12 Squadron RAAF
A History of RAAF No. 12 Squadron
No. 12 Squadron was a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) general purpose, bomber and transport squadron. The squadron was formed in 1939 and saw combat in the South West Pacific theatre of World War II. From 1941 to 1943, it mainly conducted maritime patrols off northern Australia. The squadron was based at Merauke in western New Guinea from November 1943 to July 1944, when it was withdrawn from operations. After being re-equipped, it operated as a heavy bomber unit from February 1945 until the end of the war. The squadron continued in this role until it was redesignated No. 1 Squadron RAAF in February 1948. The squadron was reformed in 1973 to operate transport helicopters but was again disbanded in 1989.
World War II Summary
No. 12 Squadron was formed as a general purpose unit at RAAF Base Laverton on 6 February 1939 under the command of Squadron Leader Charles Eaton. The squadron was initially equipped with four Hawker Demon biplane fighters and four Avro Anson maritime reconnaissance aircraft and commenced intensive training in May. No. 12 Squadron began to move to Darwin in July 1939, with its advance party arriving there on the 24th of the month. The squadron was the first RAAF unit to be permanently based in the Northern Territory and was initially stationed at Darwin’s civil aerodrome. Seven No. 12 Squadron Ansons were based in Darwin by late August, and these began flying reconnaissance patrols on the last day of the month. The Demons were replaced with CAC Wirraway general purpose aircraft at Laverton on 1 September, and all of the squadron’s aircraft had arrived in Darwin by 17 September. The squadron’s flying was reduced during September and October to make personnel available to improve the aerodrome’s facilities, but by the end of October it had returned to normal operations. These included escorting shipping, maritime reconnaissance and coastal patrols.
The squadron experienced considerable changes in 1940 and 1941. During the early months of 1940, its activities were expanded to include gunnery and bombing training and a No. 9 Squadron Supermarine Seagull was attached to the unit to assist with air gunnery practice. On 1 June No. 12 Squadron was split to form RAAF Station Darwin and No. 13 Squadron. As part of this reorganisation the squadron’s headquarters became the RAAF Station’s headquarters, Eaton, who was by now a Wing Commander, was appointed the commander of the station and all of the Ansons were transferred to No. 13 Squadron; only No. 12 Squadron’s ‘C’ Flight remained with the unit. The squadron continued to conduct anti-submarine and maritime patrols and began a program of exercises with Royal Australian Navy and Australian Army units based at Darwin from July 1940. No. 12 Squadron relocated to the new military airfield in Darwin in April 1941 and reached a strength of 18 Wirraways in May. The squadron increased its flying in the later months of 1941 as war with Japan became increasingly likely.
Following the outbreak of the Pacific War on 8 December 1941 (local time), No. 12 Squadron was dispersed between two air bases; the squadron’s ‘B’ and ‘C’ flights were transferred to Batchelor Airfield while ‘A’ flight returned to the civil aerodrome. On 12 December, the unit had a strength of 18 Wirraways but was down to 14 aircraft by mid-February 1942. Two of the aircraft based at Darwin were destroyed on the ground in the devastating first Japanese air raid on Darwin which took place on 19 February 1942. The squadron also lost a considerable portion of its stores when a new hangar was destroyed at the civil aerodrome in this raid. Following the attack, No. 12 Squadron’s surviving aircraft dropped supplies to the survivors of sunken ships and conducted patrols of the area around Darwin. It was stationed at Pell Airfield from 15 July – 16 September 1942 while Batchelor was being used by United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) units.
No. 12 Squadron began to be re-equipped with Vultee Vengeance dive bombers from October 1942. The squadron was the first unit in the South West Pacific Area (SWPA) to receive these aircraft and their arrival was popular with the squadron’s personnel as it was believed that the Vengeances would allow them to play an active part in the war. This did not eventuate, however, and No. 12 Squadron continued its routine program of patrols after all the Vengeances had arrived. The only exception to this was a bombing raid conducted on 18 June 1943 by twelve of the squadron’s Vengeances against villages on Selaru in the Tanimbar Islands which were believed to house workers employed by the Japanese to build a new airstrip. This was the first attack to be conducted by Vengeances in the SWPA.
