3 Squadron STORIES
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Alan Clark was a man of many parts: war veteran; Mustang pilot; dentist extraordinaire (to the gentry and old Diggers alike); prolific (and occasionally painless) driller and tooth puller; bon vivant; polymath noted for the breadth and depth of his reading (some of which he understood); crafty sailor and cunning tennis player, Patriarch. This memoir relates his contribution to the collapse of Fascism in Italy and Yugoslavia, for the relatively trivial investment by the Allied Powers of thousands of hours of training and the nett loss of half an aircraft.
This is a true-life story of triumph over adversity, where Clark battled bad weather, mechanical mishaps, navigational inexactitude, German flak, the RAF officer system, Ustacha search parties/death squads, dirt, lice, incompetent military strategists, unreliable Allies, voluntary teetotalism and enforced celibacy. It is also a story of mateship and life-altering and life-affirming experiences that shaped the author’s subsequent development and made him the hero he is today to his family and friends.
David Clark [Alan's Son]
PART 1 (Below)
1. Steep learning curves and bumpy landings
2. The Long Way to War via Sardine Express
3. Poms, Bombs, Sheilas and Huns
PART 2 (Subsequent Page)
4. Egypt - Hot Pursuits of Sheilas and Camels
5. Italy – Out of the Frying Pan, into the Icebox
6. "Everyone’s Trying to Kill Me"
7. Yugoslavia – the Lousy Long March
8. Back to Italy – La Dolce Vita
9. Back to Oz − An Officer and a Heartbreaker
Chapter 1. Steep Learning Curves and Bumpy Landings
My daughter Fiona has asked me to write down some of my experiences. I immediately drew up plans for a saga to rival War and Peace, starting with my first memories at the age of three. Checking with Fiona as to where would be an appropriate point to start, she gently suggested that it might be better to crawl before I walked and that a somewhat later starting point would be better. I took her point as, I now realised, it just might be a bit boring and banal to start at such an early point. I am sure that my wife Avril would concur with her on these matters. Nevertheless, rather than write only about the Yugoslavia episode, I would like to do the full RAAF experience (groan...).
I grew up in an era when we Commonwealth countries still thought of ourselves as part of the British Empire. Indeed, when war came in 1939 Australia followed Britain into it as a matter of course, in spite of our remoteness from Europe. As the war clouds gathered, it became apparent to the planners (by 1937) that a massive training programme for this relatively new form of warfare, i.e. aerial warfare, would have to be devised. Thus the countries, Great Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Rhodesia got together and drew up a very detailed and comprehensive plan to train aircrews called the Empire Air Training Scheme (EATS).
The logic and farsightedness of this scheme was shown towards the end of WWII when both Germany and Japan ran out of pilots to fly their existing aeroplanes, while the Allies were churning out aircrew well in excess of their needs. For instance, Australian aircrews (trained either in Australia itself, or in Canada, Rhodesia, Great Britain, New Zealand or the Bahamas) were pouring into Great Britain in such vast numbers that, by mid-1943, difficulties were experienced in both accommodating them and finding immediate gainful operational employment for them.
I was one such airman arriving in Great Britain in November 1943, aged just 19, and just on a year since my call-up into the RAAF. As I approached the age of 18 in 1942, the question of my call-up for military service was exercising my mind, as well as my mother’s. As I was her "one and only", her views were quite different from mine. At that time I was working in David Jones’ Boys’ Clothing Department and persuaded Mum to let me join the Air Training Corps as a prelude to joining the Air Force. I guess she saw this as the lesser of several other evils, including the Army or the Navy.
Things weren’t looking too good in 1942, Hitler had overrun most of western Europe, the Balkans and Norway and was at the gates of Moscow and Cairo. France was defeated and Britain was on her knees. In the Pacific the Japanese had overrun China, Malaya, Singapore, the Philippines, many Pacific Islands and were halfway across New Guinea. The Americans were still in some disarray after Pearl Harbour. Sydney Harbour was penetrated by three midget submarines, and both Rose Bay and Newcastle had been shelled from the mother submarines. There were even Australian Government contingency plans to retreat and only defend the southern half of the continent. This was known as the "Brisbane Line" plan.
It was within this context that I received my call-up to the RAAF on December 5, 1942. This was the most momentous and exciting day in my relatively short life but I did my best not to make my jubilation apparent to Mum, who was looking rather gloomy that evening.
Why so excited? Well as a very naive and unsophisticated 18-year-old, not even able to drive a car, it was the thought that I may have an opportunity to emulate all those heroes of the sky during the Battle of Britain - who had been portrayed in the media as intrepid and gallant gentleman and, in films, as the guys who invariably got the best-looking girls!
So off I went to start Aircrew training with the rank of Aircraftsman 2nd Class (they don’t come any lower than that) on the princely pay of 6/6d (65 cents) per day. Training Aircrew was a fairly lengthy, complex and somewhat hazardous business, taking about 12 months in all. In persuading Mum to give me permission to join the RAAF (and everybody under 21 who was volunteering had to get parental approval) I had stressed this longevity to good effect while not raising the topic of hazard, which, at this stage, I was not really aware of anyway.
The training programme was structured thus: three months at Initial Training School (ITS), two months at Elementary Flying Training School, (EFTS), four months at Service Flying Training School (SFTS) and, if chosen to go onto 'active service', as distinct from instructing or whatever, two months at an Operational Training Unit (OTU). So off I went to No.2 ITS Bradfield Park (near Lindfield) to study a number of technical subjects and to be marched around the parade ground for countless boring hours in order to instill 'discipline' into our previously slack and disorderly minds. Morse Code, by now an almost superseded technology, was drilled into us for many interminable hours until we could receive consistently 20 words per minute.
No. 2 Initial Training School, Bradfield Park, Sydney. Alan Clark in second row, second from right.
The pressure to perform well in all areas was considerable, as most of us were moderately intelligent, most of us were competitive achievers, and all of us wanted to be pilots rather than navigators, wireless air-gunners or, worst of all, gunners. This was due to the fact that pilots got all the glamour while gunners had a much higher casualty rate. Thus we set about our manifold tasks with a relentless enthusiasm hoping to excel, so as to impress (at the end of three months) the dreaded Category Selection Board (CSB). This board had virtual control over our lives, almost a matter of life or death you could say, and the interview with its three members was approached with much trepidation.
The fatal day came and our Flight, some 30 of us, formed up outside the interview hut just after breakfast. The interviews took much longer than expected and my turn did not come until 5 o’clock that evening, by which time I was a nervous wreck! I had decided, as a ploy, to change my preferences from: 1.Pilot 2.Navigator 3.Wireless Air-Gunner to: 1.Pilot 2.Gunner 3.Wireless Air-Gunner. I figured that this latter arrangement of preferences would give the CSB the message that I was pretty gung-ho and intrepid, as almost anybody who didn’t put Gunner as last choice must obviously be very brave!
At last my turn came; marching briskly up the length of the hut I whipped out a smart salute and stood there rigidly at attention in front of the three Inquisitors looking down on me from a raised platform. I can’t remember anything about the interview but at the end they asked me to alter and sign my new choices.
By now my nerves were completely shot, so I could barely dip the pen in the inkwell let alone sign my name. I went out thoroughly depressed, convinced that they would never choose such a nervous person as a pilot. Tail-End Charlie in a Lancaster seemed to be my fate.
The announcement day for our CSB allocations came soon after. The whole complement of No. 35 Course, some 200 trainees, was paraded on the ‘bullring’ where we stood in the hot sun for several hours waiting in some trepidation for our names to be called over the loud-speaker. The method was to first announce the next school to which trainees were to be posted and then call out the names, whereupon you fell out and formed a separate squad to be marched off to your newly-acquired fate. This has always seemed to me to have been an unnecessarily sadistic way of telling a very nervous group of young men what was to happen to them next.
The names of those posted to Gunnery School were read out first, in alphabetical order, so there was a fair bit of tension as your letter approached. Those called made their way to their appointed rendezvous with despair written all over their faces. Wireless Air Gunnery appointees were next called out. There were several lots, some were posted to schools in Canada and some to schools in Australia. More dejection for some, more relief for those of us still standing. Navigators were next and they were posted to a wide variety of schools. As they fell out to their respective groupings, the tension on those of us still left eased a little, as Navigators were usually selected from the slightly older and invariably more intelligent trainees. This fortunately ruled me out on both counts. After some two uncomfortable hours, it slowly dawned on those of us who were left that we had been selected as Pilots. The postings were called out and I was posted to No. 8 EFTS at Narrandera.
Having just been issued with this flying gear, I already
saw myself as an ace (World War I, that is). We flew in
this type of gear at 8 EFTS, Narrandera, but seldom thereafter.
The photo was taken at Russell St. , Vaucluse.
The relief and jubilation were enormous, but tempered by the fact that a lot of the friends that we had made in those hectic three months were destined not to join us. So after a few days of well-earned leave and with the newly-acquired rank of Leading Aircraftsman, at 10/6d ($1.05) per day, we chuffed off by steam train to Narrandera. It was early March, still very hot after several years of drought.
As we approached Narrandera, we were thrilled to see a Tiger Moth come down and fly along beside us at very low level - an illegal action to which the Authorities sometimes turned a blind eye. The Tiger, a plane somewhat reminiscent of World War I, was a biplane held together by lots of struts and bits of wire. It also wasn’t very fast and the train had little trouble keeping up. This was the plane in which we were to learn to fly. But first we had to spend two weeks on 'Tarmac Duties' which consisted of holding the wings of the planes (or 'kites' as we called them) for the trainee pilots on the two courses ahead of us and pushing and pulling them into various positions. A lot of this was necessary as the Tiger had no brakes and taxiing, especially in some wind, was a little difficult.
