Alexander Arnel’s 100th
Thank you, Madam Speaker.
I rise today to congratulate Alexander Arnel of Page on reaching a very significant milestone. On 2 April this year, he concluded a century of living. I greatly enjoyed meeting Alex and his daughter and learning more about his life’s history. It is often said that fact can be more exciting than fiction, and Alex’s 100 years have certainly been filled with a good deal of excitement.
Born in Ballarat and raised in the small town of Stawell in the Grampians, Alex left home after his school days to pursue teacher training. Personally determined never to fight, he watched first his elder brother and then his father, a veteran of World War I, enlist to serve in the armed forces. The former was sent to the Middle East, and the latter was assigned to New Guinea. This made Alex reassess his earlier position. ‘What’s the difference between fighting the enemy over there or waiting until they come to the door?’ he asked himself. ‘Would I fight them at my door? Yes,’ he concluded. So in January 1941, he enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force.
What happened next could easily be the script for an adventure movie. Alex’s aeroplane was hit by ground fire whilst he was engaged with enemy fighters over Italy in 1944. His only hope was to escape the doomed aircraft, but the side door simply wouldn’t open. Alex was forced to lock the aeroplane into a nose-down position and deploy his parachute. It worked!
And then he landed, safely, next to a group of German soldiers. Taken as a prisoner of war, Alex was incarcerated in a dark, hot room and repeatedly interrogated. After one interrogation, he listened as the prisoner in the neighbouring cell was taken out, followed by gunshot. Alex realised that he may well be next to die. ‘What kept me going during this time’, he said, ‘was poetry and singing hymns’.
For some reason, his life was spared, and he spent the next 10 months in Stalag [stah-lahk] Luft [looft] III, arriving four months after the ‘great escape’ that inspired the famous movie of the same name. Hunger and exposure haunted these months, but Alex was lifted by letters from Margery, his girlfriend – and future wife – back in Victoria. He still has all her letters.
With the Russians closing in on the camp, Alex and his fellow POWs were marched out in mid-winter, lacking adequate clothing and surviving on food rations that they had rolled into balls and kept for just such an occasion as well as supplies that they obtained by bartering away cigarettes. Many of the men didn’t make it; they would simply fall asleep in the snow and never wake up. Liberation came from the British Army, and Alex was taken in London in May 1945, arriving just after VE Day. The first thing he did was to write to Margery with a proposal of marriage.
Following the war, Alex studied psychology, taught, served as an education officer during the Korean War, and worked as a counselling psychologist at the University of Canberra. He is the last surviving member of the RAAF no. 451 Squadron.
I am personally grateful, Madam Speaker, for good men and women like Alex. Our older Canberrans have built this nation and continue to build and strengthen this community. Alex’s daughter made it very clear to me that, in her eyes, his greatest achievement was as a dad. Alex has always had a great sense of humour, she told me, and it was the thing she loved most about him. Growing up, she always looked forward to dinner time because that would be when Dad would make everyone laugh.
Congratulations, Alex, on a wonderful life, and thank you for all the sacrifices you have made, for your life’s work, and for raising up a wonderful family who adore you.