Arthur H C Atkins DFC
Born: 5th August 1917 – Arthur Henry Chesterman Atkins
Arthur is both Mercantile Rowing Club’s oldest member and also the longest serving member.
Educated at Scotch College Melbourne where he stroked the fourth crew in 1934 (pipped on line by 2 feet) and stroked the thirds in 1935 (second or third). Scotch College rowed out of the Mercs shed in those years so he has had an even longer association with the Club than his years of membership.
Arthur studied accountancy and graduated in 1941.
He married Betty in 1950 and was a partner in the business Simpson Gloves in Richmond until his retirement in 1987.
Joined Mercantile in 1936. The Club was very strong in those days boating crews in all divisions. In the maiden ranks, the club boated two maiden eight, plus maiden fours, lightweight maiden eights and maiden pairs. The Club was overwhelmed with young rowers. It was not until 1937 that Arthur appears to race regularly. His first win was in the maiden four at Henley on 27th November 1937. With him was Deane Morgan, also a very well known and loved member who was to become a Vice-President of the Club and coxed by John Williams, son of the Rowing Victoria President Mick Williams and brother in law of the Late Hubert Frederico. Mick Williams co-coached the crew. Ray Brewin, in the three seat, died in WWII whilst serving with the RAF. Ramsey Brewin’s Mercantile blazer is on display in the blazer cabinet at the Club.
Above – Arthur in the two seat of his first winning crew – 1937 at Australian Henley
Cox: John Williams, Str: Ramsey Brewin, 3: Ray Brewin, 2: Arthur Atkins, Bow: Deane Morgan
In 1938 he won Dobbie combination eights club race. Arthur participated actively in these club events. In 1939 he won a maiden eights race at the VRA Regatta on 25th November 1939 in the two seat. As he was the only change to the losing maiden eight at Henley, he jokes that it must have been his input.
He recalls riding his motor bike down to the Club and leaving inside the front door for safe keeping. He also recall taking his wife to be to the beach as a pillion passenger.
The notable members of the time were:
- Bill Macrae who unfortunately died piloting a plane whilst training for the Air Force.
- Mick Williams – a solicitor who practised in liquor law and very good at either sides of the Mercs bar!
- Teddie Varcoe who had the role of opening the barrel with a mallet
- Roy Thursfield who was a noisy but amusing character and Vice President.
- Jack Jones – a good friend and later solicitor.
- Old school friends Peter Hemming and Bob Batty who persuaded him to join the Club.
Arthur in the stroke seat of a military crew
He enlisted in the Army on 12 August 1941 at Ivanhoe. He tried to transfer to the Air Force but his requests were not passed onto the Air Force by the Army. He thinks that the Army merely tore up his requests. He took matters into his own hands and whilst on leave, went to the Air Force recruiting office in Melbourne. He was then transferred to the Air Force in November 1941. To show how things operated were in those days, the Military Police turned up at his parents house thinking that he had absconded from the army. He trained initially at Sale in Victoria and then moved to Benalla where he flew Tiger Moths. Arthur could not believe his luck – flying Tiger Moths and being paid to do so. It was like being paid to drive sports cars.
He was transferred to the UK and from the RAAF to the RAF. It was here that he was trained initially as a pilot in a twin engine Wellington bomber. His first mission over enemy territory was in a Wellington bomber in March 1944. He recounts the story of this pamphlet dropping mission over France with a new bombardier who was so nervous being over enemy territory that he released the canister rather than the pamphlets, possibly causing an unnecessary hole in a cathedral roof!
In July 1944, he then was transferred to Lancasters and served with 625 squadron of the RAF. He recalls one of their training exercises was to “bomb” Green Park in London by taking a clear picture of an infra red light in the park. The Bomber Command Memorial which was recently dedicated stands in Green Park London.
Arthur was one of the few people to survive 32 missions in a Lancaster over enemy territory and for his work was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross in 1945. He left with the rank of Flying Officer in the RAF.