We also learned how to start them, which was really World War I stuff. Forget about pressing a button and a motor roaring into instant and vigorous life. First you had to remember to place chocks in front of the wheels because, if and when you did succeed in starting it, with no chocks the plane would move forward and decapitate you. Next, you needed the co-operation of the pilot, seated in the cockpit attired in goggles, helmet, gloves and flying suit of definitely WW1 vintage. He was in charge of the electrical switches, without which no spark could be applied to the motor but also which, if switched on prematurely, would lead, not necessarily to decapitation then usually to the loss of half an arm! If I recall correctly, and here I may need correction, the procedure was four turns of the propeller anticlockwise (blow out) followed by eight turns clockwise (suck in) then you called “contact”and the pilot, in the fashion of Errol Flynn, replied in like vein, then threw the switches and you gave a mighty heave on the propeller. Whereupon, if it roared into life, you took a hasty step backwards in case you had forgotten the chocks!
All my life I have had serious problems with two particular creatures - horses and motors. I don’t trust them and they don’t trust me. I am always very tentative with both of them and they know this; so it was seldom, if ever, that my motors started first go. Fortunately, as we moved on to more sophisticated aircraft, this prop-swinging chore became unnecessary.
At this point, I will digress for a moment and move forward to January 1944 when I again found myself involved with Tiger Moths in England. To keep us out of mischief while awaiting a posting, a lot of us pilots were sent to Flying Schools for refresher courses, as it had been several months since we had flown and it is easy to become a little rusty. My friend Errol Ingram and I were sent to a station in Wiltshire at a place called Clyffe Pypard. Here in a bitterly cold winter we reverted to flying Tigers. Did I mention that Tigers had no canopy or cockpit cover of any kind? But there was one saving grace - we had WAAFs to swing the propellers. Good strong lasses with no ambivalence about motors or, as far as I know, horses.
There was a little joke doing the rounds at Clyffe Pypard -
Q: What happened to the WAAF who forgot to put the chocks under before swinging the prop?
A: "Dis-asst-er" … (Say it out loud and think about it...)
Also in the pilot’s briefing room there was a blackboard with the following written on it:
"An instructor sent his pupil back to the base to get an insulated screw. The pupil came back with a WAAF and a pair of rubber gumboots!"
But I digress… back to the dryness and heat of Narrandera. Now renumbered, for some obscure reason, number 34 course, we were expected to perform these tarmac duties for some 14 days, to familiarise us with all the aircraft protocols on the ground. Unfortunately, in the first few days there were two horrendous accidents resulting in the deaths of six airmen, two instructors and four pupils. As was usual in such circumstances, the two courses ahead of us, numbers 32 and 33, resumed flying immediately, leaving no time for these fellows to brood over these events.
Thus we (34) were delegated to the task of preparing for the funerals which were to take place in the Narrandera township. So, back to marching practice but this time with a difference, we had to learn the rather difficult 'slow march', which can be seen at military ceremonials on TV etc. This was to be accompanied by what, I think, was called the “Dead March of Saul”, a suitably mournful and utterly depressing piece of music for such occasions.
The day of the funerals was another very hot one, but nevertheless we, the official party, were required to turn out in heavyweight blues. So off we went to town and picked up the bodies from all the various churches of different denominations. We then had to do the slow march down the main street before a gaping crowd, which must have been almost the town’s entire population. It took a seeming eternity to get to the cemetery where a lot of ceremony took place - prayers, sprinklings of holy water for some, volleys of rifle shots, last posts etc. It was, of course, very solemn; when at last it was over we marchers formed up, the band struck up Colonel Bogey and we marched off at a brisk pace heading towards the nearest pub.
This event, coupled with another later in the winter (when in the pouring rain and amongst tearful relatives, we buried two fine young fellows from our own course in Wagga Wagga cemetery) had a profound effect on me. I vowed that, without coercion, I would never attend another funeral. And I have kept that vow until recent years when, on some occasions, I have ventured, hypocritically, into the odd church. Incidentally, my Will states that there is to be no funeral for me - just a party!
My log book tells me that I started flying training on March 14, 1943. The reality of this long-awaited and exciting prospect turned out to be quite different from the previously-held romantic notions. Not the birdlike silent soaring through the silver clouds to the blue yonder, but rather a crashingly noisy, exceedingly bumpy and smelly experience. The smell was mostly a mixture of engine oil and somebody else’s vomit. I was soon to add mine to this aerial chaos.
We were expected to go solo within 10 hours of instruction otherwise you faced “scrubbing” - i.e. taken off pilot training and sent to gunnery school, or worse, if you couldn’t conquer your air-sickness, to ground staff. The most dreaded scenario of all was to be classified as "LMF" (lack of moral fibre). This fear, both of LMF or just plain being scrubbed, was to remain with us all until we got our “wings” 160 flying hours later.
My allotted instructor was one Flying Officer Smith, commonly known as “Screamer” Smith. Fortunately he was on leave at this time and I shared a more composed and gentlemanly instructor with my good mate David Hall, with whom I had sweated and strained through ITS. Smith came back after I had about four hours in the air and lived up to his reputation. I found this unnerving, as the concentration on your flying technique and the plane’s instruments was all-absorbing, thus my progress was rather patchy and I was in deadly fear of not soloing under the 10 hours. This was fair enough, I guess, as there was a war to be won and the RAAF couldn’t muck about with individuals for too long. As the dreaded 10 hour cut-off point came ever closer, my nervousness increased and my performance, under F/O Smith’s critical eye, suffered.
Tiger Moth preserved at Narrandera NSW.
At this point I will describe a typical training day. Reveille (getting up) was at 3.30 am, pitch dark of course. Ablutions and shave were followed by breakfast in the mess, where a wary eye had to be kept out for the many cockroaches on your plate. Then, dressed in flying gear, we paraded on the drill square for roll call and inspection by the C.O. While it was still dark, we marched down the road towards the aerodrome on the other side. As we approached, the sound of many motors being warmed-up came to us and then as we were about to hop into the planes the sun peeped over the horizon. This was the best time to fly, as the air was still, so it was easier to control the machine and to fly with more precision. On the afternoon shift, with the hot air currents and the wind, it was much more difficult to perform well - rather like trying to steer a bucking horse.
Anyway off we went for an intensive flying session, after which we would land at a distant small field (a satellite 'drome) have lunch, hand over the planes to the afternoon shift and drive the twenty miles back to base where an afternoon of lectures awaited us. Very few of us ever managed to stay awake. My own particular downfall was meteorology. I never did find out why the rising air condensed into clouds.
After some 9.15 hours of torture, Smith surprisingly hopped out of the plane and said, “OK, take it off.” Such excitement! The takeoff was OK, but how was I going to land it? Could I remember how to do it? Could I gauge the correct levelling-off height? And what would happen if I couldn’t? (Bear in mind that we had been witness to some pretty hairy performances.) Somehow I remembered the myriad of actions necessary for me to get the plane back on the ground in one piece and without freezing at the controls. This latter action was known in the flying trade as "handing over to J.C."
I rumbled to a stop, Smith came over and silently shook my hand - he seemed almost human at that moment.
Lots more flying, both dual and solo, refining our skills and learning all sorts of new ones such as steep turns, aerobatics, flying on instruments alone and flying at night.
Mid-course we got a few days leave, so back to Sydney where I went in to DJs to visit my old workmates and show off a bit. My old boss in the Blazer Department, Judy O’Meagher, asked me how I was getting on. “Great!” I said, “I’ve got 24 hours up solo now.”
“You mean with an instructor, don’t you?” she said.
“No, by myself.”
She looked at me, a very immature 18, in disbelief. “You mean to say to me that there is no-one in the plane with you?”
She said no more, but her sceptical look suggested that she thanked God that we had an Army! Poor old Judy (at least 30) - her husband had, not so long before, been reported as killed in the Middle East.
Back to more flying - getting a little cocky by now. I clearly remember doing a loop over the centre of Wagga Wagga with my straps undone. All this rather silly piece of bravado meant was that, if I hadn’t executed the loop correctly, then I would have fallen out of the plane! About now, Number 32 course graduated, including Peter Grose’s brother Ken. Ken was proving to be a first-rate pilot and achieved an above-average rating. Later he was to go on to Lancaster bombers in England and was killed over Germany.
The week days were spent flying and learning such things as navigation, meteorology, engine function and maintenance, theory of flight etc. Weekends were spent either in Narrandera or Leeton, the latter preferred as it was more modern and lively. This usually meant a dance and a movie and a checking out of the local sheilas. As you might expect, these girls were well-versed in the art of handling gauche young trainee pilots. Actually I seldom went; simply because I couldn’t afford it, as I had allotted 3/- of my 10/6 per day to Mum. So I often spent the weekend darning socks, washing “goonskins” or writing letters.
Soon, Number 33 course graduated and we became the senior course. We wasted no time in patronising the two courses behind us, who naturally thought that we were the font of all flying wisdom! Eventually the big day of our final tests arrived and I was placed with one of the senior instructors, a Flight Lieutenant, for this nerve-wracking exercise. This bloke really put me through the wringer: rolls, loops, cross-wind landing and simulated engine failure etc. Fortunately it was one of my better days - I could do no wrong until just at the end I failed to keep a proper lookout while making my last turn to land, so reducing my assessment to Average Plus. Nevertheless I was thrilled that I had achieved a rating beyond my previous wildest dreams.
Our next posting was to an SFTS [Service Flying Training School] but what sort? Single engines or multis? Fighters or bombers? Whichever path was chosen for you meant, in the first place, a splitting up of friends; and second, a choice that may well have not been your preferred one. I found out that my posting was, along with my good mates Greg Jones, David Hall and Fred Clark, to No. 5 SFTS, Uranquinty, near Wagga Wagga. My other good friend Arthur Howell, one of Sydney Boys High School’s most brilliant students, was posted onto multis up at Bundaberg and I was not to see him again until the war ended, at which time he was suffering from severe depression and ended up dying in hospital - a great loss.
We were given a few days' leave but, as our posting was not far away, we were told not to leave the area and were not given a leave pass to Sydney. A few of us decided to risk it and caught the night train - at considerable risk if we got caught, as we were AWL and could potentially incur some rather dire penalties.
Train travel in those days was crowded, uncomfortable and very tedious. Our carriage was of the ‘dog box’ type, eight persons per box, with no corridor and no lights. This all proved to be to our advantage, as we had not paid our fare. Nobody bothered us and when the train stopped at Strathfield next morning, we got out, walked over to a suburban train, went to Central and just walked through the barrier. - Not so lucky on the way back to Wagga as the train was of the corridor type and we got nabbed by the inspector and had to pay up. Luckily, nobody asked us for our leave passes.
