Kingsley Petherick: An airgunner's story

Born and raised in Naracoorte, Kingsley Petherick enlisted in the RAAF as an airgunner in 1941.

His nephew Ormonde Petherick, of Naracoorte, found a newspaper clipping containing Kingsley's own account of his experience in World War II...

"An airgunner during World War II didn't have a particularly permanent job. I was with a group of about 160 airgunners who sailed from Sydney for England in two groups on different ships in March, 1942.

No more than 20 of us survived the war. With so many dying around us, I guess aircrew just developed a fatalistic outlook to get through each operation. There was nothing else we could do about it.

The thought of refusing to fly never entered my mind. I'd volunteered for this and, whatever happened, I would see it through. In my case, the guardian angels were kind.

There were a few near misses, though. The closest being when I almost fell out of a Liberator bomber over the Balkans. I was with the top-secret Special Operations Executive in the Middle East. One of our jobs was to drop agents by parachute into Greece, Yugoslavia and the Balkans, where they organised teams of partisans.

We got to know one Greek agent very well. A remarkable man, a colonel, aged in his 60s. We'd drop him in Greece, he'd organise his band, then he'd be picked up by submarine.

A few weeks later, we'd be flying him into Greece again. We also made supply drops to the partisans of guns, explosives, ammunition and up to 10,000 gold sovereigns and sometimes we'd drop propaganda leaflets. It was a leaflet drop that nearly brought me undone.

Up until this particular operation, leaflet drops had simply involved throwing bundles, held together with rubber bands, through the floor hatch of the aircraft. This time, it was decided we would empty the leaflets from a big canvas bag. As soon as the neck of the bag reached the hatch, it was sucked from my hand and I came tumbling out after it; finishing up hanging upside down, with my head, an arm and half a leg outside the aircraft. Somehow, I managed to pull myself back in. There was no one there to help.

From then on, trained dispatchers did the leaflet drops. After 27 operations in the Middle East, I went back to England with a training unit and, in May, 1944, joined 460 RAAF Heavy Bomber Squadron, based at Bindbrook, Lincolnshire. My first raid with the squadron - on a German Tiger tank camp, south-east of Paris - was a dis-aster. Bomber Command lost 49 out of about 300 aircraft that night, including five of 18 from 460 Squadron.

That's a total of about 340 men lost - either killed or, if they were lucky, taken prisoner. We were fortunate to be in the first wave to go in that night because as we were leaving the target, I saw 10 aircraft go down in about 30 seconds. "Only 19 more operations to go!" I thought as we returned to base.

There is one raid I will never forget. It was in Normandy on August 14, 1944, a few months after D-Day. We were due to bomb at midday from 6000ft (1828m). As we approached the target, we saw that the area was covered with smoke and dust. Then the master bomber radioed all aircraft, warning "don't bomb the yellow marker" and calling us down to 3000ft (914m).

It was chaotic - between 50 and 100 aircraft losing that much height in the space of a few minutes. In the middle of all this was a little Auster-type aircraft, an army cooperation plane, firing off red Very cartridges. In my mind's eye, I can still see what was happening. If I was an artist, I could draw the scene.

We knew there must have been a problem of some kind but we didn't know what. But by the time we had returned to Bindbrook, the word had filtered through that something had gone very wrong. The pathfinders had been marking the target for the bombers with yellow flares and Canadian troops, waiting in a quarry to go in after the attack, had also used yellow markers to indicate their position.

In the confusion, the first wave of aircraft dropped their bombs on the Canadians. I have only ever seen two brief references to that incident in writings about the war. I don't know how many Canadians were killed - two, 20, 200. I've never seen a figure.

I completed my last tour (20 operations) with 460 Squadron on September 16, 1944 - a raid on Rheine Salsbergen, in Germany. The CO, "Hughie" Edwards, VC, tried to talk me into doing a third tour, saying something like: "The way you've survived and with what you have done, you will make it easily." I told him: " ... try to tell that to my wife!" My small part in the war was over." - Kingsley Petherick.