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Jaunty Jottings of an Aerodrome Defence Gunner
/Armourer / Aircrew Wallah

by Roy Fitzgerald

010918
Western Desert, North Africa. c. 1941.  LAC Jones, from King Island, a member of the Royal Australian Air Force
adds to his anti-aircraft Lewis machine guns the assistance of the Aboriginal belief of pointing the bone.
 [AWM 010918]

About the time the whole of Europe was falling under the Nazi yoke, my younger brother, aged around seventeen and a bit, and I, a few years older, decided it was about time we threw our hats into the ring and did our bit for King and country.

With these sentiments in mind, we enlisted in the RAAF at Pearce in W.A. and were sent home to await call-up.  Imagine Herr Hitler's alarm when he was advised of this significant event !

Being from country W.A., where mail was erratic and where wirelesses were more for ornamentation than communication, news about the goings-on in Europe was scanty and brief.

Living in this vacuum, we waited with bated breath for the call-up which never seemed to come and as days stretched into weeks, we decided to offer our services to others seeking gun fodder, particularly lads as "bright" as we were.

But then - what's this?  There arrived two very important brown envelopes, "On His Majesty's Service" if you please, with their enclosed invitations to report pronto to the drill square or whatever, with the chance of free trips around the globe with all the trimmings.  Something, indeed, which Cook's Tours would never be able to match.

So there we were in record time on the drill square and all set to be introduced to the mysteries of rifle drill and other such things for two or three months, or so we thought.  Just a few short days into square bashing came the portentous announcement that ten sturdy souls were required to proceed to England at short notice as ground-staff on a squadron just forming there.

Of some 500 in various stages of training, approximately 90% stepped forward.  My brother and I, although ineligible as very raw rookies decided to give it a go and joined the other hopefuls only to be told that "brothers could not be in the same squadron" and that as newly-arrived volunteers, we were ineligible in any case.  (Later in my squadron in the Middle East, three sets of brothers had broken through the red tape and were doing their stuff.)

Crestfallen, we rejoined the ranks but, not to be deterred, yours truly slipped out among the milling throng and saw his number go up.  And not for the first time was I involved in administrative cock-ups.  As we "won" the war, what did it matter anyway.

Then quickly home on pre-embarkation leave in a uniform two sizes too large, but it mattered little as I was the local "hero" being the very first from those parts to be taking such leave.  Didn't seem to impress the local females though, so decided that after winning a couple of V.C.s, I would come back and ignore them all.  (When I returned some years later, as most were hitched or going through the stages, I was still ignored.  What a chance they missed!)

Very quickly the tears and things were all over and there I was in all my power and glory - full AC1 marshalling nine other rookies equally as wet behind the ears onto a Sydney-bound train and thence to Richmond in NSW for further training and kitting-out, preparatory to taking off for Britain where no doubt, red carpets of welcome were being polished up.  Or so we thought.

"Now, what are you chaps doing here?" asked the affable Adjutant.

To which I replied: "All ship-shape to take off for England or whatever, and raring to go!"

"...?  Never heard of you," was the response. "But leave it to me and I'll try to organise something for you.  In the meantime, how about a spot of leave in old Sydney town while I think it over".

Wow, what a man, we thought, and what a service to be in.  First class transport all the way across Australia and now Sydney beckoning as, in a flash, we set off on a three day stint of touristing.  Cook's tourists, indeed, with the RAAF's blessing and readies in the pockets.  No wonder we were known as blue orchids!  We certainly gave it the works, with the great coat-hanger, theatres, beaches, ferry rides (a discreet look, of course, at that den of iniquity, The Cross) and other such sights and scenes in a round-the-clock effort.  Nothing like this in countrified old Perth, resting in its backwater of old Colonial days, we thought in unison.

What an exhausted but well-satisfied lot who turned up in the Adjutant's office on the Monday morning to be greeted with, "Well, lads, we've decided to make you ground gunners in a fighter squadron now forming to go to the Middle East.  Your duties will be to guard our aerodromes from low strafing fighters and bombers.  I'll now hand you over to the S.M. for final gunnery polish, so get cracking and good luck."

This all sounded more exciting to we ex-farmers, clerks, school teachers etc., who had never seen a machine gun nor would recognise one end from the other, but with spirits lifted by this latest offer, we set to work with a will until came the first hiccup with our first effort at rifle drill.

