3 Squadron LIFETIMES
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Italy. c. 1944. Fitters of No. 3 Squadron RAAF, which is operating from an airfield in Italy,
carry out an inspection on a Curtiss P40 Kittyhawk aircraft. [AWM MEC1562]
Allen joined the RAAF in January 1940, soon after the outbreak of war in Europe. He was only 20 years old. (Similar to many of the lads who volunteered - a momentous decision for all of them - and a fatal move for some.)
Possibly Allen had been more aware of the war-clouds on the horizon than most other young Australians. His father and three of his uncles had all served in the First World War, and Allen had read about the build-up of crises in Europe that led to our declaration of war against Germany. Allen had been working in his family bakery in Lismore, NSW, before he joined up. However, he had been interested in aircraft ever since taking a joy-flight at the age of 12, and his mother was more amenable to the idea of him joining the Air Force than the Army...
Like many new recruits, Allen’s introduction to the RAAF occurred at beautiful Richmond NSW, where he did his “rookies” course.
He was allocated "Service Number 6208”; in those early days the Air Force was a tiny organisation, but it was about to launch into massive expansion. Allen ruefully remembered one of his Richmond drill instructors, nicknamed “the Screaming Skull”!
In March 1940, Allen transferred to Technical Training School in Ultimo and then in May he moved to No.1 Engineering School at Ascot Vale in Melbourne, to learn the specialist trade of an Airframe Fitter. (These were the men who maintained the aircraft structures and controls and made sure they were airworthy.) The lives of the pilots were literally in the hands of these men who “rigged” their aircraft.
From September 1940, Allen started working at the Evans Head RAAF base in northern NSW, quite close to his family home. The war with Japan broke out while he was at Evans Head and in February 1942 Allen found himself ordered to Melbourne for embarkation overseas - he was told that he was to join 3 Squadron in the Middle East. (At that time, the Squadron had been enjoying a lot of combat success in the desert and receiving a lot of publicity back in Australia, so Allen was very pleased to be joining such a famous outfit.)
After some delay and shuffling about, Allen eventually set off from Adelaide on the 28th of March 1942 in the troopship Dilwarra, under the leadership of Ken McRae, who was to serve as 3 Squadron’s Engineering Officer for the rest of the war and earn an MBE for his achievements.
Like most 3 Squadron men, this was Allen’s first opportunity to travel overseas. Despite the fact that he was heading for a hot and dusty war-zone, Allen felt the adventure and excitement of the moment. They travelled via Colombo and Bombay, where they changed ship to the Varella, then on to Egypt. Allen arrived at 3 Squadron on the 20th of May 1942 - just as Rommel was about to break through the Gazala Line in Libya and precipitate a huge Allied retreat.
The Airframe Fitters’ work of checking and repairing the aircraft was constant and choked with dust. Their tents were often targeted by German night- bombing raids; Allen told the story that anyone silly enough to have a light showing inside their tent when an enemy raid was coming would find a .303 bullet whizzing over the tent as a warning to “put that bloody light out!”
In addition to the general heat and dust, the frequent sandstorms in the desert were a real trial - especially as there was very little water available to keep things clean.
The retreat, 800 kilometres back to El Alamein in Egypt in late June 1942, was also a massive load on the ground crews. They were servicing the Kittyhawks at very high tempo all day and then driving in long convoys all night to stay ahead of the advancing panzers. The men got used to packing up their gear at a minute’s notice, throwing everything into the back of their truck - and off!
Once the line had stabilised at Alamein (the "last ditch" in the defence of Egypt), the pace of work didn’t slacken, but at least the men had more options for enjoying a little relaxation at the beach, or getting a pass into the city of Alexandria (nervously sitting behind the Alamein line). Allen also remembered getting on well with the mechanics of the American 66th Fighter Squadron, which had joined 3 Squadron's "239 Wing". The Yanks’ supplies of spare parts were much more lavish and they were also prepared to donate some high-quality tools to the impoverished Aussies.
The ground-crew teams worked smoothly and quickly. Kittyhawks coming back from operations could be turned-around in only thirty minutes; checked, serviced, refuelled and re-armed - ready for another mission.
There was great comradeship between the pilots and the ground-crew of each aircraft. The pilots had to handle the extreme stress of combat, but the ground-crews also experienced the tension of waiting, every time that "their Kittyhawk" went out, to see if "their pilot" would have the luck to make it home again this time. The pressure was on and sometimes the planes had to be patched up by moonlight (no lamps could be used because of the risk of German night-bombers).
