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Malta. c. July 1943. A group of airmen of No. 3 (Kittyhawk) Squadron RAAF, at an advanced landing ground in Malta.
Identified are: Squadron Leader Reg Stevens (second from left); other side, pilots, Flight Sergeant Ted Hankey;
Flight Lieutenant Brian Harris, and Pilot Officer Jack Sergeant.
Transcript of Australian War Memorial
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: REG STEVENS
SUBJECT OF INTERVIEW: 3 SQUADRON, RAAF
DATE OF INTERVIEW: 5 JULY 1990
INTERVIEWER: EDWARD STOKES
TRANSCRIBER: SUSAN SOAMES
Identification: This is Edward Stokes with Reg Stevens of 3
Squadron on 5 July 1990.
I think you were saying you finished school, or got to the
Intermediate level but didn't in fact do the Intermediate.
Didn't like school so I didn't do the Intermediate.
Right. I think actually you loathed school.
You were saying that after that you worked, I think, quantity
surveying for a builder in the years after leaving school. Just a few questions
about that period. Were you particularly conscious as a boy, as a young man, of
the general story of Australians in the first war, the ANZAC tradition, or not?
Oh yes. I was quite conversant. I had an uncle who was in the first war
and I was quite conscious of it. But I don't think it ever came home to me until
I was rather more adult.
And what about the - I know this was when you were later in
PNG - the political developments in Europe in the later 1930s, the rise of
Hitler to power and so on, did you see the omens of war, or not? Did you talk
about it with your mates?
Yes, we were very, very conscious of it, mainly a fear of the Japanese, or,
not exactly a fear of the Japanese, but we did see a great number of their
fishing boats, or so-called fishing boats, that were absolutely festooned in
electronics and whatnots. The European war, that was the major
one that we were concerned with, and it was then that I thought, well, should
there be anything come of these wars and Hitler and his Germany, that perhaps
we'd have to participate in it.
And I think in fact you were in the Militia as a young man?
Yes. When I was under eighteen I put my age up and joined the artillery -
Right. Well, moving on a little bit Reg, I know at age
nineteen you went up to Papua New Guinea and worked there in a trading company,
later in the administration. I think when 11 Squadron arrived there you became
quite interested, or perhaps had been always, in the air force.
When 11 Squadron came up there, I was fortunate in meeting the adjutant who was a great friend of mine, a Gordon Steege, who was also at school with me. And, of course, I became quite interested in their Walrus aircraft. But prior to that I'd flown in the Guba, which was the Archbold expedition aircraft, and perhaps that whetted my appetite for future work.
Right. We should put down for the record too that you were
married in 1938 and your wife's still here today. Did you ever talk about
flying and the possibility of flying together, or not?
No, I don't think so. Did we, dear?
(Mrs Stevens) No, no. You never said anything at all. It was a shock. When
war was declared he said to me, 'I'm going to fly Spitfires'. Irrespective of a
six months' old baby, it didn't occur to him.
Right, yes. Well, war was declared late 1939. What was your
first thought when war was declared? Do you remember the date?
I certainly remember it and I remember Bob Menzies mentioning that we were
now at war with Germany and the first thought that went through my mind was:
well, I have more to lose being married and with one child and
under those circumstances I felt that it was an absolute duty to go and join the
Right. Well, I know you were called up in mid-40. Your wife
left PNG for Australia about mid-40. You, yourself left September '40 and
November '40 you were at Bradfield, initial training. What's your first
recollection of the air force?
Well, what do you mean? Do you mean the air force or do you mean the actual
Yes, there's a difference, isn't there? Yes, I should have
said what was Bradfield like?
Bradfield was not terribly good, and especially when I hadn't cleaned my
shoes for a number of years having had natives to do it, and then to have to
turn around, make my bed, clean my boots, clean my shoes; I
wasn't terribly impressed.
(5.00) That general discipline, parade-ground bashing and the
rest of it, do you think that carried over into in-air discipline or was it just
.... Or are they totally different things?
Oh, I do think that it's carried over and not only into the
air discipline but also into my .... Even today I feel that that discipline was
something that has carried me through a tremendous amount of worries and has
given me more confidence than perhaps I've ever had before.
We were just talking about the harsher aspects of service
discipline. You had a Sergeant ...?
Sergeant 'Bully' and he was a .... Well, he wasn't a particularly fine
fellow. No great friend of mine. On one occasion he asked for three volunteers
in the normal manner of you, you and you and said, 'Okay, you'll
clean out the latrines', to which I said, 'I'd come down from New Guinea and I
was not going to clean out latrines'. At any rate I finally did clean out
latrines and perhaps I enjoyed doing it.
Well, moving on a little bit, Reg. From Bradfield you went to
Mascot elementary flying training on Tigers. So you're up in the air at last,
flying. Did flying live up to your hopes, or not?
Oh yes, very much so. But I still looked on it as a means to an end and not
as an enjoyment.
Right. So you're not saying then that you were the kind ....
I mean, some pilots swore that flying in itself was a great love and a thing
worthwhile in itself.
No, definitely not.
So the means was to the end of fighting?
Right. Going on to Wagga where you did your service flying
training, I think this was Wirraways, what's your recollection of the courses
that you did there, and what were the main subjects you studied besides actually
Well, I'll always remember the people who were scrubbed from
flying. And on arrival at Wagga we were met by these dissidents who said, 'Oh,
you'll never fly those Wirraways. They're dangerous', and this, that and the
other thing. But we found and I found that they were quite an easy aeroplane to
fly and very, very comfortable. As far as the exercises, apart from the actual
flying, we had lots of navigation, map reading, and the likes. Mainly I suppose
to give us a grounding on our cross-country flights.
Right. Was there ever any study of tactics - fighting
The study of which?
Ah, no, not at that stage.
Right. What are the other chief recollections of that period
at Wagga, Reg?
I found there was a very, very delightful station. The CO was now Sir
Frederick Scherger (deceased), and he kept a very, very .... Ran
a very, very good station. The food was extremely good and ever so much better
than that at Mascot, which also was very good.
Mmm. Of course you would have been one of the few men
training at least who were married, did that set you apart at all from your
other fellow course members?
No, not a bit, Ed.
Right. Well, I guess, in fact, they weren't really very much
older than you. You were married fairly young and probably much of an age with
the other pilots?
I'd say there were very few people older than myself, but generally around
the same age.
Well, the quality of the training, just to finish with: if you
had to rate your training up to this period - good, mediocre, very good, poor -
how would you rate it?
Oh, the training was absolutely excellent - splendid.
Well, moving on. You were posted to England and left on 10th
August '41. That departure from Australia, especially being a married man, must
have been bittersweet I'd imagine. How do you recall all that?
It was with very mixed emotions that we sailed on the
Awatea. I knew that I was leaving a wife and a child, but I think she
realised that that was very much in my make-up, and that I wanted to be part of
Part of the war effort?
(Mrs Stevens) And his brother had sailed a week before to Malaysia [sic].
Right. Yes. This is just for the record too. This was one
of your other brothers going to Malaya, Reg?
(10.00) Yes. Clarrie sailed for Malaysia [sic] with 6 Div - 8
Div, I beg pardon.
Right. And he was the brother who did, or didn't, come back?
No. He died in a POW camp at Sandakan.
Right. And Reg was saying his other brother came back, an
ex-POW, but much reduced.
Yes. Jim, who was the eldest son, the eldest boy, he came back
five stone one out of the Japanese POW camp.
Right. Well, let's move on. You crossed the Pacific I know
to Vancouver and then across Canada to Halifax. I think at Halifax you ....
There was something of a disagreement about the ship you were about to embark
Well, it was the filthiest ship, this was the Empress of
Asia, and it was absolutely filthy as it had just transported some thousands
of Italian prisoners of war from the desert and they were a notoriously dirty
mob. And we refused, point blank, to sail on the ship. And later on the air
officer commanding the Canadian air force came down from Ottawa and saw that the
ship was cleaned up in a sense prior to our embarking, which we did, and finally
after I think it was thirteen days' sailing we reached Liverpool after being
north of Iceland and God knows where.
You were sailing, I think you said, as a lone ship. The
Atlantic was a dangerous place. What tensions were there on board? Were you
involved at all in the observation and so on to defend the ship?
No, not exactly, Ed. The main thing that I found - I spent most of my time
on deck even though it was bitterly cold - and the main thing there was to dodge
sea-sick Canadian soldiers who were lying and sprawled all over the deck, and,
oh, pretty terrible conditions.
