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The Hand of Experience

By Bob Ulrich  (written June 1997)

I feel I have to write to you to tell you a small story - that happened some 55 years ago, and I imagine very few people are aware of this wonderful little tale - and one which so perfectly describes what a truly wonderful man was Peter Jeffrey.

It was about February 42, and I was as green as grass, brand new very nervous Sergeant Pilot and to say "wet behind the ears" would be the understatement of all time.  I had finished my flying course, at Geraldton (West Aust) on the mighty twin-engined Anson bomber(?) - designed and built about 1935 give or take a bit.  

P01877.008
Geraldton, WA. 1942-12. Group portrait of members of `Y' Flight, No. 15 Course, Advanced Training Squad, No. 4 Service Flying Training School (SFTS), RAAF, in front of an Avro Anson aircraft.  
Back row, left to right:  Ray Crookes, Les Reid, Ken Gillard, Bob Ulrich;
Middle row: E D Woolcott, Barney Davies, Ken Simpson, Ron Graham, Harold Rowell, Jack Simpson, Doug Burton, Johnny Groves, `Tubby' McLoughlin, Ian Wickens, Ron Ellyard;
Front row: Gordon O'Neill, Cliff Hall, ?Smith, Sergeant Goodwin, Flying Officer Kinross, Flight Lieutenant Taylor, Sergeant Boehm, Dick Fethers, Harry Saunders, Jimmy Davidson.  
[Donor F Craig.  AWM P01877.008
]

From there I found I was posted to No. 3 Squadron (wherever that was?).  

It was decided by those in high office that to fit myself for the trials of "operational flying duty" (whatever that means?) I should at once present myself to Mildura (whenever that was?) and immediately undertake a vital OTU (whatever that was?).  Eventually - and after some stress and strain, i.e. interminable train changes, the exotic and sensuous delight of ice-cold rubbery eggs with frozen dollops of mashed potato, standing on wind blown stations (i.e. the Antarctic just a stone's throw away), I was rapidly becoming accustomed to the pleasures of travel under the auspices of the RAAF.

After what seemed forever, I arrived at a Victorian township of Mildura.  Two kit bags filled with dirty laundry, missing razor, no polish on the shoes, and in short, a picture to delight the eye of any peppery Commanding Officer.

I had been informed that several of the better-known pilots from 3 Squadron (somewhere in the Middle East) had just returned to Australia, and they were the core group of instructors, who made up No.2 OTU.  At least, I thought to myself, we will be meeting some of the chaps who actually know what is what, when it comes to operational flying.  I was much enthused by this state of affairs.  Two of us arrived together, and it was late in the day - as I recall, it was a Friday.  Bet it was the 13th too?  We were very quickly introduced to these recently returned and very experienced officers - all brimming with assorted decorations, and best of all, very, very experienced "operational and dusty caps" ... at that time, considered the essence of fighter pilots, the world over.

Those we met at that stage were Squadron Leaders Peter Jeffrey and AC Rawlinson, Flight Lieutenants Wally Jewell, Tommy Trimble, and a fifth chap, whose name completely escapes me.  After a quick minute of chat, they rushed off.  Heaven only knows where.

On the third day of my OTU course, I was assailed by a harassed-looking junior clerk, who informed me that the CO, Sqn. Ldr. Jeffrey, wanted me in his office, right now.  My first thought was one of great panic, trying to imagine the great transgression of which I was guilty... What had I done wrong?

The CO looked at me, smiled like he was going to disjoint his face, and said, in the cheeriest of tones: "How do you feel about going to 3 Squadron, son?"

I was flabbergasted, and did not have the faintest idea of what I was expected to say.

I am originally from Fremantle, a very small township over here in the West where not a great deal seems to happen at any given time.  In those early days of my flying training, '41 and '42, you could not pick up any newspaper here without a large part of the front page having a gripping tale of the activities of No.3 Squadron all over the page.  There's me, coming from a very ordinary, working class family and about 5ft 8in in those days, weighing about 8 stone 2 pounds, tops.  As skinny as a bean pole and never been further away from home than the corner shop, where I had to regularly purchase cigarettes for my father.  To think that skinny little me was on the short list to go to 3 Squadron was akin to Alice Through the Looking Glass.  I was bucked to bits at the thought of me getting into the air in a 3 Squadron Kittyhawk.  I could not have been happier if had won Tats.

