Sunday, June 4, 2017

Echoes from a Valiant Past - Stewart Leigh Dennis, D.F.C.

Today at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, a ceremony will be held to commemorate the 75th anniversary of RAAF aircrew joining the RAF's Bomber Command in England, in which more than ten thousand Australians eventually served. Altogether around 55,000 aircrew in Bomber Command lost their lives, including up to half of our own brave airmen. Here's one man's story.

Stewart Leigh Dennis was born at 20 Kelso Street in the inner-western Sydney suburb of Enfield, NSW, on 31 October 1920, the second son of Spenser Dennis and Florence Martin. Stewart’s given names honoured his mother’s Scottish forebears and a brother of his father, a baby who had died young. Stewart was raised in Kelso Street with his older brother Ivan, older sister Peggy, and younger sister Leith.

Dennis Children, c 1927.
Source: Ward/Hamburger/Pope Family Tree on
His father was a Designing Engineer on the Sydney Harbour Bridge and over his distinguished career he was involved in the design of 700 bridges in NSW. Around the corner from Stewart lived his grandfather James Dennis, who’d learned to read by the light of a miner’s lamp in Cornwall, arrived in Sydney in 1874, aged fourteen, and retired in 1925 as an Inspector of Schools in NSW. Stewart had a great deal of contact with his Dennis grandparents during their retirement years. (Their stories are told more fully in my book From Buryan to Bondi.)

Other family connections were also fostered. Stewart was very friendly with his slightly older cousin Alec Campbell and loved visiting the Campbell farm at Rothbury in the Hunter Valley. He was also a great favourite of his younger cousin Julia Dennis who, with her four brothers, met up regularly with Stewart’s family at Dee Why Beach on Saturdays.

He attended Fort Street Boys High School and then enrolled in the Faculty of Arts at Sydney University, passing Psychology 1 late in 1938 and the deferred exam in Economics 1 (Faculty of Economics) early in 1939. His younger sister Leith says that he abandoned his course in Third Year because of the war and by 8 August 1940, when he enlisted for the war service reserve at the No 2 Recruiting Station in Sydney, he was a clerk working for the oil company Shell at Pyrmont. A family photo taken at this time shows that Stewart was a tall man … 6’2” according to Leith.

Stewart Dennis, his sister Peggy, father Spenser, mother Flo, sister Leith, brother Ivan, c 1940
Photo by courtesy of Gillian Baird
Aged twenty, his service record shows he was called up for active service in the RAAF on 21 April 1941, service number 403914. His family have no photos of him once he completed his initial aircrew training in Australia and have to be content with the following image:

Stewart Leigh Dennis, RAAF Australia, c May 1941
Source: NAA: A9300, DENNIS S L
He embarked for overseas service on 13 June 1941. At the time he was engaged to a girl who lived in his street, but he broke it off, much to her distress.

First stop was Vancouver in Canada and he spent approximately 6 months in that country under the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, commanded by the Royal Canadian Air Force. He followed the standard pathway for training as a navigator, in his case beginning with No 2 Air Observer School at Edmonton, Alberta for 8 weeks, acquiring the basic navigation techniques of WW2. As listed by Wikipedia, these were dead reckoning and visual pilotage, the calculation tools being the aeronautical chart, magnetic compass, watch, trip log, pencil, Douglas protractor and a form of circular slide rule. He moved on to No 2 Bombing & Gunnery School at Mossbank, Saskatchewan for 1 month of training in bomb aiming and aerial machine gunnery; and finished up at No 1 Air Navigation School at Rivers, Manitoba for 1 month of training in astronavigation. By 8 November 1941 he was being paid as a Temporary Sergeant with Air Obs Special Group and by 9 December he was on the books of No 1 “Y” Depot, Halifax, Nova Scotia, the holding unit for airmen on the move to their next posting. He left for England on 8 January 1942.

In wintry England he passed through No 3 Personnel Reception Centre (PRC) on 20 January, en route to No 2 Air Observers School at Millom in Cumbria on 12 February and then No 2 (Observer) Advanced Flying Unit for two weeks. In this period he was taught the fine points of navigating in the weather and terrain conditions of England and Europe, very different from Canada’s. Then he moved on to No 15 Operational Training Unit (OTU) at Harwell, Berkshire on 17 March, where night bomber crews were trained on the Vickers Wellington bombers. By 8 May 1942 he was a Temporary Flight Sergeant.

From the middle of 1942 he was part of the Middle East Command, with No 2 Middle East Training School on 21 June and then No 40 Squadron from 30 June, operating in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. (Bomber Command records attest that flying Wellingtons from bases in the Middle East, No 40 Squadron bombed targets in North Africa, Sicily, Sardinia, Rhodes, Crete, Greece, Pantellaria, Lampedusa and Italy.) His file indicates he served with this squadron for almost six months.

On 14 December 1942 he was with No 23 Personnel Transit Centre (PTC) at Helwan, in southern Cairo, as a Flight Sergeant recommended for promotion, and on 4 January 1943 with No 22 PTC at Almaza in north-eastern Cairo. His service record shows a four month posting to Defence Head Quarters, Pretoria on 17 January 1943, where the South African Air Force was headquartered. It seems likely that he was employed here in a training instructor role.

