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Cutella Airfield, Italy. 29 April 1944. One of the rare occasions for ground staff of No.3 Squadron RAAF to distinguish themselves came from an unfortunate error.
United States Army Air Force (USAAF) Republic P47 Thunderbolts strafed Cutella airfield, killing one pilot from 293 Squadron, wounding two ground staff and
narrowly missing several others. One Curtiss P40 Kittyhawk, "CV-B" (FS493), was set alight and destroyed. Slim MOORE and Kev HARRIS manually removed
the 500lb bomb from the burning and fully-fuelled aircraft [the bomb can be seen at centre-right of the picture, sitting on the canvas engine-cover that the boys used to
drag it away], and then taxied two other Kittyhawks to safety [one of them seen at far right]. They were later awarded "MiD" oakleaf clasps for their service ribbons.
[Detail from AWM MEA1918.]
Transcript of Australian War Memorial
This historically-important interview has been placed here so that its content is searchable for 3SQN Website readers.
[EDITED VERSION - Edited by 3SQN Assn for readability, flow and spelling of technical terms.]
INFORMANT: REG 'SLIM' MOORE
DATE OF INTERVIEW: 27 JULY 1990
INTERVIEWER: ED STOKES
TRANSCRIBER: SUSAN SOAMES
Identification: This is Ed Stokes talking with Reg Moore, No. 3 Squadron. Reg, could we perhaps just begin at the beginning, your birth date and so on?
I was born on 7th August 1921 and lived all my younger days on a farm out of Swan Hill in Victoria. At 14½ I left school to do an apprenticeship with a motor dealer in Swan Hill, mainly because my father had gone broke on the farm and that was the only thing to do. And I was still doing that when I applied for the Air Force. I made the application, as I recall, late 1939. Was called-up in about the January or the February 1940 to do the interview and trade test and was eventually given a reserve badge which carried through until 7th August 1940, when I actually reported to the Queen Street Melbourne Recruiting Centre with a whole team of other fellas to start my Air Force career.
My 19th birthday, as I said, and that night, after all the induction etc., we were on the train for Adelaide, the Adelaide Overland, overnight to No.4 STT - 4 School of Technical Training - based in the old Exhibition building right in the heart of Adelaide, or North Terrace Adelaide. Did the month or six weeks, I can't remember how many, it seemed like two years, "drill square bashing", as they called it and from then we went to the trade school at the Grenfell Street Trade School in Adelaide for I believe it was 14 weeks, as I recall, to do the technical training which was basic tech school type training. And from there you were graded into either certain mustering for training, which in my case turned out to be as a fitter 2E at the Melbourne Showgrounds.
Incidentally, Ed, while we are about this, that first night I got on the train for Adelaide for my nineteenth birthday I was christened 'Slim'; Slim Moore. And I was in the Air Force for just short of six years and I was in TAA for another ten and there wouldn't have been sixteen people that knew my name was Reg in either the Air Force or TAA. It was always Slim. So just to clarify, somebody's going to say, 'Who's this Reg Moore?'.
That's wonderful. Could I just go back though to pick up perhaps in a little more detail a few of the points. One thing, when you were growing up as a boy and as a young man, the general tradition of the ANZACs, the Australian and New Zealand forces in the first war, were you particularly conscious of that or not?
Yes, I was. My father had volunteered in the First World War but due to having had bronchial pneumonia, or some such, when he was young, he was rejected. However, he spent years, even post First World War, in the 17th Lighthorse Brigade and he was always off to camp every year with his horse and all his gear polished, along with two of my uncles who had both fought in the First World War. And they were always talking about it and so, consequently, I was very aware of it from a young age.
Do you think from having talked to other men that tradition, those attitudes were stronger in the bush than the city? I mean, obviously, bushmen did form a great part of the First AIF.
I couldn't really speak for the city fellas, but I do know that after I got into the Air Force you could always pick the country blokes. They always had a different, a more loyal reason for actually joining up than what a lot of the city fellas did. That was my impression.
Could you clarify that? What do you mean by 'more loyal'?
Well, they'd joined up more for loyalty reasons, other than just to have a job, which is often said that a lot of people joined the Second World War - and it might have been so in a lot of cases - just to have a job. I didn't have to; I was an apprentice and I could have easily stayed where I was for some time anyway. I may have ended up being conscripted, but my own feeling was to get into it as soon as I could. In fact, that six months from when I did the test until I actually was called up seemed like an eternity - to me.
One other thing I did want to ask is in the latter part of the thirties, which coincides with the period when you left school in '35, doing your apprenticeship, were you at all conscious, or not, of the general political developments in Europe, in particular Hitler's rise to power?
I was aware of it, but I wasn't really conscious of it until '39 and '40 when it started to get serious and I started to think about joining up.
You did say before that your mother and, I think, perhaps an uncle too had been rather antagonistic towards your joining the Army. Did they try to ...
Yeah, that's true. Early 1939 - oh, I think that was a little bit more impetuous than anything - one of my old school mates and I went out when there was a recruiting team in town and we took off and went to join up. And we each signed the parents' consent forms, which they quick smart realised were phoney, and my mother, who was my sole parent at that time, she got onto it and got my uncle to get me out of it real quick.
So then I talked her into joining the Air Force. Well, I said, you know, 'I won't be going overseas and I won't be fighting and I won't ....'. And that's how I eventually got to apply for the Air Force.
Just going on in a little more detail to your period when you did join up, Reg, your initial rookie's training, lots of parade ground bashing and so on, how easy was it to adjust to that sort of disciplined life, or how difficult?
I wouldn't call it difficult. I was a fairly rugged individual I suppose you'd call me, coming from the bush, and I found it fairly easy. We did have, I think, three out of my squad that were virtually, well, I know two of them were dismissed from the Air Force as being inefficient airmen - I think they used to call them in those days. Mind you, in 1940 they were far more technical or fussier than they were later on. For example, that six weeks or whatever we did drill square, that was a long time. It eventually went down to two weeks, the blokes later did only two weeks. The 16 weeks I did at the - I think it was sixteen weeks, I'm fairly certain - at the 4STT at the tech school, that was cut to about eight or nine weeks in latter times to get people through. So, you know, they relaxed a lot as time went by.
Sure. I was also just going to ask about the background of the men who you went to the technical training with, did they generally have some background in engineering as you did, or were they totally fresh to the game?
Nearly all of the troop that I was with, virtually all of them - with the exception, there was what - there was thirty-odd of us I think, 32 if I remember correctly, started out on that squad. Virtually all of them had either been mechanics or connected with the mechanical industry of some kind. Any of them that weren't, and they were all fairly capable people, most of them, but they were mustered eventually as flight mechanics, which was the lower mustering. There were some even, I eventually became a 2E, after having to go through that. I know lots of other fellas that went straight into the Air Force and went straight in and did their rookies and did the 2E course because they were older and they had more experience; they'd had more tech school training than I'd had, and they went straight in. They missed that technical training. So they used to grade you out into various levels.
Well, you were saying that you did an exam which led to your mustering as a 2E man. And from there I know you went to No.1 Engineering School, Ascot Vale, Melbourne. Just to clarify that the mustering, Reg's mustering was a 2E fitter. At Ascot Vale, Reg, this was a longer and more specific technical program I think, specific to aircraft work - sixteen weeks - tell us what you did?
Yes, it was more the hands-on type work on engines, parts of engines. We did study magnetos and carburation of the type that are fitted to the aeroplanes, even though there might have been some of the older type fitted on older engines in the Wapitis and Hawker Demons, Tiger Moths. We did some on the Pratt and Whitney engine, and those particular engines as applied to various aircraft. It was more hands-on as you went along. You learned to do "top overhauls", as they called them, on an engine. The Rolls Royce Kestrel was one that I recall that we did a top overhaul on. And you generally got a grounding on mainly the in-line type of engine, the V type of engine and the radial type, which are all different designs.
The technical things there are probably a bit hard for somebody like me to grasp. But could I ask you this: Given what you knew already, how much more - I mean, given what you knew prior to joining up - how much more did you have to learn to get through these courses?
Oh, a lot. It was quite extensive actually. It wasn't an easy course to pass. I suppose if I had really knuckled down to it, I could have done very much better. Life was pretty easy those days and we took it fairly casually. Some blokes of course, it would worry them stiff, and some failed. But it never ever got to me that way. I just went and did my thing and I passed quite comfortably as I recall. I suppose it was serious, but we never took it too seriously. At the age of 19 and 20 you didn't.
- And in Melbourne, of course, the other thing that happened, when we graduated from Adelaide to do the course at 1ES, our pay doubled from five bob a day to ten bob a day. - And ten shillings was a lot of money in those days!
Ascot Vale, Victoria circa February 1940. - No.1 Engineering School, RAAF ground training:
Pay Parade, held every 2nd week. Note service policeman with pistol in holster.
Yes, sure. So did you get a fair amount of time to get into Melbourne and kick your heels up a bit?
Yes. I think there was only about two nights a week the camp was closed. We used to get all day, from Friday night, all day Saturday, till Sunday morning we used to have to be back and then after, I think we used to do a bit Sundays, and then we'd be off again on Sunday night. But I think it was two nights a week the camp was actually closed, when you weren't supposed to go out. The other nights when it was open you had to be back by the old "2359" as they called it, or midnight, which if you didn't make it, you used to have to go round onto the Flemington Racecourse and climb a big tree and clamber out over a limb and ...
It sounds fun. Reg, if you did have to rate your training - right the way through to this period - good, poor, extremely good, average - how would you rate it?
At the period that I did it, I think they were still fairly particular. I believe they were; they were fairly exacting. I rate it very highly. I think it set me off. I used the things I learned in the Air Force for many years. Later on, of course, I was to go further into aircraft in a big way after the war, but that's another story. I spent ten years at TAA, when TAA first started, and I was one of the lucky ones that was selected to do crash courses (you could call them) to get the aircraft engineers, ground engineers' licenses; which weren't easy. They weren't easy to pass. And that original Air Force grounding was very much in my favour at the time.
I think you were implying then that as the war progressed perhaps the training fell off a little bit?
When I say 'fell off', they cut it back. In other words, they didn't bother to train you on a Tiger Moth if you weren't going to be fooling with a Tiger Moth. They concentrated, as far as I know. Different blokes I know that came through later, they only did six weeks, ended up as flight mechanics after a month and six weeks. And they'd cut out a lot of the unnecessary; in other words, all that work on an old Kestrel engine that you wouldn't even see any more.
Right. So it's more specific to the task in hand.
And they short-cut a lot too.
