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AWM Interview with Ken McRae. (1990)

3SQN Engineering Officer 1942-45.
Awarded MBE.


Foggia Italy. 1943.  An RAAF Engineering Officer, Flying Officer K. McRae (standing),
of Newcastle, NSW , looks at this American Lightning that has just landed on his airfield
after an operation over Germany.

Transcript of Australian War Memorial recording. 
This historically-important interview has been placed here so that its content is searchable for 3SQN Website readers.
[
WORKING VERSION - Currently being edited by 3SQN Assn for readability and spelling of technical terms.]

INFORMANT:     KENNETH MCRAE

SUBJECT OF INTERVIEW:   3 SQUADRON, RAAF

DATE OF INTERVIEW:    7 MAY 1990

INTERVIEWER:     EDWARD STOKES

TRANSCRIBER:     DIANA NELSON

 

Identification:  This is Edward Stokes with Ken McRae, No. 3 Squadron, tape 1, side 1. 

 

Ken, just to begin the story; I think you were born in 1910. 

 

Yes, July 1910. 

 

Could you tell us where you grew up and so on? 

 

I was born in Murrumburrah.  I grew up there until I was ten years of age and we were in Maitland for a short time then to Newcastle.  I went to school in Newcastle - to Newcastle Cooks Hill, then Newcastle Central, then Newcastle Technical College. 

 

And I think it was at Newcastle that you became an apprentice fitter with the railways. 

 

Yes, I joined the railway when I was sixteen and I was apprenticed for five years as a fitter; we did turning too, of course, and drawing and office work but the main thing was a fitter. 

 

And then there was a period during the depression when you were unemployed but I think you later had work with a major firm in Newcastle. 

 

Yes, I joined Lysaghts at Port Waratah as a fitter and I was there until I joined the air force in March 1936. 

 

Just one other question about those early years.  The general tradition of the ANZACs in the first war and so on; Australia's renowned for its fighting forces if you like.  Was that part of your boyhood and early adult memories, or not? 

 

Yes.  I joined the Royal Naval Reserve during the years when I was sixteen; it was compulsory those days.  And when I was about eighteen Labor cut it out.  So I was still keen on the service and I joined the Garrison Artillery and the Citizens' Air Force at Fort Scratchley in Newcastle. And I was still a member of the Garrison Artillery until I joined the Air Force in 1936. 

 

You were saying you were keen on the services.  Was that for reasons of, in a broad sense, patriotism or for the kind of lifestyle and employment they offered? 

 

I think there was a bit of romance about the air force.  It was the junior service at the time, not very much known about it, and it wasn't a very big service.  I think when I joined my number was just over 2 000 and that's not many to cover the whole of Australia. 

 

Sure.  When you said there was romance, were you suggesting you felt romance or that there was misguided romance? 

 

Oh no, I felt romantic about joining it.  It had something a little bit different.  It was very hard to get into and it was new - more adventursome I think. 

 

Yes, I guess there were great changes taking place in aircraft too. 

 

Yes. 

 

Was that part of it?  An interest in that technological ... 

 

Well, I didn't know anything about aircraft at the time.  I was keen on aircraft with models and whatnot but, um,  it was just that to be working on aircraft and to be in the service - I was always keen on one of the services - so this was right up my alley. 

 

Right.  Well, let's move on.  I think it was at Laverton that you did your rookies' training and also your initial work on ... 

 

Engine training. 

 

Right.  That's a more important thing I think.  What were the main aspects of that training? 

 

Well, the training ....  I knew nothing whatsoever about internal combustion engines.  I'd never worked on a motor-car and this was totally new to me and was so interesting that I and a lot like me really enjoyed our course and became fitters. 

 

That's most interesting.  If you had to rate the general quality of the training and of course you were an instructor yourself later and probably a good judge, would rate that initial training of yours as good, adequate, very good, poor?  How do you remember it? 

 

(5.00) Our training was very good, but we had the added advantage that we were all tradesmen.  Later during the war they didn't have that advantage.  They had some mechanical knowledge, the engine people - a lot were tradesmen - but there were a lot that weren't,  and they came in as flight mechanics and later remustered to fitters. 

 

Just one other initial thing:  the indoctrination if you like into the air force, the discipline and so on that goes with it.  How did all that suit you? 

 

I didn't mind it at all because I was that little bit used to discipline but it was excellent - they took good care of us after our rookies.  But it was not so regimented as I thought it would be mainly because I couldn't get a uniform to fit me and they were in the process of changing the design so actually I was in the air force two years before I was fitted out with a uniform, so I missed a lot of the ceremonial stuff. 

 

That's an amusing story.  Two years, gosh!  I mean, you're not so, you're a fairly average sized man I would have thought. 

 

Yeah, well, I was special measurements, they had me down as special measurements.  And they were going from the old gaiters and, er, like riding britches to longs. 

 

Oh well, that's obviously the secret for an easy [inaudible] action.  Well, let's go on a bit.  I know you were posted, I think, to 1 Squadron at Laverton, attached to 1AD later, later posted to 2AD December '36 where you were amongst other things overhauling Kestrels.  What's your general recollection of that period? 

 

At Laverton? Or ...? 

 

              No, well ... 

 

Kestrel, Richmond? 

 

              Mm. 

 

Well, Richmond - very good.  This was the first time I'd actually got onto a complete overhaul on an in-line engine.  At Laverton I was working on radial engines, but Richmond was more in what I wanted. 

 

Right.  You told me an interesting anecdote here.  I think it was shortly after Chamberlain had been to Munich, about working at a much higher pace than normal. 

 

Yes, when that Munich episode cropped up we were put on twelve hours a day work, seven days a week, with four days off at the end of the month.  Married men were living out.  They worked eleven hours because they didn't have a meal break at night - they finished an hour earlier.  And that continued on until war was declared and we went back then eight till five. 

 

It's a back-to-front sort of thing.  Anyway, going back to this period when you were working full-time.  I think you were suggesting that you saw that as the air force being somewhat sceptical of Chamberlain's hopes and really gearing up for serious war. 

 

Yes, I think the writing was on the wall and they were trying to get as much overhauled as they could in preparedness for a war. 

 

Did men talk about the likelihood of war much, or not? 

 

No, not at that time because any likelihood of war - going overseas - never entered our mind.  We thought well, we'll be flat out defending Australia.  And overseas wasn't in our mind at all. 

 

Right.  Just incidentally for the record, I think you said you were married in '37.  Before you went overseas did you have any children? 

 

No, my wife was pregnant and I didn't see my boy until he was three and a half. 

 

Yes, that must have been hard.  Just related to that, do you think the views of men who were married - to the war and to going overseas and just generally the risks and dangers of war and so on, but also the, perhaps, need for war - were your views different in kind to the views of single men, or not? 

 

No, I think we all had much the same idea.  When we knew we had to go, well, we said, 'Let's get it over with'.  And the idea was get stuck into those planes and get the pilots in them - finish the war quickly. 

 

Right.  Well, going on to one other appointment before, or two actually I think, before going overseas.  You went to the engineering school at Ascot Vale, Melbourne, where you were instructing in Kestrel engines and general maintenance.  This is obviously working mostly with wartime men now coming in.  How do you view the training they got from you and your other instructors? 

 

They got a much better training than we did initially, possibly because all of them weren't tradesmen and they had to cover all aspects of the aircraft industry.  But those who weren't tradesmen and had a slight knowledge of engines, they started off as flight mechanics and later after they'd had experience in the field they were trade tested and they could remuster to an engine fitter. 

 

(10.00) Right.  And the speed of training, did you have much pressure at all from higher authorities to really, to at all speed up what you'd regard as an adequate speed of training, or not?  In other words push men through the system quickly. 

 

No, no, the whole training system was mapped out from the time they entered the engineering school.  The courses were so long; three weeks for flight mechanics; a month for 2Es - that was on some of the engines - but they were there for some months going through different engines.  Not only did they work on Kestrels they worked on Jupiters and Tiger Moths.  They also learnt to swing a 'prop' which was essential for all trainees to do. 

 

Right.  Well, perhaps moving on a little bit, Ken.  After that period I know you were posted to Parkes, to Wireless Air Gunner School.  We might perhaps skate over that period.  But could I ask some general questions related to it.  I think you were saying that civilian pilots - and you came across some there - had a rather different attitude to flying to the air force men. 

 

Yes, they ....  Well, they weren't flying combat planes, they were flying, in our particular case, they were flying DC2s and it was no different to flying in the civilian life to flying in the air force.  But they still stuck to the rules of civilian flying:  if an engine temperature was a bit high for take-off they'd shut the engine down until the temperature dropped down before they took off. 

