In Australia the 25th April is ANZAC Day – it is a time to remember those who died, fought and supported those who fought in wars and conflicts. It is not a time to celebrate war but to remember the contributions of many who found themselves going into war or conflict to defend their country.
This year I am writing about Don Vidler a Flight Officer/Pilot in WW2 who was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross – DFC – and who was not only my second cousin but someone who I grew up seeing regularly and with fond memories of these family times. My Nanna was originally a Vidler before she married my Pop and became a ‘Moss’. Don was my mum’s cousin and we would get together – both our families lived in the Sutherland Shire. He was a favourite with my Nanna!
My memory of him is of a kind, genuine, caring and honorable man with a keen sense of humour and mischief.
This is a favourite photo of mine of Don – it is how I remember him with a broad and ready smile.
I took it at the Anzac Day Sydney march in 1981 as part of my Essay on Anzac Day for my HSC Art major work.
This is a little of his story.
Donald Earl Vidler was born in Ballina in 1919. His father died in an accident when Don was 3 years old and Don left school at 13years after gaining his QC Certificate to work to help and support his mother who owned a store in Ballina. This was the time before Widow’s pensions and Social Security and Don worked hard to help his mother including some time cutting sugar cane by hand – a hard and physically demanding job.
Don joined the Airforce in 1942 and like my husband’s father was posted to, and trained in, Canada as a pilot under the Empire Training Scheme. On completion of his training he was posted to England as a Spitfire Pilot. However his time as a Spitfire Pilot ended abruptly when he was transferred to Bomber Command. Apparently Don and his friend Harry Powell decided to do some air-to-gunnery practice and when turning to attack, Don fired his guns too soon resulting in him shooting the tail off the towing aircraft. By all accounts he and his friend Harry thought it was hilarious but the authorities did not, and he was transferred to Bomber Command.
On a wet and cold night at around midnight on the 8th September 1944 Lancaster LM270D2 of the 626 Squadron RAF, Wickenby of which Don was the pilot was returning to base at Wickenby after a training exercise. He was faced with the possible head on collision with another Lancaster from a neighbouring air base who was also on a holding pattern. Don took evasive action to avoid the collision turning his nose down whilst the other aircraft turned its nose up, narrowly missing a cottage and crashing into a field at 200mph. The undercarriage was torn off, the airplane was on fire and its ammunition was exploding.
An account by John Crompton was to be published in the Lincolnshire Life in November 2000 including:
“Gordon Horner (Navigator) was able to open the cockpit escape hatch and to extricate Don Vidler (Pilot), who was unable to move from his seat. Horner pushed Keith Guy (Bomb Aimer) and Vidler through the hatch. He then managed to free John Fincher (Wireless Telegrapher), whose foot was trapped under his table. Horner and Fincher then escaped.
Don Vidler assembled the four crew members, and they at oce began looking for the other three crew members. David Hooker (Mid Upper Gunner) was found by Horner, unconscious under the starboard wing, and Tom Griffiths (Rear Gunner) was found extensively injured, outside his rear turret. Vidler and Horner attempted to re-enter the aircraft to find the seventh man, but he, Eric Madge (110749) had, in fact, been killed.”
Don had employed evasive action which resulted in a loss of control and the crash of his aircraft. The Flight Engineer was killed and the Rear Gunner broke both his legs in the crash. First to the scene were two teenagers from a nearby farm, and under extreme personal danger, assisted in the evacuation and first aid of the injured crew. One of teenagers, Charles Wright, a Boy Scout, received a Silver Medal – the highest Scout Award presented to him in Lincoln Cathedral, the other Ralph Scott, letters of Commendation from the Commanding Officer of the Squadron, and other sources for his bravery.
The list of injuries is recorded below.
Don went on to fly Lancaster bombers over Europe with his crew.
The recollection of the particular mission is recorded by John Fincher – one of Don’s crew in the Eulogy that he gave for Don at his funeral.