Well, let's move on a bit because we must get on to the period in the Middle East. You were posted from mid-'41 to Ballarat No.1 Wireless Air Gunners, where you were maintaining aircraft, amongst others, DC-2s and you'd never trained on them before. I'd like to ask a general question that relates not only to them perhaps, but to other planes you came across later. How easy or difficult was it to work on a plane that you weren't specifically trained on?
Well, the DC-2 had the Wright engine in it, whereas I had trained on Pratt and Whitneys mainly, or the little bit I'd done was a single row Pratt and Whitney on the radial engine; but I found it quite easy. There's not a lot of difference. The concept's the same: a radial engine is a radial engine - concept very similar. The differences were mainly minor: when I say, different carburation, different magnetos and things like that; all the ancillaries, generators and so on were all different. But you always had, if you were in any doubt whatsoever, you always had a man around the place - we had a couple of blokes at Ballarat that were Corporals and there was one Flight Sergeant there that was a top man - you just had to go to him and say, 'Look, I need help' and they'd come quick - come to your aid real quick.
Besides going to other men such as that to have things explained, in terms of learning about new engines, would you learn most through skimming through engine manuals or getting your hands dirty and fiddling around with an engine?
Well, in my case it was mostly through getting my hands dirty and fiddling around the engine because there wasn't a lot of manuals kicking around. At Ballarat for example the actual literature that we had on DC-2s was virtually nil, but we had blokes there that knew the DC-2 inside out, two or three of them. That's where I learnt - I had to learn on those - I learnt from them.
But things such as - I don't know a lot about the technical terms - but tolerances, distances between different moving parts and all that, was that all documented or was that just a matter of ...
Most of that that you needed for that type of thing, that was all documented. Yeah. That was documented on Air Force paperwork that they'd had printed. In other words, when you went to do, for example, if you had to set the point gaps or spark plug gaps, that was all written into the actual inspection sheet. In other words, check and inspect the spark plugs were clean or fit new spark plugs whichever it may be with gaps set at 'x'. It was there right on the paper that you sign when you did the job.
Just moving on, Reg. At the end of '41 of course, Japan enters the war. January '42, soon afterwards, you were posted to 1 Embarkation Depot Melbourne. I don't think you knew where you were going?
No. We had very little idea. There were a lot of rumours. I think within the first few days somebody said we were going to 3 Squadron. We said, 'Right, where's 3 Squadron?'.
Somebody said, 'Well, early last year it was in the Middle East, but we don't know', and that's the way it was virtually the entire time. We didn't know where the squadron was exactly. It was never confirmed to us. The only thing that we knew definitely we were equipped with what they call 'the tropical kit'. All our clothes, all our gear that we took with us was tropical. And there was talk that we would meet up with 3 Squadron in Singapore; there was talk about it being at Darwin; but all rumours that lasted a day.
I think it was while you were actually there that Singapore itself fell.
I can't recall just when it was, but I know it was right about that time.
Right. Or about that period. How strong a feeling was there amongst men that although the war in Europe was obviously terribly important, it was more important to stay back and defend Australia?
I never really gave that too much thought, but I do know that when we were out floating around the middle of the Indian Ocean in the HMT Dilwara, which was the ship we sailed out of Adelaide on, when we were floating around, you know, and you had plenty of time - you never knew which way the thing was going from one minute to the next, they were changing direction to dodge enemy - and at that stage when you hear that Singapore had definitely fallen and all the people had been captured up there and the Japs were heading towards northern Australia, it was disconcerting. I must say that I thought about it many times.
Did men talk about it much?
Yes, oh yes, we often used to, you know, we'd talk about it, but there wasn't much you could do about it. You were on your way and still not knowing where you were going.
Yes. You could hardly stage a mutiny. Well, let's move on to the period before leaving. I think from going to No.1 Embarkation Depot in January, it was, in fact, March '42 before you finally entrained to Adelaide. Had that been a bit of a frustrating empty period, or not?
Well, yes and no. It was frustrating at one point when they dispersed the whole lot of us. They sent people all over to various Air Force stations all over Victoria and New South Wales. We thought, you know - I went to Point Cook just out of Melbourne - and we all thought, 'Well, maybe the whole thing's been cancelled'. We didn't know what was going to happen. Then all of a sudden, in a matter of ten days or so, we got word to report on such and such a date that we were to catch the train to Adelaide.
We went to Adelaide and we were in tents, living in tents around a college just at the back of the big old cathedral in North Adelaide. We were there for ten days or so and finally they put us on one ship [The Eastern Prince] which was a horrible thing. We were there for a few days and everybody got sick. They finally took us off that and put us on the HMT Dilwara, which, as I said, floated in every direction. It went out of Adelaide straight into the teeth of a gale and it bounced around going due south for about two days and then we took off around through the Indian Ocean with all the experts trying to chart the course we were taking - unsuccessfully I might add - but eventually we landed in Colombo in Ceylon.
Just to pick up on a few points, you did say I think it was the third of the fourth - I know that ...
The third April it was, yeah.
That sticks in your mind, that you left Adelaide.
We sailed out of Adelaide.
There were about 160 men. Besides the number of new Pilot Officer types, I think the most experienced person was Ken McRae?
Oh, well, on my side of it, he was an 'engine' man, Ken. By far he was the Warrant Officer in charge. There was also Cec Shaw who was an armaments officer and, of course, Trewavis, what was his first name? Anyway, Trewavis was also a disciplinary type Warrant Officer. He used to get around and keep us on our toes.
How did he do that?
Oh, he was always organising the squads to clean this and do that, and, you know, keep you organised, do exercises and so on. Our entire time was spent trying to thwart him in his endeavours.
So on the voyage over to Colombo, I assume there was no ongoing training, it was just a matter of keeping men busy and occupied?
Oh, they gave us certain lectures on health - the old VD lectures and all that type of thing.
Did men take them seriously, or not?
Not generally, no. Oh, I think everybody thought about it but outwardly everybody gave it the big laugh. Generally, in addition to that, of course they talked about the old wearing of your long sleeves at night and long trousers so the mosquitoes wouldn't get you. That type of thing.
So there was some general education in terms of living health issues but not ...
Not general training, no.
Right. What about recreation? I'd imagine there was a game of two-up, or two?
There was the odd game of two-up, virtually every night. There was always the card games, the crib games, the euchre, you name it, around the deck and we used to have a little bit of boxing, sparring and so on. There wasn't a lot of that but, every now and again, you'd find somebody running around the deck - all the more energetic types. But, generally, it was quite a leisurely trip really.
A model of the Dilwarra, by Robert Wilson.
Well, let's move on a little bit. At Colombo, I know you paused but didn't disembark I think and then went on to Bombay where you were kept for a short time in a transit camp which, I think I've heard from other people, was something of a hell hole.
Well, it was a British Army transit camp right in Colaba, almost right in central Bombay. The thing that was outstanding was when we got into the houses, into the huts, there was nothing in the huts except the old charpoys, as the Indians call them, which is the square frame laced with the old rattan or rope to make a bed. And the big signs on the wall that said they were prone to collecting bugs - bedbugs - and then it gave you a description of the bedbug and it also gave you the method of removing same. One man was to take an end each and lift it up chest high, keeping your toes back you dropped it to the concrete, and any little black things that ran across the concrete you put your foot on it. And on your day off you took the - and this was in this big official army sign on the wall - you took the charpoy down and soak it in the sea. And you weren't to leave it; you were to sit and watch it while it was soaking.
In case the bedbugs migrated! (Laughing)
I thought you were going to say on your day off you'd take it down and burn it.
That's what I, ah, it was a shocking place.
Did that - more seriously - did that camp say anything to you about the attitude of the British towards their troops?
And later did you experience that in the Middle East, to be different from the Australian attitude?
Well, I remember the first day we were there - I think it was the first day we were there - we were called out on parade, we had to all muster out on parade and it was a really hot day. - And they talk about, you know, the Englishmen go out in the noon-day sun, well, that was us. And it was British Army of all sorts in various squads. We were a squad of our own, right down the back, and we sort of lined-up there and they go through all the motions of a big parade and calling out, calling rolls and whatnot.
Finally, the CO of this outfit came down to inspect us. He walked round all the troops and he came round the end and he walked up to one of our blokes who was a flight mechanic we had with us, fairly rotund, had a bit of a tummy hanging over, and he had his shirt unbuttoned, shorts on with socks rolled right down to his shoes, and shirt unbuttoned with all his big fat belly sticking out, hanging over his belt. And this, I can't remember, Major I think he was, came round and he spotted this bloke and he said, 'Who's this man?'. And he walked up to - Barge we used to call him because he had a fairly wide rear end - walked up to old Barge and said, 'What's the meaning of this?'.
And Barge said, 'Well, it's a hot day'.
'Pretty hot today, Sir'.
The old fella said, 'Who are these men? Who are these men?', and then he was told and he went, 'Hmph' and strutted off. He left us.
I think that's why we got out of there fairly quick. But some of the British discipline was a little ridiculous and we saw lots of it in the Middle East and various places. The old Tommy; the British soldier, he thrives on discipline I guess. They say he does, and I think it's probably right. They have it pretty tough. I mean ours was heaven compared with the way they lived.
We might just note in passing that you later went back to live in Bombay for ten years or so...
Ten and a half years I was there.
Right. In the '60s and on. Had it made a big impression on you, or was that just pure chance?
That I went back there? Well, I can always remember - it was pure chance actually - I can always remember we were about two nights out of Bombay and we were leaning on the rail of the old Stratheden, my wife and I, and at that stage our two children were down below deck in bed, and she said to me, 'Who's the man who was never going to set foot in Bombay again?'.
And I said, 'Oh, this is different'. And that's, you know, how it happened that I had this job that took me there. And went there for three years and ended up staying ten and a half.
But I think you did find it a colourful place.
Oh yeah. Yes, a different opinion of it altogether. Different. It's vastly different living in a place like that than what it is to go through as we did, and particularly even go through it now. Bombay is not impressive at all. I went back there a few years ago and it's shocking. But living there we went very, very well.
View of Bombay Harbour, 1942. [AWM 028238]
Sure. Well, let's move on. You went to the Middle East, Port Tewfik, and then by train pretty quickly up to the squadron base. What were your first impressions of the Middle East - its people, its landscape?
Well, it all happened so fast. You know, you're only young. I don't think you form an impression immediately. Well, I didn't. It's only later on, when you start to spent time in those places that you eventually get to start thinking about the way they lived; and we didn't give it too much thought. We were there for, you know, it was a big lark in some aspects, we were going there to join a squadron and the fact that they were, you know, the Arabs were quite different and they lived differently, it didn't bother you too much at that time.
Right. Well, we might pick up on that later when we talk about some leaves and things. You arrived at, I think, Sidi Haneish and you had a couple of days there and this was the base, the squadron base, I think.