 

Could I just ask another question related to this, Ken.  Looking back on it do you think permanent air force officers were any different in their general attitudes to wartime officers? 

 

Permanent air force officers, especially the junior ones, at the early part of the war, they were very rank conscious and it was good to see the change when war came and in combat duties the attitude pilots had towards their ground staff.  They seemed to realise that their lives depended on these boys and they were much friendlier and it was not uncommon to find an evening with the pilot with his crew having a drink in one of the tents. 

 

That's interesting, and I think you were suggesting that as the war went on the attitude of the wartime men affected the permanent men and they loosened up a bit. 

 

Yes, definitely. 

 

Right.  Well, it was from Parkes, I know, that you went overseas, though not directly.  How keen were you to get overseas yourself? 

 

I wasn't extra keen to go overseas.  I thought, well, if I'm posted I'll enjoy it, I'll go and do my bit, but I didn't know whether there would be any opportunity to go overseas.  However, they must have had my career mapped out in that when I embarked, I embarked as a warrant officer but my commission came through the same day and I didn't hear about it until we landed in Tewfik. 

 

That's an interesting recollection, I think.  When you were going overseas, or men generally, was there any chance for men to apply to join particular units, or was it entirely imposed from above where you went and what happened to you? 

 

It was all done from above.  You had no choice. 

 

              And were strings ever pulled do you know? 

 

I don't think so.   

 

Right.  Well, let's go onto the journey, actually setting off.  I know from Parkes there were a few intermediate stages where you were posted I think in a kind of waiting capacity, but it was at Adelaide I think you embarked on the Dilwara. 

 

Mm. 

 

This is March '42.  What's your recollection of that departure from Australia? 

 

Well, it was a very sudden departure actually.  We were already on board on the Eastern Prince[?] waiting to go overseas but it only had one engine in it, the other was out being repaired.  And suddenly overnight we were transferred from the Eastern Prince to the Dilwara eleven o'clock at night, and I got there and we pulled out eight o'clock next morning. 

 

How did you feel, how did the men you were with feel at that final moment of leaving Australia? 

 

I think they were all a bit relieved and sad but glad to be going at last because we'd been messed about a bit from various embarkation depots and then we were sent around to various units over a period of a month or two and at last after being Adelaide we were on our way. 

 

(15.00) Well, the Dilwara is a ship that's often talked about on these tapes.  What was your recollection of her and the voyage? 

 

Well, the Dilwara had plenty of room on it and there were only 190 of us there, maybe 200, and we had the run of the ship but I found it very good.  The boys had plenty of leisure time apart from doing duty such as spotters, and I had charge of the gun crew - we had gun drill - but it was a very good life.  And I'm quite sure most of them enjoyed it.  The food wasn't too bad. 

 

Did you actually do any serious training besides, you know, just PT and that kind of thing?  Or was it just recreation and the occasional watch on spotting or whatever? 

 

No, no training at all on board, it was just occasional spotting and gunnery drill, the rest was ....  Well, they had quite a lot of sporting activity:  playing deck quoits and deck tennis, et cetera. 

 

And I think you were saying that the men that you were, I think in charge of, were the third replacement, I think. 

 

Yes, we were the third replacements to go across and we were supposed to go for twelve months.  We were told we were going for twelve months. 

 

              And this was all to No. 3 Squadron? 

 

Yes, all to the 3 Squadron. 

 

So there must have been quite a strong feeling on the ship of being a unit rather than men heading to different units.  Were people on the ship very conscious of what No. 3 Squadron had already done, or not? 

 

Yes, a lot had heard about 3 Squadron and some of them had worked with boys that had come back from 3 Squadron, so they thought they had the pick of the squadrons they were going - they were quite happy. 

 

Right.  Well, you went I know to Colombo and then to Bombay where you trans-shipped.  Are there any strong recollections of that period in Ceylon, India and then on to the Red Sea? 

 

Ceylon wasn't - not many recollections there.  Some of the boys went ashore and they shouldn't have but that was only one night.  But we went to Bombay and we'd heard so much about this Calabra[?] army base.  It was the filthiest place I've ever seen - bed bugs and the like.  We were glad to get away from it. 

 

            And aboard another ship. 

 

And aboard the ... yeah, the Varella[?] I think it was called, the Varella? 

 

You went, like many others, to Port Tewfik.  The journey up the Red Sea people often talk about, and then you arrived in the Middle East itself:  very, very different to Australia.  What were your first impressions of the land, the people? 

 

Well, we were looking forward to getting to Tewfik.  We had been watching the southern cross getting lower and lower at night and finally half-way up the Red Sea it disappeared, and that was a little bit of a blow, but we thought well, it's going to be pretty hot where we're going and it's going to be exciting in a way.  We'll be seeing new places.  And I don't think anybody had been to Egypt before so it was something to look forward to. 

 

The pattern of daily life, the little 'bum boats, and the donkey carts and all the other things that are part of life there.  What's your initial recollection of it? 

 

Tewfik? 

 

The Middle East generally. 

 

Middle East.  Well, we didn't have long at Tewfik and we were put onto a train straight away and we ended up in Cairo.  Sitting around the station all day in Cairo, we boarded a train again and we chuffed off right up to Sidi Haneish so at the time we saw very little except what you can see from the train window of the Nile and the 'wogs' et cetera working on the sides. 

 

Just incidentally, perhaps, we could bring it in at this point.  During all your time in the Middle East did you get much extended time for leave and for general sightseeing, or was that more just a matter of grabbing the odd day here and there? 

 

It was a matter of grabbing the odd day here and there.  If we holed up for any time and the army were making a stand and maybe the air force had a day off the boys would go and visit the odd ruins - lots of Roman ruins in Africa - Sabratah and Derna, and Homs and Leptis Magna; there was plenty to see.  But there was no actual leave granted from the time we hit Egypt.  Even when the war finished in Africa we all unofficially had nine or ten days to wander round, but not official leave. 

 

(20.00) It's a very significant period, I mean, to go on without leave - we'll come back to that later.  Well, you went on, as you said, to Sidi Haneish which was the base and then onto to Gambut where the squadron in fact was positioned.  Bobby Gibbes was the CO.  What are your first impressions of joining the actual squadron? 

 

I was very excited because I'd just been commissioned and I was going to take over from Buck Abikhair who was going back to Australia.  And everything was new to me.  The desert itself was exciting.  We hadn't worked on Kittyhawks or Tomahawks.  The whole aspect, when I think of it now, it was a totally new life. 

 

That's interesting, the environment, the work and so on.  The morale of the squadron when you joined was that high or low?  How do you remember that? 

 

The morale of the squadron coming home? 

 

No, when you reached - at Gambut. 

 

Gambut.  Well all our lads were very happy to be there and I'm quite sure the people who had the boat tickets in the hand were all very glad to be going home.  In fact Gerry did us over for a couple of nights running there and instead of staying a couple of weeks to get our boys settled in and teach them a few things they all went off to the boat. 

 

Right.  When you said the Germans did you over, this was shortly after you arrived.  Are you talking about bombing, strafing attacks? 

 

Yes, bombings at night, yes.  Usually around about nine o'clock at night you could almost bet that you were going to spend most of the night in the slit trench. 

 

Well, a slit trench is obviously not the safest of places, least of all during an attack.  What's your recollection of the first time you came face to face with an actual bombing attack? 

 

Um, there were three of us in the tent - Buck Abikhair and a clerk and myself - and I was settling down for the night about nine o'clock and over they came and before I could say 'boo', the other two had gone because they had the boat tickets in the hand and I rushed out and I got into the trench and only half of me would fit in - the rest was sticking up over the top.  And I wasn't very happy, not that first night but next day I made the trench a bit deeper. 

 

              Was it impossible to lie down in it? 

 

You could lie down in it but there were two under me. 

 

I see, right, it was [laughter] - so they were fairly well protected. 

 

First in got it, yes. 

 

So that was no doubt deepened.  Bombing raids that came along later, how intense were they?  How long did they last? 

 

They seemed to be seeking most times.  You had to be very careful - no lights on and car, er, truck windows had to be covered with sand and oil or covered so that no lights were shown.  But they'd be looking for something and eventually when they did find something they really opened up, and especially if they started a fire, well, it was really on then for young and old. 

 

In that the fire gave light and could help them pinpoint targets? 

 

Yes. 

 

Did they generally drop flares initially, or not? 

 

Yes, they dropped flares, but always seeking.  The point is on the retreat and on the advance we kept well away from the main road.  The main road right through was a tarred road and it must have stood out quite clearly from the air.  And they would go up and down this road dropping bombs at random and seeking.  But if you were a few miles off the road and well dispersed you were fairly safe. 

