Invariably the history of war is presented from the perspective of campaigns, strategic and tactical delineations and, generals. The story of war, however, is about the people and the ongoing legacy suffered by families, communities, and the nation. They fell in foreign fields so very different from our own. They came from every corner of Australia. The sorrow of their deaths was universal, and they were buried too far away.
Throughout Australia, stone, brass and marble monuments were raised and reverently unveiled. The names engraved and chiselled were many. There was pomp and circumstance and tears shed for the youth of a region who never returned; for the enormous human potential lost. The memorials, towering sentinels of stone; elegant edifices dominating horizons, do not relay the emotional legacy of war. It is only when you sit down with a man in his 80s who says to you with tears in his eyes; ‘You know you are the only person in all these years who has asked me how much I have missed my brother’; that you realize the depth of the grief.
That statement caught me by surprise. It came from Lionel Rattle. There was a big age difference between brothers Lionel and William Rattle. Likely, this is why Lionel viewed his big brother as a hero. William was good at everything he attempted. He was athletic and a particularly good swimmer. Any time William asked Lionel if he would join an adventure there was no hesitation. Lionel tagged along to watch William play sport or hold his photographic equipment whilst William posed a subject. ‘My father was not physically active, so William let me do whatever I wanted. He bought me a wonderful model yacht.’
When war threatened William enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and after pilot training, was sent to England and attached to the 622 Squadron. He did not enjoy being away from home, particularly from his wife Jean. On 13 June 1944, his bomber was shot down with no survivors. His Commanding Officer wrote to Jean informing her that William ‘was admired by all who knew him and will be very much missed’. Soon the family were informed William was buried in Eindhoven General Cemetery, the Netherlands.
The elderly man sitting in front of me raises slowly and collects previous photographs. The first is of he and his hero standing by a Sydney swimming pool – the joy and pride so evident. The second is of William, almost majestic, in uniform and pilot’s wings. As I leave Lionel brings out a camera. ‘This is William’s, I can’t give it up even after all these years’.
Across the nation in Western Australian the story is the same, just different. The Laing family owned farms in the Denmark, area. European colonists had named this district after their ancestral home. Denmark is a pretty town close enough to the Great Australian Bight to feel winds loaded with salt spray. Ted Laing trained to be a schoolteacher. His brother Jeffrey remembers Ted as being ‘a great worker, reliable and friendly’. Ted was another accepted by the RAAF for pilot training for a European war. On 1 January 1943, Ted wrote a letter to a fellow Lancaster pilot. He wrote at length of the fun in the Sergeants mess over Christmas and how he mourned the operational death of a mutual mate – ‘tough luck’ Ted called it.
Twenty days later Ted and his crew of three Australians and three Englishmen were to attack Germany. As he taxied to take-off a mechanical fault became evident. The fault was rectified and, Ted was ordered to take-off even though it was well known that a single bomber which had missed the bomber stream, was an easy target. Many of the villagers in the Dutch township of Enschede heard the bombers that night and were attracted by the sound of one crashing. Ada Jongedijk was thirteen. ‘The plane was on fire, I saw the pilots strapped in their seats. Their heads were forward, so they were unconscious or already dead … the plane turned suddenly and crashed … terrible was the fate of those airmen’. Ted Laing’s Lancaster was in the air less than two hours before it was shot down by a German night fighter. The following day the villagers collected what once were men and buried them in a church cemetery. Sixty years later the Lancaster pilot to whom Ted wrote on that 1st January 1943, finally found Ted’s brother Jeff, and gave him the letter. Ted’s photograph continues to take pride of place in the Laing family home.