Ian Denver, believed last remaining skipper of 156 Squadron of Pathfinders
By Kind Permission of the International Bomber Command Centre (IBCC)
Ian Denver was one of the renowned Bomber Boys – a decorated RAAF Lancaster pilot and Pathfinder, who was awarded the DFC and bar.
A smart lad, Ian Henry Denver was the middle son of twice-wounded Gallipoli veteran Billie Jerryl (BJ) Denver, who was a sports journalist on The Maitland Mercury and a fine golfer. Ian was born in 1923, and grew up in East Maitland.
During a recently recorded interview for the International Bomber Command Centre in Lincoln, Britain, he recalled scoring all the tries and kicking the winning goal in the inter-school rugby championships. After finishing his leaving certificate in 1941, Ian joined the then Bank of New South Wales (now Westpac) in Cessnock, NSW. He was about to be take up a bank position in Casino when Australia went to war.
Aged 18, Ian joined the RAAF with visions of being a fighter pilot. Excitedly, he promised his mother Beth, a pianist, he’d be home by Christmas. Ian followed his elder brother Peter (deceased), a Desert Rat at Tobruk and his younger brother, Derry, who joined the Navy.
On one occasion during their early pilot training in England, he and close mates, Ron Taubman from Maitland and Jeff Jones from Pymble, took a novel approach to building up their flying hours. They heard there was good surf in a place called Cornwall, so they signed out the Gypsy Moth and flew south, landed in a paddock and raced into the water shouting “Surfs up!” … and promptly raced back out again – with a bit more than just frozen knees. Taubman and Jones were never to return to Australia, both lost in the war they were yet to experience.
Denver completed 60 missions, 10 more than the standard double tour of 50, bringing all his crew home safely despite the overwhelming odds. For 48 of those operations his crew included all those pictured at Finningley, 16 in 625 Squadron and then, when the entire crew moved to 156 Squadron (Pathfinder Force), a further 32 operations together. At the age of 22 he acted as a squadron leader, leading the way in some of the most famous Bomber Command raids on places whose names remain indelible –Nuremberg, Kiel, Plauen, Munster, Essen, Potsdam-Berlin and others.
In 1945 Ian married Patricia Esme Goode, an English intelligence officer in Bomber Command, who by all accounts was not only intelligent but beautiful – the Aussie flyer attracted her away from a number of Royal Air Force officers and an Irish squire, all about to propose. On November 28, 1945, Denver’s troop ship docked back in Australia. Earlier, he had danced in the streets of London and Southampton on VE Day and subsequently VJ Day with his new bride.
During a celebration of a different kind on June 28, 2012, at the unveiling of the Bomber Command Memorial in Green Park, London, both Ian and Pat were honoured by the Queen and Prince Charles.
In 1946 Denver became the youngest International captain for Qantas with many colourful and often harrowing stories of flying Lancastrians, Super Constellations and Catalina seaplanes across the Tasman to Christchurch, New Zealand. He told of stopping to refuel on Christmas Island, to head to Singapore, Hong Kong or Colombo on the long haul to London.
By this time a master navigator as well as pilot, he joined Caltex International Oil Company in 1954 to lead its aviation arm as an oil exploration pilot in Jakarta, Indonesia, where he and Pat and their young family began a series of international postings.
Flying in the ’50s into the Sumatran jungle oil camps where tigers were kept away by bonfires and pythons emerged to block the Caltex jeeps on the rainforest mud tracks, Denver flew bigwigs from Caltex headquarters in Dallas Texas, in the two-prop DC3 direct to Angkor Wat, Cambodia, which was only then emerging from the jungle. He risked typhoons to land at Hong Kong’s notorious old airport, usually just in time to get his fashionable wife (and three children by this time), to the old Repulse Bay Hotel for sundowners and his favourite Heinekens.
It was a life peppered with golf tournaments (Denver played off one at the peak of his career), family fun at the British Box Club Jakarta, dancing the jitterbug and winning dancing competitions with Patricia with eggs strapped to his heels.
Throughout the early ’60s he was posted to Bahrain in the Persian Gulf where he began a new era as head of refinery training and development. He then went to head office in New York, acquiring university teaching and management skills, before continuing to Texas, then on to help South Africans, Malays, Kenyans, Omanis and Thais take over the means of their own oil production. He finally retired in 2001, aged 78.
The couple settled in Robina on Queensland’s Gold Coast and celebrated 70 years of marriage just before Patricia’s death at 95 in 2015.
In Canberra earlier this year for the 75th anniversary of Australia’s entry to Bomber Command, Denver, 94, was greeted by Air Chief Marshal Sir Angus Houston (Ret’d) and those extraordinary remaining men and a few women of Bomber Command. He was the last surviving skipper of the 156 Squadron Pathfinders, a few navigators and others still standing. His log books record in a final statement: “Well above the average” and determined to the end.
He is survived by daughters Mary and Louise and son David, five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
As Reported By Louise Denver in The Sydney Morning Herald