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Sergeant Pilots ...
A Very Special Breed of Airmen who Contributed So Much

By Neil Smith


3 Squadron's Danny Boardman, DFM (right) offers a ciggie to Squadron Leader Ron Watt (left) and Sergeant Pilot Alan Righetti,
at Marble Arch airfield, Libya, after they survived an attack by 15+ Me109s.  [Alan Righetti photo collection]

This essay is dedicated to the magnificent, always recognisable spirit that, over the ages, has transformed young people who may have perhaps felt a little different when they started, but who knew enough about themselves to be able to polish their early training and eventually achieve their own degree of perfection... And to eventually be recognised as leaders within their chosen speciality...  
I
n this case:

 "The SERGEANT PILOTS of 3 Squadron RAAF"

PREFACE:

Every R.A.F. and R.A.A.F. fighter squadron’s history makes frequent mentions of the contributions made by their Sergeant Pilots towards their squadron successes.

During World War I, because the A.F.C. was annexed to the army, they followed the army ranking system, with 2nd Lieutenant being the lowest commissioned rank and Sergeant being the highest non-commissioned rank; although Warrant Officers existed in an 'in-between' world as they also did in World War II.  Even though they were technically junior commissioned officers, they were still not allowed officer privileges and consequently slept in non-commissioned officer quarters and ate in the Sergeants’ mess.

The R.A.A.F. followed the ranking system used by the R.A.F. during World War II.  Pilots graduating from Point Cook in Victoria would be commissioned with ranks of Pilot Officer and above by the time they joined an operational squadron, but many of the volunteer airmen who were trained as pilots under the very successful Empire Air Training Scheme that the British Commonwealth had set up, would arrive at their new fighter squadrons holding non-commissioned ranks of Sergeant, Flight Sergeant or Warrant Officer.

In Australia alone, 10,882 pilots graduated under E.A.T.S. between 1940 and 1945, whilst in Canada another 3,724 Australians, and in Rhodesia 514 Australians, were trained during those war years.

In every military force, there’s always been a division between officers and non-commissioned officers.  For a start, if you hadn’t been commissioned as an officer, you couldn’t eat or drink in an Officers’ Mess or generally socalise with officers.  Officers had their own quarters and the non-commissioned ranks had theirs.  Sergeants, who were senior NCOs, had their separate quarters and facilities but couldn’t (and, in many recorded instances, claimed they preferred not to) mix with the officers.  Some say that the way the military system had worked for centuries supported a basic discipline: officers do the thinking and planning and give the orders whilst it’s the duty of senior NCOs to make sure that the other ranks carried them out.  Thus, some of the old soldiers were raised to believe that to fraternise could jeopardise the discipline and respect required within an armed force.

According to each individual’s participation in the military, one is therefore classified as being "other ranks", which includes "non-commissioned officers",  or as "officers".

These rules have been handed down throughout all countries and nations because it had been well proven, the hard way, that proper warfare could only be successfully conducted by following that same ranking structure to carry out orders and that this structure should be preserved beyond all battle zones and into day-to-day social contact.

In both World Wars I and II, Sergeant pilots started at the bottom of the pilots’ ladder in every squadron ... yet history shows that they still contributed so much to their squadron’s performance over the R.A.A.F.’s many years of aerial combat.

Many were recommended for, and duly received, their commissions as officers and often those who had began their operational flying as Sergeants went through the commissioned ranks to become senior officers and leaders.  There are quite a few WW II officers who wear the Distinguished Flying Cross (only awarded to commissioned aircrew) as well as the Distinguished Flying Medal (only awarded to non-commissioned aircrew).

They’d made their contributions by both their personal ‘other ranks’ and ‘officer’ service and, to me, that makes them a special breed of pilot, well worth learning more about ... particularly when it is remembered that many of them were still teenagers or little older, when they made their first flight in an operational fighter aircraft, many thousands of kilometres away from their home.

