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Transcript of Australian War Memorial recording.
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INFORMANT: S F N (DICK) HICKSON
SUBJECT OF INTERVIEW: 3 SQUADRON, RAAF
DATE OF INTERVIEW: 9 MAY 1990
INTERVIEWER: EDWARD STOKES
TRANSCRIBER: DIANA NELSON
TRANSCRIPTION DATE: 30 JUNE 1990
Identification: This is Edward Stokes with Dick Hickson,
Squadron 3, tape one, side one.
Dick, perhaps, could we just begin by your date of birth and so on?
30th March 1915.
And where were you born? Where did you grow up?
In Warwick, Queensland, was where I was born and my people had
a small property outside Dalby, sheep property, on the Darling Downs, so I'm a
country born boy with a country background and the things that go with it.
Right. Lovely country up there. Just a couple of things
about your childhood. One general thing about the first war, in a sense. The
tradition of the ANZACs, the Australians' involvement in the first war and so
on, was that a very strong part of your childhood, your boyhood, or not?
Oh yes, very much. I had a cousin, a nephew of my father's,
who was killed in the first day of the war. I've forgotten where it was but
.... He was too old to go to the war but was very conscious of it and I'm sure
that we were born and bred with the traditional British loyalty and 'King and
Country', very strong.
Empire Day and so on?
Empire Days were ...?
Oh yes, very much so.
Where did you finish your schooling? And to what level did
I did junior school in Queensland at Slade School. Left,
joined the Bank of New South Wales, studied accountancy, qualified as an
accountant when I was twenty-one, and then did the first year at Brisbane
University's Chamber of Commerce degree course. Unfortunately I was transferred
to Sydney by the bank and that was the end of the university course for me, and
shortly after that the war, so.
Right, but you were a qualified accountant.
I think it was at some stage you were in the Militia and in
fact reached the rank of corporal?
Yes, I was in the 17th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment,
or it was then the Militia, and I was going to join the AIF with the 17th
Battalion if we could have joined as a battalion. They weren't allowing us to
do that, I had to go to one of the AIF units and would have lost my army friends
But I had previously applied for a commission in the air force as an
equipment officer, pre-war, because I foresaw this as being within the realms of
my capacity and training and I thought this was a more interesting way to use it
than working as a bank clerk. In the event, of course, it didn't
happen and I wasn't called up until 4th December 1939 at the rank of lance
Right. That's most interesting. One other thing just before
the war, Dick. Were you particularly conscious or not of the general political
developments in Europe, and for that matter, Japan?
Europe particularly. I don't think Japan cut that much ice in
my recollection at that stage, although it was a burgeoning power. We'd
regarded Japan as probably carrying on where it left off from the first world
war as a potential ally, but of course events proved otherwise.
And people didn't take too much notice of the general advance
through China and so on.
They were concerned by it but I think they thought that wasn't
to do with us, direct and other ways, and hopefully, also would provide Japan
with a diversion and with another area for development of themselves. We didn't
understand probably the population densities and the lack of scope in that sort
of territory for the growth and extension that Japan was looking for.
Do you think, was there any perception on your part at least,
that if war did eventuate in Europe it wouldn't be short and sharp but long,
drawn-out and very bloody?
(5.00) I don't know that that .... We didn't think it would
be probably a very protracted war, but then we didn't approach it with much
knowledge of the relative strengths. We were concerned of course with the, you
might say, the neglect of Britain for arming itself and being prepared for war.
That was, neglect probably ran deeper, was more serious than we'd anticipated or
saw the situation at that time.
Well moving on a little bit, let's get into the air force. I
think it was January '40 when you actually got out to Richmond, having been
called up as an equipment officer, and you were attached to 2nd Aircraft Depot
or 2 Aircraft Depot Richmond. I understand your training was mostly on the job.
Yes, you were taught by current serving air force officers and
the training as I recall it, was not very deep, it was pretty practical. The
extensive use of Air Force Orders which was the bible by which everybody in
those days, certainly in January 1940 was, still saw themselves as a peacetime
air force substantially. Hadn't accepted, and I don't think probably in the
services generally, had accepted the reality of war up till then. And probably
for another twelve months that was still, prevailed as the attitude.
That's a most interesting point. In that they didn't believe
they would be sent to Europe? Or that it was all just too remote to comprehend?
Well, it still might never happen, it was still the days of
the phoney war and all that sort of thing and they weren't very sure that what
was going to come out of it all. We had to be prepared to some extent but the
preparation was pretty primitive.
Let's just detail the basic aspects of your training because
obviously they relate to your later work. What were the key areas?
Well, as I say, it was probably Air Force Orders and you were
given very little training as to the organisational structure of the air force.
I suppose it was mentioned but I can't recall it now with any detail. We were
taught how to be foot soldiers, foot drill and army drill and the necessity to
command an air force detachment or unit on parade. And you had to familiarise
yourself with that need with varying degrees of .... Part of my course mates
ability to master that, there was some very left-footed gentlemen amongst us.
I think the aspect of stores was an important thing, of
recording and chaining stores and so on.
We were shown, of course, all the forms that were used, they
were part of Air Force Orders, and in fact many of them were detailed in Air
Force Orders. The range of equipment that was handled, of course, went from
clothing L group's barrack's stores to highly technical A group and B group air
frame and engine parts. The equipment tables were themselves fairly obscure
documents but for complexity that, nothing would compare to those that emanated
later in the war when, for example, we got re-armed with Tomahawks and
Kittyhawks. The manuals that one had to handle and supplies that one had to
arrange as a basic requirement for this unit were much deeper than the manuals
that I'm talking about which in those days related to Hawker Demon which was a
fairly elementary type of aeroplane; a bit like a wheelbarrow compared with a
sophisticated motor mower, I suppose.
That's most interesting. Just a couple of other aspects about
your training. One is this desire, that I think in fact eventuated later, to
become a pilot but we might bring that anecdote in now. Tell us that story?
Yes, well, I used to do a fair bit of flying with the, Jock
Perrin and Al Rawlinson especially, both of whom became fighter commanders in 3
Squadron. And, as I say, my friendship with 3 Squadron dates back to my days at
Richmond and 2 Aircraft Depot. These boys used to let me know when they were
going out on a flight in the afternoon and if I could detach myself or make up
the time .... I might say that 2 Aircraft Depot with all the air force units
you were working twelve, eighteen hours a day, so you take half an hour off or
an hour off, nobody sort of took a lot of notice.
(10.00) And the assumption was that people just worked hard
and you fitted it in, so there was no sort of finicky sort of inspecting when
people were and weren't working?
No, no. Well, I think you soon got a reputation whether you
swung the lead - lead swinger or keen to get on with the job. But I became
.... One episode when I applied to join the air force as equipment officer I
had no particular yen to be a pilot, I was not a .... I was probably older than
the young people of my day who had no ambition other than to be a pilot. But
when I became more familiar with it at close quarters in the air force I
thought, 'Ah, this is the life. I would love to be a pilot.' And I also got to
know the medical officers at Richmond and when I came up for a routine medical I
saw an opportunity to see if I could get myself passed fit for flying.
I might say I was a reasonably fit sort of a fellow in those days. I'd been
a miler of some note who ran for Queensland and that sort of stuff, and used to
train around the oval. Wilf Arthur as a matter of interest, he came to the
squadron as a cadet at that stage. And I asked them could they
give me a flying test, medically, which they did and which I passed very well
except for me eyesight which was not exactly the best but they reckoned that, oh
well, there'd been some others got into the air force as pilots who were
probably not much better than me, so it was a fair shot.
When I went back to my unit, I rushed back to my commanding officer, Wing
Commander Seachamp and said, 'I've been passed fit for flying, Sir. What do I
have to do next?'. He looked at me, asked me to repeat it and
then said, 'Sit down'. He pointed out that they had taken several months to
train me as an equipment officer, and equipment officers were fairly few and far
between but pilots were a penny a bunch, and he didn't give me any chance of
getting my transfer approved, and he certainly wouldn't recommend it.
So that was that.
So I went back to Alan Rawlinson and was grizzling away in mess that night
and he said, well, what sort of bloody fool was I, wanted to be a taxi driver
of an aeroplane, or be useful as an equipment officer. I suspected that it was
meant to comfort me which it didn't succeed in doing but I must say that when I
left the Middle East I was quite satisfied, I was much happier to be an
equipment officer than a pilot officer.
