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LEON HENRY AWM INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT
INFORMANT: LEON HENRY
SUBJECT OF INTERVIEW: 3 SQUADRON, RAAF
DATE OF INTERVIEW: 9 MAY 1990
INTERVIEWER: EDWARD STOKES
TRANSCRIBER: DIANA NELSON
TRANSCRIPTION DATE: 14 JULY 1990
NUMBER OF TAPES: 1
BEGIN TAPE 1, SIDE A.
Identification: This is Edward Stokes with Leon Henry, Squadron 3, tape 1, side 1.
Leon, could we perhaps just begin by asking you when and where you were born, please?
Born in Mosman in, 9th November 1915, overlooking the oval.
Right, well, it would be very different to Mosman today. Did you grow up in Sydney?
Yes, I was in Mosman until I was about ten and then there was a break in the family fortunes and we moved over to the eastern suburbs, Woollahra and then to Kings Cross finally. And I was living there when I enlisted.
That break in the family fortunes was that related to the depression?
Right. Well, we'll leave that. Your schooling: where did you go to school and what age did you continue to?
Oh well, leaving aside the primary school; I went to Sydney High School then I did three years there. Then, because of the financial situation I had to give that up so I completed a matriculation at - by night school.
That must have been pretty tough.
I don't recall it as being tough except that the last two years were virtually useless. I got through the matriculation on what I'd remembered from the Intermediate. Then I did a couple of years night school at Sydney University and that didn't work very well either, I didn't have the back-up that I needed to be successful there, so that was abandoned after two years. It came in handy later.
Just for the record, I understand after the war you did go back to university and complete a degree.
Oh, that was much later. That was after I came to Canberra which was in 1967, I started a degree and fortunately finished it. All that I learned from that was how little I know.
Well, I suppose that's the most important thing for anybody to learn; not everybody does I guess. Going back to the time in Sydney, the period before the war, what work were you doing?
Well, mostly different clerical work. My first job, first decent job was with Saunders, the jewellers, as a customs clerk. And then I had a little bit of time out of work and then I went to work for a firm manufacturing steel windows, the name of J Connolly Proprietary Limited.
And it was there you were working, I think, when war broke out?
No. No, there was a division in the firm and so the bloke - there were two brothers and I was working as probably personal assistant to one of them - and they split up and the chap I was with went out on his own and he took me with him. And the day we were due to start war was declared. So there was never any chance that the business was going to succeed; it folded after about twelve months and the boss went into the air force and I followed him shortly afterwards.
Quite an important point I think that you were making before was that you didn't have much practical, manual experience as a fitter but you had fairly wide experience in the ordering of supplies and so on.
Well, that's right because of the fact that I was the, I suppose, the buying clerk as well as all the other things in the office. I used to read catalogues and so forth and I knew sizes and I knew a lot of things that are relevant to a fitter which your average fitter on the bench wouldn't be bothered with; and so that came in very handy when I ... on the theoretical side. Something I hadn't thought of but immediately after I joined the air force I was given an interview for a job I'd applied for with the government which was concerned impounding machinery for factories and I said, 'Well, I can't do that, I'm in the air force'. And the bloke said, 'Don't worry about that, we'll soon get you out'. And another one of the silly things that I've said in my life, I said, 'No, I'll stick with the boys'.
(5.00) Right. Just going back in time a little bit before the war. The general tradition of the Australians in the first war, the ANZACs - what they'd achieved in the, perhaps some might think somewhat nationalistic sentiments involved in it - was that very much part of your childhood or not?
Well, I had some uncles on my mother's side who were all ex-ser.... Well all of those that were of serving age, two of them lost legs and one got pretty badly shot up, but no, I don't think .... What I have to say is this: I was brought up in the Jewish faith and the Jewish community in Sydney was more British than the British at that time, and so you could say I was as patriotic as the next one.
Right. One other thing, too, the general political developments in Europe running up to the outbreak of war, in other words the rise to power of Hitler and so on, was that something that you and people you mixed with were conscious of, or not?
I think we were very conscious of it, but I think pretty well everybody in my generation had the expectation I suppose from 1935 onwards that yes, there was going to be a war, and yes, there were going to be ... we were going to be part of it.
In the Jewish people you no doubt mixed with, was there any sense of quite how far that side of things might go?
I wasn't aware of it. I suppose we regarded ourselves as pretty much the same as any other Australian; there's been very little anti-Semitic prejudice in Australia. There was a little bit more in those days but there was never anything vicious about it; we were different, that's about all.
Right. Well, let's move on. You signed up I think late 1940, until then this industry had been a protected job and so on. January '41 you were called up, four weeks rookie training at Richmond, what's your first recollection of the air force?
