Although the COVID-19 pandemic put a dampener on ex-fighter pilot Alexander Arnel’s 100th birthday celebrations, the occasion did not go unnoticed

He not only received a card from the Queen, but Chief of Air Force Air Marshal Mel Hupfeld phoned his congratulations when the centenarian reached the milestone on April 2.

Mr Arnel would be the first to admit he was lucky to see any birthdays after he saw action in World War II.

As he went nose-to-nose with enemy fighters while on a fighter sweep over Italy in 1944, a surprise from below was about to tear up his beloved Spitfire.

"I was in a scrap with some [Messerschmitt] 109s and [Focke-Wulf] 190s near Bologna and in the midst of it, I was hit by some ground fire and had to bail out," Mr Arnel said.

He lost control of the engine that was billowing smoke and needed to get out quickly.

"The side door wouldn't budge, so I undid my straps and pushed the control column forward, locking it nose down for the aircraft to lift me," he said.

"I didn't waste any time pulling the ripcord of the parachute and when it opened, that was a wonderful feeling - I was still alive and no serious injury."

But that feeling of relief soon faded.

I didn't waste any time pulling the ripcord of the parachute and when it opened, that was a wonderful feeling.

"Just before reaching the ground, I saw German soldiers and landed near them," Mr Arnel said.

"There I was in a corn field, parachute billowing over me and a few warning shots fired my way, so I stood and did the obvious in putting my hands up. ‘For you the war is over,’ they said."

He lasted three out of four years on the frontline, then spent 10 months at Stalag Luft III in Sagan [now Zagan] made famous by the movie, The Great Escape.

"I think it’s fortunate I didn't get there until four months after the escape, because I might have been one of those shot," Mr Arnel said.

"Information we received was to stay put but we were still trying to find ways to escape. Security was very tight, though."

It was the end of one journey for the Victorian-born airman who celebrated his 100th birthday in Canberra.

He first worked as a student teacher at Dimboola, Sunshine, then Stawell, before applying for Air Force.

Training began near Frankston and completed in Rhodesia [now Zimbabwe] on Harvard aircraft before being sent to the Middle East.

Selected for tactical reconnaissance flying and receiving his operational training, Mr Arnel was commissioned as pilot officer before a short tour with No. 208 Squadron [RAF] at El Alamein doing reconnaissance and convoy patrols towards Tobruk.

"This training was on Hurricanes, but they only had a couple and I think I got four hours. When I arrived at 208 I was very green and was happy to get it back on the ground in one piece," he said.

He transferred to No. 451 Squadron when it was redesignated a fighter squadron and while waiting for Spitfires Mr Arnel continued reconnaissance missions along the Palestine coast, which was "boring flying".

"I loved the Hurricane but compared with the German 109s and 190s, it was not up to task as an interceptor fighter. But the Spitfire was marvellous, a real gentleman's aircraft," he said.

The squadron moved from Alexandria to Corsica early in 1944 to support the Italian Campaign and during fighter operations Mr Arnel was shot down and captured.

This training was on Hurricanes, but they only had a couple and I think I got four hours.

With Russians closing in on Stalag Luft III, POWs were marched out in mid-winter, making packs or sleds to carry belongings.

"They took us west towards the Rhine. We were prize prisoners – there were hints that Hitler was going to use us as a bargaining chip," Mr Arnel said.

"There were opportunities to escape but we were likely to get strafed and we thought the war was nearly over. We also didn’t have adequate clothing and were getting weaker.

"Escaping seemed pointless and while still alive, we had hope of going home."

The prisoners weren’t given any food so had to rely on what they saved from Red Cross parcels or scrounge for it.

"We suspected we might be moved so had pounded food into small balls to keep for an emergency, which we lived on for a long while," Mr Arnel said.

But the POWs had cigarettes, something the Germans lacked.  

"As we passed through villages, we were able to trade cigarettes for things like kartofel [potatoes]. Some airmen were ingenious and had made a 'water jacket' to boil water or cook with very little flame," he said.

"We lost quite a few. Some of the men went to sleep in the snow and didn’t wake up."

After being trucked north near Bremen and Hamburg and held for some time, they were marched to Lübeck where Red Cross parcels were stored.

"We were able to eat up big," Mr Arnel said.

Along the way they dodged strafing by aircraft.

"I dived into a depression on the side of the road and landed next to a frau [woman]. She took one look at me and got out," he said.

We lost quite a few. Some of the men went to sleep in the snow and didn’t wake up.

"Now we were being guarded by old guards, the others disappeared because they knew the British Army was coming.

"The first we knew of it was when a dispatch rider drove carefully into our area scouting for us."

They were flown by bombers to London in May 1945, arriving just after VE Day.

"Britain was in a great hangover. That was the end of the war," he said.

"An old chap wanted to carry my bag, which didn’t have much.  At that stage I think I was in better condition than he because we'd been eating well for a week or two from the Red Cross parcels, although our stomachs couldn't hold much."

Finishing the war as flight lieutenant, Mr Arnel studied psychology at university then taught for a year before receiving a call.

"During the Korean War I got a call from head of Education Branch and asked if I would like to come back," he said.

"I asked if I could fly again and they said, ‘oh, you're too long in the tooth now’. They wanted my skills as an education officer."

He served a further 22 years until retiring as group captain in 1974, before becoming a counselling psychologist at Canberra University for 10 years.

It's been fantastic. I’m trying to come to terms with it. Thought I’d be long-gone before this.

Afterwards, he spent time as an assistant pastor with his church then as lay chaplain at Canberra hospital.

His daughter was the only person allowed to celebrate with him in person on his birthday - albeit at a distance.

"I had a patrol of cars from my church visit. They couldn't be with me so they greeted me out front as they drove past," Mr Arnel said.

"It's been fantastic. I’m trying to come to terms with it. Thought I’d be long-gone before this."

Mr Arnel lives independently and is still active, walking 20 minutes daily and driving short distances.

He doesn’t think he did anything particular to earn his longevity but was philosophical about it.

"Somebody asked, 'How have you come to live so long?' and I replied with a couple of possibilities," Mr Arnel said.

"One was the good Lord looked down at me and said, 'this young fellow is a slow learner, have to leave him there for a bit longer'.

"The other is you’ve got to choose the right parents."