Bruce Cooper LAUGHTON

LAUGHTON, Bruce Cooper

Service Number: 417647
Enlisted: 20 June 1942
Last Rank: Flying Officer
Last Unit: No. 462 Squadron (RAAF)
Born: St Peters, South Australia, 14 July 1923
Home Town: Leabrook, City of Burnside, South Australia
Schooling: St Peter's College, Adelaide
Occupation: Clerk
Died: Brain Aneurysm, Adelaide, South Australia, 20 November 1981, aged 58 years
Cemetery: Centennial Park Cemetery, South Australia
Memorials:
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World War 2 Service

20 Jun 1942: Enlisted Royal Australian Air Force, Aircraftman 2 (WW2), SN 417647, 4 Initial Training School
15 Aug 1942: Promoted Royal Australian Air Force, Leading Aircraftman, No. 1 Initial Training School
20 Aug 1942: Involvement Royal Australian Air Force, Leading Aircraftman, SN 417647, No. 1 Wireless Air Gunners School, Empire Air Training Scheme
8 Feb 1943: Involvement Royal Australian Air Force, Leading Aircraftman, SN 417647, No. 3 Bombing and Gunnery School
4 Mar 1943: Promoted Royal Australian Air Force, Sergeant, No. 3 Bombing and Gunnery School
29 Mar 1943: Involvement Royal Australian Air Force, Sergeant, SN 417647, No. 2 Air Observers School , Empire Air Training Scheme
4 Sep 1943: Promoted Royal Australian Air Force, Flight Sergeant, No. 2 Air Observers School
14 Oct 1943: Transferred Royal Australian Air Force, Flight Sergeant, 2 Embarkation Depot
4 Nov 1943: Embarked Royal Australian Air Force, Flight Sergeant, Embarked from Sydney for UK, disembarked 10/12/1943
8 Mar 1944: Involvement Royal Australian Air Force, Flight Sergeant, SN 417647, Aircrew Training Units, Empire Air Training Scheme
2 May 1944: Involvement Royal Air Force (WW2), Flight Sergeant, SN 417647, 2 Observer Advanced Flying Unit (Millom)
30 May 1944: Involvement Royal Australian Air Force, Flight Sergeant, SN 417647, Operational Training Units (RAF), Empire Air Training Scheme
21 Aug 1944: Involvement Royal Air Force (WW2), Flight Sergeant, SN 417647, No. 192 Squadron (RAF), Air War NW Europe 1939-45
1 Sep 1944: Promoted Royal Air Force (WW2), Warrant Officer, No. 192 Squadron (RAF)
13 Dec 1944: Promoted Royal Air Force (WW2), Pilot Officer, No. 192 Squadron (RAF)
28 May 1945: Involvement Royal Australian Air Force, Warrant Officer, SN 417647, No. 462 Squadron (RAAF), Air War NW Europe 1939-45
13 Jun 1945: Promoted Royal Australian Air Force, Flying Officer, No. 462 Squadron (RAAF)
20 Jun 1945: Embarked Royal Australian Air Force, Flying Officer, No. 462 Squadron (RAAF), Embarked UK for Adelaide, disembarked 30/7/1945
25 Sep 1945: Discharged Royal Australian Air Force, Flying Officer, SN 417647, No. 462 Squadron (RAAF)

A Trip to Wombwell, 2003 by Verity Laughton

It is 2003. Living in Sydney at the time, I had already made contact with the pilot my Dad flew with during the war. This was Douglas Worrad, a quietly charming ex-KLM pilot living on Sydney’s North Shore, a father of six (one deceased) and still married to the capable English girl, Monica whom he met during the war. Now, along with my husband, Rob, I am visiting the UK. This feels like my last chance to meet with the rest of the men who flew with my father. Peter Everard, the apparently excellent navigator, has descended into the clouds of old age, but I hope to meet with Michael Bird, the serious, conscientious bomb aimer and – imminently – the rear gunner, Reg Atherbury, who still lives in the tiny Yorkshire town of Wombwell, near Barnesley where he was born and raised. This was the core group who flew in Halifaxes for most of their one tour of operations. When they transferred to flying Wellingtons, there were two additional crew, but these additions never quite connected in the same way.

We stay the night with friends who live near Leeds, and the next morning we set off in the car to visit Reg. We stop in Sheffield on the way. It seems they still remember the war here. The pub where we eat a bowl of soup, bread and a pie of chips of meat floating among spuds and gravy is dim inside. The sound system plays hits of the sixties on a nostalgia loop. And every wall is decorated by World War II military memorabilia, including framed photographs of fresh-faced young airmen.

