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On Target: Devotion to duty - Pilot Officer Rawdon Middleton, VC

Dr Alan Stephens 'On Target: Devotion to duty - Pilot Officer Rawdon Middleton, VC' in Australian Aviation July 2018 p. 108

The 11,500 men of the RAAF who fought as part of the RAF’s Bomber Command in World War II comprised only 2 per cent of all Australians who enlisted, but accounted for 20 per cent of all combat deaths.

It seems extraordinary that only one of those airmen, Pilot Officer Rawdon Hume Middleton, was awarded a VC.

Modest and reserved, Middleton worked as a jackeroo before enlisting in the RAAF in October 1940. Following training in Australia and Canada, he was posted to fly Stirling bombers with the RAF’s No. 149 Squadron.

On 29 November 1942, Middleton - known to his crew as ‘Ron’ - was tasked to attack the Fiat works at Turin in Italy. The quiet Australian was so highly regarded that three gunners had stayed on with him even though they had completed their tours.

By the time Middleton’s Stirling ‘H’ for Harry had climbed to 3660 metres to cross the Alps, it was using an excessive amount of fuel. Weaving through the mountains and unsure of his position, Middleton was on the verge of abandoning the mission when the front gunner called out, ‘[Turin’s] there, look to starboard’.

Far to the right the crew could see the city, illuminated by flares and bomb bursts. Aware that pressing on might leave insufficient fuel to get back to England, Middleton nevertheless told his crew, ‘We’re going down’.

Flying through heavy flak, Middleton had just identified the target when a shell burst in the cockpit, wounding both pilots. The bomber plunged into a dive, its wings and fuselage continually hit by shrapnel. As the co-pilot pulled the aircraft out of the dive only metres from the ground, Middleton recovered consciousness. He resumed control, pressed on with the bombing run, and successfully attacked the target.

Despite dreadful injuries - his right eye had been shot away leaving the bone completely exposed, and his lower body was severely wounded - Middleton remained at the controls while the co-pilot’s wounds were dressed.

Middleton considered diverting to North Africa to avoid the return climb over the Alps, but he was determined to get his men back to England and instructed them to jettison everything they could: armour plating, camera, oxygen bottles, ammunition, flares, seats, fire extinguishers, sextant. The navigator used an axe to chop off anything which was not essential and could be thrown overboard.

The smashed windscreen exposed both seriously wounded pilots to an icy blast. Standing between them, the front gunner kept a lookout and set the compass. Other crew members checked the dinghies, uncertain whether they would even reach the Channel. Middleton asked the crew not to talk to him unless it was essential, as it was desperately painful for him to reply.

Once the plain of France had been reached the crew could have bailed out but Middleton was determined to keep his men out of German hands. ‘H’ for Harry battled on towards England.

Still there was no respite: over northern France the Stirling was suddenly coned by twelve searchlights and light flak hit the wings. Although severely weakened by his injuries Middleton threw the aircraft into violent evasive manoeuvres.

At last the French coast came into view; simultaneously, the engineer told Middleton he could guarantee five minutes of fuel but not ten.

In a voice thick with pain and exhaustion, Middleton instructed his crew to prepare to bail out and asked for his own parachute to be passed to him: in retrospect, his wireless operator believed that that was ‘no more than a gesture to reassure us’ as Middleton must have known that he was ‘too far gone’ to get out himself.

Against the odds the Stirling made it over the Channel. As the aircraft crossed the coast of England five of the crew bailed out while two stayed behind to help their grievously wounded captain. Middleton turned the Stirling back over the Channel in an attempt to ditch. The aircraft crashed into the sea, killing all three men. The bodies of the nose-gunner and flight engineer were recovered the following day but Middleton had been incapable of escaping and his remains were not found.

Two months later his body was washed ashore near Dover.

As the wireless operator later recounted, ‘No-one will ever know what was going on in Middleton’s mind in those last few moments ... During the return home there were many opportunities for us to abandon the aircraft and for Middleton to live. But he preferred that we, his crew, should not fall into enemy hands. That was the kind of man he was’.

Middleton was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. The citation concluded with an inspiring valedictory: ‘His devotion to duty in the face of overwhelming odds is unsurpassed in the annals of the Royal Air Force’.

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