 

I guess that was one of the great advantages of a desert landscape in that there weren't features that they could use to pinpoint positions where people were. 

 

No, they couldn't.  They were really looking for a light or a reflection off a truck window. 

 

Right.  Let's go back to your joining the squadron.  You were actually appointed as the chief engineering officer after the take-over period.  The planes under your command and the equipment - both working equipment and spare parts and so on - what condition do you recall them being in? 

 

(25.00) They were in pretty good nick.  Spares were a bit hard to come by.  Aircraft were always in short supply.  There was always a battle for the wing to get a new aircraft and you had to take your turn when you had losses.  But I found that the lads could do a lot to keep our serviceability up with planes by doing our own main-plane changes.  We were already doing engine changes but main-plane change was a bit bigger task but it meant you had another aircraft sooner than you would if you waited for one to come from wayback, wherever they were supplying them from. 

 

People often talk about main-plane changes.  Could you describe exactly what that involved? 

 

Well, it involved taking the fuselage off the main-plane then getting another main-plane and putting fuselage back onto it. 

 

Right.  Let's go on to what you see as the general duties, though of course they would have changed from time to time, of the engineering officer of a squadron?  What were the key things you were responsible for? 

 

Um, mainly for the morale of the ground staff.  Um, for the serviceability of all the aircraft.  Close liaison with the pilots, finding out all they could tell us about any faults they had in the aircraft when it was flying.  I think that's probably the main thing was generally being available to the ground staff and to the flying people. 

 

Right.  Re the morale of your men which was obviously critical, you were saying I think that when you arrived there was significant underemployment in that work was being sent back to base and I think there was a repair and salvage unit - 53RSU.  After you arrived I think the general policy towards work changed a bit. 

 

Yes, the engineering officer in 450 Squadron and myself we thought it was a waste of time patching up planes to send them back to base for repair when the time spent could be spent on making the aircraft serviceable on the spot.  And we agitated and finally we were successful in having our base party brought forward up to join the forward party.  And so we formed what we called a workshop party on the spot.  There'd always been a workshop party but it had been back at base. 

 

So having done that did that mean that the entire squadron was together or did you still have some technical people further back? 

 

No, the entire squadron was now together and the only time we were apart was when a push would start and we would start the leap-frogging and one flight would go ahead and prepare the airfield and be there to meet the aircraft when they left the previous base. 

 

You were speaking before, Ken, about liaising with pilots.  When you said that did you mean in terms of specifics of their aircrafts' malfunction or otherwise, or general talks with them about how the planes were handling and so on? 

 

Mostly general talks with them, finding out how things were handling, but quite often you'd get something, glean something from them that didn't show up on the ground.  For instance, they'd be cutting out at altitude and on the ground it couldn't be faulted.  And we finally nailed this down to spark plugs and we found that by increasing the gap in spark plugs four or five thou we could obviate a lot of that trouble. 

 

Did you work much - could you in terms of time and whether it was just possible to make these changes to aircraft - to modify the aircrafts' performance to make them better fighters, or not? 

 

Oh, we had quite a few modifications going.  Initially there were no air cleaners fitted to the aircraft and if we got forty hours out of an engine it was good going.  Later on when we got the P40Ls with the Packard engine in it we were getting git seal [sic]1 leaks and a git seal leak was quite dramatic to a pilot in that any sand flying around the atmosphere would adhere to his windscreen because the oil was coming over the windscreen and it was making it difficult to land.  And some of the Yanks had fitted a little Venturi system to their aircraft and we copied and we put it on and we had no more trouble. 

 

              That's interesting. 

 

END TAPE 1, SIDE A 

 

BEGIN TAPE 1, SIDE B 

 

Identification:  This is Ed Stokes with Ken McRae, No. 3 Squadron, tape 1, side 2. 

 

Ken, somebody was telling me the other day that at some point a number of planes in the squadron had their camouflage paint stripped off to get to a smoother metal finish and this increased the speed a lot.  Do you recall that, or not? 

 

I don't recall taking any paint of any aircraft in my day but we did polish some when we were in Italy during the time they had the new - Gerry had his new jets flying high altitude things - we had a couple of initial Mustangs in that they had the fold-over hood and they had the high altitude engines.  And we stripped them down and took the guns out and put a camera in and polished them up and they would go up and scare the Germans away - shufti kites. 

 

Right.  Just going back to the business of liaising with pilots, by and large how knowledgeable were most pilots about specific engine function and so on.  Did pilots understand engines? 

 

No, I don't think, not generally.  They knew if they pushed the throttle open they could get the revs there but I think our boys were more knowledgeable than the Yanks were.  They knew that they couldn't go through the gate - that means go through the gate and put extra boost than what was normally used in the engine - unless it was an emergency.  And I can recall only twice people going through the gate when they were jumped by Gerrys and they had to get away.  But the Yanks ... 

 

Was this something that would cause damage to the engine? 

 

Yes, it over-revved and it had to be stripped down.  But the Yanks, they were having a terrific amount of trouble.  We had one Yankee squadron attached to us in the wing for training and - 66 Pursuit Squadron.  And their engineering officer came over and he said, 'We're changing engines at thirty and forty hours'.  I said, 'Well, we're changing them at forty'.  He said, 'Yes, but ours are brand new all the time - a lot of yours are reconditioned'.  So I went over, he asked me over, and we had a talk to the pilots.  And they were taking off full boost.  They were going through the gate for take-off and then when they got air borne they'd pull it back but if they got into a dogfight they would be going through the gate again so their supply of new engines was used up fast. 

 

That seems, from the way you describe it, a fairly elementary flying point.  Did you ever come to understand why they did it?  Was it just poor training, or what? 

 

No, I don't think they'd struck boosted engines before and it was quite new to them but no-one had explained to them about going through the gate.  We put a piece of small copper wire across ours to differentiate between where the gate was and where the pilot - was his limit.  But they didn't, they had nothing like that. 

 

Right.  Another aspect that I think it's important to touch on is the issue of pilots who occasionally came back with complaints about missing engines and other excuses for not continuing an operation, or other reasons, excuses is the wrong word.  How often in your recollection were their reasons not genuine? 

 

(5.00) Not very often.  Usually if a pilot had the engine cutting out in the air he would come back and he would be a bit hostile but only on one occasion can I recall where one bloke did come back three or four times until eventually I got the flight commander to fly it and then the CO to fly it to prove that the aircraft was quite serviceable.  And this particular boy when he had to fly they were in a dogfight and part of his rudder was cut off - half of it was cut off by a propeller of another aircraft - and he made it back to base.  And I think he thought that well, if I can make it back to base with half my rudder I'm okay and from then on we had no more trouble with him. 

 

So he'd conquered his fear.  You were saying, I think, also that you felt, in general terms, I don't know if you meant the attitude of the men or the decisions of the squadron command, that there was a certain hardness towards people who were genuinely unable to cope. 

 

Yes, I think in a few cases I recall chaps were half through, half-way through their tour of duty and suddenly they'd be grounded for lack of moral fibre.  Well, not knowing the circumstances but I thought it was a bit hard on a chap who'd done half his tour and there's no doubt each of these flights was a scary episode in his life - still, we weren't flying. 

 

Well, perhaps if I could just ask you something about fear and how it affected ground staff.  As you were saying often the squadron was subject to bombing and strafing and so on.  As time wore on, as you'd been there longer and longer, did the general tension and fear that for most men must, one understands was there, did that tension and fear moderate?  Did it continue much the same?  Or did it perhaps increase? 

 

No, I think it stayed about the same.  Some ....  I think most people were scared when bombs were flying around your area.  I don't think you'd ever get used to that but I think after the, half-way through the desert they all thought, well, we've been bombed that many ruddy times and we are now surviving, it can't be too bad.  But they all had their slit trenches and that's the first thing they had at each new point of, each base we went to, the first thing - tent up, slit trench. 

 

Ken, of course you were quite a lot older than many of your men, I think you were in your early thirties, did some of your very young ground staff defer to you as something of a father figure besides being their senior officer? 

 

Yes, I think partly I had the advantage of going overseas with them on board the boat as a warrant officer, not being a commissioned ranker, they got to know me very well then, and that's one of the advantages I had right through I think.  I was always considered one of them.  I wasn't considered as being, 'he's the boss', and it paid dividends lots and lots of times.  And I acted as a kind of a father confessor to a lot of the boys and helped them with lots of their problems. 

 

That's very interesting, the point about your originally having been a warrant officer and therefore much greater access.  When you said that rapport that you'd established in the early days on the ship, that that helped out on many occasions, what sort of things were you thinking of? 