Yes, that's interesting. Just a couple of other aspects about
your training, Dick. You made a very interesting point about the training, or
rather lack of training, that officers were given in the general qualities of
being effective officers.
Yes, this appalled me with the air force, right through my
service days. I'd, as I mentioned, risen to the dizzy ranks of lance corporal
in the army. To do which I had to attend courses, was tutored on my
responsibilities as an NCO and ostensibly they were much greater with my
officers. And I knew young men who became officers and they told me what sort
of training they'd had, and basic training was looking after men, that was the
prime responsibility. It wasn't fighting men, it was looking after men, and
being sure that they understood, were taken care of, quartered, fed, you would
be the last man to go to sleep. You'd make sure everybody else had a bed.
So when I arrived at the air force after being in Brisbane for about a week
or ten days or something I enquired, when did we see the airmen?
The officer who was one of my instructors looked blankly at me and said, what
did I mean, when do we see the airmen? He said, 'They live over in the barracks
over there, we don't see them at all except at work and that's plenty of time'.
In fact I explained what I was about and he said, 'Oh, they wouldn't give you a
thank you'. And I think that was true, they wouldn't have because been tutored
to expect it. They regarded it as a gross interference and loss of liberty and
privacy and all those sort of things.
But it always worried me that, in the air force there was no tuition in
leadership qualities or the requirement of handling men, man management of any
sort at all. If one came to the air force with that sort of
skill or capacity that was good luck, there was nothing done in my experience to
induce it. I can remember pilots who graduated to eventually become COs of
squadrons, they had no idea in the wide world as to how they ought to command
men, or what was expected of them as commanders. If they happened to know, God
We'll actually come to talk later about some of the general
qualities of particular COs, not in a personal sense, and that will come out
then, I guess. Just one other thing on this relationship between officers and
the men. Talking generally, not just of your training period. Do you think you
could generalise to see a real difference in both the qualities and the attitude
of wartime officers versus permanent officers; wartime men versus permanent men,
(15.00) Well, I think there was a fundamental difference in
the basic approach. And I came in at a period, as I say, right at the beginning
of the war so I saw those officers who were permanent force lists and I was on
the permanent force list strangely enough, myself, but we didn't see ourselves
as permanent officers. Those who, Alan Rawlinson for example, would have seen
himself as a permanent officer and Peter Jeffrey would have seen himself as a
permanent officer, but nonetheless they hadn't been so long in the service as to
be inured with the problems that I saw as besetting the peacetime permanent
What were those problems?
Problems of lack of purpose, lack of direction, lack of pragmatism, and being
governed by the book, the holy book. I can remember going to see
an equipment officer and saying, 'What should I do about such-and-such?'. And
the first thing he'd do was then up to his shelf and pull down Air Force
Orders. And that wasn't the sort of answer I was looking for at all, and I
think that probably encapsulates the attitude of permanent force people.
And this extended down the ranks too?
Oh yes. Of course, I admit that the air force was governed by rules and
regulations and properly so, but nonetheless, as a wartime entrant,
with the prospects of war becoming imminent, more imminent daily, I thought the
approach would have, could have, should have been different.
I think what you said about some of the adjutants you saw in
your first year in the air force was interesting in this regard. These were
older, often world war one men, I think.
The majority of adjutants we had at 2 Aircraft Depot were
first war air Flying Corps fellows who had volunteered for service and been
recommissioned and came in as adjutants and personnel officers in these sorts of
units. Some of them were very good, some of them saw this revival of service as
a revival of the good days of war and they didn't seem to remember the need to
observe the hard training and hard attitudes and disparate attitudes, and in
fact would fail sometimes to make parades and make, just not turn up on a Monday
morning, probably having had a heavy weekend in Sydney or something. I was the
unit accountant officer and assistant adjutant and I found myself more often
than not the adjutant of the unit.
That's interesting. Just moving on a bit, Dick, but putting
down for the record. I think, that at 2 Aircraft Depot you were the paymaster
for some time.
You then went on to Williamtown where a new air force base was
being opened up, I think, mainly to assemble men to go overseas. I think you
actually were the first officer there.
Yes, that's right. It functioned as an embarkation depot,
particularly for 450 Squadron and subsequently for later units only I didn't
stay there long enough for witnessing that.
Right. Well, just putting on record a few things you told
me. There was the embarkation, I know, of 450 Squadron and being station
equipment officer, you were not only running your own equipment but advising the
officers of new units in ....
Yes, that's right. They were, well, most equipment officers
in the service in those days were inexperienced and they were certainly
inexperienced so it was a bit of the blind leading the blind. We seemed to get
there one way and another.
One thing we may just talk about though, is this episode in
the sergeants' mess. It, of course, does refer back rather to what you were
saying about these somewhat artificial divisions. Tell us that story.
Oh well, it was always thought, as far as equipment and ground
staff officers were concerned, a privilege to be invited to the sergeants'
mess. Some possibly abused that privilege but personally I and most of my
colleagues viewed it importantly and you stayed and had two drinks very formally
and left punctiliously.
So it was very much a mark of confidence and respect in your
Yes. There was a mutual mark of esteem and we enjoyed each
other's company, worked together, and there was never any question about lack of
paying attention to rank or any of those sort of things, never.
(20.00) Just as a matter of interest, in the mess, the
sergeants' mess. Were you 'Sir' or were you 'Dick'?
Sir. It was only in the squadron itself in the field off
duty, having a drink with men, which was pretty rare because grog was very
scarce in the unit. But in the desert if we got a bottle of grog or something
and there was a session with their boys, they would call you Dick or the
officers by their Christian name as you always called them by their Christian
name anyway, although you occasionally called him Sergeant or Warrant Officer or
something or other.
I remember an episode where there was a change of draft on the squadron - I
think this is important - and one of our flight commanders, Peter Henderson,
became, had a few drinks with his outgoing flight and his
incoming flight sergeant. The next morning he was walking towards the ops tent
when the three sergeants, the two outgoing and the one incoming were approaching
him, as is the case in such events usually after that sort of fraternal greeting
or fraternal evening there'd be a punctilious desire to pay regard and respect
and the officer would be saluted. I wouldn't think they would be saluted on any
other occasion. Well, on this morning, 'Morning, Peter', sorry, correction,
'Sir, good morning', salute from the two outgoing sergeants, the older hands.
The new bloke said, 'Good day, Pete'. They were walking abreast, the two
passing elbowed the, with their right elbow or left elbow, the new coming
sergeant who was on the inside and lay him flat on his back in the dust,
teaching him the lesson that you could be familiar but there was a time and
place for everything.
That's a very interesting anecdote.
It's a really strong picture of the discipline in the
squadron. I was shocked by what I thought was lack of discipline when I first
arrived there. Oh dear, fancy this.
Could we perhaps come back to that later, because in fact I
had interrupted up to the story, just going to the sergeants' mess story. I
understand you were rather ill-treated or ...
I got myself a bad mark from the commanding officer who
listened to the report of his station administrative officer, a first war
service policeman who had all the marks, the less popular marks of an army
service policeman, army military policeman. And I was hauled before the area
equipment officer to give an account of myself and when I related the incident,
the area equipment officer entirely took my side. There was no record of the
incident there but I still had my papers marked. I wanted a posting to the
Middle East, somewhere overseas, it wasn't the Middle East particularly it was
Singapore I hoped in those days.
And this was something of a black mark?
Well, let's go on to the actual posting. I know you did ask
for Singapore and didn't get it. Of course that was rather a stroke of luck.
But the Middle East, you did get a fairly mundane appointment.
Yes, I was told I'd have a draft to the Middle East but I
wouldn't be too happy with the posting. It was to Base Accounts in, I've
forgotten the name of the place down in Italian East Africa. And I said, 'How
do I go there?'. He said, 'Via Cairo'. I said, 'Well, thank you, Sir. I'll
happily accept the posting if I can get myself to the Middle East if I can't get
myself into 3 Squadron or some better, the appointment to Base Accounts will
deserve to put up with the consequences.'
Right, better to act on the spot. You were, I know, attached
for a brief time to Bankstown and then embarkation. When you came to leave
Australia, how did you feel? The war was really in earnest now, you were off to
it, how was that?