Number 5 SFTS was a much bigger unit than those we had previously experienced. We were now to make what seemed to us a huge leap in terms of aeroplane size, power and sophistication. The planes we were to fly were Wirraways, huge and daunting compared to the light and simple Tigers we had first learnt on. They were much heavier, of course, with a large radial engine of seemingly immense power, brakes, retractable undercarriage, hydraulic systems, three-bladed variable pitch propeller (which was much too big to be started by any WAAF, no matter how powerful) and myriads of dials and instruments.
Cockpit of a Wirraway. After Tiger Moths, this seemed enormously complicated. I was lucky to have Rex Loton
available to run me through the drill before we started flying.
Partly as a result of this, I was able to solo in under three hours of instruction.
Wirraways from 5 SFTS formating near Wagga.
The courses ahead of us were hard at it, but hanging around forlornly were those who had been ‘scrubbed’ and were waiting for another posting. Among these were several old schoolmates, including Dave Failes, assigned to teaching the Link Trainer (more of which later). One other in particular, Rex Loton, shocked me when I ran into him and learned that he too had been scrubbed. Rex was a hero of mine; captain of SBHS in the year ahead of mine, a fine sportsman, inspirational leader and one of the most universally respected people I have ever known. Concealing his disappointment, Rex spent many hours with me going over the systems and cockpit drills involved in flying a Wirraway. This was a great help to me when we got down to business several days later.
Some four months later, when I was a newly-graduated Sergeant Pilot proudly flaunting my wings around the City, I ran into Rex at the Hotel Australia. He was then a newly-graduated navigator and, as one would expect, a Pilot Officer rather than a Sergeant which meant that he was an “officer and gentleman” whereas I was merely an “other rank”. In spite of this difference in rank, Rex could not keep the envy out of his eyes when they alighted on my pilot’s wings. Poor old Rex was destined to be lost over the Bay of Bengal, navigating a Liberator bomber.
Perhaps at this point, I should try and explain the RAAF’s system of granting a rank. As far as I know, since time immemorial, all military establishments in all countries have had two categories of participants, officers (the leaders) and other ranks (the followers). Over the centuries this system of a privileged caste leading a mass of put-upon foot soldiers seems to have worked, as it is still in widespread use today. However the advent of the aeroplane with its unique requirements in skills and ambience required some modification of the time-honoured system. For instance, for pilots a blend of leadership and flying skills were just some of the requirements to achieve success. How then to rank the aircrew graduates from the many diverse flying schools? The USA and South Africa opted for a system of granting Commissions to all graduate pilots and to some other aircrew as well, mostly navigators. The British, with so many centuries of well-delineated class distinction, opted for a system of partial commissioning, with such factors as family background, type of schooling, accent etc. being more important than flying skills. (More complicated than that, of course, but these were very important elements.) It was this system that Australia and Canada, in the main, followed.
Uranquinty, NSW. Graduation, August 1943. [Alan Clark third from left in middle row.]
So, when we graduated at the end of SFTS, out of some 60 or so, about six received commissions and the rest of us became Sergeants, i.e. we were non-commissioned personnel. Included in the officer group were my good friends David Hall and Greg Jones, both of whom then went on to OTU at Mildura and then onto Operations on Kittyhawks (P40s) in the Pacific theatre of war. Once you missed out on a "commission off course", it was very difficult to subsequently get one. As you know, I got lucky and got one at the tail-end of the war, but worthy pilots such as Lew Ranger, Fred Clark and Peter Kurts remained non-commissioned to the end. Mind you, it is ironic to think that today Kurtsy could just about buy the whole bloody Air Force!
Being an officer had many advantages - you travelled first class and stayed at good hotels, rather than being sardined into the hold of a ship and living in a leaky tent. You had stewards and waiters, and sometimes even a batman, you ate superior food and you didn’t have to wash up, other ranks were supposed to salute you. I tell you, it was Total War for those officers!
There were, of course, many anomalies in this system - for instance it was not uncommon for the captain of a bomber with a crew of seven to be a sergeant pilot, while several of the crew could be officers. When they landed after a mission they perforce split up into two different social and organisational groups. On my own squadron, No.3 RAAF, it was not uncommon for an experienced NCO (non-commissioned officer) to lead a mission of 12 aircraft. The USAAF had a much fairer and more rational system.
Back to Uranquinty, where we were preparing to start the actual flying, after familiarization procedures and learning the protocols of cockpit drills (a sequence of checks that had to be made before taking off), I was very fortunate to be allotted to an instructor, F/O Lundberg, who was a man of gentle and tolerant nature - the antithesis of Screamer Smith.
Of course I was unaware of this fact until my first flight on May 13, 1943. As we taxied out to the runway he showed me how to control the steering while taxiing. He said for me to have a go. Although not a difficult manoeuvre when you get the knack, it can be troublesome at first try. I ran off the tarmac onto the grass where I went round in circles. Try as I might I could not get the plane back onto the tarmac. Sweating profusely, I awaited the expected volley of abuse. None came. There was complete silence as it gradually dawned on me that I alone would have to get that plane out onto the runway, and eventually I did.
Lundberg took the plane off, retracted the wheels, climbed, throttled back, turned, levelled off, flew downwind, put the wheels down, turned again with wheels and flaps down, then glided in to make a perfect landing, all the while calmly explaining his actions and procedures. We taxied back to the beginning of the runway to do another “circuit and bump” as they were called and he said, “Right, take off!”
I was flabbergasted. Take off? I wasn’t ready for this - I thought that another few hours familiarization were in order before undertaking such a complicated manoeuvre! No way out, so I opened up the throttle and hurled this monstrous machine down the runway, managed to get it into the air and proceed around the circuit without forgetting any of the seemingly endless tasks necessary to ensure our survival. On the downwind leg, Lundberg said, “OK, land it!”.
Land it? Holy cow I couldn’t possibly do that, I’m too young to die! But I did, we survived and proceeded to repeat all this a few more times. My Log Book tells me that we did three sessions, totalling 2 hours 20 minutes, flying the gamut of pilot skills from take-offs, landings, turns, spins, gliding etc. at which point Lundberg said I was ready to go solo, but that he would require a verification check by a more senior Instructor. I must say that, after so little time in the air, his confidence in me was misplaced - in my humble opinion.
Nevertheless, off I went on a solo check with the senior instructor lasting 35 minutes at which point he got out and said, “Off you go!” - and so I did as I was told. Out of all our course (34) I was the first to go solo by a long way and I think my dual pre-solo hours of 2.55 was a record for the EATS. Naturally I was rather pleased with myself but lapsed at various times subsequently into periods of complacency where some of my flying was rather sub-standard.
Meanwhile some of my colleagues were having trouble mastering all the necessary skills to solo and the threat of the dreaded “scrub” was beginning to loom, indeed did loom and it was sad to see a number of our friends leave to be posted to other flying disciplines. One of our group was scrubbed for “lack of moral fibre”, a terrible indictment, implying cowardice, when his problem was merely air-sickness which, with a little perseverance he may have been able to overcome, as indeed I had done at EFTS. Strangely, I had no such problems flying Wirraways but much later, in England and the Middle East did have some rather embarrassing bouts of air-sickness.
Here I should mention a bit about the Station that we were on. As a fairly large establishment it was commanded by a Group Captain named Max Watson who was a cousin of Mum’s. "Here’s a chance for a bit of nepotism!" I thought, as well as a chance to big-note myself with my mates. It was not to be though, as Watson (whom I had never met) had been posted elsewhere, leaving behind a regime of Spartan-like discipline, deliberately primitive accommodation and a training programme any sadist would be proud of. Just as well that I hadn’t got round to telling my mates about the familial connection!
We were allotted a hut; absolutely bare, no beds, no furniture and gaps in the floorboards half an inch wide. Given empty hessian sacks, we were sent to a barn to fill these with hay. These we were to use for four months, getting thinner by the day (the sacks I mean), while the wind whistling through the cracks in the floor grew ever colder as we progressed through a very severe winter. I might add that we had absolutely no suitable work clothing, just our now six-months-old and shrunken “goonskins” made of cotton.
My good friend and fellow trainee, Fred Clark, reminds me that every week we had to remove all our bedding and chattels, scrub and squeegee the hut, and then replace the gear. Often the floor was still wet when we went to bed. The ground staff and the administration, of course, all had proper beds and numerous other amenities as well as the right to walk around the station. We Aircrew Trainees on the other hand had to run everywhere once we set foot outside any building until we reached the shelter of our destination.
Apart from the Pavlovian aspects of all this, we, as aircrew, when later travelling hither and thither around the globe, found a not-too-dissimilar attitude existed towards us at most RAF stations. That is, as we were virtual nomads and wouldn’t be staying long, we could put up with some discomfort, whereas the permanent staff, poor devils, were stuck there for a seeming eternity and thus deserved more creature comforts.
Our new Commanding Officer, a Group Captain Knox-Knight, arrived and was duly horrified with the plight of the trainees. He was of the opposite opinion to that of Watson, believing that the trainees (who, after all, were off to the war) deserved better conditions. So he set about rectifying whatever was in his power to achieve. He had come straight from an operational command in UK where Aircrew had been taking a pretty heavy beating and thus was sympathetic to our situation.
He immediately endeared himself to us when he first addressed us all, crowded into the station theatre. After looking around to ensure that no WAAFs were present, he said, in his cultured voice, “Gentlemen, I want you to concentrate on your training and remember you shouldn’t try and emulate the sparrow, you can’t fuck and fly!”
Although we didn’t ever get beds, we were at least treated with some respect and not subjected to unnecessary and mindless discipline. In fact, the pendulum swung the other way and the ground staff disciplinary authorities complained that they couldn’t punish us for anything! Knox-Knight encouraged us to set up, build and organise our own sporting facilities with material and tools supplied, albeit grudgingly, by the ground staff. We did this with enthusiasm and renewed morale, for he was our hero and patron. We soon had facilities for boxing, rugby, tennis and basketball to use at weekends or whenever we had any spare time.
