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Grottaglie, Italy. 1943. Flight Sergeant Ray O'Dea of Sydney, NSW, and Leading Aircraftman Jack Love of Qld,
check over the radio equipment on a Curtiss P40 Kittyhawk fighter bomber aircraft of No. 3 (Kittyhawk) Squadron RAAF,
before the first operation of an Australian squadron in Italy. [AWM MEA0636]
Transcript of Australian War Memorial recording.
This historically-important interview has been placed here so that its content is searchable for 3SQN Website readers.
[WORKING VERSION - Currently being edited by 3SQN Assn for readability and spelling of technical terms.]
INFORMANT: ROBERT (`BOB') SMITH
SUBJECT OF INTERVIEW: 3 SQUADRON, RAAF
DATE OF INTERVIEW: 18 OCTOBER 1990
INTERVIEWER: EDWARD STOKES
TRANSCRIBER: LYNNE LOSIK
TRANSCRIPTION DATE: 1 FEBRUARY 1991
NUMBER OF TAPES: 2
BEGIN TAPE ONE, SIDE A
This is Edward Stokes recording with Mr Robert Bruce Smith, No. 3 Squadron, tape 1, side 1.
Bob, could we perhaps begin with your place and date of birth please?
Yes Ed. I was born on the ninth of May 1923 in the town of Henty, which is about forty miles from Albury. The population then was probably about eight or nine hundred and as far as I know, it's still got the same population today.
You were saying that your father was a world war one digger. He died very early I think.
Yes, he died when I was five years of age and he was aged thirty-two. He's buried in the Henty cemetery and during world war one he was in an infantry battalion - 18th Battalion - and was gassed and I think that had a lot to do with his early passing at the age of thirty-two years.
Were you very conscious as a boy, as a young man, of the general tradition of the ANZACs and so on?
Ah, probably if anything, more so than a lot of people. In a small country town such as Henty, a lot of people had joined up during world war one. Each year they regularly held their ANZAC services. I know my mother was most punctilious when it came to attending ANZAC service. We'd never go any year without attending such a service, and even when we got to Italy we still had the ANZAC Day service, and the first winter on the beach I remember we had one. But I was always very conscious of it.
Do you think the impression that came to you as a boy of war was one of something that was glorious or horrific?
The impression I got was that it was quite horrific. The casualties in world war one by Australia were extremely heavy. History tells us that they were the heaviest of all the Allied armies, and as a result it was certainly by no means a glorification of war by attending ANZAC Day, but rather to, more as pay, in our way, a homage - or a tribute perhaps might be a better word - to those who served in world war one.
That's most interesting. You were saying that some time after your father's death - I think you were about eleven - the family moved to Albury where you went to high school, and I think about age fifteen you got your first job?
Yes, there were four of us in the family, three boys and one girl. And in fact three of us ended up in uniform - the two boys and one girl - in world war two. My youngest brother was too young. But we moved to Albury when I was eleven and I attended the Albury Public School in Smollett Street in sixth class, and then I graduated there to the Albury High School, where I attained the Intermediate - old Intermediate - Certificate. I did come back and spend about two months in fourth year before I went out into the field of employment.
Right. We might just move over the employment part of it because we have to focus on the war aspect, but it was the Albury City Council, I think. During the late '30s, Bob, were you at all conscious of political developments in either the Asian region - the Japanese invasion of China for example - or the political events in Europe - the rise to power of Hitler and so on?
Ah yes, quite a bit. In fact I've been a keen student in my way of history, and more particularly overseas history because we were taught in high school more British history and European history rather than Australian history. But I was very conscious of it and I used to watch things very carefully and when Japan joined the Axis, I got a strange feeling that it wouldn't be too long before we were more or less surrounded in a way.
(5.00) The declaration of war, do you remember where you were when that was made?
Very vividly as a matter of fact. Well I would have been seventeen at the time and we were seated in front of the wireless set of a Sunday, one Sunday night - I think it was around about eight-thirty - and the news came over that England had declared war on Germany and, as well as France, and shortly afterwards Sir [sic] Robert Menzies came on to speak to the nation. But we were just taking things very quietly one Sunday night when it all came over.
How did you react to the news? How did the family react?
Well my mother, of course, wasn't under any delusions as to what was going to happen. I mean, she was quite aghast and in fact we were all a bit taken aback because we .... Perhaps, our father being in world war one, it sort of indicated that when a war breaks out there's going to be a lot of casualties. And this was our reaction, and indeed and talking to my colleagues at work and relatives and so on, the immediate reaction is `A lot of people are going to be killed'.
Of course you were too young to join up yourself, but on the Council I know you were involved in a recruiting campaign. Could you just tell us briefly, Bob, what was involved? What did you do?
Yes. Well the powers that be in the army were most anxious to recruit and they contacted the Albury City Council and the deputy town clerk took over the actual interviews for anybody interested in joining up the armed services. A lot of them went directly to the recruiting centres and so on, but we were more particularly involved with recruiting for the air force. And I remember one person who came in who joined up in the air crew who was later killed, and in fact I signed him up on the usual form - they weren't terribly involved forms, they were only preliminary forms - and I did remember signing him up, and unfortunately it wasn't many months following that I heard that he'd been killed in an air accident.
That's most interesting. [Break in recording]. Bob, you were saying that you were keen to join up yourself as air crew. Why was that?
Well, everybody was joining up. In fact, there was really no hesitation, on the part of young people to join up. I know I had a number of cousins and, as well as myself and my own family, and without hesitation everybody expected to go into the forces. There was never any argument or discussion as, `Do you think we ought to go in?', or `Because of certain political events we ought to stop out' - there was none of that at all.
And nothing on your mother's side pulling back?
Ah, I could certainly say that she was well aware of what was going to happen. She knew it was a case of sooner or later we had to go in and that was her view, and she was just hopeful, well, whatever happened that it was for the best.
Right. Well I do know that the air force felt the air crew situation was full up and they were keen to get radio people. Perhaps just moving on a little bit - I know you spent some time in the Militia, or you joined the Militia and shortly after that you were called to go to Melbourne to join a radio course. How did you react?
I joined up the Militia and in those days they were called the `Chocos', which was short for chocolate soldiers, because they weren't allowed to go out of Australia - although in fact they did go to New Guinea in the early stages - and as a result they were a little bit under a cloud. And it was more appropriate for people who were called up, that they should already be identified with the army, navy or air force in such a way that they could be called up there rather than be stuck in the Militia. And that was just the general view, and that was my view at the time, so in fact I made inquiries and the air crew was filled up, the Empire Air Training Scheme was flat out, and they were having trouble - this is what they told me - of placing people in air crew and they were quite a queue up to put them into training. So at that time, wireless or radio maintenance mechanics were urgently needed - in fact, they were crying out for them - and there were dozens and dozens of people called, or who were suitable who were put into that category.
(10.00) Right. That's interesting. You went down to the technical training centre at the Exhibition Centre in Melbourne, where you did a six months' course. The selection was fairly tough I think?