We arrive at a small house on the left-hand side of one of the main streets of Wombwell. Reg meets us at the door. Reg looks like a friendly pixie with his shock of white hair and that sightly translucent aged skin of older heart attack victims. His wife Jean appears behind him. She is a sweet-faced woman whose face, body and manner also testify to ongoing health problems. I guess they are both staring at the Ferryman but hoping they may still be some distance from the shore. I hope so, too.

We’re shown into the sitting room. We sit down and look around. In pride of place on the wall by the big window overlooking their neat street-facing garden is the familiar face of the young airman I know from my father’s photographs. From that and the conversation that ensues it seems likely that Reg, like the kindly Mike Bird in Bristol, and unlike the Australian pilot, Douglas, is still living his war.

Reg cuts to the chase. He says I look like my father. I’m pleased though I know that it’s only half a look. Then he says something that surprises me, ‘I can’t recall Bruce smiling,’ he says. ‘He were always solemn’.

I have gained the impression from my father’s letters home that in between flying operations there had been a fair amount of drinking and dancing but now I see him again – slim, muscular, very small with his slightly bulldog eyes and, yes, that serious expression. When I hear Reg’s words, I wonder now if perhaps he thought more of the possibility of dying one of those cold nights over Germany than he gave away in his letters to his widowed mother and sisters, and even diary. He makes quite a deal in both of them of his intention to stay cheerful no matter what. We chat on. Reg makes it clear that he himself didn’t sign up – no way, this bolshie Yorkshire son of a miner anxious to avoid the pit himself – ‘for king and bloooody coooounty!” I hadn’t thought of it in those terms until Reg spoke, but I suspect that maybe Bruce may have done precisely that. Something of an innocent and with his politics veering more to the right than the left, he’d have believed the propaganda for a start. Well, they all did, and, as it turned out, if ever there was a ‘just war’ this was it.

Once started, Reg is engagingly hard to stop. He tells me once more – he’d already done so over the phone so it was clearly an enduring impression – that some of my father’s popularity with Reg’s family rested on the fact that each time Reg’s mother entered the room my father, a well-trained and polite young man from Adelaide, stood to acknowledge her. ‘Eh, that didn’t happen round here!’ says Reg, and his subdued wife shakes her head in affectionate agreement. ‘Eh, no-one had ever stood up for her in her life!’ We all laugh amidst our biscuits and our tea.

And there’s one last anecdote about Bruce, in between the stories of Reg’s own war and early life. This one is told to illustrate to us the perfidy of the inhabitants of Sheffield (Wombwell is about ten minutes out of Sheffield, which clearly made it ‘other’ in Reg’s estimation). Reg says Bruce had met with another airman, a boy from Sheffield who had asked him, if he were ever in the district, to look up his mother to give her news of him. So, on an early leave Bruce shared with Reg in Wombwell, he’d said he wanted to find this woman and discharge his commitment. The two of them spent an afternoon going all over Sheffield until at last they located the house at about four in the afternoon. They knocked on the door as the family was sitting down to afternoon tea, asked to speak to X’s mother and when she appeared, passed on her son’s greeting and news. ‘And they were sitting there’ says Reg, still outraged after sixty years, ‘and they never even offered us a coop o’ tay!’

My father comes back to me then, not as the laughing boy I’ve been imagining, not as the aircrew member having to rustle up both sudden and steady courage, but as a polite, obedient, carefully-nurtured, innocent young colonial with respect for authority and a serious intention to serve either individual or what he perceived as the greater social good. I like him very, very much.

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Biography contributed by Ned Young

By Ned Young and Verity Laughton

Bruce Cooper Laughton enlisted at No. 5 Recruiting Centre RAAF Adelaide on the 20th of June 1942, aged 18 and 11 months. His father, Arthur Laughton, a businessman and accountant, had died two years before. Bruce was living in Leabrook with his widowed mother, Margery and his two sisters, Janet and Barbara. His schooling took place at Kings College and then St Peter’s College. He was an average student but excelled at gymnastics and rowing (as a cox, given his short stature). In 1942 he was working as a clerk at Elder Smith & Co (which he did not much enjoy!). The Laughtons were part of a close-knit community, a crowd of people connected across the generations who (from his letters and diary) all seem to have had an active engagement in each other’s lives. Laughton was only 5 foot 3 inches (the lower limit of enlistment standards) but passed all medical examinations and was posted to 4 Initial Training School in Victor Harbour. After being told he was too small to become a pilot, Laughton chose to pursue wireless operations.