Very exciting prospect. And the massive ships lined up in
Sydney Harbour, huge convoys, the biggest convoy that ever left Australia. The
Queen Elizabeth was the ship I was on with a large draft of twelve or
fourteen hundred air force people. The Queen Mary, not the Aquitania
I think you said the Ile de France?
Ile de France, yes, and two or three other major ships
whose names escape me now.
I'd assume with those large ships there was no question of
slipping unannounced out of the Heads.
(25.00) Oh no, there wasn't any public display. I mean, you
just woke up in the morning and left sort of thing and, or they left whatever
the time and tide required.
But were there yachts, ferries, et cetera, tagging along
farewelling you, or not?
Oh, no. No ceremony at all connected with it.
Well, let's push on a bit. The voyage to Perth I understand was rough to say
the least, crossing the Bight. Perth and beyond there, the Indian Ocean, I
understand once you left Perth there was great disquiet, to put
it mildly, on the part of the men?
Well, that was in Perth actually. There was a lot of
discontent on the, among the other ranks because they were being robbed as they
saw it by the ship's crew. The ship's crew was taking advantage of various
supply possessions they enjoyed to diminish the rations available to, or to
lower the quality of rations available to troops; grog and so on. And that was
accentuated by the fact that in Perth the troops had thought that they would get
shore leave and there was great anxiety to not have shore leave because this
meant it would have [inaudible] abroad the fact that there was a convoy of this
size on its way and heaven knows what the consequences might be.
And there were [raiders?] sensibly [?] in the area, or
potentially in the area so concern that the secrecy should be maintained at all
costs; no shore leave. And that on top of the other discontent, and conditions
certainly were pretty rugged downstairs; masses of men and cramped quarters, the
stench was unbelievable, food was poor, so, you know, it was fertile ground for
unhappiness and rebellion.
I think you were saying that the outright, well, rebellion if
you like, was led by the, mostly by the army and you were suggesting it pointed
to a real difference between the quality of men in the army and the air force.
Yes, I think the army were all fairly new recruits, of course, they weren't
permanent army people, they were new recruits and they'd joined the service to
fight a war and all that sort of stuff and here they were being
treated like monkeys and they didn't, resented it, and they would let their
heads take over from .... Discipline and so on hadn't been ingrained into them
at that stage. Airmen on the other hand I think, even though some of them were
fairly new recruits, nonetheless were, had some service background and moreover
the majority are tradesmen of one sort or another, and that training injects
discipline in my view which stands them in good stead for whatever they were
doing in the services. Therefore I think there would be an element of
two-thirds, one-third discipline, inherent discipline, in people in the air
Perhaps we'd better not pursue this issue too deeply, simply
because of time on the tape and so on. But I understand yourself with two other
officers did confront your men and basically a settlement was worked out.
Flight Lieutenant Toohey was our OC Draft. He was one of the
brewing family of Tooheys, and I had a high regard for Irving Toohey. He
decided to front the men and extricate them from the mass of people in the
milling, in this great hall where the meeting was, on one of the major decks on
the Elizabeth. And we marched into the room, there was Toohey, myself
and O'Donnell in that order, marched in with a horrible feeling of not knowing
what was going on behind you, not being game to look. Toohey marched into the
centre of the hall and said that he understood there were problems, and so far
as the air force was concerned he proposed not to discuss them with them there
but he would see them up on the sundeck, A deck, or whatever it was, in ten
minutes' time and meet them there.
END TAPE 1, SIDE A
BEGIN TAPE 1, SIDE B
Identification: Edward Stokes with Dick Hickson, Squadron 3,
tape one, side two.
When all were mustered at the appointed place Toohey proceeded
to talk to the fellows and made them aware that, yes, there were problems and
some of them were being addressed, some of them they could fix and they would be
fixed, others were beyond the ship's means or our means to rectify. And then he
asked were there any other problems. And somebody said that, I think two or
three fellows complained bitterly that the beer was being watered. He made it,
he said, 'Oh well, you know, as far as I'm concerned you know my name, my
family's been concerned with the brewing of beer for the last two or three
generations and to the best of my knowledge and belief there's always been
ninety-five per cent water and somebody's got the gall, you've got the gall to
complain because somebody's adding another bloody one, five per cent'.
So that was touché.
That brought the house down and created, did a tremendous amount of good in
creating goodwill in that ship, and having an understanding between our men
who'd been assembled from all over Australia to join the ship, so we'd had no previous
connection with ninety-eight per cent of them.
Right. Well, I know another thing that happened, we might
just put this down for the record, is one of the future padres of 3 Squadron, I
forget his name.
Bob Davies. Stan O'Donnell and I were in the appointed
orderly room which we'd snaffled for that purpose. It was a fairly large room,
it was airless, had no air-conditioning in it. In the middle of the Indian
Ocean it was as hot as hell and we were sitting there one day working in our
shorts and no shirts and a figure presented itself at the door, this timid
little knock, and said, could he come in. He was .... And I said, 'Who are
you?'. Well, he was Padre Davies, he thought he might be able to do something
for us. And I said, 'Well, what the bloody hell do you think you could do,
Padre?'. He said, 'Oh, well', very mildly and quietly, 'I thought I might have
been able to arrange a few concerts and a boxing tournament or two, something
like that'. I said, 'Come aboard, you're in, you've got a job'. And he was a
magnificent fellow that, I obviously apologised for my inherent rudeness and he
never seemed to take great exception, or fail to understand the causes of it.
When subsequently, the liaison officer, Group Captain Duncan, Bill Duncan, rang
me up in the desert somewhere and said, 'I've got a fellow wants to join the
padre's, chaplain's service in the air force. He's a [inaudible] padre.' I
said, 'What's his name?'. He said, 'Davies'. I said, 'Don't let him out of
your sight. He's about the best recruit you're likely to get ever.' So he was
the third of the valuable - invaluable to the air force - trio of padres;
McNamara, Johnny McNamara, Fred McKay and Bob Davies.
Yes, that's interesting. I've heard a lot about those
padres. They obviously did a great deal of good. Well, going on perhaps to the
end of the journey, obviously the concerts and so on I assume took a great deal
of that pressure off.
Yes, [inaudible] concerts contribution, very attractive.
Right. Arriving in the Middle East, it was at Port Tewfik, a
very different place to Australia, what was your initial impression of the place
and the people?
Oh, wide-eyed and, recognised my lack of knowledge and
experience and, but whacko, we were in the Middle East so let's see what it had
in store for us. And I think that would be the attitude of most Australians.
There's the ilk of that Australian attitude which always complains that
somebody's not doing it the way it is done in Australia, the way we used to do
it at home or something or other, but they were in the minority and they soon
get pulled into gear with the facts of life.
(5.00) And most people appreciated the differences?
Well, moving on to the actual work in hand. You headed into
Cairo where a friend of yours, I think, who was 3 Squadron's accountant officer
was temporarily in Cairo and hoping to be there longer, I think.
He'd attached himself to the former CO of 3 Squadron,
McLachlan, who was the liaison officer in Cairo and he and Alec Atwill had
formed an association which, I don't know how effective it was from a liaison
point of view, I'm not able to say but they seemed to be enjoying the fruits of
fleshpots of Cairo to some extent. And I thought Alec was very off-hand and not
very pleased to see me, considering that he and I were course mates, but I
didn't understand why until I realised that he probably had a vested interest in
staying in Cairo and he thought that here was a fellow who arrived from
Australia and might take his place there.
When I explained that I was in fact posted to Base Accounts
wherever that was, but I wanted to go to 3 Squadron, his face lit up and he
couldn't write out a rail warrant fast enough to put me on a train to 3
Squadron. So everybody was well satisfied and pleased.
Mm, very mutual arrangement. When you went to 3 Squadron,
Dick, I think your key role was as paymaster but you were also assistant in
charge of equipment. Is that correct?
Oh yes, 3 Squadron was a unique air force unit in that serving
overseas and detached as it was from its bases in Australia, it was of a size
larger than that of any other unit that I'm aware of in the service. And it had
duplicated roles in many respects and in fact there were always two equipment
officers. One of them served as the paymaster and was assistant equipment
There were frequently two medical officers, there wasn't at that time but
later there came to often be two medical officers on the unit. And of course,
that fitted in very well with the scheme of operation which
developed in the squadron and probably was there before my arrival, but when
3 Squadron had been converted from army co-op to fighter unit exclusively and
they shed therefore their A Flight, and 3 Squadron to my knowledge is the only
fighter unit that had a B and C Flight and no A Flight, and that historically
was always the situation. And I reminded the current serving 3 Squadron at
Williamtown, and suggested they might adopt it too.