"Slope arms!"  bellowed the Sergeant Major, at which point rifles finished up at various angles on shoulders and on the ground, made all the worse by the S.M. with his extra exhortations to untangle the mess and who appeared to be suffering from the first stages of a violent heart attack!

As earlier explained, none of us had even commenced our rookie rifle drill in far-away Pearce, so to rectify the position, intense efforts were made to slope and present arms, etc., with the odd visit to the range for loading and firing practices.  (Bruised shoulders of our city compatriots revealed how little knowledge they had of fire-sticks).

But where were those machine guns with which we were shortly to decimate those Italian hordes now running cock-a-hoop in far away Libya?  None available; and in any case, our great ship lay snorting in Sydney Harbour, seemingly anxious, too, to get cracking.

So now in deep "secrecy" to Darling Harbour to board our ship.  From on high, orders had come that movement from Richmond to Sydney was to be the war's best kept secret, as the enemy ears were everywhere.

Suffice to say that from that moment Air Force bands escorted us from Richmond to the nearby station for entrainment - shades of Roll out the Barrel - and thence on to Sydney.  The literally thousands of tearful well-wishers lining the tracks to wish us bon voyage, gave the enemy a picnic.


Troopship Orontes, July 1940.

With that emotive stuff put behind us and on hold, it was now quickly across the oceans taking evasive action against Italian forts now fully active on the southern Red Sea shores, and suddenly there we were breasting the great Canal and soaking up the atmosphere in the land of the Sphinx where our primary concern was further intensive training, with pilots doing their stuff on antiquated Lysanders and Gladiators - these latter our secret weapon - and we ground gunners on our machine guns - if any, in fact, could be located.

Suddenly, if as a gift from the Gods, two battered old Lewises, first World War vintage, were located and set upon by avid would-be gunners with orders to absorb their ancient mysteries in double quick time as Mussolini's legions (and I mean Legions) had resumed their march toward the Canal.

Again in double quick time and with dire urgency, we were off to the firing range in the shadows of the great Pyramids and the inscrutable Sphinx where a drogue towing plane was available and where great gunnery feats were now observed.  To my knowledge, not a hit was registered until shortly both the plane and drogue fluttered to earth, the former with a well-placed bullet or two through the oil lines. 

It was learnt later, unofficially of course, that when the pilot learnt he had been towing for a complete set of novices, he fainted.  It was mentioned, too, that this was recorded as our first "kill".  In any case, what more could one expect from lads from the sticks of far-off W.A.

That was the end of formal training as the real thing now beckoned up Bardia and Tobruk way, where swarms of Mussolini's finest, in terms of men, material and planes had commenced (at last) their charge towards the Canal with precious little of our available forces, either land or air, to bar their way.  The thin red line, indeed.

Fortunately, it wasn't long before the Italians saw the light and headed off in the opposite direction where they apparently had pressing engagements with their mommas and poppas on the other side of Mussolini's lake.  Subtract of course the tens of thousands who preferred to lay down their arms (hundreds of rifles still had their original bullets up their spouts) to our thin and puny on-the-ground forces, and spend the rest of their war days munching on our bully beef and iron biscuits, punishment enough in itself.  (From all post-war reports, many subsequently were well set-up here, not particularly worried as to when hostilities ceased.)

We gunners in the air defence units were certainly learning the hard way, being raw and badly equipped but learn we did, necessity being the mother of invention, and eventually more than held our own in the to-ing and fro-ing across the sandy wastes where, in times long gone, Anthony and Cleopatra disported themselves.  (As legend has it, it was in one of these self-same spots where the asp attached itself to Cleopatra's unmentionables.)

In summary, though at times the chatter of our machine guns played second fiddle to the chatter of our teeth, all's well that ends well and apart from a little impairment to part of our inner skulls, we otherwise appeared to have emerged relatively unscathed from our ordeal.

Before concluding my brief coverage of our first stint in the Western Desert when we all but knocked Italy out of the war, it might be of interest to mention one particular highlight concerning we gunners when our forces initially advanced out of Egypt into Libya.

Some bright lad with red tabs, naturally well to the rear, felt it might be a good idea to drop someone by plane (that someone was us) on an aerodrome close to the front line and secure a huge dump of fuel left behind by the retreating Italian forces.

Great idea, we thought until we realised that we were to be the bunnies specially selected.  And colder still on the idea when we were marshalled out to those First World War biplanes allocated for the drop.