Well, Bournemouth in England, I know you did have some leave,
and you were then posted down to 61 OTU, which was from a period October through
to mid-December 1941. I think this was for a conversion course to Spitfires?
That's right, Ed. This was the culmination of, what, nearly twelve months of
wanting to fly these little toys and the conversion to them was particularly
good. Unfortunately, I pranged one of them, a Spit 2, having run out of gas.
My fault entirely and I took full blame for it.
Could I just pause for a moment. Let's just pursue that story
for a moment. I'd imagine navigation was quite tricky. Had you become lost and
couldn't get back, or what?
Well, I knew that I was somewhere over England but I really
wasn't certain exactly where it was because I'd been low flying, unauthorised
low flying, and apparently the winds had swept me out and I didn't know where I
was actually. So I put down on the first little place that I could find which
was a place called Dagenham Park.
And that was a wheels-down landing?
No, that was a wheels-up landing! The CO of the squadron of the 61 OTU, he
wasn't very, very happy with it either.
Right. That must have been very difficult that sort of, I
mean, familiarisation with the plane. Could you tell us in a little more detail
the kinds of steps one went through in that kind of conversion to a new
Well, we initially started off by flying a Miles Magister which is a very,
very light aeroplane. From there we converted onto a Master
Inline and then to a Master Radial. Did a few hours in those and then we were
to set off solo in the Spitties.
The first solo flight in a plane as lively as a Spitfire,
could you recall that now? Was it a flight of excitement or of trepidation?
I think mainly of excitement, Ed, in that in those early Spits we had to pump
the wheels up and I can imagine what it looked like just leapfrogging across the
strip itself, although it wasn't a strip, it was an aerodrome. And I was
very, very thankful when it was in the air and I had the wheels
safely pumped up.
Right. Reg, the Spitfire itself as a plane, what's your
memory of the plane?
The Spit 2, it was a delightful little aeroplane but it had fabric ailerons
and it was fairly heavy on those ailerons. It was not until the
Spit 5 came out with the duralumin ailerons that they became the little pet that
everyone loved to fly so very, very much.
Mmm. That's interesting. I think you were suggesting before
that some people who'd flown Spits later found Kittyhawks difficult, and there
was a little bit of tension, I think you were saying with Bobby Gibbes there?
(10.00) Nothing really difficult about flying a Kittyhawk but what Gibbie was
cranky about, and I go along with it, was that so many of the boys who had flown
Spitfires in England came out and said, 'Oh, my God, we're not going to trundle
those German tank-type things around', and of course Gibbie got
up no good about it. But fortunately I kept my trap shut and that's why I got
on well with Bob.
Right. Well, just for the record too, I think it's
interesting, we worked out before that on Spitfires you flew, I think,
thirty-seven hours and at the end of that OTU you had a total of 193 hours.
Looking back in your estimation now, 193 hours, was that more than sufficient or
not enough to fit a man to fly in combat?
Definitely not enough. I'd say that .... I didn't start to
learn to fly until I had over 1,000 hours and to send some of the young boys
into combat at anything under 500 hours is purely and simply murder to them.
Right. Mid-December 1941, in fact the 24th, you were posted
to 451 Squadron, an Australian Spitfire squadron on the Isle of Man. I think it
was a very cold winter. What's your recollection of that?
Cold, yeah, I think it was cold. It really was cold. For ten days on one
occasion we were snowed in, nothing to do and, of course, the CO
thought we'd get some exercise by getting us to shovel snow off the runways. He
drove past in his car and I think we half-filled the car up with snow. So that
was the finish of clearing runways.
Well, obviously coming from PNG, the cold must have struck
you. Your first Christmas overseas though, what's your recollection of that?
It was quite a pleasant one. We had sufficient to eat and sufficient to
drink. The Isle of Man or the Manxmen, they turned out a very, very nice bottle
of beer, Castlemaine Blue I think the name was, and the food was
quite good. But there wasn't very, very much of it, even though a number of our
boys used to skip across to Ireland and bring back hams and eggs, so there was
really no shortage and it was quite all right.
Did you have much contact incidentally at this time with your
wife back in Australia? How regularly were letters able to pass to and fro?
I used to write pretty regularly, Ed, but some I'd send by sea mail and some
by airmail and later on, when I came home, I found that on a lot
of occasions the sea mail arrived before the airmail. But there were also a lot
of letters that just did not get through, and on looking back now it's quite
understandable with all the sinkings that went on between England and Australia.
Yes, certainly. Turning to the work of 451 Squadron, what
were the most common kinds of operations during your time, your few months with
Generally, convoy patrols and exercises. Different manners of flying,
whether it was to be in fluid pairs or fluid fours. They were
extremely good with their training, additional training over there and I've got
nothing but admiration for them.
Tell us about a typical convoy patrol?
Oh, just, it's rather a dreary business of purely flying
around and around these infernal convoys. Fortunately we weren't attacked by
any 109s or even the Focke-Wulf 190s, we didn't even see them in those days, but
most dreary and I was pleased to get back on the ground again.
Right. How long would a typical operation have lasted?
With long-range tanks, about two hours.
Well, I know it was while you were at, or with 451, Reg, that
you had a major prang. I think it began with a tyre blowing out. Tell us about
that, about how the incident stays in your memory?
Oh, I'll always remember it because I've still got a damn sore back from it.
But just coming in I made a normal approach and landing, and halfway along the
runway the starboard tyre blew out, and she slewed over to the right off the
runway itself into mud. And of course she catapulted straight
over. Well, I smacked my head very, very hard - I was sitting high in the
cockpit so that I could look over the long nose of the Spittie - and I just
couldn't move, couldn't get out. Any rate the fire bods came out and I can
recall quite well them lifting the tail, two of the ground staff boys lifting
the tail and someone leant into the cockpit, pulled the pins from my Sutton
harness and I fell about another two feet on my head. The next I remember is
waking up in hospital, where I think I was x-rayed and I was stuck in there for
(20.00) Just undergoing general recuperation?
That and doing tests and whatnot. But I came out of it quite all right.
Mmm. Those moments or minutes in the plane before you were
dragged out, what was going through your head?
I could hear the ticking of the identification 'Friend or
Foe', the IFF and the second thing was the infernal petrol might go up. That
Right. Well, we've had a look at a photograph of that
upside-down plane before. It was obviously a lucky escape. After that, how
easy was it to get back up into the air again?
No problems, Ed. No problems at all.
Right. February 1942. Of course Japan by now was in the
war. In this scrapbook of yours, Reg, there's the .... This is a report in the
Daily Telegraph, February 16th, '42, Australian pilots of a Spitfire
squadron recently cabled the Australian Prime Minister, Mr Curtin, 'We demand to
be recalled to defend Australia'. What's your recollection of that feeling?
Mmm. We were all very, very much in favour of returning to
Australia to defend our own country - that's after the Nips came in - but at the
particular time to Mr Churchill - Winston Churchill - was debating in the House
of Commons whether or not the WAFs should wear blue underwear, or whether they
should wear black underwear rather disgusted us and as a squadron, as an
Australian squadron, our thoughts immediately turned to home. And we thought,
well, John Curtin's the only person who can do any good for us.
Right. Hence the cable. What was the response to it?
None. Absolutely none. Although later on in, later in the year I think it
was, the squadron was sent home with Spitfires, or as they were called then
Capstans. They were sent up to Darwin where most of them - a lot of my good
friends - were shot down and killed.
Mmm. Was there any move on the part of the pilots who sent
that cable to follow it up in any way?
That I don't know, Ed, because I was posted out to the Middle East very
shortly after that happened.
Right. Well, let's move onto that. I know it was February
15th, '42 you were posted. I think the climate was a fairly major part of your
request to leave?
Well, having lived in Papua New Guinea for so many years perhaps my blood was
fairly thin, either that or it was an extremely cold winter. Any
rate it didn't suit me. I didn't like the climate and when the opportunity came
I made application for the Middle East and it was granted. And I was posted out
without, via West Africa by ship.
We might just interject here. There's a rather nice note from
your ... I think your logbook. This is a quote, 'Posted to the Middle East,
what-o the warmer climate'. That seems to sum it all up.
Certainly does, Ed.
Well, the journey to the Middle East was something of a
roundabout route. Just tell us the general details of that journey, Reg?