Well, its symbolic, you know, you're called in, 'Come in and bring a cut lunch and ...'
Is that really? A cut lunch? [Laughs.]
Yes, yes. And you're processed and they put us in the bus and they took it out to Richmond. And the thing that I can remember very clearly is you go through the main gate there and there's a bunch of blokes who've got nothing much to do saying, 'You'll be sorry'. I've said it myself recently for various reasons.
I suppose they - giving them something to do. Anyway the rookie's training I assume that was the sort of basic structure of the air force plus no doubt a good deal of parade ground bashing. Is that your memory or not?
It was the same as any serviceman, it was all parade ground bashing, there was no air force stuff in it at all. You were learned to march, you learnt to salute, you learnt to march in formation. We did a little bit of route marching, not too much. We ate very well. We slept on boards with palliasses. And we used to do guard duty. And we had gas training and that sort thing. It was purely as a standard rookie training that I imagine the army would have done much the same.
Did people generally, perhaps yourself, did they think all this regimentation and so on was - and all the parade ground drill - was necessary? Was it ever questioned?
I don't think so, no.
Well, let's move on. You went from there I think down to No. 1 Engineering School, I think in Victoria?
Yes, the showground at Ascot Vale.
And you were being selected off to be an airframe man, airframe fitter. What recollection do you have of the different aspects of your training there, I think over about five months?
Well, it was mostly classroom work, there was very little manual work involved in it except for a couple of the last weeks where they put us in the workshops and we had to do a project but mostly it was the textbook stuff. I've got the drawings that I did then and all the notes that I took. About the only time we touched an aeroplane was: they had them all drawn up on the showground itself and we learnt to start the engines.
(10.00) Tell us about starting the engines.
Well, again, it had no relation whatsoever to what we were doing before. I think they had a Tigerschmitt if I remember rightly on one of the old Wapatis. And so you used to start the engines on those by pulling the propeller over; the way they used to do it twenty years earlier. And so you learnt the business of petrol on, throttle closed, suck in and then contact and you pulled the thing and away she went. But of course none of the aircraft that we ever worked on after that started up in that particular way. The only thing you might have learnt from it was to keep out of the way of an airscrew when it starts up.
Yes, well, I thought that would be a fairly obvious point but still .... [laughs]. Yes, it does seem something of a relic of a past age; I've heard about this ritual before. It seems amazing that in five months you say you only started doing practical work in the last few weeks.
Well, the thing is that all they had there were these old aircraft which were all biplanes with stick and string and we weren't going to work on anything like that. We were going to work on all metal monoplanes. Similarly the, for instance, hydraulics systems; they gave us diagrams of them and I assume that those of us who were in those classes were blokes pretty much like myself who could visualise the thing and work out how it worked without ever actually having to lay a spanner on a component.
How many of the men in your course would have had a more practical background, in other words, who would have been hands-on fitters and turners before the war?
I wouldn't have a clue.
Would you be willing to guess? I mean a fraction of them, most of them?
We didn't talk about it, we just didn't talk about those things. We were so busy talking about the stuff that we got in and how we were going to dodge the camp guards if we wanted to get out and how lousy the food was, and a few other things, we weren't talking about what we had done before.
Camp food was lousy and getting out was a good thing?
Oh no, the food wasn't all that bad, it was just better outside.
Sure, well, from there I think you went in June, this is June '41, to Evans Head No. 1 Bombing and Gunnery School. What were you involved doing there?
Mainly major overhauls on Fairey Battles. That was the forty and eighty hourly, I think they were forty and eighty hourly. And in the time off which was very fortunate we had a surf lifesaving unit. Apparently there'd been a flap at some time because a bloke had been drowned at one of the other stations. So the orders were promulgated that we had to have a lifesaving section on the beach when there was swimming, and I volunteered for that. It was one of the few occasions when the thing, don't volunteer for anything, wasn't true because we used to get off and go down to the beach before everybody else and we'd stroll down there. The rest of them had to run down there and then they had to run back. We used to go back in our own time and by that time they'd all eaten so we had a good feed too.
That obviously sounds a real lurk. Just going back to the actual work on the aircraft. Here obviously, you are doing practical work. Was it easy to get into that? Did you know what to do or were you and your co-recent trainees at a bit of a loss as to how to go about it?
Well, most of them in the hangar I was assigned to were all experienced, and the work was not difficult. I mean, you were removing and replacing components. There were the, all the manuals and the diagrams were there and you simply did as you were told and worked out what you were doing as you went along; there was nothing highly technical in it that a bloke with average intelligence couldn't have picked up quite easily.
Right. And general station life at Evans Head, was that good or bad, indifferent, how do you remember it?
