Flg Off C R Williams DFC
Lancaster serial number: ED927/G
Call sign: AJ-E
Second wave. Crashed on outward flight.
Charles Rowland Williams was born on 19 March 1909 in Hughenden, a small settlement in inland Queensland, some 250 miles west of the city of Townsville. He was the middle child of the three surviving children of sheep station manager Horace Williams and his wife Catherine. Australian country districts did not have elementary schools in those days so Williams was tutored at home without any other formal education until he went to Townsville Grammar School as a boarder at the age of 12.
Leaving school at 16, he went home to work on the station his father managed. He also became a skilled mechanic and took up building wireless sets as a hobby. The great crash of the early 1930s led to his father losing his job, so the family bought their own farm which they had to work hard to build up. Like many young men of his generation, Williams had long wanted to fly and took some flying lessons at the aero club in Townsville.
When war came, he was already 30 years old. Both he and his brother could have avoided military service on the grounds that their elderly father was ill, and could not run the property on his own but they both joined the army reserve. They agreed between them that Doug as the elder should remain in the army so that he could stay in Australia to take responsibility for the family, but younger brother Charlie should volunteer for the air force.
In February 1941, some 17 months later, Williams began his training. He was posted to Sydney, and then on to a training school in rural New South Wales. At almost 32, he was deemed too old for pilot training and was mustered as a wireless operator/air gunner. On qualification, he was commissioned, one of the about ten per cent of each class who received this distinction. He was then posted to the other side of the world, England, which he reached by the method usual in those times – troopship to California, a six day train ride across the USA and Canada, and another sea voyage from Halifax, Nova Scotia.
He arrived in Bournmouth, England, in November 1941, a few weeks before Pearl Harbor. This traumatic event had another, often overlooked, consequence besides bringing the USA into the war. The Australian government quickly realised how exposed their country was and many aircrew under training were kept back in case they were needed at home. It was a pretty forlorn gesture, however, as the RAAF had no potent strike aircraft. Their obsolete Wirraway trainers were no match for Japanese Zeroes in the battle of Rabaul in New Guinea in January 1942.
Meanwhile, in England, Williams was caught in a training bottleneck, and it took several more months of waiting and training before he would be posted to an operational squadron. During this time his war experience began very suddenly, when his training unit was required to send several Hampdens on the first Thousand Bomber Raid, on Cologne on 30 May 1942. He was also sent on the later raids on Essen and Bremen.
By September, he was ready for operations and had arrived at 61 Squadron at Syerston, as wireless operator in a Lancaster crew skippered by Flg Off Brian Frow, an experienced pilot, who went on to survive the war and rise to the rank of Air Commodore. Their first operation was a raid on Munich and they flew on seven more before Frow finished his tour.
By December he was in a crew led by a New Zealander, Flt Sgt Ian Woodward, another pilot who lived through the war. Philip Burgess joined this crew as navigator in January 1943. By March 1943, most of the crew had completed their tour, but Williams had only done 28 trips as he had missed a few operations back in January through illness. He was keen to finish his tour, but he also wanted to get back to Australia, which would probably mean he would need to do a second. If he went on the normal six month inter-tour break that would only delay things. He also had broken off his engagement with a nurse back in Australia, as he had become involved with another woman in Nottingham, and he was keen to bring her back home so that they could get married.
He wrote to his family about his decision:
Yesterday I made a decision which may or may not be wise, I am joining a crew with an Australian as pilot, he, like myself has nearly finished his first tour and when we have finished we are going to another squadron and will carry on with our second tour without any rest, the second tour now consists of 20 trips and we believe when we have finished our operations we will have a much better chance of being sent home, and with the summer coming we should finish in three or four months, and I think it is better to do that than have to come back on operations after having been off for six months.
The Australian pilot and the new squadron he mentioned were of course Norman Barlow and 617 Squadron. And so it was that his fate was sealed, for a few weeks later they were leading the second wave of the Dams Raid over Haldern in Germany when they hit the fateful electricity pylon.
His casualty file in the National Archives of Australia has many insights into what happened after his death. Like several other Dams Raid participants Williams had been recommended for a decoration, in his case the DFC, but it was not awarded until after his death. It was eventually presented to his mother. The news that he had broken off his first engagement had not reached Australia by the time of the Dams Raid, so his first fiancée, Millie McGuinness, was contacted by the authorities. Eventually his new fiancée, Gwen Parfitt, was able to set the record straight.
In his final letter to his family, Williams wrote:
How I wish I could tell you everything I would like to, there is so much I could tell you but until the war is over I cannot tell anyone but I hope in the near future I will be able to tell you some of the amazing things I have seen and experienced.
Contrary to his normal practice he posted this letter immediately, the last in the string which kept on arriving at home well after his death. His letters and his other papers are now in the Queensland State Library in Brisbane. They were used in the biography of him written by historian Eric Fry, who married his sister Sheila after the war. Published in 1993 with the title An Airman Far Away, this book is a fascinating account both of his life and of the way in which the war impacted on an ordinary Australian family.
Charlie Williams and the rest of his comrades were first buried in Dusseldorf, before being reinterred after the war in Reichswald Forest War Cemetery.
The stark note on his personnel file confirms his death. [National Archives of Australia]
Thanks to Susan Paxton for help with this article.
Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.
Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassell 2002
Eric Fry, An Airman Far Away, Kangaroo Press 1993
The information above has been taken from the books and online sources listed above, and other online material. Apologies for any errors or omissions. Please add any corrections or links to further information in the comments section below.