Yes, that's right. The squadron at that time used to always have a base generally about 100 miles or so back from the advanced landing ground as they called it, where B and C Flights used to operate - operate the aeroplanes. Any major jobs that had to be done on the aeroplanes, they were flown back down to the base and the jobs were done there. All the main supplies were kept down there. It was a base and, of course, that was later on to be dropped, we didn't use that method. We virtually, as much as possible, kept the whole squadron together even though we used to split it: B Flight would make one move and then C Flight would make the next and sometimes we'd even jump right over where the other squadron was operating. Go to the next landing ground, particularly when they were pushing up through the desert. And the same back through the retreat, we did that.
Well, I think you were saying that a few days after arriving at Sidi Haneish you went up to Gambut where B and C were.
What were your first impressions of that operational situation?
Well, we didn't get a lot of time to form impressions. We arrived there. The fellas that we replaced - I can't remember how many of us went there, but there was quite a number, went up in trucks one day - and the same trucks took the fellas that we'd replaced back the next day and we just moved into the squadron.
I had never seen a Kittyhawk; while we were on the ship at Colombo I'd seen five of them flying over at a fairly high altitude. But the Kittyhawks were sitting there and we had to find out all about 'em. Luckily there was a couple of blokes that had been there for quite a while and two in particular - I moved into the tent with them - were very helpful and they quickly taught us the ropes; what you needed to know. And, again, if you got into trouble you called on one of your mates to help you out.
What kind of condition were the Kittyhawks in at this stage?
At that stage they were in pretty rough shape, particularly engines. We were having a lot of trouble with engines. They wouldn't stand up; they weren't properly filtered - I mean, air-filtered - the dust was getting into them. If you could get thirty hours operation it was unusual out of one of those old Allison engines. Usually you had to keep checking them all the time. There's a filter on the oil system that filters all the oil - it's a full flow filter - and used to get little specks of bearing metal in them and you used to watch that.
As soon as it'd start to get fairly prevalent - quite a lot after each flight - you'd see a lot more metal coming up, you'd say, 'Righto, that engine would have to come out'. Usually we used to try and catch them before they went so that they could fly them back to RSU - what they call the Repair and Salvage Units - usually, and they change the engines there. Sometimes we would change the engine on the job. If we had another aeroplane that was badly shot up and couldn't fly airframe-wise - say, the tail was shot off it or something like that - sitting there with a perfectly good engine, sometimes we'd lift that engine out and change them over.
That's a remarkably short time really, I would have thought, in terms of engine use, 30 hours.
Oh well, some of them only used to do ten. They were bad. There was a lot of talk about it.
Was this a fault of the engine or just the sheer corrosive power of the dust?
Two things: it was the dust that used to get them. Even if you got a brand new engine you'd have trouble keeping it going with the dust getting into it. The filters on them weren't anywhere near adequate. A lot of the engines we had at that time had already been down to the Delta in Cairo to the big overhaul units, run by the RAF, and they'd been overhauled. A lot of those places had local Arab contract workers working in the buildings and there was a lot of talk about sabotage and all that sort of thing. But, I don't know, I think it was just a matter of the practices they were using - work practices - just weren't adequate.
Slap-happy. Later on it improved considerably. And, of course, the engines we were getting, the latest series were very much better.
Artwork by Dennis Adams showing Fitters working on a Kittyhawk engine. [AWM ART24446.]
Well, we'll come on to talk in more detail later about actually working on the engine, Reg. Another aspect that must have been a change, I would imagine, was living in tents, or, not so much tents - I'm sure you've done that before - but in a kind of desert environment, what was that like?
Well, it was a bit like camping out when you went fishing pre-war. You know, you just took the bare essentials and actually all we had in the way of sleeping equipment was a groundsheet thing that doubled as a cape - I don't know if you've ever seen those things that the army had - and two blankets. Two of those Australian wool blankets - that was the equipment they gave you to sleep on. No beds ...
So you just dossed on the ground.
We just dossed on the sand, yeah. And when we got there, even the blokes that were there didn't have anything much better. Eventually we picked up various things; like in the retreat some of the British bases further down got out and left all sorts of stretchers and things and blokes picked up all sorts of equipment.
But, impressions: we didn't have much time to worry about impressions. We just got to Gambut, as I said the other blokes took off, we were all packed up and ready to move forward. The Battle of Knightsbridge which the British tanks were going to beat the German Panzers off the face of the earth and, well, it was a disaster. The next thing we knew, they were bearing down on us...
We'd been on thirty minute readiness to go forward after the British won Knightsbridge. We'd been on it I think for a couple of days. We had to be packed up to move to the next place forward.
When they failed miserably - I think it was about three or four o'clock one afternoon - they said, 'We've got to get out of here, and quick'. So we just threw everything onto the trucks and we were actually pulled up having some bully beef, or whatever it was they gave us for a meal, about five o'clock in the evening when German tanks actually got within about seven or eight miles of us. And, so, we just took off. Travelled all night in the retreat.
Yes, I do know that was a very close call. You were telling me before about some nuisance bombing and then an attack on a strip. This was when Bobby Gibbes was shot down. Was that before or after Knightsbridge?
That was before.
Right. Tell us about that?
Well, I'd only just arrived in the squadron and I think the first night we were there we had a reasonably peaceful night. You could hear the odd bomber strafing and bombing away in the distance. Of course, Tobruk wasn't far away - oh, I've forgotten, about forty miles I think; thirty-odd to forty miles as I recall, I wouldn't guarantee that. They used to raid that regularly. You'd hear all that. You could even see the ack-ack and every now and again one would stray our way. But the second night, I think it was - the second or third night - there was nuisance bombers around all night bombing and strafing around our two 'dromes. There was a Spitfire 'drome just up the road from us about two or three miles and then these four squadrons of Kittyhawks where we were. And everything went fine until dawn next morning and they said, 'Oh, they'll go home now'.
I wasn't on duty early that morning, so I crawled back into the blankets and the next thing about 0630 or 7 o'clock there was all hell broke loose. I raced out of the tent in time to see a 109 going by, strafing madly, and I could have hit him with a stick almost. You know, he was right above us. And then there was about half a dozen of them. And then we were starting to realise there was a whole gaggle. I don't know exactly how many, I didn't stop to count 'em, but there would have been about a dozen I think Ju88s - eight to a dozen - just making a run right across these two 'dromes. And at that stage our early blokes had just gone into the air, some of them - I think Bobby Gibbes and I can't recall just who else - but I know I actually laid in a little hole that one of the boys had dug before we got there and watched Gibbesie fly right down through the middle of this formation. And his famous statement was, 'F the fighters, get the bombers'. And in doing that he got a couple of the 88s, split up their formation. They just dropped their bombs virtually anywhere and took off. And I can't recall who the other one was with him that did follow him through. But in doing that he got shot down and he also was injured and we didn't see him for several weeks.
Yes, I know he was off in hospital. You've only been there a few days, you're crouched in this little fox hole ...
'Harp hole' we used to call 'em.
... And what was going through your head?
Ah, you didn't have time to wonder what was going through your head. At times you used to wonder why you were there, but that was about it.
Were you frightened?
Oh yeah. Anybody who says they're not frightened of that sort of thing is, well, they're different to me. After you've been there a while you become more methodical about it. You hear them coming and many times we'd have to get into the old harp holes. And after that, it didn't take me long to get in and help dig the holes either, I can tell you that.
Was that the first job when you pitched camp?
Generally, yeah. Oh, we'd put the tent up and get things organised and sometimes we'd leave it for a day or two. It depends. As we went further along and these raids became more spread-out, we used to take our time about it. Sometimes we wouldn't even - it would depend on what was around where we were - sometimes we wouldn't even do it. But every now and again you'd get caught when you didn't have one. That happened to us a couple of times.
But, " were you frightened?" Yes. Anybody that says they're not scared in some form or another when that's actually happening, they've got to be different to me.
Were there physical symptoms? You know, sick feelings in your stomach, sweating, shaking?
No. I don't think I ever did that. But I, you know, you become very apprehensive. Frustrated is another word. You can't do anything about it. You'd like to chuck a rock at them or something, but you can't do anything.
I can imagine that frustration. Well, let's move on a little bit. After the Battle of Knightsbridge of course there was this period of a very rapid retreat. This was also the time when Nicky Barr was CO in Bobby Gibbes' absence and you were pushed right back to Amiriya. Let's look at this whole retreat from your point of view; from the point of view of the men maintaining aircraft. How did you cope with the very rapid moves, for a start?
I often wonder how we coped. One thing that amazed me was how we found the places we were to get back to. That first night we just took off from Gambut about five o'clock in the evening and there was no way we were organised. There was no formal organisation at all. Some of the old hands, the blokes that had been there before us, had an idea where we were going to and we had a couple of them on our truck.
Were you following roads or just cutting across country?
We just cut across country. There was only one road and it was chock-a-block, and it wasn't far north of us but we just stayed in the desert. Okay, there was lot of tracks; there was all kinds of tracks that we followed but we just kept going and even into the night, well, we travelled through until about four o'clock next morning before we really stopped.
But, of course, in a desert environment, I mean I know myself in fact especially the more trucks there are the worse it is.
In terms of confusing. The worst bits in Australia, around places like Moonbi, you just can't find your way; there's so many tracks. So when you're making these leap-frogging jumps back, were they working on a compass bearing and a distance and then just setting off, or what?
Virtually, yes. Okay, when we were more organised we usually had two or three of the senior ground officers with us; quite often the doctor and a couple of medical orderlies - and we always had some medical team with us and there was always somebody there that had planned where we were going to go and how we were going to get there and we moved as a convoy. We mightn't have followed one behind the other, but we all sort of went through if we were going across desert, we just moved as a team, and usually spread out so we wouldn't get in each others' dust.
Lights at night, or not?
No, no lights. Only those little black-out lamps, you know, the little ones with the hoods that went over the old lamps with one little spot on them which was also shrouded - no light. Luckily in that first part of that retreat, it was bright moonlight - which didn't give you much heart either because they're the nights that the Jerry used to get out. And my part of C Flight, I don't think we were strafed at all on the way back. B Flight got caught at one spot I think it was, one night and there was no damage done, but they were subject to it I believe.
You're moving back often at night and then having, I assume, to very, very rapidly work on planes, how easy or how hard was it to set yourself up at each new airstrip?
It got to the point where you .... You see, what actually happened was the two flights leap-frogged each other and the one flight would stay, C Flight, would look after the aircraft until the other lot were down and established at the next place. The aeroplanes would take off and do a job and then go straight back and land where B Flight was and then we'd pack up and go back and the only place that we were really pushed was out of Gambut and I think that night, and only one other night, as I recall, we travelled at night-time. But, and as we got down towards Amiriya also we had to get back pretty quick, because it got to the point there where the Jerries were coming pretty fast behind us.