Oh, it was quite okay. There wasn't very much discipline involved there. We had the swimming. We could go into the town in the evenings, there were ... there wasn't much to do. You used to get a weekend leave, I think you'd get a Saturday afternoon and half of Sunday. We'd go into Lismore; dances and pubs in there. And you'd get a long weekend once every three months which was Friday night to Monday morning.
And you'd get down to Sydney?
I'd go down to Sydney on the long weekend to be with the family, of course a lot of that tightened up very much after Japan came into the war, then we had guard duty as well, but I left soon after that.
Yes, you were saying it was January '42 you were posted down to No. 1 Embarkation Depot, I think, in Melbourne and of course Singapore fell and there was a bit of shunting around, I think you went to Wagga, but finally to Adelaide.
That's correct, yes.
And this was April' 42. The ship you were to go on was the Eastern Prince but I think in the end you were boarded onto the Dilwara.
It wasn't so much in the end. I don't think we were on the Eastern Prince for more than half an hour at the outside. We went on board it and they'd had scaffolding erected in the holds; it was purely a cargo boat and there was no sleeping accommodation. The ship itself was filthy, it was an old tub and we simply walked off. We might have been more tolerant later on but at this stage we weren't having it so they took us off and we went onto the Dilwara, I think the next day.
(15.00) When you said you walked off, did the men walk off or the officers decided to take the men off?
No, the men walked off, that's my recollection of it, that we simply decided that this is not for us and it was pretty well unanimous.
Well, I know when you got to Fremantle there'd been a fairly rough crossing across the Bight. There was another dispute, if you like, when the men again decided the conditions weren't good enough. How do you remember that beginning, and how did it end?
Well, it wasn't actually at Fremantle, it was at sea. We didn't stop between Adelaide and Colombo, but it was simply that we had some officers on board who were in first class, we had some senior NCOs who were in second class and the rest of us, the other ranks, were all confined to one troop deck or flat, whatever they call them, which was rigged up with hammock hooks in standard navy style. Now if the boat had been full it would have been acceptable but as it was it was nowhere near full, there was plenty of room, there were empty decks and we decided again that that wasn't on. But there was no mass walkout it was simply a case of complaining bitterly and we had a, I think they call him an OC Troops, a troops officer, who was part of the ship's company I think. He was inclined to be a bit of a regulations man but that was fixed up without much problem at all.
Right. Well, the journey across, do you remember much time being involved in, for example, training in the sense of work training, not PT and that sort of thing, or not?
No, as I recollect, the only thing we did was, we rigged up a Lewis gun on the afterdeck and let go some balloons and we potted at the balloons. They only gave us a couple of rounds each and I don't think anybody actually hit a balloon. But outside of that, no. We used to do submarine watches where they - I don't think they gave us binoculars or anything like that, they simply posted a couple on each side and forehead and we used to watch for submarines.
Did that submarine watching, was it taken very seriously? Or was that a bit of a chance to lean on a rail?
Well, we could have leaned on a rail at any time, there was nothing else to do but in point of fact I don't think we really worried very much about it. There were reputed to be submarines around somewhere but we weren't in convoy; it's not as if we would have been a large target, a submarine would probably have better things to do than to go looking for one ship by itself. So no, I don't think we had any strain on looking for them.
You'd need pretty good eyesight to see a periscope without binoculars, I'd imagine. Going on a bit: Ceylon and Bombay where you halted in, I understand in Ceylon there was once again a bit of disquiet on the part of the men.
No, no, no, it wasn't disquiet at all, it was simply opportunism. We'd been at sea for three weeks, we'd been at anchor outside the port for one week and then they took the boat into the harbour, not a very big harbour as I recall, and immediately they lowered a gangway so that people could come on board and all the 'bum boats' came around, and of course as many as could simply went straight down the gangway and into the boats and I was unlucky I was the last man on the gangway before a police launch along and chased the boats away, so I didn't get ashore. But I suppose only barely a quarter of the company got ashore, if that.
The men who did get ashore, were they disciplined in any way on their return, or not?
Not from my recollection.
Just good initiative. Bombay, I know there was a transit camp where I think you were saying the conditions really were a bit rugged.
Well, they were apparently normal for the camp. The men were housed in little barracks which had apertures for doors and windows but no furniture in them, they were simply holes in the brickwork; and there were beds inside, charpoys I think they're called, and they issued us all with a little printed sheet which instructed us to take our charpoys down to the waterfront - and this camp was on the waterfront - and submerge them in the water so that you could get the bed bugs out of them. And of course that didn't do any good because the bed bugs could swim.
I'd imagine it was quite a pleasure to get to sea again; this was on a ship, I think, called the Varalla (sic). You were joined, I think, by Sikhs and Gurkhas and you told an interesting anecdote I thought about both their cooking and two-up.