From their very first posting to their very first squadron, pilots who held the rank of Sergeant felt just a little different from pilots who had already been commissioned as an officer ... even though, most times, they could fly an aeroplane just as well as the next man.  Hands-on training for all pilots, regardless of their rank, was all much the same, but a Sergeant pilot knew that his next step up the rank-chain was to be commissioned... Providing he survived enough battles to prove his worth.

In World War One, all 3 Squadron AFC pilots were commissioned, as were most of their observers.  But there were still at least four Sergeants who were aircrew observers.  Observers, because of the nature of the RE8-beast, had to know the basics of flying and certainly how to land the aircraft as back-up to an injured pilot.  For this purpose, there was a ‘slip-in’ joystick always on hand in the observer’s rear cockpit.  Some observers could, and often did, fly RE8s almost as well as their pilots.


One of 3 Squadron AFC’s Sergeant aircrew didn’t survive WWI...  Observer Sergeant H. F. Hughes was killed along with his pilot, Lieutenant J. L. Sandy,
by a single armour-piercing bullet fired from a German Albatross D5a Scout whilst they were dogfighting on 17 December 1917. 
Their RE8 flew on for hours with the two dead airmen in their cockpits until it ran out of petrol and it glided to a peaceful landing in a snowy field.  ...The end of two fine aviators. 
[AWM  ART93192 depicts the Ghost RE8.  Sandy and Hughes had also shot one of their assailants down and this historic Albatross is now displayed in the AWM Canberra.]

World War II’s stories are quite different.  Although 22 Sergeant pilots were killed during their service with 3 Squadron, for every one who was lost, there are a dozen more stories of courage and heroism.


 
Flt. Lt. Tom Russell, a 3 Squadron pilot who served alongside many Sergeant Pilots during WWII, contributed the following:       

"The time I spent with the Squadron has given me wonderful memories of many men, both aircrew and ground crew, too numerous to mention here.

Without in any way forgetting the achievements of others, I recall in particular two men for whom I had great respect and admiration: Lloyd "Danny" Boardman and Keith Kildey.  Before long, regardless of their rank, Danny and Keith were leading the Squadron as non-commissioned Flight Commanders and they unselfishly and freely gave help and advice to me as they did to other new pilots.  They were as helpful on the ground as in the air and they boosted our morale at all times.


Keith was discharged but later re-entered the service and retired as a Group Captain.


After the war, Danny became an important part of life in Kempsey.

The contributions made by other Sergeant pilots, like Ross Biden, "Tiny" Cameron, Wal Mailey, and Rex Wilson, to name just a few, can also never be forgotten in the squadron’s history, alongside all those other fine men who were on the Squadron before and after me and whom I only got to know well after the war ended.  And of course, there immediately comes to mind another with whom I was proud to serve: Reg Stevens, who went on to command both 3 and 451 Squadrons.

Many others distinguished themselves during the Sicilian and Italian campaigns, but information about that period is very difficult to come by.  I do recall that Murray Nash, who joined 3 Squadron as a Warrant Officer, eventually led Three.  Jack Doyle, too was elevated to lead 450 squadron.

I believe that 239 wing was pre-eminent as a fighting force and there were many pilots on 112, 250, 260, and our sister squadron 450, such as Des Cormack and Don McBurnie who we thought, after working with them, were well above the average ... but I'll soon be in danger mentioning names, because, by mentioning just the few, I’m forgetting the many.

The books: "3 Squadron at War", "Fighters over the Desert" and "Desert Warriors" (the latter written by Russell Brown) mention some of Keith’s and Danny’s times with Three and, with Russell’s permission, some details from his book are used below.  Bobby Gibbes' autobiography,  as always, provided great information.

The references that follow also help to pay tribute to all of the men who served us as members of the ground crew on whom all we pilots depended upon so much to keep the aircraft flying; they never once let us down.  I could not add anything to the marvellous tribute paid by Bobby Gibbes to the ground crew and I recommend that you read his tribute elsewhere on this website.

Alan Righetti, Reg Pfeiffer, Eric Bradbury, Sandy Jones and Nicky Barr have added some comments and Keith Kildey’s own tribute to Danny, printed in the April 1991 issue of our newsletter, is reproduced too.

