A young Londoner hops on a ship to Australia, meets his future wife on board and they set up life together on a farm in the Darling Downs. It seemed like the beginning of an uncomplicated story until, during World War II, he joined the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) – and, eventually the Empire Air Training Scheme (EATS) - to serve his mother country.
The man’s name: Pilot Officer Ralph Roberton, grandfather to AVM Steve ‘Zed’ Roberton, Head Force Design.
AVM Roberton was happy to tell his grandfather’s story to launch My Air Force Family, a project in which Air Force members and the public write about someone in their family who made - or continues to make - an impact in Air Force.
“Pop was a Navigator with the Royal Air Force (RAF) No. 180 (Mitchell) Squadron, flying B-25 bombers from southern England,” AVM Roberton said.
His crew was a mixed bag of nationalities: Australian, English, South African and Canadian members. The crew stuck together.
“Their first tour of 25 missions was nearly all flying daylight missions at medium altitudes - typical for the Mitchell bomber.”
“After a short break, the crew executed a second tour of 25 missions with a broader mix of night and day tasking.”
“They were shot at about every fifth mission and lost over a third of their squadron mates.”
In mid-1944, after their second tour, AVM Roberton said the crew agreed to stay together for a third tour and be part of the anticipated D-Day push into Europe.
“On their 67 th mission in August 1944, Pop’s B-25 Mitchell was in the slot, flying number four in a 100-bomber wave attacking targets around Caen (France)” he said.
“As the lead bomber opened its bomb bay doors, flak hit the lead aircraft bombs and blew the B-25 out of the air.
“The number two aircraft was also hit and seriously damaged.” Pop’s aircraft was not spared. The pilot, nicknamed Dicky, was hit by shrapnel and the aircraft entered a spiral dive.
“As Pop scrambled out of the navigator station to pull an unconscious Dicky from his seat, the Tail-Gunner scrambled up to the cockpit from the back of the aircraft.”
What happened next was a tale of familiar wartime irony, according to AVM Roberton, as the Tail-Gunner had failed his pilot training because he could not land an aircraft safely!
Undeterred, he straightened the aircraft, dropped the undercarriage and landed straight ahead on an abandoned fighter strip previously used by the Luftwaffe.
“Pop also had shrapnel injuries but he and his crew escaped and managed to revive Dicky,” AVM Roberton said.
“Pop recovered and was transported back to England and eventually to Australia as the war ended.”
It was not so fortunate for Pilot Officer Roberton’s only brother, one of the last to perish in the 2/15 Battalion Rats of Tobruk in late 1941.
After the war, Ralph Roberton continued serving the Australian community via Rotary and Lions clubs and other civic organisations.
It was 46 years before he chanced another flight when, in 1990, he flew in a Boeing 737 from Brisbane to Perth for his grandson’s (AVM Roberton) Pilot’s Course graduation.
Nervously, with slight turbulence in the 4/8ths cloud cover climbing out, Ralph Roberton nudged his son and said “It’s a good day for bombing”.