Well, we went from Greenwich up in the Clyde in the armed merchant cruiser
El Qantara. Went as far as Freetown in that where we
transhipped then to a small wooden ship called the New Northland. The
New Northland had been trading and been sailing on the Great Lakes, and
whilst it was reasonably comfortable it wasn't a ship to travel the oceans in,
in my opinion.
Mmm. It seems a long way from the Great Lakes to the west of
Africa. I hope their navigation hadn't gone wrong. Anyway it was aboard that
ship that you got pushed on to Lagos. I think from there you were taken by Pan
Pan Am flew us then right across Africa to Cairo. It took us about five
days. I must say that it was very comfortable as a passenger on
these DC3 and the Americans did, when we landed at night-time, they looked after
us extremely well. There was always plenty of food and plenty of drink and good
Right. Well, the Middle East, which is the main focus of the
story, or your story with No. 3. I think you first went to a training flight
which was attached to 239 Wing?
Yes, 239 Wing had this training flight so that we became virtually a pool for
the whole of the wing, not only 3 Squadron.
(25.00) And this was basically, I think, for conversion to
Yes. We converted firstly by flying the Harvard, which was very similar to
the Wirraway, and then into the Kittys, and we had absolutely no trouble flying
the Kittys. They were pretty heavy to fly and perhaps landed a wee bit faster
than the Spits, but they were a good aeroplane and I have nothing
I was just going to ask you, Reg, a little bit more about the
Kittys, perhaps, because it was the plane you spent your No. 3 time in at
least. What's your recollection of the best and the worst points of the Kitty
as an aircraft - as a fighting aircraft?
One very good point is that they had 6.5 machine-guns firing forward. The
airframe itself could take a tremendous amount of punishment and still keep
flying. Unfortunately, if you lost your 'donk' [the engine] they
had the gliding angle of a brick and it was rather difficult to put down under
those circumstances. Still a very, very good aeroplane.
What about taking off and climbing? How did they compare with
other aircraft of their kind?
Oh, very, very slow take-off; very, very slow climb. Oh, not so bad I
suppose after about 10-12,000, but over that the Kitty-1s were struggling to hit
the 25,000 feet.
Landing I know for some pilots at least was something of a
problem, or something at least you'd come used to with Kittys, the two or
three-point landing and so on. What's your memory of that?
Well, it was suggested that we wheel them in but there again, even doing a
three-pointer, it didn't worry us at all, and the Kitty was such a heavy
aeroplane that you three-pointed and it sat down. Once it was on the deck, it
They did of course have a very long nose coming up over the
engine. What difficulties did that pose for taking off?
I don't think their motor was, or the length of the nose was
any greater than that of the Spitfire and, of course, we could sit pretty high
in the cockpit and look, virtually look over the nose. But, usually on take-off
and landing, you kept your head out of the office on the left-hand side.
Right. And you were therefore looking down along the ford,
along the fuselage?
Along the fuselage but also kept a pretty close eye on the deck.
Right. The conversion to Kittyhawks, besides actually
hands-on flying of the aircraft, were there any other aspects to your training
at that stage, that you recall?
As far as the Kittys were concerned? No, we did a tremendous amount of
flying in that conversion time, and the instructors we had there were chaps who
had come down from 3 or 112 Squadron who had had a lot of combat
experience and of course they passed it gladly, passed it on to us. And I think
most of us absorbed all that we possibly could.
Was there much talk or specific training to do with tactics,
the tactics of aerial combat and so on, or not?
Yes. Generally the squadron flew two sections of six a piece and, of course,
the training wing, they coached us very, very much in that. It was different
formations to those we'd flown in England, but it was a very, very good, I think
a very, very good defensive rather than offensive formation. And
the fluid sixes could be easily split up into fluid pairs.
Right. Let's just pause for a moment.
END TAPE ONE - SIDE A
BEING TAPE ONE - SIDE B
Identification: This is Ed Stokes with Reg Stevens, No. 3
Squadron. Tape one, side two.
Reg, I think it's interesting that you had an interview with
Bobby Gibbes during this period. Tell us about that?
Yes. When we were doing this conversion course, Gibbie came up in what we
call the 'glasshouse'. It was a station wagon that they'd stolen
from the Free French I think it was, and Gibbie was in the back. And he had -
I'm not sure whether it was his left or his right ankle - was in plaster, and he
said at the time, 'Would you like to join 3 Squadron?'. And I said, 'My very
word'. I said, 'My very word I want to', I said, 'That's virtually why I came
up here', and he had a look at my log book and he said, 'Oh, I notice that
you're below average in your air gunnery', and I said, 'Yes'. He said, 'So was
I so you'll do well in the squadron'.
Right. That's interesting in fact because it was at this time
I think that Nicky Barr was CO. Bobby Gibbes had been injured so he was doing a
bit of kind of behind-the-scene scouting for his old squadron it would seem.
Gibbie couldn't keep away from the squadron, that was his
complete life. But he did help Nick very, very much when Nicky took over
Right. And there was obviously a great shortage of pilots. I
know Nicky was speaking about the other day. Well, just to sum up that
training, we might just put down it was from 27th May to 6th June '42, and I
think the record was ten hours forty-five minutes in Kittyhawks. How adequate
was that in retrospect to prepare you for what you had to do with Kittyhawks in
Well, of course, you don't start to learn to fly until you've
done over a thousand hours. But at that particular time we'd have taken on the
whole Luftwaffe; it didn't worry us. I think we were perhaps a little
over-confident or more than a little over-confident - very, very cocky - but we
were ready for it.
Right. Well, let's go onto actually joining the squadron. It
was at Gambut and 7th June, '42 is the date. Nicky Barr of course is the
squadron leader, having taken over from Bobby Gibbes. What was your first
impression of the men of the squadron when you arrived there?
Mmm. It was an opinion that I've never changed: they were a very, very
grand lot of boys. Not very, very much experienced as far as air combat and
flying was concerned but it was more than made up by their
enthusiasm and their respect for both Bobby and Nicky Barr.
Mmm. Right. So there was a real bond towards those leaders.
That bond, oddly enough, Ed, has still gone on. Even today the bond is
becoming even greater in my opinion.
Right. Well, this period of June, or basically of June '42
was when the squadron was forced into a very rapid retreat, numerous short
operations, often more than one a day. What kinds of operations were you
Generally we were bombing and strafing with quite a number of
aerial combats against 109s and 202s. On one occasion I recall we took off from
Gambut, Sat 1, I think it was, and we no sooner had our wheels up than infernal
German tanks started firing at us. We didn't land back on our own strip. While
we were having a go at those tanks the whole of the squadron, the whole of the
wing actually was moving back and moving back very fast. So we caught up and
past them and landed on one of the airstrips east of Gambut.
(5.00 The airstrips in the desert during this period when you
were literally leapfrogging back from strip to strip, how good or bad were they
as landing grounds?
They were quite good. The desert was fairly hard packed, there wasn't much
sand left. I think all the sand had been blown away thousands of
years ago. But it was very simple and we didn't even need a strip in a lot of
instances to put down. Later on when the Americans came in we had .... I think
it was three squadrons of them came over to us, pursuit squadrons, came over to
us for experience. And we gave what we could to them. They complained very
bitterly though, that on moonlight nights they were pretty heavily bombed and we
weren't bombed. They didn't wake up to the fact that by their putting all their
old oils and whatnots on the landing ground it stood out, oh, as black as ink,
and it stood out so very much and of course they copped the bombs. We had no
oil or covering on our strips and we were right.
Mmm. That's interesting. The oil they were putting down was
to cement the ground, was it?
No, I think it was to stop the dust rising, Ed.
That's what I meant, to damp down the dust.
Desert flying, what, as you see it, were the advantages and
perhaps disadvantages of flying in a generally flat desert environment?
Well, the first thing was that you could bomb and strafe and you're not going
to hurt any major towns because they just don't exist over there. That was
.... To my way of thinking that is a very decided advantage. But as far as
flying is concerned, if you're knocked down, it's a darn sight
easier to land in the desert than it is to try and land on a city road.
Mmm. Right. Or, for example, in fields in England.
What about navigation in the desert? Was that ever difficult
in this featureless landscape, or not?
Navigation was not easy but, there again, I think we flew 'by guess and by
God' and a lot of manners. Later on I became very interested in
navigation in order to lead the boys. And we made a pretty fair fist of it, I
think. But it was still pretty difficult, a featureless desert and we used to
fly 'on the clock' as much as fly anything.