It was very tough. The prime purpose was to make sure that those who were allocated to this unit were, had the capacity to cope with the work because it was high pressure work. We were stationed at the Exhibition Building in Melbourne, a very fine building which I understand still stands today, and we would commence, have breakfast at eight a.m., on parade at no later than eight-thirty, and we would be on our way to the training centres marching off by shortly after, within about five minutes after eight-thirty. Now they were, our training centres were established in existing industrial buildings and the place we were in was an old butcher shop - in fact it was known as The Butchery. It wasn't exactly noted for its .... Well there was certainly no air conditioning or even in the cold winter or the summer, but the classrooms were well set up in the circumstances because all appeared to me as if people had to get their training and be finished by yesterday. That was the attitude.
Tell us about the different aspects of training that you actually did?
The training which we undertook was the basics of electricity, which we went through, and then that sort of developed into electrical technology which was progressing. Then we went into radio technology - the theory - and then we went into radio technology on a practical basis.
And as I understand it, the aim of the course was to turn out men who were maintenance people, not operators?
This is right. We did no operating at all. There was no such thing as learning morse code because it wasn't required. Our job was, first of all - it was two strands. One was to maintain the equipment which was taken out of aircraft from time to time on regular inspections, usually twenty hour and forty hour and eighty hour inspections. Then there was another team which was involved in checking of all radio in the aircraft itself.
Right. You were saying that you had, I think, an exam a fortnight, so it was obviously fairly steady pressure through the course?
It was a six months' course. As far as I know it was the longest course that there is, that was going in the air force. There was examination once a fortnight. The course was built around two week segments, and it was necessary to pass that examination, otherwise you stopped back and you did it again. If, however, you failed a second time it was, well, it had to be very special circumstances to remain on the course.
Tell me briefly, Bob, about the morale of people on the course - living conditions, discipline and so on.
The morale generally was very good indeed. They were, I suppose, most of the people round about my age or a little bit older - I seemed to follow them; they were just a year or two older than I was - but morale was excellent. The discipline was very strict in those days. We had .... There were a number of drill sergeants who were allocated to the Exhibition Building, and they were very strict indeed. Also, we used to go on route marches of a Saturday afternoon and they used to really tear into us, but .... Admittedly things have changed in recent years, but in those days discipline was very strict indeed.
In the Exhibition Building itself, it was split up into, or partitioned off, and there was certainly a study room there, but there were bays - what they call bays - where all the beds were arranged, and it .... We did have, in fact, beds although some sections just had palliasses where you didn't have a bed. I was just fortunate enough, but just the availability of beds was just not, not sufficient to meet all requirements.
(15.00) That's most interesting. Well I do know that you ended the course as an AC1, and you were posted direct to 5AD Aircraft Depot I think ...
... at Wagga. This was a maintenance station, and you were there for about three months. I was just summarising that just to cover some things.
Just tell us about the time, this first posting?
Having completed the course we were instructed to report immediately to the adjutant's offices, where we received our postings, and there were a lot of different postings to different parts of Australia. I got the posting to 5AD at Forest Hill, Wagga, and I was there for about roughly three months. Now, on looking back I could see that there wasn't any delay, nobody was standing around or left waiting. I mean, you were just posted straight out and when you got there, it was a case of going straight into the particular radio section you were allocated to, and from then on it was a case of getting straight down to work.
Were you working fairly steady long hours or not?
At Wagga they were maintaining Hudson bombers amongst other aircraft which were flown down from Darwin, and we were .... At times we used to work long hours. Generally our day would commence round about eight a.m. in the morning, finish round about five, and if there was anything outstanding we had to stay there and finish it off.
Was there any time for leave or recreation?
We were on duty practically seven days a week during my period there because Wagga was a pretty important depot and occasionally I used to go into Wagga to, just for the evening - go to the pictures - but in the three months I was there that was all I ever did.
Right. Well let's move on a little bit so we can keep the focus on the period with No. 3, Bob. You had a posting to No. 3 Squadron but I think you did then have some final leave?
Yes, after I'd been at Wagga for about three months I received notification, handed the details to go into Middle East. I had to go round all the sections at Wagga to get a clearance, then to report to the depot at the showground in Melbourne. I was there for about, probably three weeks, which is the longest time I've ever been anywhere without actually, you know, having any specific duties, and just waiting for all the arrangements to be finalised. I had a week, one week's final leave, and my parents came down from Albury and they stayed for a couple of weeks in Melbourne and I used to see them generally each night, and then I'd say, `Well I hope to see you tomorrow', but then a certain tomorrow came when we were called up, got into trucks and driven out to the wharfs where we loaded on board ship.
How did you feel knowing you were leaving Australia and how did your family feel?
Ah, they were most concerned. I won't say there was any weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, but .... Also, I had two uncles who'd gone over with the original 6th Division to the Middle East, and we weren't under any delusions as to what to expect over there. When the 6th Division got over there it was pretty tough going and they had a certain time in Greece as well, and so we thought, `Well, it's gonna be mighty tough', and well, you never know what happens.
Sure. Well, Port Melbourne. I think the ship you embarked on was the MV - and we'll spell this out, it's a difficult name - Denbighshire, pronounced ...
Right. And this is January 1943. How many men were on board destined for No. 3?
I would estimate that it was something like about forty-five who went over on board the ship and we were all reinforcements for No. 3 Squadron. We were relieving people who had gone originally over with the squadron right at the first, and their time overseas - they're supposed to not stop there longer than eighteen months and so on; and they didn't apply that to us of course - but we were the first reinforcements.
Were there any pilots and who was the officer in charge?
There were about four pilots, and the senior of the pilots was a pilot by the name of Neil Funston - F-U-N-S-T-O-N - and he appeared to be - or was - in charge of the group going over. He was the senior officer.
(20.00) Leaving port, pulling out of Port Phillip, do you remember that?
Well as a matter of fact I remember it very very distinctly. We weighed anchor and, round about two p.m. or two-thirty p.m., and I remember standing in the bow of the ship just watching the waves and so on, and getting a look, a last look at Melbourne on both sides, and before we'd actually, just about exiting the harbour, I got seasick (laughing). I raced to the side of the ship and it was about, then went below, got on bunkers. It was about two days before I came up again.
Yes, well that's a common enough story isn't it? The voyage across. Just in general terms, what were living conditions like? Were you involved in any training or not?
We weren't involved in any technical training applicable to our positions, but we got involved with lookouts. We used to be on a roster system for lookouts and used to be up to about six or eight men at a time on lookouts in different parts of the ship, looking out over the ocean. We went over totally unescorted, but it was armed for defence against aircraft and also there was one artillery piece which could have been utilised for surface-to-surface shooting, although I don't know how long it would have stood up against a warship. But we also got involved in some training on one of the anti-aircraft guns - they were Bofors guns.
And what about other shipboard life? Was there much, for example, physical training to keep you fit, or general shipboard activities - games, that sort of thing?
There were exercise periods when we got into physical training. Then there was a certain amount of socialising with, in games, you know, like cards and so on on board ship, but I would say probably that we were rather in a way lucky to go over on the vessel because it was a 10,000 tonner, it carried a lot of freight, but there was .... In peacetime, it was equipped to take just a few passengers, certainly not the numbers that we had there, but by and large it really wasn't hard to take anyway.