To explain how perilous the work, just 35 Lancaster aircraft completed more than 100 successful operations each, and 3,249 aircraft were lost in action. 55,000 Bomber Command personnel were lost in action between 1939 and 1945 of which 3,000 were Australians. A Bomber Command crew member had a worse chance of survival than an infantry officer in World War I. Taking an example of 100 airmen:
- 56 killed on operations or died as result of wounds
- 3 injured (in varying levels of severity) on operations or active service
- 12 taken prisoner of war (some injured)
- 2 shot down and evaded capture
- 27 survived a tour of operations
Statistically therefore there was little prospect of surviving a tour of 30 operations and by 1943 the odds against survival were pretty grim with only one in six expected to survive their first tour. The 1943 was probably the worst year and the odds improved slightly in 1944 when Arthur was flying.
Despite these losses, the Germans had to employ 89,000 anti aircraft personnel which prevented them being on other duties.
After the war, Arthur settled down to domestic and business life but did race in a winning open eight at Barwon in 1946. He also continued competitive rowing in 1947. Thereafter he was a Sunday morning rower.
Arthur and Betty after the naming of the Arthur Atkins
After his retirement in 1988 he donated a racing eight to the Club which was used by both our winning senior eight but also the winning Victorian crew. The bow remains on the Clubroom walls.
Arthur has continuously maintained his membership from 1935-36 season to date.
The following speech was given by Andrew Guerin at the Club’s celebration of Arthur’s 100th birthday on 6th August 2017.
There is much said at celebrations of milestone birthdays about the number of years that have past and not what has happened in those years. Woody Allen said that you can live to be a hundred if you give up all the things that make you want to live to be a hundred. Arthur has proven that quip wrong and also Billy Crystal comment that by the time a man is wise enough to watch his step, he’s too old to go anywhere. Not so with Arthur.
But let’s not shy away from the amazing achievement to live to 100 years. It takes not only good genes, but determination, luck, a challenging life, looking after yourself, and most importantly, good family and good friends. Arthur has had a good measure of these ingredients.
It’s pleasing that Arthur is so well at the age of 100 years. He still drives and not only one car, but two – the temptation to buy a new Jaguar aged 99 years old proved too much for him. Which is interesting as it is usually said that you don’t worry about avoiding temptation as you grow older, it usually avoids you.
Now cars do need looking after and Arthur has a garage for only one car. So what does he do, he clad the car port to keep the second car protected from the elements. He is very proud of his fine work and so he should be, it is excellent craftsmanship. Most importantly, he speaks of this task as if all 99 years olds undertake their own building works.
He got pinged by the police in recent years for driving across a continuous line. It would have been a delight to see the expression on the young policeman’s face reading the 1917 date of birth on the licence.
Earlier this year I found Arthur up a ladder pruning along the roof line. Immediately I demanded that he get down and allow me to do it. Quick as a flash, he responded with, but Andrew, how good are you on a ladder?
Most people of his age work on the principle of the older you get, the earlier it gets late. We both attended a rowing function for the 150th APS Head of the River in June and it was me rather than Arthur that wanted to get out of the function at 11pm. He had a grand time catching up with Bill Morgan, a fellow Scotch rower from the same year as Arthur.
Whilst his longevity is amazing, what is important is that he has had a fortunate life – clearly great parents, an adventuresome and full youth, a loving wife and children and success in business. Well done Arthur.
As we are at the rowing Club, let’s spend a couple of minutes on his rowing career and wartime days.
Arthur Atkins DFC, the oldest and longest continuous member of the Club having joined Mercantile in the 1935-36 season after leaving school. He competed successfully for Mercantile both prior to and after WWII.
He commenced his rowing at Scotch College where he stroked the fourth crew in 1934 but due to his slight build, was over looked for the first crew in 1935. In both his races at the Head of the River regatta in those years, he had close finishes, In 1934 by only 6 feet and in 1935 only one foot.
He then raced at Mercs with many of his friends and notables of that time:
- Bill Macrae a popular member and good friend to Arthur who unfortunately died piloting a plane whilst training for the Air Force.
