3 Squadron LIFETIMES
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Kittyhawk Pilot Tom Russell relaxes after a mission.
James Oglethorpe writes:
Tom passed away peacefully in Sutherland hospital on 24 June (just short of his 99th birthday), having been admitted prior to Anzac Day with blood chemistry woes.
Beloved husband of Nean for over 70 years. Loving father and father-in-law of Susan, Stephen (dec.) and Pamela. Much-loved grandfather of Alexander, Philip, Naomi, Anthony and Emily and their spouses. Proud great-grandfather of Thomas and Lachlan. A dear brother of Jacky (dec.) and Lesley.
Over many decades, Tom has faithfully administered and constantly promoted our 3 Squadron Association. His generosity, energy and enthusiasm will always be remembered.
Tom’s funeral was held at Sutherland on an achingly fine afternoon. (Right in the heart of “The Shire” – the Sydney region which he has called home since he came back from WW2.) The Association deeply appreciates that the Squadron sent down a six-man Guard of Honour all the way from Williamtown, and that several high-ranking officers attended from both Williamtown and Canberra. GPCAPT Terry van Haren DSM gave an inspirational address describing Tom’s service in the RAAF (which is briefly summarised below).
At the outbreak of WW2, Tom had been working as a booking clerk in the NSW Railways. He signed up for the RAAF in March 1940 and was present at Richmond RAAF Base in July 1940 (doing his "rookies") when 3SQN “marched off to war” through the gates.
Tom was initially posted as a skilled Clerk in the RAAF Headquarters in Point Piper, Sydney (widely known as "Bullshit Castle"). He could easily have stayed in this cushy post, but resolved to take a more active and risky role in the war. He signed up for aircrew training.
Tom flew Kittyhawks with 3SQN in 1942 and 1943, from the great turning-point Battle of El Alamein and right across to Victory in North Africa at Tunis. He then hopped via Malta with 3SQN’s advance guard for “Operation Husky” - the invasion of Sicily.
Malta. July 1943. A Kittyhawk aircraft of No. 3 Squadron RAAF warming up for the first attack against Sicily.
Note a ground crew member sitting on the wing of the aircraft and the other aircraft in the background.
Tom survived numerous close-shaves in combat, including being claimed as the “128th kill” of one of the Luftwaffe’s top aces, Major Joachim Müncheberg. (But in fact Tom was able to fly his trusty Kittyhawk successfully back to base!) Tom's combat career was eventually ended, in Sicily, by a high-octane petrol explosion on the ground (which sadly killed two other 3SQN groundcrew members). - Tom was lucky to survive with less-serious burns, being flown back to Egypt for treatment. Afterwards he was posted to a well-earned spell as a Fighter Instructor near the Suez Canal. He returned to Australia and was demobbed in 1945 as a Flight Lieutenant.
Family and friends, it’s a great honour for me to have the opportunity to remember Tom Russell on a day which really is a celebration of a full life, well-lived, with love and respect.
In 2006 I had just taken over command of No.3 Squadron from my very good friend Mike Kitcher. As a new CO, I was keen to immerse myself fully into all aspects of command - which for a foundation squadron like No.3 meant diving into its history. My very first squadron as a fighter pilot was No.3 in 1992 when Dave Pietsch was the CO. I remember Pietschy’s passion for the Squadron, its history and its members and the efforts he went to in order to recognise the Squadron’s 75th Anniversary. I guess that rubbed off on me, as 15 years later I was fortunate to be in command for the Squadron’s 90th Anniversary and was likewise keen to commemorate 3’s rich history. It was at this point that I met the 3 Squadron Association leadership which was headed by Peter Cuthbert and Tom Russell.
From that very first meeting I was impressed by both Tom and Peter’s love and passion for the Squadron. I think at that stage they had been the President and Secretary respectively for almost 50 years – such an incredible commitment. But it was never about them – it was always about the Squadron members and their families. None the less – and I thank Bob Treloar and Dave Pietsch in particular for leading this – we were able to get both Tom and Peter recognised with a Chief of Air Force Commendation for their work with the Association. I can still recall the absolute shock, and pride, on both their faces when the Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Geoff Shepherd, presented them with the commendation. Priceless!