Yeah, well, we didn't see much of the Sikhs. In fact now I come to think of it, I think they took the Sikhs off. I think the boat ... we regarded the boat as overcrowded because there wasn't a great deal of room for us. I think they took the Sikhs off but the Gurkhas certainly stayed on and from recollection they didn't use the ship's kitchens, they did their own cooking on deck which were chapatis and onions and we were told to be careful not to let our shadow fall across the food while they were cooking it, whether that's right or not I don't know, but that's my recollection.
(20.00) And they were very cheerful little blokes. They used ... if we wanted to have a look at their cookeries they had no objection to taking it out and they'd give us a demonstration of flashing this knife about. But apparently the tradition is you mustn't draw this knife without drawing blood, so when they took the knife out they would just take a little nick out of the skin and let a drop of blood out. And they were also very keen on the Australian national game. We still had a fair bit of money and quite a few blokes who were keen swy players and we'd have a school going on the front deck. It didn't take the Gurkhas long, it didn't take them very long at all to wake up what was going on, and you'd see them holding up a couple of fingers and hitting themselves on the head or on the backside to indicate what their bets were, and I imagine it was a very clean game; we were thinking about those cookeries all the time.
Yes. Well, the Middle East, you arrived there in May '42, 20th May in fact; the country, the people, very, very different to the Australia that you obviously knew well. What were your first impressions of the people and the place?
Well, we didn't have a great deal of time to form impressions, we got off the boat, we were taken to the railway station and we got onto a train that took us from Port Tewfik up to Cairo. We changed trains there and went straight up into the [bundu?], and that was that. So it was only later on that we saw the people.
Well, just following that point through for a minute, the exact time doesn't matter perhaps; later during your time in the Middle East did you get much leave when you could get away a bit and see and meet people, see some of the old places, or not?
We didn't get a great deal of time to meet people. We used to go into, um, well, mostly Alexandria. Once we came back out of the desert after the retreat when we were posted at Amiriya which was near Alexandria and we were able to go into Alexandria quite frequently, several times a week, but all we would do there was, um, we didn't meet the local people, we'd go down to the pictures or we'd go to the NAAFIs or the service clubs ...
I'd imagine they were very well established, were they?
Oh yes, because the British had been there a long time. They had the NAAFIs which was - people abused it but at least you could get a cup of tea and a bun or whatever. We used to go swimming quite a bit too. There used to be a very fine swimming pool, one on the road out to Mina, on the way out to the Pyramid, another one at the Mina Hotel and that was open to us, and we used to enjoy that.
That's interesting. Well, the squadron itself, Leon, when you reached there the forward flights were at Gambut, you yourself I think went to the main base at Sidi Haneish. Tell us about the base there, how well established was it, for example?
Well, all it was, was a few tents dumped down in the middle of the desert as it were, not a sandy desert, it was rock and thorn and so forth, quite close to the beach. My recollections of it are, we didn't have a great deal of work to do because our work would be mainly in major repairs and overhauls and there wasn't a great deal of that. So, most of the time, we seemed to be swimming or writing letters or making beds or something. That's something I might mention, we lived in tents, we weren't issued with any sleeping gear at all, we had blankets but I can't ever recollect anybody not having a bed of some sort.
That's interesting. You weren't issued with stretchers?
No. We were issued with clothes and that's about it.
Oh, that's interesting. So those things were acquired along the way. That actually was a thing I was going to ask you about. 'Cliftying', I think is the word - acquiring by fair means or foul. Tell us about that. In particular I'd be most interested to know, in your recollection, it was obviously fair game to take gear that had been left by the retreating enemy, and fair enough, was it fair game to take equipment from other Allied units, and what about from the civilian population?
Well, er, cliftying was something we picked up from the people we'd relieved, and in later years it became known as 'liberating' - much the same sort of thing. It was fair enough to pick up a motor bike or a truck but it was mostly those belonging to other units or whatever; some very minor, it would amount only to shoplifting, and in retrospect it was nothing very ... nothing to be very proud of; it was just something that they made a great deal of fuss about. But there wasn't a great deal of it done in the long run.
(25.00) I'd imagine the time when it was really more important was in the early days before you arrived when the squadron really was desperately short of transport and so on.
Well, that might be so, I wouldn't know again, you'd have to talk to some of the older hands. But I think it was more of a recreational activity than a matter of necessity.
Could I just put a question to you? For example, going through Italy, in the desert of course there was often no civilian population anyway, but going up through Italy where it was more densely populated, if a fellow saw a bicycle, a pushbike for example, leaning on a wall by a house that was quite obviously populated would that be taken or was that regarded as beyond the pale?
