Tuesday, 1 August 2017

William Henry Edwards, an Australian in Stalag Luft III.

One of Stalag Luft III's Australians in the RAF was William Henry Edwards, known as Bill to the family. 
Born on 18 October 1915, Bill grew up in Leichhardt (Sydney) NSW. He applied for and was successful in obtaining a pilot training cadetship at 1 Flying Training School, Point Cook and commenced 20 Course in July 1937. He was in the same intake as Stuart Walch and Jack Kennedy (Battle of Britain), and over lapped Des Sheen’s and Pat Hughes’ 19 Course. Also on 20 Course were Allan Mulligan and Charles Fry who would also fetch up in Stalag Luft III. 

Point Cook 20 Course 1937

Bill, Point Cook, 20 Course. 1937. 
Some of that time is described in my Australia’s Few and the Battle of Britain. But here is the description of 20 Course’s initiation, engineered by Pat Hughes and co (from Pat’s diary) which did not make it into the book:
On 24 July, a cold Victorian winter’s night, 19 Course took the disrobed juniors down to the seaplane hangars. There, they painted them with dope—a flammable lacquer applied to aircraft to weatherproof the fabric stretched over the airframe—and branded some with a cold, and some with a hot, iron. They then sprayed them up and down a ladder with a fireman’s hose before throwing them into the icy sea. Finally, the hapless new boys were knighted on a block of ice with an electric shock. ‘Whoopee’, wrote Pat, as he signed off on his description of the night’s overly aggressive high jinks.

Bill graduated 32nd in class with 64.88%. From Point Cook, Bill embarked for the UK on the RMS Orama, and a Short Service Commission with the RAF.

Bill on the RMS Orama. Courtesy of Ross Edwards.

After completion of his RAF training, he was posted to 211 Squadron RAF, then, on outbreak of war, to 107 Squadron RAF.

He served in the Norway campaign and his sterling service was recognised with the award of a Distinguished Flying Cross. Citation: In April, 1940, this officer was pilot of one of six aircraft which left to attack Stavanger aerodrome and seaplane base. The weather was so bad that five aircraft were compelled to abandon the task but Flying Officer Edwards succeeded in getting through, attacked the objectives and obtained valuable information. On the previous day he was pilot of one of twelve, aircraft ordered to attack the same objectives. Despite a heavy snow storm, which forced him to fly very low, he reached the target and attacked it in the face of heavy anti-aircraft fire. When returning he attacked a Dormer seaplane with his guns and scored hits. On both days this officer displayed great skill and determination, and courage of a high order.
The first Australian awarded the DFC was Dereck French, of Point Cook’s 21 Course, which overlapped Bill’s. The senior cadets, including Bill, according to French, treated 21 Course ‘like the lowest form of animal life’ and they organised an initiation similar to their own which French considered ‘silly, primitive...childish’. But enough of the gossip.
From Norway to France with 107 Squadron and the Battle of France. On 12 May 1940, the squadron was detailed to attack roads near Maastricht. Blenheim IV P4905 was shot down by Me 109s over Bettehoven at 9.25 am. LAC Palmer was killed, Sergeant Luter and Flying Officer Edwards, were captured. Bill was processed into captivity as POW No 326. Two other Australians destined for Stalag Luft III were captured that day: Guy Grey-Smith, whose Point Cook course overlapped Bill’s (and who experienced that silly, childish initiation meted out by Bill’s crowd), and Ian ‘Digger’ McIntosh.
Australians in Stalag XXIB, Schubin, Christmas 1942. Courtesy of David Archer.

Bill picked up the nickname ‘Hap’ at some point and spent time in a number of camps including Stalag XXA, Thorn and Oflag VIB, Warburg. He arrived in XXIB, Schubin 4 September 1942, then, when the North Compound opened, he was transferred to SLIII in April 1943. 
(Bill's grandson tells me that, according to Alex Gould, the original nickname was 'Happy'. George Archer's records indicate that it was then later shortened to 'Hap'.)  

Bill, Christmas 1942, at Schubin. Courtesy of David Archer. 

He was repatriated on 8 September 44 because of medical grounds. George Archer noted in his letter 24 July 1944 that ‘another batch of repats leave this week including three Aussies—Chuck Lark will know them—‘Dusty’ Miller, ‘Hap’ Edwards, and Tom Bax’. The East Compound history notes that information was sent to Britain via repatriated POWs ‘who were briefed by the Senior British Officer and his Staff and learned by heart’. They were then delivered ‘to an Intelligence Officer on arrival in the UK’.
Bill married Monica Hay Fenton Wingate in the UK in 1945. He later returned to Australia where at some point he became a service station proprietor. He and Monica had two children. On 30 September 1955, at the age of 39, he died in Concord Hospital (Sydney) NSW of Myelofibrosis (a serious bone marrow disorder) of which he had suffered over a number of years.

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