Two months later, on the 20th of August, Laughton transferred to 1 Wireless Air Gunners’ School (WAGS) in Ballarat, Victoria. He had been promoted to Leading Aircraftman on the 15th. The move to 1 WAGS for training was the first time Laughton had ever left South Australia. The Morse Code course took effort to master, but his hard work was rewarded with many “pleasant social” events.

On the 3rd of February 1943, Laughton qualified as a Wireless Telegraph Operator. He had a total of 23 hours and 5 minutes of flight time at the end of his training, having conducted multiple cross-country flights and completed many frequency-change exercises. All operations were flown in CAC Wackett CA-6 training aircraft.

On the 8th of February 1943, Laughton transferred to 3 Bombing and Gunnery School in Sale, Victoria where he began training as an Air Gunner. He graduated less than a month later, on the 3rd of March, having flown in Fairey Battle TT’s on 10 training exercises for a total of 10 hours and 20 minutes. Laughton participated in target practice on most of these flights, his best effort being 23 hits from 194 rounds on February 15th, an impressive 12% hit-rate. The course “proved to be fairly easy” compared to the one at 1 WAGS. On the 4th of March he was promoted to Sergeant and received his wing and stripes.

After a posting overseas was cancelled, Laughton was sent to 2 Air Observers’ School (AOS) Mt. Gambier and began operating in Avro Anson’s. He arrived on the 29th of March 1943 after a brief transition period at 4 Embarkation Depot Adelaide. Life at 2 AOS was “the best time spent in the Air Force to date”. He had his first experience of night flying and performed wireless operation duties on more long-haul training flights. Such flights would often extend over 5 hours and could see Laughton travel to RAAF Bases as far away from Mt Gambier as Parafield, Warracknabeal and Colac. In May, a 14-hour flight to Broken Hill on the 6th was followed by a near 13-hour flight to Narromine on the 15th. On the 4th of September, Laughton was promoted to Flight Sergeant. By the time he had completed his service at 2 AOS in September, he had flown a total of 366 hours and 5 minutes, with nearly 50 of those hours at night. 

Laughton arrived at 2 Embarkation Depot Bradfield Park, New South Wales on the 14th of September 1943. He had a “wonderful time in Sydney”, attending multiple dances and exploring the harbour. He embarked for the UK on the 4th of November. Life aboard the transport ship was arduous and unpleasant, although Laughton did become mates with men from all over the Commonwealth. The journey included a stop in San Francisco which he thoroughly enjoyed, despite the beer being “lousy” and “terribly gassy”. He traveled across North America, visiting Sacramento, Denver, Fort Dodge, Chicago, Niagara Falls and Syracuse, before boarding another ship in New York bound for England. 

Laughton arrived in the UK on the 10th of December and was sent to 11 Personnel Dispatch and Reception Centre in Brighton. His first official posting in the UK was at 2 Radio School RAF in Yatesbury, transferring on the 8th of March 1944. Laughton was in the air for only 7 hours and 50 minutes as he became accustomed to the Percival Proctor and de Havilland DH.89 Dominie (known as the Dragon Rapide in Australia) aircraft. 

He soon moved on to 2 Observer Advanced Flying Unit RAF in Millom on the 2nd of May, where he was tasked with 2nd wireless operator duties, focusing especially on navigation. Most of the flying at 2(O) AFU was conducted at night in Avro Anson’s. Laughton was also part of a signals training course at 2(O) AFU, which he passed commendably. His percentage score of 74 was 13th highest in his cohort. His chief instructor considered Laughton a “keen and conscientious…crew member”.

Laughton’s final training unit was 26 Operational Training Unit RAF in Little Horwood, where he transferred on the 30th of May 1944. He had previously ‘crewed-up’ during a brief stint at Operational Training Wing in Buckinghamshire. The newly formed crew consisted of (Australian) skipper Flight Sergeant Douglas Worrad, (English) Navigator Peter Everard, Gunners (Canadian) George Riley, and (English) Reg Atherbury and Bomb Aimer (English) Michael Bird. The crew began operating out of Vickers Wellington aircraft, participating in all sorts of high-level training exercises. On the 21st of August, the crew (minus George Riley) were transferred to their first operational unit: No. 192 Squadron RAF. 

