William Alfred (Bill) GUNNING

Poppy

GUNNING, William Alfred

Service Number: 413856
Enlisted: 13 September 1941, Sydney, New South Wales
Last Rank: Flight Sergeant
Last Unit: No. 466 Squadron (RAAF)
Born: Mosman, New South Wales, 14 December 1922
Home Town: Orange, Orange Municipality, New South Wales
Schooling: St Ignatius Riverview, Sydney
Occupation: Bank Clerk
Died: Killed in Action (flying battle), Belgium, 14 July 1943, aged 20 years
Cemetery: Chievres Communal Cemetery, Wallonie, Belgium
Buried with four members of his crew
Memorials: Australian War Memorial, Roll of Honour, Orange Cenotaph, Orange HB3
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World War 2 Service

13 Sep 1941: Enlisted Royal Australian Air Force, Aircraftman, SN 413856, Sydney, New South Wales
14 Jul 1943: Involvement Royal Australian Air Force, Flight Sergeant, SN 413856, No. 466 Squadron (RAAF), Air War NW Europe 1939-45

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Biography contributed by Anthony Vine

Bill Gunning was born in Mosman, NSW on 14 December 1922, the only son of Camden and Minnie Gunning. He had one sibling, his sister Mary, who was nine years younger than him. His father, Cam Gunning,[1] had served in the AIF as a lieutenant in the 30th Battalion before returning to his pre-war occupation as a bank officer.

Cam Gunning’s work took him to Bega and later Orange. As a result, Bill became a boarder at St Ignatius’ College, Riverview in Sydney. At St Ignatius’, he served in the school cadet corps as a private. He also participated in cricket, football, swimming, handball, rowing and tennis. He was a mediocre student, and achieved only passes in maths and French. He was not awarded his leaving certificate.

Bill joined the Rural Bank of NSW as a trainee bank officer. At the time of his enlistment in the RAAF, he was employed in the bank’s head office in Martin Place, Sydney and was undertaking studies in accountancy at the Metropolitan Business College.

He enlisted in the RAAF Reserve on 21 May 1941 and was called up for duty on 13 September 1941. Enlisting on the same day as Bill was Gordon Colless with whom he would undertake flying training in Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom. They would ultimately post together to No. 466 Squadron.

Bill completed his recruit training at 2 ITS at Bradfield Park,  before joining 5 EFTS at Narromine on the 11th of December 1941; he turned 19 the day after he arrived, making his first two flights, both in Tiger Moth DH 82 serial number A17-190. His instructor was Sergeant George Heads[2]  a 30 year old New Zealander.

The training continued relentlessly, with only a short break over Christmas and, under George Head’s tutelage, Bill would log ten hours and five minutes on the Tiger Moth before going solo for the first time in Tiger Moth A17-306 on New Year’s Day 1942. With that first solo behind him, Bill started advanced flying and navigation and by the time of his final flight test on 19 February, he had logged a total of sixty-two hours, thirty-one of which were as pilot-in-command. He was assessed by the Flight Instructor F-Lt Way as being “average with no outstanding faults”.

Bill logged another six hours before posting to Bradfield Park in early April in preparation of embarking for overseas. During his final leave in Orange his father was clearly resigned to the fact that he would not see his only son again. At Orange railway station, whilst Bill was checking his luggage, Cam took ten year old Mary aside and told her; ‘Make sure you give your brother a big hug and remember his face as you will never see him again’.[3]

On 24 April 1942, Bill sailed from Sydney on the SS President Monroe. He landed in San Francisco on 15 May and arrived in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada three days later. On the ship, he shared a four-berth first-class cabin with three of his Narromine course mates, George George, Lindsay Greenaway and George Messenger.

The trip was not boring, with physical training, navigation exams and submarine spotting occurring regularly between games of bridge, gambling and ship’s concerts. At 0830 on 15 May, the ship passed under the Golden Gate Bridge and, at 1330, the airmen were allowed ashore for four hours. The stop was all too short and, at 2130, the entire contingent boarded a train northwards. By 19 May, Bill was at 3 MD in Edmonton, Alberta.

