In December we posted information about Bennett’s Mae West, preserved after he was shot down in Norway and now owned by the Australian War Memorial (AWM) at Canberra.
The Bennett Memorial at the small regional Toowoomba Airport in Queensland, close to Bennett’s place of birth, is believed to be the only memorial to Bennett in his native Australia. To say it is somewhat low-key for a man of his attainments would be an understatement. Part of the problem is that the plaque is mounted facing the runway, so that the memorial just looks like a block of granite from the street.
There is also a collection of Bennett material in Queensland which we are hoping to learn more about this year. However, it does appear that Bennett’s memory is not particularly revered in his own country, perhaps because he made his career with the RAF rather than the RAAF, and never returned to live in Australia. This paragraph on the AWM website on 50 Australians who were prominent in wartime, a list which incidentally does not include Bennett, perhaps betrays a historian’s bias against those who gave more allegiance to England than their mother country:
Air Vice Marshal Sir Hughie Idwal Edwards, VC, KCMG, CB, DSO, OBE, DFC (1914–1982)
Edwards joined the RAAF when he was 21. Following pilot training he transferred to the RAF in Britain under a pre-war arrangement. Another to do this was Air Vice Marshal Don Bennett, regarded as the founder of the Path-finder Force. “It was ironic that the two most successful Australian air commanders in Europe earned their reputations as members of the RAF,” noted an air force historian. (AWM: 50 Australians – Sir Hughie Edwards )
Photographs and additional information courtesy of Ian Campbell
In January we posted on Bennett and the Russians, not realising that there is a rather wonderful story in Bennett’s autobiography Pathfinder to which we should have drawn attention. So here it is at last. It is presumably the explanation why Bennett was awarded the Order of Alexander Nevsky, which had always seemed a bit of a mystery before.
And here is another little fact about Bennett which I have been sitting on for some months. It follows on our post on 26 August last year about how Bennett was shot down whilst trying to sink the Tirpitz. He made it safely home to England, was decorated, and given the all-important job of forming the Pathfinders. The Tirpitz lived on until 12 November 1944, when RAF Lancaster bombers finally sunk it. (United News Broadcast).
Wing Commander William Anderson who was stationed at PFF HQ wrote in 1946:
They gave the Wing Commander a DSO and a far more important job even than sinking a battleship. But he still felt a little sore about it. And it was a relief to us [at the Pathfinders] when the Tirpitz was sunk in Tromso Fjord. For a picture of her used to hang in his office, and if ever she had got loose on the high seas I doubt if anything would have stopped him having a crack at the one thing that has so far got the better of him.
Here are two curious little facts about Bennett and the Russians that I came across this afternoon whilst having a massive tidy-up in the office. Bennett was awarded the Order of Alexander Nevsky by the Russians, presumably just after the war had ended and before relations between the USSR and the western powers began to seriously deteriorate. By 1948, the situation had become critical with the beginnings of the Cold War. And Bennett was one of the aircrew who flew on the Berlin Airlift after the Russians had blockaded the city.
He flew a Tudor II, a large passenger liner built by Avro, the makers of the Lancaster. Apparently on one occasion he nearly died, taking off before the externally attached wing elevator locks had been removed.
Cecil Macgown, the Group Medical Officer of the Pathfinders, usually known as Doc Macgown or ‘Mac’, was in the RFC during the First World War. In one momentous letter to his sister in 1917, he wrote: “Still alive and getting along fine. Very fed up at being out of everything. A shell hit my machine at 3000 feet up and I hit the ground rather forcibly.” To read more, see: Doc Macgown in WWI
We very seldom hear about what life was like for children on Bomber Command or PFF bases. For a wonderful child’s eye view of life on a Pathfinder base, including a fabulous anecdote about the legendary Mahaddie at a party given for the children of PFF personnel at Warboys, see The Engineering Officer at Warboys.