Particularly, I owe a great deal of thanks to Sadie, Danny’s widow, and even more so, I am extremely grateful to Debbie Reynolds, his daughter, for the material she has sent: Danny's photos, extracts from his diary and Log Book, with newspaper clippings about the local boy who was to serve his town with the same dedication he had given to his country in a time of war. These have helped us put a story together about these two men. More stories about others will follow in additional articles.

Everything I could say about Keith and Danny has and will be said by others; my satisfaction will be realised by helping to put their stories together.

Hopefully, future generations should be able to read why we believe that not only was 3 Squadron the pre-eminent fighter squadron in the Western Desert, but why they were innovative as well."

Tom Russell

Here are Tom's biographies of these two Sergeant pilots:

Flight Sergeant Lloyd "Danny" Boardman ("Danny" was his nickname because of the fine quality of his renditions of the old Irish classic song "Danny Boy" amongst others like "Lili Marlene" and "Bless ‘em All") was a little over 20 years of age when he began 26 EFTS course at Guinea Fowl, Southern Rhodesia.

He finished that on 20 May 1941 and followed it with 22 SFTS course at Thornhill, S.R. When that course finished on 23 August 1941, he spent September 1941 through to February 1942 in various transit camps.

That’s when he met another pilot, Flight Sergeant E. Keith Kildey, while they waited, with other transient aircrew, in the Middle East Pool.  They both proceeded to Khartoum to an Operational Training Unit before being posted to 3 Squadron together on 16 February 1942 when the Squadron was at Gambut.  They were just two of the six ex-E.A.T.S. Sergeant pilots who arrived that day ... the others were 'Spike' Jennings (killed 10 days later), Tom Packer (killed three months later with 450 squadron), K. W. Stanley and E. V. Teede.


Danny showing Sergeant stripes and parachute harness  - 10 July 1942
 

Danny’s and Keith’s arrival together was the first of their ‘togethers’, for both were to later win their DFMs at the same time and both were eventually commissioned to Flight Lieutenant concurrently later in the war.

Their strong friendship was to endure until Danny’s death in 1991, when Keith delivered the following Eulogy:

I have been asked to do a eulogy on Danny Boardman, and although honoured by this, I do so with some misgivings, as I may not pay Danny the homage he deserves.

I first met Danny in the Middle East Pool for transient aircrew in 1941.  We then went to Khartoum to do an O.T.U. [Operational Training Unit].  From there, back to the desert and 3 Squadron, subsequently we were promoted to F/Sgt. together, commissioned together, awarded D.F.M.'s together, promoted to Flight Lieutenant together and served as Flight Commanders until I left the squadron to come home in February 1943.

You could say that we saw a lot of each other.  However right from our first meeting we shared a very strong friendship.  Danny was a friendly, unassuming, and a very likeable bloke, he had an easy-going attitude which endeared him to all, it would be true to say he had only friends (on our side anyway...).

Danny was our soloist entertainer.  I have only to hear people mention songs such as "A soldier told me before he died", "Lili Marlene", "Bless 'em All" … and could keep going for a long time; however - mention those songs, and only one name sticks out … Danny's … he certainly led the chorus.

His ability with a razor and soap must also be remembered … ask John Hooke.

Danny was an excellent leader and a courageous pilot; he copped his share and dealt a lot out; it never changed his attitude to life; he was an immensely loyal person.

After I left the Squadron in 1943, we met again briefly at Mildura in 1945.  He was still the same old Danny only this time he had a Spitfire stuck to his backside not a Kittyhawk.

Shortly after this, the war ended, and apart from keeping in touch with letters, Christmas cards etc, we did not meet again until about 1980, when I dropped in on him at Kempsey on our way back from Queensland.

It was like old times, and we dug up a lot of sand, he was the same likeable friendly bloke, slowed down a bit but after a span of 35 years or so, why not.

From then on I always dropped in on the way back from our annual trip to Queensland, and although not staying long, seeing him again topped off our trip for me every time.

I was in Kempsey the day he arrived back after his operation, and although he was a very sick man, his attitude, and fortitude were typical of the man. The next year, he was still cheerful and reconciled, but a very sick man.