So living was comfortable?
Living was quite comfortable.
Right. Well you did stop in Bombay I know, a brief refuelling stop. This was your first view of a non-Australian culture. How did it strike you?
We sailed into Bombay harbour and we were watching the Indians coming out of their little boats and so on, and painted up on one of the walls of their types of skyscrapers was the words, `This is Bombay but mum's the word'. I think that's the English method of saying, `Well look, be careful', and I think it was quite a good warning to troops anyway. We arrived one day, had a look over the, just a brief look over the markets, and then we left the following day so we weren't in Bombay long. The people were not hostile at all, they were quite friendly, and being the first time in a foreign country I rather enjoyed it.
The journey on to Port Tewfik, did that differ in any real sense from the journey from Australia?
This was now through the Red Sea and we still continued on in the same ship, and the weather conditions got much hotter of course - in fact they were extremely hot - but nevertheless we knew that our journey was shortly to come to an end and there was a little bit of a trepidation that we were now about to disembark into the country where hostilities were occurring and it was a case of, well, just watching things very carefully indeed.
That's most interesting, certainly understandable. Port Tewfik itself, were there children diving for coins?
When we journeyed into Tewfik harbour and pulled up we were met by a group of young males and they were diving for coins. Also, some of them were trying to sell some of their handicrafts, like wallets I can remember in particular, and if anybody wanted a wallet they used to send up their little carrier on a rope. You put your money in first, then that went down and they checked the money and if everything was all right they'd send the wallet up after that, but never vice versa.
Sure, and lots of people.
(25.00) Yes, yes.
Well we might talk about some other aspects of the region later, but you did go to transit camp, I think just for a few days, and from then you said you went on by train was it?
Yes. Now we disembarked at Tewfik and went into a transit camp. While there we were given the opportunity of looking at the pyramids - we spent a day out there - and then within ...
Just, can I just pause there? The pyramids - were they as remarkable as perhaps they'd seemed in photographs you'd seen or not?
Well the impression I got with the Sphinx and the main, the big pyramid, it really, well, made a big impression on me. I was, you know, not, more relating it to the history of the world, to think that I'd come from a faraway country, never expected to ever see it, and here it was just sitting up like that and it was quite a thrill to, just to be there. As to the construction of it, well it just seemed to be out of this world, you know. You'd never expect to see anything as big or as interesting as that sort of thing.
Right. Well sorry, moving on with the story. I think you went by rail to Tobruk?
Now we then went, left the transit camp at Tewfik and we went to Alexandria by truck, and there, from Alexandria we caught a narrow gauge railway line and we spent nearly a week travelling from Alexandria to Tobruk. It was a narrow gauge railway, it travelled in fits and starts - stops and starts, mainly stops. The carriages I don't think were ever swept out, they weren't in a very nice condition, and we spent something like three or four nights during the travel there just sitting up trying to doze off and that sort of thing. But after a couple of, couple of days well you'd just collapse anyway.
How were you eating or being fed during this journey?
During that time we were issued with seven tins of bully beef, bottles of water which we'd replenish at a number of points on the way, and that was really how we survived en route.
What were the routines perhaps then and later for purifying water, or at least for ensuring that the water you used was not contaminated?
The water we drank contained a lot of lime, or this is what they told us, and lime was put in to clear and purify it. Water in the desert of course was always at a premium, but the 8th Army had learnt its lesson, I think quite well. After a lot of earlier defeats when El Alamein occurred, they made sure that water and ammunition and transport were given very high priorities, and although there was nothing there to wash in - even to wash your face - there was always enough to drink. But washing or bathing, that was banned and if you wanted to wash your clothes, it was better to use a bit of high octane petrol (laughing).
Yes, that's interesting. Well, Tobruk. Of course you didn't just stop there, you went on to join the squadron at Tripoli, but what was your impression of Tobruk as you saw it?
Tobruk, the township proper, was very beaten up. It had been fought through which was quite obvious. Their harbour contained the wrecks of ships which their masts were peering above water and it had been to all appearances, had been well fought over over a number of years. In fact, I used to pick up a bit of sand and you could pick out the metal in it. This'd be from fragments from shells and bombs that had been used there over the years, and you could practically do that anywhere in the sector of the city, or the town.
And seeing that kind of destruction, Bob, did people have any trepidation? Did you have any trepidation about what might lie ahead?
No, everybody took it very philosophically and I think everybody recognised that as the type of thing that we would be seeing very regularly on our tour of duty overseas and I can't recollect anybody who was, you know, unduly nervous or likely to catch, get a breakdown or ...
END TAPE ONE, SIDE A.
BEGIN TAPE ONE, SIDE B.
This is Ed Stokes recording with Bobby Smith, No. 3 Squadron, tape one, side two.
Bob, you joined the squadron, No. 3, at Tripoli. This was shortly before the Mareth Line. Bobby Gibbes was the CO I think ...
How did the squadron strike you on joining it? What was its morale, for example?
When we left Tobruk we went by truck and they were carrying new anti-tank guns up to the front, and we dispersed ourselves amongst the guns. We arrived in Tripoli and went to the aerodrome known as the Castel Benito Airport - the Benito was called after Benito Mussolini. I might say that when we arrived at the squadron we got off the trucks and generally greeted with the usual cat call of `You'll be sorry' and all that sort of thing. However, I've never seen any group of men move faster than those who we were relieving. They grabbed their belongings and with the help of their mates they got on to the backs of trucks, most of their belongings were thrown in after them, and the trucks took off at a very rapid pace. I've, in fact, never seen anybody move so fast. They were the original people who went over in, as far as I know, early, very early 1940 and who'd been there and who'd been promised, you know, `You'll only be over there for twelve, eighteen months', and so understandably they were most anxious to get back home, bearing in mind that they'd just come through the battle of El Alamein and so on, and travelled all the way from Cairo right through to this city on the coast.
Yes, of course they'd had very very rugged times and hard travelling, but was there ...? The people you were relieving, they didn't stay at all for any kind of changeover or passing on? Oh I guess there were other men to pass on what they'd been doing, to you?
There was no ceremonies conducted, no handovers. These men came from the various sections and not .... But of course they were only people selected from the various sections of the squadron and, consequently, those who remained had the job of telling us, you know, the ins and outs of what was to happen and so on. But they were just called up and told, `Well, your relief is here. Be ready to go on such-and-such a day', and ready they were.
How long did it take for them to get themselves on those trucks and off, after you arrived? I mean, are you talking about hours or days?
Well, we arrived one particular day and they were off the next.
And was there any formal parade to welcome you to the squadron or not?
No, no. The squadron had been constantly on the move for some months. In fact the stay at aerodromes was very short indeed. To stay at an aerodrome for a week was a very long time and the hundreds and hundreds of miles that we covered from Alexandria to Tunis and those places, stretching across the whole of North Africa, well you just had to follow up the Africa Korps which was retreating rapidly. They went very fast and we had to go the same pace to keep up with them.
