In one of those unexpected moments in life, I was given a box that contained all that was left of Harold’s life. From side notes in his logbook I tasted the excitement and passion of a young man caught up in a daring adventure and the fear and panic that struck hard in the midst of action.
A small well-worn photo album introduced me to his mates and their dog “Boozer” and graphically portrayed the desolation of life in the desert. His beaming smile and twinkling eyes assured me that he was still living life to the full. Sixty years after his death, I met the man, pieced together the story of his life and understood.
It must have seemed quite an adventure for this twenty-year old from Rockdale, Sydney. His introduction to flying on 30 December 1940 familiarised him with the cockpit and controls of a Tiger Moth. Just twelve days later he made his first solo flight.
He went on to train on the Harvard, Wellesly, Lysander and Hurricane aircraft before joining the 451 Squadron, RAF in the Middle East when life as a fighter pilot began in earnest. He was mainly involved in tactical reconnaissance, photoreconnaissance and air testing, but not without mishaps.
I was shot down the other day for the first and I hope the last time. Two of us were surprised from behind by five or six Messerschmitt 109s. I dived steeply, turned sharply, evading an attack from below, but flattening out, I found the same one on my tail again. I dived right onto the ‘deck’ and then it started.
I threw him off my tail several times but each time he guessed my next move and was back again. Eventually, as he crossed my tail a cannon-shell struck the wing.
The shrapnel cut the cooling system and also my leg. At first I just heard a bang, felt an awful burn, and then my leg went numb. I had to work fast then and did some amazingly crazy flying, which threw his aim right off. I reached within half a mile of the drome and then he disappeared. Anyway, I live to tell the tale and boy I am going to practise like mad to even things up.
Life in the desert was hard and cruel and the long hours of waiting seemed endless, it was better to be fighting than spending hours playing cards, enduring heat and sandstorms. An entry in his logbook in January 1942 reads: “Hurray, we’ve finished our desert time. We go back to the Delta tomorrow. Oh boy, for a really hot bath and a nice cold beer. The kites have just gone off, the trucks are nearly all packed. WE’RE OFF.”
On 17 February 1942 his log book entry read, ‘Nice kite. I’m going to call her “Kathleen May.”’
There’s a family photo of Harold and my father in uniform before Harold left for Rhodesia. Harold is arm in arm with a pretty, dark haired girl about five foot two. What dreams did they have? What plans for the future before war intervened? Was she Kathleen May?
The war dragged on. His log paints the picture… Lonely trip … As usual no co-operation from the troops … Feeling very low today … O’Donnell killed. Force landed in Cyprus …and after just two days training on a Spitfire, now I’m supposed to be operational on Spits, how bloody funny… Bags of panic today. July 1943 …What a place, sand storms all day, I’ve had this … It’s on, we’re going to do Crete’…’Good old “K” goes like a bomb. I hope it keeps up. I’ve got that “old feeling” ‘.
He was testing a new aircraft. His Commanding Officer explained it this way: “He was engaged on a special test of great importance, the nature of which, due to circumstances necessitating absolute secrecy, I am unable to divulge.”
He was buried with full military honours at Hadra Cemetery in Alexandria, Egypt. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and in part the Citation read: “Flight Lieutenant Rowlands has conducted a noteworthy tour of operations during which he has displayed a high degree of skill, great keenness and determination. This officer is a most efficient flight commander whose fine leadership and personal example have been worthy of great praise.”
My grandparents had already lost two daughters in infancy, what must they have felt as they read, "Deeply regret to inform you that your son Flight Lieutenant Harold Rowland Rowlands previously classified as missing, has lost his life on twenty fifth March 1944. Stop."
He hung on the lounge room wall, good-looking, fun loving and just twenty-three years old… a family’s hopes and dreams shattered. Grandma had a new dress made and grandpa dug out the suit he only wore for weddings and funerals to go to Parliament House to receive the posthumously awarded DFC. But the pride and joy were overshadowed by grief and the painful memories were locked away. Now I understand something of the sadness that my grandmother carried with her for the rest of her life.