It wouldn't be taken, not for any reasons of honesty or whatever, simply there'd be no point in it, we didn't need it, we had all the transport we needed. To use the idea of a bicycle, where would you go? There was nowhere to go. We used to salvage equipment left by retreating armies. For instance, we had an electrical generating set. We were never short of electric power, I mean, as far as I know we weren't issued with lanterns or whatever, but it didn't take very long, it started with the pilots' mess, all the pilots ate together and they had lights and they had a radio set. And then the electricians decided that they would like that. And then the electricians' friends decided ... and in the end, probably the first thing that happened when we went to a new campsite was that we decided where the tents were to be and then you'd lay out the powerlines down to the electrical section, and they had a generator truck which was supposed to provide the recharging of the aircraft batteries and it had a little four cylinder Ford motor on it. Well, after a while it had a Dodge V-8, I'm not sure whether it was -6 or a V-8 but it had a big Dodge truck motor in it and that was flat out. But the Ford motors only used to last a couple of weeks because the load on them was so solid. And then we had this Italian generating set which was a very heavy job and that was towed on a trailer, and we had a couple of other lorries that we'd acquired. But no, that was ... oh, and a few of the German Volkswagens, I forget what, they had a special name for those things that look like a pump - a little flat-sided car; we had a couple of those, they were lying around all over the place. But you couldn't call that cliftying, that was legitimate salvage.
Yes, sure. Going on. It wasn't too long after you'd arrived that Tobruk surrendered, I think, in late June. And that really marked the beginning of the last retreat to the delta - this is the period before Alamein - do you have any recollection of that retreat? How did it affect you personally?
It affected me to the extent that we used to ride on the tops of vehicles the, er .... We had three ton, four-wheel drive trucks, and they had a sort of a framework at the back that we used to stretch a tarpaulin over and we used to ride in the little nests that we created on the top of those. On this occasion though it wasn't one of the four-wheel drives I was riding on, it was a conventional Ford civilian-type truck and I was on the roof of it, and the truck stopped rather suddenly and I fell off. I didn't do myself a lot of good at all there but ....
Was that onto stony ground or sandy ground?
It was onto a macadam road, and I nearly went under the wheels, fortunately I didn't. It was very muddy as I recall - no, wait a minute, the mud was on the way up, later on, I was going the other way - no, it wasn't muddy, it was quite dry. The only thing is we would have been sitting ducks if the Luftwaffe had decided to come after us, but again I didn't see any hostile activity, we weren't strafed, and the trucks were simply nose-to-tail for miles and miles.
END TAPE 1, SIDE A
BEGIN TAPE 1, SIDE B
Identification: This is Edward Stokes with Leon Henry, Squadron 3, tape 1, side 2.
Leon, you were saying these trucks were head-to-tail, I would have thought that would have placed you in a very vulnerable situation. Was that a planned thing, do you know, or not?
I don't think it was planned, no. They simply had to go and that was that. Well that's, you know, the way it seemed to us, but as I think I said earlier there was no hostile activity. I imagine if there had been that we'd have simply got away from the trucks and shot off to the side of the road and hope that nothing hit us.
Were you ever in a position during, either in this retreat or the later advance, when you were either bombed or strafed?
We used to hear night aircraft occasionally, and they had that peculiar rise and falling sound, but once we got into the desert we had anti-aircraft cover. We had, I don't know what you'd call them, a group of 3.7 anti-aircraft guns which were radar guided, but all they ever did was to put star shell up over the centre of the 'drome and we had a group of Scotchmen who were equipped with Bofor guns, there'd be I don't know how many, half a dozen or so, and they'd simply align their sites on that star shell and they'd .... One bloke, our gunner, would put his foot on the pedal and the other simply shovelled the shells in, and what happened was that we'd have cone of anti-aircraft fire over the 'drome. And there was only one occasion when we did get bombed and that was at Martuba, about in the middle of November, I think it was one of their big, four-engine bombers came over and dropped some bombs on us. I've got some photos of that somewhere. The bomb landed only a few yards from one of our tents but the casing broke and the thing didn't go off, a couple of others went off but that was as close as I ever saw to hostile action on the whole of North Africa.
How did you feel at the time?
Oh, relieved, I suppose. There wasn't much else. You don't think of anything at these times. I was thinking of .... We did get bombed quite severely much later in Sicily and I was right on the edge of the 'drome - a bunch of us were sitting in a little hut there - and there was this enormous display of pyrotechnics, the thing was lit up as bright as day, it was the last gasp of the Luftwaffe and certainly we went to ground, we were in a trench below ground, but I didn't really feel anything. I mean, it only lasted for about twenty minutes. I can imagine it would be very different if you're under intense bombardment for a length of time.