But the thought that I may now jeopardise my posting frightened the life out of me.  I was still not sure what I was supposed to say; but, taking the bull by the horns I said, "I am more than delighted to be 3 Squadron bound."

For a moment Sqn Ldr Jeffrey just looked at me - and I could feel my RAAF career - such as it was then - fading before my eyes.  He just looked at me for a moment, and then said: "Has no dumb bastard talked to you of the big problem of your name?"

Another panic attack on the spot.  He then said, in very serious tone: "Your name being German puts you in a very difficult situation - very difficult indeed; just you, no other bod in 3 Squadron."  He went on to say that the Germans have some odd ideas about honour, loyalty, and patriotism to the Fatherland.

He added: "If you are ever shot down and captured - and believe me, it does happen - then, once they learn your name, they will blow your head off, without a second's thought."  He went on to say, that some dumb bastards at the senior level should have thought of that before posting me to our mob in the Middle East. He then said: "However, never mind, I can have your 3 Squadron posting cancelled and we can send you up to the Islands, or somewhere, so the German threat will be removed".

I asked if I could have some time to think this over as this was a thought I had not considered before.  He said yes, but with a big grin; he added that I had better make up my mind before I was half-way across the Indian ocean, as that may make things a little difficult!

After a good night's sleep and a lot of serious thought, the following morning I told him I wanted the situation to remain as it was, and was more than happy to go to 3 Squadron and the adventure it promised.  He thought for just a moment and told me if I changed my mind at any stage to let him know immediately - but not once I was half way over the Indian Ocean!

My OTU finished about 3 weeks later, and the officers mentioned above all took me for a slap-up dinner at a little cafe right opposite the Mildura railway station.  Tomato soup, steak and eggs, wine trifle and cream.  Who could ask for more?

At the end of the meal, Peter Jeffrey and Alan Rawlinson even carried my two kit bags - all I owned in the entire world - to the train.  They shook my hand, patted me on the back, and wished me well.

Peter even wrote a small note for me - in my little red book - advising me of a decent restaurant (night club) in Cairo, where a decent meal could be assured.  After the frightful food in the desert - and it was absolutely terrible - that particular restaurant was a delight to visit and once again steak and eggs was high on the menu.

At this time I was just over 19 years old, and Peter was trying hard to run an OTU with virtually nothing being made available for him to work with.  It was absolutely astounding that a person like him with so much on his plate, highly decorated, one of the RAAF's most experienced fighter leaders, with so many problems from the nonexistence of necessary materials to run the OTU, could be bothered to look after a 19-year-old Sgt. Pilot, who did not even know of the problems he was facing.

I have never forgotten that wonderful level of real concern and interest he was prepared to show for me, a junior airman, still wet behind the ears and then some.

I am now 75 years and worsening daily, but in all my long involved life, many years in the Service, I have never met any men for whom I had greater esteem, sincere regard, and sincere admiration.  Not only a wonderful man, but a real man, of whom this country can/should be unreservedly proud.  I tend to ramble on a bit but I did think this was an unusual story of a very great man that deserved to be shared by those who knew him from that time ... now so long ago.

 

P00456.002
MILDURA, VIC. 1942-06-16.  FIVE RAAF PILOTS WHO WON THE DFC ON THE TARMAC.  
FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: SQUADRON LEADER F. FISCHER OF NO. 3 SQUADRON RAAF, FLIGHT LIEUTENANT C.W. WAWN OF NO. 452 SQUADRON RAAF, SQUADRON LEADER
 P. JEFFREY OF NO. 3 SQUADRON, FLIGHT LIEUTENANT A. C. RAWLINSON OF NO. 3 SQUADRON, AND SQUADRON LEADER KEITH 'BLUEY' TRUSCOTT OF NO. 452 SQUADRON.
  TRUSCOTT AND WAWN WERE ON THEIR CONVERSION COURSE TO KITTYHAWK AIRCRAFT AT NO. 2 (FIGHTER) OPERATIONAL TRAINING UNIT, RAAF STATION MILDURA
 AFTER RETURNING FROM THE UK WHERE THEY WERE FLYING SUPERMARINE SPITFIRE AIRCRAFT. 
[AWM P00456.002]

 

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