A chance encounter in a German POW camp late in the Second World War would provide an extraordinary back story to the boardroom history of the Victoria Racing Club.
It would be the history of three brave young men who would later become leaders of Australia’s most famous racing club.
Those men were Ian Bayles, Rupert Steele and Peter Armytage.
Bayles’ daughter, the presiding VRC chairman Amanda Elliott, would reflect with a proud smile over half a century later about the bar chats the three men must have had many years after their return from war.
“I’m sure many missions were flown around the bar,’’ she said.
Perhaps the most remarkable story is one where Bayles, who has a race named in his honour at Flemington’s ANZAC Day meeting tomorrow, was not a central figure.
Armytage had been a gunner in RAAF Lancaster bombing raids launched into France and Germany from England.
Bayles had been enlisted 18 months into a law degree at Oxford and launched Spitfire raids across the Channel.
Steele had been despatched to the battlegrounds of France and Germany and had been captured by the Germans and was holed up in Stalag Luft 111 prisoner of war camp.
Armytage’s Lancaster had been shot down. He had parachuted to safety but had been captured by the Germans and hauled into the same prison camp as Steele.
Upon his arrival the bombastic Armytage demanded: “Is there any other bastard here from Melbourne?’’
Steele responded: “I am.’’
Many years later both men would return to Melbourne, rekindle lives almost lost, and become chairmen of the VRC.
Bayles, who would become a vice-chairman of the club and served 12 years on the committee, neither perished in the skies over England and Germany like so many of his RAF mates nor fell into German hands.
Elliott says her father winced when referred to as a hero but Ian Bayles, like Peter Armytage and Rupert Steele, was indeed a hero.
Bayles was awarded the RAAF’s highest honour, a Distinguished Flying Cross.
His dramatic war-time story, and that of his devoted young wife Rowena, reads like romantic war time fiction, a movie.
As a teenager, Bayles entered England’s famous Oxford University to study law as so many Bayles’ had done before him. Armytage had studied at Cambridge.
Bayles was barely out of his teens when war broke out. He had been learning to fly as part of Oxford’s air force reserve but after a crash-course of just months, Bayles was strapped into Spitfires and was launching sorties into Europe. “They basically learned on the job,’’ Elliott said.
Only a small percentage of the RAF’s Spitfire pilots lived to tell the tale.
Bayles had instructed his young wife Rowena to return to Scotland but she refused and rented a room in a farm house on the coast in Dorset, close to where the squadrons were launched, where she could watch the Spitfires leave and return, hoping her husband had survived another round of aerial dog fights.
“These dog fights were going over the skies above England, above Dorset, in a desperate bid to save London,’’ Elliott said. “It must have been utterly horrifying for her, alone in that old farm house. The battles were raging above her head.’’
Bayles beat the odds and returned and the couple married days before the beginning of the Battle of Britain in July 1940. He flew sorties for two years before being dispatched to the South Pacific, flying Spitfires, Hurricanes and Thunderbolts in India and Burma, until the war ended.
"They said goodbye to each other not believing they would see each other again,’’ Elliott said.
“Back then, when wives and family were told troops were coming back from the Far East, there were no phones or contact like that, you were told they would arrive in a certain week, and nothing else.
“So, mum met every train at Waterloo Station for a week, searching for dad. On about the fourth or fifth day, she felt a tap on her shoulder and it was him. It was the first time he met his first child, my brother Alastair. He was three.’’
The Bayles’ returned to Melbourne in 1947, with two children in tow. The brood would later grow to include Amanda. The family moved to a farm near Nagambie where Bayles would become a grazier and civic leader.
He developed a love for horse racing, on his wife’s insistence.
“He was very civic minded, so many were back then,’’ Elliott said.
Bayles served on the VRC committee for 12 years and was vice chairman from 1986-1988.
Elliott said she had no idea her father would be honoured with an ANZAC Day race, saying owner Lloyd Williams had encouraged the board to do so and it agreed unanimously.
“But dad would be so thrilled,’’ she said. “It’s fair to say he’s a fair old hero of mine, for many reasons.’’
As were Peter Armytage and (Sir) Rupert Steele, whose names appear on honour boards in the VRC boardroom and also on prisoner of war lists from previous lives.
“These were truly amazing men,’’ Elliott said.
Elliott said her father rarely spoke about his war experience. The Armytage and Steele families would probably say the same.
“But the three of them had this incredible story, this incredible bond. Their conversations must have been fascinating,’’ she said.
Listen to RSN’s preview and coverage of ANZAC Day Race Day from 10.00am at 927am or online at www.rsn.net.au.