Did you have much trouble travelling back in terms of boggings and so on? Or was it more stony country that wouldn't bog you?
We didn't have any trouble. I believe one lot got bogged in sand and in trying to get it out they wrecked a truck and left a load of beer behind. They claimed they just left it there; we don't know (laughing). They've never owned up to what happened. But, I believe that's correct, they actually got bogged in sand and then tore the diff. out of the truck or something and they couldn't get it out.
Just one other thing perhaps in moving back, Reg. As an airman yourself, when the time came to move, were you totally preoccupied in packing up repair gear and all the rest of it, or were you also involved in packing up the camp itself - tents?
Oh, both. You were responsible for the gear that you had. Your few tools, if you had any, sometimes we had tins of the old glycol - the coolant from the engine - sometimes we had oil. And, of course, you were also responsible for your tent and your own personal gear. Occasionally it came about that you were trying to get a machine finished, so that it could fly out, somebody else would have to pack your gear. Well, your mates took care of that, or you'd take care of theirs if they were stuck. The work was shared around.
The main tent, like the C Flight tent, the Flight Sergeant that ran C Flight as far as maintenance was concerned, he had quite a bit of gear. Well, quite often we'd go and help put that all together and put it on a truck. There wasn't that much of it you couldn't move out pretty quick. And, of course, if you knew you were only going to be there for a few days, quite often you'd leave it mostly on the truck. Leave it there and just take out what you wanted.
Right. Well, there are some other aspects of the leap-frogging business that we might talk about when we come to talk about the advance; there are some other things I would like to clarify. Something I would like to ask now though, is about the relationship between ground staff such as yourself and the aircrew, I think you were saying that generally the ground staff were responsible for a particular plane?
Yes, that is correct. Usually, there was a fitter 2E or a flight mechanic and a 2A or a rigger responsible for a particular aeroplane. Later on there was also an armourer assigned to that particular aeroplane. And your job was to look after it and later on particularly - oh, from about Amiriya on - more and more the same pilots flew the same aeroplanes. And as to relationships: I've personally had some very good relationships with all the pilots that flew the aeroplane that I was involved with.
As I said, I started out originally I think I had "F", F for Freddie, CV-F - Rex Bayly used to fly it. Well, Rex and I - when he was a sergeant - we were quite good friends. And then Rex went on his way. I got a new aeroplane. Old F was a real old oil-burner. I used to say to Rex, 'Don't worry. The Jerries will never shoot at you; they'll think you've already been shot down, there's so much oil flying out of the back of this.' But Keith Kildey became flight commander, and he took over "A" and I was given this new aeroplane to look after Keith. Another fella, Tom Quill and I, Tom was the flight rigger. Then after Keith left, at this stage there was a young sergeant pilot, Ian Roediger (who know lives in Melbourne) Ian came into the squadron, he used to get into "A" whenever Keith wasn't flying and he used to be lined up there every time he got the opportunity. I got to know him very well.
Keith and I were very good friends, and still are today but Ian and I were to become very close friends. Over the years he finally got his commission - he did his first tour and got his commission - went off for a spell and at that stage a fella named Arthur Dawkins, a flying officer who lives in Adelaide. Dawks came into the squadron and he started moving in on the odd flights, until eventually he took over.
At this stage we were on "B", we had B for some reason. Don't ask me why we changed, but actually it changed to B when Ian was on his first tour and then Dawks moved in. He was still with us way up in Italy when Ian Roediger came back to do his second tour. And, of course, Ian was still doing it, when Rex Bayly arrived back. Of course, Rex, he took over Eaton's [former Commanding Officer's] old aeroplane or whatever it was. Anyway, he didn't go into mine. And, at that stage, it was right about the time I was posted to 462 Squadron in England.
There was this sort of cycling of individuals through the squadron.
Well, I was lucky in this respect that, number one, I'd never lost any of the pilots that I was friendly with - I never lost one in the whole of the time they were actually flying my kite. They lost a few aeroplanes on me. I think Roediger was shot down three times, if I remember. And Dawks battered-up a couple; he didn't do any real damage but made a mess of a couple. And they, those blokes, are still today my best friends.
I would like just to pursue this aspect a little bit more. Just one thing to start with, and this is of course talking of the war years, not now: In those days you were a non-commissioned man yourself and some of your pilots were commissioned. Would you have been calling them 'Sir' or were you on first name terms?
It depended. It depended, you know, when you first met them you called them 'Sir'. Most of them used to say, 'Call me so-and-so'. Bob Gibbes, I always called him 'Sir', right up, yeah, always during the war. I didn't know him that long but always called him 'Sir'. But when Bob was setting up his airline in New Guinea, one of the first blokes he came looking for was me, to take me up there to go work for him. So, you know, that's the sort of relationship we had.
Yes. I know there was a very close relationship through the squadron. Another thing I wanted to ask was how much pride did, particularly ground staff, take in their own pilots and their achievements? Or did they just see that some people were born to be better pilots than others and therefore there wasn't a kind of ...
Ah, there was a lot of pride. But it wasn't, it wasn't flaunted as the best way. You sort of felt sorry for the other bloke that ... Some pilots, we used to look at some of the young pilots that came to the squadron and you'd feel absolutely sorry for them. We got to know. You could usually pick who were the ones that after a couple of weeks, would have the best chance of staying around and it was quite common for blokes to ...
How could you pick that? What were the characteristics?
Oh, just the results of their attitudes... No, you could tell from their - particularly after they came back from a job, some of them were very jittery, they used to get very shook up.
Did ground staff judge that or did they ...
Oh, yeah, we could see it straight away.
No, sorry, I didn't mean judge it the sense of picking it, but were you judgmental about it, or did the ground staff see that flying, or rather fighting aircraft was just something that probably very few people were built to do?
I think that is true. I think that we used to look at some of those fellas and say, 'Well, look, they shouldn't be doing it'. There was a few like that particularly around about that period of Amiriya just before the push when the Germans were trying to stop us. We were losing quite a few; the losses were quite heavy and you became pretty cynical about it. It used to affect you. If you say, you know, certain people and particularly the ones you knew - I know a couple of [groundcrew] that lost several pilots, they were killed and it affected them a lot. They were really uptight about it. But as I said, I didn't have to do that.
I went through one experience, Ian Roediger one time in Italy was shot down. The others came back, and Ian was leading the thing and he'd left his flight truck, his pilot's gharry, with me. (Gharries we used to call them, the little truck.) He didn't come back. I think it was only about half a dozen planes went on this job. Ian didn't come back and I went over to the other fella - I think it was Ron Matthews as I remember - and he just looked at me and he said, 'Well, Ian's had it'. And I always remember I went back to my tent and I was really upset. That was about, oh, a bit after lunch as I recall, early afternoon.
That evening, just at dusk, there was a hell of a commotion just down from where I was sitting outside my tent, and there was Roediger, he arrived on the back of a jeep. And you can't imagine what a relief that was. He and I were, at that stage, very, very good friends and it affects you.
Fano, Italy. c. November 1944. Informal portrait of, left to right: Flight Lieutenant (Flt Lt) John Hooke DFC of Vic, pilot;
Flt Lt Ian Roediger DFC of Vic, flight commander, and Squadron Leader Rex Bayly DFC of NSW, commanding officer.
All are members of No. 450 (Kittyhawk) Squadron RAAF, operating in Italy.
Yes, I can understand that for sure, Reg. That's obviously still very real today I would imagine.
Just another aspect of this kind of general issue, the morale of No. 3 Squadron, a lot of people have said quite strongly that morale was very high, that there was a special feeling in the unit that was somehow different to a lot of other squadrons. Did you feel that? And if you did, what would you put it down to?
Well, as I said, I never really served on other squadrons. I know this: the difference between 3 Squadron and the one I went to in England was, you just couldn't compare. To a huge big bomber squadron, no way you could compare it, but I spent all my life virtually on 3 Squadron. I do know this: there was, no doubt about it, there was a definite pride and there was a definite morale, sort of high standing, no question.
Did that percolate from the top down? Or was it just a thing that spread right through the unit and went up as well as down?
I think it had to be spread right through the unit, rather than percolate down. Okay, fellas that might have generated it early in the piece, you know, they all say (I never knew him as a CO), but Pete Jeffrey apparently commanded very high respect and the morale was high. And I think it stems back from those blokes. Bobby Gibbes; Nicky Barr, everybody had a lot of respect for Nicky as a man. Gibbesie was a different type of person altogether: a fiery character, but also a likeable guy. And I knew a pilot that said, 'God, I hate him, but when those wheels lift up', he said, 'when I see those wheels lift up I thank God he's right there in front of me'. In other words, they'd follow him anywhere. And that sort of thing builds morale; and it went right through the squadron.
Plus the fact that we were in a Wing with another Aussie squadron, 450 Squadron, and two English squadrons and a South African squadron. In the latter stage there was three English squadrons. In other words, there were six squadrons in the Wing in Italy (the later part of it). And the fact that we were always classified as being up among the best, if not the best, was a sort of a proud feeling that was sort of maintained, because of the ability of the pilots and everybody else. I suppose it's the ability of everybody to keep the show going and that's pervaded right through the whole squadron. I don't think it was any individual as such at any time ...
The retreat back to Amiriya of course was very rapid. I think that was also the period when the 200th [Axis] plane was claimed. (I know that was a little bit disputed.) That little incident, incidentally, had a lot made of it at the time?
Oh yes, there was, and everybody knew it was coming up, disputed or otherwise. It was close anyway. It was appropriate. That did a lot for morale, that type of thing. First squadron to hit that, you know.
Amiriya, Egypt. c. 1942-10. After destroying a Messerchmitt Bf109, his Squadron's 200th enemy aircraft,
Squadron Leader R. H. M. (Bobby) Gibbes DFC, the Commanding Officer of No.3 Squadron RAAF, right,
celebrated the event. Here he is speaking into the microphone when he made a recording for the BBC.
With him is Flight Lieutenant E. K. (Keith) Kildey DFM (left), also of No. 3 Squadron RAAF.
Did you have a big bash?
We did, yeah. The pilots had a bigger one I think. But we got into it in one form or another. But we did, we had a big bash and it was right at the time when there was oodles of Aussie beer kicking around, because the 9th Divi. had moved down from Palestine, as it was then known. Came down from Palestine and of course they brought all their canteens and oodles of Aussie beer along with them. And they were just up the road from us, up at the Alamein Line and waiting to go. At one stage they were right around us. And that 200th did a lot. Whether it be disputed or otherwise, whether it was the 196th or the 206th; I personally don't care, and there's a lot of people feel the same way. As far as I'm concerned this doubt about it is all water under the bridge actually. Forget it. They're all arguing about nothing I think.