The following year, for some strange reason as I had not done it before, I rang Danny a few days before we were due to leave Queensland. His wife told me he had died the day before. My feelings need not be explained.

In summation, Danny was a mighty bloke he had all the good qualities, and as far as I am concerned, no bad ones. It has been a great privilege and pleasure knowing him for all this time. MAY HE REST IN PEACE.

Reg Pfeiffer, a pilot already with the Squadron when they arrived, remembered Danny’s first days with Three ...

" ... for some reason which escapes me now, I asked him to drive me somewhere in a jeep which we had just received.  My father had taught me to drive a car when I was about 10 years old so you can imagine my surprise when I learned that Danny, a competent pilot of a Kittyhawk, did not know how to drive a car!  I then started to give him lessons and as I have never heard that he killed anyone on the road, I assume I must have been a reasonable tutor."

Danny and Keith were quick to realise that the squadron they’d joined was special and not just in an operational sense.  Its men were setting a pace and a standard that other Desert Air Force squadrons were still following.  One of the most innovative standards that had been established in the squadron three months earlier by (then) Squadron Leader Peter Jeffrey, C.O. at that time, was the elimination of the usual military ‘class’ distinction whereby, traditionally, the Officers’ Mess had to be kept complete separate from the Sergeants’ Mess.  Dr John Laver, the squadron’s Medical Officer, had made the initial suggestion based upon his observation that much could be gained in both morale and to aid the interchange of ideas and communications if a single "Pilots’ Mess" was created, thus scrapping the old system.  Peter Jeffrey agreed 100% and took immediate action.  Thus the "Pilots’ Mess" was born.  Needless to say, there was a fair bit of criticism directed towards this Australian squadron who’d broken protocol, but other Australian squadrons followed suit and soon most Desert Air Force squadrons, including the RAF, also followed.


A 3 Squadron Pilots' Mess ( this one was set-up later in the war)

Perhaps this was also the starting point of recognition, by many Desert Air Force squadrons, that a pilot’s abilities to lead an operational mission didn’t necessarily have to relate to the ranking system.  This began when 3 Squadron’s succeeding Commanding Officers during the twelve months that followed that major "Pilot’s Mess" change, and, by name, they were Peter Jeffrey, Alan Rawlinson, Dixie Chapman, Bobby Gibbes and Nicky Barr, made what proved to be excellent value-decisions by appointing some of the more experienced and knowledgeable Sergeant Pilots to lead Flights, and to even lead the Squadron on certain missions.  In the eyes of those far-sighted C.O.s, and particularly Bobby Gibbes who was their C.O. for the majority of Danny and Keith's time with 3 Squadron, the objectives of a sortie could best be attained by using the best-suited pilot to carry out the job of leader, regardless of rank or seniority.

Their first few months were a learning period and, by 25 May 1942, Bobby Gibbes was already confident of their abilities. …Bob's autobiography:  "You Live But Once" records Danny and Keith leading various 3 Squadron missions.

Earlier in May 1942, Danny had a pretty interesting few weeks as, on the 8th, his aircraft caught fire and he had to bail out.   Nine days later, he hit an aircraft engine whilst landing and damaged his undercart, prop and wingtip.  Bob's recorded comments about the incident were: "The beggar!"

That same month, Bobby Gibbes was shot down and as a result, broke his ankle.  Nicky Barr was appointed C.O. in his place, but, in June, Nicky was also shot down and posted missing (eventually spending more than five months in Italian hospitals before escaping … but that's another story).

The June-July period was an incredibly busy time as, between 17 June and 29 June the squadron moved five times to different Landing Grounds as the war's perspective changed and the Allies were forced into retreat after Tobruk had fallen to Rommel on 21 June.

Like the other experienced pilots regardless of their rank, Keith and Danny were kept particularly busy leading flights almost daily.  They were necessary by the sheer number of sorties the squadron was ordered to launch against enemy tanks, road targets, artillery and shipping and, of course, flying cover for bombers whilst, all the while, they fought both defence and aggression tactical flying against their ever-present foes, the Luftwaffe and the Italian Air Force.