 

Generally, the whole thing:  their attitude to work, their leisure hours.  I didn't drink, I was a non-drinker and I think that had a little bit of influence on some of the boys who might have wanted to drink at times. 

 

In that they could see one could be a non-drinker and still have a good time, do you think? 

 

Yes, quite true. 

 

Let's go on to the actual work, Ken.  A lot of your engineering work was obviously done in very difficult conditions.  What's your recollection of the general conditions you worked under?  For example, during advances and retreats. 

 

(10.00) Oh, the conditions were ruddy atrocious really:  sand all the time, seldom had any rain, sometimes hot, sometimes cold, but the boys were used to that and they made do.  We had all kind of makeshift things to make work easier but after the first few months everything just fell into place and if we needed any extra special equipment we could always call in the RSU.  They were a kind of a back-stop for us. 

 

Right.  Besides dust what were the, what was the single other greatest problem in terms of working conditions?  Was it heat, or the lack of built facilities? 

 

No, I think dust was the big, the main thing.  Heat didn't seem to affect us, or cold, but dust was a menace. 

 

You were saying before that - giving some details on engine hours - I wonder if you could just clarify those hours, and also elaborate this point about as you approach greener country the longevity of engines directly increasing? 

 

Yes.  Well, if you were lucky and your aircraft wasn't shot down initially when we first started the push you could get forty or fifty hours out of an engine - maybe sixty - but anything above that was unheard of, you have to do an engine change.  But as we moved towards the greener country and we got air cleaners fitted to the aircraft we were getting up around the 120, 125 hours out of an engine. 

 

What happened when a pilot was involved in an actual dust storm?  I'd assume if there was a dust storm blowing they wouldn't take off but they might be caught in one in the air - or anyway very, very dusty conditions.  Would that drastically cut short an engine's life? 

 

Oh, dust was a menace the whole time and initially when we didn't have air cleaners on it meant we were doing tappet checks at ten hours, but later we gave way in the greener country we didn't need to do a tappet check until twenty-odd hours. 

 

Right.  In the general servicing of aircraft which obviously was going on in between operations and then more major work at intervals.  Were you directly involved in the work on each aircraft as the engineering officer, or were you more coordinating the general allocation of men and resources? 

 

I was coordinating the general resources but lots of time we had trouble with an engine, um, they couldn't find anything wrong with it, I'd spend quite a bit of time often trying to improve the revs on it.  We'd experiment with different type plugs but no, I took a fairly good interest in all the maintenance, especially with the workshop party where we changed main-planes and engines and propellers was everyday work for us. 

 

Would you sometimes have been in overalls and whatever and spanner in hand, or not? 

 

No, we didn't have overalls those days but I'd be just in a pair of shorts working the same as anybody else. 

 

              Right.  Still spanner in hand. 

 

Yes. 

 

Bar the overalls.  Let me just ask you one thing.  I thought it could be interesting for this tape and we might just finish on that for now.  An engine comes in but it's worked out that the engine has to be taken out and changed, could you give us a step-by-step account of that operation on a desert airstrip in the middle of nowhere? 

 

Well, you first of all you'd tee up the crane from RSU and you'd have your new engine available, or the replacement engine.  And off would come the airscrew and then the lads - you only need three or four lads - they'd disconnect the engine, the old one would be lifted out and put on forty-four gallon drums, the new one would be lifted in, the airscrew would go on and then after running up - get a pilot to come and test fly it. 

 

              That makes it sound very simple. 

 

Yes, it was an everyday occurrence, engine change.  No trouble to do an engine change in a day.  Sometimes at night it would have to be done but mostly daytime. 

 

              And how long would it take? 

 

Oh, about eight hours work. 

 

Connecting up all the different fittings and pipes and so on? 

 

Yes. 

 

Would that be the hardest thing to do, or were there harder tasks? 

 

Oh, the harder operation was a main-plane change but mainly because of more things to connect up - it would go into a couple of days. 

 

Just one other thing finally perhaps on this just to get a sense of the level of training of the people you were working with.  During, for example, an engine change would a typical, well, man in charge of that operation, would he be referring in any way to manuals, or was it all in his head? 

 

No, all straight out, no - we didn't have any manuals.  Well, we did have manuals but I think after the first one had been done it was just a matter of repeating the same process. 

 

(15.00) Right.  Well, that's very interesting.  Right, this is continuing after lunch Ken, it was fairly shortly after you reached the squadron that No. 3 began the retreat from Gambut.  You were also, I think, the transport officer.  You were telling us the story of how you came into very close contact with the British tanks on an excursion looking for springs. 

 

Yes.  The transport sergeant said they were short of springs and there should be plenty up near the front so we took off and we went up and we found a few vehicles turned over which we got some springs from.  And then we decided to go over the next hill and there were some vehicles on fire, and looking across to the right there were about fifty tanks with flags flying and bods sitting in the turrets with their glasses on us.  We thought, boy, we must be up the front.  So we just waved to them and we took off and went back and came back home but next day is when the retreat started.  We were at Knightsbridge - I had my photo taken there at Knightsbridge with these trucks - and next day Gerry broke through at Knightsbridge defeating our tanks and that was the start of the retreat. 

 

Right.  And you were saying that there was virtually no prior warning that the retreat was, in fact I think you left one plane on jacks or something? 

 

Yes, we were repairing an undercarriage on one Kitty and it was up on jacks.  And then the CO came and said, 'Well, look, things aren't too good'.  So we shot the first flight off.  They packed up and took off and late in the afternoon - we were still servicing aircraft, he came back and he said, 'Well, it's time to go.  The, er, things aren't going too well up the front - look like the tanks are broken through'.  So we refuelled the aircraft and they took off.  We were already packed up - our trucks - and we started off as soon as the last aircraft had gone.  We got up the escarpment and the engineers or the signallers were waiting to close the wire on the minefield as we went through and in the distance we saw the dust and they said, 'Oh, that's the Gerry coming full belt', so we took off. 

 

Well, was there a great feeling of despondency and so on on this retreat, or not? 

 

No, not a bit.  I think everyone was too busy.  They thought, well, they'd retreated two or three times before, this is only another repeat of it, no doubt we'll come forward again.  And I think it was a bit of an adventure for everybody really. 

 

That's an interesting point:  the assumption that you'd be back again.  Ken, tell us the routine that was obviously very important to your successful retreat - the leap-frogging which was organised so that planes arriving could always be serviced during a retreat? 

 

Yes.  Unless the squadron was operating for any length of time we weren't always together.  In other words we had two flights - two mobile flights.  One would take off to the new landing ground soon as word came through that a retreat was - or ....  The same thing applies for advancing, if there's a move afoot.  And they would go to the new landing strip.  We would operate with the second party until such times as the aircraft were due to fly off.  Immediately they flew off the last party would then - already packed up - would move off to the new landing ground. 

 

I'd assume during the retreat, transport and other things must have been in very much a state of flux.  Was it ever possible to get spare parts sent up to you?  Or did you always have enough to carry you through? 

 

We usually had enough to carry us through.  In fact 3 Squadron was called the 'clifty' squadron - that means stealing - we had double the number of trucks we should have had.  So there was always plenty of mobility in the unit. 

 

Was there a lot of exchange of parts and that sort of thing between squadrons?  If you had something you help out? 

 

Yes, we could cannibalise.  If a squadron had an aircraft that wasn't flyable and we needed something urgently or if they had some spares we needed we would exchange parts - no trouble. 

 

(20.00) I just wanted to ask a question too, to clarify something about the retreat - this is an account from somebody else that I find rather hard to believe - that at some point the squadron lost somewhere in the region of twenty planes that were bogged during the retreat and could not be flown off and had to be abandoned? 

 

No, not in my day, no. 

 

Right.  Well, moving on.  After the retreat of course the squadron consolidated, I think, at Amiriya.  How necessary was that?  I mean, how worn out were the men and the equipment and planes by the retreat? 

 

Oh, well, when we did get to Amiriya we operated fairly busily for a few weeks until the army got consolidated and then it eased up a little bit.  But as the army built up their strength it looked like we were going to be pretty busy and we were given ten days holiday - seven days holiday I think - and I think the whole squadron, in fact the whole wing, seemed to find their way up to Jerusalem.  And we got back - in fact Gerry did us over the night before we left and a couple of the neighbouring squadrons had aircraft burning, but we were lucky, we were okay. 

 

I think it was also during the period after the retreat that the final Tomahawks were replaced with new Kittyhawks, I think, P40Es.  Tell us about that plane? 