In May 1943, No. 12 Squadron was ordered to move to Merauke in western New Guinea, where it would come under the command of No. 72 Wing. The squadron’s 270-man strong advance party arrived in Merauke on 8 July but found that no facilities had been constructed for the unit. As a result, its aircraft were stationed at Cooktown, Queensland, where they were used for anti-submarine patrols and the escort of shipping, No. 12 Squadron gradually moved to Merauke between September and November 1943, and continued to be employed mainly in maritime patrols. The squadron’s only contact with the Japanese during its period at Merauke took place on 9 October when a Vengeance unsuccessfully attacked a float plane.
In July 1944, No. 12 Squadron moved to Strathpine, Queensland, where it was reduced to cadre status ahead of being converted to a heavy bomber unit. The squadron moved to Cecil Plains in December and began to be reequipped with Consolidated B-24 Liberator heavy bombers on 5 February 1945. No. 12 Squadron began to move to Darwin in late March 1945 and became operational there in early May. It flew its first heavy bomber operation on 24 May and attacked three Japanese ships on 26 May, setting one of them on fire. The squadron continued to attack Japanese shipping and installations in the Timor Sea, Banda Sea and Arafura Sea areas in conjunction with No. 21 and No. 24 Squadrons until the end of the war. During this period the squadron initially suffered from a shortage of spare parts but this was rectified after the unit gained access to USAAF spares at Biak. From July, No. 12 and No. 99 Squadrons formed part of No. 85 Wing. The squadron’s last bombing raid was conducted against a barracks at Kendari on 10 August and it dropped leaflets over Borneo and the Netherlands East Indies later in August to inform civilians of the Japanese surrender. Following this its Liberators dropped food and medical supplies to Allied prisoners of war (POW) and later repatriated POWs to Australia. In February 1946 No. 12 Squadron became a transport unit, though it only continued in this role until March when it moved to RAAF Base Amberley and became a lodger unit of No. 3 Aircraft Depot. No. 12 Squadron suffered 27 fatalities during World War II.
In June 1947, No. 12 Squadron’s aircrew moved to RAAF Base East Sale to begin conversion training for Avro Lincoln heavy bombers. The squadron continued operating these aircraft until 22 February 1948 when it was redesignated No. 1 Squadron.
12 Squadron RAAF 1939 – 1948
Preliminary research by SQNLDR David Henderson & SQNLDR Ian Warburton
1937 was a year when international tension was rising, both in Europe and Asia. This situation was reflected in the Imperial Conference of that year. When reporting on this conference, the Prime Minister, Mr Lyons, revealed that much of Australia’s increased defence expenditure would be directed to the development of the RAAF and to establishing an aircraft industry in Australia. As a result of concern over the lack of defence in Australia’s north, an Inter-service Sub Committee determined that a General Purpose (GP) Squadron and a General Reconnaissance (GR) Squadron were needed for the defence of Darwin. To provide facilities for these squadrons the Air Board, in May 1938, reviewed a works programme for an air base at Darwin totalling 282,000 pounds.
On 11 April 1938 the Chief of the Air Staff, AVM Richard Williams had appointed W/Cdr G Jones, DFC and S/Ldr Charles Eaton, AFC as a committee ‘to consider plans and all other matters connected with the establishment of a Royal Australian Air Force Station at Darwin’. It was hoped to have a squadron and station formed by September 1938 but events did not proceed as quickly as planned.
W/Cdr Jones and S/Ldr Eaton travelled to Darwin to reconnoitre the area for an Air Force Station. They departed Laverton on 16 May 1938 in Anson A4-1 and arrived in Darwin two days later. Their enquiries at Darwin were interrupted when they were ordered to carry out a search for a lost aircraft in the area of Victoria River Downs. A request from Army Headquarters for a survey flight of the Darwin – Adelaide River area delayed their return to Laverton until the 26th.
Following the submission of a report on this trip, a final conference was held on 6 June 1938. Eight months later, on 6 February 1939, at the direction of the Air Board and in accordance with Headquarters Routine Order No 1155 of 2 February 1939, No 12 General Purpose Squadron was formed at Laverton. S/Ldr Eaton was appointed as Commanding Officer while F/O Arthur N Hocking was appointed as Equipment Officer. Orders were received to prepare the squadron to proceed to Darwin at short notice.