At a less formal level, how welcome were you made by the men who were staying?
(5.00) We were very welcome and we fitted in extremely well. At all times everybody pulled in very well indeed. I know I enjoyed my stay with them and we do have reunions from time to time, and I do go to them and I still remember them and have discussions with them. It's interesting to see what's happened over the intervening periods.
Bobby Gibbes was the CO. What was the general view of Bobby Gibbes as a CO, as a leader of the squadron?
Bobby Gibbes had been the CO for quite some time before I arrived and I used to see him regularly, like, travelling to and from aircraft and so on, although I'd never had any personal dealings with him. But he was regarded as one of the best fighter pilots in the Australian Air Force, held in very high regard and the number of aircraft - enemy aircraft - that had been shot out by No. 3 Squadron over the preceding years was quite considerable and ranked probably well above any other squadron, both RAF or RAAF.
Besides the skill as a pilot, was he liked as a man?
There was mixed feelings on that, to be quite truthful, and some people really went for him. Other people were just a little bit diffident. If they were diffident it was only in his administration. He was not a permanent air force man. When he was up in the air he was a world beater. When he was on the ground some people liked him - other people were just a little bit diffident.
Right. And perhaps just looking at the question of leadership now, rather than coming back to it. The other squadron leaders you served with - for example, there was Brian Eaton. I think Rawlinson?
Rawlinson, Murray Nash.
How did they compare with Bobby Gibbes, or did any of them stand out? Who would have been the outstanding squadron leader in your mind?
I suppose the reason why I would pick Gibbes was because at that time there was more German air activity, whereas in later times there was, we had a lot of air activity, but it was mainly as fighter bombers, and that is bombing ground objectives. And I suppose Bobby Gibbes was more the, perhaps in a little bit way, the Errol Flynn of them - ah, not in his morals (laughing); we're not going to compare him with Errol Flynn - but with his being involved in enemy action which was not, which did not occur because of the lack of air activity by the other side in the later campaigns. But I suppose of the rest of them, one could not go past Brian Eaton who was, I understand, also in the air force as a permanent officer prior to the war, who was very well up in administration as well as an extremely good fighter pilot. Murray Nash was also an extremely good fighter pilot, but I would say that if you put them all on a par, that would be fair enough, but it'd be just in the early days with enemy air activity that Gibbes would have struck perhaps more of it than the others, except of course bombing ground objectives was not the most pleasant task anyway.
Not at all. No, that's most interesting Bob. In fact I was speaking to Brian Eaton just the other day. How aware do you think ground staff were generally - yourself particularly perhaps - of the general tension that the pilots had to face, day-in/day-out?
When we were inspecting aircraft for their radios, we used to talk to pilots and the impression I got in speaking to them was that they weren't unduly worried, that their morale was very good. They generally got on very well with the people who maintained the aircraft as well as their colleagues. We were worked extremely hard in the air. I mean there was nothing to have three squadron sorties each day, which is pretty good going. And some were short, you know, not far distant; others were long distant. But generally speaking I'd say the morale was really excellent in No. 3 Squadron.
(10.00) Right. One final thing on this, these more general themes - the discipline of the squadron. How relaxed or otherwise was it? For example, were you on Christian name terms with pilots - officer pilots - whose planes you were working on? Did you salute? Was uniform something that was punctiliously kept up or not? Talking about periods when you were active, not going off on leave and so on.
Yes. Well during those periods pilots were generally known by their Christian names. If you didn't know their names well you just called them `Sir'. But we were in quite, had a very good relationship. So far as uniform is concerned, nobody worried about uniforms or having a shave or your general tidiness, that nature. And during my whole time in the squadron that, there was never any problem whatsoever on that type of thing. It was just accepted and as long as you were there and generally looked as if you meant business, I think that was all that was ever asked.
(Laughing) That's most interesting.
[Inaudible] that phase of it.
Sure. How did that compare with British units as you brushed up against them?
When you're in a squadron you don't see a great deal of the other people, but I would say that their discipline was a lot different to ours. But in North Africa, after El Alamein, discipline was relaxed a lot because of the fact that everybody was moving and you were never in one place too long, and I would say generally most of the British squadrons were pretty well on a par with ourselves - or perhaps a little bit more punctilious about uniforms and having a shave and that sort of thing. But not too far behind us.
Right. Well let's talk, Bob, about your actual work as a radio man. When you joined the squadron, of course, there was pretty active flying, and the squadron also was consolidated ...
That's important - not the two wings moving ahead of a base as before. In working on the radios, first of all, what was the general condition of the radios as you found them?
The general condition of the radios as I found them - and this was American equipment - was really excellent. We were on, initially, Kittyhawks, and we then went on to other aircraft, but in all cases the equipment was of extremely high standard and in fact it'd do credit to any nation to produce the type of equipment that they had in those aircraft.
I think you were saying that you had different checks you did after certain numbers of hours, either in or out of planes?
Now, as I mentioned, there were two strands. One was looking after the equipment in the aircraft itself. The other one was maintenance - taking the equipment out, replacing it with fresh equipment and then testing the equipment taken out and then putting it to one side ready to go back into aircraft as you exchanged the equipment. Now, after twenty hours maintenance we used to test the equipment, just pull it out of the aircraft and test it alongside the aircraft, and then put it back. But the forty hour and eighty hour tests, the equipment was actually exchanged - brought back to the testing benches and we'd test those thoroughly.
Right. The workshop space that you were working in - what sort of building was it? How well was it set up?
Well now, our testing equipment, we had a truck which was, had a special building on the back of it which enabled us to use that as a workshop. The rest of our equipment was in tents and we'd just, when we moved from aerodrome to aerodrome, we'd put our testing equipment into the back of the truck which was specially set up for this and carry it all in there. Then we'd take it out, put it back into tents, as well as utilise the back of that truck for testing as well.
Tents, I'd assume with earth floors, dust?
That's right, yes.
How much was that a problem with this very delicate equipment?
(15.00) Well, from our point of view, on dusty days well, of course, you had to be pretty careful with the equipment. In fact, it was a case of keeping dust covers over them, but we never found any particular problem with that. In fact, the type of equipment that the Americans built had very good sealed covers on them and generally, as long as you made sure that the tents or the backs of the doors on the truck were closed, we didn't have any problem with dust. I can't recall any instance on that one.
And how well set up were you in terms of tools for working with and spare parts?
We were fairly well equipped in that regard. The testing gear was made available at the time, the American equipment was put into these Kittyhawks - well they were American aircraft anyway - and the testing gear and all the tools and replacement parts went along with it. Ah, if however, the equipment turned out to have so many problems with it, it was returned to base and we did not take any further action with it. Generally speaking the running repairs effected with it, which we were required to do, only involved small replacement parts, but where there was, like it also contained a certain amount of mechanical equipment and so on, you know, getting over to different frequencies and so on. But anything of that was always taken back to base and whether they effected repairs or whether they jettisoned some of it I don't know, but I'll say that the serviceability of this equipment was really excellent.
