An artist sketched bold RAAF flyer officer Hector ‘Hec’ Harrison before the fatal flight in Germany in 1944 and now his image is at the heart of an extraordinary story and part of the Australia Post award.
A deep dive into Hec’s life began 10 years ago when airline pilot Robert Trevan discovered his cousin was one of those immortalized in the painting of the ‘Bomber crew’ by Australian war artist Stella Bowen.
The crew disappeared in the bomb attack on April 27, 1944, just hours after Ms. Bowen sketched their portrait.
When the artist hears them missing in action, he completes the painting, but then writes: “It’s terrible to have to finish drawing after the people are gone … like painting ghosts.”
Mr Trevan’s search uncovered the hidden treasures of distant relatives, Nazi Germany’s unknown archives, and countless memories of a German night warrior.
“This is a rabbit hole that I descend that is getting deeper and deeper,” Trevan said.
Now the Australia Post has chosen the painting for the 2020 Anzac Day stamps, but the complete story of this brave pilot officer has been lost for almost 75 years.
A butcher and savior
Hec Harrison grows in Lismore in northern New South Wales.
At the age of 15, he was a butcher and volunteer at the Ballina Lighthouse and Lismore Surf Life Saving Club.
At the start of World War II, he was 20 years old and enlisted in the army but was transferred within a few months to the Australian Air Force, training as a wireless operator and gunner.
This information is already part of the family story, but little is known.
Then, while hunting for an unsuccessful Hec war medal at the home of a distant relative, Trevan was handed the history detective gold – the WWII Hec flight logbook.
It reveals the epic WWII story.
On his first tour of duty, Hec flew 33 missions in the Middle East as one of Wellington’s bombing crews.
“His flight log documented a raid on the African Corps Rommel, three engine failures, shooting down a German night fighter, searching for the South African Air Force squadron missing and the only rescue that survived,” Trevan said.
Hec’s account of his last flight in Egypt in 1942 is a story of tragedy and luck.
“The plane took off at night, loaded with more than 3,000 pounds of bombs and full fuel tanks. The plane failed to climb and land again when the wheels were pulled back,” Trevan said.
Hec wrote: “The rest of the crew were killed instantly, the only one who survived with minor injuries, a 14 x 250 bomb load exploded after one and a half minutes.”
Bomber raided the death sentence
In England, in February 1944, Hec was sent to the Australian Air Force squadron 460, joining the Lancaster Bombing Crew.
“That [the Lancaster] designed with one task – to level out Germany, “Trevan said.
On March 22, 1944, the Hec crew began their second tour, as part of a bombing mission in Frankfurt.
“Seven hundred and ninety-one planes bombed the city flat with 33 aircraft missing, that’s more than 200 people – but Hec claims it was a ‘quiet journey’,” Trevan said.
On March 24, the Hec crew left in the evening with 893 Lancasters.
After each operation, the bombing crew will return to exhaustion and see an empty crew bed that does not return.
The property has been removed, fresh faces will replace it.
“The sheer courage of these people, leaving at night with an overloaded bomber with thousands of liters of fuel is quite dangerous,” Trevan said.
“Throwing anti-aircraft fire, collisions in the air, mechanical failure, and night fighters, it creates a very high risk, but they still leave.
“This is very brave.”
Hec’s final mission
After being sketched by Ms. Bowen, the crew set out with 322 Lancasters for a bomb attack on a German tank factory in Friedrischafen, near the Swiss border.
The bombers were intercepted by 100 night fighters.
Trevan tracked Peter Spoden, one of the German pilots who flew against the bombers that night.
He explained their tactics to attack Lancaster which were more complicated from below, blowing them up with a canon of upward firing.
“Without a self-sealing fuel tank, it will become a fireball immediately,” Trevan said.
During his research on the night warrior, Mr. Trevan discovered in the sky that the Germans that night were a famous pilot – Hienz Martin Hadeball.
“I believe the most likely scenario is at 1:40 am, a night warrior who was flown by Hauptmann Hienz Martin Hadeball flew under the plane in the blind before firing his cannon at the Lancaster wing,” Trevan said.
“With the high power of G and the emergency exit opening in, getting out of Lancaster is almost impossible because that’s why the death rate is very high.
“German records show the plane was completely destroyed.”
The plane crashed near Burgheim, killing all the crew except the rear gunner who jumped off the plane but was seriously injured when he fell to the ground.
“He woke up from a coma in a German hospital a week later with one leg missing and no memory of events from the day before the mission, until one week later,” Trevan said.
The crew was buried in the local parish cemetery, but were transferred to the Durnbach War cemetery after World War II.
“He died trying to make the world a safer and better place, and I can live a fantastic life in this great country because of people like him,” Trevan said.
“I’m sure this needs to be remembered and recognized.”
In the back of Hec’s notebook is a poem which he wrote after some of his friends died in a plane crash in 1942.
“Don’t be afraid that you are dead, because there is no torch you gave us, we caught it.
The glorious light will never die. Our sincere hands must lift it up high. “(Hec Harrison, Egypt 1942).