As well we had a cinema and a whole lot of WAAFs, but I was much too shy to chat them up, even though two of them were local Vaucluse girls. I can still vividly recall the movie “The Great Waltz” with the Hungarian soprano, Militza Coyez, singing Tales from the Vienna Woods. We went round for days whistling all the melodies.
Flying training and navigation lectures went on and we became a bit more skilful. The weather became much colder and most mornings we had to scrub the ice off the wings before we could fly. We proceeded with aerobatics, cross country flights, low level and night flying. The latter was a rather hair-raising task at best, let alone with the primitive equipment at our disposal. Two of our course were killed at it and two others got lost, panicked, flew a reciprocal course and ended up landing by car lights somewhere West of Mildura.
For this feat, the two heroes were awarded the Prune Medal, which is known as ‘The Highly Derogatory Order of the Irremovable Digit’ and whose emblem is a raised thumb with a halo around it! These medals were presented with great ceremony before a parade of the whole station and the two recipients were required to wear them for the rest of the course.
Navigating a single-seater plane is quite a difficult business, as you have to do it all yourself while still having to control the plane. Airspeed, wind speed and direction, groundspeed and course to steer all have to be determined and set ASAP. To do this quickly we were issued with a computer which was strapped to one knee. This computer was nothing like the electronic marvels that you moderns are familiar with, but merely a mechanical device to aid the solution of arithmetical and geometric problems as quickly as possible.
Traditional navigation methods (evolved for sailing ships over the centuries) were of little use in fast-moving aircraft, because by the time you had laboriously worked out where you were, you were no longer there! To do the necessary sums you twiddled this computer while trying to fly with the other hand and see where you were headed. It’s a big country out west and naturally a lot of us got lost from time to time.
Which, to digress for a moment, reminds me of a story told to me by Clark Cornell when, much later, we were in Yugoslavia together. It seems that during his (US equivalent) SFTS in Texas, some Women’s Army Corps girls arrived on the base to take over the radio telephone communications set-up. As a consequence, swearing over the R/T became a Court Martial offence. One of the trainee pilots on a cross-country exercise got lost and the following dialogue took place between the trainee and the control tower. Trainee: “Hello base, for Christ’s sake give me a course to steer - I’m all fucked up.”
The squadron commander, who happened to be in the tower at the time and possessed a very distinctive southern accent, picked up the microphone and said, “Mister, what is your name and serial number?”
There was a long silence, then came, “I ain’t that fucked up!”
Interspersed with the flying and the lectures was time spent in the Link Trainer. This was a simulator in which we learned to fly on instruments alone - "blind flying" in other words. You were placed in the cockpit, the lid was slammed shut and there you were, confronted with all the instruments needed for such an activity. Instruments such as artificial horizon, turn and bank indicator, directional gyro, compass, altimeter, rate of climb indicator and airspeed indicator are all absolutely essential to perform blind flying for, deprived of the use of one’s visual senses, it is impossible to know whether you are flying right-side-up or inverted. This mode of flying required immense amounts of concentration and a one-hour session was quite draining. To make matters worse, your whole performance was recorded by a trace on a huge sheet of graph paper, to be dissected and analysed by the instructor. It was, of course, essential to master these skills, for without them you would certainly die the first time you flew through cloud. My own performances, it seems, were adequate but barely so - one of the first of many subsequent examples of getting there by the skin of my teeth!
As we entered the last two months of our course we were initiated into the skills of dive-bombing, machine gunning and formation flying. Air to ground radio communication was also provided but, compared with later overseas equipment, it was very primitive. The machine guns that we used were also very crude - relics of WWI, I suspect - in that they were mounted to fire between the blades of the propeller and if the cam mechanism was faulty, you likely as not shot holes in your prop! They were also very prone to jam and it was the devil’s own job to free them up while you were still trying to fly the plane.
Notwithstanding, we pressed on regardless and on my 19th birthday I passed my final flying test, received my wings two days later and attained the rank of Sergeant Pilot. Postings were then read out and we all dispersed to our allotted tasks. Some, including my particular friends Greg Jones and Dave Hall, went to Operational Training Units (OTUs), most of them to Mildura and thence, after two months, onto operational squadrons in New Guinea and the Islands. Others were made instructors and still others were sent to Canada for further training. Others, including Errol Ingram, Fred Clark and myself were made Staff Pilots, which was considered by most to be an inferior appointment.
Staff Pilots, unlike Instructors, were merely required to fly other trainees around (usually trainee Air Gunners or Wireless Air Gunners) while they went about their business - a rather soulless and boring task. Fred was sent to Evans Head, while Errol and I went to No. 2 WAGS at Parkes.
At home on leave, as a newly-graduated Sergeant Pilot.
No. 2 Wireless Air Gunner School was commanded by what was known to us pilots as a “shiny bum”, that is a ground staff administrator with no flying or combat experience, and hence looked down upon by us superior beings! Squadron Leader Reynolds ran the Station with all the rigour and discipline that an archaic military organisation would allow. Every morning we spent nearly two hours on drills and roll-calling, while it seemed to me that we should have been up in the air, doing the job we were there for.
The planes that we were flying were Wacketts; Australian in design and construction. Two-seaters with the pilot in the front seat and the trainee in the rear, the latter tapping out his Morse Code as we flew along very steadily so that there was less chance that the poor bugger became airsick. In order to facilitate the transmission of his signalling, the trainee was also required to unwind, once we were well and truly airborne, a long trailing-wire aerial, with a large lump of lead on the end to stabilize it in flight. He (and it was always “he” in those sexist days) was also required to haul the wire in before we landed, so that the whole apparatus was not ripped off on the landing-ground fence. However, it was the pilot’s responsibility to tell him to do so. Any damage resulting from not so doing rested with the pilot, who then faced a substantial fine (two weeks' pay).
Wackett Trainer [Photo: AWM 010787]
Although some of us were only Sergeant Pilots, the trainees were required to call us “Sir”. This was fairly heady stuff for 19-year-olds (it is easy to understand how politicians become so pompous). The pilots themselves were a mixed bunch, some, like Errol and I, shiny, new and inexperienced, some with about six months' experience and some old hands with incredible overseas experience and adventures, plus one or two bona fide no-hopers serving out their time with as little involvement as possible. Naturally I enjoyed the flying, even though it was a bit boring, as we were commanded to fly straight and level all the time that the trainee was sending or receiving his Morse Code.
In fact we pilots were required to sign a document in which it was stated that we promised, on our honour, to fly in this way and never do any more than a 'Rate 2' turn, which is the sort of gentle turn that you experience in jumbo jets. All this was to lead me, in the not very distant future, into a whole heap of potential trouble, from which I extricated myself with a bit of luck, together with some animal cunning.
The conversion to the Wackett aircraft was fairly simple, a minimum of instruments and a non-retractable undercarriage and we were soon flying the trainees around as though we were veterans.
Wandering around this large station I ran into an old friend, Bill Fallon, who used to live in Laguna Street. Bill was there as a new trainee WAG, having just been scrubbed from his Pilot’s course. He was, of course, desperately unhappy with his lot and, although I looked forward to the possibility of flying him around, he deliberately scrubbed himself and was posted straight to a Gunnery school which only required one month's training. Straight gunnery was regarded widely as being the lousiest, most uncomfortable and most dangerous job in aircrew, but it got you into operations much quicker, as at that stage of the war (1943) Bomber Command in Europe was building up an enormous offensive against Germany with very high losses in aircrew, especially in rear-gunners.
Why we were all so keen to get into operations with all the concomitant risks is a bit of a mystery, but Bill did just that. He completed his gunnery course, got his Air Gunner’s wing, was sent to Britain, was posted to a bomber squadron, survived 30 missions and was given a Commission in the middle of his tour (a rare honour and one rarely extended to such lowly people as rear gunners). I mention Bill Fallon particularly, as he was one of nature’s true gentlemen. After the war he became a successful pharmacist in Cardiff, where he was highly respected by all who knew him. He learned to fly and promptly left his flourishing business to spend the next three years flying, without pay, for the Jesuits in New Guinea. Subsequently he came back, married (belatedly) and resumed his profession. He was a great friend to myself, Peter Kurts, Tom Nolan and Doug Hann. He died after his second failed open-heart surgery many years ago now and we all still miss him.
My log book tells me that on September 30, I flew two trainee trips. These were to be my last jobs at No.2 WAGS, as most of the pilots, including Lew Ranger, Errol Ingram and myself, had just received notice of a posting to No.2 ED (Embarkation Depot) to proceed overseas - we knew not where.
My last flight, however, turned out to be a lot less boring than all its predecessors. With the trainee busy sending Morse Code in the back seat, we were stooging along somewhere close to Narromine, where another Tiger Moth EFTS was stationed. Quite a few Tigers were around, going about their routine training, when they obviously spotted this intruding Wackett, broke off their training and came belting over to me for a spot of “dogfighting”. Forgetting all about my pledge to fly straight and level, I immediately engaged about five Tigers in spectacular aerial combat but as the Tigers outnumbered me and could turn in smaller circles than I was able to do, they were soon on my tail. Time to go home, so I broke off the conflict and headed towards Parkes with my possibly terrified passenger. One of the Tigers persisted however; he got up above and behind me and made another classic fighter attack. Diving down fast onto my tail he shot past just below me, but very close. There was a loud "thump" and then he dwindled earthwards. “Shit!”, I thought, “He's hit my bloody fixed undercart and knocked it off.”
What to do? Very difficult to land without wheels, even more difficult to land with only one wheel. My first brilliant solution was to climb up to the nearest big cumulus cloud, position myself between the cloud and the sun, fly towards the cloud and see if I could get a silhouette of my undercart (if any) against it. No such luck, so I flew home and made a very tentative landing, without incident.
As we didn’t have the means to communicate in the air, it wasn’t until we got back to the hangers that the trainee could say, “Sir, we have lost the trailing aerial.” Oh shit! That was it. Having forgotten all about the blessed thing in the heat of battle it was obvious that the Tiger had got the aerial caught round his prop. No wonder he dwindled! It turns out also that he crashed - but more of that later.
