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Sabre Memories - Post-War No.3 Squadron

By Neil Handsley, Ex-Engine Fitter, 78 (Fighter) Wing.


[Above] Official pictures prior to the departure of "Operation Sabre Ferry" from Williamtown, October 1958.

Some reminiscences from the Squadron's activities, at RAAF Base Butterworth in the late 1950's to early 60's.....

Setting the scene ... Australia showed a strong commitment to the security of the SE Asia area from as early as 1948, with RAAF No.1 Squadron Lincoln bombers based in Singapore, and operational over the Malay peninsula against Chin Peng's CTs ["Communist Terrorists"].  From memory, I believe they served there until 1958 - a fine effort.

At RAAF base Williamtown, NSW, No.78 Fighter Wing formed up with Meteor Mk8 twin-jets and converted to C.A.C. (Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation) built Mk30 Avon-Sabre jets from March 1956.  (Readers please bear with me about dates, as I am recalling events from about 40 years ago).  The Wing comprised two fighter squadrons, (No.s 3 and 77) each with 16 Sabres, plus a maintenance squadron, No. 478(M).

The mighty Sabre was developed to a frontline interceptor at Williamtown over the next three years, with much hard work from both pilots and ground crews.  Also playing major roles were the Melbourne-based manufacturer C.A.C. (who made both the engine and the airframe), RAAF ARDU who designed and tested the major mods/improvements to the ex-USAF F86H design, and the unsung heroes, No.2ACS, who laid the huge expanses of concrete tarmac at 'Willytown'. - ACS then went on to even greater heights by completely rebuilding the runway at Butterworth - in preparation for the arrival of No.3 Squadron's Sabres in October 1958.


The route of 'Sabre Ferry One', October 1958, boxing-in Indonesian air-space!

An interesting aspect of 3 Squadron's move to Butterworth was the setting-up of operation 'Sabre Ferry One', where we stationed small ground-crew teams on airfields about 900 nautical miles apart, all the way from Williamtown to Butterworth.  The overseas locations were Biak Is., Guiuan in the Philippines and Labuan, North Borneo.  - Your writer had the fortune to serve at Guiuan.  

18 RAAF personnel flew there in our own Dakota; the USAF flew in 32 airmen from many places around the Western Pacific, their huge Douglas C124 Globemasters flying in the Control Tower, a fire engine, a mobile kitchen .... and God knows what else.  Those Yanks are probably still telling enlarged versions of, "How this Aussie kid straightaway fixed their only large power generator, then went up to the bar and chuggalugged a WHOLE bottle of Manila rum!"   (Our detachment leader FLTLT (then) Barry Weymouth could probably tell you that "the kid" was me!  By the way, it wasn't really a whole bottle .... just part of one.)

The Sabres were operating at near maximum range - so much so that Canberras or Neptunes flew the route, prior, to ensure no adverse weather.  WGCDR Cedric Thomas led the first Sabre group.  The four-Sabre formations flew with each aircraft having a pair of 200 gal. drop tanks under the wings.  We had many adventures during that fascinating 21 days.  After kissing the last of the 19 Sabres 'goodbye', we piled back into our goony-bird and flew off to 'Butt' - via several fascinating exotic places!  (Yes, I was single then!)

Political hanky-panky at the time prevented all three squadrons leaving Australia at the same time, so No.3 Squadron moved first to Butterworth, along with 478 Maintenance Squadron.  77 Squadron made their move northward about 3-4 months later.  Dependants arrived at about that time, with most families quartered across the Strait on Penang Is.  The Wing "singlies" were housed close to the worksites, on the mainland airfield.  A feature of life for the lads from the 'married patch' became the to-and-from ferry ride, daily, across the Strait (the "brown baggers", as we singlies called them).

Although the duty was officially 'war service' - and we certainly flew many rocket, bomb, and strafing raids against the CT's- everyday life on the Base, and in married quarters, was close to idyllic (most of the time) for the Wing's airmen.  Yes, it WAS a far cry from what our 3 Squadron predecessors had to cope with during their tough times in WW2.

As an example of the difference in the times, I have a photo of a bomb being loaded under a Sabre's wing, with the armourers' chalked message...