After the Allied breakthrough at Alamein in November 1942, the ground-crew had to drive back through the same battered towns along the North African coast. But this time it was them chasing the Germans and Italians, so their mood was somewhat more up-beat.
There were still plenty of hazards for the groundcrew though; sadly several men were lost to mines in Libya. At Medenin on the Tunisian border, a German counter-attack got close enough for 3 SQN's airstrip to be shelled.
However, after much hard campaigning, by May 1943 complete victory in North Africa had been achieved. The Desert Air Force fighter-bombers, which had protected and supported the 8th Army every step of the way, had played a major part in the victory.
The next step was the Invasion of Sicily in July 1943. Allen sailed across the Mediterranean in a landing craft, and he remembered pitching his tent in a vineyard, with juicy bunches of grapes within arm’s reach. Sicily seemed like the Garden of Eden after the desert!
Sicily, Italy. 1943. Pilot Officer John Hooke, No. 3 (Kittyhawk) Squadron RAAF, standing beside his wrecked
aircraft in which he crash-landed. The forced landing was made in the midst of a vineyard. [AWM MEA0335]
The continual work of aircraft servicing ground on; Allen experienced a very dangerous attack on our squadron airstrip at Agnone in Sicily. German night-bombers dropped curtain-flares and lit up the sky, before pounding the parked Kittyhawks with huge bombs. Many aircraft were destroyed and many groundcrew from 239 Wing were killed or injured on that night - but fortunately 3 Squadron itself suffered no fatalities.
By September 1943 the Italian mainland had been invaded and Allen arrived in Taranto - in the “heel” of Italy, by landing craft (once again). There was a grim scene in the Taranto port, where nearly a hundred soldiers’ bodies floated around the wreck of a blown-up British cruiser, HMS Abdiel. (This landing had been codenamed Operation Slapstick…)
The speed of the Allied advance in Italy soon slowed as winter set in. The Desert Air Force found itself bogged and frozen, still sleeping under canvas - but they still kept the planes flying. Allen managed to get a fur-lined flying jacket from his American mates - which must have been very useful.
However the German defence proved impossible to crack for many months in the Monte Cassino area; the Allies suffered horrendous casualties.
Allen had another brush with fate in April 1944 when a group of American Thunderbolt fighters mistakenly attacked 3 Squadron's flight-line, causing considerable damage, incinerating one aircraft and causing the death of the pilot of the Wing's rescue seaplane. (So-called “friendly fire”…)
The Allied breakthrough to Rome in June ‘44 was a welcome relief, but there were many more German defence lines in Northern Italy to be overcome, and the 3 Squadron ground crews had to endure one more icy winter - although at least they were billeted in warmer buildings by then.
Fano, Italy. c. November 1944. Recent heavy falls of snow in northern Italy have curtailed the activities of No. 3 (Mustang) Squadron
RAAF to some extent, in their operations against the enemy on the Eighth Army front and in Yugoslavia. Standing beside one of the
Mustang aircraft after a heavy snowfall are: 20785 Leading Aircraftman N. De la Motte, transport driver, and 4644 Flight Lieutenant
K. N. McRae MBE of New Lambton, NSW, Engineer Officer. [AWM MEA2207]
The Squadron had upgraded to the superlative Mustang fighter in November ‘44, but the daily cycle for the ground-crews remained much the same. Allen attained the responsible rank of Flight Sergeant.
Finally, on May 2nd, 1945, the Axis armies in Italy surrendered, having suffering a chaotic collapse under the pressure of unrelenting air-power. The 3 Squadron boys could think of home. - But not Allen - he was due to be transferred to 451 Squadron in occupied Germany.
Fortunately, he had a motorbike accident, which put a stop to the transfer. (“Fortunately”, because while he sustained a smashed leg, Allen was medically-repatriated to Australia, where in November '45 he met Vera, his bride-to-be, who was his nurse in the Bradfield Park hospital in Sydney!)
After the war, Allen signed on to stay with the RAAF until 1947. In all, he made an outstanding contribution of over seven-and-a-half years’ of service to his country. He went on to use his skills working for Qantas and Ansett for over three decades. - A wonderful, peaceful, use for all of the abilities that Allen had forged in the crucible of war.
Text by James Oglethorpe. Based on Allen's AWM Interview.
3 Squadron LIFETIMES
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