What do you mean by 'on the clock'?
Well, we'd know that we had a certain distance to go we knew what our air
speed would be; and we then flew on that time and just looked around and picked
up something. Invariably you could pick up something. And in a
lot of instances be a German camp.
Did you have reasonably reliable meteorological information
that would give you aspects such as wind drift and that kind of thing, or not?
No. We used to work that out ourselves, Ed. Met. was very, very poor
in the desert but at least we had a prevailing wind and we had a pretty fair
idea of where we were.
Right. And by working it out yourself, you mean you'd, based
on a dead reckoning path and how far you deviated from that, you could work out
wind drift, could you?
Yes. On a number of occasions we flew out over the Mediterranean for quite a
considerable time and then cut into the coast and I don't think we ever missed
out on finding our target.
Right. The retreat did involve very, very rapid movement back
from airstrip to airstrip. How effective was the coordination between the air
crew and the ground crew? How smoothly did the squadron fall back?
Oh, that was absolutely wizard. The organisation in the whole of the wing,
not only the squadron, but the whole of the wing, was super,
absolutely superb and the ground staff boys of course, I do take my hat off to
them every time. They coordinated and the officers and the men all coordinated
and worked very, very well together.
In your recollection, was there ever any occasion when, for
example, the planes got back to a certain point to be refuelled, maintained,
whatever, to find the ground staff weren't there?
(10.00) Yes. But that was quite late in the piece when we were going
forward. We leapfrogged and unfortunately the ground staff boys
had not arrived and I think we had one of the Americans with us, a Colonel
Hogg. He was flying with his 45th Pursuit Group boys, and he came over to me
and he said, 'Steve, have you got any food?', and I said, 'Oh, I've only got
some bully beef I think', and he said, 'Oh, beef, good'. So he started his
Kittyhawk up and we put a couple of cans of bully beef on the motor to heat them
up. Pretty lousy Ed, but they enjoyed it, better than their Spam.
Tell us about food in the desert - I haven't asked many people
about that. What were you generally living off, breakfast, lunch, the evening
meal. Whenever you could get time to eat?
The cooks did a remarkable job, even though they didn't have a great deal to
work with. We had bully beef, and bully beef, M&V or meat and vegetables, and I
think that was about all. The way the boys knocked it up, mixed with a bit of
sand and rubbish I suppose, was quite good.
One other aspect that I think would be interesting to ask
about is your view of the Kittyhawk as a fighting aircraft as against the German
planes you were coming up against, what was your estimation of the Kittyhawk as
against the German aircraft?
Up to about ten, twelve thousand feet the Kitty would hold its
own. It would out-turn the 109s or the Macchi 202s, but it was so very rare for
us to see the Huns on our own level; usually they were two or three thousand
feet above us and with that cannon through the nose it was, oh, pretty
frightening. You'd see that trickle of smoke coming out of the 109 and you'd
think, 'God, struth, where is it going to hit me?'. So the Kitty as a fighter
was not in the same street as the 109.
Right. I just want to ask now about one incident that
apparently is quite off the official record, obviously most unfortunate, but
through no fault of No. 3 Squadron. This is the incident, and the date we have
as 11th June 1942, when you described how the squadron actually shot up some
Indian troops, Indian Allied troops. How did this develop?
Mmm. Very, very obvious that the bomb line that the intelligence bods had
given us was incorrect, because Nicky Barr was leading the squadron at the time
and we went over and we bombed and strafed until we heard Nicky call up, 'Don't
strafe any more. Don't strafe any more'. The reason that he did
that was that there was no anti-aircraft fire coming from the troops that we
were doing over. And Nicky did an absolutely marvellous thing then. He landed
amongst these, this Indian division and being in the desert - as I mentioned
earlier - he could put it down on the deck with no problem at all. But he
landed and he apologised to the division there. Now I think that was a very,
very mighty thing and that is typically Nicky Barr.
Yes. I mean, he might well have received a hostile
reception. Do you have any idea of the actual casualties?
No, I'm afraid I don't, Ed. Even had they come out, I don't think we would
have been permitted to mention them.
Was that incident to your knowledge ever pursued in any way,
in terms of reprimands against the people who'd provided the incorrect
I don't think there were actual reprimands against them, but they would have
been told to pull their socks up and give us proper information.
Right. Well, moving on a little bit, in fact I think it was
the next day, 12th June. This was the day your aircraft was hit in its
hydraulic system. How do you remember that operation beginning? What were sent
out to do and how did the hit occur?
We were sent out on a bombing, a dive-bombing and strafing
show. The bombs we carried were 250 pounders with a twenty-three inch nose rod
that protrudes from the nose of the bomb. We went out and I think it was an
Italian crowd we were bombing and I got a whack in the hydraulics and electrics
with, I think it was a forty mill. - I don't know for sure. At any rate, on the
way back the motor started to cough a wee bit and didn't sound too bright. So I
went to put my wheels down and there was this blare in my ears to say that the
wheels had not locked down. And it was very, very obvious then that the
hydraulics had been shot up. So I tried to retract the wheels again - I think
they were retracted a wee bit - at any rate, I tried to make the aerodrome, but
after the blare in my ears I turned to port, turned left to port, and thought,
'Well, I'll have to put her down'. And I was only, what, two or three hundred
feet above the deck then and I looked and I saw the ground staff boys all
standing near their tents and waving, and then the next moment off they went
like shot rabbits. And I put this aeroplane down and the bomb rolled away. At
the time, of course, I didn't know there was an infernal bomb was on there, but
the boys did, that's why they scarpered.
(15.00) Well, that was obviously most fortunate. If you had
known the bomb was still aboard, what do you think your .... What do you think
you would have done?
Oh Ed, I think that had I had height I'd have thought about jettisoning it
and baling out. But not knowing - this was not a manual manner
of dropping bombs, it was electrical and it was not a good system - but whether
or not, I don't know whether I'd have baled out or whether I'd have .... Had I
known the bomb was still on there I would have baled out, yes.
Mmm. Right. Well, two days later you were saying there was a
tragic incident, a similar landing, but this time the pilot didn't survive. I
think his name was Ross Brighton.
Yes. Ross took off and he obviously had a bit of motor trouble, put his
wheels down and went to land on one of the satellite strips, and
the nose rod on this damn bomb hit piled-up sand that was around the camel thorn
there and poor old Ross just .... He became very deceased.
Just a correction incidentally, that was 15th June, the date
we have for that fatality. It's a hard thing to talk about I'm sure, Reg, but
looking back at your own close escape and then the death of your fellow pilot,
how shaken were you by events such as that?
I don't think we were very, very shaken, Ed. We had come to
accept that being shot down and losing pilots had become part and parcel of the
whole of the action. We regretted very much of course that our friends had gone
down, and for a long, long time we hoped and perhaps prayed that they'd walk
back or become POWs. But a very, very .... It is very traumatic.
How hard was it to get back into an aircraft after an incident
such as yours, perhaps even more so after you'd seen what happened to Ross?
Has never seem to have worried me, Ed. I mean I'm not being blasť when I say
that but I've never been frightened; perhaps I've been concerned
but I've never been frightened and I've never neglected to do what I think I had
Right. Well going on a little bit, for the record, these are
just some facts that typify the kind of the intensity of the work, I guess.
July '42, you yourself flew thirty-one sorties and this was this very intense
period of the retreat. August '42, the squadron had been pushed quite a way
back I think, almost to the Delta. August 23rd, you were shot down. Mmm, what
had you been sent to do on that particular operation?
What did I what, Ed?
What had you - the squadron - gone out to do on that
Oh, we'd gone out in the very, very early morning show. Again, dive-bombing
and strafing and I know it was fairly early because I was knocked
down at ten minutes to nine that morning, and in flames which wasn't terribly
Just going back a tiny bit, do you remember how the action
developed? Were you, for example, hit by ground fire, or were you being
attacked from the air?
No. I remember we were coming home. We were well on the way home and I saw
this 109 coming down behind me and I turned into him, and I could see the smoke
dribbling out of his white nose and then, bang, and I did a very, very quick
flick roll. He'd hit me in the right aileron and also behind my
cockpit and set the aeroplane on fire. So it was just a matter of get down, and
get down pretty quickly.
Mmm. The whole thing of fire in the air is something that
almost every pilot I've spoken to says was held in complete dread, obviously
very little time elapsed before you baled out, could you think back to tell us
what was going through your mind?
