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Happy Birthday: Former World War Two bomber pilot and Mosman resident Bill Purdy hits a century!

Published On: May 31, 2023

World War Two bomber pilot and Australian living legend – Mosman resident Bill Purdy – has reached 100. Image: Graham Monro.


If you caught the Anzac Day fly-past over Sydney Harbour in 2014, then you witnessed Flight Lieutenant Bill Purdy’s skill in the lead aircraft. Behind him, 40 Tiger Moth aircraft flew in formation. He’d just turned 91.

Now, aged 100, he discounts his time in the RAAF as anything to write home about. “I am only famous because I am alive!” He recently joined his team at Mosman Bowling Club for a tournament in Hobart. And he’s a 65-year member of Elanora Golf Club. Both activities take up four days a week.

Mr Purdy flew Lancaster bombers attached to No. 463 Squadron’s Bomber Command, and completed 37 ‘enemy engagement ops’ between April and August 1944. The squadron’s average per pilot had been five. He was 21.

Mosman’s Bill Purdy is an Australian war hero who flew 37 missions in World War Two.

Laconic, self-deprecating, erudite, humble and fiercely intelligent, Mr Purdy reels off memories of mid last century as if each one a fresh event.

Military service occupied three years of his life. But it was his career in food distribution, his business acumen and innate ability to grab opportunities before they knocked, that were standouts.

In a ‘leave no man behind’ plan, Mr Purdy fortified the food industry against a market strike by American giant Nabisco. He formed a co-op of domestic grocers, big and small, which traded among itself. The tight structure held and doused Nabisco’s idea of a foothold.

“We ended up with 74.3 percent – probably as high as any company in a competitive environment in Australia had ever achieved,” he said.

After the war, Mr Purdy became a successful businessman in the Australian food industry.

The business had taught him self-sufficiency and, after leaning on the bank, he and business partner, ex-Spitfire pilot Jim Summerton, were able to buy premises, warehousing, and cold storage facilities.

“We’d been going for seven years when Max Edgell visited,” he said. “They’d bought Birdseye but knew nothing about frozen food.” So, they bought Mr Purdy’s business, formed a new entity, and put Mr Purdy as head of frozen food.

Learning came swiftly to Billy Kent Purdy, first evident at Lindfield Public School from where he graduated, aged 10, having been bumped from 4th to 6th class, then at North Sydney Boys High School.

Seeing his father doing so well, Bill opted for a career in the grocery business, kicking off at one of his father’s Moran & Cato stores, which dotted the north shore. At the time, it was the largest grocery chain in Australia.

At the age of 100, Mr Purdy is still a keen golfer and plays Bowls weekly.

He enrolled at Wentworth College and, on Friday evenings, took the late shift at M&C Chatswood. “No pay, of course!”

Bill was at Lindfield when a woman came in with news that England had declared war on Germany, and its Allies had been summoned.

“I was cutting a half-a-pound of bacon for another customer…,” he recalled. At 16, “I was just too young to think of going.”

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To join the RAAF recruits had to be at least 21 unless they had written parental permission. Mr Purdy, now 18, decided to have a go at “permission” and fed a sheet of paper into a typewriter. He typed what he assumed would be their worries and responded to each with firm, succinct answers. This he handed to his father before settling into an uneasy silence.

“After a while, my father said, ‘Let me think about it’,” he said, with a half-wince, half-smile at a memory now viewed through a father’s lens. Mr Purdy and his wife, Margaret, who died in 2007, had two children: Richard, who stays over often, and Annette, who lives nearby, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

“I suspect my mother thought she would never see me again, and it was a great shock for her when I finally returned [unannounced] in 1945.”

Mr Purdy was still flying in his 90’s, even participating in the Anzac Day flyover.

His father’s surprise at seeing his son had to be put aside for urgent business. Mr Purdy’s friend’s daughter was having a 21st party, and Bill was invited. He declined.

Weeks later, the Purdy’s took him to a flashy restaurant, Princes in Martin Place, where Mr and Mrs Banyard were waiting – with their daughter. “[There was] this most beautiful young girl, Margaret.” They were married in 1947 and moved to Mosman, where Mr Purdy has lived ever since.

Mr Purdy flew Lancaster bombers attached to 463 Squadron’s Bomber Command in WWII.

Mr Purdy has flown many different aircraft – from the Stirling behemoth to the lightweight Cessna.

Tiger Moths were “uncomfortable things,” he said. “Sixteen of us were dragged back to do an instructor’s course in 1951. After this course I had a civilian instructor’s licence and commercial licence, which I still have.”

His pilot’s licence had lapsed, but he only needed a medical to make another flight a reality.

“I’d get the medical done if I intended to go anywhere,” Mr Purdy said. “But that would mean finding someone silly enough to loan me an aircraft…”


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Free Event: Kirribilli House and Admiralty House throw open their doors on Saturday 3 June.
Landmark Mosman deep waterfront to change hands for first time in half a century. See inside!

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Don’t miss our top stories delivered FREE each Friday.

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