Background Story

Writing "The RAAF in Russia"

Growing up with a father who was the family war-hero probably laid down my father's story as almost first memories and was built on year by year.  My first conscious memory came with playing with a beautiful knife, a souvenir from Dad's time in Russia.  In 1953, I was pulled aside by my mother and told not to tell anyone my father had been to Russia, it was the time of the Menzies anti-communist bill; big stuff for a 5 yo.

I hung on Dad's stories over the years and never minded him repeating them.  Then when my own son came along, I looked logically at what I knew and it didn't seem to fit into a 1939-1945 War.  So I started to research.

My father was in Queensland, so not so much a primary source as someone to check and verify with.  My primary source was John Lawson's contemporary history of 455 Squadron.  A good read and with a long section on the Russian Expedition.

Having some dates and specifics, I started hunting libraries for associated stories.  Quickly I realized that 455 Squadron was only a small part in a bigger story.  I started writing the book as a story for my son, it needed elaboration.  How Australia got into World War 2, how Russia got into World War 2 then how we joined up with a country who was now a notional enemy.  Reading on, it became apparent that the real story was the German battleship Tirpitz.

This monster cast a mighty shadow; more powerful than any British ship of the time, almost 40 ships were held in reserve to watch her.  Ironically in reading, I drew the conclusion that she could be credited with the fall of Singapore.  The carrier screen that should have gone to the Far East was held in the North Sea to guard Tirpitz.

Books, personal accounts and journals began to put the story into place.  The time began for interviews, so I went to a 455 Squadron Anzac lunch.  Jack Davenport a former Commanding Officer was so welcoming, I was later to find how caring he was post-war of the ground staff in whose hands the safety of he and his crews had relied.

That led to an interview with Jack (Jeep) Mc Knight and then and "Tex" Carter, squadron secretaries who gave me contacts.  I started getting contemporary accounts from various perspectives, aircrew, medical, ground crew on the flight and ground crew on the USS Tuscaloosa.  I even met a Scots WAF controller  from RAF Leuchars where I had visited previously.  Gradually I came to know the veterans both alive and deceased as friends.

The men were all different, I was glad to have had some experience with the para-normal.  George Williams was very into swaying pendulums and divining.  He was very straight, not a larrikin like so many others.  Another was 'Gus Robertson, he didn't want to be interviewed but he seemed to want to talk.  Eventually he agreed that I could come and talk.  It was a long way – but.  We talked for some time, his Canadian wife had cancer and was dying in hospital, he felt so helpless but the talking brightened him up.  He changed the topic to Russia and the war and how he met his wife.  He was a mine of information but perhaps the biggest thing was discussing how he got scared witless one night and was taken off operations for a few weeks.  Admitting fear is a big thing for any man and I was so glad he shared it with me.

Along the way I talked bits over with my Dad, passed on regards from friends he had not seen for forty years.  Finally I gave him a first rough draft, I'm not sure if he was able to read it.  New facts, small things like the Hampden tailplane came out.

Dad died in 1992 and I kept polishing the story until a friend in the Railways, Ken FitzGerald asked if he could pass a copy to a relative of his.  John Schubert liked it and asked if he could edit it.  Then Ken kept pressing me to get it printed.  There seemed two likely publishers, Banner Books in Maryborough Queensland where I had grown up and AMHP at Loftus, about four blocks from where I live.  Clive Baker at AMHP immediately signed me up.

One shouldn't be too narcissistic but seeing your own book launched is one of life's great ego trips.  I had arranged it through the Local Member and Foreign Affairs to be held in the Canberra residence of the Russian Ambassador.  The Russians were grand and my contact was Yulia Gromyko daughter in law of the former foreign minister.  The first 1000 copies tokk about 10 years to clear.

In the meantime I had retired and after having problems getting the previous printer to be civil, gave up and spent two years re-writing the book to include new material.  New material had come from other veterans I had met, plus a lot of information on 144 Squadron RAF (Canadian's) part in the expedition and the Hampden wrecks that had been recovered.

It has been just a satisfying experience constructing and writing this book.  Even more satisfying has been the response and reviews to the book; there is nothing like positive response.  I am so grateful to friends and family who believed and supported what I doing was so important.  I still feel that in bringing the second edition out and creating this WEB site.

Geoff Raebel

 
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