During this period he became ill with an infection and was hospitalised in Johannesburg, a city around 50km from Pretoria. (The family believes it was the Baragwanath Hospital.) He and his nurse Muriel Alberta Van Zyl fell in love and they soon married, at Johannesburg’s St George's Anglican Church on 26 April 1943. Coincidentally, in 1942 Muriel’s mother had also married an Australian-born husband living in South Africa, having divorced Muriel’s father in 1931. Photos of Stewart & Muriel at this time do not survive but family members have provided several photos of Muriel taken later, in Australia.

Leith Dennis (left) & Muriel Dennis, c 1945
Photo by courtesy of Leith Williams
Muriel, c 1954
Photo by courtesy of her daughter
Stewart was promoted as Temporary Warrant Officer on 8 May 1943, the highest non-commissioned rank, was back with Middle East Command on 20 May 1943 for three weeks, then on 12 June he was again with No 23 PTC, awaiting his next posting.

This was back in England, attached to No 1 Personnel Despatch Centre (PDC) on 3 July. No doubt well aware of the grim fate which likely awaited him as an airman in this theatre of war, with his young wife Muriel still living in South Africa (at 11 Medusa St, Kensington, Johannesburg), he wrote a will on 3 August 1943. The specific catalyst for this action may have been a recurrence of illness, because five days later he was a patient at the RAF’s Halton Hospital at Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire. His posting to No 27 Operational Training Unit (OTU) at Lichfield in Staffordshire came through on 20 August. Here RAAF crew were being trained on Vickers Wellingtons and he seems to have been one of the instructors. Technicalities meant that his appointment to Commissioned Rank saw him discharged from the RAAF on 17 October 1943 and formally attached to the RAF as a Pilot Officer in the Flight Training Wing, still at Lichfield in No 27 OTU.

Rather confusingly, his service records show him after this date as Warrant Officer for the Officer in Charge of N E Unit at Uxbridge, on 30 October 1943. This date appears to be an error as it comes out of sequence, but further delving into RAF records systems discloses (on the WW2Talk website) that this was likely to be a paper transfer only, for accounting purposes because he was Non Effective (sick). Symptoms and causes are not stated on his service record but whatever infection he’d picked up in Africa may have been troubling him again. Most likely he’d never left Lichfield.

By 10 January 1944, when he left No 27 OTU at Lichfield, he’d flown 760 hours 45 mins as a member of an aircrew, including 44 hours 25 mins in the last six months despite working as a Navigator Instructor. His superior officer reported that he’d served satisfactorily in this unit and he was of temperate habits (perhaps to be expected when he’d been raised as a Presbyterian).

He now moved to No 11 Base at Lindholme in Lincolnshire, a training base for the Lancaster bombers, and on 30 March he joined No 156 Squadron at Upwood in Cambridgeshire as Navigator. This unit of the famous Pathfinder force of Bomber Command had earlier been hived off from No 40 Squadron. No 156 Squadron was part of the No 8 Pathfinder Group (commanded by the outstanding Australian pilot Air Vice-Marshal, D.C.T. Bennett).

Pathfinders were crewed by an elite corps of men with high navigational ability. Their dangerous task involved leading the main heavy bombing squadrons, dropping flares and incendiary bombs to light up the target for the following aircraft. Hence the motto of No 156 Squadron: ‘We Light the Way’. Several quirky details of No 156 Squadron are mentioned on this blog. Many pictures of the iconic Lancaster bombers, their size and seven-man crews, can be viewed online.

156 Squadron, Bomber Command
Bomber Command crews self-selected the other men they trusted with their lives and wished to fly with. Information now available shows that four of the men in Stewart’s crew were Australians, the other three being the pilot James Neil McDonald from South Australia, formerly a sales assistant, the Air Bomber Leonard Lawrence Deed from Newcastle, NSW, formerly a photographer, and the Mid Upper Gunner Donald William Dunham from Western Australia, formerly an audit clerk. As part of No 156 Squadron they flew together on a number of missions over Europe in ten different Lancaster bombers (indicated by their Rego numbers in the table which follows). The four Australians always stuck together, with minor variations in the names of the three RAF crewmen aboard. On the date of his first bombing mission with No 156 Squadron, to Rouen on 18 April 1944, Stewart was promoted from Pilot Officer to Flying Officer.

Missions flown by S L Dennis in No 156 Squadron
James Neil McDonald
Source AWM UK0150
Leonard Lawrence Deed
Source: NAA: A9300, DEED L L
Donald William Dunham
Source: NAA: A9300, DUNHAM D W
Before, during and after 6 June, Bomber Command played a key role in the successful operation known as D-Day, when Allied forces invaded Nazi-occupied Europe. On the night before the Normandy landing, No 156 Squadron had to mark as the target the huge German battery at Longues, on the headland between the landing beaches of Omaha and Gold. Unfortunately the 1,500 tons of bombs dropped by the following aircraft mostly missed the actual target and fell on the nearby village. One of these intimidating shoreline battery sites was made famous at the end of the classic war movie ‘D-Day, the Sixth of June’.

