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Ernest Henry (Ern) Dunkley (1920–2008)

by Mark Lax and Leon Kane-Maguire

Squadron Leader Ern Dunkley, DFC was one of a select few Australian airmen who flew the Mosquito aircraft with No. 464 (RAAF) Squadron in England against hazardous targets in Nazi occupied Europe. The Mosquito was the F-111 of its day. Ern was posted into the squadron in early 1944, but it was on 31 October 1944 when he led a section of four aircraft low over Denmark to attack the Gestapo at Aarhus that Ern made his mark as an exceptional pilot and leader.

It was a round trip of over 1200 miles, including 700 over the sea, all at extreme low level to prevent alerting the German radar stations of their presence. The Gestapo had taken over three buildings in the Aarhus University complex on the Jutland peninsula from where they terrorised and tortured the Danish inhabitants and suppressed all resistance. Housing the Gestapo and Secret Field Police Headquarters and their records, destruction of the buildings would set the Gestapo back years. It fell to No 140 Wing, of which 464 Squadron was part, to make the attack. Made famous from the Amiens prison raid some months prior where the Squadron used pin-point bombing accuracy to break down the walls to let over 250 prisoners escape, the RAF high command took a chance on Aarhus after pleas from Danish resistance leaders.

Leading the second section to attack just after noon and despite the dust and smoke from the first wave, Ern hit the main building and headed home only after ensuring the rest of the aircraft were safe. Attesting to the accuracy of the raid, witnesses reported two bombs actually went through the ground floor doors and windows of one building. The Gestapo and German intelligence networks were out of business in Jutland, with the added bonus that several resistance leaders held captive on the upper floor remarkably escaped. For his airmanship, daring and leadership qualities, Ern was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Dunkley, who has lost a long struggle with cancer, died in Berkeley Vale near Gosford at the age of 88. He was born and brought up in Parramatta where his parents owned a corner general store. Times were difficult during the depression and he left school at the age of fifteen to help the family finances, earning 25 shillings a week as a page boy at the Embassy Theatre in Sydney. Soon after, he joined the Sydney City Council Electricity Department, but at the outbreak of war, Ern enlisted in the army. Becoming bored with the inaction of his anti-aircraft company, he transferred to the RAAF in 1941 and was selected for pilot training during which time he married his childhood sweetheart, Evelyn. In July 1942 he embarked for overseas service, being granted just one hour’s leave on the day of his departure to visit Evelyn in hospital to see his twin children Jan and Phillip who had just been born. He would not see them for another three years.

In England, he and his close air force friend Tony Tuck were posted to No. 4 Squadron to fly Mustangs on army cooperation missions with the RAF. However, in late 1943 upon learning that the squadron was to convert to high altitude photo-reconnaissance work, Ern and Tony purposefully failed the high altitude medical and, eschewing protocol, contacted the Australian CO of No. 464 Squadron directly and convinced him to let them transfer.  Now flying Mosquito fighter bombers, he initially took part in dangerous low level attacks on Hitler’s V-1 ‘terror weapons’ launch sites. By D-Day, he was carrying out risky night attacks on enemy transport during the crucial battles following the Allied landings in Normandy. It was during one of these sorties that he was shot down, fortunately landing by parachute in Allied lines but suffering a fractured leg. He recovered, rejoining his unit as Flight Commander in September 1944, a month before Aarhus.  In all, he survived 76 operations over enemy territory. Sixty years later, in 2005, he was one of eight Australians honoured by France with the award of the Legion d’Honneur for their contribution to the liberation of France.

At war’s end Ern returned to Australia and civilian life. Ern and Evelyn built a family home and he rejoined the Sydney City Council Electricity Department. When this was absorbed into the Electricity Commission, he would rise to the state-wide responsibility of Chief Clerk Generation. In 1968 he remarried and after retirement in 1980 shared with wife Pat a passion for bird-watching around Australia. During her later struggle with Alzheimers he was her constant helper. After her death, until the last months of his own life, he remained a very active member of the Alzheimers Support Group. For over twenty years he also spent every Monday as a volunteer for Gosford Hospital transporting patient rehabilitation equipment. He eventually became a very proud grandfather and great-grandfather, and had the good fortune to share the last years of his life with partner Joan Adams with whom he again indulged his passion for bird watching and travel.

Ern Dunkley will be remembered not so much for hunting the Gestapo, but for his unfailing support for others. He is survived by Joan and by his children Jan and Phillip, and by four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Mark Lax and Leon Kane-Maguire, 'Dunkley, Ernest Henry (Ern) (1920–2008)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 15 April 2024.

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