(20.00) Yes. I thought, 'Well, I'm on fire. I must get out'. So I pulled
my straps from the Sutton harness, put my left leg out onto the
port main plane, still hung onto the stick and I was ready to jump, and I could
smell this burning cloth. And the first thing that went through my mind was
that my parachute's on fire. Well, actually it wasn't; it was my shirt that
was burning off. At any rate, I put it down very, very fast.
You decided then not to bale out?
Well, I couldn't bale out thinking my 'chute was on fire. So I put it down
on the deck and it landed very fast, and I was nearly shot by the New
Zealanders who came out to pick me up.
From when you made that decision, Reg, not to bale out, to
.... When you hit the ground - touch down - how long do you think that would
Perhaps it sounded like some minutes, but I think it would only
be, at the very most, half a minute, Ed.
Right. So you must already have been quite low?
Ah yes, I was low and going down; I had no power left.
I think you were saying, having got onto the ground, the plane
exploded. I think you yourself were burning?
No. I ran from the aircraft with my 'chute, and perhaps I would have been fifty to sixty yards away and threw the 'chute on the deck and sat down on it, and then the oxy tanks in the Kitty blew, which blew it to pieces. The most unusual thing was I hadn't been sitting there longer than it appeared about a minute and an old Arab came along with a - I'm not sure whether it was a camel - no it wasn't a camel, it was a donkey. And he looked at me, and he looked at this burning aeroplane, and I think he meant to say, 'Is that yours?', as if it could have been anyone else's. There was no-one else for miles around until the New Zealanders came.
Yes, it must have been a strange contrast between an ancient way of life and
this sort of madness of modern technology. You were picked up,
they got you back to the squadron, what happened then?
When they picked me up, one of the New Zealander soldiers was standing in the
back with a Tommy gun pointed at me, and I looked up and could see the flash of
their emblem and I said, 'Oh, thank heavens for the New
Zealanders'. And he said, 'So and so, and so and so', he said, 'If you'd have
been a so and so German you'd be dead now'. Any rate, they picked me up and
took me back, fed me, gave me a new shirt, rang the squadron and later on that
day the squadron came over and, I think, Col Greaves the adjutant came over and
picked me up and took me back to the squadron.
You were saying that after that I think you spent two or three
days at a rest camp on the Mediterranean sent down by Bobby Gibbes. Did that
kind of peaceful interlude help you get over that very close escape?
I think it must have Ed, because down on the Med[iterranean]
we were under canvas if I remember rightly. It was beautiful weather and we'd
do a bit of swimming - only had a couple of days there - but we had a cook who
had come from the squadron, a very good cook, and he seemed to look after us
very, very well. And I went back with some regrets perhaps, back to the
squadron after a couple of days.
From your log book we know you flew again on the 27th, the
30th and the 31st August. How important do you think was it for pilots who had
been shot down to get back in the air pretty quickly?
Ed, there's stories go around about people who have been knocked down or have
had bad accidents and this, that and the other thing, and their CO has said, 'Oh
get back in the air as quick as you can', but I don't know
whether that's, that is factual. As I said, I have been concerned on quite a
number of occasions on flying and I don't think that in the long run it meant a
thing to me. It didn't seem to worry me.
Right. Well, after the end of the retreat there was a loose
period I know, and September '42 we have the squadron being stood down for a
time. Did you get any leave then? Did you get time to get right away from it
all, or not?
That was when we were back in the Delta. Yes, we used to go on leave in
Alexandria which was only about, oh, ten or fifteen miles or perhaps kilometres
- I'm not sure whether it was kilometres or miles - and we had overnight leave,
not day leave. We still had to go back to the squadron but it was a very, very
good and peaceful rest period.
(25.00) Mmm. Did men ...? Did you all enjoy the sights?
What were the main diversions?
Oh, I don't think people were terribly, terribly interested in the sights.
There was one sight there that I think everyone saw and everyone knew:
it was the only virgin in Egypt. It was a big eighteen foot
statue in bronze.
How much did men, you know, men who were not married, how much
frequenting of brothels and so on was there in your recollection?
Not a great deal, Ed. There was some, but I think opportunity
was a great thing and the opportunities weren't there, plus the fact that there
were a lot of soldiers around the area and our boys, no, they didn't, they
didn't frequent them .... Not to any great extent that I know of.
Right. Well, let's move back to flying, Reg. October '42 saw
the squadron flying again - this is in the period prior to Alamein. Just to get
some figures down because I think they're interesting, these are from Reg's log
book, October you flew thirteen sorties, November 15, December 19. What were
the main kinds of operations in your recollection?
Generally what we had been doing all along the line: reconnaissance, armed
reconnaissance, dive-bombing, strafing, a fair amount of aerial combat at the
same time, although at that particular time Jerry was starting to
go back and feel the restraints that he had on his aircraft. Not a great number
were coming over from Italy or Sicily. Also the Navy had been very, very active
in sinking whatever ships had left Sicily.
Mmm. That's most interesting, Reg. The formations that you
were flying during this period - I know there were changes during the whole
period in the Middle East - how do you remember formation flying? What were the
most common formations?
Our squadron, in fact the whole of our wing, used to fly two
lots of sixes in fluid pairs with a leader, a yellow one on his right, a blue
one on his left and the number twos behind him. We stuck to that right through
until after the Sicilian campaign and I think - I'm looking back now with
hindsight - it was more a defensive formation rather than offensive.
Mmm. Tell us what you mean by fluid pairs.
Fluid pairs: there are two flying. One flying directly behind the other so
that you can be sent. If the leader of the gaggle can easily
send, say, one pair out to intercept or to strafe or to bomb and he also
controls the fluid pairs up in top cover.
I see, right. Mmm. It was during October Reg that you shot
down I think a 202. What's your recollection of that encounter?
Well, I was still fairly new to the squadron and we'd done this particular
job and I saw this fellow, he actually came up from under us and
climbed in front of me, and I was just very, very fortunate and pulled the nose
up and gave him a squirt and he went down. But, oh, there was no actual
fighting as far as I was concerned in that one.
Right. After that kind of episode, or perhaps during it, of
course it all happened very quickly, was your thought that you were shooting
down a plane; that you were shooting down a man; or both?
No. I'm afraid I didn't have very many thoughts of it at all. I thought,
'Oh, that's one less of the cows'. But, no, I had no worries
about whether it was an aeroplane or a man. Later on I thought a bit about it
but it didn't worry me.
Right. Do you think there was an element in what you as a
squadron had to do? I don't mean you personally. Was there an element of hate
against the Germans or was it a fairly impersonal kind of combat?
No, it was pretty lot of hate, Ed.
END TAPE ONE, SIDE B
BEGIN TAPE TWO, SIDE A
Identification: This is Edward Stokes with Reg Stevens, No. 3
Squadron. Tape two, side one.
Reg was shot down on numerous occasions and we're just going
to talk about some aspects to deal with this, and I'm just reading from a
statement made on 19th May 1981 by Reg to his doctor, an account of different
shootings-down. These are dates: 31.12.41, on the Isle of Man whilst landing a
Spitfire the starboard tyre blew out, the aircraft slid off the sealed runway
onto water-sodden grass and somersaulted on its back - there are some further
details I won't read out because we've already talked them through; 12.6.42, my
aircraft was hit by enemy 40 mm ground fire and crash-landed in the desert;
29.6.42, following hydraulic failure in the undercarriage and being unable to
get the wheels down I crash-landed on our desert strip; 23.8.42, I was shot
down in flames by ME-109 enemy fighter, crashed landed in the desert - the
episode we've just talked about; 3.8.43, in Sicily I was shot down by enemy
ground fire, crash-landed in an olive tree near Mount Etna; 9.5.44, back in
Australia whilst flying a Spitfire the motor blew up and I crash-landed on the
road near Merbein, Mildura, Victoria. After cessation of hostilities I returned
to New Guinea to my pre-war post with the administration and was retired from
there on medical grounds due to my back complaint in 1952. Reg, I think you
were saying that the retirement from the administration in New Guinea was
because you couldn't complete journeys overland and so on?
I'd done a fair amount of patrolling as a senior inspector of native labour
and I found that I could not walk the distances that were required. So the
Public Service Commissioner suggested, or recommended, that I be medically
boarded, which I was, and I was retired, superannuated from the Service.