That's most interesting Bob. The range of these radios - I mean, these are the radios that the pilots were using, I assume, for talking air-to-air and also air-to-ground - what kind of range are we talking about?
Now the initial equipment that was installed in the Kittyhawks had a very good range. They were short-wave, and I would say, you know, two hundred miles away generally speaking, the radio station at the Wing Headquarters - and there were six squadrons in the Wing - could pick them up.
I've never operated any of that equipment, but I understand that they could pick them up quite clearly - on most days that is.
How much did weather conditions in the desert affect reception and was the desert generally a good or a bad place for radio communication?
The desert generally was a good place for radio communication. We never had any complaints, and to the best of my knowledge the Wing radio transmitter and receiver was in very good communication with them. Again, that I suppose, would probably have been with the American equipment designed to operate with this equipment that we had in the Kittyhawks themselves.
Right. Well let's just talk about some other aspects - this is at the Tripoli period Bob. You were living in tents, I think. What was tent life like?
Tent life. In the time I was in the desert, this was during the winter, which was fortunate for us - winter would be like our hot summer. But being in tents, it didn't affect me. Well I was pretty young I suppose and, well, you know, you should be able to stand up to it. I suppose I fitted in pretty well really to this type of life. I think the average Australian, you know, where you go out camping and do a bit of fishing and that sort of thing, this was just an extension on that sort of thing, except not on the same, you know, atmosphere. But tent life and sleeping out in the open - if you could possibly sleep under trucks because there was heavy dew of a night and usually your top blankets were soaking wet - but generally there wasn't a great deal of, well I didn't feel any particular problems with it.
(Laughing) I'm sure I wouldn't have. Yes, there's nothing better than being out camping, really.
Did you form close friendships mostly with your tent mates or with your workmates?
Well our workmates were our tent mates and the section you were in were camped usually in one or two tents, and we used to fit four to a tent, and I suppose the whole of the section would have been housed in about three tents.
(20.00) Did you have any mess, as such, or was the mess where you ate, you know, a few tin drums turned up on their bottoms and you were sitting out in the sun?
Well there was a cookhouse and that comprised of a tent, and generally when we were travelling they used to just put their tent up and then they'd, from the back of a truck, they'd bring out their cooking utensils - the stoves and that sort of thing - and you'd then queue up and with your - you'd carry your own spoon, or knife and fork, and your own plates - and you'd queue up and they were dished out, you know, not exactly smorgasboard style, but that was the way it was dished out. Usually meat and vegetable or bits of bully beef with a few tinned spuds or something like that.
And you'd just find a handy possie to have your meal?
That's right. You'd just sit out amongst the group and you,probably three or four'd group together and have a bit of a yarn while you're having a meal, and that was it. And that occurred practically the whole of my time, well, my full time in North Africa.
Right. Did you ever have any time to get away? Was there any leave or recreation, and what about grog?
Leave in North Africa, nothing. I remember having, when we arrived just after the campaign we had one day in Tunis, and then when we were about to, just before we went to embark to Malta, we had another day's leave in Tripoli, but that was the sum total. In the desert there's really nowhere to go except desert and you're far better off with a tent and with people you know, rather than looking around trying to find desert scorpions or desert rats or what have you.
Sure. Just moving on a little bit. It was soon after you arrived that there were operations beginning against, I think, the Mareth Line, and it was during this period, I think, that your camp came under some quite intense shelling?
Yes. The aerodrome following the one we were on outside Tripoli, the next aerodrome .... We were, in fact, just in front of the army and one morning, early - oh I say, early, round about seven-thirty a.m. - some .88 millimetre guns opened up on the 'drome. We lost three or four aircraft. There were fortunately no casualties but that was the only time during my period overseas that we actually came in under army fire.
How long did it last and what did you do?
Well we'd been, there'd been enemy aircraft over the previous night - in fact, they used to be over every night - and so as a result most people either dug yourself a bit of a slit-trench in the sand, or stayed in your tent, and some people took it that, you know, if a bomb dropped on top of you it was like winning the lottery because you were out in the desert and they had miles and miles to drop bombs, so if you were unlucky enough to be underneath a bomb, it'd be like winning the lottery. Other people, or most I would say - about ninety per cent - used to dig a hole and just throw their greatcoat over it and have a bit of a snooze. When I say `slit-trench', I mean you'd only be barely scratch out about six inches deep, that'd be about all, the sum total of it. And on that particular morning that was where I was, just about ready. In fact, it was time to be on our way for the day when all of a sudden I heard this screech of shells coming over and they really opened up.
And what was going through your mind as you lay in that slit-trench?
Well when I heard the first couple of whistles I thought, `Crikey, they're dropping bombs'. Then I suddenly woke up that it was artillery and so everybody screamed out, `Keep down, keep your head down', so we kept our heads down, but actually it was over in about ten minutes I'd say - ten minutes, quarter of an hour.
How frightened were you?
Well I don't know. I think it happened so quickly that I just didn't have time to have any particular feelings about it, just I seemed to be more concerned about when breakfast was being served and .... But looking back on it, I suppose if we'd have been aware that we were gonna be shelled, we'd have probably been a bit more concerned about it. But then when after a short period it stopped everybody thought, `Oh well, it was just one of those things out of the blue', sort of thing, (laughing) and so we just kept on.
(25.00) Life goes on. You were saying also, Bob, that soon after that you were on roads somewhere travelling when your convoy - or initially I think some other vehicles were bombed and strafed. Tell us about that incident.
Yes. We were on the aerodrome just prior to the battle for the Mareth Line. Oh sorry, after we'd passed through the Mareth Line, we were on an aerodrome and the final battles were coming up, and as a result there was quite a deal of enemy air activity. And we were near the Gulf of Sirte I think it was, and the CO said, `Well seeing as nobody's had a bath for the last five months, you can all, you can just take it in turns, one truck - I'll make available one truck - and you can take a dozen men at a time and drive down' - it was about eight miles away - `drive down to the Gulf and you can sit in the sea for half an hour, then come back again'. So we, it was my turn this particular day and we'd barely got along the main road - this was the main highway leading up to the front - and there was, we came across two trucks that were blazing away. Our truck pulled up and everybody dived out along to, got on to the edge of the road - there were little gullies there - and I could see one of the German aircraft dive and have a go at somebody in front of us. But then they disappeared and nobody came, none of them came back. The guns, anti-aircraft guns in the vicinity, started opening up and I think they thought it was time to push off. So we got into the truck, continued on our way down to the beach - not that was much, it wasn't like Manly or anything - but for the first time in about five months I'd got, at least had a bath anyway.
Got really clean for once. That must have been good. This is just continuing after a break. It wasn't long after this, Bob, that the German Army surrendered in North Africa and I think the squadron then went to a staging camp in Tripoli?
