Servicemen and women can be lost to war even if they return with their lives, and it is with this acknowledgement that an Adelaide council will memorialise a decorated pilot who had a tragic end.

Key points:

  • Robert Wilton Bungey led the first Australian Spitfire Squadron in 1941
  • He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his efforts above France and in the Battle of Britain
  • After his wife died suddenly within two weeks of returning home, Bungey shot himself and his baby son

RAAF Squadron Leader Robert Wilton Bungey is one of Australia’s most renowned fighter pilots, flying innumerable missions from World War II’s early stages, including during the Fall of France and the Battle of Britain.

Awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by King George in 1941, his London Gazette citation described him as being “almost continuously engaged in operations against the enemy since the war began”.

“Since July, 1941, Squadron Leader Bungey has led the squadron, and occasionally the wing, on many operational sorties over Northern France,” it read.

“Brilliant successes have been achieved and during August the unit shot down 24 hostile aircraft.

“Throughout, this officer has displayed gallant and efficient leadership.”

Tragedy at home

Two weeks after returning to South Australia in 1943 to be with his wife, Sybil, and 15-month-old son, Richard, personal tragedy struck.

Sybil died suddenly of meningitis.

Grieving his wife and suffering from what is believed to have been post-traumatic stress disorder, Bungey took his young son to Brighton beach where he shot him before fatally turning the gun on himself.

Richard miraculously survived the incident and, after growing up and learning about his father, has made it his mission to have Bungey remembered for his efforts, co-writing a book titled Spitfire Leader.

In August 2019 he proposed to the City of Holdfast Bay to construct a bronze plaque in honour of his father’s war effort and, on during a council meeting on Wednesday night, it was approved.

Supermarine Spitfires were critical in fending off Hitler’s bombing raids over Britain in 1940.(Supplied: WikiPhotos)

Mayor Amanda Wilson said the proposal for a memorial had given councillors a “philosophical dilemma”, which had been resolved through “conscientious debate and argument”.

“They’ve given their soul for their country but they are broken people and need to be rebuilt.”

‘Never was so much owed’

Bungey was an Australian cadet who was originally trained for the Royal Airforce (RAF) and he travelled to the UK to join it in 1937, but was eventually given charge of the first Australian Spitfire Squadron in 1941.

His 452 (RAAF) Squadron topped the monthly tallies three times in a row for RAF Fighter Command, which was established to coordinate a more specialised control of aircraft.

A German Luftwaffe aircraft flies over London’s dockland during the Battle of Britain in 1940.(Supplied: Australian War Memorial)

Fighter Command was integral to the success of campaigns like the Battle of Britain, in which squadrons like Bungey’s fought off German Luftwaffe airforce attacks on the mainland.

“When [wartime prime minister] Winston Churchill gave the speech, ‘Never was so much owed by so many to so few’, Bungey was literally in the air fighting the Luftwaffe,” Ms Wilson said.

“He was also one of the last people to leave Dunkirk in retreat.

“His son has made it his mission in life to have his father remembered for his outstanding acts of bravery.”

Reservations voiced

The memorial was not unanimously supported by Holdfast Bay, however, with two councillors opposed to its construction.

“But once again, it has to be viewed in the whole of its entirety and confronted, because this is what happens.

“Often people return and you can’t see that there’s damage but there’s damage within themselves.”

The plaque will be constructed at a cost of $2,000, with the council to liaise with the Bungey family and the RSL to determine its wording, which Ms Wilson said might include parts of Churchill’s speech.

It will be located on the Esplanade in Somerton Park.