Valentias I think they were called, ramshackle old bangers barely able to muster 50 knots - and that was with a tail wind of the speed of sound.  Flying altitude was an unknown quantity.


Cigarette Card featuring a Vickers Valentia over the Pyramids.

However, ours not to wonder why, but mostly to do and die as we clambered aboard with our fearsome array of weapons (mostly, too, of WWI vintage) at the same time being exhorted by our wet-behind-the-ears pilot (driver would be more apt) to hurry up as he wished to be back for tiffin, and to be careful not to dent his precious fuselage which resembled a sieve, having just survived a raid over Tobruk.

"Never mind," he added, "we'll manage.  And if the worst comes to worst, that pile of odds and ends in the corner is my repair kit, with which you lads with a bit of imagination should be able to work wonders to keep us afloat."

Float it was, as we dodged along through the murk, barely able to maintain our "safety height" of some few hundred feet, until with a crushing jar we hit our so-called aerodrome, spot on, minefields and the lot, needing little encouragement to get out and away from our coffin which was fair meat for Aeronautica Italia roaming the nearby skies.

Sadly, too, with our guns yet to be mounted, the bombs came crashing down right on our prize, the fuel dump, putting Guy Fawkes to shame with its display of flame and explosion.  From all subsequent reports which flowed from the other side (Lord Haw Haw was at his best), not only was the dump destroyed but with it perished a bunch of stupid Australians... yours truly supposedly being one!

After that digression, now to continue.  With the war hotting-up with the advent of the Germans into the conflict, we were flung out of Benghazi and thrown all the way back to Tobruk and beyond - not a retreat of course, but merely, in military parlance, "a straightening of the line"; so now exhausted by it all, we were withdrawn and dispatched to Syria for "rest and refitting."

While "resting", we knocked off the Vichy French to boot, in one of the bloodiest confrontations of the War to date with our Squadron playing no small part.  As a matter of fact, we of the ground-staff played a major part in the capture of the Vichy French commander, General Dentz, by immobilising his plane - great for souvenir hunters -- as he prepared to flee.  As it happened, this victory in Syria was the first lasting success in the Middle East and Churchill made important capital out of it in his fiery speeches.

Just prior to this "sideshow", we on the ground-staff were rewarded with a few days off in the land where Christianity had its beginning and I for one took the opportunity of visiting Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, Jericho, etc., a gratifying experience, indeed.  And of course, as with all good tourists, I brought a piece of the Cross, quite genuine of course.

So now refreshed and ready to go and with the war hotting-up in the desert, we were hastily flung back to where the big action was.  But as more formal airfield defence forces had been made available to us - many were survivors from Dunkirk - I now re-mustered to armourer, spending my second year dodging bombs, bullets, sand and oh those flies.  And we now realised that we were locked in combat with a more professional and deadly foe, making us long for the return of those Italian legions with their running shoes and theatrical flair.

P02541.005
Egypt. 1941. Six members of No 3 Squadron RAAF belting up .303 inch machine gun
 ammunition in the desert.  The men are working without shirts, some sitting on
 wooden ammunition boxes as they work. They were part of a convoy of 66
 trucks travelling from Rayak, Syria, after the end of the Syrian campaigns, to Amiriya, Egypt,
 to take part in the Western Desert campaigns. (Donor Felix Sainsbury.  AWM Photo P02541.005)

However, before mentioning some episodes from my second year of combat, this little cock-up titbit may be worth mentioning.  During a heavy air-raid on our aerodrome, one of our gunners appeared impervious to the crack and the roar, forgetting to duck in the approved fashion - as shrapnel flew.  It was subsequently learnt that he was almost totally deaf and should have been rejected on enlistment.  He was promptly sent home, as was one of his earlier colleagues who had been sent home after a few short months in Egypt before any action of any sort.

Now, as a fully-fledged armourer, I set to work with a will but enjoyed no respite from our "friends" up above.  However, the Desert Fox, on instructions from that madman in Berlin, was to wipe us out before the end of the year in any case.

In my new mustering, I was now more fully involved with our aircrews who, as I was fully aware, were highly dependant on our dedication on the ground to keep them afloat.  Cordial relations were the order of the day as we on the ground and those above strove mightily as we slowly but surely gained the upper-hand.  And might I add that when I became one of those up above, I saw the value of the bonds forged between aircrews and ground-staff.  Bonds deep and lasting.