It’s not surprising that by 26 July 1944 Stewart had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, although his actual Citation for the DFC was not promulgated until 15 September 1944 (in the Supplement to the London Gazette, page 4272). As a General Citation, no details of specific deeds were published in the Gazette, but his service records on file say ‘Flying Officer Dennis has completed many successful operations during which he has displayed high skill, fortitude and devotion to duty.’

Flying Officer S. L. Dennis, D.F.C. (403914) was granted the acting (unpaid) rank of ‘Flight Lieutenant whilst occupying Flight Lieutenant post’, to take effect from 26 July 1944. (Commonwealth Gazette No. 223., p 2525, 9 November, 1944)

Winston Churchill’s famous tribute in a wartime speech of 1940 during the Battle for Britain …“Never was so much owed by so many to so few” …still stirs the soul when one thinks about the numbers of young ‘flyboys’ whose lives were decimated in the Second World War. On their 28th mission together, the odds by now definitely stacked against them, Stewart and his fellow crew members failed to return to base. He was reported as ‘Missing from Air Operations’ on 13 August 1944 and a later entry in his service record for that day says ‘Presumed Dead’. He was twenty-three years old. The huge amount of time, effort and money invested in the training aimed at protecting his dangerous life in the air was snuffed out.

Family members of this Lancaster PB209 crew immediately received telegrams from military authorities, reporting their loved ones as missing after they failed to return from a mission to attack a target at Russelsheim near Frankfurt, Germany. Australian newspapers soon published their names as missing. Stewart’s sister Leith, aged nineteen at the time, said in 2017 that her sister-in-law Muriel was on a ship heading to Australia when the news came through. Twenty-year-old Muriel was warmly welcomed by her new Australian family, with everyone anxious about Stewart’s fate. The family feared the worst but for quite a while lived on hope - that the crew had safely parachuted or crash-landed and were either in the hands of the Secret Army helping crashed airmen escape from Occupied Europe or were German prisoners of war.

Hope was dashed in December 1944, when German authorities reported through Red Cross channels the burial of five of the seven crew members from PB209. Two were identifiable as RAF airmen (they were found some distance from the crash) and three were unidentified. The fate of two other missing men remained unknown. All five unidentified men remained classified, officially, as ‘missing’.

Stewart was not officially publicised by the RAAF as ‘presumed dead’ until November 1945, six months after the end of World War 2 in Europe (and several months after the Japanese surrendered). It was then that his father commenced action as Executor of Stewart’s will:
IN the Will of STEWART LEIGH DENNIS late of Enfield Sydney In the State of New South Wales Flight Lieutenant in the Royal Australian Air Force deceased Application will be made after 14 days from the publication hereof that Probate of the last Will dated 3rd August 1943 of the abovenamed deceased may be granted to Spenser Dennis the Executor named in the said Will And all creditors in the said Estate are hereby required to send in particulars of their claims to the undermentioned address And all notices may be served at the undermentioned address. Spenser Dennis 22 [sic] Kelso Street Enfield. (SMH, Fri 21 Dec 1945, p 9 col f)
NSW Probate for Stewart Leigh Dennis, date of death 13 August 1944, was eventually granted on 4 November 1946.

Three years after his death, his young widow married Henry Dudley Ward. As a Christian Scientist and conscientious objector, Dudley had joined the Royal Australian Navy’s Volunteer Reserve and worked as a naval clerk in Sydney during the war, not resigning from the RANVR until 1964. After their marriage on 27 June 1947 in the Sydney harbourside suburb of Vaucluse, Dudley and Muriel had two daughters. Stewart’s sister Leith says that her mother maintained contact with Muriel and newly-married Leith remembers meeting Muriel’s children once when they were babies, just before her own children were born. Muriel died prematurely in January 1972 and her personal effects from her early life and her wartime correspondence, if any, were disposed of by relatives. Her daughters mourn their loss as a potential source of their personal family history. Dudley later remarried and died in 2016, aged 97.

In 1949 the Department of Air advised that the Missing Research and Enquiry Services operating in Germany had now accounted for all members of the crew. German eye witnesses had reported that the plane began to break up shortly before it hit the ground and two of the men had been thrown clear. All seven crewmen had been buried in 1944 near the crash site.

On exhumation, five of the sets of remains could not be separately identified before they were moved to the Rheinberg War Cemetery, around 30km north of Düsseldorf in Germany, where the official graves maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission mostly commemorate WW2 airmen.

The five unidentifiable crew of PB209 were laid to permanent rest together, in Row 8H, collective Graves 9 to 13.
Stewart's Grave, Rheinberg War Cemetery
Stewart left no descendants, just grieving parents, siblings, wife and other family members, some of whom have visited Stewart’s gravestone. His extended family still pays tribute to the memory of his short but honourable life, as far as they knew it up until 2017.

What happened next will be told later this year, in Part 2 of this story, coming from Germany.

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