- Deane Morgan – a character who knew every publican in Victoria through his job with Carlton and United Breweries
- Mick Williams – a solicitor who practised in liquor law and was very good at either side of the Mercs bar!
- Teddie Varcoe who had the role of opening the barrel with a mallet.
- Jack Jones – a good friend and later a solicitor.
- Roy Thursfield who Arthur describes as a noisy but amusing character and Vice President, possibly like our current Vice-President David Pincus
Originally he enlisted in the Army. He tried to transfer to the Air Force but his requests were not passed onto the Air Force by the Army. He thinks that the Army merely tore up his requests. Arthur took matters into his own hands and whilst on leave, went to the Air Force recruiting office in Melbourne, transferring to the Air Force in November 1941. To show how things operated in those days, the Military Police turned up at his parents’ house thinking that he had absconded from the army. When he went back to his Army unit, his CO told him to leave his uniform at the guard house and bugger off.
Arthur initially trained at Sale in Victoria and then moved to Benalla where he flew Tiger Moths. Arthur could not believe his luck – flying Tiger Moths and being paid to do so. It was like being paid to drive sports cars, and he had a passion for both sports cars and motor cycles. He drove a motor bike down to the Club for training and even took Betty to the beach as a pillon passenger.
He then trained at Mallala in South Australia in twin engine Avro Ansons.
He was transferred to the UK and from the RAAF to the RAF. It was here that he was trained initially as a pilot in a twin engine Wellington bomber. His first mission over enemy territory was in a Wellington bomber in March 1944. He recounts the story of a pamphlet dropping mission over France with a new bombardier who was so nervous being over enemy territory, that he released the canister rather than the pamphlets, probably causing an unnecessary hole in a cathedral roof over which they were flying!
In July 1944, he then was transferred to Lancasters and served with 625 squadron of the RAF. Arthur was one of the few people to survive 32 missions in a Lancaster over enemy territory and for his work, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. He still regards his WWII experiences as the greatest adventure of his life and retains vivid memories.
After the war, Arthur settled down to domestic and business life but did race in a winning open eight at Barwon in 1946. He married Betty, had two children Mandy and Roderick, both of whom are here today, and managed a business in Richmond.
After his retirement from work in 1988 he donated a racing eight to the Club which was used by both the Club’s, and Victorian, winning eights. The bow remains on the Clubroom walls.
Then again in 2016, he donated another racing eight to the Club. This time he wanted it to be named the David D Browne. Arthur wanted a memorial to one of his best mates in WWII who did not return from piloting a bombing raid over Stuttgart. A superb gesture which deserves much praise.
Arthur Atkins and Mal Batten inspecting his donated Empacher eight, the David Browne
The two had trained together as pilots both at Benalla in Victoria at Mallala in South Australia before travelling to England via the USA. Whilst not admitting too much, there is no doubt that they both enjoyed a common interest in what is now coined “wine, women and song”. In one story related to Hamish Fitzimmons, he tells of the night they went to see the Andrews Sisters perform in New York, and “some other up and coming singer”. He later recalled this singer to be Frank Sinatra.
David Browne was an outstanding individual who would have excelled post war like Arthur. He was a great all rounder, excelling at athletics and football. He was both Captain of Athletics and School Captain at Melbourne Grammar School: a sad loss for not only Arthur and Browne family, but probably also for Australia.
Today we are fortunate to have present representatives of Bomber Command Group present. If I can specifically mention two of them, Jan Dimmock, Vice Chair of The Bomber Command Commemorative Association Victoria, whose late husband Frank was a navigator on Lancasters in the 460 squadron and also Jack Bell, a 462 squadron Lancaster crew man. Jack is also a chronologically gifted man who will also turn 100 in December. And thank you Club member Mike Fogarty for arranging their attendance.
Arthur is as strong and vibrant as ever and with some encouragement, he may respond with a few words for us.
Happy birthday Arthur. Remember birthdays are good for you. Statistics show that the people who have the most, live the longest.
6th Aug 2017