Yes, well, I do know a bit about that. I know some of the key players and it strikes me as a fairly ...
You could cut it out or do what you like. I had my say the other day but it doesn't involve me anyway.
You are certainly never going to establish the truth I would have thought at this distance. Having got back to Amiriya you went on your first leave I think in a quiet vehicle. Tell us about the vehicle and tell us about where you went?
We had a character with us who'd actually been a police cadet here in Sydney before the war and we were told this afternoon, this particular afternoon, that we had I think fourteen days', if I remember, leave. We'd only just arrived back in Amiriya and we were down to about half a dozen clapped out old aeroplanes and equipment was, you know, virtually shot. So they said, 'Right, you've got fourteen days', I think it was fourteen days' leave and we were sort of sitting there working out what we were going to do with it when this gharry, as we used to call them, truck pulled up. It wasn't a big truck, it was like our present big utes that you see, the F100s, you know, the Fords, about that type of thing. It was a South African built machine which was a distinctive type of truck, big utility. And this had been borrowed unofficially from the South Africans some time by this chappy, this ex-police bloke who was in the squadron.
Chappy and a couple of his mates pulled up outside the tent and said, 'We're going to Palestine. Who's coming?'. And they were in C Flight with us. So I can remember I grabbed my fur-felt hat, a pair of shoes and socks and a shirt and jumped on the truck and away we went. And this chappy, he couldn't drive for nuts and it was getting on for dark when we headed off towards Cairo because we were just off the main road between Alexandria and Cairo. And we headed off down the road and somebody - he was crashing gears and fooling around there and nearly running into everything - and finally they kicked him out and put me at the wheel.
(5.00) So I got in there and the first thing I did was went to put the lights on - we didn't have any lights. So we got out and we fixed those; we found a screwdriver and we fixed the lights. It was only fuses and we got them working. And we got back in and I'm driving along the road and he's sitting in the front - there was three of us in the front - and I said, 'What are the tyres like on this thing?'. 'Oh' he said, 'They're so-so'. He said, 'They're getting a bit bald'. I said, 'Oh, what's the spare like?'. He said, 'We haven't got one'. I said, 'Have we got any tools?', 'Well', he said, 'You've seen 'em. You had the screwdriver and something else; pliers.' So anyway, then we had to negotiate all the big road blocks, you know, manned by the British Red Caps, military police and we bluffed our way through all of those and we got to .... I drove nearly all that night right up over the Sinai Desert, over the Canal and up through the Sinai till about four o'clock in the morning then somebody else took over.
We got to Jerusalem the next afternoon about three as I remember. And we had a week there. We hired a taxi and went across to Haifa one day and did tours around. We went out to the Dead Sea; went swimming in the Dead Sea. And had a real nice leave, looked at all the things around Jerusalem, all the Holy City and the rest of it. And eventually we went back across to Tel Aviv where I had my twenty-first birthday on the beach at Tel Aviv.
You actually had a, you were partying on the beach.
We had a big party, yes. The AIF had left this big Comforts Fund rest place right on the beach there and we were, had all the wherewithal, everything to go with it. We had a day's swimming, a couple of New Zealand nurses - three or four of us - and we had a great old time. That was my twenty-first. And then a few days later we set sail back, still without a spare tyre. Oh, the other thing we left was a 44-gallon drum of 100 octane - that's the aeroplane fuel - on the back and about twelve or fourteen gallons of oil because this thing used nearly as much oil as it did petrol. We had to refuel those and we got those filled up and we took off back to Cairo.
Halfway, we got about just about down to the Canal somewhere, the Suez Canal, on this road through the Sinai Desert and, bang went a tyre. And finally we left Chappy and a couple of the other there and we took off and we hitch-hiked into some big place right on the Canal, I've forgotten the name of it. A lot of army, British Army place there. We finally scrounged a tyre and - a wheel and a tyre - and we were just out on the road heading back when Chappy turned up. He'd driven it about fifty miles along the black bitumen road on the rim. He'd torn a furrow about this deep and just as he got to us the road engineers, the British road engineers, caught up with him. We had to get him out of gaol (laughing).
It was obviously anyway quite an adventure.
Yeah. That was our leave, our leave from Amiriya.
And that was, I think in the whole time you spent in the Middle East, the only extended leave?
Is that the only extended leave you had while you were in the Middle East?
That was the only leave we had from there until, oh, when we were at Tripoli. We had a couple of days in Tripoli. Just went into Tripoli, you know, we took it in turns in going into Tripoli; unofficially virtually - Tripoli. And then when we got, after the thing, after the show all ended in North Africa and we came back to Zuara we had a few days, I think about three or four - three days' - leave in Tripoli and that was all the leave we had in all the time we were there.
We'll pick up on those things later. Let's move on to the general story again, Reg. It was later in '42, this is of course now the squadron has been re-equipped. Tell us about that re-equipping period? What did it involve?
Well, as far as I was concerned, it involved, I got a brand new aeroplane and the rigger - the airframe fitter I should say - Tom Quill, myself and Arthur Dawkins the pilot, we spent hours polishing the thing, waxing it, and cleaning, you know, polishing the paint, waxing it to see if it could go a bit faster. We took off all the little bits that might slow it up.
Was this before the advance or after ...
This period around Tripoli?
This was in the period around Tripoli before we went into .... Have I got ahead of myself?
Yeah, I think we've just skipped ahead a bit.
No, it doesn't matter.
Where we were up to?
Well, this is after you've fallen back to Amiriya and you've been on leave and the squadron was generally re-equipping. I think you did actually have a new plane.
(10.00) Yeah, I did. I actually got a new plane at that time and, of course, we got trucks. We actually got some new tents and the Americans, courtesy of the American squadrons that moved in with us, we all got new stretchers, which we purloined. Beautiful tool boxes which they, compliments of the Yanks and then we set sail across North Africa.
Well, let's talk about that general advance. This advance after the Amiriya period I think it was very rapid and very busy.
It was. The first move we made, C Flight, went to El Daba which we'd been on before and been used very, very greatly by the Germans. When we got there there were any number of German .... Well, we went up through the Alamein line. We camped the first night right near the El Alamein Station, railway station, on the side of the road. We were strafed by German Ju88s; didn't do much damage but frightened a few people. Then we moved up to Daba and we virtually got in there - there'd been quite a battle go on, there was mines been planted everywhere. There were bodies laying around all over the place. There was quite a mess there. Also there'd been, for some reason or other, two Wellingtons had tried to land there - you know, Wellington bombers, British - and they'd run into each other and they caught fire just after we got there which lit up the place no end and invited every German bomber for miles around that night. And all they did was come in bombing around. We had a rotten night.
But we went to Daba, we operated from there only a few days. B Flight went ahead to the next place - I can't remember where it was - but we just did that for quite some, any number of places. Sidi Haneish of course, that's where our old base used to be and I think we stayed about, C Flight went to Daba first; B Flight went straight to Sidi Haneish; we only stayed about a day I think in Sidi Haneish. We kept our trucks packed and everything and then we moved straight up here to Michiefa, and we did right the whole time. Now, when you're operating, as I said, at that stage we had full strength of aeroplanes, we'd lost a few but fairly well equipped, with only half the number of men on the job it meant work - a lot of it.
Let me ask a few more specific questions about the work involved during this advance period. One thing that interests me is how did the parts that you needed and petrol that the planes needed to keep flying, how did that keep up with you? How well organised was that?
I think only a couple of times did we run short of petrol. The British supply lines were pretty good. Odd occasions, or a lot of occasions with parts we used to take, we always used to get an aeroplane that was shot up and grounded and quite often we'd have to take bits off them - quite often; frequent, very frequently. We'd take pieces off one plane and fit it on another. We did have spares, some spares. We had a truck loaded with, or several trucks loaded with various spares but you never ever had enough. And we used to make do with whatever we could get. Quite often, as I said, if we left a machine back at El Daba, if we left one there to be picked up by the repair and salvage units and we wanted something off it, we'd shoot someone back to take something off it.
Right. So there was a lot of scavenging off other planes.
All the time. Mmm.
I would like to find out a little bit more because nobody has really told us this before, Reg, about the day-to-day routine of ongoing maintenance and also refuelling. Take a day when your particular plane might be flying off on one or perhaps two operations, when did you do the routine maintenance and the refuelling and so on?
Usually your machine had to be serviceable the night before - the previous night. And you'd get up in the morning, if they were going to take off at daybreak you'd be up, whenever, you know, at quarter to five or whatever time, four-thirty - whatever it took. And you'd be up and you'd have it checked. You'd check it again. You'd check the fuel, it was still full of fuel; you'd drain the fuel cocks underneath of any water that might be accumulated in the bottom of the tanks; you'd check all that. Visual, get all the birds that used to nest in around the warm spots and the radiators and so on which was quite a lot. Frequently in the desert you'd find birds in there. Then when you got all that checked you'd get in it and warm it up and run it up.
(15.00) Actually start the engine?
Oh yes. Start the engine and warm it up to operating temperature then you'd run it up to full RPM and check your magnetos to see if there are any spark plugs missing or anything wrong with the engine. Do that check. When you got it all fixed there, then you'd shut her down. Make sure the windows were all bright and shiny so that the pilots weren't seeing aeroplanes when there was a speck of something, they were seeing an enemy fighter up behind them. You know, they used to be really careful about that.
Mmm. That's an interesting point because, obviously, I mean I just think from looking over your shoulder in a car you'll often pick up a little ...
Oh yeah. Well, that's very particular. We used to have to get those windows as clean as possible. That's why you've got the chamois. Because, as I said, the first thing I was given was a chamois full of holes and that was one of your main functions was to keep those windows clean no matter what mustering you were.
Of course water was very scarce. What did you use with the chamois?
Sometimes we'd wet the chamois once a day and just keep it wet and keep it rolled up. It would be dry enough, wet enough, I should say. And then at other times you'd just use the dry chamois. Now quite often you'd use the dry chamois you got static electricity and you'd have to go and get it wet with something and clean it.
Right. So you've polished things up and basically you now have the plane ready to your pilot.
Yeah, she's ready to go. And, of course, the other thing, while you're doing that, you're also check to make sure your tyres are still all okay. The armourers would come round and just double-check the bombs were all armed; everything was ready to go. Even ourselves, in the latter part, we used to check that ourselves and see that the bombs were all set. Ammunition of course would all be topped up, all full of ammunition the night before. So you're all ready to go. And the pilot, sometimes they'd take off at six o'clock. It depends what time. Other times you'd sit there until ten. Sometimes you wouldn't be called out until nine to go and start and getting it ready, they are going to fly at ten or something like that.
But take a real busy time. They be off at six; forty-five minute, one hour flight they'd be back.
