Vale Peter Isaacson AM DFC AFC DFM
The following is a retrospective of the man that for many years fulfilled the task of being our Patron . The roll that will be difficult to fill as the likes of Peter Isaacson don't grow on trees.
The late Peter Isaacson grew up in Melbourne and started working for a newspaper when he was sixteen. He joined the RAAF in 1940. Following his stint in Bomber Command, he became well known in Australia for his tours in the Avro Lancaster Q-for Queenie to promote the sale of war loans and, in particular, for flying his plane under the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1943.
He transferred to the RAAF Reserve after the war, retiring as a wing commander in 1969.
Since 1956 he has served as a Trustee, Chairman, and finally Life Governor of the Victorian Shrine of Remembrance. In 1991 he was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia for his publishing and community work.
On 8 December 1940, nineteen-year-old Peter Isaacson enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and after completing his training in Australia and Canada, he was posted to the United Kingdom. There he joined No. 460 Squadron RAAF at RAAF Breighton, Yorkshire, as a Sergeant Pilot.
Operating Wellington medium bombers, No. 460 Squadron was one of a number of Australian squadrons taking part in Bomber Command’s strategic air campaign against Germany. The squadron commenced operations in March 1942 and participated in 1,000-bomber raids against Cologne, Essen and Bremen in May and June. It converted to Avro Lancaster heavy bombers in October.
Peter Isaacson was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal on 6 November 1942 for “many successful night attacks on the enemy” with No. 460 Squadron. The following month his Lancaster was damaged by a Junkers Ju 88 night fighter after a raid on Munich.
Commissioned as a Pilot Officer, Isaacson was subsequently posted to No. 156 Squadron RAF of the Pathfinder Force, based at RAF Warboys, Huntingdonshire. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross on 30 March 1943 for his actions during a raid on Berlin. His citation, promulgated in the London Gazette, read: “One night in March 1943, this officer was detailed for an attack on Berlin. Following the attack and while still over the target area, his aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire and severely damaged. The mid-upper turret frame was twisted, the perspex and 2 engine cowlings blown off, the aileron controls damaged and the aircraft forced down to 4,000 feet. On the return journey the aircraft was driven off the route and held in a cone of searchlights for 15 minutes; during this time a further loss of height down to 900 feet occurred. In the face of this perilous situation Pilot Officer Isaacson, showing coolness, resolution and skilful airmanship, succeeded in flying his aircraft back to base. This officer is an outstanding captain of aircraft who has a fine record of many successful operational sorties.”
Peter completed forty-five sorties with Bomber Command, when the likelihood of surviving an operational tour of thirty missions was never more than 50% and, at times, much less.
Promoted to acting Flight Lieutenant, he was chosen in May 1943 to captain Lancaster Q-for-Queenie on a landmark flight from England to Australia across the Pacific Ocean, and then from Melbourne to New Zealand and back – nonstop in both directions. He was awarded the Air Force Cross for this mission. The citation noted that it was “the first occasion on which an aircraft has flown to Australia by this route and the direct flights between Melbourne and New Zealand are the first of their kind.”
On 22 October 1943, Peter flew Q-for-Queenie under the Sydney Harbour Bridge, flouting a 1931 regulation that prohibited such activity! The Lancaster remains the largest aircraft to have been flown under the bridge.
Isaacson gave his crew no warning of what he was about to do and when asked later why he did it, replied “Because it was there”. It was, however, reported at the time that he undertook the stunt to support the war loan effort for which he and his crew were actively fundraising.
Notwithstanding the publicity the escapade generated for war loans, Isaacson recalled that when he landed at Mascot afterwards: “I was threatened with a court martial. Two authorities wanted to court martial me:
Eastern Area in which the crime was committed and Southern Command to which I was attached at the time. I was told later there was a great fight among the bureaucrats of each of these commands as to which would court martial me. Apparently they could not agree on which should be the prosecutor and the idea either lapsed – or maybe is still being pursued by the successors to each of these commands!”
In December 1943, following his promotional tour with his crew in Q-for-Queenie, he settled down to instructional work at an operational training unit before undertaking a further tour in the Lancaster commencing in March 1944. His wartime commission was terminated on 21 February 1946 and he transferred to the RAAF Reserve.
Peter was State Commandant of the Victorian Squadron of the Air Training Corps from 1950, and Commandant of No. 21 (City of Melbourne) Squadron from 1961, before retiring in 1969 with the rank of Wing Commander. He also served as an honorary aide-de-camp to Queen Elizabeth II from 1963 to 1965.
Peter Isaacson stood as the Liberal candidate for Prahran in the November 1945 Victorian state election, but was defeated.
After working as the aviation correspondent for The Argus in Melbourne, Peter set up his first newspaper, the Advertiser, in 1947. He also established Peter Isaacson Publications the same year. Peter went to enjoy a very successful career in media and publishing both as an editor and as a proprietor. On 10 June 1991, Isaacson was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia “for services to the print media and the community”.
In May 2012, Peter was among a group of thirty-two veterans selected to attend the dedication of the RAF Bomber Command Memorial in London as part of the official Australian delegation.
Peter Isaacson is a Life Governor of the Victorian Shrine of Remembrance, having previously served as a Trustee from 1956 to 2000, and Chairman from 1983 to 2000. He and his wife live in the Melbourne suburb of Toorak.
Recently the Air Force Association has been gifted an image that had been commissioned by the family to commemorate the epic deed (Harbour bridge ) . Unfortunately Peter passed away before seeing the art work. In keeping with the fondness that existed between Peter and the Association the family has gifted the image to the association. It will be suitably mounted in the VC auditorium.