The month is April and the year 1945. The war with Germany is fast coming to an end. For now, the bombing continues but a victorious end is in sight for the Allied powers. There is just one month of armed conflict still to play out between the Germans and Allied forces. Towns and cities across Europe have already been liberated and some of history’s most shocking atrocities uncovered across the continent. At the end of the month Adolf Hitler will commit suicide after the Battle of Berlin, his reign of terror at an end, but his crimes left behind, leaving an indelible mark on that period of history.
Now imagine this: You are twenty years old, having just waved your teenage years goodbye the month prior. You are an Australian stationed with No. 462 squadron in Norfolk, England having previously been based in Yorkshire. You have been a long way away from home for a couple of years and overseas for almost one. You have been flying in a combat situation for a very short period of time.
Imagine your parents, at home, across the other side of the world, in relative peace and safety, though not completely at ease as we know. Imagine the ever-present worry they are experiencing, contemplating what every knock at the door might mean for your family. Imagine how difficult it would be for them to focus their family at home, the four other boys now growing into fine young men and looking forward to long and fulfilling careers.
Now back to Britain…
The date is the 10th of April. One day ago you returned from a very brief period of leave. You are back into the regimented lifestyle of the air force and likely to have to return to the skies at any time. You are a Mid Upper Gunner and late in the previous year you were promoted to the rank of Flight Sergeant. You have experienced flight in Tiger Moths, Ansons and Wellingtons, but now you are a part of a crew which man a Halifax bomber.
The 10th of April will be the day you find yourself back flying over enemy territory in Germany. You and your Halifax crew have been tasked with flying in a special duties operation over Leipzig. You partake in all the usual pre-flight rituals, tasks and briefings and then you take to the skies from your staging base.
From the beginning of the mission everything is as usual. You make the journey over the seas in the big, menacing flying fortress that is the Halifax, a big gun of the fleet. Your patrol has commenced over enemy territory and then something happens. Your plane is brought down in the dark of the night.
Back in Australia, on the 13th of April, your parents get a knock on the door. They have received a telegram to inform them that you are missing after your mission over Germany. One can only imagine the emotion they are going through. Should they think the worst and presume you were killed in action? Or do they hold out hope that you may have made it out alive?
After a month, your parents receive news: One of the crewmen has survived but he has no news about your whereabouts. This is where the tragedy, the hopelessness of the situation must surely start to sink in for your family, or does it? For months you are still considered missing, along with the rest of the crew of the aircraft.
Your parents finally receive official notification in November of 1945 that your death was presumed to have occurred on the night of the 10th of April. Your parents have been through the horrors of war first-hand, something that so many parents across the globe had to contend with over the period of World War Two. Your mother has not taken it well and has found your passing hard to believe.
This is the true story of my great uncle John Mickle Tait. His is but one tragic story in a war that saw over 39,000 Australians lose their lives. Let us hope that we and those who follow us never again have to experience the tragedy, death, division, conflict and horror that our forebears did.
Lest We Forget.
On the eve of ANZAC Day, the day when Australia takes a day off work to pause and reflect on what ANZAC Day means to them I thought that I would take some time t0 explain what this day of memorial means to me as an Australian.
To me, first and foremost ANZAC day is about remembering the landings at Gallipoli on the 25th of April, 1915, the first time we fought as a nation for Queen and country.
This was a day where we went to war and faced incredible challenges, landing at the place now known as ANZAC Cove, in a hail of gunfire, our young men having to dodge heavy fire from troops fighting for the Ottoman Empire, now known as Turkey.
Australia sustained heavy losses in this campaign, thanks largely to unforgiving terrain and the well-prepared and alert Turkish troops that were able to pounce and inflict devastating losses on our troop deployment to this far-off land. This mission inflicted a heavy toll of dead and wounded in the Australian contingent, with 26,111 casualties, 8,141 of which were fatalities, a truly devastating statistic for a campaign that ended just 8 months later on December 20, 1915.
As the acronym subtly suggests, the day is one to also remember our fallen friends from “across the ditch” in New Zealand, who went into combat with us during that part of World War One. They too sustained heavy losses with 2,721 soldiers killed, about a third of the Kiwi contingent of 8,556 troops that landed on the shores of Gallipoli on April 25.
ANZAC Day has evolved to mean much more than just the first combat mission we undertook under the Australian flag with our allies. Now it is also about remembering the troops past and present who have served and died or been wounded under the banner of Australia in all operations from Gallipoli onwards, including in World War Two, Korea, Vietnam, East Timor, the Solomon Islands and more recently Afghanistan and Iraq.
To me, commemorating ANZAC Day has nothing to do with glorifying the act of war like critics of the day and of participation in conflict in general suggest, it is purely and simply about acknowledging that loss and the part that the past has played in our identity whether it was positive or negative, which in itself is an inherently subjective judgement anyway.
The day beginning with the dawn service is one that should be beyond politics. Yes war and conflict is a truly sad and unfortunate reality in the world, but the people involved have been sent there by government to participate because those in power have decided for a reason, be it sound or not, that our presence has been required in a particular theatre. To diminish the loss of life and the injuries sustained by questioning war on this day is folly.
There have been both “good” and “bad” wars, if I can phrase it that way, but we cannot rewrite history by arguing against the pros and cons of each particular conflict we as a nation have been involved in prosecuting, but clearly we should take lessons from them.
ANZAC Day is also a day to reflect on events of history and to learn about our involvement in the the politics of the world and our place in the history of it. To learn about history will help us understand the future as many have said in the past and that knowledge translates into the power to shape our future, another cliche also apt when thinking of ANZAC Day.
The day is also one of a more deeply personal nature for me, for although I never met him, my grandfather’s brother, John Mickle Tait was shot down over Leipzig in the plane he was Air Gunner in over Germany in April 1945 as the second world war involving Germany was coming to an end, a loss that came devastatingly close to having been avoided, just weeks prior to German surrender.
There is no doubt that there will be differing reasons, some deeply personal, some based on a learned history which will colour your the way you go about your ANZAC Day. For me it will be to first and foremost remember the loss to my family in World War Two. But it will be to also remember all of those who have served, in all wars and to learn more about our history.
Lest we forget.