“One of our most memorable trips was on the 17th December 1944; we were part of a large force of Lancasters attacking Ulm. Over the target we were attacked by two JU88’s; only Don’s exceptional strength and flying ability saved us. No doubt his strength came in part from his work cutting cane – a hard and difficult task. Don hurled that Lancaster around in very evasive corkscrews. But even then the JU88’s inflicted very heavy loss to our aircraft – rudders, elevators and tailplane were severely damaged and parts shot away. Bullets and cannon shells tore holes through the fuselage and around the rear gunner. The aircraft was extremely difficult to control and Don and Keith struggled to keep it airborne. Don’s strength was such that in an effort to control the aircraft, he bent the rudder bar with his feet. One of our Flight Commanders remarked that without Don’s strength and determination we would never have returned.
We landed on a special emergency drome at Woodbridge and rather than have the Squadron send an aircraft to pick us up. Don decided that we would return by train.”
The citation for Don’s award of the Distinguished Flying Cross – DFC – says:
“Flying Officer VIDLER has completed a number of successful sorties attacking such heavily defended targets as HANOVER and COLGNE.
His tremendous keenness and fine fighting spirit have been outstanding and have set a magnificent example to his crew.
In December, 1944, during a mission to ULM his aircraft was attacked by an enemy fighter whilst over the target area, but nevertheless he succeeded in dropping his bombs before taking evasive action. His aircraft was severely damaged and most of the control surfaces of the tail were shot away, but by superb airmanship he maintained control of the aircraft and brought it safely back.
At all times, Flying Officer VIDLER has displayed exceptional skill, coolness and devotion to duty.”
A Telegram was sent to Don’s mother in Ballina – she must of been very proud of her son:
“Congratulations are extended to you by the Minster for Air and Air Board on the award of the Distinguished Flying Cross to your son Flying Officer D E Vidler in recognitions of his gallant service stop advice of this award has just been received from the Air Ministry.”
As his friend and fellow crew mate John Fincher said in his Eulogy: “When I say that Don Vidler was a very special and remarkable person please remember that Don on leaving school, with only a Primary School education, flew Spitfires and Lancasters over England and much of Europe – a remarkable achievement.”
Photos of the 626 Squadron and crew.
Here is an extract from a letter he wrote to John Fincher in 1947, written by Jack Yeats an English Engineer who shared a hut at Wickenby airbase with Don and John Fincher.
“I know I am something of a sentimentalist, I’m glad of that, if I weren’t I wouldn’t want to see a lot of old friends, hear a lot of old voices that I haven’t seen and heard for a long time. One of these days I’m going to Wickenby and walk past the old huts – the mess and see and old runways again. I suppose it’s all there yet – even if no lanes are left.
Sometimes at night I can’t sleep and I go over some of the things that Wickenby and old 626 stood for, the nostalgia it brings at times is overpowering. Clay Bridge Corner – the little winding road up to the Camp, the tense busy atmosphere in the locker room – the undercurrent of excitement – faces of friends; outside – the quietness of the sky. The moon – at times an unwelcome guest – how mysterious the stars seemed flying at night, the uncertainty of everything – even the next second; remember John the view of Happy Valley, the wonderful, terrible sight of thousands of searchlights grotesquely leaning sideways and the pin points of flak from a myriad studded pin cushion. The thrill of interrogation that made it all seem worthwhile.
I remember the old mess, the conversations over the pool table, round the fire, over the bus, the little cinema. Above all the friendships that existed, the laughs, the worried and everything else that made up the life at 626 and 12 Squadrons at Wickenby, friendships and comradeship were the two things that made things bearable. How unreal it all seems now, did it really happen John?”
A photo of Don I took in 1981 Anzac Day march in Sydney with two of his friends from the Airforce. Don marched every year.
I think these words are poignant and give a depth to why ANZAC day is important. It is an understanding that I gained from caring for my father-in-law, that the friendships were important alongside the service. To remember those who fought, to honour those who died and an opportunity for those who still remain amongst us to be able to catch up remembering friendships and comradeship brought forth out of adversity, and honour those bonds.