Yes, sure, that must be, as you say, very different. Well, going on a little bit, it was the period after that retreat, July-August '42, that the major softening up of El Alamein began and then of course the advance through the desert. Do you have any particular recollection of that period?
Not really, that was when we started to fall into a pattern. I think by that time I was actually on, what we called the flights, that was the daily servicing; and certainly we worked a lot harder then because we'd be flying several sorties a day.
(5.00) And it was very cold, so we ... and we were short of water, so that we had water for drinking and possibly for shaving but we didn't shave, we all grew beards. Our clothes were getting a little bit unsanitary but we used to wash them in 100 octane petrol; there was plenty of petrol, there was no water.
You were saying, Leon, that you got away at some point here.
Yeah, well, what I was thinking, what we were doing .... I don't seem to remember working very hard, obviously mostly it was fuelling the aircraft up, doing minor adjustments and we still managed to get around. For instance, at a place called Martuba, a bunch of the English long-range desert group came in; they were desperate characters. They didn't know that we were on the 'drome, they thought the Germans were still there and they'd had instructions to create a lot of mayhem. Fortunately they came in and found out we were there. There was a lot of damaged German aircraft on that 'drome. We had plenty of time to look around that. And then we went over to another 'drome just overlooking Derna which wasn't very far away. And we went down into the township and I managed to buy from the local Arabs a small piano accordion. And according to my records I spent a lot of time after that building a box for the same because underneath the wing of an MA109, a Messerschmitt, where the black cross, there's a removable panel and it's made of the most beautiful metal, you can almost shape it with your hands and I made several boxes, not only for myself but for other people.
And the piano accordion, was that for sing-songs in the evening?
Oh, I couldn't play the damn thing, I'm not musical, but I had, I think, four of them in all. The last one is still inside.
Sounds as if you're being a bit modest here, are you?
I can't play it now. I used to knock a tune out of it, but I wouldn't call myself a musician; I couldn't play anything at a fast tempo.
Oh well, that's fine. Let me just ask you about working conditions. These airstrips were obviously very open, minimal facilities, really. What was it like working in those conditions? And what were the biggest problems?
I suppose, in the summertime, I'm thinking back to one time before Alamein, when a bloke had to remove the fuel tank from a Kittyhawk, and that's behind the pilot's seat and you've got to get into the fuselage through a small opening, it would barely be two foot by one and a half. And he was up inside there, he got the fuel tank up and was doing something, tidying up the attachments. And it was a day of about a hundred in the shade and he wasn't in the shade, he was out in the sun. And another aircraft crashed and somebody - it caught flames - and somebody yelled out, 'Fire!' and this chap was in there and his skin happened to touch the skin of the aircraft he was in and he thought that the one that he was in was on fire. He got out of it in an enormous hurry, but he was a very worried man; now that's one aspect of it. The other one, of course, was the cold, but that didn't really inhibit us at all we had plenty of clothes. Our tools were not all the best, they were pretty primitive and we only, really only doing minor work so you only needed a few spanners and screwdrivers, but they weren't of the best quality.
What about the dust, was that a problem or not?
Not up in the desert, it was a problem in the delta where there was a lot of sand around and by that time they'd developed auxiliary filters which they fitted onto the intakes and so I don't recall that we had a great deal of difficulty with dust. You'd have to talk to some of the more senior flight personnel, the sergeants or the engineer officer, they'd know about that. But no, I don't recall that that was really a problem.
Right. The relationship between ground crews and their pilots, was that a very strong bond, or not?
It was very friendly. I mean we were on Christian name terms, there was no 'sir' or anything like that, we were on first name terms and in general it was quite strong, yes, we were very friendly.
Did the ground crew take a real interest in the success or otherwise of a particular pilot's flight?
Well, you were more attached to the bloke whose aircraft you were working on. Every .... Each aircraft had a crew of two engine fitters, two airframe fitters and the ancilliary blokes used to service the lot - the instrument, and oxygen and electrical - they didn't have any aircraft of their own. But the aircraft crews, the engine and airframe fitters were quite close to the pilots, yes.
(10.00) Right. Tent life during this period, going from Alamein to Tripoli obviously there was fairly rapid movement through the desert, establishing and breaking up camp and so on. What was tent life like, how comfortable or otherwise?
I had no complaints about it. Well, it didn't worry me, put it this way. I'd done a lot of bushwalking before the war. I was quite used to sleeping out in the open if necessary. So far as I was concerned tent life was quite luxurious, we had no problems. And as I said, we had electricity, so we had radios. If necessary, some of us had heaters, we certainly had electric light and we all had beds so you could make yourself quite comfortable.
And what about food, was that ...? Well, what was it like?