Yes. The 8th Army surrendered at Cape Bon, and the night the news came through that they'd surrendered, all the guns in the perimeter of the airport - or the aerodrome rather - opened up and, in fact, some of the nose caps in some of the shells that went up started to fly around, and most of us ended up in slit-trenches and so on where you could watch it with some safety. But it was quite an event, but that was our celebration. Following that, within just a few days, we then were transported to Tripoli and we were in some sort of a transit camp there for, to the best of my recollection, for probably about one to two weeks just waiting sea transport over to Malta. During that time there was a little bit of air activity by the Luftwaffe. They used to come over and keep an eye on the harbour just to make sure that all the ships were accounted for, but apart from that, we were just waiting our turn to get a ship over to Malta.
Well perhaps let's go on to that. You sailed over, I think, in a night and you had, I think, about two to three weeks in Malta. Was this continuing with your regular maintenance duties and so on?
Yes, the squadron was operating from Malta and they continued from the aerodrome near Valetta, and admittedly it was a little bit sporadic, the operations from there. The main thing, as I understood it, was getting everybody ready to make the invasion and during my couple of weeks in Malta ...
END TAPE ONE, SIDE B.
BEGIN TAPE TWO, SIDE A
Identification: This is Edward Stokes with Bob Smith, No. 3 Squadron, tape two, side one.
Sorry. We were cut off there talking about Malta.
Malta. During my time there I was never met with any hostility whatsoever. The Maltese, or the `Malts', as the British Army used to call them, were quite friendly. There's quite a few wrecks in the harbour at Valetta which testified to the enemy action which had been bombing them pretty well non-stop since Italy had come into the war.
Let's move on a little because I have to keep an eye on time here Bob. From there the squadron went on to Sicily, landing on the south-east coast and I think you went to Catania initially?
Now, our first aerodrome - well, we only went to one aerodrome in Sicily - and that that was outside Catania and probably my estimate it was about eight miles out. I was fortunate to get in there on one day. Catania was very knocked about - it had been fought through. But also the harbour was a favorite spot for German aircraft, particularly at night, and we used to watch the anti-aircraft guns and searchlights open up there of a night against German bombers as they came over and there was always a lot of shouting and screaming, `Get him', and you know, and when they missed somebody, they missed getting an aircraft, everybody said `Hard luck' and that sort of thing. But it was a bit like a bit of a gallery and like the Colosseum in Rome I think. But German air activity in Sicily was sporadic but it always appeared when something was about to happen.
Something I thought we might do here is talk through a typical day, your daily routine. How did it begin? When?
Well I used to be up about seven a.m. in the morning, that was the usual time everybody got up. Normally a lot of people used to sleep in their clothes. I never used pyjamas, it was just a case of sleeping in your underpants or else if you were in a hurry you'd just take your coat and cap off and some people were known to get out of bed, put their cap on and were in full marching order, except for their boots - cap and boots. But when you're on the move there wasn't much time to, you know, do it any other way. Then having got out it was a case of making straight for the cookhouse, have breakfast ...
And what was breakfast?
Breakfast was usually porridge and they used to have bread. There was a bakehouse somewhere or other that used to follow the army, and that was about it - and of course tea. And the tea was made in big vats and you just went up and put your mug in, and that was it.
Milk and sugar?
Ah, certainly no milk. Sometimes there was a bit of sugar.
So, breakfast over, what happened then?
Now having finished breakfast we'd then come back to the workshop tent and then proceed with any testing of equipment that came in, and if we had to, and on finishing any equipment where we had to replace an aircraft, we'd then take it out to the aircraft. There were some days when we used to run out of equipment to be tested, but I never noticed any time where we weren't doing something. Being on duty is also important and it was a case of, you know, somebody wanted something then you got it - in the radio field - and so if it wasn't backwards and forwards to the aerodrome, it was testing of equipment on the bench and doing it that way.
(5.00) And when would you normally finish work on an average day?
On an average day we would expect to finish work round about when the meal time came. Now the evening meal used to come about six o'clock and when it was time to go for the evening meal, you regarded that as you're sort of finished testing, unless there was something urgent where you had to do it. And then you'd finish your meal and then you would go back to your tent and probably have a chat, and then everybody'd turn in.
Right, that's interesting, and what? Playing cards, reading by lamplight in the tent or not?
There used to be a little bit of card playing, mainly I found in our tent was more talking about, and also reading. One thing about our mail, it didn't come very often but when it did come we usually got the whole month's supply in one hit - or maybe even longer. Now people used to get a lot of newspapers from home and it was interesting reading newspapers and letters and things of that nature. Not much books. There was practically, oh hardly any books at all.
That's interesting. I was going to ask you about mail. That was an important part of your life.
I used to write regularly. I used to get a letter away at least once a week, even if I had to write only a half page; but I could certainly say the mail was pretty regular on the home front. My mother used to get it regularly and I used to get her letters. They used to roll in and, you know, half a dozen or dozen at a time, and it was quite a red letter day when you got a letter.
Well that was most interesting Bob. From there, of course, you went from Sicily to Southern Italy, I think initially to Taranto. Tell us about that move.
We had word that the Hermann Goering Division was getting out of Sicily over the Straits of Messina and the campaign had lasted about roughly six weeks and we, of course, knew that we would be moving. So the 8th Army was to take up the eastern side of Italy and the 5th American Army was to take up the western side. We left by boat from Catania harbour and we then disembarked at Taranto. As we were coming in to Taranto harbour there was, all of a sudden there was an almighty bang or explosion and it was one of the mines blowing up. The impression I got was that it might have been some enemy aircraft suddenly dropping bombs. They used to come pretty smartly when they did come. But anyway, that was our welcome to Taranto harbour.
And I know there were a couple of airstrips you were at briefly, but we might move on to where you camped through the first winter - '43 to '44. I think this was on a beach?
That's right. We were on an airport just after landing at Taranto, then we went to Fodua Main, which was where - that was acquired by the bombers - and so we camped on the beach with the actual airstrip on the beach itself. It had a metal mesh structure on it and the aircraft used to land and take off. It wasn't overly wide, but I think it testifies a lot to the skill of the pilots, not only our own but also those in the Wing. They used to take off and land on that narrow strip.
How sloping was the beach, or was it fairly flat?
It was fairly flat there and we were, and there was a sandy area quite some distance inland from the beach, but we were camped amongst the sandhills. And during the first winter we didn't have any snow fortunately. You know, everybody saying we're gonna be snowed out and so on and so forth but it didn't occur very fortunately being in southern Italy, but the winds off the Adriatic were very cold and of course it's normally cold anyway, and particularly when you're in a tent you'd certainly feel the cold. During the first winter there wasn't a great deal of flying. On bad days there'd be no flying at all. There were, of course, quite a number of days when air conditions were quite okay for flying, but certainly on a much reduced scale than what we were used to in North Africa.
Did you have any fuel stoves or other stoves in your tents to warm them?
(10.00) We used to have those kerosene heaters. We'd get a wick that'd burn and give out a bit of heat, but in a tent which is generally renowned for being well aired, most of us in between meals used to just, if you're back in the tent, you get into bed - not lay down but sort of sit up and have the blankets over you. Well you may as well be doing that as sort of freezing because in mid-winter in those conditions those kerosene heaters weren't exactly .... Well I wouldn't have them in my house anyway.
How did you go in the very cold weather working on delicate equipment which I'd imagine often involved fairly precise finger work that would be difficult if your hands were very cold?
