3 Squadron LIFETIMES
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SALUM, EGYPT. C. 1941-01. NO.3 SQUADRON RAAF PILOTS EXAMINE A MAP ON THE TAIL-PLANE OF A GLOSTER GLADIATOR FIGHTER AIRCRAFT, BEFORE AN OPERATION OVER BARDIA.
LEFT TO RIGHT ARE: FLYING OFFICER (FO) J. R. PERRIN; FO J. MCD. DAVIDSON (SQUATTING); FO W. S. ARTHUR (ALMOST OBSCURED); FO P. ST. G. TURNBULL;
FLIGHT LIEUTENANT (FLT LT) G. H. STEEGE [WEARING BALACLAVA]; FLT LT A. C. RAWLINSON; FO V. EAST; (UNKNOWN); SQUADRON LEADER I. D. MCLACHLAN (COMMANDING OFFICER); FO A. H. BOYD.
Three years ago, four of No.3 Squadron’s 1940 “Originals” were still fit enough to re-enact their “marching-out” through the old ceremonial gates at Richmond RAAF Base [marking the 70th anniversary of that event]. Now, the last of those four men has left us.
Gordon Steege began his flight-training at Point Cook at age 19. He graduated in 1938 as a Pilot Officer, and shipped out to Egypt with 3 Squadron on 15 July 1940. He flew an archaic-looking Gloster Gladiator biplane fighter on 3 Squadron’s first-ever operational sortie of WW2, on 13 November 1940. Gordon featured in many of the Squadron’s early Gladiator combats and quickly became one of the Squadron’s ace pilots.
Gordon also delivered the first of 3SQN's Hawker Hurricane fighters on 22 January 1941 and he went on to fly this model with distinction against the newly-arrived Germans. Gordon gained his DFC in April 1941, in recognition of his daring and fierce determination in leading his 3SQN Flight in breaking up enemy fighter and bomber formations and inflicting serious losses. His DFC citation mentions that Gordon had been credited with the destruction of at least seven enemy aircraft. Soon afterwards he was promoted to lead 450 Squadron.
Post-war, Gordon spent time as a Patrol Officer in Papua New Guinea and then re-joined the RAAF to forge a long, varied and impressive career, including command of 3SQN's bases at Fairbairn ACT and Butterworth, Malaysia. (For further details see Air Marshal Fisher's excellent eulogy, below.)
Gordon was Patron of 450SQN Association from 2008 and led 450’s ANZAC Day march in Sydney each year. Sandi Nipperess of 450 Squadron Association writes: "His continued strength and leadership has always been admired by the surviving veterans of No. 450 Squadron RAAF and their families."
By any measure, G.H.S. was an extraordinary man, of considerable courage and stature, who lived a long and fulfilled life with an exciting, unmatched working career. In fact, he had four separate careers spanning some 68 years; he was a WW2 fighter pilot; a PNG Patrol Officer; a senior commander in the peacetime RAAF and a consultant to the defence aviation industry.
Gordon was born in Chatswood, NSW on the 31st of October 1917. Having an early interest in joining the Navy, and later the Royal Military College at Duntroon, Gordon finally settled on the RAAF, entering as an Air Cadet at Point Cook, Victoria, in July 1937. He graduated as a pilot in mid-1938 and was posted to 3 Squadron at Richmond NSW, flying Hawker Demons. He said, "Looking back on it, I’m so glad that it was the RAAF which was the service which took me, rather than either of the other two."
We here would all say amen to that!!
Hawker Demon of 3SQN RAAF, Richmond NSW.
In 1939, at the outbreak of war with Germany, Gordon was posted as Adjutant to the newly formed 11 SQN at Port Moresby, New Guinea, which was equipped with Qantas Empire flying boats and Seagull amphibians. 11SQN’s task was reconnaissance, as it was expected that German naval raiders would operate in the Pacific as they had done in WW1. In early 1940 he was given the option to stay on with 11 SQN in PNG, but instead opted to return to 3SQN - having heard that the squadron was deploying overseas.
In July 1940, 3SQN embarked on RMS Orontes at Sydney and arrived at Suez in August 1940 where 3SQN disembarked. The squadron eventually arrived at Ismailia, Egypt where they were given the task of assembling their Lysander army-cooperation aircraft. The squadron was soon reassigned a fighter role and equipped with the Gloucester Gladiator. Gordon was to see action flying Gladiator biplanes during the first Libyan campaign and then Hurricanes during the spring of 1941. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross whilst flying on operations with 3 SQN in the Western Desert
In May 1941, on promotion to SQNLDR, he was posted to command 450SQN RAAF, which was initially equipped with Hurricanes and later Kittyhawks. In September '41, he was Mentioned in Despatches for his exceptional ability as a leader of 450SQN. Gordon said he gained respect for the Italian pilots:
“They flew in the Schneider Cup races and were very capable, one could say flashy, like their racing car drivers. The Germans, on the other hand, were equipped with the Me109 Messerschmitts, which were faster, flew much higher and with a faster rate of climb than the Hurricanes, but their pilots would not dogfight - whereas the Italians in their CR42s would mix it with us and dogfight”.