Right. Well, let's actually go back to the war period. It
really is a remarkable catalogue of being shot down and surviving to tell the
tale. Fear, I imagine, must in some element have been present in the life of a
fighter pilot. How do you remember that? Was that something that was just a
general thing carrying all the way through your war experience, or was it
something that came and went?
No. Ed, it's rather a peculiar sensation but, without being
blasť, I don't think I was ever frightened. I was concerned, certainly
concerned, but I was more concerned over some of the other boys who perhaps had
not had the same experience I had. But I do know of people who, after being
shot down, were most reluctant to fly again and in many instances were sent back
for additional training and perhaps counselling.
The concern that you expressed yourself feeling sometimes, was
that most evident before or during operations?
I think at the start of any operational flight there was a certain
trepidation .... Well, we know that the ground staff boys
objected rather strongly to changing the wheels - the rear wheel on the
Kittyhawk - because of the pilots always urinating on it just prior to
take-off. So that must have been some type of internal worry or concern.
Were there any other physical symptoms of fear besides, as you
No, I'd say no, definitely not, Ed.
No sweating or nausea, things like that?
What about pilots amongst themselves? Were men about to talk
about their concerns, or not?
(5.00) Yes. After a job, and especially if it had been a pretty sticky-do,
one the pilots when they came into the mess - we had a pilots' mess, sergeant
pilots, warrant officer pilots and officer pilots were all together - and there
was a very decided sign of relief on all the pilots that they'd
at least got back this time.
For men who were particularly overwrought, who could they turn
They turned to our doctor, Doctor Tim Stone, who was a grand man and
wonderful fellow. Tim could pick out those who were a little bit
dicey, but he did it in such a way that no-one else seemed to know about it. It
was nothing to come back and find one or perhaps two of the pilots had been sent
back to base, but no explanation given, none required. We knew that people did
crack up a wee bit under the strain but it was accepted. It was part and parcel
of the squadron.
That's interesting. So there was no element of judgment on
the part of men who could cope against those who perhaps couldn't.
No, no. To the contrary. The ones who had had a lot of
experience, for example, Keith Kildey and Danny Boardman, Charlie Cowd, they
were the first to lend a hand to those who were struggling, and I take my hat
off to those boys.
Your own record was certainly quite remarkable I would have
thought, in the number of escapes you did have from very dicey situations. How
much did fatalism play a part in keeping you going? Was there a kind of belief
that if your number's up it's there and that's it? Did that help you through,
I think I might have been born under a lucky star. I should
have been knocked over on quite a number of occasions, but just luck must come
into it. Certainly there was a wee bit of skill, but skill doesn't come until
you get experience and that experience was pretty hard to buy on occasions.
What about thoughts for your family back in Australia? How
much did they come to the fore when you were in these very difficult situations?
Not while we were flying, not so much, but after we would come
home and especially at night-time in the mess when we had no electric light,
just lamps, and we'd play cards or write letters, and the thoughts were never
far from us of our home people.
Following responses by Mrs Stevens.
I thought it would just be interesting to include the
perspective of a woman and a wife in this story. Of course not many of the
pilots were married, Mrs Stevens, but you'd married Reg just before the war.
Aside from the issue of combat danger which we might come to in a minute, what
were the general problems, do you think, that a woman faced when her husband
went off to war?
Mrs Stevens: Well I had a little boy who was very difficult, because he was
a very active child and very strong, self-willed and it worried me to
a great extent because I was thinking of my husband all the time and I didn't
know how to manage things because I'd always been, he'd always done everything
for me, looked after me and spoilt me. I missed him terrifically and it wore me
down in the end.
Mmm. There must have been, I can see, a great deal of
loneliness in bringing up a child and I think you were living yourself with a
sister who had a .... Her husband was away too?
Mrs Stevens: Yes. The two sisters married to the two brothers and they
went away within a week of one another. And we'd always been very close and I
looked after the house. She was still working, she had no family. But I think
that having her coming home .... If I'd been on my own it would have been
The letters that came back from Reg no doubt told of some of
these escapes, although I'd imagine they were sometimes made less horrific than
perhaps they were in reality. How did the stories of his fighting affect you?
Mrs Stevens: Well, he didn't tell me very much. I heard most
of the things through the newspaper clippings. He was rather inclined not to
let me know.
To shield you from what was going on.
Mrs Stevens: Yes, to shield me from worrying more than I was.
That's interesting because I think Reg was saying that some of
the newspaper reports in fact were somewhat exaggerated.
Mrs Stevens: Yes, I think they are, well I didn't realise at
the time that they were.
So you were getting this second-hand information. Did you get
any information officially from the air force about these crashes and so on?
(10.00) Mrs Stevens: No, never. Never heard anything at
all. Well, it was just as well because they would have been frightful to have
even been told it.
I think you were saying that things did rather build up and at
some point at least you suffered some kind of nervous breakdown?
Mrs Stevens: Yes, I did. Well, he'd been overseas a long
while then and apparently all the worry just had caused it.
What help did you get then?
Mrs Stevens: Well, I was under a very good doctor and I seemed to be okay
after his treatment, but I've always been a nervous type and of
course I worried all the time.
Was there ever any assistance to your doctor or to yourself
from the air force, or from any people who could counsel wives left alone about
the things their husbands were going through or not?
Mrs Stevens: No, no, nothing. Nothing at all.
Mrs Stevens: No, nothing.
So basically it was a question of being looked after by a good
Mrs Stevens: That's right. It was the good doctor and my family that sort
of helped me.
Right. Well that's really what I wanted to ask you, unless
there's something else you feel you'd like to add about the whole, you know, the
whole thing you went through of being left alone in Australia.
Mrs Stevens: No, I just think that I was very lucky that I had a father
and a mother and a .... My eldest sister was wonderful. She used to take the
little boy every weekend and give me - on the Saturdays - and give him little
trips, to give me a break. Because, you know, a child of - how old was he, I
suppose he was two wasn't he - about two is very difficult and I did enjoy ....
I think I was very lucky. I had a marvellous family and Reg's family were also
very helpful with me.
Right. Well, that's most interesting. We might perhaps leave
Continuation of interview with Reg Stevens.
This is moving on again. Reg, the first half of 1943, January
'43, Tripoli was captured. February, March, April - this is in the period
leading up to when the squadron reaches Tunisia in the end of April '43. What's
your recollection of that period?
It was a time of great activity, Ed. We cooperated very closely with the
army and especially with the New Zealanders; we virtually adopted them. And we
had a lot of successes; we lost a number of boys but generally we
were on top most of the time.
Right. Do you have any recollection of the general living
situation as you moved on towards Tripoli and then on to Tunisia?
The living ...?
Oh, living conditions weren't terribly good mainly because the
Italians .... We occupied camps that the Italians had vacated as we were going
forward, and they weren't the cleanest people in the world. And I know as far,
for myself, the first time in my life I was lousy, and I resented it. I
resented it very much. When I went to the doctor at that time - I forget who he
was now - I said, 'Look, don't laugh Jenks because what I'm going to tell you is
humiliating'. And he said, 'What's the matter, Steve; what's the matter,
Steve?', and I said, 'I'm lousy', and he roared. And he said, 'You and 300-odd
bods in the squadron, you're all lousy'. So that was an indication of living.
Right. That must have been pretty uncomfortable I'd imagine
when you were up in the air?
I wasn't so bad up in the air I suppose, but I think we had
too much to think of then. But I know when we finally got into one of the
places there I took over a house - well it was a house that - and it had a very,
very beautiful swimming pool, what I thought was a swimming pool. So I stepped
out of my lousy clothes and into this big swimming pool and it was only later on
that I found that that was the water supply for the whole of the township.
(Laughs.) Well, I hope not too many people suffered. Mmm,
Reg, to turn to a different aspect I want to talk a little bit about promotion
and so on. As a pilot officer you'd been awarded the DFC, I think recommended
for it by Bobby Gibbes - this is going back a way - and later you received a Bar
to that DFC when you were in Sicily. You'd been commissioned in a sense in
November '42 but it actually took about six months for the commission to come
through. You were saying that you weren't back-paid for that period. Was there
any resentment on the part of Australian airmen in the Middle East that
administrative routines and so on were a little bit loose, a little bit slack
and things such as promotion pay didn't come through as quickly as they might
(15.00) Well, I know as far as the other two boys who were commissioned at
the same time as myself, that was Gordon Jones and - I'm not sure - I think it
was Norm Caldwell, at any rate, this commissioning was not back-dated and there
was a fair amount of resentment because, in actual fact, we had
been officers flying for six months but still being paid NCO rates. Not that
the money meant so very, very much, we couldn't spend it in the blue there, but
it was wrong and I still maintain that it was wrong. And that we should have
received our commissions retrospective.