Well, in the desert it was pretty basic because it was tinned vegetables, bully beef, um, goldfish, you name it. But I've got to say that during the desert campaign the cooks did absolute miracles.
In transforming army rations into meals.
Well, we always felt that we ate well, yes.
Did you get any fresh food? Oranges, fruit, that sort of thing?
I can't remember.
We were more concerned with whether we could get beer.
And did you?
I think the ration was half a bottle, per man, per day, perhaps. And so we'd save it up and when we had two or three bottles per man, then we'd drink it all at once and enjoy it.
Have a good time at it. The commanding officers of the squadron during your period, there was Bobby Gibbes, Nicky Barr briefly, um, Brian, I think, Eaton. How do you recollect those men? Who stood out?
Well, from the ground crew's point of view you didn't have a great deal of contact with the commanding officer. My impression was that Eaton was a complete administrator; that would be because he was, as I understand, a permanent officer who had been trained at Point Cook before the war. The rest of them were all good blokes. That's about it.
Well, that actually leads onto something else I was going to ask you. Do you, as you look back on it, see any difference in terms of general attitudes to the air force, to what they were doing to their men between the permanent air force officers and officers who were in the air force for the duration?
Well, so far as I know the only permanent officer we had was Brian Eaton and possibly the engineer officer, Ken McRae ...
Yes, he was.
Well, he obviously knew what he was doing about, and we had a ... but again, we didn't have a great deal of contact with him. You've got a, you know, the pyramidal command, and so when you're working on an aircraft you look to the corporal who comes around and passes on the orders and the sergeants do a bit more. But I have to say that as a corporal, which I, I got my second stripe at the end of the African campaign, but I had no part in the administrative business; I was simply told, you will do so-and-so on such-and-such an aircraft, and I'd go and tell the fitters on that, and I would check and I would supervise but I didn't do any paperwork. And then when I got the third stripe, it was just before I was posted to England, and I didn't do any paperwork there. So in a sense I had no experience of the chain of command.
That's an interesting point. Well, moving on a bit, Leon. The squadron was in Tripoli, I think, about January 1943 and from there during the first half of '43 you moved onto Malta. Are there any clear memories of that period?
Well, now, let's see. From Tripoli. There was quite a bit went on, the countryside was much nicer. There was a lot of work there. Then again we came under hostile attention at a place called Medenine; there was some .88mm guns up in the hills somewhere. And I recall I was sitting in on a poker school one day when the shells started to burst all around us; nobody got hit but I actually had the bank at the time and I lost it; I wasn't very happy about that. And there were some Gurkhas around I believe and they took care of the guns. And then, of course, there was a period of doing nothing from the time that we went into Tunis until we moved across to Malta.
(15.00) Right. Well, just leaving the Malta period perhaps, and then I know from Sicily there were various attacks on the Italian mainland, and then of course you moved up, I think, through the Italian mainland. What's your recollection of that period in Italy?
Well, it was much more varied. I was able to pick up a little of the language, but again we didn't see a great deal of the natives because we were still in tents; we would be out in the fields somewhere, they'd bulldoze an airstrip out of nothing. And the climate was much nicer, again the winters were very severe, there was a lot of mud and so forth. And then when we went onto .... At this time we were also getting more advanced aircraft.
I'd imagine handling metal spanners in extreme cold is fairly unpleasant.
Um, yes, it's not, but we never had to to the stage where your fingers would freeze to the metal as you would in really severe conditions, it was more discomfort: rain, and cold, and mud and this sort of thing. And one of the things that was un-unpleasant [sic] there .... Now when we - I've got to go back a little bit here - when I joined the squadron they were carrying a 250-pound bomb underneath the fuselage of the aircraft and then that included two 250s together in a sort of a specialised bomb rack. Then they started to put little anti-personnel bombs on the main planes. By the time we got up to Italy at the end of '43, I think, or thereabouts, they were putting a 1000-pounder under the fuselage and 500-pounders on each wing. And the way we used to get the 1000-pounder up: we had a sort of a pipe framework made in the form of a noughts and crosses layout and they'd roll the bomb onto that and then you'd get eight blokes on to these things and you'd get underneath the Kittyhawk which stands, oh, two foot six, three foot high and you'd lift the damn thing up until you got it onto the bomb rack. And it's not very good on the back but I don't recollect anybody actually having any problems with it. Some of us might have got crook backs later on, I don't know.
Yes, that would be very, very heavy lifting. Of course, those bombs were not armed until they left the plane, so if you dropped them they wouldn't go off. I think that's correct?