In Edmonton, Bill, George Messenger and Harry Krohn became friends with a local family, Mr and Mrs Love and their daughters Helen and Mary, regularly visiting their home for meals. But all good things come to an end, and, on 5 June, the Narromine men re-embarked, this time for the 10 SFTS at Dauphin, Manitoba. On Monday 8 June, they began to familiarise themselves with the Cessna aircraft on which they would train.

Bill’s instructor was Pilot Officer John McDowell,[4] who would later lose his life in a crash off the coast of Nova Scotia. Training on the twin-engine Cessna proved to be very different to the venerable Tiger Moths at Narromine, but, by 18 May, Bill had gone solo. On 25 September 1942, Bill was awarded his wings and promoted to sergeant. His diary indicates that his training was hard, but it was interspersed with a lot of social activity. A Canadian airwoman, Kay Starling, of whom he was particularly fond, is mentioned regularly.

On their graduation, Bill and fourteen other men who were to proceed directly to the United Kingdom were given leave to travel to New York. Bill made a recorded message on a phonograph record that he sent home.

On 28 October, Bill and his mates embarked on the RMS Queen Elizabeth in Halifax, Nova Scotia. By a twist of fate, Sergeant Ron Vine, RAAF,[5] who in 1951 would work with and later marry Bill’s sister Mary, was also on the Queen Elizabeth. He had just completed training in Canada as a WO/AG. The year 1942 was the height of the U-boat war and so the trip across the Atlantic was quick. By 4 November, they had disembarked in the north of the United Kingdom and, after twenty-four hours on a train, they arrived at 11 PDRC in Bournemouth.

In late Bill was posted to 11 AFU(P) at Shawbury, Shropshire where he would remain for ten weeks. At Shawbury he flew the Airspeed Oxford twin engine trainer. The training was mainly focussed on daytime operations with very little night flying conducted. During this period, Bill accumulated another fifty hours’ flying, with thirty as first pilot.

On 22 February, after conducting two solo flights practising forced landings, Bill neglected to properly secure his aircraft after a flight. He was paraded before the Group Captain and charged with ‘Carelessness. Failing to ensure that the brakes were properly locked.’[6]

Bill’s logbook was endorsed and he left the Group Captain’s office a despondent young man. Later, he made his own endorsement in pencil on a blank page of his logbook. He wrote, ‘When I get to here I should be a bit better than now 9/3/43 WAG’.[7] Sadly, that entry appears forty-eight pages after the final entry, made following his death.

The AFU course successfully completed, Bill posted to 20 OTU at RAF Lossiemouth on the Scottish coast east of Inverness. At Lossiemouth, the newly arrived airmen mingled together, trying to assess each other’s strengths and weaknesses and slowly forming into crews. Within days, Bill had teamed up with an Australian, nineteen-year-old F-Sgt Rex Feakes (BA)[8]; a Canadian Flight Sergeant Herbert Jordan (N)[9]; and two RAF sergeants, Tom Cummins (AG)[10] and WO/AG Donald Covell.(WO/AG)[11]

The five young men then embarked on an extremely hectic and dangerous period of training on the Wellington bomber. The instructing staff members were all men who had survived a tour of operations and were only too keen to pass on their experience to the rookie crews. On 21 April, Bill made his first flight in a Wellington bomber and, by 6 May, he was flying solo with his crew conducting dummy bombing operations. On 27 May, they began night flying. The pace was frenetic, and, by 11 June, Bill had accumulated seventy-five hours on the Wellington, almost forty of which were at night. He and his crew were assessed as being ready for operations and they were posted to No. 466 Squadron RAAF.

466 Squadron was an EATS squadron. It was formed in October 1942 and, at the time Bill and his crew joined, it was based at Leconfield, Yorkshire. Bill’s crew was the fifty-third to form in 466 Squadron. The fifty-second was commanded by Bill’s course mate and friend Gordon Colless.

When Bill and Gordon joined the squadron, not a single crew had completed a tour of operations; they had either been shot down, posted to other squadrons or the crew had been broken up for various reasons. It was a grim outlook for the inexperienced crew.

