Saturday, December 27, 2008

Uncle David

Uncle David, on the verandah at Balmadies, Metung, teaching me all about Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

David William Pearson Borthwick (1921-2000) was Mum, Uncle John and Aunt Anne’s eldest brother. He was a yachtsman, pilot, farmer, and great friend to many. A fourth generation Gippslander, he was born and spent his early years at Raeshaw, his parents’ sheep property at Fulham, near Sale.

On May 9, 1927, with his parents, David witnessed the opening of the Provisional Parliament building in Canberra by the Duke and Duchess of York (later King George VI and Queen Elizabeth), an occasion upon which every aircraft in the fledgling R.A.A.F. was excitingly grounded, and all the pilots returned to Point Cook unhurt, but by train. Clearly, aged six, from that moment only the Air Force would do.

At nine, David went to Geelong College as a boarder. He was a prefect, and represented the school in rowing and athletics.

In 1940, David entered Ormond College to study engineering at the University of Melbourne. War had broken out in Europe, and he volunteered for the Royal Australian Air Force as air crew. As a member of the Empire Air Training Scheme, he trained at Somers, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), and in England. After six weeks’ operational training on Hurricanes, at Unsworth in Lancashire, he was posted to the Middle East.

Shortly after arriving in Cairo David contracted malaria, and went to the Sudan to recuperate. His host was Douglas Dodds-Parker,
governor of the Blue Nile province, not far from the Ethiopian border, such as it was, who gave David a lasting interest in the region.
Dodds-Parker was a veteran of the Sudanese Political Service in the Anglo-Egyptian administration, and closely involved in the Special Operations Executive push to restore the Emperor Haile Selassie to his throne, a goal that was attained rather easily in 1941, to the lasting humiliation of the approximately 20,000 Italian personnel who were captured by an allied force not much larger than 1,700 men.

When travelling by camel with His Excellency on imperial business, David celebrated his twenty-first birthday (August 8, 1942) in a mud hut in Khartoum.

He then joined 450 Squadron flying Kittyhawks, and took part in ground strafing, escorting light bombers and dive bombing operations before, during, and after the Battle of El Alamein (July 1942).

On November 9, 1942, David was shot down by a Messerschmidt Me109. It was reported that his aircraft had crashed in flames, and that there was no chance of survival. However, he had parachuted clear of the plane, an instant before it crashed behind enemy lines.

He was severely wounded in both legs, and was unable to walk. Knowing that the British forces were advancing, he bandaged his legs with pieces of his parachute and set out, crawling backwards for four days in a sitting position, using his hands for propulsion. He survived by eating beetles, and drinking dew. On the fifth day he was found by two Bedouin who helped him reach and cross the British lines.

David was in hospital in Cairo for six months before returning to Australia in a hospital ship.

After more rehabilitation, he was posted to various bases in Australia before returning to operational flying in 1944 with 78 Squadron on Noemfoor Island (in the Papua province of the Dutch East Indies’ western portion of New Guinea). He was mentioned in despatches for the second time after leading an attack on a heavily defended Japanese base.

In December, his legs were causing him difficulties, and he was sent down from the islands.

The R.A.A.F. offered him an intelligence job but, rejecting the idea of not flying, he resigned from the Air Force and joined Australian National Airways as a commercial pilot.

During the next four years, he flew DC2s, DC3s, and the very rare DC5 on the Sydney, Brisbane, Broken Hill, and Tasmanian routes. In 1949, he resigned from A.N.A., and bought a farm through the Soldier Settlement Scheme at Giffard, on the shore of Bass Strait, along a stretch of the Ninety Mile Beach in East Gippsland.

He developed a productive farm, rearing sheep and Hereford cattle. He was an early and vigorous experimenter with techniques of cultivating salt-tolerant plants for his livestock.

David was also one of the original members of what would eventually become the Metung Yacht Club.

In 1986, he bought Chindrina, a 26-foot yacht which he and his two sons, my Borthwick cousins Ian and Keith, sailed from Hobart, Tasmania, across Bass Strait to Metung.

In 1970, he sailed down to Hobart again (with Dad and their old friend Kenneth Aitken as crew), but most of his sailing was around the Gippsland Lakes, either solo, or with a crew of family, and friends. The occasionally shambolic Marley Point Overnight race became an annual event from its inception, with his children and grandchildren all assisting.

David Borthwick died on September 1, 2000, after having suffered a stroke, and was survived by his wife Jeanie, two sons, and six grandchildren.
Acknowledgment: This obituary was written by David’s son, Keith Borthwick, with the help of family and friends, and appeared in The Age newspaper (Melbourne) on November 17, 2000. It is here slightly augmented.
David and Jeanie also had a daughter, Janet, who was my godmother.

As a little girl she had been a bridesmaid at Mum and Dad’s wedding in 1949, and Mum was especially attached to her.

She grew up, followed both her parents to the University of Melbourne (and her mother to Women’s College, as it was then known), and afterwards worked for a time in counter-intelligence circles. The authorities were somewhat taken aback when Uncle David robustly sought assurances (in person) that Janet’s undercover activities would not put her in harm’s way.

On one occasion she tailed a visiting Soviet agricultural delegation to Wangaratta, and it would be amusing to know exactly what information the K.G.B. gleaned en route—interesting ways with manure, perhaps?—and what information Janet noted in the relevant file; I do not know if she spoke any Russian.

Janet got married at St. George
’s Church of England, Malvern, to which ceremony I was allowed to go, wearing an extremely fetching pair of bottle-green velvet shorts, smocked white shirt, and a pair of red patent-leather buckled shoes. I vividly recall Uncle David’s tail coat, and spectacular collapsible silk top hat.
Janet and her husband moved to a farm near Albany in Western Australia, but in 1969 was killed in a tragic car accident.

No parent recovers easily, or ever, from the death of a child, but I am sure David and Jeanie were long comforted by the knowledge that Janet’s infant son, Robert Campbell, who survived the crash, grew up, spent regular holidays with his grandparents, his uncles and cousins, then studied engineering, and prospered.

Robert now lives with his own family in New Zealand.

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