I think you were saying that the squadron was basically
divided into the men and equipment who remained at a base camp and the B and C
Flights which would leap-frog as you advanced and so on.
That's so. The base squadron .... There were three elements
to the squadron: B Flight, C Flight capable of operating under their own steam
with a bit of support by some personnel drawn from the base unit which was the
main element of personnel on the squadron. And all the heavier maintenance
people and all those sort of people, were retained in the one unit, and they
moved forward, say, B Flight moved up to be the forward flight, C would move up
and base would come up and then C would move on to the next flight and so it
went on. I was going to say, and rising from that we developed a format which
related to the ops tent which was the first tent on the airfield and which set
the focal point for the organisation of the squadron. And we had a plan that
the flights occupied and base occupied set positions in relation to that ops
tent so that therefore you could move a flight in or out in the middle of the
night and they knew where to put tents. And so on and precisely they only had
to discover the date and everything else fell into place and that saved a lot of
trouble, a lot of disorganisation. I wasn't aware of any other unit that had
the same organisation.
(10.00) Just continuing on this theme, Dick, I think that you
were saying that one of the points of this larger number of men in No. 3
Squadron meant that, for example, men could go on leave and come back and yet
the squadron itself could continue operating.
Yes, that's right. Of course, leave was, pilots had leave
according to their operations and we ran camps down on the Mediterranean from
time to time, rest camps for local purposes. But as far as the airmen were
concerned in general terms the leave was dictated by geographical situation in
which the squadron was functioning. Nonetheless if sickness or hospitalisation
or a need for leave in specific cases, we'd arrange for them to go back to base
areas like Alexandria or something and we had enough strength to be able to
sustain ourselves and maintain the situation, the operational situation, that
And so in that case a man would come up from base as a
That's so. Internally we could function as a unit and
reinforce ourselves so to speak. Later in the war some relief was obtained
also, and given, to meet air force requirements, RAAF requirements in the ATS
units and so on by transfer of personnel from one squadron to another. I don't
know to what extent or I don't know what the, whether there was a specific
policy to deal with that, but I know that it happened.
One other point that I think's an important one to bring out
is the point you were making that whereas pilots basically served a tour
depending on the number of hours and so on, the squadron as a whole just kept
Well, airmen would have stayed at least twelve months, mostly
eighteen months, two years, as a tour of duty. I know, speaking of myself, I
had no leave ever while I was at the Middle East, nor did I want it, except you
might break here and there or a forty-eight hours doing something or other, or
on the way to do this you'd stop off and do that, and have a breather but there
was no regular leave. Airmen got probably a week here or there occasionally but
that's how it was.
Just on that point, obviously not when there was action on,
you know, I mean, if you were retreating or whatever, you just did it. But when
life was quiet was Sunday kept as a day apart?
We didn't know what day it was. I remember going into Air
Force Headquarters, I was looking for a particular bit of equipment and Tiny
Gilmore, the service policemen of the unit had sort of attached himself to me as
a sort of general aide and PA or whatever, was my driver. And I came out of the
headquarters and got into the ute, grumbling and grizzling and said, 'Bloody
so-and-so, he wouldn't know what day it was'. So we drove about another ten
kilometres down the road and Tiny said, 'Excuse me, Sir, what day is it?', and I
hadn't a clue either.
Right. So by implication you just kept going, there wasn't
one day a week taken off?
No. As a religious question, however, when a padre arrived on
the unit, the word went out to the adjutant, or the equipment officer who was
functioning as the adjutant on that particular flight, 'There's a padre here, we
want you in the mess for a service tonight', or some time, or midday, whatever
it was. And I remember we had a RAF padre, he wasn't a bad fellow but he
arrived, announced that he was on the squadron and there'd be a gathering of the
fellows. And we had to parade all the stores personnel and the orderly room
personnel to give him an audience. But when McNamara or McKay or Davies arrived
the whole squadron turned out, irrespective of religious, so there was no
The men were more interested in the character of the ...
...priest than the religious aspect of ...
Yes, Catholics might have a special mass or something
occasionally but nonetheless there was a general service so the particular ....
Well, let's actually go on to your in fact joining the
squadron which may be stepping back in time a little bit. Of course you were a
little bit older than probably the average run of the men, this was at the end
of the Syrian campaign, at I think Rayak [mispronounced].
Rayak, sorry. Peter Jeffrey's the CO. What was your first
impression, your general impression, of the squadron as a unit?
(15.00) Well, I was shattered by the lack of discipline,
airmen and NCOs didn't salute officers and called each other by their Christian
names, it was very slack to my preliminary and cursory experience.
How does that tie in with the, what you have already
expressed, as your high regard for Peter Jeffrey, and a regard that's been
expressed by other people, too?
Yes, well, I'll lead to that. I rapidly realised that I was
completely wrong, had the, absolutely the wrong assessment of discipline. I'd
been used to pukka stations and it would be undreamt of to behave any other way
than I'm saying, saluting and all the rest of it. In 3 Squadron the discipline
was much deeper, much more real, much more practical. I mentioned that incident
of those NCOs and their flight commander and their respect for him. There was
never any doubt as to who the boss was, and he knew what he was doing, and he
got the respect because he knew what he was doing. And he got his, the respect
And I remember, you know, the airmen would never salute an officer around the
squadron or on .... The only time they'd salute was if there was a parade in
the CO's office and the orderly room trailer, that was a formal
occasion and they would salute then. I remember on the other hand when you'd
meet them by chance in Alexandria and they were on leave, they'd embarrass you
by, the three or four of them walking along the street together, making a point
of a most punctilious salute. They weren't going to be put down by these Pommie
bastards or anybody else who thought they were ignorant Aussies and had no
1091 (261091) Flight Lieutenant Staveley Frederick Norton Hickson (left),
2147 (262147 Pilot Officer Colin Goderich Greeves (centre) and Leading Aircraftman A Steele (right) in the Orderly Room of No. 3 Squadron, RAAF
Just talking about the Pommies, whether bastards or not, how
did this ...? That's very interesting what you said about what you describe as
the deeper discipline in 3 Squadron. How did that compare with the discipline
as you saw it when you occasionally brushed up against British units?
Oh, they had discipline, the British units, and the longer
they'd been in the desert the more they got like 3 Squadron. If they were a new
unit then it was very pukka and very formal but I had .... Look, any units, I
think, that had been under, on active service had that attitude in that respect
or they weren't any good and they didn't stay long as active units; that was an
inherent part of discipline in the services on active service - the respect.
Peter Jeffrey's word was law, he didn't have to issue orders. He didn't have to
make a big fellow of himself or raise his voice.
I would assume that the corollary of your point about 3
Squadron's discipline as you came to learn it properly, was that morale was
Very high, that was the criteria they always maintained
serviceability of the squadron aircraft was second to none and that couldn't be
beaten. There was only one time when it deteriorated and that was in the days
of Dixie Chapman and the discipline and the morale was very poor.
Equipment: obviously your second role but obviously something
you were very close to. How good or bad was that when you joined the squadron
in terms of planes, transport and also all the back-up you needed for repairs
Oh, it was very good. You see, we had the advantage of an
enemy source of supply for a lot of our requirements; particularly in the
transport field, we had a very good fleet of German and Italian vehicles. There
were specialist vehicles: we had a workshop trailer that was of Italian origin
that was second to none, and we were the envy of most squadrons' engineering
sections. We could virtually do a complete overhaul on the squadron with the
gear that we had so the squadron was always well supplied in the area of the
general environment in which they were operating.
Obviously there were times when, in the Middle East, as a command they went
short of things because supplies hadn't been able to reach there because of
disruptions in sea traffic or something of that sort. But in
general terms whatever was there we had more than their share because our NCOs
and airmen were very good at lifting bits and pieces that might come in handy
for the squadron, and the discipline supply was good also.
Of course there're always stories, I think, that Australians
had perhaps more initiative and therefore were better at lifting things here and
there than the British troops. Do you believe that's true or was that a myth
that Australians liked to perpetuate?