 

P40E was a very good aircraft, Allison engine.  It was a short tail.  At the time we didn't know any such thing as long tail but it was short tailed.  It was a very mobile but heavy aircraft and it could take a pounding.  If they were hit with ack-acks, say 40 mm, when you have a hole probably four or five inches diameter in the main-plane and probably a foot either side of the rivets popped - and that was the extent of the damage.  Seldom did we have to do a main-plane change unless it was hit somewhere where it couldn't be repaired, say, at the spar or something. 

 

Right.  So they were far more robust than earlier planes? 

 

A very robust plane. 

 

What about the engine, the quality of the engine and perhaps also the ease or otherwise of working on it? 

 

Well, Allison engines were a very good engine.  You never had glycol leaks.  Merlin engines we did get glycol leaks - later we had some Merlin engines.  But the Packard Merlin came out to replace the Allison; we had that in the P40Ls - the long-tailed Kitty - and it was a very good engine to service and it didn't get any glycol leaks, but ... [Noise.] 

 

Well, I'd imagine that lawnmower is not as noisy as an aeroplane? 

 

No, the long tailed one whilst being  a joy to the pilots to fly it was more of a headache to us should it be hit with ack-ack because they had taken some of the weight out of the main-planes and a 40 mm hole usually meant a main-plane change because the rivets would pop from one end to the other. 

 

When you went through these periods of taking new aircraft onto the squadron, was it very difficult for the ground staff to learn new maintenance procedures and so on, or were they very much just a modification of other practices?

 

Just a modification.  They just ....  One day and they'd know all the ins and outs and be back to routine work. 

 

Would a good engine man need to have manuals and so on to get to grips with a new plane, or would he work it out just tinkering with the plane itself? 

 

Well, just tinkering with the plane itself.  Identically, they had worked on Kestrels and Merlins back in Australia and invariably it was much the same engine. 

 

Right.  One other issue I want to touch on at some point is the question of pay and promotions.  Of course the chain of command to the Middle East was very extended.  Was there any resentment in your recollection on the part of men there that they were being somewhat ignored in that - certainly in the question of promotion and so on? 

 

No, I didn't strike any of that because they didn't seem to know very much about how their counterparts in Australia were getting on.  I didn't know how people were going back in Australia.  In fact I heard after I came home that they thought I'd been killed because they sent a notification to the squadron, who was 4644?  And my number I always considered had been 2089, but 4644 - I said, 'it's not my number', so it went back as not known by that name. 

 

(25.00) That's amazing.  Well, let's move on a little bit in time.  It's not too long after you - the retreat ended - the army was geared up for another advance, I think you recall that that began with some remarkable barrage. 

 

When?  At Amiriya?  When the big push started?  Yes, we had been told all about the advance taking place and everybody was out at ten-thirty that night waiting for the barrage to go off and sure enough the whole sky lit up - as far as you could see bright lights and the tents started to quiver.  It was a fantastic and magnificent sight, and very awe-inspiring. 

 

Yes.  You had been told though before that an advance was imminent I think. 

 

Yes, we had been told the push was on.  

 

How much later than that did you in fact move forwards yourself? 

 

Oh, we started to move forward in about a week at the most, as far as Daba which wasn't very far the other side of Alamein, but it was a start.  And from then on it was ....  Sometimes we were held up for three weeks or a month but usually a week at one place and be on again to the next place. 

 

Right.  So it was very much a steady advance from place to place. 

 

Yes. 

 

How much of a strain on the ground crew did that steady ongoing movement impose? 

 

Nothing at all.  They rather enjoyed it.  They were that used to packing up as soon as they knew a move was imminent and one half of a squadron would shoot forward and then the aircraft would go forward.  Should the advance be moving fairly rapidly the last half of the squadron would bypass the previous one and sometimes it would be a month before we'd all be together again. 

 

And I understand that during the advance the whole process of establishing camps and airstrips and so on was basically worked down to a fine art in terms of allocation of space and where everything fitted in. 

 

Yes, 3 Squadron always had the dirty side, the windy side, dusty side of an airstrip.  The strip actually consisted of four - round the perimeters on the four sides - four, er, two forty-four gallon drums filled with stones standing on top of each other and that was the perimeter.  And probably 500 yards back was the ops tent and another 500 yards would be the mess, on either side three or four hundred yards away would be each of the, er, the airmen's mess, sergeants' mess, and the tents would be dispersed in their flights all the way back.  No tents were very close together. 

 

              I guess that was a safeguard against attack, was it? 

 

Yes, yes, in case you got a bomb, at least most of the tents would miss it. 

 

Right.  The advance progressed pretty quickly.  What's your recollection of the airstrips that you were based at during that period, in terms of the actual quality of the strips themselves? 

 

Well, the strips themselves were just desert.  They'd pick the camel fallen off it or ....  Didn't see any gibbers - stones - ever but there was no concrete strips or grass, it was just bare sand. 

 

And had they been bulldozed, or was it just that the natural terrain was so flat it was ...? 

 

Most of it was just the natural terrain. 

 

Well, the actual advance I think ended for some time anyway at Gambut.  You were telling us, I think it was there that you took possession of a German 109G Messerschmitt? 

 

Yes, we'd previously had 109Es and 109Fs and this was a brand new 109G.  It didn't have a canopy on it but the military wanted to take it over but I'd just beaten them by half an hour to the plane and I had the tail wheel up in my truck so they couldn't pinch it.  And I sent word back to the squadron to bring a vehicle back next day and we towed it back but the army intelligence in the meantime had taken all the tags off the inside of the plane because they said they could tell then where the various parts were manufactured.  And the 109G - Bobby Gibbes later flew it - but we got word it had to go base and we in fact had to go right back to the delta for re-assessment and ....  But it did serve us later.  It's in England now and Bobby Gibbes has been in touch with them, in fact he sat in it and he's run it up and the aircraft has been restored and is due to fly any moment now. 

 

What was the point of taking over that plane and in fact I know there were some other so-called foreign planes during the story, was it just one of engineering and aeronautical curiosity or was there more to it than that? 

 

No, I think the main idea was that the pilots could fly it and assess what it felt like to fly in an enemy aircraft and try some of the manoeuvres.  Bobby Gibbes was astounded with the climbing power of the 109G.  He said it was fantastic. 

 

Right.  So I assume the point being that he or other pilots would learn from that not to push them into a climb because they'd come out top dog. 

 

Yep. 

 

While we're on this story we might just delve a little bit further.  I think you were suggesting that in cases where so-called foreign planes crashed or were damaged being flown by Allied airmen that there could be ructions with authorities in that you were not exactly, or not technically permitted to fly them.  Was that correct? 

 

Yes, we weren't technically ....  Every aircraft we had - foreign aircraft - was always under the lap.  The Ghibli we had was a twin-engined aircraft.  We used that for ferrying pilots to and from base, also for going down to Cairo for picking up Christmas things.  But unfortunately all these aircraft had to be left in the desert.  We couldn't take them across to Malta or Sicily or Italy. 

 

END TAPE 1, SIDE B



 

 

BEGIN TAPE 2, SIDE A 

 

Identification:  This is Ed Stokes with Ken McRae of Squadron 3, tape 2, side 1. 

 

You were saying, Ken, these planes couldn't be taken from Africa.  Why was that? 

 

Well, they were Italian aircraft and I think the powers that be thought that it was stretching a point a bit by taking enemy aircraft into the enemy territory. 

 

              Right, in terms of later relationships with them. 

 

Yes. 

 

Right.  Tell us the story about the petrol, your sergeant, the incident, when I think he was filling up a German plane. 

 

Oh yes, we had ....  All Australian airmen and airwomen are required to - in their rookies - to swing an airscrew and we had a Prodelphio [sic]2 aircraft - was a little twin-engine, like a Tiger Moth only had negative dihedral - and the pilots used to fly it around and - bit of flying training for them.  And my sergeant electrician was starting it up one day and the usual procedure was if it was very hard to start they'd put half a cup of petrol down the intake then pull it over and away she'd go.  But this particular day it hadn't started and the sergeant still had the petrol in his, the remaining petrol in the cup in his hand and he pulled the airscrew again and - I beg your pardon.  He went to put the petrol into the intake - the last of the petrol - and the previous lot was probably still burning in the intake and it flared back over him.  It wasn't very much, probably only half a cup, but it was enough to cause enough burns to kill him. 

 

Burns, of course, were very much feared, certainly by pilots in terms of obviously a slow and agonising way to go, if you have to go.  Were ground crew very conscious of the danger of fire with aircraft and the obvious effect? 

 

Yes, fire was one bad thing you had to be very careful of because the tendency usually is, um, a bit careless with petrol.  Each time an aircraft was inspected the engine would be hosed down with petrol and bods would be smoking nearby and it was always a bit of a risk that they didn't go up in flames. 

 

              Why were they hosed down with petrol? 

