Friday, June 21, 2024

Grandson honours veteran Pop’s memory

As Allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy and parachuted behind German lines, a Royal Australian Air Force officer was in London, listening to the mission he helped plan unfold.

Air Vice-Marshal Frank Bladin was seconded to the Royal Air Force to train glider crews that would carry the British 6th Airborne Division into Normandy to capture bridges over the Caen Canal and Orne River.

He was involved with planning the airborne mission, codenamed Operation Tonga, and was one of two people who knew when and where the landings would occur.

He trained the crews “within an inch of their lives”. They became so proficient, they could land their gliders within a few feet of the objectives.

The first gliders on D-Day landed so close to their target the aircraft nosecones came to rest in the barbed wire of the German position. Airborne soldiers then secured the bridges in fewer than 15 minutes. 

This year marks the 80th anniversary of D-Day, and Air Vice-Marshal Bladin’s grandson, Peter Crock, will take part in the events at Ranville, France, where the first gliders landed. 

Gliders and towing aircraft of 38 Group Royal Air Force at Tarrant-Rushton Airbase in preparation for landing at Normandy. Air Vice-Marshal Frank Bladin is in the lead Halifax at the head of the row of gliders. Photo: Australian War Memorial.

Mr Crock grew up hearing war stories around the table at his grandfather’s holiday home on Phillip Island.

“Australians have always punched above our weight and I think Pop embodied that. He was in the right place at the right time, but he was the right person to execute on it,” Mr Crock said.

“He already had extended experience working with the Americans in the Pacific, which was needed for D-Day planning.”

Earlier in the war, Air Vice-Marshal Bladin, as the air officer commanding Australia’s north-west area, worked to improve morale and reorganise defences following the bombing of Darwin.

He addressed deficiencies in equipment, communication and training, and led a successful bombing raid on Kendari Airfield in Indonesia on June 20, 1942.

Portrait of Air Vice-Marshal Frank Bladin (Photo: Australian War Memorial).

For his leadership and bravery during this mission, Air Vice-Marshal Bladin was awarded the United States Silver Star, becoming the first Australian to receive the honour during the war.

‘Australians have always punched above our weight and I think Pop embodied that. He was in the right place at the right time, but he was the right person to execute on it.’

While noted for his tactical acumen, Air Vice-Marshal Bladin earned the nickname ‘Dad’ for the way he cared for his men and wasn’t afraid to lead from the front.

After the first gliders landed successfully on D-Day, Air Vice-Marshal Bladin left the London headquarters for Tarrant-Rushton Airbase to accompany the second wave in the lead towing aircraft.

Nearing the cast-off point for their gliders, a tow aircraft was shot down by an anti-aircraft gun, which fired from a pontoon on the Caen Canal, until a Spitfire swooped down, opened fire and toppled the anti-aircraft gun into the water.

After returning, Air-Vice Marshal Bladin was presented with a star ‘For Tuggery’, awarded to ‘Bushman Bladin’, which the men in maintenance had hacksawed out of a piece of aluminium. 

The nickname was given by the men for his ‘stand and deliver’ tactics dealing with British officers.

“He has his CBE and his Silver Star, but I would suggest that his pride and joy would have been the piece of aluminium that the mechanics belted out,” another grandson, Paul Crock, said.

After the war, Air Vice-Marshal Bladin spent 18 months in Japan as the Chief of Staff of the British occupation force, returning to Australia in 1947. 

He became Air Member for Personnel in 1948 and focused on advancing RAAF education and training initiatives, earning a Companion of the Order of the Bath in 1950. 

Air Vice-Marshal Bladin retired from the Air Force in 1953 to become a grazier on his property, which he named Adastra, near Yass.

He hired a carpenter and a bricklayer to do some work on his farmhouse.

The carpenter turned out to be a former member of the 6th Airborne Division, dropped into Normandy by the glider crews trained by Air Vice-Marshal Bladin.

The bricklayer, who was German, had been in charge of the anti-aircraft gun on the pontoon in the Caen Canal on June 6, 1944.

In his unpublished memoirs, Air Vice-Marshal Bladin recalled this coincidence.

“Here were the three of us together in Australia,” Air Vice-Marshal Bladin said.

“Myself, ex-38 group RAF; the English Airborne soldier flying in the same convoy; and the German who was shooting at us. Only the spitfire pilot was missing from the scene.”

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