Was there any agitation to get that changed, or not?
Not as far as I know, Ed.
Well, just to add a few other details. The 13th May '43, you
were officially made up to a pilot officer and became a flight commander. The
19th June '43 you became, were promoted to squadron leader and, in fact, took
over to command No. 3 Squadron after Brian Eaton. Just to talk about some
issues of rank and so on. The relationship between the ground crew and the air
crew in No. 3 Squadron, how close a relationship was that?
It was a very close relationship. There's not one of those ground staff boys
would have signed to say that an aircraft was okay unless it was really okay.
If there was any doubt about it the pilot would be told. But we
found them absolutely magnificent chaps and they'd work all night to get an
aircraft on line. I know my own fitter and rigger, and John was a chappie I
knew up in New Guinea pre-war, and he worked on my aeroplane and I knew that I
could go out and I'd come home, God willing.
Thank you. The situation between officers and men in No. 3
Squadron, both ground crew and air crew, but looking at the officers as against
the men, how close a sort of general relationship was there when you were out in
the field in combat situation or were there .... Was there the distance of
calling men, 'Sir', saluting and these kinds of things?
No, Ed. We had a pilots' mess and irrespective of the youngest and newest
pilot, we all messed together. There was .... The only person
who was called 'Sir' was the CO and I think he resented it a bit on occasions.
But as far as the others it was all on christian name, and the NCO pilots relied
as much on the officer pilots as the officer pilots relied on the NCOs. And it
was nothing to see our squadron go out led by a sergeant pilot or a flight
sergeant pilot with half a dozen officers flying with him. But he was the
number one; he was leading the squadron. And that was the thoughts and that
was the general - what shall we say - the general ...
... pattern right throughout our flying career with 3.
In that kind of situation where, for example, a sergeant was
leading a flight that had amongst it a number of pilot officers, et cetera, or
more senior officers, would there ever have been any question in the air of his
authority being challenged or not?
Definitely not. The CO of the squadron would not have appointed a sergeant
pilot or a NCO pilot to lead a gaggle unless he was absolutely
convinced that that fellow was sufficiently experienced and he had the know-how
to take the boys out and bring them home.
The relationship between a ground crew of a particular pilot,
was that a first name relationship or would they have called an officer 'Sir'?
No. The CO was the only one - there were exceptions of course. Some of the
ground staff boys would call the officers 'Sir' but that was very, very rare and
usually it was 'G'day Tom' or 'G'day Harry' and 'David, what are you doing?' and
that was the general pattern right throughout the whole squadron.
Right. You yourself were promoted from being a sergeant pilot
to a pilot officer and then on to a squadron leader I think more rapidly than
anyone else on record. Did that pose any problems, or not?
Not as far as I was concerned. I had the complete backing of
all the pilots and perhaps I was a wee bit more experienced or had spent more
time in the air than the majority of them had. But they were absolutely one
hundred per cent behind me on every occasion and I had no problems with them.
(20.00) Right. Well, let's actually look in some detail, Reg,
at your period as CO. The dates were 19th June '43 through to 16th August '43.
What was the main duty of the commanding officer?
To ensure that the squadron was ready for any contingency
whatsoever; to ensure that the training was right to the very, very tip of
perfection - I don't think we ever reached perfection but we did reach fairly
close to it - and that was mainly because of the cooperation of all pilots
within not only our squadron but right within the wing.
How much as commanding officer of the squadron were you
involved in the day-to-day mechanics of supplies getting to the right place, all
this kind of thing, or was that generally completely delegated to other people?
In the main it was delegated through the equipment officers and the
engineering officers. I did find it a good idea to at least go down to the
orderly room once or twice a week. But the adjutant - we had a very, very
competent adjutant - and that's all there was to it. He looked
after the basics, I looked after the flying personnel.
Right. Just to ask a question about the flying, it's a point
that a few people have made, some people have suggested that in No. 3 Squadron,
as against other squadrons, there was much more of a group attitude to flying,
that individuals were less likely to go off on their own and perhaps get the
very high scores of some of the aces of certain other squadrons. Do you see
that being the case or not?
I don't think we had a sufficiently good offensive aeroplane to do that. And
generally because of the training that these boys had received and the pep talk
perhaps from the senior members of the squadron, they had no intention. They
didn't want to leave the formation to go out on their own. They
knew that if there was someone to be shot down, that the CO or the leader of the
gaggle would say, 'Okay, Blue 1 or Blue 2, go down and get so and so'. But
that's as simple as that, Ed.
Right. So there was a large element of self-preservation
involved in it?
I suppose self-preservation but also pride within the formation.
Right. Moving on to June '43, after you'd become commanding
officer, Reg, I think you were operating out of Zuara south-east of Tunis. I
think there was some training pre .... Prior to the Sicilian operations?
Oh, we had quite a decent stint of a break - when I say the break, we had a
fourteen-day party which included a lot of grog which I brought back from
Algiers - but as soon as that was finished and it was a matter of
nose to the grindstone again and we did a tremendous amount of flying, formation
flying, shadow shooting, both tactical and dive-bombing. Really it was good and
it was rather ... I was very, very proud to see the manner in which those boys
had done the job that I asked them to do, in that I didn't do it on my own. We
had flight commanders who assisted very much, good fellows all, and they were
the instrument of getting those pilots together as a fighting and flying unit.
Right. That's very clear. On 6th July there was an operation
that I think was extremely secret, confidential, via Malta on to Sicily. Could
you tell us how that developed and what your role in it was?
Yes. On that particular night the group captain, Group
Captain Jack Darwin, he called me over to his tent and he said, 'Steve, this is
a matter of the greatest secrecy. I want you to take a composite squadron of
twelve over to Malta, where you will refuel bomb up and go and bomb Biscari and
Sicily.' And I said, 'Righto, well who's to go from the other squadrons?' -
there were five squadrons in the wing. Anyhow, I took three from 3 Squadron:
myself, John Hobsonhook and Brian Harris - Brian Harris was one of the flight
(25.00) Now the unusual thing was that we were absolutely sworn to secrecy
and that no-one was to know, apart from the pilots that I was briefing that
evening, where we were going, what we were doing. At any rate, we went over to
Malta, and landed at Luqa, refuelled and
bombed up, then we had a top cover of about eighty Spitfires. So we had no
worries about weaving or having to look out for 109s or 202s. We went in and we
bombed Biscari and came back, landed back to Luqa then refuelled and on to, back
to Zuara where the ground staff boys were very, very interested to know where
we'd been. And they inspected the wheels, the tyres and they said, 'Oh yes,
it's something white. We think they've been to Malta', but no-one knew about
that for many, many years after.
Mmm. That's an interesting story. A few days later, 9th
July, the squadron itself moved to Malta. What were the difficulties of getting
the squadron across the Mediterranean to Malta?
There was a tremendous amount of preparation and there again
we can only say thank you to the officers and men who did the waterproofing of
our three-ton trucks, and all those vehicles and they did a mighty job. As far
as the pilots were concerned, we knew that we were going into an established
mess at Luqa or down in Sliema but I still look back and I think, 'By Jove,
those boys were absolutely marvellous to do in such a short time what it would
have taken a normal squadron weeks to do', they did it in days and we landed
virtually as a going squadron on Malta. The same thing happened in Sicily.
How many days did you actually have to prepare for the move?
Oh, I think we were given about a fortnight, Ed. That's a
fortnight over and above our training, the very intense training session that we
went through. It might have been a little bit less than that but they did the
The shifting of all the squadron's transports, I assume tents,
personal baggage, let alone all the aircraft and maintenance gear, spares and so
on, how did they get across to Malta?
By ship. By landing craft. And, oh, there was no problem at
all. The skies were absolutely full of our own aircraft. The Mediterranean was
full of battleships and cruisers, destroyers, frigates; you name it, they were
there. It would have been a very, very cocky German who would come out to try
and stop them.
Right. You were saying you moved to established airfields.
What was the quality of the airstrips you moved to? Had they been knocked
around at all, or were they in good condition?
