Networking in real life: an ANZAC story

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This week hundreds of thousands of people, across Australia and New Zealand will  attend dawn services to  " honour the members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) who fought at Gallipoli against the Ottoman Empire during World War I. " ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) Day is the anniversary of the landing of troops from Australia and New Zealand on the Gallipoli Peninsula, Turkey, in World War I on April 25, 1915."

It is an appropriate time to reflect on the massive contribution of service men and women of  all  ages, who have fought to protect their country and  demonstrated courage, resilience and  determination in numerous wars  protecting  Australia and supporting  our allies. Their bravery, commitment and sacrifices can never be underestimated or forgotten.

Like many families, stories have been passed down from generation to generation about family members who enlisted and joined Australian forces across the world in various wars in history.

Today I would like to share a story passed down to me by my mother of  how her brother, my uncle, went  missing in action in Europe during the Second World War.   She told  of the sadness and  discomfort of not knowing if he was alive or dead and then the joy of his return. It's certainly a story of courage, resilience, bravery and survival...made possible by a Network – the Underground- who helped save his life and eventually return back to his family in Victoria, Australia.

My Uncle's story was also written into  a rudimentary  book by the  group of men who survived and recorded their  experiences. They had 26 missions together prior to my uncle’s plane being shot down in a bombing attack. Fortunately, we know he bailed out safely, evaded capture and eventually returned home. 

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When we visited the Australian War Memorial in Canberra a few years back, I was able to track some of his history and see copies of original correspondence informing my grandfather of his son "Missing In Action" and then reporting he was "Alive" and would be returning home. Here are many gaps and things that we were probably sheltered from, but I believe it is a story of hope and how no one can achieve anything alone.

Here is an abbreviated version of my Uncle’s Story-

My mother's brother (my uncle) was only 19 when he joined the Royal Australian Airforce in 1942. He attended training schools in NSW to learn about wireless operation and gunnery school in Western Australia prior to being sent overseas.

On the 11th February 1945,my grandfather had received a letter  informing  him that this son " was ‘missing whilst engaged on an operational flight from this country’.

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On the 27th mission, as a wireless gunner,   my Uncle was flying in a Lancaster, involved in a bombing attack on the Dortmund-Ems Canal.  My uncle remembered the pilot shouting "Bail out. Bail out!"   He grabbed his chest chute, clipped on the harness and made for the rear escape hatch. Drifting through dark cloud, he recalled his training and the need to keep his knees together as he landed safely. He collected himself, rolled up his parachute, dug a hole and buried the parachute before quickly leaving the area.

Making his way across the fields in the darkness, uncertain of his position and whether in Holland or Germany he heard a train and headed in that direction. He had been trained to only travel in darkness . He writes of thinking how he was the only person in the world who knew he was alive, even though he had no idea where he was. I can only imagine how scared he must have been.  

I am not sure of the actual time frame, however from February to early April…. His story describes his concern of  being handed to the Gestapo by a farmer he encountered on his travels, of being hungry and wet and finally deciding that he was actually in Holland.  He’d  been  instructed by his Superiors, to reach the Dutch underground if in need. He shares how in trying to communicate with a couple of men and a shopkeeper,   he finally showed them some English coins in his pocket.

A 17 year old girl with a little English told him to head down the road to a house that let him in  when he declared he was an “Englander” , and of men who sheltered him and shuffled him between houses protecting him from the German soldiers.

For a period of time, he was hidden in a farmhouse except for the Underground members and the family, he  spoke  to no one and was instructed to behave as if act as if deaf and dumb.  One morning, he was sitting at the kitchen table eating breakfast.  The men had gone to work.  A young German soldier, about 22 years old walked in, said “Good morning”, and he said nothing. They were sitting at a table about 4 feet long, Jim at one end, the soldier at the other.   As instructed, after a few minutes Jim got up and left the room.  The soldier expected nothing, but Jim was shaking and covered in sweat.

He was moved from place to place and  spent time with a young couple , learning  several phrases in Dutch, as he taught them some English.   It sounds like a movie, doesn’t it?  But it is all true.

The Underground continued to hide and support him. He writes of wondering why it took so long, but reflected  it perhaps they needed to know if they could trust him and were checking  his credentials.

Finally, the Resistance arranged for his escape to England and I am sure it was a joyous day for my grandfather when he received word that his son was alive and would be returning to Australia.

The point of sharing this story, at this time, is that we can never ever take for granted the networks of people that help, support and protect us.   It is not just to benefit us personally and professionally, but the efforts and connections that surround us can be a matter of life or death…. for our businesses.

Kerryn PowellComment