We didn't notice it particularly. The equipment we had, like with the Kittyhawks - and then following that with the Mustangs - in fact if anything the equipment in the Mustangs was even more robust and better constructed than the originals in the Kittyhawk. And we found that winter conditions generally didn't affect the equipment in that first winter. In the second winter we were in Italy with snow around, the air war was suspended quite a deal, and as a result a great deal of maintenance wasn't required, but we were fortunate enough in getting some old sheds to carry out our work during the second winter.
Right. I might come back to some other points here about working on your equipment later. Of course, Italy was far more heavily populated and, well not a desert environment. How did that affect your life? Did that improve your general life or not?
The Italians I found were certainly not hostile, but of course we didn't have a great deal of contact with them. When you're on an aerodrome in an air force unit, well you're not allowed to leave the aerodrome. You can't go away without permission and, of course, no permission was ever given unless you were given some of the block leave that was given to the whole of the unit. But during the times we were, the odd times we did get away on leave, I found them quite friendly and quite helpful and we certainly weren't out to make trouble.
The battle of Cassino, I think you were on the periphery of that battle? Is that correct?
Now our squadron participated in the battle for Cassino, and in fact it was my understanding that we, our squadron was the first to bomb the monastery on the hill just above Cassino itself. In fact, as a matter of interest, the Mayor of Goulburn at the moment lived in Cassino and was in fact living there at the time we were bombing the Cassino [sic]. I once told him that ...
Bombing the monastery.
The monastery, but he said he survived it alright. But we did participate in that and also particularly when the breakthrough occurred there was a lot of our aircraft involved in bombing and strafing of the roads leading out of the Cassino area up through Rome and so on.
Of course it was after that period that the armies did push beyond Rome and in fact just north of Florence, I think, and No. 3 Squadron went itself north of Florence. You were saying that there you were camped in houses that I think was very important, given the winter conditions.
Yes. When we moved further north and the line was stabilised just north of Florence, we were on an aerodrome where we were camped in a small village and the air force had taken over the second level of all the houses. Generally they were all two level and we were camped in the second level, and we still had the old kerosene burners, but I would say that if we'd have, there was snow, and had we'd been in tents, it would have been quite disastrous. You know, really, we'd have really felt it I think.
Really bitter. Talking about your work with radio equipment, Bob, and looking at this period through the Italian campaign I guess and, if you like, focussing on the end, latter part of that, how much of the equipment you were working on changed during the war? How much had it improved?
(15.00) The equipment that was initially used in the Kittyhawk was extremely well constructed and - it was American equipment - and they still used the old valve, but they used metal ones and they were smaller than the normal ones we had in our old sets here, but the impression I got was that the Yanks were certainly ahead of us in equipment, radio equipment. Then as time went on and the Mustangs came along and the newer equipment was put in that which was high frequency equipment, which therefore didn't give it a big range - but that was the purpose of it so that nobody else could pick it up - that again was very high standard equipment. But we certainly hadn't got around to transistors. But the standard was extremely high and I know we all reckoned we were gonna build radio sets along the lines of that equipment and so on. But I would say that the American equipment was really A1.
Had the spare parts situation during this period ... did it get better or was it always as it had been - adequate but not brilliant?
It was quite adequate. We found the spare equipment, and bearing in mind that we tested them and did whatever repairs we could with them, and we repaired them as far as we could go, but where an item of equipment was obviously had a lot of inherent problems with it, this went back to base and then new replacements were received for them. That is, absolutely new equipment, so we didn't need a great deal of spare parts. Our most important items were the testing equipment which we tested the radios with and the small number of spare parts which we held in stock, and that right through from beginning to the end we survived on that quite well. But I think it's just a tribute to the high standard of the equipment.
That's most interesting. And your own skills? You're looking at a two-three year period working consistently on radios. How had your own skills changed?
Well I came from local government, I'd never been on this work previously, and then having gone through the course in Melbourne and been working on radio equipment over those years, I received a very good training. Particularly I find now with computers, you always - not that there's much relationship with them - but you just sort of feel an affinity between the present computers and operating them, and with our testing of the radio equipment at that time. A lot of us when we came out thought we might, because of our knowledge, get into the radio business and in Australia the radios generally have been looked up to and, you know, regarded as a necessity in the homes and so on, and in fact one of my friends who did the same course and came from the same office, he did in fact go into business as a radio man and he was an excellent radio repair man, as well as retailer of radios. But when I got back into local government, and getting out of the radio sphere, I suddenly decided that I'd better continue on with local government studies, which I did and gradually as time went on I got further and further away from it, and in fact I don't know when it was the last time I ever looked into a radio.
That's interesting. Well just one last thing about radios in Italy, or the desert for that matter. Did you construct your own radios for operating in the tents for news and so on? Did you have mess radios?
There was a small radio which we had in the tent - I don't know where it came from, but it probably came out of an enemy aircraft which somebody had long since patched up and long since gone, but that was the only one we actually had. But apart from that there was really, that kept us in touch with the BBC, which was short-wave from London, and that was the only station we ever listened to, except there was one in, I think, that used to broadcast I think from Hungary - a German radio - and at a certain time every night they used to play `Lili Marlene' so everybody said, `Right, turn on the radio, we'll listen to `Marlene' and then go to bed'. But apart from that, that was the only reason for interest in radios in the tent itself and in our own private times after we were off duty times.
(20.00) Sure. Off duty. Of course, it was very hard to get away, and I think you were saying in the whole time in Italy there were three five-day periods of leave - Naples, Florence and Rome. How do you remember those journeys?
As a matter of interest, we are only about two months back from England - our second eldest daughter's over there, and her husband's doing a course at London University - so we were over there for three months and we spent a month in Italy, Val and I, and we went to Rome, Florence and Venice. And we didn't go to Naples, but I wanted to retrace our steps. Anyway, we had five days in Naples ...
This is now we're talking about the war?
During the war - and we went to the Isle of Capri and Mount Vesuvius and so on, and I was very interested in the historical parts of it, as I was with the couple of other centres I travelled to. Then we spent the same time in Rome out in a suburb called Puzzuoli. In fact, they used to .... The hotel we were in, I suppose it might have been a pretty costly one if you'd have stayed there in peacetime, but it was taken over for the troops - not that there was a great deal of food there - but it was apparently built on an old volcano and there was hot water coming up out of the ground. So the first night I was there I got into a bath and I stopped there for an hour with this hot water - it was the best bath I'd had since I left home. But Rome was a highly interesting place and looking back into those distant days of Julius Caesar and, you know, the old ancient Rome and so on. We spent a similar time in Florence and those three places were actually the only parts, only leave we had during our, my three year period overseas. I was lucky enough to get into Venice for a day, but that was just in and out sort of thing.
It must have been great getting away from the somewhat endless routine of squadron life?