At the completion of his operational flying in the Western Desert, the then SQNLDR Steege had to his credit eight aircraft destroyed, two probables and one damaged, and was recognised as an accredited fighter 'ace'.
In an Air Force interview in 1993, AIRCDRE Steege describes an early morning patrol of six No 3 Squadron Gladiators [on the 13th of] December 1940. It’s an extraordinary insight into the dangers and raw courage shown by RAAF pilots.
I saw five Italian SM79 three-engine bombers coming towards us and we all climbed to catch them, but they started to turn away. I had enough climb to make their speed but they were fast; I was just holding them and firing madly into them and obviously peppering them, because when you hit an SM79’s gunner, he'd let go and the gun would flip up. So a couple of aircraft were hit and one of them was streaming brown smoke and losing oil. Then I was being hit by the bombers' rear guns before a couple of them were knocked out.
But if you've got five people aiming at you, somebody's got to hit you. There were flashes coming off the metal parts of my aeroplane as their tracer bullets hit and there was a flash on the forward wing strut on the starboard side and it was left hanging by a bit the size of sliver on a sardine tin. At that stage I ran out of ammunition. There's only one way for me to get out of this and I turned away, wondering why the other five fellows of my formation weren't with me. I called, 'Come on, come on', but as I looked over my shoulder I saw a tremendous dogfight going on.
We'd been jumped by nine or twelve Italian Fiat CR42 Falcon Fighters. When I got back to the airfield I landed and my aeroplane slewed sideways - both tyres were shot through. One strut was badly damaged and the airframe was like a sieve. However, I wasn't hit. I said to the ground crew, 'Oh, the boys are just finishing them off',' - the sort of silly thing you would say.
As I looked around there was one of our aeroplanes flying around on fire. It was just going round and round with flames coming out of it. There was a parachute in the air. Another aircraft was burning and going down. We had paid a heavy price - Gaden, the fellow who shot down an aeroplane a couple of days previously, was shot down and killed; Lex Winten had a bullet go through the back of his hand and he had to bale out....
Wilfred Arthur's aircraft was [smashed to pieces by a mid-air collision] and he baled out. That's three aeroplanes gone. Boyd and Gatwood's aircraft were both so badly damaged they had to land in the desert. Bracegirdle managed to land and refuel somewhere and get back. No wonder we called it 'Black Friday'.
Informal group portrait of three pilots of No. 3 Squadron RAAF engaged in operations over the Western Desert in 1940.
Identified from left to right: 270526 Engineering Officer Lex D'arcy Winten of Brisbane, Queensland; O34059 Flight Lieutenant Gordon Henry Steege of North Sydney, NSW (later Air Commodore);
and 272 Flying Officer Arthur Alan Gatward of Wahroonga, NSW (killed on flying operations over the Middle East on 19 February 1941). [AWM 005268]
In December '42, Gordon returned to Australia, having completed a two-year operational tour and on promotion to WGCDR. In January '43 he was posted to command a Fighter Sector in Brisbane. He was also responsible for a large contingent of WAAAF ladies, including inspecting their barracks - which he refused to do. Gordon objected, saying, "A married man should have this job."
During a visit from the head WAAAF he told her: "If I don’t get out of this job very soon and back to a flying appointment, I am going to seduce one of your girls in the middle of that Operations table".
- Within a week, he was posted to the south-west Pacific to command 73 Wing!
73 Wing consisted of three squadrons of Kittyhawks, and one each of Spitfire, Beaufighter and Boston aircraft. Operations were conducted from Kiriwina in the Trobriand Islands and later the Admiralty Islands in March '44. The highlight was leading a 60-strong Kittyhawk formation armed with 250lb bombs against the Japanese at Gasmata and Cape Hoskins.
Mitsubishi A6M2 Model 21 'Zero' Fighter Aircraft in the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.
This aircraft was abandoned at Gasmata airfield in New Britain after suffering serious damage in Allied attacks.
In 1976 it was shipped to Australia and subsequently restored and placed on display in the AWM.
