Flight Sergeant Ron Middleton was a jackeroo from Dubbo who enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force in October 1940. After learning to fly at Narromine, and advanced flying in Canada, in February ‘42 he transferred to The Royal Air Force No. 149 squadron. His last brief was to attack the Fiat aircraft works at Turin in Italy, by night.
Middleton was captaining a Stirling bomber. He had to make three low-level passes to positively identify the target. As they flew over the third time, the aircraft was badly damaged by fierce anti-aircraft fire, but Middleton and his crew persisted in seeking out their target, until a shell burst in the cockpit.
Middleton was dangerously wounded from the shrapnel, had a shattered jaw and lost his right eye, and was knocked unconscious for a short time. Despite being in great pain, barely able to see, and breathing only with difficulty, he was determined to fly his crippled aircraft home, and return his crew of seven 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 of agony and having been further damaged by flak over France, Middleton reached the coast of England with five minutes of fuel left. At this point he turned the aircraft parallel to the coast and ordered his crew to parachute to safety. Five of them jumped, and their lives were saved.
He knew he was mortally wounded and wouldn’t be able to land the plane safely, so he headed away from the coast and crashed into the sea. Middleton’s body was washed ashore at Dover on February 1, 1943, and he was buried with full military honours.
Some people would say that the Royal Air Force suffered a defeat that day, that this was a victory for the enemy – a plane shot down, a pilot killed, a bombing mission failed.
But we come here this dawn to commemorate the actions of many people like Flight Sergeant Middleton, because in their actions we sense a kind of victory.
- a victory of friendship, mateship and love
- a victory of service to his country
- the sort of victory that involves self sacrifice to save the lives of others
It’s been said that the greatest love a man can have is to lay down his life for his friends.
Those words were actually first said 2000 years ago by Jesus. He spoke those words shortly before he was put to death on the cross. And the people who killed him there that day thought that they had defeated Jesus, and they laughed at this man who claimed to be God, but who they had strung up to die.
But we know this wasn’t a defeat either. His mission wasn’t a failure. For in dying this death Jesus actually won a great battle, a victory over sin and death.
Someone wrote later: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.” (1 John 3:16)
Flight Sergeant Middleton laid down his life for his crew, his family, his friends and his country, just like so many others we remember today. He made a great sacrifice.
But there is also a note of tragedy in this story. When Middleton ordered his seven aircrew to parachute to safety, two of them wouldn’t listen to him. They stayed onboard the bomber trying to work out another option, and convince Middleton to land the aircraft.
These two men waited until it was too late to jump, and they drowned in the English Channel. Listening to him, following his instructions, saved the lives of the five who jumped. For the other two, not trusting him and following their own plan tragically led to their death.
They needed to listen to him. They needed to accept his sacrifice.
In a similar way, Jesus calls us to make a choice: to listen to him and accept his plan, his sacrifice – the free gift of eternal life through his death on the cross.
Today we remember all those who have been willing to make a great sacrifice, and live in the hope and freedom they have bought for us.
But we also need to remember the life and hope and freedom we can have through the ultimate sacrifice that we see in Jesus on the cross.
We need to listen to him, we need to accept his sacrifice. We need to live our lives to honour Jesus, the Lord and the Saviour.
Lest we forget.
Commemoration address at the ANZAC Day Dawn Service, Walgett RSL Memorial Club.