Story transcripts

The Battle Within

Friday, October 22, 2010

Reporter: Liam Bartlett
Producer: Nick Greenaway, Kirsty Thompson

Some stories are so extraordinary, so riddled with twists and turns, that it's hard to believe they're true. Such is the strange and tragic case of Robert Bungey.

Bungey was one of the "brave few"- a dashing Australian fighter pilot who flew Spitfires in the skies over Britain, shooting down Nazis and risking his life day after day. He was a wartime hero and an inspirational leader.

But what he did when he returned home branded him a madman.

Now sixty years on, his son Richard has returned to the land his father so valiantly defended, searching for answers.

Full transcript:

LIAM BARTLETT: It's an anniversary worth celebrating - 70 years since the mighty Spitfire aircraft roared over the rooftops of London to save the British Empire in the darkest hours of World War II.

RICHARD BUNGEY: Here they come! Look at this! Oh, whacko! There's a Hurricane out there.

LIAM BARTLETT: Hurricane and a Spitfire.

RICHARD BUNGEY: Yes, correct.

LIAM BARTLETT: Gee, they sound good, don't they?

RICHARD BUNGEY: Oh, nothing like a Merlin. The Merlin motor of the Spitfire became the sound of victory during the Battle of Britain in 1940.

WINSTON CHURCHILL: Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.

LIAM BARTLETT: But victory came at a huge price. At the peak of the battle, RAF pilots were dying at the rate of five a day - their average age, just 22. And it wasn't just the British repelling the Germans. 32 Australians were in the thick of it.

LIAM BARTLETT: It must have been incredibly stressful?

RICHARD BUNGEY: Oh, can't believe it. Can't understand what they went through. It was a one big battle to survive.

LIAM BARTLETT: So many dogfights happened here, over the famous white cliffs of Dover. And Australian Richard Bungey has come to the beautiful national memorial for the Battle of Britain to find his father's name, Robert Bungey, DFC.

RICHARD BUNGEY: Where is he? I wonder if he's here. There he is! So proud of you, my dad.

LIAM BARTLETT: He was putting his life on the line?

RICHARD BUNGEY: Well, he put his life on the line every day.

LIAM BARTLETT: In another country.

RICHARD BUNGEY: That's correct. And whoever did - they all did this, all of them, the lot of them. Some survived, some didn't.

LIAM BARTLETT: But Richard is here to search for more than just a name. He's seeking to understand the destruction of his family and what drove his famous father to carry it out in such shocking way.

RICHARD BUNGEY: People can judge him whatever way. People have different thoughts about that but, in my eyes, I think of it was what he did was out of love.

NEWSREEL VOICE-OVER: Great fighters, these, meaning, of course, both the Australian pilots and their Spitfires.

LIAM BARTLETT: Wing Commander Robert Bungey was a bona fide hero in World War II. The aircrew he led, the famous 452 Spitfire Squadron, was the subject of a Movietone News story.

RAIFE COWAN: We had a saying in the airforce that any landing you could walk away from was a good landing.

LIAM BARTLETT: Raife Cowan flew under Bob Bungey's command. He recalls a tough leader, a bit of a loner, but good in the air, always looking out for his men.

RAIFE COWAN: In the air, he was a very good leader. Some squadron leaders in the air would take advantage of the fact that they were in a position to secure a kill, whereas he wasn't hogging everything for himself.

LIAM BARTLETT: Bungey's squadron earned a reputation as one of the most lethal aircrews in the war. In no small part was that due to the planes they flew.

CAROLYN GRACE: The Germans, that famous saying, "Give us Spitfires - "that's how we can win this battle."

LIAM BARTLETT: Australian-born Carolyn Grace flies one of the few operational Spitfires left in Britain. More that most, she can appreciate the skill and bravery of these daring young men, and the pressure that a squadron leader like Robert Bungey would have been under.

CAROLYN GRACE: They were under enormous stress. The higher ranking you went, the more responsibility you had.

LIAM BARTLETT: So there was enormous pressure, not only to not get killed himself, but also to look after the other pilots.

CAROLYN GRACE: Exactly. But it has to go somewhere. It has to be put in a box somewhere and shut up.

LIAM BARTLETT: Carrying this enormous burden, Robert Bungey returned to Australia in 1943 a hero. His exploits in battle and his leadership skills earned him the distinguished Flying Cross. But there were much more important rewards awaiting him at home - his English bride, Sybil, and the son he had never seen, 14-month-old Richard.

RICHARD BUNGEY: They were so pleased and he's as proud as punch. I think that photo is one of the best I've ever seen of them.

LIAM BARTLETT: That's, that's a beautiful family.


LIAM BARTLETT: And, then, three weeks later, it's -

RICHARD BUNGEY: All gone, all gone, yeah.

LIAM BARTLETT: Just days after this photo was taken, Sybil died suddenly from a brain haemorrhage.

LIAM BARTLETT: Do you think that broke him?

RICHARD BUNGEY: Oh, I'm sure it did. That was the key to everything that happened.