What happens then?
So when the pilot got out of it he'd say, 'It's running sweetly' or 'It's dropping revs', so and so, or 'It's running rough' or whatever. You'd report, he'd tell you. So you immediately went to work to find out what was causing that. Sometimes you'd might have a bullet hole in it somewhere, it would have to be patched. Even if you're an engine fitter sometimes you patch that if it wasn't a serious one - stick a bit of patch over it and glue it on. You'd then go through the routine of refuelling, checking the refuelling .... Well, if he reported the thing was running rough you'd have to find out what it was. Usually on most of those it was spark plugs. We used to have a lot of trouble in the early machines particularly sand getting through into the combustion chambers and little globules of silicon forming across the points of the spark plugs and shorting that plug right out.
What happened if fairly soon afterwards another operation was called and you hadn't been able to isolate a particular fault, did the plane take off, or not?
No, oh no. If you couldn't get it done in time they had to go either with a lesser number or put in a standby machine, if you had a standby.
So obviously this work really would be going on at quite a fast pace I would assume?
Yep, it used to. Particularly when you were flying, you know, they'd get back. They do this one take-off at seven, do a one-hour flight, sometimes they'd be off again at nine-thirty or even before in some cases. And if you couldn't get it all done, well, you just did the best you could. You might have three planes in the flight that are giving trouble. Well, you worked on the best two. In other words, the third one, well, you knew you couldn't get it done in time so you just let somebody go ahead with it and then you'd hit it when the others took off. That was the general ...
That's most interesting. Reg, I would like to ask you about dust, both as it affected the ongoing operation of an engine and your actual working. You know, how do you repair an engine with these very precise parts and things that have to be cleaned, surrounded by dust?
Oh, don't ask me how you do it but you don't really ...Or you try not to open up too much of an aeroplane engine for example when there's heavy or severe dust. Okay, sometimes if you took a part off, for example, if you were checking that big filter that used to collect this metal, you had to take that thing out regardless. When we had these old engines you used to have to check them after every flight, the original engines, and it meant pulling the thing right out. Well, we used to have a piece of blanking stuff to put right over the hole straightaway and then you'd take the thing out and you'd wash it in the 100 octane and check the metal on it, clean it all up and if you were going to put it back you'd wash it in the petrol right on the side of the wing. You'd pull the plug off and bang it straight on. And then just button it up, or bolt it up and of course you wouldn't get much dirt in there and that's the way you had to operate on most things.
Okay, if you got to something really, opening up a magneto or carburettors - you weren't supposed to open them up - we used to, but you wouldn't do it on a real dirty dusty day. You couldn't.
(20.00) So you really had to, I mean, on a day when there was a lot of wind and the dust was really lifting you just simply could not do that?
That's right. Well, quite often, you'd just take one carbie off and put a good one on. That was the main, as far as we were concerned, you'd take the one that was malfunctioning, take it off and put one that you knew was right, right in its place, and usually they were wrapped up, pretty well wrapped up, and you'd just unwrap it and leave the blanks on it and put it right into the place and try and button it up as quick as you could if there was any dust getting around.
I don't know if there's anything else you want to add to that general description; it seems very clear to me.
Well, it was, I suppose when a purist looked at it, when I got to TAA for example and started into the department, working under the Department of Civil Aviation rules and regulations it's a different story altogether. Now they would have had, the old blokes that wrote those regulations would have had a heart failure if they'd have seen some of the things we did. But I don't know anyone that lost his life or anything from an aeroplane that - I don't know of anyone - that lost his life because someone had done these things. You became pretty hard and thought okay, you often had an aeroplane, you'd hear them spluttering and coughing and the next thing you'd see one on its belly down the end of the strip with bombs rolling around everywhere. You just said, 'Oh well, he didn't make it', you know, and usually the pilots got out of them. And that was quite often due to malfunction of the engine usually - something wrong. The early Mustangs we had after we were in Italy, every now and again they used to shoot the after-cooler thing.
Did particular ground staff, of a particular aeroplane I mean, did they ever take those incidents to heart or did they just say, 'Well, there it is. This is the game we're playing and that's fate'?
If nobody was hurt that's pretty much what they did. Get us another aeroplane and we'll get on with it.
What about if somebody was hurt?
Oh, gee, I've seen blokes very upset; very upset. You know, not so much where it could be attributed to their work but the fact that they were the ones looking after that plane. You know, you can't be certain that everything's 100 per cent on those old things, anyway on those aeroplanes. There's just no way you could guarantee. Even today the same thing. The only thing that saves them today is they have all these backup mechanisms on the things. They've got so many backups that, if something goes out they've got something to take its place.
Well, let's move on a little bit. Christmas '42, the squadron had moved on, half were at Marble Arch, B Flight. Your Flight C was at Chell. I think you spent Christmas there building an airstrip and drinking a bit of beer?
Yeah, we did. We didn't even have tents erected. We just sort of made little makeshift tent flies stuck on a pole. We arrived there and the airstrip wasn't anything like finished. They had a couple of old British Army graders trying to scratch out an airfield in among the gravel and camel bush. And we spent two or three days picking up big stones and dropping them in holes and filling up holes and helping to build that thing. Christmas Day we actually had some Aussie beer and we all received a Comforts Fund and we had plum puddings and we actually had a Christmas sitting on the ground with a few bottles of beer and some Christmas goodies.
Sounds rather fun.
It was, yeah.
Were you able to stop work for the day or did you have to keep working?
Oh no, we only stopped for an hour or two. I think it was two or three hours, I don't know exactly, I can't remember but we didn't stop all day, that's definite.
I'd imagine at times like Christmas people's thoughts tended to drift home. Did yours?
Yes. We did.
Did you get letters often?
No, very infrequent. You know, sometimes you'd go for two months and then there'd be a pile of letters arrive. Sometimes you go for two months and there'd be a pile of letters arrive and there'd be none for you. You know, and then about a week later another bunch would turn up and you'd get this stack of letters and ...
I don't know if it's a stereotype but the images or stories one's heard of men who, for whatever reason, didn't get mail but being part of the general mail day experience, people sharing news and so on. Was that true or not?
(25.00) Oh yeah, you did. Particularly with your tent mates. In our case, you know, where there was four or five of us in a tent, as it later turned there was generally four of us all through Italy - or sometimes we had five - but you did, you shared everything. Even some of it went further than your own tent. But, you know, you'd lay back and you'd read out the extracts from your letters and discuss it all and you were just on a high really when you got the mail. And one of the things that always was hard to do was to sit down and write a letter when you hadn't had any mail for six or eight weeks. And when you got the letter quite often it was censored, bits taken out of it, but before that you had to sit down and write a letter. Your own mail going out was censored. You weren't allowed, weren't supposed to write anything about, you know, what you were doing, where you were or anything like that and you hadn't had any mail from home to tell what's happening at home. You didn't really know, we hadn't seen a newspaper, we used to listen to the BBC in North Africa quite often, that's the only news you got; very little about Australia ...
So when you said it's hard writing letters, did you mean that given that some things you couldn't say, it was hard to know what to write about or what?
That's right. With that background you sit down and you think, 'Well, what am I going to write about that I haven't already written last letter?', and we used to write those little air-grams they called them. They used to take a film of them and send these little negatives home and then they'd be redeveloped. We used to get them the same over there. You know, it was a page and a half.
I've never heard about that. Tell us about that. Your letter would be photographed in some way?
Yeah, when you write this air letter thing - it was called an air-gram I think, as I remember - we wouldn't have any here because all of mine got burnt. Betty saved them all but they all got burnt years ago. But they were like an air letter that you get today. They were photographed and reduced down to just the little, I think, eight millimetre - eight or sixteen, I'm not sure - millimetre film for each letter and that was flown by, I believe, the old seaplanes. The Catalinas used to fly them across from the Middle East to India and down through Ceylon and to Australia. And when you got them to Australia or we got them up there they'd be developed and then you'd receive this little half page, oh, about the size of that. Fine, if somebody wrote in fine writing you'd have to really study it to read it.
That's interesting. I guess to save work.
When you hadn't had one of those for quite a while and you'd already written a couple of letters from that date and said, 'Well, we're still here, we're alive', what do you write about? - "The dust is still dusty and the sun's still hot." (laughing).
Melbourne, Vic. 1943-07-07. A clerk at the General Post Office preparing airgraph letters
for photographing by Kodak (Australasia) Pty Ltd.
Reg, after that period near Chell, I know the squadron was pushing on towards Tripoli going rather south with some New Zealand forces. Just talking about this general period, some general issues, it was during this period that you said, or you recalled, that it wasn't really like being in the Air Force. Tell us about that.
Well, it was the entire period really from when I was over there. It wasn't like being in the Air Force as such but at that stage it was one of the roughest periods we went through. We were down, well down south of the coast and ended up way south of Tripoli with the New Zealanders and the water down in that area was absolutely shocking. It was chock-full of chemicals almost to the point where you couldn't even make tea with it and you used to get one little water bottle which used to hold about a litre each, those water bottles, you'd get one of those for your entire needs one day. The next day that water bottle-full went to the cook-house to cook your meals.
So what did you drink on that second day?
Usually tea. We'd make up a bit of tea with what we had. We'd pool it all between us and we'd make tea. But, apart from that, the area was just rough and dusty and miserable the whole time and we'd spent about, we'd all grown beards from Alamein through to there and you'd see blokes come down there with the dust hanging on their beard and they'd get up the next morning and it was still there, you didn't take any notice of it.
What was the situation with uniform? Were people wearing uniform as such, or just wearing whatever they happened to have?
You wore whatever you happened to have. We were just talking about one character and .... Quite often you'd see blokes in ...
That's him there. This Joe Stanley, he got picked up one time by the British Red Caps, the British military police because he used to get around wearing, I think on this particular day he had a German greatcoat on and all the rest of his gear was Italian and he had this big black beard and he had a hell of a time trying to convince these blokes who he was. We used to wear New Zealand .... You see in a lot of those photos of our blokes they're wearing the New Zealand battle dress, or the English battle dress - what do they call it? - the old jacket and pants, in the cooler weather.
Why was that seen as better kit?
Well, that was issued. We could get that. Our own uniform material we never saw it. And all the stuff that we'd brought from Australia with us, by the way, had been left in kit bags, our sea kit as you call it, except virtually the stuff we stood up in, had been left back down in Cairo. Some of that I didn't see until after the war. But, you know, there was no uniform of such. You just wore what you had. It might be, if it was a cooler day, you'd wear what was left of your blue overalls - Air Force overalls.
Parades; did they happen regularly or not?