Oh, they had been .... Over the past several years they'd
really been knocked about but the maintenance, the - I suppose you'd call them
the airstrip maintenance bods - they did an absolutely marvellous job and it
looked like crushed coral that had been rolled into the runways. I think there
were five main strips on Malta. We were on Luqa main and then there was Luqa
Sat 1 and Sat 2 and several smaller ones. And in addition there was, down at
Kalafrana there was a big seaplane base but we did not patron there of course.
But we had no problems at all. Maintenance had been put on and quite a number
of our own bods had by that time come in and doing the servicing of our own
END TAPE TWO, SIDE A
BEGIN TAPE TWO - SIDE B
Identification: This is Ed Stokes with Reg Stevens. Tape
two, side two.
Reg, the squadron was based at Malta for about ten days or in
fact I think exactly ten days. What's your recollection of the squadron's
operations during that time?
Mainly the strafing and bombing of Sicily. The Germans still
had a lot of aircraft fighters and some bombers on Sicily and we tried to wipe
them out as we were fully aware, or some of us were fully aware that an invasion
of Sicily was imminent. I was very, very proud to think that an Australian
squadron had gone into Malta, an Australian fighter squadron. A complete
squadron had gone in as the nucleus of the invasion perhaps of Europe through
France. I was proud to take the boys in. I'm very, very proud of the squadron
itself and I'm extremely proud of the work that they did.
Well, it was 19th July I think that you in fact flew over to
Sicily and I think you were based, used two airstrips in Sicily. What was the
general nature of your role there?
Well, the first thing was that we had to become established, Ed. Our strip was
twelve hundred feet that had been ripped out of a vineyard, and that vineyard
had been booby-trapped by the Germans and the Italians during their retreat from
it, and we were not very happy about that. We lost several boys, not killed,
but we had them wounded from these infernal booby-traps. It was rather lovely
to go into a strip where there was green grass and grapes growing and trees
growing. The whole of the war took a very different aspect and we thought, 'Ah,
at least we're getting somewhere now. We've beaten them in the desert; we're
beaten them off Malta; we've beating them off Sicily', and the next step was to
be Italy. So, Ed, you can probably understand how terribly proud I was to have
taken them, to have been associated with the squadron and to finish up taking
the first all-Australian squadron to Malta and to Sicily.
Yes I certainly can, Reg. And I can understand the pleasure
of getting away from the sort of to-ing and fro-ing in the desert. The wing
that you were attached to which I think Nicky Barr previously commanded in the
desert, were you still attached to that wing here or not?
Yes, 239 Wing came through completely. Nicky wasn't in charge
of the wing. He was CO of 3 at one stage, but the wing was commanded by Group
Captain Jack Darwin, a very fine chap which I have the greatest admiration for
him. Unfortunately he was shot down a little later. But the wing itself
consisting of the five squadrons, including a South African squadron, two
English composite squadrons and two Australia squadrons, 3 and 450, and there
would only be a very thin line between the five squadrons.
Right. Well, just moving on. It was 16th August when you
were posted to 451 Squadron, left No. 3, what are your memories of your last
days with the squadron?
(5.00) With 3, I think one of being terribly proud not only of the squadron
boys but of their achievements. I was a little reluctant going to 451 after the
operations of 3 [Squadron] and after, what, over twelve months, fourteen months
with the squadron. I'd seen a lot of them come, I'd seen a lot
of them go, and all I can really say was, 'Thank you very, very much for being
such wonderful bods'.
Right. Yes, I can imagine the feeling. Let's just go on
briefly to the period later in the war for you. We have to treat this rather
more briefly. You did go to 451 in the Delta, that was August '43 to January
'44, as CO. What was the main function of the squadron while you were there?
I was posted to 451 in order to convert them from army co-op to
a compact efficient fighter squadron. They'd been flying Hurricanes, they were
clapped-out Hurricanes they were too, and the enthusiasm 451 boys was very, very
low. Their morale was very, very low. They appeared to have been left out of
the war. Some of them were terribly, terribly eager to get into a fighting war
and not just finish up flying convoy patrols as they had been doing. It wasn't
easy to reform that squadron, but when I told them that we were to get Spitfires
to replace their Hurricanes their enthusiasm went up. Oh, it was really
incredible to see, and once the Spitties started to come through - certainly
they were only Spitfires initially but they were still Spitties and the boys
loved them - and, as I say, their enthusiasm was absolutely sky-high. So from
then on I had no trouble whatsoever in converting them from their Hurricanes to
these lovely little pets that I loved so much.
Right. Thank you very much. Well, it was January '44 that
you did then go back to Australia. I'd imagine that must have been delightful
to have been reunited with your family?
It really was Ed, yes. The first thing I did, in landing in Fremantle, was
to ring Nan .... Oh no, I rang the next-door neighbour and said, 'Look, I'll be
phoning you at nine o'clock in the morning' or some stupid hour
because when the phone call came through it was about five o'clock I think in
Western Australia and I'm not an early riser and, oh, I hated it. But it was
delightful to talk to her, and whilst I loved Western Australia very much I was
terribly keen to get on the train and get home, which I did after probably a
week on the train. It was great to see them all; great to see my family. And I
had a lot of experiences to tell them about too.
Yes. Well, that must be true surely. I know you went on to
Mildura OTU where Peter Jeffrey was CO. What was your general view of the air
force in Australia? Having come back from the Middle East where you'd been in a
very active situation, what was your general view of the quality of the people
running the air force in Australia?
Peter [sic] ... I don't think I should answer that question because, oh, it's
a difficult one in that I don't want to tread on people's toes, but everything
was so very, very different. There was spit and polish which of
course none of us were very happy about. But the main advantage was that we had
so many of the old desert boys at Mildura, and it was great to see them. People
who had come home months and months before - perhaps eight, nine, ten months
before I did.
Do you think they were used to their best capacity?
At that time the war was fast running out here in Japan. The Americans had
obviously taken over and the Australian airmen were to take a very, very minor
Right. Well, let's just go on to the end. At the end of the
war I know you were seconded to ANA to be with them for a short time. Peace was
declared. When peace was finally declared, what was your overwhelming emotion,
thought? How do you remember that?
(10.00) My major thoughts were for my two brothers who were POWs of the Nips,
that was primary. My second was, when can I get back to Papua New Guinea, and a
third was perhaps a little thanksgiving for coming through it.
Right. Well, I know you did go back to Papua New Guinea for
some time and then, of course, back to Australia again in the early 1950s.
Looking back on it all, looking back on your period as a pilot in the air force,
how had the experience changed you and had it been for the better or for the
Oh, a bit of a moot point. Some people say that I came home
fairly arrogant. Others, that I talked like a Pommy. I have no doubt that I've
changed. The change was so gradual though that I can't really put my finger on
any major points. It was gradual. I used to drink a fair bit and play up
fairly wild. Looking back on it now I don't see even how I could have been
wild, Ed, because, you know, I'm a very respectable sort of bod now.
Easing back into civilian life, Reg, was that difficult or
Yes, very. I loathed it. Although I loved the islands, I always had loved
the islands, but I loathed the thought of being semi-regimented and having to
fill in blasted report forms and this, that and the other thing, and not
being able to virtually do what I had to do but I wanted to do
what somebody else wanted me to do even though ... I did quite well up in the
islands. I loved my stint up there.
That's interesting, Reg. I would have thought in some ways
life in the air force would have been more regimented than civilian life.
Not in the desert, Ed. Out here in Australia, yes, it was very much so
regimented with parades and this, that and the other thing which I didn't like.
But in the desert, no, it was the happy-go-lucky fellows. They
knew the job they had to do. They were proud to be in a position of being able
to do it. And I was terribly proud and I'm still terribly proud of the
Right. Well, thank you for telling us all that. One last
thing, Reg, which I just put to anybody is: Is there any particular thought or
recollection that you would like to put down here?
Yes, Ed. Since being back in civilian life I have been over a great number
of aerodromes and to our squadrons out here in Australia, and
it's really gratifying to see the type of young fellow who is flying these
beautiful aeroplanes today. Not that there is a great deal of difference in
flying. Basically, you push the stick forward and the nose goes down; you pull
the stick back and the nose comes up. But the electronics and the academics who
are flying them, they are a great credit and let's keep our air force flying.
Right. Well, on behalf of the War Memorial, Reg, thank you very much for making this tape as part of the history of No. 3.
[3SQN Assn repaired version of original transcript on https://www.awm.gov.au.]
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