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Foggia, Italy. 1943. Aircraft of No. 3 (Kittyhawk) Squadron RAAF, lined up ready for a swift take off on an advanced airfield.
This aircraft is having a check over by a wireless mechanic. [AWM MEA0846]
by Tom Russell
Peter and I had a few things in common. Before the war, we both worked for the NSW Government Railways; he as an Electrical Fitter, me as a Clerk. We both enlisted in the RAAF in 1940, and we both served for more than five and a half years. His mustering on the Squadron was “Wireless Mechanic”, and his term of service was just four days longer than mine.
We both lost a Brother in a road accident, and a Son to cancer.
I didn’t know Peter on the Squadron, but met him after the war, when the Association was being formed, and later when we were both on the Committee.
After some years, attendance at the meetings began to dwindle, and we found we were the only ones turning up. We decided not to let the Association fold, and in the following 35+ years, organized Anzac Days and other re-unions, and worked to foster the relationship between the Association and the post-war 3 Squadron at Williamtown. I was very proud to stand beside him on the 12th of September 2006, when we were both presented with a Commendation Medal by Air Marshall G. D. Sheppard, OA, Chief of the Air Force.
Peter William Cuthbert, or “Butch” as he was known to his Squadron mates, needs no introduction within 3 Squadron RAAF Association. He gave decades of service to our Association, and was our much-loved President. But, in a way, Peter does require introduction, because he's always been a modest and taciturn man who was very generous in listening to others, but he never big-noted his own experiences or achievements.
We do know that, at the end of the war, Peter signed a security undertaking to: "Refrain from Confirming, Amplifying or Denying" technical information about his service - and he has certainly done that! His service record with the Air Force in World War Two speaks of a man who was dependable, skilled, and respected by both his commanders and his men.
Peter was born 91 years ago and his family lived in Sydney. He matriculated in 1936 from Sydney Technical College and he also represented NSW in Rugby. Prior to joining the Air Force in 1940 he had been an Electrical Fitter in the NSW Government Railways, and was studying towards a Diploma in Electrical Engineering.
Because of his valuable technical skills he was sent to a Signals School in Canberra to become a Wireless Maintenance Mechanic. They rated him to be of "Very Good Character" - with "Superior Trade Skills" - "an Excellent Mechanic".
Peter joined 3 Squadron in Libya on the 14th of January 1943 as a Technical Sergeant. At that time the Squadron was involved in the last four months of battles that would lead to Victory in North Africa. On that day, the Squadron was fortunate to secure the services of a skilled Technician such as Peter, but saddened by the loss of six aircraft. Three young men were killed, and one became a Prisoner of War. Two of those pilots who were killed had been with me in a group of six who had all travelled from Australia together.
The work that Peter was doing, as with every specialist member of the ground crew, was highly technical and performed in an environment which was pressured, unrelenting, choked with dust, and subject to the real dangers of enemy attacks on our bases. The aircraft wirelesses, which he and his men maintained, were crucial to the preservation of the lives of our pilots, and the co-ordination of our operations. I speak for all of the Squadron’s pilots when I say that we had great confidence in the work of our ground crew.
There was a brief respite in Africa after those battles ended in May 1943, but soon enough our ground crew found themselves at sea on the Mediterranean, sitting in landing craft taking them towards the invasion of Sicily. A few weeks after landing, 3 Squadron's base at Agnone was hit in the middle of the night by a precision bombing raid by the Germans. - Many aircraft were destroyed and several personnel from other units were killed. Peter was right in the middle of it and was lucky to be invited into a slit-trench by his good mate, Reg “Slim” Moore. (Slim spotted Peter sprinting past on his way to the Mediterranean for safety - in the nude! - The Sicilian summer nights were very hot and most people had been sleeping with nothing much on. It was a humorous occasion despite the danger - they could easily have been killed on that night. The story of two nude men in a slit trench has been written into Three Squadron history since Peter and Slim re-told the story, to the great amusement of all attending, at the Squadron's Birthday Dinner at Williamtown Air Base in September 2009.)
Agnone, Sicily, 13 August 1943. German flares light up the airstrip [AWM MEA0408] and, next morning, a crater from one of the German 500kg bombs [MEA0417].
For pilots in the Squadron, there was always the prospect of being rotated off operations after completing a certain number of missions, but Peter and most of his ground-crew mates had to soldier on in their difficult jobs with the Squadron for the best part of another two years, until the end of the war in Italy. During that time they moved frequently from base to base, driving through the devastation of the recent battles, living mostly under canvas and suffering the cold and snow of winter in supposedly "Sunny Italy".
Peter was always rated "Very Good" or "Superior" by his Commanding Officers and he was recommended for Commission in October 1944. Unfortunately by that stage of the war the Air Force bureaucrats were not keen to promote someone as young as Peter.
In June of 1944 his Commanding Officer, S/Ldr. Rex Bayly, wrote, “A good senior N.C.O. who has shown good qualities of leadership, is enthusiastic and keen, and is considered capable of holding a commission in the Royal Australian Air Force. (Signals Branch)”
In July the Station Commander of 239 Wing, Lt. Col. E. M. Baker, wrote, “I consider that Sgt. Cuthbert is suitable to hold a commission. He appears to be ambitious and self-confident and has the bearing befitting an officer, but his lack of knowledge of Royal Air Force Signals may be considered a hardship.”
Despite that mildly unhelpful comment, remarks from Group Captain D.I.F. McNair, President of Commissioning Selection at the Rear Headquarters of the Desert Air Force were, “Recommended for Commissioning as a Technical (Signals) Officer in the Royal Australian Air Force.”
Then in August 1944, the RAAF. Liaison Officer, Middle East, made these remarks: “This airman appears to be suitable on type. I am not in a position to comment on his technical qualifications for Signals Officer duties, but it is noted that W/Cdr. H. W. Berry RAAF was a member of the Commissioning Selection Board, and, as this Board has recommended Sgt. Cuthbert, it is concluded that his technical qualifications are sufficient. Sgt. Cuthbert is below the minimum age laid down in the Air Board Order A.5/44. However, Overseas H.Q. R.A.A.F. indicated to me when I was in London, that they would accept applications originated before the end of June 1944 under the old conditions laid down. Under these conditions Sgt. Cuthbert is eligible for consideration, and is Recommended for Commissioning.”
Peter was 25 at this time. (Neville Austin and myself were Commissioned off course in 1942; Nev was 24, as was I.) So as far as being granted a Commission, it's quite clear that Peter was a victim of assessments made by desk-bound boffins.
He only got into trouble once in Italy, when somebody stole a vehicle that he was in charge of...
- You would think that a man from 3 Squadron, which was known as "the Clifty Squadron" ("Clifty" meaning, in the slang of the day, to steal) should have been more aware that there were car thieves about!
When the fighting in Northern Italy finished in May 1945, the Squadron couldn't just relax - they were turned to face the Soviets across the Yugoslav border. - The "Cold War" had already started.
Eventually they were repatriated. Peter shipped back and disembarked in Sydney as a highly-experienced Flight Sergeant, on the 19th of October 1945. He was discharged from the RAAF in January 1946 after five-and-a-half eventful years of service. He eventually completed his long-interrupted Diploma in Electrical Engineering in 1951...
We have lost him, and that has left a great hole in my life and Nean’s life, and in the lives of members of our Association.
We will miss him very much...
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