Next day the whole group of those posted to ED left the Station to go to Lindfield, where we were given some leave. I was looking forward to taking out a very pretty girl, Jill Calman, whom I had met on a previous leave. I was not, it seems, entirely alone in this ambition, as she had been going out with an old schoolmate of mine, both at Double Bay Primary and Sydney High School. His name was Harry King, a very fine athlete with whom, over the years I had had many a friendly tussle. Harry was also a pilot, an instructor and, it turns out, stationed at that time at Narromine. He too, by coincidence, got some leave at this time and wasted no time in taking Jill out. He narrated to her this terrible story about a mad pilot in a Wackett, who nearly killed one of his mates! She, of course, told me and I recounted the true version as recorded above.
When the leave was over we all reported to No.2 ED. After several days I was summoned to the Admin. Office and presented with a huge pile of documents which, on closer examination, turned out to be the proceedings of a Court of Enquiry into the crash of the aforesaid Tiger Moth. I froze to the floor. As I read, the sheer solemnity apparent in the lexicon and style of the Court reminded me strongly of the trial of Anne Boleyn by the Star Chamber court of Henry VIII. At least a Court Martial, or possibly a firing squad, seemed to be my likely fate as I read the testimony of those five Tiger Moth pilots who, to a man, claimed that they had been diligently going about their lawful business when they were viciously attacked by a Wackett aircraft which behaved in such an aggressive fashion that one of their group somehow had his propeller ripped off, thereby causing this diligent and blameless aircrew to crash.
My heart sank before all this corroboratory testimony against me, but two witnesses were to give me a bit of support. The first was the pupil in the Tiger that crashed.
President of the Court: “Did you see a Wackett aircraft attack you?"
“Did you see any other aircraft at all around you at the time?“
“How many flying hours experience have you had?"
“Two sir, I was airsick at the time!”
The second was my trainee, whose name I have never known, but I sure hope he survived the war. He testified that we were flying along, minding our own business, when we were attacked by five Tiger Moths before the incident happened.
This was better news, so I hastily dictated a statement confirming his evidence and next day got on the boat for foreign climes.
Arthur Howell and me – sprog pilots
Chapter 2. The Long Way to War via Sardine Express
The “boat” turned out to be the well-known luxury ocean liner, the Mariposa. Pre-war this ship (to use the correct terminology) and its sister ship, the Monterey, used to ply the Pacific with about 300 wealthy tourists. Now it was a troopship converted to transport, in sardine-like fashion, some 3000 Aircrew, some 400 or so War Brides and numerous other odd bods.
Pre-war postcard showing the Mariposa
There were still some vestiges of pre-war opulence: the lifts; the stairwells; some of the first class lounges (where we mere ‘other-ranks’ were not allowed to tread) retained their Art Deco splendour.
We, however, were placed on the open deck outside the cabins, where three tiers of canvas stretchers were situated for sleeping. Our gear, such as it was, was strewn around the nearby deck. That was it, apart from the eating arrangements. Ah, the eating arrangements! We were about to sample some of good old American efficiency. As there were so many aboard it seemed that we could only be fed twice per day.
This was accomplished on E deck. We were billeted on A deck and an orderly queue was arranged, four abreast, to wind down the beautiful main staircase to E deck. On average, about an hour elapsed after joining the queue until you arrived there. As you slowly shuffled downstairs the air became increasingly fetid with the smell of what turned out to be cooking American Army style. The smell is difficult to characterise; perhaps dominated by rancid hot dogs and stale boiled cabbage.
In any event I seldom made it to E deck without rushing up the stairs to vomit over the side. If you did manage to reach the Mess, you were confronted by row after row of chest-high tables running right across the width of the ship. This, of course, enabled them to "pack ‘em in" in plenty, you couldn’t possibly elevate your elbows and the sight of hundreds of men eating standing up and swaying in unison to the ship’s rolling motion was bizarre to say the least. The food itself was served on those large indented trays for which the American Army is deservedly famous.
We set off through Sydney Heads unescorted and at full speed, zigging and zagging every three minutes. This, we suspected, was to spoil the aim of any potential torpedo-firing submarines. Unbeknown to us “sardines”, the waters off the coast of NSW were infested with Japanese submarines, as well as large numbers of mines. This knowledge only became known to us after the war, which is probably just as well - ignorance, in this case, being particularly blissful.
Apart from the discomfort, the journey to San Francisco was uneventful, taking about three weeks as we passed south of New Zealand. There were various duties that we were assigned periodically. On the night before landfall at S.F., I was appointed to take charge of and guard the two prisoners in the ship’s brig, which was situated right in the bow of the ship. These two prisoners were young American sailors, perhaps even younger than most of us and one of them was going home to serve a life sentence for “Statutory Rape”. He looked a most unlikely rapist, but he told me that during a leave in Perth he met this mature-looking girl at a dance hall, took her out, and, as sailors are prone to do, seduced her. It turned out that she was only fourteen, her parents complained, so here he was looking towards a lifetime of penal servitude. All this was told to me while we three sat at a table outside the cell playing cards.
I had a shotgun beside me, with which I was supposed to guard these hardened criminals, but as I had never used a shotgun nor, indeed, knew how to use one, I don’t think that I posed much of a threat to any escape attempt. My guarding philosophy was simply based on the fact that other than jumping overboard, the inmates of the cell had few escape options. Hijacking the Captain, taking over the ship and heading for Alaska also seemed an unlikely scenario. As the night wore on, the following ocean swells were getting bigger and I started to get squeamish. Being right up at the sharp end, the up-and-down motion was magnified, accompanied by lots of metallic groans as the ship’s hull protested against the power of the sea. At length I could leave it no longer, left the shotgun on the table, and raced up the gangway to chunder over the side. The prisoners were still playing when I returned.
In the morning we entered the magnificent San Francisco Bay, sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge and anchored in the middle of the bay. We were not fed that morning as we were due to depart, by lighter, to the shore. This done, we were placed on a large ferry in the early afternoon and there we remained until 10 o’clock that night - no food, no water and no word from the authorities as to what was going on, or whether we had been entirely forgotten. I, having lost my last lot of food over the side, had had virtually no food for two days! At 10 we motored off and were taken to one of the islands in the bay quite close to Alcatraz, where we were at last given a meal. It was Army pap, but anything was OK by then.
After several days on the island, we were taken to a very long train which was to take us right across the U.S.A. For young, naive Aussies, unused to foreign sights or other peoples’ social mores, it was a wonderful journey. It took five days, we did not get off that train during that time and, unlike any long train trips I had had in Australia, was very comfortable.
I shared a Pulman compartment with Ron Chaseling and Lofty Essex; four seats around a table in the daytime which converted into a double bed below and a single up above, made up by the black porter.
Very nifty! Both Ron and Lofty were at Parkes as staff pilots, and had been there much longer than Lew and I. When we got to New York, their Commissions came through, so thereafter we saw them not, as they, of course, moved up to first class. Ron and I were particularly good mates as we were both ex-SBHS and members of the swimming team. He survived Bomber Command but died several years ago. I don’t know what happened to Lofty.
[RAAF records show that Adrian Essex died over Germany on 19 March 1945 serving with 103 Sqn. RAF. He has no known grave.]
We traversed California, the deserts of Nevada, the magnificent Sierra Nevada, seeing, in most cases for the first time, real snow and lots of it. Comfortably ensconced in our steam-heated apartment, the cold did not worry us at all. On through Utah, more desert and then an immensely long trestle bridge right across the Great Salt Lake to Salt Lake City, where the Mormons looked rather like everybody else, in spite of their unusual beliefs! Then into the Rockies, through Colorado to Denver, then Nebraska and the prairies of Iowa and on to that “toddling town”, Chicago. What an experience it all was - nothing to do but look at the sights, play cards and eat our three meals a day as we travelled.
The track taken was by no means direct to our ultimate destination, which turned out to be New York City, but we all enjoyed the comfort and the interesting scenery. The direct cross-country routes were probably kept for more important cargos than us. Pressing on towards Canada we passed through Toledo, Cleveland and on to Buffalo where we actually crossed into Canada at Niagara Falls. There the train actually skirts the falls so closely that it was wet by the spray. Then on through New York State to be deposited on Governor’s Island in NY Harbour.
What can I say about being let loose in New York for six days?
To any young person who went to the movies, read books and magazines and had aspirations to a hedonistic lifestyle (and who didn’t?), New York , especially Manhattan, was a Mecca. In our distinctive blue uniforms, we also attracted attention from the locals, who feted and entertained us with great enthusiasm and generosity.
We were invited to very swanky parties, complete with butlers and maids, in NY mansions where, in ordinary circumstances, none of us would have got in through the tradesman’s entrance. Visits to night clubs (one had Tommy Dorsey playing there), the Empire State and Rockerfeller Centre, Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians at midnight after a party, the Jewish USO for dancing with pretty girls but, alas, impossible to get them away from their ever- vigilant parents! (Other times, other mores!) Back home I had been an enthusiastic collector of Jazz and Swing records so a visit to the Columbia Cinema was of especial interest to me. First there was a rather pathetic Red Skelton movie but it was followed by an hour or so of Woody Herman’s big band playing, live, all his most famous numbers: Golden Wedding, The Woodchopper’s Ball etc. Marion Hutton, sister of Betty, the famous actress, was doing the vocals. I was absolutely transfixed.
In hindsight though, I really was too young, immature and naive to fully enjoy the intellectual and social delights of Manhattan. I didn’t drink for instance; indeed did not do so for the whole three years in the RAAF. While this, no doubt, was a good thing in many ways, it did limit one’s social horizons somewhat. The reason for adopting this stance and adhering to it so long came from witnessing the sad and embarrassing effects that alcohol had had on my father on the few occasions that I saw him. His visits were fleeting and then only, I suspect, when he needed money. I don’t suppose they amounted to more than a dozen in my lifetime.