Oh no, that's very true, but you had to be careful and it
depended on the CO and officers to make sure that it was kept within bounds and
didn't get, go over the fence. There were a couple of times when it did and
fellows got punished. And often that punishment was from their other ranks, not
from, the officers didn't have to do anything.
(20.00) Is this just where they were lifting things for their
own personal good or transgressing private rights?
Yes, could be that, or could be just thoughtless: it might
come in handy type of thing, and it wasn't a disciplined approach to the
Right, so in other words you're suggesting that the lifting
that did go on was quite purposeful, clearly thought out.
Yes, there had to be a perceived need to justify the pinching,
Dick, just to differentiate between lifting material, for
example abandoned in the retreat of the enemy or perhaps seeing some item of
civilian property where there was a clear owner of that property around the
place, was that a distinction or not? If the item was wanted, even if it was a
civilian-owned item, was it taken?
Oh, to my experience never. The civilian rights would be
respected, but I have to say that we didn't operate as a squadron anywhere in
the civilian areas. I mean we wouldn't, in Alexandria or Cairo, pinch anything
of civilians; never dream of it. But Vichy French in Syria; anything that the
French abandoned that was fair game. One of the best cars we had was a Ford,
fancy model, I've forgotten the name of it now, which for a long time was the
CO's car on the squadron was a Vichy - had belonged to a Vichy French general.
Just one other point about equipment, you were saying before
that the items such as food, clothing, et cetera were drawn from the general
army supply, but of course, for instance, air parts were the responsibility of
the air force. What was the sort of process there? I mean, obviously there was
a constant need for aircraft parts. Were they constantly being fed through to
some base in the Middle East or were you feeding back orders saying what you
needed that governed supply?
The supply chain was: forward you had the squadron and our
own base party which was, almost functioned like an air stores park in the early
days, subsequently we had well organised air stores parks that were forward
supply depots, if you like, for service of aeroplanes, whatever was functioning
in that area and that command. And they were based on stores depots in areas of
Alexandria, [Hasbala?] and those sort of places. And there was a headquarters,
supply headquarters, that covered the whole range of technical spares and
clothing and that sort of thing.
Air force, RAAF clothing was virtually non-existent but you
always seemed to get supplies of it from the RAF to meet our needs. The army
didn't supply clothing or boots or any of that sort of thing but petrol, motor
fuel and rations they had to supply. And I suppose there was some area of
barracks gear that they supplied, I can't remember now precisely where the
division fell in that area.
Could we just turn now again to the sort of general issue of
leadership and so on? One thing that interests me is: did airmen pay a very
high regard to the squadron's leading pilots in terms of fighting ability,
number of planes shot down, et cetera, or did they just see that as, you know,
some men perhaps were lucky, they were in the right situation? Were they
particularly interested in the flying ability as against the personal qualities
Oh, very much so. They had adopted the pilot they were
responsible for, and his flight crew attached to a pilot virtually, to service
that aeroplane and whoever flew it was very much the apple of their eye; good or
bad. I mean, they would be critical among themselves of a lack of ability or
care or discipline or whatever but nevertheless very proud and very loyal to
that individual. At any cost they would service that aeroplane, you know, the
fitters were aeroplane engine and armourers. It was a very personal attachment;
Just going on to talk about this issue of leadership, and of
course the focus here isn't on the rights and wrongs of particular individuals
as individuals but on the qualities. Peter Jeffrey I understand was, or you
regard as an outstanding man, I think you suggested some of the later squadron
leaders perhaps didn't have his experience or touch.
(25.00) Well, that's true. As I said earlier, going back to
the lack of training of air force people and officers in particular, and
especially those who were about to move into command, it wasn't contemplated
that they had to do anything other than fly an aeroplane. If they were a good
pilot that's all that mattered; seemed to be the official view which I thought
was a serious neglect by the air force organisation of a very real need.
Peter Jeffrey in my view was an older man, what experience he had before the
war I don't remember or if he had much experience, but
nonetheless he was of a calibre of a man and of timbre of person that commanded
respect, and had a good commonsense capacity to handle people and to know what
was sensible and what wasn't sensible and what was fair and just and not fair
and so on.
But you regret then seeing some of the younger officers who found themselves
overnight forced into either commanding a flight or more elevated to squadron
commander. It could be the result of a few prangs and bad
casualties and there they are CO of a squadron, or of a wing or whatever without
really any training for that capacity much.
They could rely on their adjutant or equipment administrative staff to supply
some of the needs but you can't do it all for a CO; a CO's a CO
and if he makes a wrong move or handles himself poorly it takes a fair bit of
work to recover the lost ground. Adjutants or people like the adjutant have a
responsibility to protect their commanding officer against those sorts of
things, and if he loses ground to recover it, or endeavour to recover it for
Yes, that's interesting. In fact Bobby Gibbes himself said to
me just the other day on tape that he found himself, or the whole process of his
becoming squadron leader almost, well, both magical and ridiculous, I think.
Oh, he used words of that tone in that he realised he was ill-prepared. You
were telling a story, I think, of a man on charge with him that I think reflects
Yes, well, I think the adjutant and I were present and my
service policeman, Tiny Gilmore, was parading a fellow for AWL, I think at
Amiriya. We were very concerned to give our unit leave but it had to be
organised, and as we were only a few miles out of Alexandria we were very
concerned that if that, it could easily get out of hand. We could have lost
half the squadron if they went off on leave and forgot to come home, and if
there was any thought that they could do this with impunity. So that when this
man went AWL, unfortunately for him, he was there to be made an example of so
that nobody in future would treat it lightly.
And I recall this fellow was being paraded in the orderly room in front of
Bobby Gibbes. It was the first occasion he had to deal with a situation such as
this and I think the conversation probably, I'm not certain of the words,
probably went along, 'Well, what am I going to give him?'. Well
we said, 'You've first got to make up your mind that he's guilty'. 'Oh, yeah.
Well, if he's guilty then what am I going to give him?', you see. So we
explained about that and the need for care in making sure that the penalty was
adequate to be the deterrent we expected it to be.
And Bobby of course - in orderly room trailer the desks are at either end of the trailer so the commanding officer can't sit behind the desk and address the accused - he turns around in his swivel chair, and Bobby foolishly crossed his legs. And of course anybody, even experienced people would be, if they were nervous, it presents itself straight away with a trembling foot: Bobby's was going up and down like a yo-yo when he delivered the coup-de-grace as far as this fellow was concerned; and he, poor fellow, got some days in field punishment which caused a bit of anguish around the squadron. But that's the sort of thing that, there were several elements in that incident that I think demonstrated the lack of care, lack of training of commanding officers.
END TAPE 1, SIDE B
BEGIN TAPE 2, SIDE A
Identification: This is Edward Stokes with Dick Hickson, tape
two, side one, No. 3 Squadron.
Dick, going on with the story of the squadron, you were saying
that in terms of the general movement of B and C Flight and the Base Depot that
you would spend some time at the base, some time with different, well, B or C
Flight. How did that work out in more detail?
It sort of came about, I suppose, when we'd, the squadron
would be together and then a detachment was moving forward; we'd decide at the
time who was, for example, I served with Bill Macinnis quite a bit. Bill had a
lot of bad health so that he was a very fragile fellow with more guts than most
other people put together but occasionally I'd say, 'Well, look Bill, I'll go up
on B Flight or C Flight for this job; look after that for you', or look after
that, or it would just be agreed that that was the way it would happen.
Other times when, after Bill left and came back to Australia,
I just don't recall now, I then became the equipment officer and other people
came in as my assistants so to speak and had, usually therefore lacked some
experience so it was a question of what had to be done as to who was best able
to do it would determine those factors.
I take it from that that you yourself must have endured a fair
bit of to-ing and fro-ing.
Oh yes, I think I was about two years in the desert and one
couldn't contemplate being anywhere else but the desert. You got a curious sort
of detachment, a lack of .... You'd be offered an opportunity to go back so I
had to go back from Agebabia [sic] I think it was, to collect the gear to re-arm
the squadron with Kittyhawks. And they said, 'Oh, you're lucky to be going
back'. I couldn't think of anything worse frankly to have to go back to a post,
but I obviously enjoyed it when I got there.
That's an interesting point, you used the word 'detachment'.
Was that solely a function of the fact that you were with a frontline unit that
was obviously involved in essential and valuable fighting, or was it also the
desert environment that perhaps gave that sense of, a keen sense of being alive?