192 Squadron was based in Foulsham in Norfolk and operated as a Special Duties (Electronic Warfare) squadron. The crew continued to fly in Wellingtons, to which they were now well accustomed. Laughton was promoted to Warrant Officer on the 1st of September 1944. Many of the sorties carried out by the crew were Special Duty Operations along the Dutch coast. Laughton mentions in his diary that the work of 192 Squadron was “very much secret”, although we now know that their main duty was to deceive and disrupt Luftwaffe radar and communications in order to protect RAF night bomber formations. For Laughton personally, this meant “listening to and jamming certain frequencies” or homing in on loop bearings. The aircraft also carried an ongoing roster of ‘Special Operators’, highly-trained radio intelligence officers who had their own specific duties per trip. A copious number of sorties were undertaken by Laughton and his crew as part of 192 Squadron. Their operational hours were a total of 203 by April 1945 from 33 and a half individual sorties. 

Laughton recalls two flak ships he nicknamed ‘Pat’ and ‘Mick’ that would shoot at his plane on every patrol. Luckily, Pat and Mick only carried a small armament, but pilot Doug Worrad made sure not to take any chances and to stay out of range. The crew would also encounter ‘Tom’ and ‘Jerry’, German Junkers Ju 88’s and Messerschmitt Bf 109’s, quite frequently on their patrols. He remembers “play[ing] about in the [English] channel” with the German crews. On November 11th 1944, a faulty battery sparked a fire on board the aircraft shortly after take-off. Laughton, being in charge of the wireless equipment, sprung quickly into action, turning the power off and extinguishing the flames with his boots. He managed to get the situation under control before any serious damage was done. 

In December of 1944, Laughton and his crew traded their Vickers Wellington for the Halifax Mk III after completing a conversion course in Yorkshire. The larger aircraft required a larger crew, so Engineer Peter Marshall and Gunner Jim Rose were added to the original five members. Laughton was promoted to Pilot Officer on the 13th of December. The crew resumed their regular missions in February 1945, performing Special Duty Operations and cross-country patrols. Seven sorties were conducted in March for a total of 9 daylight and 43 night hours of flying, including missions over France and Germany.

A transfer to No. 462 Squadron RAAF on May 28th1945 saw Laughton leave his beloved crew after nearly a year of service together. At the completion of his time with No. 192 Squadron RAF, Laughton had flown a grand total of 813 hours across all his postings. The stint with 462 Squadron RAAF lasted only a few months but included a final promotion to Flying Officer on June 13th. By the 20th of June, Laughton was on a ship bound for Adelaide. He arrived on the 30th of July 1945 after spending 685 days in the UK. 

Flying Officer Laughton was discharged on the 25th of September 1945. He had proven himself a reliable and efficient Wireless Operator, valued extremely highly within his crew. He was also a qualified Air Gunner. Laughton operated in an array of aircraft, from the CAC Wackett CA-6 and Fairey Battle TT’s used for training, to the eventual Vickers Wellington and Halifax Mk III used in 192 Squadron RAF. Laughton’s service spanned 3 years and 3 months, saw him sail to the other side of the world and spend 813 hours in the air. 

Laughton’s life disproves the notion of inevitable trauma associated with war and hard times. Bruce came home with his mate, Jim Maddocks, via New Zealand and back to his close social world and to a job in the public service, working with the Defence Department, at first in Adelaide and then at the Weapons Research Establishment in Salisbury. In early years he worked as a clerk, in later years as a Management Trainer, in Adelaide and interstate. 

A year after his return from service, he met Jeanette Davison, a kindergarten teacher and the love of his life. They married and over the years had three daughters, Philippa, Verity and Sally. None of the family remembers him attending Anzac Day celebrations, despite the fact that his war service and the people he met through it were clearly important to him, and he stayed in touch in particular with Englishman Mike Bird (who wrote his own vivid account of their shared war experience), all his life. He died (in Adelaide) of a brain aneurysm in November 1981, at the age of 58. His life was a very ‘normal’ one – a straightforward job, a happy marriage, sporting prowess. He remained very fit after his early years’ interest in gymnastics, and he coxed the South Australian eight in the King’s Cup in 1955. He retained a lifelong interest in rowing, calling Adelaide’s traditional ‘Head of the River’ race for many years for the Adelaide Rowing Club. He was a wonderful son, husband and father, and a loyal friend. He would have been happy with that as his legacy.

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