On the last night, Errol Ingram and I went to another party, stayed up all night, had breakfast at an all night cafe and then returned to camp where we were straight away taken down to the docks to board the Queen Mary. What a sight, all 84,000 tons of her. Back in 1941, when I was still at school, both the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth called in to Sydney Harbour to take our troops to the Middle East. Painted battleship grey they were the biggest ships we had ever seen, too big indeed to fit under the Bridge, so they anchored in Athol Bight. I managed to borrow Don Ritchie’s VJ [sailing dinghy] and sailed up for a closer look. You couldn’t get really close as a navy launch, complete with machine gun, was patrolling around it, but even so it was an impressive sight.
The loading of the QM was a lot different from our rather furtive departure from Sydney. This time there were brass bands, huge crowds waving flags and the Red Cross dispensing hot coffee and doughnuts. A stirring scene as they saw us all off to the war. I use the word “all” advisedly: first there was a whole division of the US Army (15,000 personnel at least), about 2000 of us RAAF, mostly aircrew, several thousand odd-bods of various nationalities and martial duties and, of course, the crew - among whom, as a ships engineer, was Diana Daly’s father. (I only found out this latter fact when I met him at a picnic many, many years later.)
Needless to say, it was very crowded. This time I was in a six-berth cabin somewhere in the bowels of this enormous ship and obviously well below the waterline. Later, when out to sea and the siren would sound for lifeboat drill, it took us 45 minutes to get up to the open deck due to all those thousands of Yanks stationed above us pouring up the narrow passageways. The QM was unescorted, relying on its 30-knot speed and the usual zigging and zagging to avoid the ever present U-boats.
Actually, on previous trips to UK , the QM was escorted by a fast Cruiser of the Royal Navy (HMS Curacoa) but due to an error in the zigging and zagging routine, the Cruiser was cut in half by the QM and sank with the loss of some 240 odd men. The QM, whose bow was barely dented, was not permitted to stop and pick survivors due to the presence of U-boats and the fact that it was as heavily laden with troops as we were. There were, as well, numerous other mighty ships such as the Queen Elizabeth (slightly bigger than the Mary), the Aquitania, the Mauritania etc.
Although unaware of it at the time (late 1943), all this massive movement of troops to the UK was part of the build-up for the invasion of Western Europe which eventually took place on June 6, 1944.
Although, of course, the crew of the QM were British, we never saw them. All we saw were Yanks - you couldn’t move without bumping into an American. The feeding arrangements were conducted with the usual American efficiency; in the enormous dining rooms long queues plied their way continually, 24 hours a day, to the exhortations of the queue controllers: “Let’s go fellers, keep it moving, you goddam Limeys couldn’t build a ship like this one!”
For one’s pains, one got fed twice in that 24-hour period. We went for our first feed as the ship left New York, during which time the many watertight doors were all closed. This meant that we couldn’t find our way back to our billets. After some hours fruitlessly wandering around this gargantuan vessel we ran into an RAAF officer who said confidently “follow me” and promptly got lost too! It was a bit like the Hampton Court maze only more complicated. Maybe we should have dropped pebbles but that wouldn’t have helped as all the doors had been closed.
The trip took four or five days, through a ripper of an Atlantic gale, and when we arrived in the Firth of Clyde we still weren’t sure of the ship’s geography.
To our Aussie eyes Scotland looked green, misty and uniquely beautiful. This may have been, in part, due to our parting company with those 17,000 Yanks! At Glasgow we were put on a train bound for Brighton - right on the south coast of England where all the Aussie troops were billeted awaiting their next posting.
On this long trip down it was obvious that we were now in a Theatre of War; Britain was a huge armed camp; everywhere you looked there were aerodromes full of camouflaged warplanes, troops all over the place. In stark contrast to the Australian and USA countryside, this was without doubt the real thing.
This was December 1943. At this stage of the war in Britain most of the aggressive burden of the war was being carried out in the air and most of this by the Bomber Commands of both the RAF and the USAAF with, of course, a contribution from us Dominion troops and other allies such as the Poles, Norwegians, Free French, Dutch, Czechs etc. Preoccupied, as we had been, with our own training plus a lack of uncensored news, most of us were not fully conscious of these very significant changes in the state and nature of the war.
Those of us who had trained as fighter pilots still held romantic notions about our prospective role in the air. We were soon to be enlightened about all this.
On arrival at Brighton we were billeted in two hotels, the Grand (where later [British Prime Minister] Mrs Thatcher was bombed) and the Metropole, both of which had been first class jewels on the Brighton scene pre-war, but by now of somewhat faded beauty, even before the Air Force had ripped the guts out of them. Both hotels, which were situated on the waterfront facing the sea, were bursting with thousands of Australian airmen. Billeted elsewhere in the town were thousands of Polish airmen.
[AWM P00687.053] Two RAAF men in a bedroom of the Grand Hotel Brighton, 1944.
Brighton, as you know, was a peacetime holiday town famous for its self-indulgence and hedonism. It contained two magnificent and huge dance halls, the Dome and the Regent, still functioning. So, what with all these airmen, the girls of Brighton had a great time. Mind you, so did the airmen! My friend from Parkes, Lew Ranger, met a lovely girl named Nita and was so enamoured of her that later on in 3 Squadron he had her name painted on the side of his Mustang. Well… in a modified version that is. In order to placate his mother whose name was Ann, he called the plane Anita, thereby killing two birds with the one stone!
Not being as personable as Lew, my success, with the relatively small number of young ladies available, was almost non-existent.
So here we had two very large hotels crammed full of Australian airmen. Some six months earlier our predecessors had been so ensconced in two similar hotels in Bournemouth some sixty miles to the west (Ralph Bailey being one of them), when a flight of German fighter-bombers snuck in and made a hit-and-run, low-level raid, there was much death and devastation among the closely-packed airmen. So those left were all transferred to Brighton, which was much closer to German-occupied France.
Needless to say, when the air-raid sirens sounded at night, as they often did, we headed fast for the cellars! After one night raid we were presented with the sight of a Ju88 which had crashed in the town’s main square.
So, instead of racing off and flying Spitfires, we were now told that there was no more demand for fighter pilots and that we would all be converted onto bombers, a process that would take many months of special training. While there was a certain amount of awe-inspiring appeal in the idea of a 19-year-old Sergeant Pilot flying a huge four-engined bomber over Germany as captain of a crew of seven and with no second pilot, I decided that my true expertise (such as it was) was in single-engined flying.
So I set about exploring ways to make this happen, if at all possible. As it turned out, if you volunteered to go to the Middle East, you could stay on singles as that was the only Theatre of War outside Russia that any ground fighting was going on, and this is what I did. There was still a long wait though, as the EATS was working so efficiently by now (1943-44) that the UK was flooded with trained airmen. So here was another parting of the ways for old friends as most of our intake ended up on bombers. Many, like Ken Grose and Rex Loton, did not survive, but some, like Bill Fallon and Errol Ingram, did - Bill as a rear gunner (tail-end Charlie) and Errol as a pilot completed full operational tours of duty and lived to tell the tale.
An obvious problem for the authorities was how to keep us all occupied and out of mischief while awaiting an operational posting. Ultimately we were all to be sent to various RAF stations for refresher flying courses and/or flying control duties but, in the meantime, we had lectures on ship recognition etc. and interminable route marches around Brighton. During these we were “led” by a sprog officer in a straggling fashion, to the amusement of the locals, through the back streets of the town. As often as not when the column went around a corner the rear half would duck off down a lane or some such. When, inevitably, the officer noticed this defection, he would race back to look for them, whereupon the front half would belt off in another direction and go to the movies or a tea room.
Such behaviour eventually led to my being hauled up before the Wing Commander and charged with “Conduct to the Prejudice of Good Order and Discipline” and received a severe dressing down but, fortunately, nothing more serious.
As Christmas 1943 approached, we were given a week's leave; but where to spend it? Fortunately there was an excellent scheme, run and organised by Lady Ryder, whereby you could express a preference (such as town or country) and be invited to stay at a suitable private home. This turned out to be a bit of a lottery for some, but Errol and I were lucky.
Arriving at night in the blackout at Godalming in Surrey, we were met by our hosts, Jim and Doris Leggett, and taken to their home where we spent a wonderful Christmas and New Year with these very good people. You all may have seen some of all this in my photo album. There we all were, including Doris’s two nieces, posing with various empty bottles, though neither Errol nor myself drank alcohol at that time; indeed in the three years of my Air Force career I did not ever indulge - a very rare behaviour pattern in those heady days, let me say. The two girls, who were also house guests, Betty and Joan, were aged 25 and 27 respectively so we put our ages up to, in my case, 23, which was stretching it a bit as I barely shaved at that time.
After being sardined into barracks and ships for so long, it was nice to be in a private home with such friendly and hospitable people - who, in spite of the war, the bombings and food shortages, still retained a sense of humour.
As it was snowing most of the time our pleasures and amusements were to be found indoors - playing cards, parlour games and various recreations - at which the English seem to excel rather more than your average Australian. The highlight, for me, were the evening games of “Murder”, a game at which one spent a lot of time wandering around the upstairs bedrooms in the dark acting either as murderer or victim, as the secretly dealt cards decreed. It was here that I discovered, for the first time, at Betty’s hands, the joys of an embrace by a mature woman. Errol, it seems, was experiencing similar pleasures with Joan. We discussed the matter in private and Errol, by far the most experienced of the two of us, was able to give me some very helpful pointers as to how I could best progress the relationship.
This continued, delightfully, for some nights, the pleasure only being diminished, for both of us as it turned out, by rather severe, and painful, bouts of testicular engorgement. (Or in the vernacular, “lover’s balls”!)
Back to Brighton and the constraints of service life. Then we were dispersed to different parts of the country. As we hadn’t flown for several months the pilots among us were sent on refresher flying courses. I was sent to an EFTS in Wiltshire at a place called Clyffe Pypard (a Celtic name I expect) where it was back to the old Tigers, the same as at home but here it was midwinter and snowing as often as not. Before takeoff I used to warm up four pairs of gloves in front of the pot-bellied stove: first silk, then soft chamois, then woollen, then big leather gauntlets. By the time I had been in the air 15 minutes my hands were frozen!