010182
1941-10. MIDDLE EAST. WITH THE AUSTRALIAN SQUADRON WHO FLY
 AMERICAN-BUILT TOMAHAWK FIGHTER PLANES. LEADING AIRCRAFTMEN
 LOADING AMMUNITION ONTO ONE OF THE PLANES. (NEGATIVE BY G. SILK.  AWM 010182).

But now came the time to call it a day, as batteries needed recharging, perhaps back in Dampier's land where pastures should be greener and a little more relaxed.  So along with those of my colleagues who had stood with backs to the wall over those two exciting and arduous years, we prepared to up stakes and go.

Not before, however, we were blasted on our way by our friends in the Luftwaffe who had received, no doubt, advance warning of our exodus.  (The Arabs, who were double agents, were both good friends and enemies, depending on which way the wind blew.  When we were in the ascendancy, eggs were available, but, on the down, nix.)

And let me mention briefly in passing that we were leaving our gallant foe and adversary Rommel behind, he who gave his life for both his country and democracy.  At one stage in the to-ing and fro-ing of the conflict in the desert, he almost single-handedly (he led from the front) was responsible for the capture of a number of our ground-staff, but as his Adjutant was preparing the "tickets for Berlin" as he said, our forces over-ran the headquarters almost capturing the Desert Fox in the process.

Of course there was also the Japanese thing to contend with before making the home port.  Part of our convoy went up in flames and we for our part hove-to in submarine-infested waters almost minus propeller.  - But fortune favours the brave - or foolhardy - and there we were bumping against those welcome and ant-eaten piers in old Fremantle town and where, after rest and recuperation, I was to take up duties as a gunnery instructor at an aircrew training school adjacent to Perth.

But before moving off to leave and my new duties, another cock-up occurred, one which we seasoned warriors took in our stride.  Having just survived Rommel and his merry men, and the excitement of our voyage home, we were not about to surrender the anticipation of the good life ahead.  Briefly, just as we arrived in the new depot, pre-leave, the highly decorated C.O. cancelled all leave until his revolver, binoculars and camera were returned.  (Although our reputations as souvenir-hunters on the battlefields of the Middle East were well-known, we surely could not have been involved in an incident which had occurred while we were on the high seas.)

Be that as it may, we quietly slipped through the defences out into the town, where homecoming with (literally) my hundreds of doting relatives, was celebrated into the wee hours before returning to the depot where the ban was still in force.

Red faces all around (not ours) when it was belatedly discovered that the bans had wrongfully applied to we dozen Middle East "heroes" and, amidst profuse apologies, warrants were promptly issued for home leave, where the fatted calf had been killed and was waiting.

It was not until l947 that the outcome of the robbery was revealed when it was established that the so-called C.O. was an impostor, neither entitled to his RAAF rank nor his row of imposing decorations.  There had in fact been no robbery and he was now serving a prolonged prison sentence for many other fraudulent things.  A great cock-up - but we did win the war, regardless, did we not?

Leave over, it was now to my role of gunnery instructor, an ordered life with, can you believe it, breaks for both morning and afternoon tea, clean sheets on a real bed and, wait for it, regular fortnightly weekend leave.  A little bit of paradise, indeed, but too good to last.  Dull and ordered and unexciting, with no crash of bombs or whine of bullets to break the monotony.  Even a sandstorm or two would have helped, but none in the offing.

The simple solution lay within my hands and what better way to achieve it but to become a renegade and join aircrew?  Which I promptly did, giving me the opportunity to experience life upstairs, instead of downstairs, and get myself posted to Britain where all the action was.

In this reverse situation, I could fully appreciate just how much ground crews meant to those in the air and felt that much safer knowing the dedication of those on the ground in keeping those crates afloat.

----------------------------

It is pertinent to mention here the feelings of my younger brother now occupying a hallowed spot near Berlin where he lies in a hero's grave surrounded by most of his ever-so-young crew.  On his posting to Britain earlier in the war he saw the need for closer contact between ground and air crews and he was one of the earliest instigators of the get-togethers, mostly in some delightful old English Pub.

The survivors from his plane confirmed to me later the close relationships made and of the friendships which exist to this present day.  I am quite sure that similar relationships are the order of the day in the present-day RAAF.

http://www.craxford-family.co.uk/headstones/Germany/Berlin3945.jpg
Berlin Commonwealth War Cemetery

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