pilot who defied death is now flying solo;
bittersweet Anzac march for hero of the skies.
reports Joseph Catanzaro
It was 1943 and the night sky of Milan in northern Italy was lit up like day with German searchlights and the constant flash of anti-aircraft guns. Braving the storm of bullets and enemy fighter planes, a small squadron of Bomber Pathfinders descended on the nearby seaport of Genoa, determined to play their part in making sure supplies vital to the German army never arrived.
Armed with machineguns and flares, the squadron was given the task of marking and illuminating targets for the Allied bombers minutes behind them, a dangerous mission that required them to fly perilously close to enemy defences. Strapped in the cockpit of his battered Halifax, a German fighter with all guns blazing hot on his tail, then 18-year-old WA flying officer Tom Scotland thought his number was up.
“My eyes fixed on the stars,” he recalled. “There just seemed to be something so beautiful and ordered about them. I was in the midst of an air battle, I had a millisecond, and there they were.” With the staccato cough of his guns and the roar of his engines in his ears, Mr Scotland deftly managed to escape into the night. It was one of many close calls during his time in the leaden skies of World War II Europe.
Raised on a dairy farm near Rockingham, Mr Scotland said he enlisted in August 1941, keen to do his part. “At that time, England was on her knees and I just thought I had to be in it,” he said.
Arriving in Bristol in 1943, Mr Scotland said he was quickly drafted into a new force being established to attack the manufacturing power of the Nazi war machine. “The Pathfinders led the bombers,” he said. “We had to mark the route for them with lighted markers on the ground. We had to then face the flak and searchlights and fighters in the target areas.”
Now 85, Mr Scotland said he never expected to survive long enough to see the war out, with death never far away. “We had a big explosion under our plane over Genoa in Italy,” he said. “The bottom was badly damaged. The radar was knocked out and one of my motors was put out of action. When we got back, my boys found a big lump of shrapnel right beneath my seat. Fortunately, it didn’t go right through.”
Mr Scotland said a heartbreaking number of his flying friends weren’t so lucky. “We were at the forefront. It was costly. Some nights we’d lose three or four crews out of the squadron. Some of them would get captured as prisoners of war, but mainly the plane would explode and it was sudden death,” he said.
Mr Scotland still vividly recalls the loss of a mate in the skies over Germany. The elderly pilot said an attack on an enemy fighter base late in the war ended in tragedy with the death of fellow pilot Bill Nuebeck, from Lithgow in NSW. “He’s just a name on a panel of remembrance now,” he said.
Today, the veteran of 62 missions will be the only WA Pathfinder marching. Of about 35 men from WA to take to the European skies, he is the last man standing. “There are two other fellows, but they’re not well and not able to march,” he said. Not that the old Anzac, awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery, will be marching alone. “A lot of the grandkids will march with me,” he said.
But while Mr Scotland said it warmed his heart to see the younger generations honouring their forebears, this year’s march would be bittersweet. “I miss my mates, I miss them. It’s bad, you’ve got 30 fellows you’ve been marching with, and now they’re gone,” he said.
Lifespan: World War II Pathfinder pilot Tom Scotland, 85, and as he was at 21 in his trail-blazing aircraft.
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Publication: The West Australian;
Date:Apr 25, 2008;