DUDLEY Hemmings declined an invitation to travel back to France for the 70th anniversary commemoration of D-Day Normandy landings, but the 96-year-old Warrnambool resident still has those tumultuous days firmly etched in his memory.
He spent weeks on dangerous flying missions, providing vital bombing support to Allied ground troops after the largest seaborne invasion in history. It was the turning point of World War II.
Apart from bullets which pierced the wooden Mosquito planes in which he was a navigator, Mr Hemmings came away virtually unscathed.
He and his pilot were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism and extraordinary achievement. He proudly has it pinned to his jacket along with other service medals.
“It was 50-50 luck and skill that we survived,” he told The Standard yesterday.
“The brave ones were the British, US and Canadian troops who landed on the Normandy beach to set up a landing base. Then the ground forces pushed back the Germans.
“My role in the air force was to find enemy movements while flying at night.
“Navigators had to be good otherwise you’d crash into the French cliffs or get lost.
“If you saw a train you’d drop a flare which lit up the sky for about seven minutes and the pilot would activate his armaments.”
Mr Hemmings flew 35 missions with 107 Squadron.
Later this year he will be presented with a French commemorative medal.
One of his missions was to destroy a chateau in the French town of Caen where SS officers were reported to be camped.
British War Office records of the August 1944 raid noted: “All those taking part thoroughly enjoyed themselves”.
Years later, by chance, Mr Hemmings’ son William purchased a video film in London as a gift for his father only to find out when he got home it featured footage of exactly that raid. The navigator also flew on missions to Brussels and The Netherlands in the final stages of the war.
His job as navigator was to carefully track the course and watch for enemy planes.
“After leaving England we would fly 50 foot (15.2 metres)above the water at 250-300mph then climb to 3000 feet before weaving and flattening out to 1500 feet,” he said.
“Then on the return run we’d fire a light like a cracker with specific colours to identify ourselves to our ground forces.
“The Mosquito was called the Wooden Wonder — it could cruise at 250 miles an hour, hit top speed of 320 (515km/h) and just about outrun any German fighter
“A smart pilot in a Mosquito should never get shot down.
“My greatest fear was being hit at night as searchlights and tracer bullets lit up the sky.
“Fortunately I had a very skilful pilot in Don Wellings.”