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  • Christina Drummond

Pilot Officer Rawdon Middleton VC, 149 Squadron, Royal Air Force

Remembering the Fallen: on this day in 1942, Pilot Officer Rawdon Middleton VC, 149 Squadron, Royal Air Force, died when his plane crashed into the English Channel.

Born in New South Wales, after leaving school he worked as a jackaroo on a grazing property; his great-uncle was the colonial explorer, Hamilton Hume. He trained as a pilot in 1940, and in 1942 joined No. 149 Squadron RAF.

On the day of his death he took off from RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk, having been detailed to bomb the Fiat aircraft works at Turin. It was his 29th combat sortie, one short of the 30 required for completion of a tour and mandatory rotation off combat operations. Over the target area he had to make three low-level passes and on the third was hit by heavy anti-aircraft fire - he suffered many grievous wounds, including shrapnel in his arms, legs and body, his right eye torn from its socket and his jaw shattered. He passed out and his seriously-wounded second pilot managed to regain control of the plunging plane at 800 feet and drop the bombs before receiving first aid from other crew members. Pilot Officer Middleton regained consciousness in time to help recover control, but although he knew his chances of survival were slim he was determined to fly his crippled aircraft home and return his crew to safety.

During the return flight he frequently said over the intercom "I'll make the English Coast. I'll get you home." After four hours, and further damage by flak over France, he reached the coast of England with five minutes of fuel reserves. He then turned the aircraft parallel to the coast and ordered his crew to bail out. Five did so and landed safely, but two remained to try to talk him into a forced landing on the coast, which he must have known would risk extensive casualties on the ground. He steered the aircraft out over the sea off Dymchurch and the two crew members bailed out but did not survive - they were Sergeant James Ernest Jeffery MiD, age 19, and Sergeant John William Mackie MiD, age 33. The plane then crashed into the Channel and Pilot Officer Middleton’s body was washed ashore two months later.

The last line of his Victoria Cross citation reads: "His devotion to duty in the face of overwhelming odds is unsurpassed in the annals of the Royal Air Force." Pilot Officer Middleton is buried at Beck Row, Mildenhall, Suffolk, and his Victoria Cross and uniform are displayed at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. Rawdon, from Sydney, was 26 years old.

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