Oh, the desert environment induced that. You were on your
own; you were, I say you were on your own, the unit was on its own I mean, or in
its element environment in the wing. That, the whole world revolved around that
small circle of contacts and requirements and personalities and all the rest of
it. It was very much a detached world and you belonged to it and you had your
place in it and everything revolved within that world and the order of things
was not to be disturbed if anything could be done to preserve it.
Do you think your bush background had something to do with
your appreciation of this lack of other people?
Probably, yes, I think so. Oh, as a child I had, an only
child living in the bush; I didn't go to school till I was nine; not that we
were that far away from anywhere but we didn't have motorcars and things in
those days; horse and buggies and things. I can go down the back and lose
(5.00) We were just talking about the impact of isolation in
the environment and on this feeling of aliveness you were saying down here at
the back of your house, Dick.
Yes, the same thing, I enjoy it; detachment and the birds and
the bees and the trees and the plants and it's all very much a part of life.
Something I think Australia really has.
Going back to the Middle East, records, obviously an important
part of any unit and you were directly connected with them. You were saying, I
think, they were generally left at the base area.
Oh yes, the personnel records, pay records, all that sort of
stuff were kept in the, in what was virtually the headquarters of the squadron,
and that had to be taken care of and maintained, and was maintained by good
people who looked after them. Occasionally they'd have relief by going up front
with the other flight to do this or that or something ....
And you were saying about pay, obviously an important thing
for the men, that it was regularly entered but irregularly paid, I think.
Yes, I can't really recall now the I dotting, T crossing, in
fact I probably didn't do very much of it in any case, I had a very good pay
corporal who looked after it for me, Corporal Lazarus I recall - Lazarus, good
fellow - and look after the records, referring any questions of postings or
elevations or whatever.
The pay books were maintained like a bank book really I suppose; credits.
You could work out a fellow's pay entitlement even if it hadn't been entered.
There was that date, his rate of pay was fixed and you could
calculate the number of days from thereon in, giving the credit, and then he may
be allotting certain portion of it had to go back home, or he could decide to
send it home and those sort of things; it was a very good system.
Right. One thing that I know did create a certain degree of
dissension or dissatisfaction was the promotions of men in the Middle East. I
think you were suggesting before that there was a degree of envy on the part of
men back in Australia in all this.
Yes, I think you'd have to look at the different branches of
the service probably. As far as pilots are concerned, general duties people,
the permanent force people wanted to get active service on their record and
hopefully gongs and things like this which would run to their credit in
subsequent peacetime duties. As far as ground staff officers were concerned you
were probably envied by those people who couldn't get an overseas posting and
that would have entailed the majority of the fellows who were running the system
at headquarters in Melbourne or 'Headwaters' we referred to it. I personally
had the feeling that I couldn't expect to serve in the ....
I might say that I finished up being the most senior squadron leader in the
equipment branch, being highly overdue for promotion and
subsequently had served all ranks up to a group captain; I never had an acting
rank in my life. And I put that down subsequently to, substantially to the fact
that my superiors envied the fact that I had all this wonderful experience in
the Middle East and India and places like this and I couldn't expect that and
But you were also suggesting I think that that lack of more
rapid promotion wasn't, for you at least, an issue.
Oh no, I wasn't greatly concerned. The only thing that
concerned me about it when I came back and had to call people 'sir' that I
didn't reckon were entitled to it, what shall I say, the credit that it implied
that they had. And looking at it postwar, that was an absolute anathema to me
to think that some of these fellows who had never done anything or distinguished
themselves or, not so much that, but they hadn't got the attitude of service and
ability to do their job, and weren't relying on ability but were relying on rank
that irritated me very much.
Yes, well, we'll touch on that when we talk about the end of
the war. Just generally, living conditions: obviously they varied a great deal
as you moved from place to place, and I'd assume Syria was far more comfortable
area generally than the desert, but overall how would you describe them?
(10.00) Oh, they were pretty rough but, for example, most of
us I suppose and certainly I had a, all the officers I shared the tent with;
there was the armament officer, Edmonds, and equipment officers, at least or
Bill Macinnis in his day, and the adjutant then, a man named King. We all
shared a tent, we all had a sleeping bag on a stretcher of some sort; the linen
didn't get changed once a week; you were lucky if it had linen at all; and you'd
glare at the blanket .... We had freedom from lice and that sort of thing,
there was none of those problems. And tucker was pretty basic, bully beef and,
in fact enjoyed bully beef, tinned stuff, very little fresh vegetables but
occasionally you'd get a load of fresh vegetables and that sort of thing.
Did you get much citrus fruit? I was just thinking of the
Middle East being ...
Yes. I don't think so, I don't remember it, I don't think
so. The grog was very rare, scarce, army did better I think than the air
force. We rarely got rations.
Just on grog: were you aware at any time, this is in the
Middle East of grog being run, I mean in a commercial sense rather than people
occasionally bringing back a few beers for their mates?
Oh no, never, absolutely never, no, not at all. The basic
supply wasn't available in any case and civilians didn't have it so that was it.
Mr Toohey hadn't established a brewery.
Well, let's move on to something different, Dick. It was
after the period in Libya and before the advance following that into Tobruk,
towards Tobruk that the squadron was re-equipped with Kittyhawks, obviously a
great plane, or so the pilots say. How was that for you?
That was from El Alamein. I think I used the wrong name. I
think I said Agebabia but El Alamein I remember was where I went from to get the
equipment necessary and set up the chain of supplies and so on to re-equip the
Tomahawks. It was a very similar aeroplane to the Tomahawk and I don't remember
any particular servicing difficulties. As far as the engineers were concerned
we had very skilled engineers and very competent technical fellows and fitters
But in terms of, or in the re-equipping process, was there a
great hiatus and then a very difficult time-consuming period of reorganising
your lines of supply, or did they just follow through fairly automatically?
Oh no, they were pretty efficient as I recall. I remember
going around Helwan, the big RAF stores depot in the Middle East, looking for
bits of gear and one thing and another and they'd carried dispersal out to a
high degree and in fact had lost some of the gear themselves. And I remember
marching around in the desert kicking lumps of sand till we found an engine
because they'd put them out and they'd had heavy bombings in that area at one
stage and a lot of this equipment had been safely dispersed and buried in deep
dugouts, holes dug in the ground and covered over very safely because it was a
dry climate and engines were properly protected, but it became fairly difficult
to get them; we didn't have mine detectors in those days. But anyway they
located them - it was only an anecdote of that episode.
And compared with current day computer storage systems that are in vogue, the
RAF corporal or sergeant would stand on the ground and he had civilian Italian,
at least Egyptian civilians, pretty primitive fellows and he commanded them and
they'd scamper around the fixtures about thirty feet off the
ground. The way that he'd retrieve a nut or a bolt from a specific bin that he
wanted was quite remarkable - pretty to watch.
That's most interesting. Well, let's move on a little bit.
After the Syrian period, the first occasion on which the squadron was actively
involved was on the general advance towards Tobruk and then beyond there, before
of course yet another retreat. What was your recollection of that period of
(15.00) It was a very traumatic experience going over the
battlegrounds as you did sometimes a day later than the army advance - tanks and
the wreckage left over by war was quite horrific. We also had the commitment as
far as ground staff officers were concerned to go look for our pilots that had
been shot down; and we were given map references to try and track their bodies
and see that they were properly catered for, properly marked. I remember, just
to give one illustration, the battle occurred up on the coastal fringe, down
south was a no man's land ...
This is over the escarpment on the plateau?
Yes, or wherever, once you got beyond - it was marked on the map of about,
say, fifty kilometres or something - below that anything was likely to happen;
you were likely to find a German or a Frenchman or a Britishman,
British soldier, or whatever, all scouting, all touring round and they wouldn't
take much notice of you unless you were hostile to them specifically, they just
went about their business whatever it was. You see, these were the days of long
range desert group and all these sort of people. SAS are the modern
counterparts of some of these services.
I remember going off with Col Grieves I think it was, or Barney Terry, but
I'm sure it was Col, to go look for a fellow named McTaggart whom
I'd, whose family I knew in Brisbane funnily enough, but he'd been shot down
south of the battle zone. You'd stop, there'd be nothing in sight, you'd see a
vehicle and ignore it, you'd stay there for perhaps, on this occasion I remember
making a cup of tea, boiling the billy, which you did by scooping up a heap of
sand and pouring petrol on it, and lighting it. A 'wog' arrived out of nowhere,
he just sort of appeared, he was standing beside you, you wouldn't see him come,
you wouldn't see him go; they were very clever and of course made their
livelihood out of roaming about and ...