 "Pilot, pilot, don't be slow; take this bomb and GO MAN GO!!"

-  Such was life.

We exercised against foreign Air Forces in the Philippines and Singapore, and "defended" Butterworth against RAF V-bombers coming in from Thailand.  Late in 1961 the Wing positioned a detachment of Sabres at UBON, Thailand.

Many of us grew to love the Sabre - both pilots and ground crews - for the brilliant machine that it was.  With its big Rolls Royce Avon turbojet engine, a pair of 30 mm Aden cannon, gunsight radar ranging, and self-contained IPN starter, the CAC Sabre was generally regarded as the world's best variant, at that time especially the final Mk32 model with the deadly Sidewinder heat-seeking missile, and additional range/duration afforded by the wing leading edge fuel cells.  Also, the RR Avon engine had been upgraded to the Mk26 to, mainly, allow an extra engine surge margin whilst firing the guns.

Another improvement was to modify the pilot ejection mechanism to ensure safe operation - after problems with low altitude use.  Interestingly, we had a superb safety record over our three years at Williamtown, with only one Sabre pilot fatality.... albeit there were a few close calls!  Unfortunately, there were a few serious accidents at the Base after the squadron departed overseas.

Looking back on these events after all these years, one remembers them with much nostalgia and considerable pleasure at being part of an interesting and important event in the history of that noble institution.... the Royal Australian Air Force!


Sabre colour-scheme at Butterworth circa 1959.  [The "3" Squadron marking was superimposed over a large red sabre sword. 
Note "Wing Commander's Pennant" above the 30mm cannon port.  From an original colour slide by Pete Scully.]

Neil adds:  I hope that my readers have found these meanderings to be of interest.  Its main purpose is to stir some interest from my generation about joining 3 Squadron Assn.
- And to give our esteemed WW2 members some idea of what the "next generation" of Squadron members have been up to.


Neil Handsley and Ned Wark catch some rays on the wing of a Sabre while waiting for the jet-fuel tanker to arrive.

 

PHOTOGRAPHIC UPDATE:  "SABRE FERRY" FIRST ARRIVAL AT BUTTERWORTH

Brendon Wood writes:

Here are the photographs of 3 Squadron Sabres I promised you.  The A94- serial numbers are not visible on the photographs but after perusing the squadron's Unit History Sheet and my father insisting they were the first four Sabres to arrive at Butterworth, the four aircraft in the photographs would be A94-970 (flown by Group Captain COOPER), A94-953 (Flight Lieutenant GREEN), A94-975 (Flight Lieutenant JANSON) and A94-983 (Pilot Officer THOMPSON).  The photo would have been taken on the afternoon of 2 November, 1958.

That last serial number just twigged with me. That's the Sabre now restored and flown the other day at Temora.  I just rang my father and told him and also told him that A94-983 made a wheels-up landing at Butterworth in February 1959.  He remembers that incident also -shame he didn't photograph that.

My father is Denis Percival WOOD (known as 'Perce' in the Air Force).  He joined the RAAF as a Radio Trade Apprentice in 1953, the 7th such intake of radio apprentices.  He was posted to Butterworth in April 1958 and at the time he took these photos he was an LAC - RAD/TECH (Ground) attached to Base Squadron, Butterworth.  He was at Butterworth until 1961.  He later went to England and trained on the Bristol/Ferranti Bloodhound missile and was then attached to 30 (SAM) Squadron, Williamtown and 'Detachment 'A' at Darwin.  He has always regretted he never got to fire a Bloodhound.  He was later attached to Base Squadron Laverton (when I was born) and them to 1 Control & Reporting Unit, Brookvale NSW.  I remember the radars and Dad showing me the radar screens in the dark at Brookvale.  Dad left the RAAF in January 1975 as a Warrant Officer.

Dad later joined the Department of Defence (Air Force) and was the Quality Assurance Officer at Philips Electronics when they built the initial radar units for the FA/18 Hornets.  Every time a Hornet pranged early in their career I told him he must have stuffed up at work! Dad's retired now but is still proud of his RAAF service.

I hope these photographs can revive some memories of 'Operation Sabre Ferry' for your members.
 

See also Jake Newham's exciting personal story about leading one of the flights: "Tropical Weather".

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