This is a transcript of Arthur Delbridge's 2005 Remembrance Day talk at the Mt Wilson Village Hall, following the service at the War Memorial.
You will have noticed that our Soldiers Memorial shows the names of 36 soldiers who served in three wars: the so-called Great War of 1914-1918; World War II of 1939-1945; and the Vietnam War. Against four of the names there is a star indicating that those four soldiers were killed while serving. There are many ways a soldier can lose his life in war and chance often plays a big part. You might remember the story of Viv Kirk told at last year’s Remembrance Service. He came back to civilian life with a bullet still lodged so close to his heart that no surgeon dared to remove it, and he lived the rest of his life with it embedded there. A bullet wound is perhaps the archetypal cause of a military death, but the chance element is always present. A bullet is aimed and it hits the target or it misses while shells, bombs, land mines and gas are more indiscriminate. But there are other threats to the soldier’s life. Just the strain on his body and mind can lead to serious illness and even death – by disease (malaria, for example, which killed so many soldiers in New Guinea), while a prisoner of war, while attempting to escape the prison camp, by mistreatment and starvation (as happened to so many soldiers on the Burma railway), in combat for those not sufficiently trained or experienced or otherwise unfit for it, or by accident. As Donald Rumsfelt so brutally said in an interview about American war dead in Iraq: ‘Stuff happens’!
Today let us look at the life of two soldiers, one who died while serving and one who survived. Perhaps it is not more meritorious in war either to die or to survive. It’s the costs that are different. So we remember all who served, as our own memorial puts it. Remember also all those in our community now who served but whose names are not on the memorial.
Noel Henry Knight-Brown
His father, the late Basil Knight-Brown, was one of the group of three young men who first took up a selection at Mt Irvine in 1897. There have been three generations of the family living there until very recently. I am grateful to Julia Reynolds, daughter of Bill Knight-Brown, for sending me copies of letters and newspaper cuttings and a full record of service of her uncle, whom she had never in life known.
Noel enlisted in the Air Force in January 1941 at the age of 23. After a short initial training period he was sent to a service flying training school for 3 months, then on to England and eventually to a Bomber and Gunnery Flight at an airfield in Binbrook in September. By early 1943 he had reached the rank of Flying Officer. When he was presented with his ‘wings’, the presentation was filmed as part of a motion picture called ‘Captain of the Clouds’ filmed as part of a motion picture called ‘Captain of the Clouds’ subsequently screened in the UK and in Australia. A photograph of him in the uniform shows a handsome, elegant young fellow. He had recently married an English lady, Rita Barrie, who at the time was serving in the WAAF’s, also since 1941. Letters he sent back home show that all this traveling, all this training, all this exciting military experience, this success and advancement of his flying career gave him great pleasure. In his whole time awayhe wrote weekly letters and sometimes telegrams to his family in Australia, and especially to his mother at ‘Painui’, Mt Irvine. There is a very large file of these letters in our Historical Society archives, kindly donated by Julia Reynolds.
Now his record of service also gives details of the flight which took off from his station at Binbrook to ‘report on weather conditions’ at an air firing range just 21 miles away’. Noel Knight-Brown was not the pilot on this flight, but presumably an observer. The plane flew off on this mission but it just never returned. At this point his Service Record says: ‘deceased 26/10/43 (officially presumed lost at sea off the coast of the United Kingdom’. His wife, by then stationed in Scotland, received a letter telling her that he was missing. At the same time his mother received a telegram, and we have this very document on file, which said rather baldly ‘Regret to inform you that your son Flying Officer Noel Knight-Brown is missing as a result of a non-operational flight on 26th October 1943. STOP Letter will follow. Signed Air Force, South Yarra, Melbourne’. A letter did follow, a deeply personal one written by his Squadron Leader in England, no doubt written at night, as such letters often were, after a hard day’s service duties.
You may rest assured that as soon as anything is known definitely you will be informed. Flying Officer Knight-Brown had been with the Unit only a month, and had already
become very popular. He was always ready, willing, and anxious to tackle any job whatever it might be, and he was undoubtedly one of the best pilots in this Unit.
Signed yours sincerely,
But there was no further news, no definite account of what had happened to comfort the family if only with certain knowledge and a sense of what these days we call ‘closure’. Only one line in the report says: ‘Although such a flight would not necessitate flying out to sea, a wing was picked up at sea by a trawler, and identified as the wing of the missing aircraft’.
Missing! Of all the ways to die, this is perhaps the worst for the relatives because of the unanswered questions of How did it happen? Where is he? Why?
Richard Owen Wynne
For this story I begin by reading extracts from the frontispiece article from The Wasp, the journal of the 16th Foot, a battalion of the Bedfordshire Regiment Complex in England. This issue of The Wasp is Volume 2, Number 5, April 1925 and a copy of it was kindly sent to me by Irene Wynne. Irene is married to Mike Wynne, Richard’s grandson. This article gives an account of Richard Wynne’s early life in England and his experiences in the British Army throughout the Great War.