Within a week the squadron consisted of 14 officers, 120 airmen, four Avro Anson and four Hawker Demon aircraft.
12 Squadron’s first Commanding Officer commenced his flying career in the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) in 1917 and served with both the RFC and the Royal Air Force (RAF) until December 1919. He joined the RAAF in 1925. In 1929, Eaton led a flight of five DH9A’s engaged in the search for the ‘Kookaburra’ which had force landed in the Tanami Desert. The Kookaburra’s crew, Keith Anderson and Bob Hitchcock, had been enroute to participate in the search for their friend, Charles Kingsford Smith, whose ‘Southern Cross’ had force landed in Western Australia – the famed ‘Coffee Royal Affair’. The search was carried out in obsolete aircraft over uninhabited and unmapped country devoid of suitable landing grounds.
In addition to leading his flight in the air search, Eaton also organised and led a ground expedition, equipped with pack horses, into the desert a hundred miles from his base at Wave Hill Station. The crew of the Kookaburra had perished before Eaton’s ground party could reach them. For his marked initiative and devotion to duty under extremely difficult conditions throughout these air and ground operations, Eaton was awarded the Air Force Cross.
Called ‘Moth’ by his men, (but obviously not to his face) he was a well liked and highly respected Commanding Officer who gave a high priority to the welfare and morale of those under his command, and was not afraid to lead by example. Eaton left the RAAF in 1945 as a Group Captain having commanded Nos 72 and 79 Wings and being awarded an OBE for his service as CO of 12 Squadron and as Commander of RAAF Station Darwin. Following the war he served as the Australian Consul in Dili, Portugese Timor from 1946 to 1947 and the Acting Consul-General in Indonesia from 1947 to 1949. The Air Force had chosen well in appointing Squadron Leader Charles Eaton as the first Commanding Officer of No 12 Squadron.
Those first members of 12 Squadron were similarly well chosen. All were professional officers and airmen, and many rose to high rank in the RAAF or otherwise distinguished themselves in World War II. F/Lt I D McLachlan, the ‘A’ Flight Commander, later served as CO of No 3 Squadron in Egypt and eventually rose to the rank of Air Vice- Marshal. P/O (later S/Ldr) W A Pedrina was awarded the DFC whilst serving on bombers. He died in action in New Guinea in 1942.
Because No 12 Squadron was destined for Darwin, little priority was given to providing it with substantial accommodation for its operations at Laverton. Upon formation it was given four offices in No 2 Squadron’s hangar and the use of a World War I Besseneau hangar. A second Besseneau hangar was erected by the squadron members to provide protection from the elements for the aircraft.
Ted Roberts was a W/T Op Mech who joined the squadron in May 1939. He describes the conditions that he encountered at Laverton.
“The Besseneau hangar was a canvas affair with wooden trusses to support the canvas walls and roof. There was no lateral timber structure; all the lengthwise stresses being taken by the canvas and the two end trusses being held down to overgrown tent pegs by guy ropes. They did a fine job with dirt floors, but in those days little environmental control was needed in servicing. Squadron offices were economically made from the fuselage packing cases in which Seagull aircraft had been shipped from England”
The temporary nature of the hangars also extended to the accommodation provided for the airmen;
“Whilst the rest of the squadrons and older units at Laverton were living high on the hog in the brick barracks close to the messes, poor old 12 Squadron was housed in some old temporary huts from the early days of the Training School and were a very long way from the messes and canteen and the centre of life of the station.”
Cec Fisher, an Armament Fitter who joined the Squadron in March 1939 also has memories of that early accommodation.
“I am sure that all flying and maintenance personnel will remember, quite distinctly, that cold winter of 1939 in those draughty canvas hangars which became worse and worse as they continued to tear with the force of those icy southern winds. There were a few startling events as can be expected in a new unit, but one of our biggest shocks was having to vacate our comfortable rooms in the barrack blocks and to take up residency in canvas tents pending our move north.
There was a great deal of work to be done by the new squadron. In addition to making all the trestles, chocks and equipment needed, they had to carry out extra maintenance work on their aircraft as all had been allotted deficient of W/T, Armament and Navigational equipment.”
