Anzac Day

24 April 2012

Bruce Cunningham, 92, has attended more Anzac Day services than he can remember.

Bruce Cunningham, 92, was a Lancaster bomber pilot during World War II

Bruce Cunningham, 92, was a Lancaster bomber pilot during World War II

The former Lancaster bomber pilot grew up in Masterton and planned to be an accountant before the Second World War broke out. He joined the Air Force at 22 and after getting his wings - for Tiger Moths and Airspeed AS.10 Oxfords - was based at 3 Group, Bomber Command, near Cambridge in England.

He flew the Vickers Wellington and Short Stirling bombers before transferring to the famous Lancaster.

"It was a wonderful aeroplane to fly. It reminded me of the old Vauxhall car - it was mass produced but it was marvellous. You had a lot of faith in them."

Mr Cunningham says he is pleased that more young people appear to be showing an interest in Anzac Day.

"It's a good thing because they find out that their freedom cost something," he says. "It's only natural to take it for granted."

Mr Cunningham flew 12 bombing missions into Europe, including Berlin. He never thought about being hit by enemy fire, even though - according to crews in his compound - the unofficial average number of missions that bombing crews survived was four and a half missions.

"You're not hurt until you're hit," he says. "I just never thought I'd get bumped off."

However, on 11 May 1944, Mr Cunningham's Lancaster was shot down while on a mission over Belgium. The plane was on fire and going down when he bailed out at 1.00am. He parachuted onto the roof of what he thought was a pub but was a cafe.

"I looked up and saw the other planes right above me flying home to have bacon and eggs."

Three of his crew managed to find their way home. Two were on the run for eight weeks. Mr Cunningham was captured by German soldiers. "They took me down through the manhole in the roof. It was the only time in my life I used French," he says with a chuckle.

He was transported to Frankfurt for interrogation, put on a cattle truck and taken to a prisoner-of-war (POW) camp at Sagan, now in Poland.

Eventually, Mr Cunningham ended up in a POW camp run by the Russians, at Luckenwalde, 50km south of Berlin. Mr Cunningham's first escape attempt failed. The second time he managed to make his way to Brussels and was flown back to England.

After the war, he scrubbed his experiences from his mind but in recent years has been thinking about them more, especially after watching documentaries on the History Channel.

"I'm a product of my generation - the Depression and the war. Those things must have a bearing on you."

He considers himself lucky. When asked what he remembers most he replies: "The joy of flying aircraft and wonderful comradeship - we were all there for the same purpose. It was an exciting and eventful life. Hopes were always high for those not at breakfast the following morning. I saw nations at war. Memories do not fade. Anzac Day is a day of remembrance. Lest we forget."

Mayor Celia Wade-Brown says Anzac Day is "a time to reflect on the high price paid by men and women in the defence services".