ANZAC Day Reflections

Thursday 25 April 2024

ANZAC Day is the day we look sacrifice right in the eyes.

And every year we see the many faces of fallen Australians staring right back at us.

We see the more than 100,000 faces of those who sacrificed their lives fighting for our country.

Today, it’s one particular face I find looking back. It’s Flight Sergeant Rawdon (‘Ron’) Middleton VC.

Ron grew up in the bush. He and his brother learned to read and write at a one-teacher school. He loved running. And he was fast.

But it was team sports where he excelled: cricket and rugby.

At age 24, he joined the Royal Australian Air Force, despite all the risks.

For a young Australian in the Second World War, the most dangerous place you could be was in a Bomber Command warplane.

And that’s where they sent young Ron. He flew with RAF Bomber Command over Europe. Slowly grinding down Hitler’s and Mussolini’s war machines.

You had a 33 per cent chance of dying, and you had to complete 30 combat missions before you completed your tour.

Many didn’t expect to make it home.

One of Ron’s brothers in arms was Flying Officer Colin Flockhart, a city boy from Sydney. At age 21, he was flying one of 645 Lancasters, in one of the last bombing runs on Munich, Germany. They dropped their bombs, but he never made it back. A few weeks later, his family received his final letter. It said:

“This war was inevitable, and I could never have been content unless I did my share … I want you to know therefore that if I should die, I shall not be afraid because my heart is at ease … I love you all very dearly. Please don’t think I'm pessimistic but I do realise what the odds are, and I have seen too many of my friends pass on without leaving any words of hope or encouragement behind. Cheerio and keep smiling though your hearts are breaking.”

Ron Middleton knew the terrifying dangers his fellow pilot Colin Flockhart knew. But these Aussies ran to their planes anyway because they believed in what they were doing.

On the night of 29 November 1942, Ron Middleton took the pilot’s seat of his Stirling Bomber, checked in on his crew, and took off from the airbase in Suffolk.

They pushed into France, over the Alps, and then on to Italy, to attack the Fiat factory in Turin, Italy, which made armoured personnel carriers for the Axis armies.

But that meant weaving through snowy mountains, with a heavy bomb and fuel load.

As they approached their target over Italy, the sky lit up with flak. Red-hot metal fragments exploded, tearing through the skin of the aircraft and aircrew.

One anti-aircraft round exploded right in the cockpit, hitting Ron and his co-pilot. In that moment, Ron’s own face was smashed, his right eye destroyed, rendering him unconscious.

When he came to – bleeding and in great pain – he realised the aircraft was badly damaged, as was his co-pilot and other members of the crew.

But he didn’t start complaining. He started planning.

If his aircrew were forced to parachute out over Italy, they would be shot on sight. Occupied France would have been no better. Switzerland and Africa were too risky.

At that moment, Ron made a promise to his mates. He jumped on the intercom and said to his crew, "I'll make the English Coast. I'll get you home.”

He never promised that they’d all get home alive.

He did promise they’d get home.

For four more hours, he wrestled with the flight controls. In pain. Bloody and blind in one eye.

Running low on fuel, the plane badly shot up, Ron knew to have any chance of making it home, they had to get rid of weight.

So Ron ordered the men to grab the tomahawk axes, and start hacking away at anything they didn’t need to fly.

They ripped away their seats, their guns, all the bombs, the ammunition, anything that added weight, throwing it into the night sky.

Pushing north, they made it to France, where German searchlights found them and lit them up. Ron’s plane was showered with bullets again.

They survived and kept lurching north. Finding the English Channel.

Home was in sight.

They had five minutes’ fuel. No way to reach a runway. And they couldn’t make an emergency landing.

Nor could they risk hurting civilians with a crash landing.

Ron Middleton put his Stirling Bomber into a good position along the coast, and gave his crew the order to abandon the aircraft.

They got their parachutes ready, helped the wounded men put theirs on: five men bailed out into the dark night sky.

But the auto-pilot controls had been shot up and destroyed. Two men—the engineer and the radio operator—stayed back to help Ron Middleton ditch the plane in the sea.

So, Ron Middleton, with no fuel left, himself groggy and weak from pain, remained at his post and held the controls until the last two men jumped clear of the Stirling Bomber.

Then he plunged the aircraft into the sea.

The last two men to jump drowned.

But the five who jumped out early all survived.

And all had made it back to England.

Ron had done his duty.

He had sacrificed his life to keep his promise to his men.

Two months later, his body washed up on Shakespeare Beach in Dover.

Flight Sergeant Rawdon ‘Ron’ Middleton was given a funeral with full military honours.

King George VI conferred on him the highest honour, the Victoria Cross.

The last line of citation reads:

“His devotion to duty in the face of overwhelming odds is unsurpassed in the annals of the Royal Air Force"

We all get hurt in this life.

Some of us get hurt very badly—bleeding and dying.

And even then are able to love and care for others.

That was Ron Middleton.

That’s what ANZAC is all about.


Service over self.

Putting your team ahead of you.

But it isn’t just about looking at great ones of the past, like Ron Middleton.

It’s about letting them look at us.

We look at Ron and we ask what kind of Australian is this? What kind of man endure horrific pain and, instead of withdrawing, commits himself to look after others?

But Ron seems to be looking back. Asking a haunting question. What kind of Australians are we?

Very few of us will be asked to fly a warplane. But all of us will experience setbacks, trauma and pain. All of us.

Will we overcome? Will we sacrifice our interest for others? Will we love and serve those near us—through our own pain?

Will I?

As I shared this story with some school kids in Mandurah yesterday, I saw their eyes drilling into mine.

For all the ways we worry about the next generation—consumed by social media and distracted by apps—I saw them lock on to the story of Ron Middleton VC, moved by his quiet courage, and I was filled with tremendous hope.

I was proud to say with these young Australians:

We will remember them.

Lest we forget.


Photo credit: Australian War Memorial

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  • Rocco Scarcella
    commented 2024-04-25 17:07:09 +0800
    Thanks for sharing this moving piece of history, Andrew! And thanks for all you have done and are still doing to serve God and our nation! GBU!