April 13, 2015

Lest We Forget - RAAF Aircrew remembered in German cemetary

DURNBACH War Cemetery in Bavaria, last resting place
for the ill-fated crew of RAAF WWII Lancaster LL848.
(Commonwealth War Graves Commission)
ROW after row of headstones, almost 3000 young Commonwealth
country airmen and POW camp escapees lay here.
(Aircrew Remembered)
HEADSTONES of the seven crew – four of them young
Australians in their 20s –  of RAAF Lancaster LL848 shot
down on the morning of Anzac Day 1944.
(Commonwealth War graves Commission)
RAAF Lancaster LL848 in flight soon before its last fateful
mission over Germany on that Anzac Day in 1944.
(Aircrew Remembered)

David Ellis

AS wreaths are laid at war graves around Australia and overseas on this Anzac Day, amongst them will be tributes to seven airmen whose headstones stand side-by-side at a Commonwealth War Graves cemetery at the little Bavarian village of Dürnbach, in one of the most stunningly beautiful settings in Germany.

But what brings that extra tear to the eyes of those who view these graves is that not only are four of these of young Australians aged in their just-20s – but that they died instantly when their RAAF Lancaster bomber was shot down in the inky darkness of 9-minutes-past-2 on the morning of Anzac Day 1944.

And on whose graves, every year on Remembrance Sunday (that nearest Remembrance Day November 11) rather than Anzac Day, another very special wreath is laid. And it's not by family, friends, ex-service associations nor government, but by an unlikely group of other pilots – members of Germany's World War II Luftwaffe Night Pilots Association in respect of these young, one-time enemies…

We heard of these graves from fellow travel writer Malcolm Andrews who first visited Dürnbach in the 1970s while working with Radio Free Europe in Munich.

"Dürnbach lies about 45km south-east of Munich," Malcolm recalled. "It's mountains in winter are covered by snow, and in summer by the richest green – sights to have cameras clicking year-round.

"And on its outskirts is Dürnbach War Cemetery, a more restful last place one could not imagine for its almost 3,000 young men shot down over Bavaria, Württemberg, Austria, Hessen and Thuringia – or killed while escaping from prisoner-of-war camps – and ultimately brought here from their scattered graves by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission."

Malcolm and then-wife Madeleine had visited Dürnbach for a commemorative service there on Remembrance Sunday 1974, the service itself conducted by a Royal Air Force chaplain and with representatives of the United States and (then-West) Germany alongside those of most other countries involved in World War II.

"They all laid wreaths," Malcolm said. "But we were appalled to note that Australia did not have a presence – neither the Australian Embassy nor the RAAF bothered to send either representative or wreath.

THE "oldest" of the crew aboard the Lancaster was
John Sidney Braithwaite of Griffith in NSW – and he was just 28.
(Commonwealth War Graves Commission)
"We expressed our disbelief in a letter to a Sydney newspaper, and as a result the Air Force Association contacted us and asked me to buy and lay a wreath on their behalf the next time a service was planned.

"As well, ex-members of a couple of RAAF bomber squadrons planning to visit Britain in 1976 changed their itineraries to include Dürnbach… and the Luftwaffe Night Pilots Association hearing of this, organised a reception for their old foes at the Neues Rathaus (the New Town Hall) in Munich.

PICTURESQUELY peaceful now, Dürnbach
village in the mountains of Bavaria.  (Andreas Mu)
"It was an incredible sight, seeing these two groups of old men reliving their battles from 30 years before," Malcolm said. "And from that year on, the Luftwaffe veterans have laid a wreath every Remembrance Sunday on behalf of the Aussies they had fought in the skies over Germany.

"And when I asked 'But these men were trying to bomb you. How can you pay your respects to them?' They replied: 'Ah it is easy. They were only boys, just like our boys, doing their job.'"

Today Australian visitors to Dürnbach cannot miss the headstones of the seven crew of Lancaster bomber LL848 of the RAAF's 463rd Squadron – they're close to the main entrance to the cemetery.

The four Australians were the young pilot, Pilot Officer Eric Page (just 21) of Melbourne, Flying Officer John Sidney Braithwaite (the oldest at 28) from Griffith NSW, Pilot Officer Edwin Ryland Brown (23) of Hamilton Qld, and Flight Sergeant Gordon Hughie Noakes (a mere 20 years of age) from Bedgerebong NSW.

The other three crew were from Britain and Canada and are buried alongside the Australians.

LL848 had taken off from Waddington in Lincolnshire at 11.05pm on April 24 1944 with 248 other Lancasters and 16 Mosquito fighters for a bombing raid on Munich. They ran into enormous flak – over 49,000 shells according to German records – and this immediately brought down four of the bombers.

LL848 was brought down not by flak, but by a German fighter and crashed at 2.09am on Anzac Day 1944, all seven crew to remain there in foreign soil for ever more.

Lest We Forget.

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