Foreign flags made war heroes republicans

The Australian, 30 August 1995.

By Mike Steketee

As with many other Australians, the recent celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II aroused feelings of patriotism in Rollo Kingsford-Smith and Bruce Rose, two of Australia′s most distinguished wartime pilots.

But unlike many of their fellow veterans, the experiences or these wing commanders convinced them that this pride should be harnessed to the cause of an Australian republic and a new flag. In particular, they want to dispel what they see as the myth that Australians fought and died under the flag.

"I don′t remember ever fighting under the Australian flag," said Rose, now 77, who flew fighters and attack aircraft during two years on exchange duty with the RAF in England – losing a leg after he bailed out on one occasion - and later served in the Pacific.

"A flag in these areas would be a road sign to a target for the Japs," he said. "In the rear areas, at training and maintenance units, a flag was often flying but it would be an RAAF flag and almost never, if ever, the present Australian flag."

Kingsford-Smith, 76, a nephew of the famous aviator Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith and a bomber commander during the war, said: "I saw hundreds of air crew go to a fiery death, Australians, English and Germans amongst them. There were no flags waving: they were fighting for their country.

"Some of the most beautiful flags in the world – and the is Union Jack is one of them - have changed and evolved and the sky did not fall in. The Americans have changed their flag. The Canadians changed their flag and it made the country stronger. We do have a beautiful flag but it is not ours."

The lives of Kingsford-Smith and Rose sometimes seemed as though they were running in a parallel. Both went to Point Cook for their RAAF training in the late 1930s, both rose to become wing commanders and both served in Europe during the war. Both survived against the odds. In 1943 and 1944, during the worst period of the war, a bomber pilot lasted for an average of 13 trips. Kingsford Smith flew 34.

Of the 25 cadets who graduated with Rose from Point Cook in 1938, seven were still alive in 1945. He flew a total of 49 missions. In both cases, their wartime experiences convinced them of the need to promote a stronger Australian identity.

"I became a republican in 1944," Kingsford-Smith said. "We had three Australian Lancaster squadrons and we were taking a terrible beating. In January, 1944, I lost almost a third of my squadron – eight air crew, 56 people. In February, we lost four crews and the next month another four.

"Churchill was cranky with Curtin for demanding that experienced bomber crews who had completed one tour of operations return to Australia for service in the Pacific. Churchill wanted them to stay to do their second term. He gave in but the instruction was issued that this could cause some shortages and the shortages were not to be felt in RAF squadrons. The result was that Australian reinforcements were diverted to RAF squadrons. That made me very angry. I got in touch with the Australian people in London and Stanley Bruce, the High Commissioner (and former Prime Minister), was going to come out and see the squadron.

"A few days later, a very shame-faced RAF senior officer told me: ′It would be inconvenient of the High Commissioner to visit you.′ That day I decided we had to be independent." Bruce subsequently did visit the squadron, as did Curtin.

Rose said that the effect of the Churchill edict that Australian air crew were not to be released before they completed two tours of operation was "that you had to be dead or a POW at least three times on average before you could go home to defend your country."

The national president of the RSL, Major General Digger James, agreed that Australians in all the services often did not fight literally under the flag. But the flag was symbolic of Australia as a nation and this is what they had fought for, he said.