No. We didn't have any parades where you actually lined up in three ranks. We had one muster as you might call it down at Amiriya after the party of the 200th aeroplane shooting-down. Somebody had knocked off the Air Commodore's - the local English Air Commodore, the air officer commanding - they'd taken his staff car and his hat the night before from outside our officers' mess and taken it walkabout. They found the staff car driven into, right into one of the English squadron store's tents but he never found his hat. And Bob Gibbes who was our commanding officer lined us all up and gave us all ten minutes to get the things all sorted out but we never did get into three ranks. And the only real time that we got all dressed up was twice for the King: once up in North Africa when we were up around, after the North African show ended; and the second time was when we were up in the middle of Italy and the King came around and we all got dressed up and went on parade. And it was a hell of a time for everybody trying to find enough gear to all look the same. I think on both occasions we wore shorts and shirt.
Yes. I can imagine that. Well, that's most interesting, Reg. Moving on a little bit. The squadron arrived at Tripoli in January '43. I think you were actually at an airstrip called Castel Benito. Tripoli I think was very different, much less harsh?
Oh, it was like a breath of spring. We arrived at the Castel Benito, or just outside the Castel Benito airport about two o'clock one morning - this is after we'd come up out of the desert with the Kiwis. All we could see in the dark were these huge gum trees along the side of the road - they were Australian gums. And then as the daybreak came we were right in the middle of a very large wine growing area. All these beautiful grape vines. And, of course, there was green grass; the airstrip we went onto - the airstrip, the airdrome - had been an Italian 'drome, Castel Benito, it still exists today. But I guess they built the concrete strips and that now but it was one very large green flat paddock and ringed by beautiful trees around it. Not tall trees but a big place with lots of room to camp under trees and get around. And plenty of water. And right at that time we got a couple of trucks of Aussie beer up from Cairo and it was a different place altogether.
It must have been so wonderful after that really harsh country. No doubt there were a few baths going around the place?
I'm sure everybody had a bath. That's where we all shaved and you didn't know your best mate when he took his beard off. It was unreal; they all looked so different. They all looked like kids again.
Well, it was after that that there was the push on to Tunis, I think you were saying that the planes during this period were generally in better condition?
At that stage we were getting fairly new, mostly new aeroplanes and fairly new and they had the later model Rolls Royce, or the Packard Merlin engines that had been built in America. They were fitted with these Rolls Royce engines rather than the Allisons that the earlier models had had and they were giving us much better service and performing much, much better. Better performance from the pilot's point of view and everybody was much happier with them - what they called the Kitty II at that time.
And I think this was also a fairly busy period in terms of there being a lot of flying?
Yes. There was a fair amount of flying. We were pretty busy right until, from, we moved fairly rapidly from Tripoli. Only a matter of weeks I think it was if I remember correctly. We didn't spend any considerable time from Tripoli through until we got to Kairouan which was right up as far as we went in Tunis, or south of Tunis actually, south of the city of Tunis, where we spent a few weeks. And in that short time eventually all hostility ceased in North Africa. We stayed there for a while and people were running loose around the country gathering up all the various things they could get their hands on in the way of German armaments and German Lugers and so on. And there was thousands and thousands of German prisoners cooped up in paddocks around there until we finally moved back down to near Tripoli at Zuara.
Right. And it was down at Tripoli I think that you went through yet another re-equipping phase prior to going across the Mediterranean.
Tell us about that. What did that involve in particular?
Well, as far as aircraft was concerned, I got a brand new aeroplane which is the one that Tom Quill and Arthur Dawkins, the pilot, and myself we polished it to get better speed out of it; we tuned it, I tuned the engine, I worked on it and worked on it doing all sorts of things to get more speed out of it until Dawks was very happy with that machine and that was CV-B which he took into Sicily and Italy.
How much speed did you actually pick up out of all that work?
Ah, I think it was about eight or ten knots or something like that. I can't remember. I know it was enough to make him smile anyway. I think it was about eight or ten knots that they used to work on.
I guess that's quite a significant margin.
Oh sure it is, yeah. Yeah, if you're trying to catch up with a Jerry or someone it's a .... I just can't remember exactly how much they did but we did finally get out of that but it wasn't a lot of, you know, it wasn't that significant.
And did these new aircraft, were they a later model in terms of their engines and so on?
They were these Kittys fitted with these Rolls Royce or the Packard Merlin as we called 'em, Rolls Royce engine built by Packard in America and a much better aeroplane than what we'd been previously getting. In addition to aeroplanes, of course, we got quite a bit of new kit. Our trucks all had to be in top condition, they also had to be waterproof so that we could drive them in six feet of water in off-landing barges and so on, if they landed on a beach. They gave us all new khaki clothes, battle dress and shirts and so on; boots and the whole works. They even gave us ammunition for our old .303 rifles which we'd have to get all the cockroaches and dirt out of them to get them to work. And from there we were ready to go into Italy or Sicily.
Right. Well, let's actually move onto that. I know B Flight went first to Malta on to Sicily but C Flight went directly to Sicily and we've worked out that the invasion of Sicily was on 10th July '43. You yourselves arrived about a fortnight later, the 23rd.
Tell us about that voyage across the Mediterranean and the actual landing?
(10.00) Well, as I said, they'd virtually trained us. We did a little bit of stomping up and down training up and down the sand dunes and with all this equipment and guns, et cetera, we were ready to drive these trucks out of the landing craft, straight onto beaches and up into Sicily. However, by the time we got there the Germans had retreated completely out of that area, south-east corner of Sicily and they took us straight into the - what's the name of the, straight into Syracuse harbour. We landed at Syracuse and we drove the trucks back down to Pachino and set up there. And the next day the aircraft started to come in from Malta. They actually used to fly, they flew in from Malta, did a job over Sicily then landed back at Pachino and then, of course, B Flight eventually followed on and joined us. They were there pretty soon after us actually.
But in the lead up to this move over to Sicily, the plan had been, I understand, that you might have been involved in what you'd call an active invasion.
Well, that's what we were prepared for. When I say, yeah, we were prepared for that, to land in with the troops and take these old .303s we had and fire off some of the bullets.
How did men feel about that? Did they really think they knew what they would be doing?
No, we were a bit apprehensive about it but before long, actually, long before we got into, by listening to the radio we knew we wouldn't have to do that long before we actually arrived in Sicily. Word came through that the Germans had retreated and it looked as though we might have to come off onto the beach because there were mines in the harbour - Syracuse - but when we got there they just went straight in and landed on the docks. Only one thing, while we were unloading, three 109s gave us a bit of a dive-bomb and strafing; didn't do any damage and never went anywhere near us. But enough to cause people to scratch a bit of gravel.
Right. Get for cover. Well, from Sicily I know, I don't think you were there for too long before you moved on to Italy?
Well, yeah, we went up to Agnone which was south of Catania in Sicily and from there we went well, we all did, that's right, but I was in the flight that went .... They took three squadrons and went into Grottaglie which is just beside Taranto on the heel of Italy. And the purpose of that was, they were still fighting down between Sicily and Italy. They were still trying, they couldn't get across the toe. The Americans had gone in at Salerno and they were getting a real pasting because there was no air cover. So they took us in up here, three squadrons I think to start with and they flew in all the bombs and petrol and the whole bit. And this was right at the point where the Italians capitulated and came over to our side ostensibly. And they took us in there so that our pilots could give air cover to the landing at Salerno.
And we moved in there, the first night, the first day there we were just flat out moving bombs and petrol and rations and all sorts of things that were being flown in on the old American C-47s. The old Dakotas were flying in one after the other. They'd pull up and dump their bomb load or whatever they had, just dump it anywhere. And we had to get it all organised. We eventually got the Italian, all the Italian Army blokes, which was a weird feeling the first night we were there, there were about twenty or thirty of us camped right in the middle of a whole division of Italian infantry. They were all camped in the vineyards around us. Anyway, the next day we recruited all these blokes and they were happy to do it; move all our gear, you know, put it in dumps and did everything for us.
And you are saying there was no truculence on their part? No ...
No, none at all. Most of them - I suppose there was a few of them sulking around somewhere - but most of them were just so happy to be, you know, to be out of it virtually. There were no problems at all that I know of.
We may not cover the period in Italy in great detail because, partly because of time and we have talked in detail about the period in North Africa. But just tell us, in general, during the period in Italy that, I mean, obviously must have been so different to trudging through the desert. What are the things that stand out in your mind?
(15.00) Oh, I think the vast improvement in living conditions. When we went into Sicily we were only allowed to take our bare, very bare gear with us. I think we were back to one blanket at that stage but we took very little. But in no time at all we were able to acquire, you know, beds or stretchers - anything that was light to carry. We all had our tucker boxes. We went from ... we went from Taranto, or Grottaglie up to Bari. We moved within a matter of, oh, a week or ten days I suppose, up to Bari.
In Bari there was a little 'drome, a little airport. Again, it'd been an Italian Air Force 'drome. Bari had been virtually untouched by the war. They'd used the port a bit. The Germans had just retreated straight through it and left it. You could buy champagne, eight bottles, in a beautiful white pine case for the equivalent of two shillings Australian a bottle. So we enjoyed it. A magnificent place. And Bari itself was a lovely little city. The only thing that marred it, just after we got there, they blew up an ammunition ship in the harbour. They stuck a bomb in there where the Germans bombed this ammunition ship and it blew up right in the harbour and flattened everything for about half a mile around it just after we got there with an almighty bang. And, other than that, the improvement in living just went on and on as we went up.
Jesi Airfield near Ancona, Italy. October 1944. Group portrait of the Australian Rules football team of No. 3
(Kittyhawk) Squadron RAAF, which defeated No. 454 (Baltimore) Squadron RAAF on Jesi airfield.
Left to right, back row: Grizz Bear; Glen O'Born; Slim Moore; unidentified; ? Fleming; unidentified.
Middle row: unidentified; Ben Dodd; Flight Lieutenant Ian Roediger; Bill Leeds; Ambrose Ryan; Bill Hollingsworth; Frank Ackland.
Front row, sitting: Arthur Lance; Charlie Bardas; D. K. Nichols; Shorty Edwards; Tom Jones.
And what about working conditions, maintaining aircraft and so on?
Well the only, probably the only thing that was a little bit harsh was that the fact that we went in there in the what? What did I say, July? And we went into Sicily. We got up into a place called Cutella which is up north of Bari which was right on the coast, it was getting into the middle of winter, and they'd told us - we'd already been on a strip, back in a strip that had been cut into new strip into farmland that was mud up to your ears everywhere you went - and we got out of that and went down to this place right on the beach on the Adriatic Sea. And it was getting right into the middle of winter at this stage. And they said we would spend the winter there. Well, you know, everybody knows it gets pretty cold over there. And they said, 'No, it never snows here; it's always warm'.