Lieut-Col Richard Owen Wynne was born at Moss Vale, NSW, on 12 June 1892. He was grandson of the Richard Wynne who in 1875 bought land in Mt Wilson that has been the site of the Wynne family residences ever since. He left Australia in 1902 and was educated at Marlborough College and at the outbreak of war was at Clare College, Cambridge. At Marlborough he played on several occasions in the school Rugby fifteen. He was a member of the school shooting eight, firing with the team for the Ashburton Shield at Bisley for four years from 1907 to 1910. At Cambridge he rowed for two years in the Clare College First Lent and May Boats in 1913 and 1914.
At the outbreak of war he joined the 3rd Battalion of the Bedfordshire Regiment and went out to France early in 1915. He then transferred to the 2nd Battalion in June 1915 in which he served until May 1918, all this time in France. He was then given command of the 18th King’ s Liverpool Regiment in August 1918 and continued in this role until the Battalion went home and disbanded in May 1919.
Col. Wynne was awarded the DSO in July 1916 and a bar to the DSO in June 1918 and was four times mentioned in dispatches. He was wounded in October 1918 but remained at duty. The actions for which he was awarded his DSO and bar perhaps best describe his able leadership in action and his complete disregard for his own personal safety, but they cannot portray his charming character and his modesty.
He was given the DSO for:
…his splendid work on July 31st, 1916, when he laid out and superintended the consolidation of 300 yards of new trench along the line of the Maltzhorn Ridge, under heavy shell and machine gun fire. This was a most important piece of new trench, and he showed wonderful coolness and quickness in getting to work, which helped greatly the consolidation of our line along this ridge. In addition, at Trones Wood, on July 11th and 12th, 1916 he was mainly responsible for the establishment of a footing and the consolidation of the south-west corner of the Wood, which was carried out under continuous shell and rifle fire.
The bar to his DSO was awarded for:
…his conspicuous gallantry and leadership in action between March 21st and 28th, 1918, and especially for his action on March 27th, at La Folies, when parties of Germans succeeded in working some machine guns close up to the front line held by the Battalion. Observing this, Wynne personally led an attack against the machine guns, and succeeded in driving them off, and himself killed the Officer commanding the Germans. At all times Col. Wynne commanded his men with great skill and bravery, and showed complete disregard for his own safety.
“Reggie” Wynne was obviously cut out for a soldier, and it was with great regret that we heard that he could not go on soldiering, but would have to return to look after his estates in Australia. So he returned to the land of his birth and is now living in the Blue Mountains, NSW.
That’s the end of the Wasp’s account of Col. Wynne’s service in the Great War. He returned to Mt Wilson, but before long went back to England (that was in 1921), and in a church in Kensington he married Florence Mariamne Ronald. Then back again to Mt Wilson and began building the present house that we know as Wynstay. There they raised three children, Jan, Mervyn and Ron. Their grand-daughter, Wendy Smart, lives there now.
Richard Owen Wynne’s life after the war displays a continuing military involvement against a background of village life in Mt Wilson. We know, for example, that he took a leading role in the local rifle club. Indeed our neighbour, John Holt, as a lad, was a member of the same club, and remembers Richard Wynne from that time. For eight years Col. Wynne held the post of Aide-decamp to Lord Wakehurst, Governor of NSW from 1937 to 1945, a period which spans World War II. This was a very responsible role in state affairs and naturally brought him into touch with many notable people. The Historical Society has a note from Pam Lovell, daughter of Sir William Owen, (High Court Judge), recalling that every year her father, together with Sir John Medley and Lord Wakehurst, went trout fishing with Richard Wynne, on the upper Murrumbidgee River. But it was not all such easy living: I have here a letter written by Lord Wakehurst as he was returning to England after his term as Governor. It reads (in part):
My dear Owen, I feel I cannot leave NSW without expressing my very deep gratitude for your loyal and devoted service, during the eight years of my term of office. I should like you to realise how much it has meant to my wife and to myself to know that we could always rely on your help. There have been times, especially during the war years, when difficulties and inconveniences have been numerous, but you have always accepted them cheerfully, and have always risen to the occasion.
In village life here in Mt Wilson both the Col. and his wife Mariamne were very active. He called himself ‘a worker among workers’. He took a leading hand in setting up the Village Hall Trust and its Committee. He was the prime mover in the decision to give the Community Hall over into the care and ownership of the Blue Mountains City Council. He donated many tracts of land to the village, including those for the Church, the Post House and Founders Corner. Col. Wynne died in 1967, and is buried, with his wife Mariamne, in the graveyard of our St George’s Church.