Not long before Christmas I was told a remarkable story of World War 2 by the man at the heart of the story – and yes, he was old enough. I was particularly interested as parts of the story coincided with the time and place my late uncle Neil Christison served.
Since then I have looked in vain at honours lists on the Australian War Museum site and most powerfully at Service Records at the National Archives. I can find no corroboration for what I heard – which is surprising.
I did however find out about a remarkable man with a “sounds like” name to my quarry: Norman Francis Williams CGM DFM* 1914-2007.
When he died in 2007 the Sydney Morning Herald told his story: Shot down Nazis, shared a beer with King George.
NORMAN WILLIAMS was the archetypal Australian war hero: the anti-authority larrikin ready to oppose officialdom while at the same time calmly winning a bucket of medals for bravery.
His wartime story is the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters but, after leaving the air force in 1954, he lived quietly on his Murray Valley soldier’s settlement farm block. There he remained tight-lipped about his military feats and experiences.
He could have bragged that, at the end of World War II, he was the most highly decorated non-commissioned officer in the RAAF and the only non-fighter “ace” after shooting down eight German planes and badly damaging three or four others from the rear turret of his Halifax bomber.
Even in peacetime his fighting spirit and anti-bureaucracy tendencies bubbled over from time to time, particularly when the NSW Government tried in the 1950s to permanently drain Christies Creek, which ran through his beloved rice farm-cum-wildlife sanctuary. Bitterly opposing the plan because of the effect it would have on local wildlife, he successfully staged what today would be called a sit-in….
He was working for the NSW Water Conservation and Irrigation Commission before war broke out; he joined the army, then the air force in 1941. After topping his gunnery course he boarded the Strathallen for England in March 1942. Williams was posted to Yorkshire, where he met Des Smith, from RAF No. 10 Halifax Squadron, whose skipper was looking for a rear gunner. The pair became crewmates and lifelong friends.
After finishing his tour of 30 missions with two Distinguished Flying Medals, Williams and his crew volunteered to join RAF No. 35 Halifax Squadron and became part of the elite Pathfinders who flew ahead of the main bomber formations to find and mark key targets with flares.
The life expectancy of all bomber crews was not high, as Williams would have attested on a night in 1943 over Dusseldorf, as a fighter roared towards him, bullets spitting from its cannons. The Halifax had earlier been attacked by two fighters, leaving the Australian and his rear turret shot to pieces and a wing of the four-engine bomber on fire.
Williams at first thought one of his legs had been blown off. His guns were still working but the mechanism that rotated them to the port side had been damaged. The lumbering Halifax was a sitting duck and the crew were preparing to bale out when Williams shouted to the pilot to turn starboard so he could bring his guns to bear on the rapidly closing fighter. The fighter blew up, the Halifax dropped its bomb load and a second fighter attacked. Although Williams was paralysed down one side below the waist – from a cannon shell wound in his stomach and machinegun bullets to his legs – he waited until the German was as close as 200 metres so that he couldn’t miss.
The first burst from Williams’s four machineguns must have killed the pilot because the German’s guns stopped immediately but the plane kept boring straight at the stricken bomber until sliding underneath and crashing to earth. The Halifax was peppered by enemy flak all the way back across Nazi-occupied Europe before crash-landing in England.
Williams had to be cut from his turret and spent months in hospital. He was also awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal. The crew gave him the bomber’s turret door, which contained 37 bullet holes. King George VI pinned on the medal and the two shared a bottle of beer. “I was told I would have got the Victoria Cross if I had died,” he said in 1992….
Well worth finding that!
But of the stories I was told the other day not a trace so far.