LIAM BARTLETT: Two weeks after burying Sybil, and about to head north to fight the Japanese, Robert, lost in grief, decided to end his war. He put Richard in the pram, and with the family dog, Bomber, by his side went down to Adelaide's Brighton Beach. Robert then took out his service revolver, shooting Richard through the head, before turning the gun on himself.

LIAM BARTLETT: In these sand dunes, in broad daylight, he's pulled out his service revolver and, what? Shot you first?

RICHARD BUNGEY: Shot me first, and then shot himself.

LIAM BARTLETT: Where did he shoot you?

RICHARD BUNGEY: Through the head.

LIAM BARTLETT: Which side?

RICHARD BUNGEY: It would've been the right side, I think.

LIAM BARTLETT: The right side of -


LIAM BARTLETT: There's no scar there?

RICHARD BUNGEY: No, there's no scar. They've done a damn good job.

LIAM BARTLETT: Despite being shot through the brain, Richard survived and was raised by his uncle. The trauma left him with partial paralysis down the left side of his body, but no anger toward the man who inflicted the lifelong disability.

RICHARD BUNGEY: I think he did it out of love and that's the only thing I can think of, is concern for my - he wanted us all to be together as a family in death, rather than me left alone, and I feel that I've - I hold no malice towards him. The poor man must have been going through hell.

LIAM BARTLETT: He can't have been thinking straight.

RICHARD BUNGEY: Well, in his scrambled mind I think he, you know, that was what he was thinking - the best outcome.

LIAM BARTLETT: What do you put that scramble down to - post traumatic stress?

RICHARD BUNGEY: Yes, I would say so.

LIAM BARTLETT: Isn't it extraordinary that a man who gets through multiple life-and-death situations survives that to come home, and creates one himself?

CAROLYN GRACE: The box I was talking about, where you put it all when when things are going wrong, yet, you still have to remain on your top form, for him, that box cracked.

RICHARD BUNGEY: And, what do you know - here she is.

LIAM BARTLETT: Look at that.

RICHARD BUNGEY: Absolutely fantastic.

LIAM BARTLETT: There's your dad's plane, mate.

RICHARD BUNGEY: It's very, very special.

LIAM BARTLETT: In the Australian War Memorial, the Spitfire Robert Bungey flew in has pride of place in the World War II exhibit. Other famous pilots flew her as well. But, for Richard, the plane is living history - a tangible link to the man he never knew, yet idolises. Do you feel closer to him in your heart when you see this?

RICHARD BUNGEY: I do, yes, when I see this. I feel a real bond between him and I. You know, it's very, very special, magic. Just to think, he hopped onto those wings, this thing dropped down. He hopped in that cockpit and flew her. Perhaps there's a Jerry off in the distance, and he's about to open up the guns and give them hell!

LIAM BARTLETT: He was certainly there. There'd only be one thing better.

RICHARD BUNGEY: To get in and fly one myself!

LIAM BARTLETT: Richard's disability, caused by the shooting, prevented him from realising his lifelong ambition to be a pilot- just like his dad. But Carolyn Grace was able to make possible the next best thing.

CAROLYN GRACE: If you imagine, though, your father would have been taking off with about 12 other Spitfires.

RICHARD BUNGEY: That's for sure! I'll tell you what, this is a dream come true!

LIAM BARTLETT: 70 years after the Battle of Britain, Richard is now flying over the same fields, the same coastline, in the same plane - a Spitfire.

CAROLYN GRACE: You feel he's here with us?

RICHARD BUNGEY: I feel he's with me.

CAROLYN GRACE: Absolutely. He'd be very happy.

RICHARD BUNGEY: I'm thrilled to bits with it!

LIAM BARTLETT: If Richard thought he was going to go through life never flying a plane, he was very wrong.

CAROLYN GRACE: OK, so you have control. Now, keep looking straight ahead for me, and you're flying this now 'cause my hands are up here. That's very good, just keep that going - that's lovely. You're flying a Spitfire, just the same as your father was.

RICHARD BUNGEY: That's lovely. Oh, it gives me a great thrill to do this!

CAROLYN GRACE: Ah, yes! Look at that, fantastic. Oh, you've certainly got a bit of your father's skill in you. You want me to take control again, or are you OK?

RICHARD BUNGEY: Thank you, yes.

CAROLYN GRACE: Would you like to do a victory roll? I think Richard is an incredibly well-adjusted person, and I think he's a very brave person, and I hope that flying in the Spitfire has brought him some form of closure and comfort in - and closeness to his father, which I think he, perhaps, did feel today.

LIAM BARTLETT: Just for those few minutes, Richard was able to share something with his father - fly in his shadow. It will never stop the questions, nor erase the pain of being orphaned so young, but it opened a window to his father's world.

LIAM BARTLETT: How did you go, mate?

RICHARD BUNGEY: Absolutely fantastic.

LIAM BARTLETT: What do you reckon?

RICHARD BUNGEY: I was with my dad.


RICHARD BUNGEY: Yeah. I was with my dad.

Search the site

7.30 pm Sunday