By mid 1944, the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) was at its peak strength. Around 20,000 officers, 144,000 airmen, and 18,000 airwomen were serving in areas stretching from Europe, the Middle East, South East Asia, through to the Pacific area, and, of course, in Australia itself. It had long had a strong presence in England due to the initial stages of the war being solely against Germany.
Initially, a large number of Australians serving in England had travelled there via the United States and Canada—through such places as San Francisco, Vancouver, and New York City. Later on in the war, they were able to sail via Cape Town. On arrival in England, these men were then attached to either RAAF or RAF squadrons when the need arose. A large portion of them served in Bomber Command. However, Australians were also scattered among other RAF squadrons (for example, RAF Coastal and Fighter Commands) and, as such, ended up participating in offensives in which they may not otherwise have participated.
The story of Australian Walter McBean is a case in point. He flew Typhoon fighter-bombers with the 182 Squadron (RAF) before, during, and after the D-Day invasion at Normandy on 6 June 1944. As such, he was one of a comparatively small number of Australians to have been directly involved in this historic campaign.
FLIGHT LIEUTENANT WALTER McBEAN
Walter McBean was born on 20 September 1915 in Casterton, a small town in the state of Victoria, Australia. On 20 June 1941, he enlisted in the RAAF in Melbourne for aircrew training. Standing 5'6" and weighing 9 stone 10lbs (136lbs), he qualified for his pilot’s wings on 3 April 1942.
An interesting aside appears in his service record during this time regarding a misdemeanor on 30 January 1942. The incident involved Walter being given 144 hours detention, a five-shilling fine, and forfeiting six days pay. The offense was recorded as “indecent language in a public place.” Whereas the record imparted some insight into Walter’s character, it is also reminiscent of how British officers characterized the Australian “Diggers” during WWI.
Walter embarked from Sydney for the UK in June 1942, arriving in Bournemouth the following August. Once in England, he underwent further training in Advanced Flying and Operational Training units. His score in the Advanced Flying Unit was average, causing one RAF Officer to record in May 1943, that Walter’s ability was, “...spoiled by gross over confidence. He is a poor, undisciplined NCO, too sure of himself and unpunctual—he needs strict supervision.” Whether because of, or in spite of, this assessment, Walter progressed to achieve a commissioned rank.
On 1 August 1943, Walter was posted to 182 Squadron flying Typhoon 1Bs in operational sorties over France and Belgium, targeting trains, bridges, enemy land convoys, and V1 launch sites. By April 1944, Walter had attained the rank of Flying Officer and had been assessed as a “capable pilot” and a “breezy, cheerful and rugged individual. Alert and intelligent, a good junior officer if he keeps on the rails.”
By this time, 182 Squadron was flying sorties in the lead up to Operation Overlord—the invasion of Normandy. The following is taken from the Operations Books of 182 Squadron and deals mainly with details about Walter’s sorties. This provides some detail about what he did. Beginning with D-Day, 6 June 1944:
All pilots were roused at 0400 hrs—and two aircraft on standby and two on readiness from dawn. The squadron took off at 16.15 to do an armed reconnaissance. [The roads were coded as T.7658, T.8157, and T.8468.] A tour was made of the Bayeaux-Caen area but no enemy transport was observed and all aircraft returned without damage or casualty. Opposition was nil.
Although Walter had seen action before this time, this sortie was somewhat of an anti-climax for him. However, this was about to change. Quoting the report of 7 June 1944:
On readiness again from dawn. The squadron took off at 08.00 hrs to carry out an armed reconnaissance south of Caen. Two enemy vehicles were attacked [another account records six motor transports and one tank being attacked] with cannon and R.P. [Rocket Projectile], one destroyed and one damaged. A railway bridge was also attacked but results unknown.
It is interesting to note that no flak was encountered on this sortie either. On 8 June 1944, the following was recorded:
The squadron was airborne at 04.45 hrs to do a long range armed reconnaissance S.W. of Caen. Many enemy tanks and transport were located and attacked with R.P. and cannon fire. All aircraft returned safely at 06.50 hrs with the exception of F/O McBean who made a successful crash landing on the Isle of Wight.
By this stage, the fighting had intensified in and around the Caen area. Tanks and transports were, again, successfully attacked by the rocket-carrying Typhoons. The squadron made two more sorties before the end of that day. Walter, however, did not fly these two missions.
This wasn’t Walter’s only close call. On 11 July 1944 while flying an armed reconnaissance around the Troan-Vimont-Cagny-Caen area, Walter was part of an attack wing against a number of enemy vehicles. Walter was credited this day with destroying one and damaging a second enemy tank.
However, the flak was intense and Walter’s aircraft sustained severe damage. He crash-landed his aircraft (again), this time at Camille, two miles east of Cully in Normandy. He managed to clamber out of his burning Typhoon before it exploded into flames. This resulted in a complete write-off of the aircraft.
In September 1944, Walter was assigned to a communications unit, which resulted in him flying more sedentary missions, transporting dispatches and VIP’s. He was then attached to an RAF unit in Brussels from January 1945 until November as a “Motor Transport Officer.”
He was discharged from the RAAF in March 1949, only to re-enlist in December 1950. He ended his RAAF service as a regional Canteen Officer at RAAF Bases Amberley and Laverton. He died in 1966.
Having acquired McBean’s uniform several years ago, it did not become obvious what an interesting story it represented until Australian researcher Neil Smith provided details on Walter’s unit directly from the original Operations Books (held at the Public Records Office in London).
From this information, I not only learned that Walter was one of the few numbers of Australians to participate directly in the D-Day operations, but he was also a character—what we (in Australia) might call a “larrikin” (a rowdy sort of lad).
This enhances both the interest and value aspects of the relics concerned. For any item of Australian militaria to which a name can be placed, research is mandatory. You could well have an item of more historical value than is first realized!
Walter’s story may not end here, either—or at least the research aspect of it. At the time of writing, the daughter of one of Walter’s flying colleagues contacted me with the prospect of obtaining more photos. Research (with a bit of luck) can yield wonderful dividends. This is yet another great aspect of the collecting hobby!
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