Within days of arriving at Leconfield, Bill flew a mission as second pilot with Squadron Leader Belton, RAFVR[12] to Elberfeld near Wuppertal and to the east of Düsseldorf. Belton and his crew were one of the most experienced in the squadron, and he was the ideal man to mentor the young pilot.

On 29 June, Bill and his crew conducted their first operation, a mission to lay mines off Lorient on the south coast of the Cherbourg peninsular in France. The flight required a long, 1600 km round trip flying down through the centre of UK and avoiding German defences on the peninsula. After five hours in the air at night, Bill and his crew landed at RAF Chivenor in Devon and, after refuelling, returned to Leconfield. At Leconfield, Bill faced the worst possible news: his friend Gordon Colless, who had also flown in the raid, was missing. Nothing had been heard from his aircraft.

On 3 July 1943, Bomber Command attacked Cologne, aiming for the city’s industrial centre on the east bank of the Rhine. It was a major raid, with 653 aircraft taking part. Target-marking was accurate, and the bombs of the main force were concentrated. On the ground, 588 people were killed, around 1,000 injured and an estimated 72,000 made homeless. Flying that night was Bill and his crew in a Wellington HD-O. On their return to the United Kingdom, Bill landed at Hardwick, Cambridgeshire after almost five hours in the air. He returned to Leconfield the following day.

In a letter to his brother Ted after the raid, Tom Cummins wrote:

 

We were bumped all over the place and the search lights got us, but skipper dodged them, then we got over the target and skipper says ‘Here we go boys’ and bang in the middle of it drop our load, then off we go, we just managed to make it home.[13]

 

The crew’s third operation was to lay mines in Saint-Nazaire, a similar mission to the one on which Gordon Colless had been lost. Once again, the crew landed away from home, this time at Abingdon, near Oxford. This mission was followed by another mining operation, this time to the Dutch coast, a relatively short flight of three hours.

The demands on crews were heavy. Bill’s crew was again called to fly on the night of 13–14 July. They conducted a thirty-minute flight test of their aircraft, Wellington, LN288, X for X-ray, during the day and then tried to rest before their pre-flight briefing.

The target was Aachen, a city that lies on the borders of Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium. While not as far away as Cologne, it still required the men to cross the coast between the Hague and Amsterdam before flying south-east to Aachen. They had to exit the target zone to the south before turning westward to fly over Belgium and France to the English coast near Brighton. The raid was conducted using 374 aircraft. Seventy-six of these were Wellingtons, fourteen of them from 466 Squadron.

Bill took off from Leconfield just after midnight on the night of 13 July. Because of stronger than predicted tailwinds, all the aircraft arrived over the target earlier than expected and ahead of the Pathfinder Force. The result was that hundreds of aircraft were circling the target area waiting for it to be marked with flares. This resulted in a number of collisions. When the target was marked, bombs began to rain down, narrowly missing aircraft operating at lower altitudes.

On the return journey, Bill’s aircraft was pursued and shot down at 0217 by a Messerschmitt Bf 110 night fighter flown by Hauptmann Albert Haesler over the small town of Baudour in southern Belgium. Bill’s aircraft was approximately forty-eight kilometres north of its intended track, indicating that the crew may have been trying to evade the fighter for some time.

There were no survivors. Bill and his crew were found in the wreckage of the aircraft, all wearing parachutes. Their bodies were so badly mangled that the Germans handed them to the local priest for interment in a single grave in Chièvres. After the Germans left, more body parts were recovered by the locals and buried in a second grave in nearby Baudour.

On 16 July, Bill’s father, Cam Gunning, received a telegram at work informing him that Bill was missing on operations. The family was devastated. His mother Minnie, however, was insistent that he was still alive. The mayor of Chièvres contacted the Red Cross regarding the burial of the men, and, by 1 September, the men’s next of kin were informed that they were now presumed killed. All hope faded.