That's right. I think the place I enjoyed the most was Venice and, in fact, in going back there just recently, it reconfirmed my view that Venice was really a terrific place. More to, you know, with works of Michelangelo and the paintings of the Masters, the statue of David in the university gallery, the Pitti Palace and other art galleries, quite fantastic. And you'd go into gardens that are designed by Michelangelo and so on, it was really an education, and that is how I sort of took it at the time, of the education I got out of those places. Even though we were only there for a few days I often thought that perhaps had an advantage over a lot of other people.
I was going to ask was this .... You obviously had a clear cultural historical interest in the places. Was that common with most men or, on leave were most men more inclined towards the bars and the women?
Well the group that I was with, well bars and women, I don't think they were ever interested and that was with the group I was in. As to how much they were interested from a cultural and historical point of view I don't know. I think possibly they were interested a little bit in the cultural side - not a great deal. In the historical side I found that it was very hard to get anybody interested (laughing).
Right. Well let's move on. I think you were at Udine just north of Trieste, your last airstrip, when Germany finally capitulated. How do you remember that news coming through?
We ended up our last aerodrome in Udine and the .... We were just notified during the day that Germany had capitulated. Now, when the campaign in Africa ended, came through, every gun in the perimeter opened up. When it came about in Udine, just - I'm trying to recollect back now something like forty-five years - but there was a little bit of firing from the perimeter guns, but there wasn't nearly the excitement in it that was when we ended up in North Africa.
What do you put that down to?
(25.00) I suppose I could put that down to the fact that the war had gone a long time, and as the further north we got, so the perimeters of the Axis powers were shrinking. And we sort of viewed it in such a way that, `Well, it's not going to be long before they throw it in'. And I think it was the fact that we'd accepted it some months beforehand and it was just being in the death knock.
Just a matter of time.
Your own feelings though? How did you personally react to the news?
My own feelings was, `Well, thank goodness'. Having been overseas something like three years, I felt it was getting on towards the time when, you know, I wouldn't have been concerned had fresh reinforcements suddenly arrived and I was told that, you know, `Be on the truck back home'. I think I'd have been as fast as those fellas that we relieved or maybe even faster. But my own feeling was, `Well I'm glad to be back, get back home', and I just felt that I'd done my share of it.
Sure. After the news had percolated through for a day or so, were there in fact then any official parades or senior officers standing up and making pronouncements or anything, or not?
There was no pronouncement, no parades. Being a squadron in the field and again starting to move a bit rapidly, there was no particular ceremony, but a fly-past was in fact organised of all aircraft in - or most of the aircraft - in Italy, most of the fighter bombers, and this was held at the aerodrome. The fly-past was, they all flew over the aerodrome where we were; you know, folk gathered from other aerodromes in the vicinity and so on. And there was this, I remember this fly-past and squadron after squadron flew past in salute. I forget who was taking the salute at the time, but I suppose it would have been the air officer in Italy taking the salute. It was quite an interesting one. I won't say it was spectacular because it was just squadron after squadron, but it sort of put the finishing touches to the campaign in Italy.
That's most interesting. It must have been very moving. Well we must push on Bob, but I know you went from there to Britain. You had some leave, and then I think you joined 467 Squadron with the Lancaster bombers?
When the war ended and we were at Udine, there was a number of people posted home. All married men were sent home, and they departed before we left. Then we were informed that we would be joining a bomber squadron in England to go out to the Far East. So we got our marching orders, we were taken by aircraft - I think they were Mitchell bombers - not designed for passengers, but we were all gathered on the floor of it. We were flown down to Naples and there we caught some Lancaster bombers and after about something like, oh, about eight or ten hours flying, we landed at Metheringham in England, and the day we landed we were informed that it was VJ Day, and that the squadron we were to join would not now be going out to the Far - to Okinawa, and all plans had been cancelled.
We might just mention here that by a curious coincidence you received some news from a relative in England yesterday, I think.
Yes, one of our distant relatives - Mr Gale who was descended of the Gales who came out to Australia and a relative to John Gale who started the Queanbeyan Age newspaper in 1860, we tracked him down through various means and we had a meeting with him while we were in England. And I received a letter yesterday which enclosed a little bit of information about Metheringham, near Lincoln, where I landed.
END TAPE TWO, SIDE A.
BEGIN TAPE TWO, SIDE B.
This is Ed Stokes, Bob Smith, tape two, side two, No. 3 Squadron.
This is reading from this text.
Yes, Ed. Just reading it. `A victory in Europe was secured on the 8th of May 1945 and no sooner had the fighters vacated Metheringham than the predominantly Australian 467 Squadron brought its Lancasters from Waddington to form part of Tiger Force in conjunction with 106 Squadron'. Now we were to join 467 Squadron. `The B29 attacks on Japan culminating with the atomic bombs brought the Pacific war to a sudden, if horrific, close and Tiger Force was therefore disbanded. Its formation had brought the Metheringham establishment to a peak of 2,000 personnel' - of which I was one - `and I might add that a clock marking the sacrifice of 467 Squadron has been erected in tribute near Waddington Church'.
That's most interesting.
Well thank you very much for that Bob. It's certainly a curious
coincidence that it came yesterday. Well just to round off. Of course you
returned to Australia, as so many other men did. Looking back on it all once
you'd got back to Australia, how did the whole war experience - your experience
- appear to you?
Well, it was a long period overseas and in one respect it was a case of just growing up at the time. I'd been called up right at the age of eighteen and when I got back I was about twenty-two years of age, and on the one hand I suppose it was four years - three of which were served overseas - was a big gap out of the youth of a person. On the other hand, on summing it up, as it turned out and when we left we didn't have any idea just how, where it would eventuate or whether we'd ever hit Australia's sunny shores again, but as it turned out I felt that my war experiences and the places I was privileged to see has stood me in very good stead over the years. And it was those, in those far off days and just those few days at Naples, Rome and Florence - and particularly Florence - that I sort of got an insight into human culture or something that probably I would never have got otherwise. And had I visited them when I did just recently, instead of seeing them at that time, I think I would have been the poorer for it.
That's most interesting Bob. And just one final question which I'd like to put to everybody. Is there anything else you would like to put on this record that you feel you'd like to?
When we were coming back we called into Bombay again and we were wondering where we ought to go and have a look, and I said, `I wonder where the Taj Mahal is, whether its too far distant from Bombay', you know, whether we might have been able to do a day trip there or something, and the fellow, one of my mates I was with, said, `Oh', he said, `I'll show you the Taj Mahal', he said, `It's in Bombay'. I said, `Are you sure?'. He said, `My word it's in Bombay'. So we got one of those horse driven gharries - I don't know if you've ever struck them - and we drove and drove and drove, and finally he said, `Pull up here'. So we pulled up the gharry and he said, `Here we are', he said, `here's the Taj Majal'. I said, `That's a hotel. That's not the Taj Mahal.' He said, `That's the Taj Mahal alright'. He said, `You read up the top'. So I read up the top. It was the Taj Mahal Hotel, and that was his Taj Mahal (laughing).
Well I hope you had a good time at the Taj Mahal.
Bob, on behalf of the War Memorial, thank you.
Good, thanks Ed. A pleasure.
END OF INTERVIEW.
[3SQN Assn repaired version of original transcript on https://www.awm.gov.au. ]
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