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Fight and flight

Phil Elger was a wireless operator in a bomber crew during World War II. Now 96, he recounts his experiences.

Phil Elger was 20 years old when he boarded a cargo ship in Port Adelaide, South Australia, to begin the six-week voyage to England.

Upon arrival, he and the other 125 Australian recruits, whom he calls his fellow “bastards from the bush”, were sent to Brighton for months of unarmed combat training. The regiment was housed in a grand, old seaside hotel that had been stripped of all its fittings and carpets and turned into a makeshift barracks.

“British training is marvellous,” Phil says. “It was very strict. It saved our lives.”

Despite the crew’s proximity to the beach, they couldn’t set foot on the sand because of all the bombs and barbed wire. There was one exception – a day when they were given gnarled second-hand leather boots and made to stand in the icy seawater to soften them.

Phil, who lives at Trundle Multi Purpose Health Service near Parkes in New South Wales, receives all his personal care and meals from Australian Unity.

He likes to celebrate Remembrance Day each year and loves to share his wartime memories. One of Phil’s favourites involves himself and a fellow soldier travelling to London on weekend leave. “We decided we would have to learn to drink, but we didn’t know what to order. I asked for a beer and the girl behind the bar laughed and said I would need to be more specific. There were 22 varieties.”

Another vivid memory is a weekend spent at a manor house in Kent. Phil says the family there treated the soldiers like royalty, greeting them at the door with the biggest bottle of beer he’d ever seen. The normally wealthy hosts had saved up a month of rations to feed them a roast dinner and some local cheeses, including blue cheese, something that Phil had never tasted before.

Happy times became a rarity once Phil started flying with his crew. He says most bomber crews only survived an average of eight passes over Germany. Phil’s crew made it through 38, tragically with two fatalities.

He recalls his maiden flight in a fabric plane when one of the gunners decided to get in too close to the action. A shell exploded close to them and tore all the covers off the plane. Phil says the return trip to England was deathly cold.

He also recalls that during the D-Day invasion over German-occupied Normandy, his squadron was one of 1500 Lancaster bombers in the sky. There was very thick cloud during the six days of combat, which meant they had to fly lower than the recommended 8000 feet (2438 metres). They started dropping 2000-pound (907 kilograms) bombs from as low as 800 feet (244 metres).

“The concussion on our feet was terrible,” says Phil. “There were a lot of broken ankles.”

During a period of leave, Phil says he and his fellow soldiers were treated badly by the Australian public. “I was standing in Martin Place [Sydney] one day, talking to a squadron leader, when a lady came up to us and said, ‘Why don’t you get out of that uniform and save the country money?’ People thought we were dodging the war. They thought we were having a wonderful time when in reality we were having a terrible time.”

After the requisite two weeks of leave, Phil was sent to Ballarat to pick up a plane to fly to Japan. During his train trip, the war ended.

When asked what advice he would give to other would be recruits, Phil says, “It’s not an easy life. You can go in and have a good time at the bottom [in the armed forces], but if you want to progress, it’s hard yakka.”

Words: Emma Castle Photos: Michael Amendolia

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