Newspapers carried stories about the actions and that included the Kempsey locals who kept a close eye on their boy and didn't miss an opportunity to publicise his experiences.

Life for the crews who kept the aircraft flying wasn't easy either.  Their lives were far from stable and, in particular, one of Danny's crew men, fitter Mal Baxter, was accustomed to digging his own living quarters as the squadron moved around.

After Nicky went down on 26 June, Gibby elected to become a non-flying C.O. rather than have what may have been an 'outsider- C.O.' appointed.  He ran the squadron from a desk until he was able to resume flying again on 20 August 1942.

Bobby's autobiographical note for 22 August shows how, by then, Danny, who had scored his first victory on 24 June 1942 in Kittyhawk AK961, was trusted by the C.O. now returning to flying duties:

    "In afternoon went out on an armed recce, Boardman leading (I'm still flying as a stooge until I get to know the area) …"

Sandy Jones (another ex pilot) commented: "When Gibby returned, the squadron had three great leaders."

One month before, on 22 July 1942, Keith had the honour of leading the squadron and personally dropping the 1,000th bomb to be dropped on enemy installations since the squadron became a fighter-bomber unit.

Many of these happenings occurred about the time that the off-duty pilots in particular began to fully appreciate yet another 3 Squadron innovation in the form of a rest camp, about eight miles away on the coast, that Bobby Gibbes had set up for the squadron's airmen.  The pace of air and ground fighting was so hectic at that time that weary crews needed to recuperate when rostered-off.  The camp was connected by radio back to the base in case of emergencies so this venue provided them with a wonderful opportunity to relax and temporarily resume their lives as young men who were missing their normal sports.

In mid September 1942, both Keith and Danny received their commissions as Pilot Officers and, on the 14th, a visit from a few V.A.D.s (females - Volunteer Aid Detachment), allowed Keith (and Danny at lower-left) to show them how a flying helmet should be worn.

After only 17 days as a Pilot Officer, Keith was jumped to the rank of Flight Lieutenant. Of course, promotions had other rewards too.  The pay of a Sergeant pilot was about 16 shillings per day ($1.60) including flying allowances, a Pilot Officer earned 20 shillings ($2.00) but a Flight Lieutenant got 31 shillings and sixpence ($3.15) per day. That didn't count too much over in the desert because the currency mostly used to buy and sell was in British Military Authority notes issued in various different denominations.  The BMA notes were legal tender in Cairo and, in fact, on a par with the British  sterling.

 

"Chits" were a big part of military life too.  All pilots carried "Gooli" chits in case they went down in the western desert [saying, in Arabic, "Take me to the English and you will be rewarded," - thereby hopefully saving their goolies from being cut off!].  Sometimes they helped. 

On 16 November 1942, the Squadron was rapidly moving west.  Keith Kildey was involved in a shocking incident on the road.  Bobby Gibbbes wrote in his diary:

"...Barney Terry and Squadron Leader Strawson killed near Tmeni by a landmine... They had been racing Keith Kildey and pulled over to pass him when the mine went up.  Keith was not hurt..."

By Christmas 1942, the tide of warfare had shifted in favour of the Allies.  The Battle of El Alamein had been won and the Squadron had moved deep into Libya in pursuit of Rommel.  At "Marble Arch", they were further west than any Allied Air Force Wing had been, ever since the war against the Italians had broken out in Africa in 1940.  Although there were still full-on operational requirements, Christmas festivities began with a church service conducted by Rev Fred McKay.

     

It was at Christmas that Keith received his welcome news that he had been "relieved from operations after an excellent tour of duty," and that he had "earned a reputation as the squadron's ground-strafing expert."  He'd flown 200.25 operational hours during 146 sorties and dropped 94 bombs with three confirmed aerial victories plus one probable and two damaged.

By 22 January 1943, the Allied advance saw 3 Squadron stationed at Castle Benito after they'd made four advances since spending their Christmas at Marble Arch.

The deserted Italian aerodrome gave Danny the opportunity to 'clifty' one of the aircraft that had been left there almost intact.