 

Well, to clean all the oil and dirt off, sand and stuff that's congealed around the place. 

 

And was there nothing that you could use that was less combustible? 

 

No, not those days.  Water was always scarce and detergents those days were practically unheard of. 

 

              So it was basically petrol or nothing. 

 

Petrol was available, yes, or nothing. 

 

Well, moving on with the story a little bit.  After the period at Gambut the squadron went on, I think, to Tripoli and had a few months there, on to Tunis.  The men who'd come over with you had, or the assumption had been that they would be going home in about twelve months? 

 

Yes. 

 

But it was here that they were told they were crossing the Mediterranean.  What was their reaction? 

 

Well, some of the old marrieds were a little bit hostile, the younger ones didn't seem to mind very much - it was mostly the married ones with families.  However after discussing it for an hour or two they realised that maybe the war will finish soon and I think they all at the back of their mind had an idea that they wouldn't be replaced because there was never any talk of any replacements coming. 

 

When you said they had a talk about it, was this a fairly organised get-together or do you mean just informally? 

 

Oh no, it just a bit of an organised between the squadron bods and the CO had a talk.  But I think we all had an idea that we'd be there for the end of it. 

 

What about the issue of the Japanese now being involved in the war, and in fact of course they had been for quite some time now?  Did many men feel that their rightful place was in the islands north of Australia? 

 

No, I don't think so.  I never heard it mentioned, they were quite happy to be fighting in the desert because they knew the AIF had been down in the desert too, and they were just continuing on. 

 

(5.00) After the period in Tunis I know the squadron went on to Malta, I think by landing ship, but you were saying the conditions in Malta were generally very good.  Did you mean conditions in terms of work, airstrips, maintenance, et cetera or living conditions, or both? 

 

The airstrips were very good.  Living conditions we were billeted in - we were in an old school actually - but ....  Food was all right.  The first airstrip we were settled on was Hal Far I think.  We didn't get on very well with the commanding officer of that strip.  He had told his troops not to mix with the desert rabble, mainly because our boys - like they did in the desert - were just working in a pair of shorts.  But fortunately Air Vice-Marshal Park, Parkes[?] - he was a New Zealander - he soon put the CO in his place and said these chaps have just fought right through the desert.  He didn't care how they dressed as long as they kept their aircraft flying.  But we did move to Luqa, another airstrip nearby, where the CO was a ruddy good bloke and we had quite a happy time there. 

 

That little incident, Ken, do you think it points to a fundamental difference between British and Australian units, or between units that had been actively engaged in combat and perhaps those that hadn't? 

 

I think maybe Malta worked under this system that they did in the RAF in England.  The RAF in the desert, well they were the same as we were.  They stripped off with just a pair of shorts and I think it was just the atmosphere was different. 

 

Right.  Moving on a little bit, just perhaps passing over the period in Malta.  It was from Sicily soon afterwards that the squadron carried out various softening-up attacks on Italy.  What's your general recollection of that period of operations? 

 

In Sicily? 

 

From Sicily but attacking targets in mainland Italy. 

 

Sicily was a busy, busy operation for us.  We were first landed at Pachino.  We were living in tents underneath olive trees but the operations were fairly intense.  At the time they were mostly army cooperation work and as we moved forward we went to Agnone and it was a different story there.  We were on a strip that the Germans had operated on and they knew where it was and the result was at night they'd come over and they'd fairly plaster it with bombs.  Fortunately there were too many mosquitoes - malaria was very rife down at the strip - and most of the squadrons were living on the hillside surrounding it and so we weren't prone to being bombed out. 

 

But I think you did say during one attack you lost, or rather the wing, lost upwards of twenty aircraft. 

 

Yes, that was one big attack on the airstrip.  That is where a lot of bods could have been killed because a terrific number of delayed-action bombs were dropped and they were plastered all around the dispersal area.  The result was that charges had to be put down and they didn't wait for them to explode and they were exploding them with the result that there was a crater round about thirty feet wide and ten or fifteen feet deep which had to be filled in. 

 

That's an enormous amount of work.  Did you have mechanical earth moving gear for that? 

 

No, but they did have the ....  There must have been an airfield construction squadron because they had bulldozers and they soon bulldozed the strip.  I think it was only after about a half a day. 

 

Right.  Yes, I was going to ask - after that attack how long would it have taken the squadron to regain its normal strength? 

 

Well, we had to wait for replacements but it wasn't long after that that the war in Sicily ended so we had a bit of a breather.  And by the time we went across to Italy we had our usual twelve aircraft. 

 

Moving on to Italy:  a very different campaign to the one in North Africa, as I understand it, would you agree?  And if so, why? 

 

The Italy campaign was, well, all the airstrips were established, or most of them were - we did establish a few with PSP.  But it was a totally different life - the countryside was green, the people were friendly, we had control of the air, seldom did we have any bombing attacks.  The war in the air, I think, was about the same for the pilots although they weren't getting jumped as much as they had been in the desert. 

 

And obviously there was a significant civilian population as against in much of the desert warfare.  How did that affect operations? 

 

(10.00) The civilian population?  We found them marvellous.  Even before Italy capitulated, the population - Italians and Sicilians - they couldn't do enough for you - very, very friendly. 

 

And did this extend beyond intimate and social contact to Italians assisting in the work, or not? 

 

No, we didn't have any Italians assisting us.  Some of the squadrons may have got them in for mess duties and the like but we didn't. 

 

I think you were quite close to an Italian family and there was a trip not so long ago to see them.  Tell us about how that developed.  It seems quite an interesting sidelight on the personal aspect of this campaign? 

 

Oh yes.  Well, we were at Guidonia - that's the airfield outside Rome - and some of our boys had met some of the local girls there.  They had a party one night and they invited me along and I went along to this party and it was quite good; the family was very nice and I got to know the family very well.  'Mama' of course, and 'Papa' - Papa was in gaol because he was considered to be, er, they thought he'd pinched all the gold from the nearby castle.  He'd been a stonemason and he'd built this castle.  And when the Germans went they obviously took, found the money, and took the gold with them but poor old Papa was blamed for it and he was in prison until he confessed.  But he never did confess because he didn't have it but he did eventually get out.  I did visit them once or twice from further up in Italy - came back for a couple of days leave with them - and after I came back to Australia I had corresponded with them.  But in 1977 Eve, my wife, and I we were touring Italy and I said, 'Let's go up to Barniativoli[?] and see if the Sivargis[?] are there'.  So I went to the post office and I asked where they lived and another Australian-speaking bod nearby said, 'Follow me, I'll show you'.  And I followed him and we went to the place and he pressed the doorbell and out on the verandah came this girl.  And I said to Eve, 'This is the place, that's Teresa, see'.  And I stepped out of the campervan and started to walk down and she looked across and she says, 'Ken!', and that's after forty-odd years.  So we had a week there.  We had a marvellous time. 

 

              That's a lovely heart-warming story. 

 

Yes. 

 

How common was it for other Australians, officers or men, to establish that kind of fairly deep friendship? 

 

I think quite a lot did because various other members of the squadron have gone back to Fano and other places there and they said the reception is fantastic. 

 

And did that ever happen at all in the, for example, in Egypt? 

 

No.  No. 

 

What was the fundamental difference?  Was it one of national temperament or something else? 

 

I don't know, we just didn't seem to get friendly with the Egyptians.  We were seldom near a - only when you went on leave to Cairo or to Alexandria for a day or so, you didn't seem to get to know them but ....  And out in the desert, of course, the only time you saw the women there was when they were carrying great loads on their heads and they lived in tents. 

 

Sure.  During the Italian campaign the squadron did advance a great distance really - I think basically up the, virtually, the entire length of the peninsular? 

 

Yes, right through. 

 

Do you recall different stages in that advance or was it just a steady ongoing thing? 

 

Oh no, some of the stages were exciting, others were ....  We criss-crossed Italy; we'd be over in the Adriatic side and then we'd stay on the Adriatic side for a while.  I remember when Naples fell we were on the Adriatic side and Brian Eaton said, 'You'd better go and establish a bit of a holiday place looks like we're going to be holed up here for a while'.  And Laurie Le Guay, the photographer, and 'Robbie' Robertson, the scribe, we went across to Naples and there wasn't much there.  We went across to - went around to Sorrento then we went to Capri and we found a nice spot there.  But the trouble was whilst accommodation was cheap over there they didn't have any food and we could only afford to stay a couple of days.  It was two and six a night for the hotel.  It was twenty-five shillings for one egg and no bread in the morning, so we just had to come back. 

 

I assume those very high prices of food supplies were based on a shortage of supplies? 

 

A shortage of food.  We had plenty of food in our van back at Sorrento but we didn't have it with us at Capri. 

