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LAWRENCE (LAURIE) LARMER OAM September 15, 1923-April 14, 2023
Laurie Larmer was born in Moonee Ponds, the eldest of three. His family lived in the shadow of Moonee Valley racecourse, his father and uncles ran a painting and decorating business in nearby Puckle Street and his father also worked in the jockeys’ rooms at Moonee Valley and Flemington racecourses on Saturdays and brought home the jockeys’ silks to be washed.
Laurie recalled seeing Phar Laps silks on their clothesline, and perhaps this was the start of his lifelong interest in horseracing. His parents took over a family hotel in South Yarra and moved to hotels in Windsor, the Lakeview Hotel in Ballarat and then to Port Melbourne. They eventually resettled in Essendon.
He received his call-up papers on his 18th birthday and chose to join the air force. He said he didn’t fancy the navy and didn’t want to be in the army because he would have to walk and carry stuff. His initial training was in Benalla, and he was then sent to Canada to train as a pilot as part of the Empire Air Training Scheme. He travelled to England on the Aquitania and was commissioned as a captain to fly Halifax with Bomber Command. In 1945, he flew nine raids over Germany with the 51st Bomber Squadron, the only Australians in Bomber Command flying out of Snaith at that time.
At the end of the war in Europe, he was told that he would be transferred to take part in the Pacific war, but peace was declared, and he returned home. It was 1945, he was 22, and living back at home with his family after four years away. He knew how to fly five different heavy bombers and drop bombs but couldn’t drive a car and had no idea what he wanted to do with his life.
His father, Peter, solved his lack of a car licence when he took him into the local police station and explained: “This is my boy, he’s just returned from service in Europe, he can fly a plane, but he doesn’t have a driver’s licence.” The local cop reckoned if he could fly a plane, he should be able to drive a car, so promptly issued him with a driver’s licence – no test required.
He married Pauline Fitzgerald in 1949, and they raised three daughters.
He worked initially in the car industry, then in the public service, before he followed in the family tradition of hospitality, when he and Pauline moved to the Athletic Club hotel in Ballarat. They later ran the Doutta Galla Hotel in Flemington and then finished their working lives at the Courthouse Hotel in Sydney Road, Brunswick.
He rarely spoke about the war, didn’t join the RSL and didn’t march on Anzac Day, though he did keep in touch with his crew. But then unexpectedly in 2015, Laurie was one of 106 war veterans in Australia to be awarded the France’s highest military decoration, the Legion d’honneur, for his part in liberating France. He was very proud of this award, and it prompted him to reflect on his war experiences. Clearly it had been weighing on him for 70 years.
He wrote a letter which he took to the German consulate in Melbourne and asked if they could give him the names of the mayors of each of the nine German cities he had bombed and if they could recommend a translator. The consul-general immediately contacted the German ambassador in Canberra and, after vetting Laurie’s story, they translated the letters and sent each to the appropriate mayor with an accompanying letter from Dr Christoph Muller, the German ambassador to Australia. The embassy also contacted the Australian embassy in Berlin and the Australian War Memorial. Colonel Carsten Knorr, German air force and German defence attaché to Australia, was the liaison between Laurie and the embassy and he and his family were to become new and treasured friends.
In part Laurie’s letter said: “I cannot recall the military reason for the raid, and I make no apologies for it. But I deeply and truly regret that we were responsible for the deaths and injuries of so many innocent civilians.”
He was surprised by the responses he received, the lord mayor of Dortmund, Ulrich Sierau, wrote: “From today’s perspective we celebrate the end of WWII 70 years ago as the liberation of Germany from the Nazi dictatorship, even though it was undoubtedly associated with huge losses and sacrifices among the civilian population.” And from Harald Jaschke, the mayor of Boizenburg: “I would not like to live in a world that is not free, in a world where millions of people are pursued and killed because of their race, religion, colour, political opinion or sexual preference.”
In 2018 at the age of 95, Laurie visited three of these cities, the mayors showed him their new prosperous cities and arranged for him to address student and community groups, his letters were used extensively in school events in these towns. The local papers carried the story of his letters and his visits.
These responses and seeing how well these cities had been rebuilt helped to put Laurie’s mind at ease.
But he was more than a returned serviceman. He believed strongly in giving back and recently received an OAM for services to the community.
His interest in thoroughbred racing lasted his entire life and for many years he held membership of all the Victorian racing clubs, he was also a member of the Thoroughbred Club. He had many friends in the industry and shared ownership of a few horses in recent years. There was a time when he wouldn’t consider missing a midweek or weekend race meeting. Age did slow him, but it was only last year he was still attending Flemington meetings.
His other great passion was the Australian Labor Party. He had a keen interest in politics and was a proud life member of the ALP, he regularly attended branch meetings until 2022 and, it would be fair to say, always had an opinion to offer!
His memory rarely faltered, and he remained actively engaged in the news and current affairs and doing the daily Wordle until the end. He was 99 years and seven months when he died and, as a staunch republican, he was clear he wasn’t waiting for a letter from the king if he had made the century.
His friend Colonel Knorr represented the German ambassador at Laurie’s funeral in April and acted as a pallbearer, the German consul-general Michael Pearce (Melbourne) and his deputy were also in attendance.
Laurie never wanted to be thought a hero as he had done what he was ordered to do during the war. He was so grateful for the understanding of the German people he met and wanted this to be recognised. His most fervent wish was that the futility of war would always be remembered.
Laurie is survived by his three daughters, Anne, Bernadette and Margaret, son-in-law Peter, great-grandson James and sister, Valda. Pauline died in 2017.
Anne, Bernadette and Margaret wrote this tribute.
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