It was the November 11, 1918. The clock had ticked over to 11am and the Western Front had fallen silent. After four years of conflict the Germans called for armistice and World War I came to an end.
From that moment on, the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month became a recognised day across the world; a time to reflect on the past and remember the millions who lost their lives while fighting for their countries.
Originally known as Armistice Day and now referred to as Remembrance Day, November 11 is a special time for young and old as they sit in silence for just one minute at the same time the war ended.
Now, one hundred years after soldiers put down their weapons, the day still holds significance to millions, even more so to the veterans from following wars, who understand the pain and loss felt when in battle.
While he was far from being born when World War I came to an end, John Cyril Briggs, 94, can relate, perhaps more than some, to the struggles faced in combat.
Born on July 10, 1924 in Leicester, England, John was thrust away from the comforts of home when in 1943, at the tender age of 18, he joined the Royal Air Force to take on the enemy overseas.
As a fighter pilot, the young man was well and truly in the midst of the action, flying planes over battle fields and dropping bombs at the enemy throughout Europe.
While there are many memories from those harrowing two years at war, there are some, more than others, that will forever remain imprinted in his mind.
April 24, 1945, was one of those days. It was the night before a daylight raid in Berchtesgaden, Hitler’s hideout in the Bavarian Alps of Germany, which was considered a possible last stand defensive position.
John recalled the slightly shaky start to his plane’s take off, and the incorrect flying route of a lead aircraft that could have led to a much more serious turn of events.
Instead of listening to the navigator, the lead aircraft took a different route, positioning them in a completely different spot to what they had planned.
“My main concerns around that time were the highly accurate anti-aircraft fire around the dropping point. The extreme closeness of the aircraft on both sides of ours and the German ME 109 planes which were shooting at us,” John told Starts at 60.
“The 109s didn’t seem to worry about our mustang escort as they were faster. I didn’t see any casualties from the 109s, but the plane on my port lost his starboard engine and the one on the starboard lost his port engine, both I believe from AA [anti-aircraft] fire. They both appeared to feather the affected engines satisfactorily and to keep on course.”
After bombing west of the alps, John and his team headed back to base, leaving the enemy activity behind. He had been at the controls for over four hours. However, the day’s events weren’t over yet and it wasn’t long before tragedy struck when a plane flying nearby dropped a bomb in an area far from the conflict.
John Briggs (back row, fifth from left) stands with his crew in 1945 at the Kirmington RAF station in England. Source: Supplied”The Bavarian countryside below looked peaceful and when a nearby aircraft opened his bomb doors and dropped a single bomb on a farmhouse it seemed wrong!” John recalled.
The next operation on April 30 was just as nerve-wracking. John was ordered to fly over a coastal area of Holland, which was occupied by the Germans, to air drop food to civilians who were left starving.
This was risky business as the allied forces didn’t have much faith that the Germans wouldn’t fire at them. Low and behold when they flew low enough over the Dutch countryside they could clearly see the faces of the German soldiers as they swung rapid fire anti-aircraft guns their way.
While many of the experiences of the war were painful and heart wrenching, there were moments of relief that John claimed to be most memorable. One of those days was May 11, 1945 when he joined a team returning released prisoners of war back home to England.
According to John, a total of 24 POW’s were loaded into the plane, that apparently became “a bit crowded” thanks to all the extra bodies occupying the seats.
“One of our passengers was a pilot shot down in an Anson [a twin engined bomber] in 1939,” John explained. “I put him behind the flight engineer, he was impressed by the improvements since he last flew.
“At Wescott, where we dropped our passengers, there were service women to help each one to the reception area and everything possible had been done to welcome them back. A very memorable trip.”
After four years with the RAF, John concluded his service in 1946 and went on to study engineering at Leeds University. He moved back and forth from England to Australia and ended up meeting his beloved wife Joyce Poon while on board the Orontes ship set for a trip to Europe. Just three weeks later he proposed.
The two were married around one year later on June 6, 1953, and had three children together; Straughan Martin, Robin Hunter and Janelle Patricia, after settling comfortably in Queensland. John worked for the Brisbane City Council while Joyce took a position as a tax agent.
Theirs was a life full of joy and the kind of love that comes from witnessing first hand in the throws of war just how fragile life can be. When not enjoying time with his family, John helped with scout leader training and the eighth Australian Scout Jamboree and Masonry.
Sadly after many happy years together, travelling the world and bringing up their family, Joyce passed away on February 13, 2018 after suffering a series of mini strokes.
John, like many other veterans, has lived a life full of pain, heartache and beautiful moments. However, even now at 94 years old, the time at war has not been forgotten, nor the friendships made with fellow soldiers and the lives lost during battle.
While he wasn’t a part of World War I, the veteran said he has and always will take a moment’s silence on Remembrance Day, to pay tribute to the brave and fearless soldiers who sadly didn’t make it home.
“I will always remember the men I met while at war, those friendships are like no other,” John said. “It doesn’t matter where you are or what you are doing, it’s important to take those minute’s silence on the 11th, of the 11th at 11am.”