In May '44 he was promoted to Group Captain and given command of 81 Fighter Wing. For displaying outstanding leadership and skill in leading fighter formations (namely Nos.73 and 81 Fighter Wings in the South West Pacific) and for his courage and devotion to duty, he was made a companion of the Distinguished Service Order in 1944.
Whilst returning to Australia for leave, his P40 Kittyhawk had engine failure over PNG and crash-landed on a mud bank in the Fly River. Fortunately, his radio still worked and his Mayday calls were heard and responded-to; eventually he was rescued by a Catalina which landed on the Fly River. He had an encounter with friendly natives and a local Patrol Officer (which may have influenced his decision to return to PNG later). At the end of 1944 he returned to Australia to take up staff post. In December '46 he resigned, to become a Patrol Officer in PNG. Air Marshal David Evans, retired Chief of the Air Staff and Berlin Airlift and Vietnam veteran, said Steege distinguished himself in WW2:
“Air Commodore Steege was not only a courageous and skilled pilot, he also excelled as a leader. He was quick-witted and a gifted raconteur and, if he had not left the service after WW2, he may well have reached the highest level in the RAAF.”
Gordon re-joined the RAAF in June 1950 with the rank of WGCDR during the Korean emergency. He underwent flight refresher-training and was posted to Schofields near Richmond in NSW. In March 1951 he was posted to RAAF Williamtown for jet conversion and then to Kimpo, Korea as Commanding Officer No 77 Squadron. There he flew the British Meteor Mk.8 jet aircraft.
Kimpo, South Korea 1951, Air Vice-Marshal J. P. J. McCauley, Air Officer Commanding Eastern Area, RAAF, in the cockpit of a Meteor
aircraft of No. 77 Squadron, with Wing Commander G. Steege [standing], Commanding Officer No. 77 Squadron.
These aircraft were not Australia’s first preference and inferior to the opposition, the Russian MiG-15. [In fact, the MiGs deliberately sought out the Meteors, in a political attempt to knock the RAAF out of the war.] Better aircraft, such as the US F86 Sabre, were in short supply and unavailable to Australia...
Déjà vu for Gordon! Yet again he was asked to fly against superior platforms: e.g. Gladiator versus Italian CR.42 and later Hurricane and Kittyhawk against Bf109 German Messerschmitts in the Western Desert. And in the South West Pacific, Kittyhawk against the Zero threat. Now Meteor versus the higher-performance MiG-15! Gordon realized early the limitations of the Meteor and strongly recommended they be withdrawn from the primary role of air-to-air combat and reassigned to ground attack. Although controversial with some, he was supported in this decision by Air Marshal Jones the then Chief of the Air Staff. Gordon was not comfortable with his tour in Korea; the aerial combat environment with which he was familiar had changed dramatically. I would have to say that the RAAF erred greatly by asking too much of one of its outstanding WW2 leaders.
His remaining 20 years in the peacetime Air Force consisted of command and staff posts. Highlights were his posting to South East Asian Treaty Organisation Headquarters in Bangkok, Thailand and Officer Commanding posts at Fairbairn ACT, Amberley QLD, Butterworth Malaysia and Edinburgh in SA. No other officer commanded so many different RAAF bases as Gordon. I might add that even in his later years in the Air Force, Gordon was still a skilled pilot. Junior officers rarely praise the flying ability of senior officers, but this was certainly the case for Gordon at Edinburgh, his last command.
His last posting was Senior Air Staff Officer at Headquarters Operational Command at Glenbrook, NSW, in May 1970. He retired from RAAF to Palm Beach in 1972 at age 55 in the rank of AIRCDRE, which he had held for eight years. As you have already heard, he was a great raconteur; at his 'dining out' from the RAAF, he gave the best farewell speech I have ever heard (and I have heard a few). He had a tremendous sense of humour and because of his unique careers in the RAAF and PNG, he had some wonderful stories to tell.
His consultancy career started out immediately on retirement from the RAAF. Initially, he was with the US aeronautical company Kearfott Singer, then Martin Marietta and finally Lockheed Martin until 2005. During these 33 consultancy years, he established some very strong friendships with his fellow US and Australian employees, mostly ex-military fliers.
Although he contributed to many WW2 biographies, he would not write his own story. He did agree though to participate in a RAAF oral-history program covering his WW2 experiences, which should form the basis of a substantial biography in due course.
Ladies and Gentlemen, our lives have been enriched through our association with Gordon, and his valour and determination during his WW2 service has been, and will continue to be, an inspiration to all current and future RAAF combat pilots. I know I speak for us all and, in particular the airmen with whom he served, when I say it has been a privilege and a pleasure to have known...
Gordon's own account of his interesting times in Papua New Guinea can be found at the 'PNG Attitude' website: Part 1 and Part 2.
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