 

              How active a black market was there? 

 

I don't know.  I think for a tin of bully beef you could probably get a gun, a Baretta or something like that for a tin of bully, but there wasn't much black market. 

 

              That's an incredible exchange. 

 

The squadron seemed to have enough food.  I think the only time we had black marketing was probably taking the squadron's cigarettes out to get some wine or something for the mess.  Or for eggs, I remember going for fresh eggs. 

 

(15.00) That's interesting.  Just in passing, you mentioned a moment ago a Laurie Le Guay, that's Laurence ... 

 

Yes, Laurence Le Guay. 

 

              G-U-A-Y. 

 

Mm. 

 

Right.  He's obviously, or became, a well-known photographer. 

 

Died recently. 

 

Yes.  How common was it for either photographers or war correspondents to be in close touch with your unit? 

 

Well, we didn't see them very often.  We had a couple of war correspondents, say for two or three days, but Laurie Le Guay and Robbie, the scribe, we had them a couple of times and they did stay for a month or two, but that was a little bit unusual I think. 

 

              And he was photographing the life of the squadron? 

 

He was taking photographs of the squadron, where the squadron were, you know, and if he took a picture of Pompeii or something he wanted an Aussie in the front with his slouch hat to give it a bit of meaning. 

 

Mm, Australian colour.  Well, going back to Italy, Ken, do you have any other significant recollections of that campaign? 

 

Which one? 

 

Of the Italian campaign? 

 

Oh, the Italian campaign, it was a busy time.  We had a terrific number of bombing missions and I think the highlight of it was when we converted to Mustangs and our trips were getting longer and longer.  They would be going over to Yugoslavia, way up to northern Italy.  For the pilots it must have been very good although the ack-ack was very severe in Italy. 

 

And so I assume that means you had a lot of work on fuselage repair and so on? 

 

Yep.  They didn't strike so many 109s or Macchi 202s or 205s those days, it was mainly bombing missions.  And they'd be shot going down - the number two quite often would collect a hit. 

 

Some of the bombs they were later carrying, I know, were really very significant in weight.  How much of a strain did that put on the engines during, obviously during take-off? 

 

No, they seemed to cope well.  In Australia the humid conditions might have made a difference but over in Italy though the conditions and the air temperature was very good, it didn't present any problem for getting off. 

 

During your time with the squadron I think you served under a couple of commanding officers; there was Bobby Gibbes initially.  I think Nicky Barr briefly when Bobby was in hospital.  Reg Stevens? 

 

Reg Stevens, yes. 

 

And I think also Brian Eaton. 

 

Brian Eaton, Murray Nash. 

 

How do you remember those different men in terms of their qualities of leadership? 

 

Well, they're all very good leaders, excellent leaders - very solid types.  They're the type of bloke you could call a friend and know you had a friend.  They were an inspiration to their men, I'm quite sure of it, and none of them would ask any of the other pilots to do a job they wouldn't do themselves. 

 

Some of them were very young, of course.  Bobby Gibbes, I think, was only in his mid-twenties, Reg Stevens, I'm not sure his age but I know he was promoted very quickly into the position.  How difficult was it for them to come to terms with some of the wider aspects of leadership? 

 

I think they coped all right with the flying side of it.  I think maybe the administration side they had to leave more to the adjutant, whereas Brian Eaton had been in the permanent air force and he was fairly well up in the administration side.  And his administration in the squadron, apart from his flying, was really A1. 

 

One other related point:  in the general chat between men which no doubt went on about officers, did the ground staff, the men, did they focus most strongly on the commanding officer's abilities as a pilot, per pilot, or in a wider sense, in an administrative sense, in a sense of an officer's concern for the overall welfare of the squadron.  What interested the ground staff most? 

 

Oh, I think they were always impressed with the squadron leader, the CO's ability to fly and be a leader.  Some of the COs mixed with the men more than others and I think they got more of an attachment to the one who visited them occasionally and talked to them more so than the ones who had more concern with flying and leading his pilots.  Bobby Gibbes, Bobby - terrific flyer but I don't think Bobby mixed with the men as much as some of the COs like Murray Nash or Brian Eaton did. 

 

(20.00) Right.  That's interesting.  You referred occasionally in different ways to Americans, American squadrons and so on, and of course there were British squadrons around and I think there were some Free French, were there? 

 

Yeah, we used to see most of the Free French. 

 

Right.  But anyway there was a fair mixture of people around.  As you saw it, was there a difference in quality of pilot and quality of squadron between the nationalities or was it just a obvious difference that you might have a very good Australian squadron and a poor British one, and a hundred kilometres away the British might make the Australians look a bit weak? 

 

Yes, I think they were much of a muchness.  The Yanks were a little bit different.  We did have a pursuit squadron with us I think I told you about them operating the boost control.  But the RAF squadrons were fairly much the same as we were but I think we had the edge on them for serviceability.  I think it was general throughout the Middle East, the Australian squadrons's serviceability was a little bit above par. 

 

              Why, what was the cause for that? 

 

Oh, I think it's a different outlook on life generally, I think.  Partly I think also the other engineering officers probably felt the same way as I did that it's good to keep the boys occupied by doing more work on the aircraft than was really called for - rather than have the RSU do it, do it yourself - and they became more familiar and therefore your serviceability got better. 

 

You said before, and other people have too, that No. 3 Squadron had a name for stealing, I forget the word - 

 

Clifty. 

 

That's right.  Was that a factor in your serviceability, that you had a better range of parts and better ability to move people around with your transport perhaps than British squadrons? 

 

No, I think some of the British squadrons also had extra vehicles but the clifty thing was ....  Well, way before my time they had picked up a mobile Italian workshop and things like that.  In fact I was accused of pinching an American aircraft and I didn't know for some months after that I had.  The usual procedure was when you were short of aircraft - every squadron was always short - we engineers say, 'well, the next clean skin that comes into the tower is yours', see.  So as soon as you hear an aeroplane fly around, had no markings on it, you wait till it landed and you went up and you grabbed it and towed it to your area.  Well, I was told - at Marble Arch this was - the next one was mine and I saw this aircraft flying around, took the boys over, clean skinned out the thing, towed it back, put CV-F on it and before we had time to modify the pitch control - the Yanks had a different way to what we had ours - an operation came on.  But previously Rex Bayley had test flown it and he said, 'She's good'.  Anyway the next, before we had time to fix up the pitch control, we got a job and another pilot got into the aircraft and we told him about the pitch control but apparently he forgot because as he took off he took off in course and he hit the tailplane of a DC3 and he pranged and landed on a 'queen mary' which was what the RSU used to pick up pranged aircraft.  Well, that was okay but it wasn't until about a couple of weeks after that ... 

 

              Did he survive? 

 

This bloke came back looking for his aircraft and 'course it eventually came back that I'd taken it but I took the clean skin, it had all the log books and everything in the back of the aircraft, the other usual thing for a clean skin, I didn't know it belonged to any particular Yank - he was only a visitor. 

 

This is an interesting story, perhaps I can just pursue it for a moment.  When the plane first arrived and there was a pilot in it, supposedly that pilot belonged to some unit and surely therefore the plane did too? 

 

No, they were just ferry pilots and they used to dump them at the tower and quite often they'd be picked up and whizzed off again. 

 

              I see, so it was a newly arrived aircraft. 

 

Newly arrived aircraft - clean skinned.  We called it clean skinned - had no aircraft identification markings on it.  And you took it over, you did an acceptance check, took the log books out and all the first aid stuff, checked it over and then you test flew it.  But this apparently belonged to some visiting colonel. 

 

              I see.  Your name must have been mud. 

 

Yes, mud for a while. 

 

(25.00) Just following this theme of cliftying, I think it is, through for a moment.  In your recollection or experience did cliftying ever extend to the civilian population or was it only picking up bits and pieces where there'd been a retreat and you could take over enemy equipment, et cetera?  If you were going through a town in Italy, for instance, and there was a motor bike that was obviously a civilian motor bike, would that ever be touched, or not? 

 

Oh, no, I don't think they'd touch a motor bike but at the end of the African campaign they were getting the odd car, but ....  And in Italy once or twice they had the odd car for a while, left lying around, but mainly no - they didn't have time for things like that.  But I can remember one funny episode was waking up at Iesi - we were sleeping under olive trees in tents - and a hissing noise around like that, and a couple of geese walked past the tent; I took no notice of them.  Anyway later in the morning some poor Italian bloke came to me and he said, 'Animale non trovare' - he couldn't find his animals, see.  And I said I saw them walking through the camp area.  Anyway that night we had roast goose.  The boys had wakened up in the morning and the geese were in their tent and they immediately throttled them, but we did recompense the bloke.  But some of the boys were down swimming in a dam nearby and the only reason there was geese and ducks around was, of course, the Germans had bypassed Iesi, it hadn't been touched.  And they saw all these ducks in the middle of the dam so off with their clothes and in they go to get these ducks.  And they were rounding the ducks up on the water and they hear a voice on the bank, 'Ho-ho, ho-ho', and there's Mama there with all their clothes in her arms - they got the message, they let the ducks alone.  [Laughter]. 