I'd qualify that. They had the detonators in them but the detonator had a safety, a little propeller sort of a thing which didn't, couldn't be actuated until the bomb actually left the aircraft. But there was one occasion, or a couple of occasions, when aircraft caught on fire on the ground for whatever reason and a couple of people distinguished themselves by dropping the bomb off the aircraft and taxying the aircraft away because there was no saying what that bomb might have done if the heat got to it. So there was no immediate danger, no, but there always potential danger.
Of course. The people you met going up through Italy, how warmly were you received? Or was it a hostile reception?
No, they were quite friendly. There was never any hostility, they weren't all that keen on the Germans. I have to say this about my fellow countrymen that generally speaking we get on well with other people and we mixed in quite happily. Somehow there was never any ... we had no hostility on our part towards the locals and they didn't seem to have for them. They were mostly farming people and ....
Who were just caught up in it. I guess too, there would have been a lot of Italians even then who had family in Australia.
I suppose so, yes, that could be so. And there was a fair bit of what was always known in other places as fraternisation. I mean, they were young men and there were a lot of attractive young women around; some were more successful than others.
Sure. Moving on. It was in Italy I think that peace was declared in Europe, is that correct?
Not, from my point, no. I was out of Italy by that time; you're talking about VE Day?
No. I left Italy about, oh, some time in April. There were about twenty of us were detached from the squadron at a place called [Chirvia?] and sent down to Naples and put on a boat for England and we arrived in Liverpool on VE Day. So I didn't see the celebrations in Italy which was a matter for regret because I gather they had a high old time after I left there.
Yes, I could imagine. I think you were saying that, like no doubt many others, you had a pretty good time on VE Day in Britain.
Want to hear that bit?
Oh, I think that's a good end of war story.
Well, there were a bunch of .... We, as I say, we landed in Liverpool on VE Day, we were actually in a train when, going on the outskirts of London and an engine pulled alongside and a bloke yelled out, 'Oy, it's all over'.
(20.00) And they took us down to Brighton, put us into a transit camp there in a couple of big hotels and of course we all just dumped our bags and went straight up to London. And I found myself in the Strand, sorry, in Fleet Street in a little bar which was selling only whisky. And there were a couple of Australian journalists there and they seemed to have enough money and they were buying whisky for three or four of us. And then they closed the bar and I went out of there and walked down the street and there was a building all bedecked in flags. And I thought I'd like one of those Australian flags, so I simply went straight up the side of the building and I only got about six or eight feet up and the inevitable happened, I came down flat on the soles of my feet and I wasn't able to walk very well after that. Everybody else was having a whale of a time and I thought I'd better go back to Brighton. So I got on the underground to go back to Victoria Station, I didn't realise that the London Underground goes in circles. I went past Victoria Station three times before I woke up to it. And by that time the last train had gone and I spent VE Day under a bench on Victoria Station.
Well, no doubt there would have been some other late night people too, that night. Leon, you came back to Australia some time after that. Looking back on the whole experience of the war and how it had affected your life, what you'd seen, what you'd done, how did it all seem to you?
The war itself was, I suppose you could say, in many ways a lot of fun. That's not the right expression because there was a lot of very serious work in it, and a lot of things were happening, and I suppose we didn't realise just what it was going to be like afterwards. We thought we'd go back to more or less the life we left. I made a bad mistake; I was offered at that time the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme, I should have gone back and gone back to study then, but with the experience of the past years I'd been offered a partnership in a business and I could see nothing beyond being my own boss so I took it; it might have been a good idea, it might not. Perhaps if I'd gone for the CRTS it might have been better but who knows?
Yes, you can't ever tell those things can you. Was the war overall for you a good or a bad experience? Or was it simply good and bad in different ways?
It was good and bad at the time. What it was, was five and a half years out of the most effective part of my life. Who knows what it would have been. I've got no complaints; I've done very nicely. I'm married, I've got a family, I've got a comfortable home, who could want any more than that.
Sure. Well, just one final thing I like to say to anybody: is there anything else you would like to add to this record before we turn off?
I think the only thing I'd say off the cuff, and you've sprung this on me, is that it was a unique experience to belong to 3 Squadron because of the fact that the group that I went over with were all together for three years, turned in on our own resources, we'd become quite dependent on each other in many ways. We were very fortunate that some of us had the sense to put together this association. We've seen our families grow up. We've seen our grandchildren grow up and we are still bonded as strongly as ever. And I suppose it's been a tremendous privilege to belong to an organisation of that nature. And the fact that we're still in contact with the present unit and that they still come and attend our celebrations - we've been up to the delivery of the FA18s at Williamtown and we had a reunion there - and they come and march with us at ANZAC Day; it's really a great privilege.
Yes, that's very heart-warming. Well, look, on behalf of the War Memorial, Leon, thank you for taking the time to make this tape.
And thank you very much, Ed.
END OF INTERVIEW
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