Tom made everyone around him feel very much at ease. My wife Donna and our two daughters Rosie and Lily certainly attest to that fact, and I know many here today would likewise share that sentiment. Tom was always genuinely interested in – and valued – everyone he met. He never considered anything he did was particularly special, except for marrying Nean and raising a wonderful family. We know the story of when Tom first laid eyes on Nean and declared he would marry her one day. Well he certainly followed through with that pledge – despite some initial resistance. That is one determined man, but one who also knows exactly what he wants in life. The love he had for the Squadron was only surpassed by the love he had for his wife and family – the true measure of a humble and content gentleman.
At that’s what sticks firmly in my memory about Tom, who epitomised the character of so many of those Desert boys. Never about himself, always about others. There was a job to be done and it could only be done as a team. Tom would always go to great lengths to recognise and praise the commitment of the ground crew in particular, whom he felt did not receive the recognition they deserved. His humble and self-deprecating nature made it very easy for me, and the rest of the Squadron, to feel part of something very special. And we have all been privileged to have been part of his life, one that was lived with respect, honesty and humility.
I was certainly blessed and honoured to have known Tom. And there are a number of coincidences which make that bond somewhat special for me. First, Tom and I share a birthday in early July - albeit exactly 50 years apart. I was born here in Caringbah and lived in Miranda, as Tom lived for many years. I heard of Tom's death whilst I was in Sicily, which was where Tom's 3 Squadron operational career came to an end. And now Tom will be buried here in Woronora Cemetery, which is where my father is also buried. So I'm certain to drop by from time to time to say hello to them both.
Tom, you will be dearly missed, but we are all so pleased to have been part of your life.
Tom and Vinnie at Canberra, February 2016.
…It was the fulfilment of a boyhood dream to be a member of No.3 Squadron at RAAF Williamtown.
Many of you would understand the excitement one feels to be a part of Australia’s premier jet fighter squadron. However we also quickly learnt that this Squadron was steeped in history, with a deep connection to the past through the 3SQN Association.
From 2007 to 2010, I was the Chaplain to 3SQN and Tim was the Adjutant in 2007-2008. During that incredible time, we met many people who made an impact on us (and still do, to this very day) and they continue to hold a very special place in our hearts. …We bring this up as it seems to us 3SQN is like a family you don’t really leave - it has an impact on you that continues to last a lifetime. And Tommy Russell encapsulated this in a most unique way.
One particular memory stands out for both of us: ANZAC Day 2010, the Squadron was to march in Sydney. It was a big deal for us as a Squadron. Especially us younger folk, it was an electrifying experience. For once I got my drill right (as you know, Padres aren’t very good at such things) and things just slotted into place. So with Emma Craven-Griffiths, Tim Ferrell, Jim Xinos and David Tuite, it was to be the last time we were together. As we proudly marched, I will never forget as we ended the march; looking back, seeing Pete and Tom sitting in an old Army jeep waving madly to all and sundry. They were so very happy, so very young, it seemed, and time had stopped for these two close mates. It was, for us, the reason why we joined!
As you all know, Tom loved a chat, his mind and memory as sharp today as it was during the Desert campaign. I loved hearing his stories, especially ones that involved Padre Fred McKay and that damn skeleton the Squadron kept in their Mess!
Padres Davies and MacNamara with “Stinky”.
These stories often kept me focussed when times got tough. They brought me great joy as I have sought to emulate those same Padres in my own pastoral ministry. But those amazing and honest stories from Tom and many others from the Association helped form not just me, but many of us.
Both Tim and I would just like to say: Tom, we will miss those chats; the stories, the jokes, the poems and your candid advice and mentorship for these two wet-behind-the-ears junior officers. We will miss your good-natured humility about the world we live in, and your significant contribution to it. We have lost a rare gentleman who cannot be replaced. You gave us so much, Tom, making us better people, airmen and airwomen of Number 3 Squadron. You will be forever remembered; your story immortalised at the Australian War Memorial, but more importantly, you are immortalised in our hearts.
- Lest We Forget -
[Tom’s story is told in full, in his own inimitable words, on our 3SQN Assn. interview page.]
3 Squadron LIFETIMES
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