 

That's a lovely story.  More seriously, just going back to the question of serviceability, Ken.  You told me before and I thought it was an interesting point:  that occasionally the pilots actually, if not exactly resenting, were not as keen perhaps as the ground staff were to have planes quickly serviced. 

 

Yes, I don't know I can point to any exact case but we used to work like mad at night to make sure we had enough aircraft for the following day's do and it meant that if there's any, what they used to call 'steely grey', dirty jobs on, 3 Squadron used to get it.  And of course if we had the number of aircraft available we would get it, and had we not had the aircraft available somebody else would have had to take the job. 

 

Right.  Well, perhaps just to end this talk about 3 Squadron, I get the feeling talking to people today that there's a very, very strong sense of loyalty to the squadron - to the men, to its memory and its history and obviously to the people alive today, perhaps more so than other units.  Do you agree, and if so, why? 

 

Yes, 3 Squadron were extra - what will I say - friendly, mainly because I think the squadron was together, especially the last 200 were together so long.  The others had probably seen different countries to what we did, they went to Syria, et cetera and they'd changed over.  They came back and quite a lot of them went up to the islands, et cetera.  But our bods had the seen the whole of the war through three and a half years together and they came back together with the exception of twenty or so who went to England.  And I think, well, they knew each other's families by name and photos were exchanged.  It was a totally different feeling, I think, with 3 Squadron than most squadrons. 

 

END TAPE 2, SIDE A 

 

BEGIN TAPE 2, SIDE B 

 

Identification:  This is Edward Stokes with Ken McRae, Squadron 3, tape 2, side 2. 

 

Just some final things.  It was in Italy, still with No. 3 Squadron that the war ended, in Europe and for you.  What's your recollection of that period? 

 

Well, at the first time we hadn't any joy and it looked like the war ending was when we were in Sicily and Italy capitulated, and that was a lovely feeling.  In fact we all thought the war would be over now but little did we know that Gerry wasn't going to give in - he wasn't going to pull out of Italy.  But the feeling was very good as we neared the end of the tour in Italy - we ended up near Udine about twenty miles from the Austrian border.  The jobs were getting fewer and fewer and everybody seemed to be realising that the end wasn't far off - the main thing was to stay alive until it happened.  And it was a great day when we did know it was finished. 

 

Yes.  Do you actually recall that day?  I mean what you did, what happened? 

 

Well, there was much celebration in the squadron.  We didn't have much to celebrate with, we had a bit of a club nearby and we went there and had a good time.  But I think the main thing was the lads immediately started to sort out what they were going to take home and what they weren't. 

 

Yes, there must have been lots of planning for another life. 

 

Oh yes, and they had lots of tools, too.  I had to sign a lot of forms that they'd brought the tools with them [laughs] so they could get them home again. 

 

              These were the makings of many a backyard workshop. 

 

Yes. 

 

Actually, that's an interesting point.  At the end of it all, I mean, obviously the men were coming back to Australia, what happened to the planes and what happened to the more, you know, the kind of equipment that men couldn't pack in a suitcase? 

 

What, to bring home with them?  Oh, they had all kinds of stuff - piano accordions and things like that.  Quite a few had lovely piano accordions.  But they were all interested in tools and of course they had been to Venice and they had souvenirs.  But I don't think they were interested in, very interested in tin hats or things like that.  I don't think that was ....  Maybe the odd Baretta came back.  But on the whole I think they were just glad to pack up and get home. 

 

(5.00) Sure, thinking of Australia, not looking back.  But going back to the actual planes of the squadron and your, you know, obviously large and fairly valuable infrastructure of repair equipment:  trucks, transport, lathes, the whole lot, what happened to all that material? 

 

We didn't have any lathes after we got to Italy, we had to leave our workshops back in the desert so ... 

 

But perhaps leaving aside specific things, the general ... 

 

Oh, the general tool ... 

 

... collection of equipment and aeroplanes. 

 

Yeah.  That was all handed over, handed over to an RAF receiving unit, all the tools and whatnot.  I can tell you there weren't many tools went because most of the boys had divvied it up already, but the transport and that were all handed over. 

 

              Right.  And the aircraft went back to British units? 

 

Yes. 

 

Right.  You, yourself, I think arrived back in Australia about October after peace had been declared in the Pacific.  What was your recollection of arriving back?  And being back in Australia how did all this experience of war in Europe appear to you? 

 

Well, I thought we had the best end of the stick.  I thought that the desert war was such a marvellous experience; a good place to have a war, not many civilians were actually bombed or hurt.  Italy was a joy.  Italy, I thought, was so much like Australia - the east coast of Australia at times - and the people were so friendly and it was such a thrill to know that you've seen a few more countries and have got out of it alive. 

 

Yes, so you were saying before how many Italians had connections with Australia and that that was a ... 

 

Yes. 

 

Right.  Just for the record perhaps, we should say that, I think, you stayed in the air force and I think served later in Malaya during the confrontation. 

 

Yes.  Had eighteen months up in Malaya, 1950-51.  It was very good, enjoyed it, of course no enemy aircraft coming over us.  It was a good experience and we had a Kiwi squadron with us.  We were great sportsmen playing volley ball - big competitions going on.  And I recall there - I used to shoot a line occasionally - and I was telling them I could divine water.  And we were talking about it at afternoon tea, and a bloke said, 'How about gold?'.  I said, 'Oh, I can divine gold, too'.  He said, 'You can?'.  I said, 'Yes'.  He said, 'Well, playing volley ball yesterday I lost my mother's ring down in the dust on the thing, come and divine for it'.  I thought, oh, my God, now I'm going to cop it.  So I got a piece of wire and bent it and we all headed down and thought they're going to catch me out this time.  But as I walked down I caught a glint of something over on the far side, see, so I methodically went up and down, up and down, and when I got over this spot down it went and I picked his ring up.  [Laughter]  Oh, gee, fantastic! 

 

Oh, that must have been a great experience.  Oh, lovely.  Just finally, I know you went on and I think retired in the early sixties from the air force.  Looking back on that whole air force career, what was the most marked difference between your wartime and your peacetime service? 

 

Um, the wartime service was, er, with operations all the time.   It's a totally different life in an operational unit than it is to a, um, like a depot.  Operations there's something going all the time, you're achieving something. Depot is so much repetition and you work on an engine for weeks and then you look forward to the day it goes on the test stand and bingo, once it's finished it's gone again; you start from scratch.  I think the operations unit is much more adventurous. 

 

Mm, yes, I could imagine that.  Well, just finally, something I like to ask everybody, is there anything you feel you would like to add to this record that has not been said? 

 

No, I don't think ....  Have you any suggestions? 

 

              No, it's over to you on this one. 

 

Oh, no, I enjoyed my air force career.  As I told you before I would have stayed my full time.  I got out two and a half years early because they posted me to Victoria for my last three years and it should have been spent in New South Wales, but - New South Wales being my home state - but I had a Victorian number and you can't toss the powers that be.  They wanted to post me to Victoria because my number was 03, so I got out. 

 

              That's a fine piece of red tape. 

 

Yes. 

 

This is just continuing, a final thought about the period when you joined the squadron, Ken. 

 

Yes, I think we had the, even though we'd only been there for twelve months, we had the best part of the squadron's life, I think, because the pilots when I was there most of them had joined up since the war started and they were a different calibre, different outlook on life.  I think the first squadron that went across - the original 3 Squadron - they, all their pilots were pre-war, and they didn't mix with the ground staff as much as they did in later years, and I think they didn't have the friendships and that that we had.  And I think fortunately so many went through that it changed the whole attitude of the air force regarding higher ranks to lower ranks. 

 

That's an interesting point.  And in terms of having a good war, I guess, also your experience was very different to that of men who went up to the islands in, say, 1945 and who became very disillusioned by a war that seemed futile and pointless; the Morotai incident and so on that I was mentioning before.  Okay, well, on behalf of the War Memorial in Canberra, Ken, thank you very much for making these tapes. 

 

Good, thanks, Ed. 

 

END OF INTERVIEW


 

1.  Probably a colloquial term


 

2.  Possibly Piaggiot

[3SQN Assn repaired version of original transcript on  https://www.awm.gov.au.]

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