at the Australian War Memorial. It is a stunning memorial.

I would like to thank the efforts of the many veterans involved in the creation of that memorial, and I encourage all members to visit it if they have not done so already. It is a very powerful memorial. It has some sort of twisted plane, or attachment to a plane, I think it is—it is just a beautiful memorial. It stands out in one of the sculpture gardens at the War Memorial. It is really stunning and incredibly powerful. Since 2008 the Bomber Command Association in Australia has held a special commemoratives service there on the first Sunday in June. I have attended those services since I have been the elected member for Canberra.


It is absolutely vital that this legacy continues to flourish and live on. We owe it to the 3,486 Australians who were killed serving as part of Bomber Command. And we owe it to the fewer than 100 who are still alive today. The story of Bomber Command and the bravery of the airmen serving in it is a tragically-little-known-footnote in our history, especially when compared to the public knowledge of the campaigns in Gallipoli, Kokoda and Tobruk. The harsh and shameful truth is that these Australians have never received recognition in proportion to their sacrifice, which was great and significant. These young men were the best of the best, and many paid the ultimate price. That is why I commend this motion to the House.

Download a copy of this speech.