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Cruise ship of memories

WHEN Gwennyth Jeans’s fatherboarded the largest passenger liner ever built, boundforWorld War II, he hada lock of his wife’s goldenbrown hair in his wallet.

Laurence and Margaret Ferris hadjust married,two days after the Royal AustralianAir Forcecalled Laurenceup to serve withthe 450 Squadron,Williamtown’s first.

In April 1941 the men of the squadronsailed from Sydney onthe Queen Elizabeth, the pride ofCunard’s transatlanticfleet, to a battleunknown in the Middle East.

Laurence Ferris was 20. Thelock of Margaret’s hair would returnwith a man who wasthinner, different, after four years of fightingin north Africa and the Mediterranean.

His first destination was Egypt.

“The men whowere married were allowed to spend time with their wives in the weekbefore they sailed out,” Mrs Jeans, of Fletcher,said.

“They’d put my mother upin a hotel in Newcastle.”

On Monday, almost exactly 75yearssince the 450 Squadron was established, Mrs Jeanswillboard the modern Queen Elizabethduringits maiden visitto Newcastle.

She will be withsurviving squadronveterans, widows and familyof the 281 men who boarded the luxury cruise liner to become, mainly, ground crew in the desert war.

The men of the 450 Squadron set sail for the Middle Easthavingspentmonths collecting rocks at Nelson Bayandplanting trees to mark theboundaries of theroads onthe new airbase.

They arrived in the heat and dust ofCairo to findthe Allied campaign against the forces of Erwin Rommel couldn’t spare them any planes.

“In time the squadron settled down with their own pilots and aircraft, becoming one of the most famous Kittyhawk fighter-bomber squadrons of WWII, serving in Campaigns in Syria, the Western Desert, Tunisia, Malta-Sicily, Italy and their final major campaign, Operation Bowler –‘the bombing of Venice Harbour’,” 450 Squadron secretarySandi Nipperess said.

“Nicknamed the ‘Desert Harassers’ by the German propaganda broadcaster Lord Haw Haw, there was no stopping the men of 450 Squadron from showing the world what Australians could achieve.”

Mrs Jeans said her fatherunderwentsurgery in a Cairo hospital for woundsresulting from a blast, then recovered and rejoined the war.

On August 20 1945 at Lavariano, Italyafter more than fouryears of continuous, nonstop service the450 Squadron was disbanded, and the men who had survivedlearnedthey wouldbe going home. Sixty-seven of their comradeshad beenkilled, two of themmurdered by the gestapo after helping to orchestratethe Great Escapefrom Stalag Luft III.

Laurence Ferrisonly ever told his family the “funny” stories –the time the officers’ quarters were blown up in Egypt, the time he had to navigatean explosives truck down a cliffside road in Italy after the brakes failed.

He lost the lock of his wife’s hair butraised afamily at Speers Point,spent most of his working life atthe Hunter Water Board and died aged 67. Margaret lived to 94.

The 294-metreQueen Elizabeth is due to arrive in Newcastle harbour at 7am Monday.

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