So they no doubt had a much closer feeling than you as
strangers did to the minor depressions and so on in the landscape that could
easily conceal you.
Yes. If the army wanted lessons in using ground as they use it
in the army, the term, they'd be the experts. I wanted to say that we found
this McTaggart's body, he'd been buried in a very bad way and of course the
terrain was pretty - in that part - was pretty stony and Colin and I had very
primitive tools and we got to work and dug a better hole than the one he'd been
in and put him in that. But you went back to the unit and 'Where have you
been?'. 'Oh, we'd been down south looking for fellows', and that would be the
end of it, we wouldn't pursue that question with the airmen ....
You mean in the sense that the airmen didn't, at a deeper
sense, really want to know.
Let's just pursue that for a moment because it's certainly never been talked
about on any of these tapes I've made. It's very sad obviously
but perhaps significant. The, I mean, obviously you must have faced appalling
sights, I'd assume, knowing how planes can finish up. How did you cope with
that? And also were the bodies always buried on site, or were they sometimes
brought back to be taken to larger cemeteries?
Oh well, later they would have probably been taken back and
picked up by proper arms of the services whose job it was to look after these
things but ...
But it seems as though, in this case of McTaggart, that you
would have located and identified the grave so it could be again ...
Oh, yes, marked it as best we could so it can be picked up and
taken care of properly. But you had to inure yourself to that sort of
situation, and surprisingly, I think this was true of most men, faced with the
situation you've just got to handle it and you did handle it.
Dick, while the pilots were off flying, of course sometimes
being shot down, the bases themselves were often very vulnerable. How much fear
was there during this sort of advance of attack by enemy aircraft or artillery?
(20.00) Very real fear of attack by enemy aircraft and we were
subjected to bombing and strafing on many occasions, and the people who were
most frightened in that situation were the pilots because they were, predictably
so, because they were used to being able to combat it on equal terms in the air,
but faced on the ground with the situation they dreaded it.
I remember Peter Jeffrey - Bill Macinnis and I and King, the adjutant, were
digging ourselves a slit trench which we added a GO machine-gun to. We were
proud of this, we had this all fitted up and Peter came past and
said, 'What the hell do you fellows think you're doing?'. We said, 'Well, we
were getting buggery last night so we thought we'd have a go back'. He said,
'You'll do no such thing. You'll leave the thing alone, we don't want to draw
the crabs any more than ....' If you open fire, you know, it would attract
angry fire then and it would be far worse.
That's interesting. So he was, in a sense, saying let them
fly by and do their bit but we won't fire back.
No, he'd meet them in the air but not on the ground, there was
no point in .... Well, he was right when one reflected on it because if they
attacked the field more assiduously than they were doing his aeroplanes would
all get badly messed up and shot up, apart from the damage done to the personnel
and so on; so it was really a very shortsighted attitude on our part.
The level of fear as you went through the period that you
served in frontline combat situations with the squadron, did it ease off after a
period as you became inured to the threat of attack, or was it just a constant
nagging thing? Did it perhaps get worse as time went on?
Oh, I don't, I'm not suggesting I was any sort of a hero; to
me it was just a matter of it happened or it didn't happen, you treated it, it
wasn't aimed at me, it wasn't going to hit me, I would be immune from what I
thought .... I remember an air raid at Gambut, a very heavy raid, and I was
very fascinated by the fireworks at night and I took up, got up, stood in my
slit trench trying to take photographs of it. Well, if the bomb or something,
attack came that close I was gone anyway so what the hell, might as well get a
picture of it. And I think that was ...
And I suppose in keeping busy doing something, you alleviated
Oh yes, very true. I think that would be true of a hell of a
lot of people because there are some that are made differently and would be very
terrified, and understandably so, I never thought any less of them if that were
the case. I would think less of them if they didn't do their jobs, however.
Yes, that's an interesting point. People often wonder how
photographers take photos in very difficult situations, often it's the taking
the photo that allows them to do it.
Oh yes, that's what you're busy doing.
Just going on with the story of this advance, Dick. Is there anything else
that you recall as being particularly significant?
Do you want to go to Antelat and return from there?
Well, onto Antelat; we might stop and then do the retreat.
Well, we eventually found ourselves at Antelat which is the
furthest point of that advance as far as we were concerned where the airfield
had been selected by an Australian wing commander fellow who was attached to Air
Force Headquarters, Tactical Air Force Headquarters, and we looked at this and
said, 'Oh, the man must be mad', because he'd chosen a wog cultivation patch,
and everybody, we reckoned, ought to know that a wog cultivation patch was about
the only place in the desert that got wet when it rained because that was the
point to which the water would run and be retained for some time.
Sure enough it rained. We had two or three very uncomfortable days, people
with dysentery and so on, and toilets being heavily used. But what was the
worst feature, that our aeroplanes couldn't take off and during that period the
German .... We weren't therefore, our task was to give close
support to our army units further advanced than ourselves. The Germans on the
other hand were flying from airfields in Tunisia or further west round the Gulf
vicinity, not inconvenienced in that way and were airborne and they gave, meted
out a fair bit of punishment to the army units who had to retreat, and we
withdrew ourselves from there and as far as I remember it was all pretty
I think the convoy I was leading had probably about ten or twelve vehicles in
it, I'm not certain of the precise number. And the transport drivers who were
with me - they were pretty good fellows these transport blokes - and they had
previously come up to that point, one or two of them, quite recently. So I
said, 'Well, you'll know the way back and where the minefields are, the best
track to follow'. They didn't think that was a very good idea at all. They
said, 'Oh well, Sir, we'd be happier if you led us', and I realised they were
all been fairly, they were just about to expire; they'd had a pretty tough time,
these blokes. So I said, 'Alright, okay'.
The thing was that one had to, you had blacked-out vehicles with a small glim
light in the front following a tail-light that was only just a very glim light
down on the differential of the vehicle, so that was the chain of
connection. And the trick was, of course, never to take a route that was,
hadn't been traversed by a vehicle recently, because otherwise you'd never know
whether you were running into landmines or whatever.
(25.00) You were saying before there was this interesting
routine where I think you drove until last light, waited, boiled a billy,
accustomed to the darkness and then pushed on. As you went on in the dark how
did you really differentiate between old and new tracks?
More by feeling of it, but I think the point is that you'd
usually see, you'd try and follow a swathe of tracks. There'd be half a dozen
or more vehicle tracks and that was the approved way and you could usually do
that and the important .... We stopped after last light when it reached the
point that you'd lost visibility and your eyes hadn't got accustomed to the now
dark conditions; sometimes it would be a meal or something or other that would
On this particular occasion, we stopped and normally when we
stopped at that point you'd say, 'Oh well, fellows, you might as well get some,
boil the billy and have a bite of something or other and that'll keep you going
till the finish'. And this time we stopped and I didn't take the precaution I
usually took of telling them to disperse their vehicles; they were fairly
clustered, a convenient walking distance from one vehicle to another.
As was customary in the desert we lit a primus and the primus was filled with
petrol, and that was alright if you knew how to handle it and
were careful with it; you put a blanket over the cabin of the vehicle which was
used as cookhouse for the purpose. On this occasion we did all that and we were
chatting, waiting for the billy to boil and just as it was about to boil a
German aircraft came overhead and dropped a large bracket of flares. We
discovered to our astonishment and horror that we were in the middle of a
concentration of Polish artillery that was moving up to the battlefront.
So panic ensued and the fellows tried to put the primus out
and I had, travelling with me, in my truck a bloke named McLeod who was a
former, who was the intelligence officer going back, he'd ended his tour, he was
going back to post to go home; some other fellow, I've forgotten who it was; a
third chap who was Eric Bradbury.
Eric we'd found the day, earlier that day, running alongside the road hailing
us. He, according to his story, he'd been shot down, he was a fighter pilot,
been shot down two or three days earlier, had been picked up by
the enemy, then escaped and jumped onto the back of an enemy tank and rode on
the back of this until he eventually got bounced off or left it when he got
picked up by some army units of ours. And he was trying to get back to our
squadron, and he saw us coming along the road, the vehicles were marked with CV
and a kangaroo that he recognised and hailed us and we picked up, old 'Brad' up.