Flying over the English countryside was vastly different from back home, but fascinating. Salisbury Plain, with its famous white horse constructed by the AIF diggers in WWI, which was a wonderful sight from the air, was nearby, as was Stonehenge. I think my father was around this area during WWI but not, of course, privileged to see it all from the air. Whereas when flying around the backblocks of NSW and you happened to see a town you knew straight away which one it was, it was not the case in England. The landscape was filled with built-up areas and very many aerodromes so that it was rather difficult to identify specific bits of it from the air, thus making navigation a bit iffy.
On one occasion my instructor and I took off on an exercise in a snow storm; so intense that we got lost and couldn’t find our home base. And he was a local! In desperation we located another ‘drome, unidentified by us, landed there to find out that it was the RAF Central Flying School, Hullavington. Bit of an embarrassment for him really.
We also did a bit of night flying, which was quite an eerie experience. Whereas in Australia towns were lit up at night and identifiable by the particular type of lighting that they used, in Britain the blackout prevailed so all was dark, except for the odd aerial beacon which beamed out Morse code signals to identify landmarks.
For security reasons these signals were changed every four hours, so that the pilot had to be cognisant of the letters of the day as well as those to be used later that night. As well our aerodrome, which was really only a grass paddock, used hooded lights for night flying to ensure the blackout. This meant that as soon as you took off, the runway lights became invisible and remained so while you climbed to height, turned left 90°, levelled out, turned left 90° again, flew downwind until you thought that you were about the right position to come in and land on the, still completely invisible, runway. You then descended after turning another 90° and when you guessed that it was appropriate to do so, did another 90° and started praying that you would see some lights soon. If you didn’t, of course, you were cat’s meat, as Tiger Moths had no radio communication whatsoever with the ground. - That I am able to record this, of course, means that I managed it each time, but I still recall it as a rather hairy experience!
In early March it was back to Brighton and all the usual hanging around, interspersed by two weekend visits to Betty and Joan’s home in Erith, Kent (situated on the Thames estuary, which was virtually an outer suburb of London). Here Errol and I were able to further our already burgeoning relationship with these two lovely girls, especially during a particularly nasty air raid when, for some reason, they seemed to be in need of counselling by us two fearless airmen! (Actually, “counselling” was not really in our lexicon in those days.)
Never mind, back in Brighton we found that we both had a posting to an operational RAF station at North Coates in Lincolnshire, not far from the fishing town of Grimsby. Our job was to be “flying control duties”, operating in the control tower. But when we reported there the officer in charge had no knowledge of this and, indeed, was already fully-staffed so he just said, “buzz off and do what you like”.
This is really how we both became rather skilled at snooker, as the Sergeant’s Mess had a fairly good table, the rest of the station were busy fighting the war, and we had nothing better to do.
North Coates was part of RAF Coastal Command and was home to three squadrons of Beaufighters, which were engaged in the very hazardous task of attacking enemy shipping, virtually at sea level. It was also very hazardous for the enemy shipping, as the Beaus attacked with all three squadrons simultaneously. One squadron was used to attack the anti-aircraft gunners, using aircraft equipped with four 20 mm cannons and eight machine guns. Another squadron attacked with torpedoes, while the third used eight 60lb. rockets. Formidable, but very hazardous.
Beaufighters attacking shipping. [This painting, by Ray Honisett, depicting RAAF No. 455 Squadron off Norway, 1944. AWM ART27629.]
I remember some six months later, when at the movies in Cairo, seeing some newsreel shots of these fellows in action at the end of which was shown the air-sea rescue boat fishing some downed airmen out of the North Sea. I recognized them at once as fellows from our North Coates Sergeant’s mess!
Apart from snooker, Errol and I spent a lot of evenings at the local dance halls where we managed to meet a number of the local lovelies. These, perhaps due to the excellent work done by many preceding airmen, were mostly kindly disposed towards us but, alas, after six memorable weeks I was posted to an Advanced Flying Unit at Ternhill in Shropshire. Errol, who had elected to go on to bombers, remained at North Coates for a time, but was then entered into the Bomber Command system and eventually ended up flying Lancaster bombers over Germany – another fairly lively occupation.
At this time (April, 1944) the war in the air over Europe was building up to a tremendous crescendo, with some of the RAF night raids approaching 1000 planes. The average loss rate was 5% but in one 1000 bomber raid 96 planes were lost, i.e. 9.6%. As Lincolnshire is on the east coast and is very flat, most of the bomber squadrons were stationed there. Double summer time (daylight saving to us) was in place, so that as we watched each evening in the twilight hundreds upon hundreds of planes were circling gaining height (usually 20,000 feet), looking rather like clouds of insects in the sky. With full tanks and a bomb load this might take them 1½ to 2 hours before they headed off across the North Sea in an un-formated way, rather like Brown’s cows, into the gathering darkness. At around four o’clock next morning, lying safe in bed, you could hear them coming home.
Shortly thereafter, at dawn, another slightly different sound could be heard. Looking up into the dawn sky could be seen the formations of Flying Fortresses of the US Eighth Air Force, their silver bodies glinting in the early morning sunlight, heading off for Germany. Unlike the black RAF night bombers these fellows were in perfect close formation. This was done for two reasons: to form a concentrated configuration of firepower against German fighter attack and to implement their group bomb-aiming techniques. In spite of this strategy they still suffered very heavy losses, until they managed to get fighter escorts capable of staying airborne for eight hours or so. In addition to this strategic bombing, i.e. long range bombing of factories, oil depots etc., the Tactical Air Forces were also very busy, mostly during daylight, bombing bridges, strafing trains, trucks, tanks etc. using medium bombers and single engine fighters.
So it can be seen that the Germans had little place to hide, night or day. But, anyway, back to the story.
By train back to Brighton, then on up through the smoky midlands to the beautiful green pastures of Shropshire. Ternhill was a prewar RAF station with none of your jerry-built temporary accommodation experienced elsewhere. Apart from the usual fairly hectic flying programme, the Station was an oasis of comfort and solidarity. Here I met up with some old mates like Lew Ranger, who had been at Parkes with Errol and I.
Also met a lot of new and interesting pilots from many countries: Sikhs, Dutch, Norwegians, Canadians, Czechs and a lot of very experienced pilots. Interestingly the Poms were the worst-paid of the lot, while the Norwegians were the highest-paid by miles. I have never been able to understand international finance, but have always puzzled as to why this should be, as these guys from countries occupied by the Germans could be paid more than those blokes from the country that was nurturing them.
Whatever, we had an interesting mix and the flying was exciting and we relative sprogs learnt a lot and fairly quickly too. One of the Aussie pilots, David Linacre, from Brighton, Victoria, was from a well-known sailing family and sailed dinghies out of Royal Brighton, so we had a fair bit in common. He, Lew and I teamed up and did a lot of very close formation flying together; it was a bit like the later craze for ‘chicken’ in cars. We became quite good at it and, given that we survived, the process stood us all in good stead later on in the Middle East.
The weather became warmer, the WAAFs on station proved amenable, so that the après flying life was pleasurable indeed.
Weekend leave was often spent in the lovely old town of Shrewsbury, which was not far away. Dances at night, boating trips on the river Severn by day, so tranquil that it was difficult to believe that we were supposed to be involved in a war.
This illusion was soon to be shattered when, on June 6, 1944, the Allied forces launched the long-awaited attack on Europe. Shortly thereafter our course finished and we were given indefinite leave. We all took advantage of this unprecedented offer by heading off to the fleshpots of London. Little did we realise what we were in for, in quite a few ways.
We travelled by train overnight and as dawn was breaking the train stopped just outside London while the air raid sirens wailed their message of approaching danger. Nothing for a while, then the "all-clear" sounded. The train proceeded in a circumspect way, then another alert and we stopped again. In the distance a number of explosions could be heard, then the all-clear again. This went on for several hours, puzzling because it was not the pattern of a normal bombing raid, but eventually we reached the terminal and made our way to a serviceman’s hostel in Knightsbridge.
For the next couple of days this pattern of on/off sirens and random bomb explosions continued without us seeing any bombers and without any explanation from the authorities who eventually had to admit that we were being subjected to attack by pilotless, jet-propelled flying bombs. This was exciting news indeed, as although we had been in a number of conventional air raids, we had never heard of pilotless flying bombs - let alone jet propulsion.
During the next three weeks or so this new phenomenon proved to be very difficult for the populace to adjust to. Whereas a conventional raid would start, people would mostly head for shelter, two hours later the all-clear would go and people would go about their business and not have to worry until the next night or whatever. This new threat was different; they came over both night and day, were unpredictable, arrived randomly and were very difficult to prevent or deal with. Essentially, of course, they were a terror weapon, a last desperate fling by Hitler to try to alter the inexorable process of his defeat. London was a huge area, difficult to miss all of it, so the V1s (as they were called) were given enough fuel to get them to London. When this ran out the engine stopped and they crashed and blew up whatever they landed on.
As the days went by, we saw and heard more of them. Being young and rather stupid we did not bother to seek shelter but, if, say, walking in the darkened streets at night you heard one coming, then saw its fiery tail as it passed overhead, and then the motor stopped, you had 15 seconds to throw yourself into the gutter which, if it wasn’t too close, gave you some protection from the blast. Lying in bed in our hostel you could hear them coming and as they passed overhead and continued on, you breathed a sigh of relief that the motor had not cut out right above you. Buses, with lights reduced to mere slits (to avoid spotting by conventional bombers) were still functioning, as were the trains.
The underground network was used by vast numbers of the civilian population as air raid shelters, where they ate and slept during the night. Arriving at your designated Underground station when travelling at night, you had to pick your way through hundreds of adults and kids with their bedding, primus stoves etc., virtually living in this foetid environment. Thus the great city of London went about its business in spite of these noisy and lethal distractions.
Australia House, situated in Aldwych, was a Mecca for Australian serviceman when on leave. Here we could get news of home, eat, and enjoy the excellent recreational services available. I recall playing a game of snooker in the basement one day when all of a sudden, the plaster ceiling fell on the table just as I was about to play a shot. Commotion everywhere; I raced upstairs to be greeted by utter devastation. A flying bomb had hit the street just outside the front door where half a dozen double-decker buses had been parked. The buses were completely wrecked, glass everywhere. India House directly opposite was just about demolished, while the huge glass dome of Australia House was lying shattered in the large vestibule.
