By John Telfer
On 19th March 1945, Lancaster Bomber ME548, one of 277 bombers, took off from the Royal Air Force base at Killingholme, Lancashire, at 23.50 hours. Their mission was to destroy the railway junction at Hanau, Germany. Among the air crew was Warwick local, William Kenneth Campbell, and what follows is an adventure that would not be out of place in a “Boy’s Own” Annual. A remarkable story of survival, escape and evasion, towards the end of World War 2.
William Kenneth Campbell was born in Warwick on March 9th 1915, the second son of Alex and Ada Campbell and was educated at a Warwick Central primary school, and later, Warwick Secondary College, before leaving at the age of 13 to become an apprentice motor mechanic. Bill, as he liked to be called, was an exceptional student with a thirst for technical knowledge that helped him to receive very high accolades with one of the highest passes in Queensland at his trade examination. He learnt to swim so as to become a lifesaver, and easily passed the Royal Lifesaving awards where he eventually became an Examiner of the society. Bill had further ambition which saw him study at night to further his education and matriculated after only 12 months of study, with high enough marks to gain a place in the Faculty of Medicine at Queensland University in 1940. However, his next decision was to be a life- changing experience when war broke out. So, on the 8th October 1942, Bill enlisted into the Royal Australian Air Force to undergo aircrew training.
At this time, England was in desperate need of aircrew, so after all his initial training in Australia Bill was part of the British Empire Air Training Scheme (BETS). His initial training began in Tiger Moth aircraft before graduating to Avro Ansons, at RAAF Flying Schools at Narromine, Bradfield Park and Parkes. On 14th April 1943, Bill and a group of other graduates embarked on board HMT “President Grant” bound for Edmonton, in Canada, arriving on 12th May 1943. Further training as a Bomb Aimer at Winnipeg until October 1943, later, saw Bill on his way to England from Halifax on board the ship “Mauretania”.
Attached to the Royal Air Force with 576 Squadron, Bill was sent to North Killingholme in Lincolnshire, to be a part of 550 Squadron and was now promoted to Flying Officer on 12th May 1944, and received training on Lancaster bombers. Bill was trained as a bomb aimer, as at this stage his age went against him as a pilot, but in his usual determined self, Bill adapted to the task and flew his first tour of combat (30 missions) on to targets all over Germany in the next 10 months. It was then that Bill made a decision that would change his life forever and thrust him into an adventure all of its own, when he volunteered to do a further tour of combat duty.
On 19th March 1945, 550 Squadron was to be part of a bombing raid on Germany to obliterate the railway junction at Hanau. So, at 23.50 hours, Bill, on his 36th mission, flew off with his crew. which consisted of Flt. Lt. Burrows (Pilot), Sgts. R. C. Smith, R.F. Germain, L. B. Towson, A. Wilson and A. J. Miles. They were part of 277 Lancaster and 8 Mosquito aircraft, that set out on the mission. All went well as the raid was successfully completed destroying 80% of the town, but as they were returning for home, Bill’s aircraft was hit by a German 109 Night Fighter whose bullets set alight the port wing, forcing the pilot to order the crew to bail out of the burning aircraft. However, Bill found extreme difficulty in removing the escape hatch and only after jumping hard on it, were the crew able to open it and evacuate the aircraft.
Lost in the darkness, Bill could not see who had safely parachuted, so concentrated on his own landing in the blackness of the night. On landing safely, Bill used his survival kit with its map and compass to attempt to escape capture. He decided to head west towards the village of Mulheim, hiding in daytime and moving at night. He received some assistance with food and information on the whereabouts of allied units, from some Germans who he suspected were deserters from the army, as American allied troops were now invading Germany. Eventually, Bill was rescued by a unit of the X12 Corps of the United States Army, who took him with them after giving him a Tommy gun for defence. After a week with the U.S. unit Bill was taken to Luxemburg, where he caught up with other surviving members of his crew as they were flown in a Dakota aircraft back to RAF Station Mont Farm in Oxfordshire, before returning to their base. Unfortunately, Flt. Lt. Burrows and Sgt Towson died when they went down in flames with their aircraft.
Bill did not fly again and was sent back to Australia where he received his discharge from the RAAF on 1st August 1946. With his survival and adventurous life behind him Bill felt extremely lucky to escape from his burning aircraft, but was quite excited to be now a member of the famous Caterpillar Club that entitles him to wear the prestigious badge as he certainly earned it.
After his discharge in 1946, Bill decided to go back to his university studies, but after his harrowing experiences over Germany, possibly found it hard to get back to full-time study. Finding this not to his liking Bill decided to reinvent himself in to the motor industry and found employment in the technical side. where he was later admitted to membership of the Institution of Aeronautical and Automotive Engineers.
In 1947, Bill met a former W.R.A.A.F member Peggy Miles of Brookvale, Sydney and moved back to the Darling Downs residing in Toowoomba where he opened a business of his own as an insurance loss assessor, and operated it under his own name until ill health, apparently war related, which eventually took his life at the relatively young age of 48 on 12th August 1963. He now lies at rest in the Toowoomba General cemetery. A brave heart finally at rest.
Men like William Kenneth Campbell are born to make an impact in the society in which they live and Bill certainly did. He survived a war in which 124,000 aircrew members in Bomber Command took part, with 57,205 dead (46%). Each mission must have been psychologically devastating and Bill went above and beyond his calling, by volunteering for a second tour of duty. That is what separates men from their peers when faced with such hazards. Flight Lieutenant William Campbell, I am sure readers of this story salute you for a short life well lived.