He was pretty heavily shell-shocked, as you can imagine, terribly shocked and
a horrible mess. But when this all happened, Brad started to act up and jump up
and down and 'Mac' was adding to the pandemonium, and there was all hell .... I
could see I had a panic situation developing on hand and I had to
do something very rapidly to fix it. The best thing, the bloke that was making
the most noise was Bradbury and I socked him on the chin and flattened him and
we got him back to base.
END TAPE 2, SIDE A
BEGIN TAPE 2, SIDE B
Identification: This Dick Hickson, Squadron 3, tape two, side
And we picked ourselves up and I told the fellows at that time
to drive on till they couldn't see the vehicle in front sort of thing, it was
just maintain contact and when they were in that position I'd come along and
pick them up and away we'd go; so that we did. And we eventually got Brad back
to, I think, whether he got an air ambulance or something or other, got him back
I didn't see Bradbury for years after the war but one of the
first reunions he rejoined us in Sydney he marched up to me and said, 'Good day
Dick, you're the bastard that knocked me flat on me back'. And I was
tremendously pleased that he recovered to the point where he could talk about
that and see that as a worthwhile episode; it made me very happy.
Yes, it must have, rather than his brooding and being all
involved in it.
Well, that's very interesting. One little thing that I did want to clarify;
this is an account I've heard from somebody else which I think I
doubt. This is the story of twenty planes being bogged during this retreat, and
because they couldn't be flown off and they were going to be captured, their
being destroyed; you haven't heard this, I think?
I have no recollection of that, I think if there'd been twenty
planes - I'd be surprised if we had twenty planes. I would think we had twelve
or fifteen would be the most, and I don't remember any number of planes being
bogged as I recall that, and I don't remember it. I mightn't have known about
it of course, although I'd have heard because we'd have had to replenish them,
those aeroplanes. I don't think, it might have been two or three at the most,
but they probably would have been US anyway because I recall that we got all our
Right. Well moving on, Dick, I know it was after the end of
the retreat when I think you'd reach Amiriya, or soon after that, that you left
the squadron. How did you feel on leaving No. 3 Squadron?
Oh, I was very sad. I'd been away from the squadron before on
detachment to an RAF headquarters which I welcomed because it was very good
experience for me and in the equipment - it was equipment headquarters. But
when I was moving this time, I thought it was only temporary and I would be
coming back to the squadron; it was my ambition and aim, and I had to go to 454
Squadron in Qualara, south of Mosul to form 454 which was a new unit just
starting up. And when I finished that job I was going back to Cairo and said,
'Well' - to Bill Duncan - 'Well, nice to see you, good day Sir, I'm going back
to the desert'. He said, 'No you're not, you're staying here', so that was the
end of my 3 Squadron days.
Right, and I know there was a period in Cairo, as you were
saying, as a liaison officer, then I think you were in India - it's a rather
exotic posting as a liaison officer. There was an interesting thing that I
think does comment on, you know, some of the issues we talked about before that
began in Simla, I think, to do with trade.
Well, there was an Eastern Group Supply Council, it was run by
B S B Stevens a previous, an earlier premier of New South Wales, Bertie Stevens,
not that I ever met Mr Stevens but there'd been approaches from the RAF command
in India seeking RAAF support in trading some of the stuff which they could
provide from Indian sources with what was peculiar to, manufactured to
Australia. And there were some Beaufort parts and Tiger Moths they required for
training and so on, sort of - I can't think of the word I want - but anyway
(5.00) Of potential benefit to both sides.
Yes, that's right, and whereas they could supply without any trouble bags of
clothing and rough gear suitable for jungle warfare and that sort of thing,
certainly not extremely well finished, but adequately finished
for the probable life of the garment. So I thought this was a pretty good
scheme and I came back to Australia very impressed with the message I bore,
expecting it to be greeted with open arms by my commanders. Instead of which
the airmen that were supplying the equipment went white, blanched at my
enthusiasm for this and said, 'Oh, no, no, no, Hickson, I'm sorry but really,
oh, no, it wouldn't do at all'. And I insisted that I had a message to deliver
from the powers that be in the Eastern Group Supply Council and I intended to
deliver it, God bless him, would he please make the arrangements? And he
arranged for me to interview the Minister whose name escapes me for the moment,
I'll think of it later .
Well, that doesn't matter.
But the Minister explained to me very painfully and at
painstaking length that Australia had been busy this war building up its
manufacturing resources, which was fair enough. And he said, 'We've built up
the textile and clothing industry' and that sort of thing which he wasn't going
to see dissipated by supplies being brought in from any other source, and as for
the other side, well, that was too bad. I pointed out of course that we could
have runs of, manufacturing runs that would have been much more economical than
the size of demand we had, the orders we had for our own requirements.
All of this, it didn't cut any ice with the Minister and he said, oh, no,
that wasn't his idea of carrying out the war effort. I said, 'I'm sorry I
thought the war effort was designed to finish the war'. He
didn't seem impressed with that idea either; I think that was one of the reasons
I referred to earlier of not receiving any reward for acting in the different
ranks, that sort of thing.
So national self-interest in many ways lay at the heart of it.
Let's go onto Morotai, or onto the islands. I know you went up there, I
don't know with which squadron.
No, I was on First F Headquarters. I had done a war staff
course at Mount Martha and they then posted me up and I was responsible for the
logistic planning under an air, airman and pilot, GD fellow, and myself. We
were responsible for the logistics planning for the three: Tarakan, Balikpapan
and Labuan operations.
Right. Perhaps we won't go into those specifics Dick, because
the focus here is on No. 3. But just in general terms, I think you implied that
your feeling up in the islands was totally different to how you felt about the
war in the desert.
Yes, well, you know, when I left the desert, being under the
command of the RAF commanders coming in and people of this ilk in the Middle
East, I couldn't think of a better way to carry on a war and better service to
be in than the air force, and I reckoned that I would be fairly happy if I could
spend the rest of my days in that service. I suffered a bit of a reversal in
Iraq with 454 Squadron, I realised that the inactive commands were much more
poorly served, the calibre of the officers, the commanders, that were present,
but nonetheless would still work.
When I got back to Australia and up into the islands I was
absolutely disgusted with the attitude of the powers that be; the war had
deteriorated; the Yanks had in effect said to us, 'If you want to play soldiers
at wars you can go there, we'll give you enough petrol and a few boats to take
people around the island. You can play there to your heart's content with a few
Japanese that are left on the island. There's no particular issue to be solved
or direction of the war to be fought or maintained; don't bother us
particularly, that's it.'
Despite which the commanders were requiring people to go on missions well
beyond the range of the fighter aircraft, or the safe range of fighter aircraft
and so on. So there was pretty poor morale, pretty poor attitude. And
the only reason I could find why this was pursued was the self-interest of the
commanders that themselves aim at advancement in the service and gongs before
the war's ended; they had no previous claim to fame, so it better be now or not
(10.00) So you obviously gave all, or felt at least, full
support for Wilf Arthur and his ...
Oh yes, very much so, yes. And a lot of the others, I saw
some of the other COs that I had some respect for, and knew them, and battle
positions deteriorate in terms of the ambitions and the direction of their,
directions they were following personally ....
Are you referring to the issue of trading grog?
Yes. I don't think those fellows, it never occurred to them in the Middle
East, but everybody else was in it for a bob, they'd better get
some of it.
How was all this perceived do you think by the men?
Oh, as one would expect, terrible. The morale in the islands in general was
Dick, perhaps excluding this last point that you've made very
clear, when it was all over, the war in Europe and in the Pacific, you look back
on it and how you'd been involved, how did it all seem to you?
I don't know whether I thought of it in those terms, I was too
busy trying to find a niche for myself in 'civvy street' and that wasn't easy.
But I was proud to have been a part of the unit, 3 Squadron particularly, and
generally, my service in the air force, I was very happy with it, up to and
including the Middle East, and thereafter it sort of tailed off down to the
bottom point which we reached in the last mention.
Right. Well, thank you very much for making this tape on
behalf of the War Memorial, Dick. It'll be a good addition to No. 3 Squadron.
Thank you, thanks very much.
END OF INTERVIEW
S F N (DICK) HICKSON
[3SQN Assn repaired version of original transcript on https://www.awm.gov.au. ]
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