An amazing photograph of the flying bomb hitting Australia House [State Library of Victoria]
Outside the dead and seriously injured were quickly removed by the very well-practiced ambulance workers while others were wandering around in a dazed condition, some with blood streaming down their faces. Gradually order was restored and the cleanup got under way.
A few years ago Avril and I found ourselves in London on a tourist trip. In Whitehall we visited a then newly-established museum in what was Winston Churchill’s underground headquarters. There, on one wall were several photos of the results of this bomb, so if any of you readers (assuming that there are some) find yourselves in London and have nothing better to do, you could take a trip to the museum and see for yourself how close you came to not existing!
Interspersed with picking up girls and going to night clubs, I managed to pay several visits to my maternal grandfather’s uncle’s house in Croydon, which was situated southeast of London and was thus right in the path of the flying bombs. Uncle Bill Dale, who was over 80, lived in a nice house with his housekeeper Cissy, a great favourite of Thistle’s, who had kept in touch with her by letter over the years. The number of flying bombs going overhead was amazing, most going on to greater London but a few falling short nearby, one of which shattered Uncle Bill’s prized glasshouse. He appeared unconcerned with these close encounters, standing amongst the ruins and watching all the passing aerial traffic.
Preventing the bombs from getting through the defences had not been very successful. Many ad hoc methods were being tried, as they were very difficult to catch with a conventional propeller-driven aeroplane. Barrage balloons were placed along the coast to try and catch them on the wire cable, but with little result. Lots of anti-aircraft guns were placed on the corridor to London, but to little effect due to the V1's speed. Fighters such as Spitfires, Typhoons, Tempests and Mustangs were also used, but had difficulty catching up to them in the limited time available after spotting one. In addition, if you were able to catch up to one you couldn’t get too close to open fire as you would blow yourself up as well.
One method, devised by one of the pilots, had some success. This was to dive down from above, to get the speed to catch the V1, then get your wing under its wing and tip it sideways, thereby upsetting the gyros and causing it to crash. This was only of slight help, as it was going to crash eventually, and all you really did was cause it to crash on someone else. So lots of bombs were getting through; Uncle Bill took me a few streets away to look at the house of a relative of his, which had had a direct hit. The owners had survived because they were in their small backyard shelter when it hit and, although they were buried in the debris of the house, they were dug out unharmed. However it was a very sad sight. There in the rubble you could see the shiny remains of a beautiful grand piano and all the bits and pieces of a well-tended household. I sometimes think that the civilians in WW2 had a harder time than the servicemen. Certainly they did in Germany and Japan, where the bombing was on a much more massive scale.
I stayed a day or two with uncle Bill, giving them all my food coupons, which I did not need but they could certainly do with. Uncle Bill, who had led a fairly quiet life as manager of a fair sized Co-op, regaled me with tales about ‘young Charlie’ as he called my grandfather. As well as being General Manager of the Sydney Morning Herald, Papa was secretary of the Empire Press Union (whatever that was) and in this capacity he made a trip to U.K. in, I think, 1932 to attend conferences etc.
To uncle Bill’s surprise he (Papa) rocked up to Croydon in a taxi to take uncle Bill to lunch with Anthony Eden at Parliament House. This accomplished, they took the same taxi, which Papa had instructed to wait outside, back to distant Croydon. Uncle Bill, a financially cautious soul, was vastly impressed with such a reckless expenditure of money.
This was Papa’s style, however, and combined with his excessive generosity to many, myself included, is no doubt why he died penniless in Sydney in the year I am writing about, 1944.
Back to London and the social life. Ironically the continuing V1 blitz aided the social process − people chatted to strangers often, young ladies smiled at young men, especially if they were in RAAF blue. As a gentleman I shall remain silent on the specifics of these encounters, suffice it to mention several exciting visits to night clubs to see and hear bands such as Edmondo Ros and his Cubans and the famous Harry Roy and his orchestra. Talk about a reckless expenditure of money! Such self-indulgence could not last, of course, and just as I became stony broke we received a telegram to report forthwith to an Embarkation Depot at Blackpool.
Having no money I was lucky enough to run into Eddie Baker, a cousin of Mimi Bailey’s, who had just started his leave and was hence flush with funds. Eddie shouted two lovely girls and myself to a dance and a late movie on my last night in London. He now lives in Queensland and I have never repaid the favour, but I never forgot the night.
Back up through the smoky midlands again by train. Strangely, the V1s, which had started the day we arrived, stopped the day we left only to be replaced by a new terror weapon, the V2, which was not a jet-propelled bomb but instead was rocket propelled, travelled very high and very fast and could not be combated by any means. Because in flight it exceeded the speed of sound, there was no warning of its arrival whatsoever, just a bloody great explosion. Fortunately they did not last for too long as their launching sites were overrun by the advancing Allies in France.
Blackpool proved to be an unusual Embarkation Depot; it was not an RAF station in the traditional sense as it was a vast fun parlour and holiday resort patronised largely by the Lancashire mill workers.
In the town were hundreds of boarding houses run, mostly, by middle aged women with strong disciplinary tendencies. It was in these places that we putative embarkees were billeted while awaiting our unknown fate.
The town was full to overflowing with holidaying mill girls, most of whom, I’m sorry to say, were uncommonly ugly. Not that this mattered in my case, as I was stony broke! By now it was July and with double summer time it was light until half past eleven at night.
The boarding houses were locked at eleven and you could not get back in if you were still out after this. This proved to be a problem with the more persistent swains who stayed out waiting for the long delayed darkness to descend, usually resulting in some serious downpipe-climbing in the wee small hours. There were no baths or showers in any of the houses. Upon enquiry we were told to go to the public baths which turned out to be the local sea water swimming pool! Such are the hardships of war.
Eventually a pay day came (known in the vernacular as "the day the Eagle shits") and I was once again able to resume a normal social life, but not for long, as we were all soon transported to Liverpool where we boarded, by lighter, the Capetown Castle, bound, we assumed, for the Middle East. This was another large troopship, and as overcrowded as usual, but this time we were accompanied by a contingent of WAAFs, which helped alleviate the boredom of the longish trip, which was done in convoy, with Navy Aircraft Carrier and Destroyer escort, and thus the speed of the convoy was determined by the speed of the slowest vessel.
One of the less pleasant aspects of this voyage was the presence aboard of the British Military Police. There was quite a large contingent of them going, it was said, to the Middle East to take up guard duty in various POW camps and also in Allied Disciplinary Prisons.
Police everywhere, as you know, have certain powers over and above the rest of us, which are not always exercised wisely. Military police are similarly endowed, but with much wider jurisdiction under a very strict disciplinary code that many of them tend to enforce with a notable lack of compassion. In other words they are Neanderthal deadshits, whose innate sadistic tendencies have drawn them to this mindless career path.
During their many years of service (about 15) in the British Army, all these blokes had been thoroughly brainwashed into implicitly believing in all the disciplines and procedures of an archaic military system while we, perhaps unfortunately, had not. They all bore the rank of either Sergeant or Staff Sergeant, the latter being the equivalent of our Flight Sergeant, but with their extra powers and seniority they definitely had both the physical and psychological on us.
Thus it was that I was arrested for sunbaking. Sunbaking was forbidden but we sun-fearless Aussies, of course, ignored this prohibition and I, after two complete winters in a row (in different hemispheres), ended up with severe sunburn and was placed on a charge by one of the numerous Military Police who infested this ship.
Fortunately the complaint was heard by a New Zealand RNZAF officer who dismissed it though, technically, in those draconian times, I could have been charged with a self-inflicted wound in order to avoid combat! Potentially, the penalty imposed for such a heinous crime lay between imprisonment for life and being shot by a firing squad. I did, however, subsequently suffer from extraordinary all-over itching which responded to no treatment, such as cold showers, lotions or running madly round the deck. Many of the others were similarly charged with trivial breaches of King’s Regulations, to the despair of the young Kiwi flyer delegated to hear them all. To the chagrin of the MPs, he unfailingly dismissed them.
Which brings me to one of our number, Sid Joel. Sid, perhaps a year or two older than the average, slight of build and laconic of temperament, grew up in Ultimo, which was a notorious slum in the 1920s. He was cynical and worldly, and loved hand guns. When we left UK we were issued with a Smith and Wesson six shooter as we were off to a war zone. Sid was always fiddling with his and used to startle us by carefully placing a bullet in the revolving chamber, pointing the gun at his temple and then pulling the trigger five times. This took our breath away as a miscalculation, of course, was sudden death.
Some time later, on the train trip from Port Said to Cairo, Lew Ranger got the urge to do the same thing - except that, instead of pointing the gun at his head, he pointed it at me! We were standing at the time and I pushed the gun away. Just as well, as it went off on the fifth pull and the bullet went through a wooden panel and hit the WOD (Warrant Officer, Disciplinary) in the bum, fortunately almost expended by then.
Back on the Capetown Castle, “lights out” used to be called at about 9.30, I think, but there was often a fair bit of horseplay and talking which, as you will have guessed, was forbidden under KRs. One night during all this, down came one of the MPs, a sergeant as it happens, and the following ensued:
MP: “What’s going on down here?”
Us: Complete, guilty silence.
MP: “You men haven’t got the guts of a louse”.
We were in the process of digesting this piece of information when Sid Joel, in his striped, issue pyjamas, got up, slowly walked over to the MP, leant nonchalantly on a nearby stanchion and said, “Are you addressing me?”
MP (taken aback a little, but with a hint of defiance): “I am addressing all of you.”
Sid (still leaning, feet crossed): “I’m a Flight Sergeant, stand to attention when you are addressing me.” Whereupon the MP stood dutifully rigid while Sid proceeded to dress him down.
We had little trouble thereafter with the MPs.
Not only did Syd understand human behaviour, he was also a very skilled cardsharp. It was from him that I learned how to deal myself three of a kind at poker, even a full house if you practised enough, as Sid himself had done. Unfortunately I never attained his degree of expertise, even with lots of assiduous practice. Sid ended upon Spitfires, I think, and became an airline pilot after the war.
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