The Gunning family would suffer a second loss in October 1944 when Bill’s first cousin Flying Officer Thomas (Bob) Millar,[14] was lost when the Liberator on which he was the bomb aimer disappeared. It had been dropping supplies to Italian partisans. Bob’s mother Edith was Cam Gunning’s older sister. Bob left behind a wife and an eighteen-month-old daughter Anne, whom he had not seen since she was four weeks old.

In February 1946, the RAF conducted an examination of the crash site. The remains of the men were exhumed and examined, and then reburied in the Chièvres Communal Cemetery. Interviews were conducted with local people who had visited the crash site and retained items they had found there. These items included a cap and handkerchief marked with the name Gunning and a second handkerchief marked with the name Covell. It was clear that the aircraft was LN288 and the remains were those of its crew.

In 1945, Cam Gunning received a letter from the parish priest of Chièvres. In translation, it reads:

 

In the part of the Chievres Cemetery reserved for allied victims of the war, I read on the cross of the 7th tomb the names of Covell Sgt, Feakes Sgt, Jordan Sgt, Gunning Sgt and Cummins Sgt. Next to this, between the 3rd and 4th names, written in pencil by an allied officer, was the date on 15/7/43. On 16/7 the Germans gave these names to the local Chièvres administration and they were painted on the cross. The plane was shot down in flames the previous night, at around 3am in the morning in Baudour, 10km from Mons.

It is possible that some personal effects were saved by some people here. If you recall any items with a distinctive mark, please write to Mr Bouillart from St Symphonien at Baudour and if there are he can send them to you.

If it really is the body of your son that we are looking after here in the Chièvres cemetery, I understand your pain. I pray for the noble victims of the war, notably the 72 allied soldiers buried in Chièvres and their families.[15]

 

Flight Sergeant William Alfred Gunning, RAAF and his crew are buried in the Chièvres Community Cemetery in Belgium.



[1] Lt Camden Lewis Gunning, 30th Bn AIF; bank manager  Mosman NSW, ; b. Mount Macdonald, NSW, 19 Jan 1881; d. Mudgee, NSW, 10 Apr 1954.
[2] F-Lt George Heads, 400027; engineer’s cost clerk of Rose Bay, NSW; b. Middlemarch, New Zealand, 27 Jul 1910; KIFA New Guinea, 7 June 1944. Heads was one of the first EATS enlistees and was fast-tracked to become a flying instructor. After three years of instructing, Heads was posted to No. 33 (Transport) Squadron where he was killed in a flying accident in New Guinea.
[3] Interview with Mary Vine (née Gunning), 1999.
[4] F-O John Nelson McDowell, J/26136, RCAF; KIFA 10 Jun 1944.
[5] W-O Ronald Francis Vine, 412767; cadet wireless engineer of Picton, NSW; b. Rose Bay, NSW 7 Feb 1922; d. South West Rocks, NSW, 6 Dec 1997.
[6] F-Sgt Bill Gunning, pilot logbook.
[7] Ibid.
[8] F-Sgt  Rex Feakes 422157; b. Cooma NSW 22 Oct 1923, KIA 14 Jul 1943
[9] F-Sgt Herbert Charles Jordan R/135639 RCAF; b. Canada circa 1921, KIA 14 Jul 43
[10] Sgt Thomas Francis Cummins, 1192627, RAF; KIA 14 Jul 1943.
[11] Sgt Donald Walpole Covell 1336969 RAF of London UK; KIA 14 Jul 43.
[12] Sqn Ldr Jack Stewart Belton, DFC, RAFVR; b. UK, 13 Sep 1919; d. London, UK Dec 1996.
[13] Letter from Ted Cummins to Cam Gunning, dated 29 February 1944, containing an extract from a letter his brother Tom had written just before he was killed.
[14] F-O Thomas Roberts Millar, 422612, 31 Sqn, SAAF; clerk of Mosman NSW b. Narromine, NSW, 7 Sep 1916; KIA 12 Oct 1944.
[15] Letter from Curé Doyen of the Abbey Chièvres to Cam Gunning, dated June 1945.

 

Reference Source: "High in the Sunlit Silence", Vivid Publishing 2017 with permission of the author (myself)

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