Lifestyle

Ron’s war is now a lifetime away from his Echuca

By Andrew Mole

FOR Ron Pell, World War II is now a distant memory, fading in the mists of time and his own age.

Now 96, the man who once flew bombing missions over Germany has settled quietly into a cottage at the back of the mudbrick home he built decades ago on the outskirts of Echuca.

Where, he admitted, the armchair gets a good workout on a daily basis.

Tomorrow is the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, with the surrender of Japan after two atomic bombs were dropped on its cities.

But for Ron August 15 will be just another day; he might get a visit from daughter Helen, who lives in the twin towns, or Christine, based in Kyabram.

Otherwise he doesn’t have much on his calendar because COVID-19 has closed off many of his usual events, such as his work with the Echuca branch of Legacy.

The old veteran is still proudly, fiercely independent in his home, and with his car, which he still drives.

“I am getting a bit tired these days, and don’t think about the war much. We couldn’t do Anzac Day this year, which was disappointing,” Ron said.

“I’m keeping as well as can be expected I guess, it’s just this virus going around seems to have made everyone pull back a bit; but I don’t venture outside all that much lately,” he said.

“But I guess I am pretty lucky, I’m still going and I have my daughters close by, which is nice and before all this happened I was able to make it into the Legacy office from time to time.

“I’ve got a mask in the car for when I go out and although I also have one in the house I don’t have to wear it if I am the only one at home.”

A model of the Lancaster bomber Ron flew. Photo: Cath Grey.

Warrant Officer Pell was posted to England in 1943 with 115 Squadron to train in Wellington bombers before taking over a Lancaster and joining the round-the-clock bombing raids on Germany and occupied Europe.

“We were based at Ely (about 130km north of London), which is home to Ely Cathedral, and we used its spire as a sighter when we were flying back from missions,” Ron said in a recent interview with the Riv.

But the death rate of the bomber squadrons was off the charts – the lumbering planes making excellent targets for anti-aircraft fire (flak) from the ground and were sitting ducks for the German fighter planes.

First the ME109 then, as technology and tactics developed, the Germans used upgraded ME110s and JU88s, fitted with radar and innovations such as machine guns set in the top of planes and angled to shoot upwards, each mission becoming a bigger risk.

“We flew night missions mostly, and where I was a bomb aimer/navigator at the front of the plane you never really saw them,” Ron recalled.

“You knew they were out there; you saw planes shot down, but they nearly always came at us from below,” he said.

“I do remember one time our rear gunner said there was one coming up under us and the pilot threw our plane in dives all over the place and we never had any trouble.”

That time.

On another mission they did end up limping home on three engines after flak set one on fire during a bombing raid deep into eastern Germany and the pilot had to feather the engine.

Many times they landed and the plane was peppered with holes torn in the fuselage and wings by anti-aircraft fire.

“We would take off on missions with 12 or so bombers but only five or six of us would come back,” Ron had recalled.

Yet some of his fondest memories of war were the mercy missions he flew during 1945 and for which the Dutch government has been belatedly recognising with medals – Ron received his a few years ago.

“The Dutch were literally starving by the last months of the war,” Ron said.

“The Germans still held most of the country and they had stripped it of provisions to help feed their own army,” he said.

“So a local ceasefire or amnesty was arranged and we flew several missions to drop food. We were flying really low but the Germans held their fire, we dropped the food and we got home.

“It was a really important job – by that stage many of the Dutch were literally eating grass to have something in their stomachs – and I am glad I was part of it, putting a bomber to good use.

“It was called Operation Manna and we were the ones dropping manna from heaven.”

When previously interviewed by the Riv that story was the first memory to bring a real smile to the old veteran’s face.

Another was having his children, and their children, with him on the day he received the medal for the work he did feeding starving allies. That smile was one of deep satisfaction.

As were his years of service to Legacy, the widows he helped look after in his 25 years with the organisation.

And now, when his grandchildren, and great grandchildren, ask about his war he has his Dutch medal, something he will be happy to show them, and a story he will be proud to tell them.