Well, we weren't there any more than a couple of weeks and down it came and we had snow. We were living in tents and we spent that one winter on the beach. We had snow the first few weeks; not a lot of it but enough to make it damned uncomfortable. And we lived there, oh, for several months, I can't recall just how long - all one winter anyway because there was no movement in the forces and the front-line just stayed static virtually all through the winter. And we stayed in that one damned place and my God it was cold. That's where we had to improvise. Everybody went to heating their tents. Every now and again you'd hear, 'ca'phoof!' and up would go a tent because the heater system had set fire to the tent.
And what about working on the metal parts of aircraft?
Oh, some nights you'd come back, you know, some days you'd go down to the strip and you wouldn't get back. You might come back for a quick lunch or you wouldn't get back until evening. Other days you wouldn't even go down there the weather was so bad. But the days you did, when you had to work down there, see you'd come back and you'd be frozen stiff, usually half wet, and you'd get back and luckily we had ourselves that well organised we were able to cook ourselves up a good hot tub of some sort or throw some hot water over you all. And, of course, the mess, we used to get this SRD as they called it, they used to get it in stone jars - rum, SRD rum was an issue - rum. The boys christened it 'seldom reaches its destination', but most of the blokes wouldn't drink it. But you'd come back up and you'd get a big mug full of coffee and about half of it would be this rum and you sank that down and you could feel your clothes, underclothes drying and the steam coming out. And that was, you know ...
Put a real fire in your belly.
We used it a lot. And we were all pretty fit. Very few blokes got anything wrong with them in that time we were there but it was cold.
What about leave? Did you get much time for leave and did you get much time to enjoy the, you know, getting around the beautiful cities and towns of Italy?
Well, I was in Italy, what, close to two years I guess and I had one leave to Naples and Capri of about, I don't know, a week or ten days I think it was which, you know, was very enjoyable. Spent most of the time on Capri and then I had, then they set a rest camp in two hotels at Amalfi which is just down south of Naples. A lovely little spot. And I think I spent, another time I spent ten days there. And the next leave I had I spent - well, we were camped just outside Rome but I also had a leave in Rome for a week I think it was. And then I had another week's leave up in Florence. So, all in all, in Italy we got a fair amount of leave. And, of course, again, it was virtually with the cooperation of our chiefs. Brian Eaton was our boss at that time and he was either, he was the CO and then he became the commander of the whole wing. But he said, 'Right, as long as this squadron can operate efficiently you can send teams on leave' and we used to have to buck in and do extra work and everybody was happy to do it.
One thing I would just like to cover briefly. I know it was while you were in Italy that I think a couple of American aircraft mistakenly attacked one of your airstrips. What is your recollection of that?
Pretty vivid because I was right in the middle of it. One afternoon the aircraft had just returned from a job and I had CV-B at the time, and I think it was the same one as we polished, if I remember correctly. It was rebombed. At that stage of the game we were carrying three bombs or 1,000 pounder, you know .... Anyway, this day it had two 500-pounders on it as I recall. And it had been rebombed and rearmed and filled with petrol and right behind that, parked in behind it was the aircraft, personal aircraft that Brian Eaton, who was then the wing CO that didn't fly that often but he had his private BA-E that we used to keep in our squadron - Brian, B.A. Eaton - parked right behind it. And the operations tent and radio room was about another forty yards over beside it. CVA was parked just further up, and these were all on these concrete, sorry, not concrete, the perforated steel plate strips. It was beach sand we had the 'drome on. All the 'drome was PSP and all the taxiways, parking bays were all this perforated steel strip stuff. And, as I said, B was all fixed, ready to go again, and Ken was having a little trouble with CVA just about, oh, twenty-five, thirty yards up. And I sang out to him, 'Are you okay there?' and he said, 'No, come and give me a hand here for a minute will you?'. So I went up and we were adjusting the mixture control or the idle control actually on the thing. The pilot complained it was tending to cut out on landing and so on. And we had it adjusted and I said to Kev, 'You hop in and run the thing and I'll finish, do the fine adjustment on it'.
I just moved out on the wing while he started it and just as he was starting it, the first thing I knew there was bullets bouncing off this steel plate all around us and, you know, tracers going in all directions and I thought, 'God'. And I looked up and here's three aeroplanes coming straight at me. And one of them went over the top; I could just about hit him with a stick. He was one of the old Thunderbolts as they called them - American. And, of course, he was gone, he was no longer any problem. But the other two coming behind, there were bullets going in all directions. We hit the sand, Kev and I, and we ran a few yards, and then, of course, they woke up to what they'd done I think. They sort of pulled up and they were halfway to come back and then they flattened out and took off, went off down south. Disappeared. And with that I looked around and B was on fire. It had got hit by the strafing; it had set fire to the fuselage tank.
So, if you hadn't gone to help your mate you would have been ...
Well, I could have been. I might have been there just a few minutes but anyway, Kev and I ran back to B and we took a look at it and we hopped underneath and took the bombs off ...
While it was burning?
Yeah. Well, we knew what we were doing.
Wasn't there a danger of the fuel going up?
Oh, no, eventually we knew that it would be but not the way it was at that stage. You know, I've seen a lot of aeroplanes burn up and you get to know what to do. Anyway, I don't whether it's foolish or otherwise, everybody said it was. But the bombs had arming wires on 'em. We knew how to take them off. They had the detonators and everything in 'em. But we let the bombs down onto engine covers and just let them drop onto the engine covers which half broke the fall and the wires and everything, we made sure they came down with them. We just left the safeties on the fuses. We took them off and rolled them out of the way. Then we jumped in A and BAE. BAE had one flat tyre that a bullet had gone right through it. And we taxied it down the strip; taxied them both down the strip out of the way. And then, by that time, the fire cart had turned out and they started to put B out. Well, they didn't have a hope. It'd burnt all the back end off it, from the cockpit back it just burnt a great big ...
So what was the upshot of all this? I'd assume these pilots had mistaken or muddled their navigation?
(25.00) As I said, Brian Eaton was in charge and he went off and they came back the next day, so I found after, and publicly apologised for what they'd done. And only recently I read, and I don't think it's true, I don't know, but only recently I read in Fighters over the Desert or one of those Fighters something or other, where the actual bloke that led, the captain that led the flight dived his Thunderbolt straight into the ground and killed himself; committed suicide. I don't know whether that is true or not. I couldn't, but it's there in black and white. Next time I see Brian Eaton I'm going to ask him his version of it but I don't think it's true.
It sounds a bit [inaudible].
They just made a mistake. Actually I saw them going up about four or five miles off the coast, they were flying out to sea at only about 4,000 feet and they were flying along and I saw them going up, just a few minutes before, and what they were doing, they'd come from way down south - those old Thunderbolts had a pretty long range of them - and they'd flown out to sea and they were looking for the Germans' front-line 'drome further up behind, you know, further up. Which we were the front-line from our side and they were looking for the one .... It was actually about seventy miles from where we were.
It's quite a big miscalculation.
Oh, it sure is.
Informal portrait of 37137 Leading Aircraftman (LAC) M. M. Harris of Dunwich Hill, NSW (left),
and 11750 Corporal (Cpl) S. R. Moore of Swan Hill, Vic, standing in front of a North American P51 Mustang
aircraft. On 29 April 1944, LAC Harris and Cpl Moore were working on one of three aircraft in the same
dispersal bay when the aircraft was stafed and set on fire. A 500 pound bomb was underneath the
fuselage of the aircraft, and regardless of fire LAC Harris and Cpl Moore detached the bomb and rolled it away.
They then started up the two other aircraft and taxied them away to safety.
Both men have been Mentioned in Despatches. [AWM MEA2179]
Well, look Reg, we'd better move on a bit because the tape's running on. March '45 I know, just perhaps if I can summarise a few things, you were posted to 460 Squadron in the UK. You had some leave and, in fact, war ended as you, well, war in Europe ended when you arrived. Then there was a period for training for Okinawa but then, of course, Japan was put out of the war.
Well, there wasn't actually, I didn't actually do any training. I was supposed to have gone and done a course which I didn't do because I wasn't there to do it. I'd taken a few extra days unofficially. Got into a bit of trouble over it but I was supposed to have gone and done the course on the Rolls Royce Griffon engine down at Derby with Rolls Royce and I got back a week too late. And, boy, did I get bowled out over it. But, anyway, they were preparing actually. We were supposed to get Lincolns, an American [sic] bomber which was supposed to, that was the big rumour, which was then coming off the production line and there was going to be a group of four Australian bomber squadrons - 460, 462, 467 and, I don't know, I can't remember the other one, it might have been only three - but they were the ones that were being fully equipped supposedly with these new aeroplanes. All Aussies. See a lot of them had English in the crews and all that. And originally I went there, a team had applied to go there as flight engineers. Now whether that would have ever happened, I don't know. It just didn't and everything ended before and I wasn't worried about it that anyway.
Right. For sure.
And we were in England till October 28th. We caught the ship home, the old Aquitania. We caught the ship home to Sydney.
Right. It must have been quite a journey back with all those memories. And you were saying you arrived back here in 28th November '45.
One month, yeah.
Just two final questions. Looking back on it all, did it all mean something to you? Could you make sense of it, or not, your experiences of the war?
Yes. I could make sense of it. One of the things that made me more and more, bring it home to me just what it was about was right after the war ended in Europe I did more as a pleasure trip I flew to out just south of Frankfurt on a couple of flights with 460 Squadron where we picked up prisoners of war, blokes that, and ones that needed to get back urgently. They were all pretty sick and those poor guys, that brought it home to me. Some of the things they told me when we got 'em wrapped up and had them in the special bunks put in where the bomb-bays were and we were feeding them coffee and whatnot, and they, some of the things they told me. It brought it home to me much more than anything before that that what we'd been doing had probably been, you know, all worthwhile and, as far as I am concerned, when you now of course you read history and since the war I've read a lot of it, and when you see what was actually happening, what Hitler was doing, we had no alternative.
And, as far as I'm concerned I think that my mate Ian Roediger he described it best of all, he was a farm boy, come from a very good family and big farm down at Nhill, Ian has said to me more than once, one time he said, 'What a clot I'd have been if it hadn't have been for the war', he said, 'I would have grown up on that damn farm down there and I'd never have been anything else. The war got me out of that and made different men out of us.'
Is that true for you too? Did that change your later life?
Sure it did. After the war I joined ANA [Australian National Airways] before I got a discharge from the Air Force. Then I was with them three months when I went to TAA. I applied for the job there before they even had an aeroplane. They wanted engineers, ground engineers, who were capable blokes...
Reg 'Slim' Moore in the cockpit of CV-B FS449, for which he was the Fitter.
[3SQN Assn repaired version of original transcript on https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C88366, where digital recordings of the interview are also available.]
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