His was a two-seat biplane trainer … a Caproni 164 equipped with a 6 cylinder 205hp Alfa Romeo motor.  He referred to her as the "Kitten".  He wrote in this diary:

"Worked all day on the KITTEN and we have done well.  I test-flipped her [test -flew] during the afternoon and gave [some of the boys] a flip around the aerodrome.  It runs like a Swiss Watch and handles beautifully in the air. - Intend using it for giving the ground wallers a flip.  - They've done a marvellous job and enjoy some enjoyment.  We also have a Savoia to be used as a beer kite..."

[There is a short movie which shows the aeroplanes captured in the advance: Marble Arch scenery at 1:12; the Savoia tri-motor at 1:49; the Caproni Ca309 Ghibli "beer kite" at 2:09; and the Ca164 "Kitten" at 3:14.]

For the next three weeks, Danny used his Kitten to fly on his off-duty hours until he received his next and very welcome orders: "Return to Australia!"

The last page of the desert section of his log-book shows his squadron hours on Kittyhawks to be 240.55 and the number of sorties he flew were 144.  His service record shows that he had 2 Bf109's as confirmed victories.

He left on 7 February 1943 for Australia, almost one year exactly from his posting to the squadron.

Eric Bradbury remembers them both to be "outstanding pilots with great promise" and Alan Righetti, a fellow Sergeant pilot who flew many sorties by their side, added:

"Unforgettable times and mates ... even after 60 years !!  It was my good fortune to be posted to the already famous 3 Squadron RAAF.  To have ‘The Boss’, Bob Gibbes as CO, and two brilliant flight commanders, Keith Kildey and ‘Danny’ Boardman to lead us into the battle of Alamein.  Memories include the welcome of a ‘Pilot’s Mess’ after the formality of the RAF.  Old mates included John Hobson Hooke, Bill Cashmore, and Jimmy Churchill who flew Hurricanes with me in the north of England in mid-winter.  Lots of new mates ... Ian Roediger shared old ‘B’, Norm Caldwell, Sandy Jones, Dave Ritchie, Tommy Russell, Reg Stevens, Garth Clabburn, ‘Huck’ Finlason, Rex Bayly, ‘Yeash’ Taylor, Ted Hankey, Joe Holder, Tommy Wood, Alex ‘Richo’ Richardson, and many others shared tents and action.  It was a good place to fight a war ... a total war - them or us!!  Tragic for some.  Regrets?  Only that I didn’t last a bit longer and get to know our ground crew better, they did so much.  Ken McRae, ‘Tee-em-up’ Ted Tunbridge, Merv Beck, Ben Dodd - the whole team.  Summary? Most exciting time ever - we lived every minute!"

Nicky Barr, when asked to make mention of his recollections of the contributions Sergeant Pilots made to the squadron's efforts, wrote this:

"3 Squadron was well-blessed throughout the war with Sergeant Pilots accepting responsibilities well above their rank.  So many gave skilled and courageous leadership in operations, whenever the need arose.

 In the early days, Tiny Cameron and Wal Mailey readily come to mind.  Similarly Danny and Keith deserve full recognition for their contribution throughout the hectic period of the Allies retreat to El Alamein, when morale needed bolstering and pilot shortages frequent.

Well may we say:

"Thank goodness for our Sergeant Pilots; they epitomised the Australian fighting spirit.  Promotions and rewards were often scarce for many who were as good as any that came 3 Squadron's way."

  
                                                      Ready for Ops                                                Going on leave (the Officer's uniforms were not necessarily "legit"!)

 
  At the beach camp

 

 

 
To help save water during the desert advance towards Tripoli, a large group of No.3 Squadron personnel vowed not to shave until the capital of Libya fell! 
Many magnificent beards resulted.  The group shown in this photo is largely comprised of ground crew lads.  Sgt Pilot Alan Righetti is standing at the right in his Irving jacket (he had to shave his beard because it became too itchy
under his oxygen mask while flying!) and Norm Caldwell is crouching 2nd from right.  It turned out that Norm got to Tripoli before anyone else - but not in the manner that he would have preferred!

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