By Mal Lynch and Jill Nason, Forest Lake RSL
Proudly displayed on the wall of the anteroom of the Forest Lake RSL Club is an artwork titled “The Long Journey Home.” The piece depicts a crippled Lancaster bomber returning from a mission over Europe in the early dawn during WWII. It was presented to the club by member Jill Nason, the daughter of the late Warrant Officer Oliver Cuthbert, an Australian RAAF airman who served with No. 150 Sqdn in the United Kingdom.
Born in 1921 Oliver Cuthbert attended Carina State School and as a teenager worked in the sawmilling and farming industry. These were the gap years where young folk in the late thirties were finding their way, developing their skills, and choosing a vocation for the long term. The tranquillity of his life was however disrupted by the outbreak of war in Europe.
At age 20 he enlisted in the RAAF as aircrew.
His application shows that his experience in piloting, wireless telegraphy, engineering, and internal combustion engines was ‘nil.’ He was not alone as in these desperate times his fellow recruits were similarly placed. He was about to become a human sponge in a training organisation that would accelerate development into skillsets beyond realisation.
He progressed through flight crew training programs at Evans Head, Maryborough and Sale before graduating twelve months later as a Sergeant Wireless Air Gunner (WAG).
Training resources in Australia were undertaken on outdated equipment in comparison with the rapid technological advances in conjunction with the UK war effort. In June 1943 Oliver and his fellow group of airmen disembarked on the SS Umageni, a cargo/passenger ship bound for the UK. There was no convoy and the ship changed course at 10-minute intervals to avoid enemy submarines. The journey took them via New Zealand, Panama, New York, crossing the North Atlantic at the height of the U-Boat offensive, arriving in Cardiff six months later.
Their training advanced to Anson, Halifax, and Wellington bombers before graduating to the four-engine Avro Lancaster. It was during a training flight in a Wellington that an engine failed, and the pilot ordered the crew to bail out.
Since the landing gear hydraulics were driven by the failed engine, there was no alternative but to belly-land at a nearby strip. The pilot and navigator remained on board, following orders, Oliver and the remaining crew bailed out. Oliver sustained a broken foot which troubled throughout the rest of his life.
In November 1944 he commenced operational flying on Lancaster bombers, firstly with 576 Squadron and then with 150 Squadron. He was assigned as a crewmember on aircraft ‘S’ for Sugar, which completed a record 137 operational missions, surviving the war, and is now housed in RAF Museum Hendon, UK.
The Lancaster was purpose built to transport bombs to a target at altitudes above 20,000 feet. It lacked armour plate, and heating for the crew in the freezing conditions spanning long flight durations. Of the 7,377 built, 3,249 were lost in action.
By April 1945 Oliver had completed some 30 operational missions and 180 flying hours over Europe. He was duly promoted to Warrant Officer and returned to Australia and discharged. During his career in the UK, he met and married a beautiful English girl, Freda Mary Hughes (known to all as Mary). She arrived in Australia on a “War Brides” ship at the age of 19. They had two children and were together until she passed away aged 72. After returning home Oliver said he would never fly again. He was retrained by the Government as a cabinetmaker and obtained a position constructing fine furniture for several years. He studied for his Junior (Year 10) certificate at nights and then obtained a position as a clerk in the Department of Works where he remained until his retirement. Of the 125,000 servicemen who flew in Bomber Command, 55,000 failed to return including many of his friends. This had a severe impact on Oliver’s life.
- Family members
- Family photographs.
- Australian War Memorial
- “How Lucky I Was” by Rex Kimlin ISBN 978-0-9873764-0-4
- Print “The Long Journey Home” by Adrian Rigby