During February only 55 hours were flown by the squadron, “being airmanship training”. The squadron’s first operational exercise was flown on 2 March when one Anson flown by F/O Jock Whyte co-operated with a flight from No 2 (GR) Squadron, and carried out interception and shadowing exercises with HMAS Vampire. The first exercise controlled by No 12 Squadron took place on 24 March when F/Os Les Collings and H A Nicholas captained two An- sons to intercept the merchant ship SS Dunedin Star.
Meanwhile, F/O Arthur Hocking and his Equipment personnel were busy preparing all the stores that would be needed in Darwin. These items were issued to personnel or packed and shipped to Darwin as they became available.
Cec Fisher recalls;
“We were issued with our blue cabin trunks, tropical rain capes, pith helmets with lengths of pugaree material and those ridiculous short tropical overalls which, later on, were to be the source of much amusement.”
John Gerber, an air observer who joined the squadron in June 1940 also remembered these tropical overalls as a monstrosity.
“They were a one piece suit of heavy khaki drill with short sleeves and short legs, heavy, hot, very scratchy and completely rejected by the airmen who had to wear them. Another piece of equipment that was remarkable was a three quarter length blue cape. It was secured by straps which crossed over the chest and fastened at the back. Normally worn with the cape thrown over the shoulders but closed up in front when it rained. They were hot and uncomfortable and modelled on a similar khaki cape worn by the Darwin Mobile Force. It did not take long for them to go out of fashion.”
A diverse flying training programme which included navigation, instrument and night flying, interception, bombing and gunnery led up to the squadron’s first deployment exercise. This was Exercise NZ3, a trade defence exercise with the Navy, held at Yanakie on Wilson’s Promintory from 17 to 19 April.
May saw the arrival of a new class of pilot when four airmen pilots arrived on the 7th. These men were fitters and riggers who were to become second pilots on the Avro Ansons. Cec Fisher remembers this as a good idea;
” With the planned, long, coastal patrols from Darwin to Broome and return, and because of the slow speeds, the air- craft would often need a 40 hourly inspection during the patrol.
In those early days there were also no full time air gunners. Fitters, riggers, armament and wireless operators were part time air gunners, wearing a brass ‘flying bullet’ on the right sleeve. Also, early in the war, there were insufficient air observers so some of us (wireless and armament) were part-time observers. For the record, observers were supposed to be proficient with radio, photography, gunnery, bombing and navigation.”
The squadron’s first Technical Sergeant Major was a man by the name of Reggie Wood. Reg was a World War I veteran, and a man of rather large proportions. It was said within the squadron, that a greatcoat that fitted once around a Besseneau hangar was just the right size for Reg. Earlier in his career Reg had been given the task of inducting the original intake of airmen into the newly formed Royal Australian Air Force at “J” Block, Victoria Barracks in Melbourne. At the end of the day he asked his CO, “When do I get to join up?” and so wound up with Service No 101 instead of No 1.
DEPLOYMENT TO DARWIN
The temporary accommodation at Laverton and the onset of cold weather was making the men keen to “shake the southern dust off their shoes and get to grips with the realities of a tropical existence.” A number of personnel had been despatched to Darwin to oversee the stores that had been sent ahead, but it was not until 1 July that the Advance Party departed Melbourne.
The night of 30 June saw a farewell party held for the Advance Party at one of Melbourne’s leading hotels, the Alexander. This was attended by 16 officers and 90 airmen and it was probably with sore heads that the Advance Party paraded the next morning at Laverton in their tropical uniforms. After being transported to No 16 Berth by RAAF tender the party boarded the Burns Philp ship, the SS Marella. A large crowd was there to see the men off and five Ansons and three Demons flew a formation over the ship as a farewell.
Reg Skillman, a Fitter IIE, travelled as part of the Advance Party;
“Except for the roughness of the sea while passing through ‘The Rip’ the trip to Sydney was very enjoyable indeed. The crew consisted of quite a number of Asians. One of the crew, possibly a Chinaman, went past the cabins hitting a gong to advise us that breakfast was being served. Naturally, he was to become known as ‘the Pong with the Gong’. We finally arrived in Sydney on Monday the 3rd at 11.30 am, thus completing the first part of our journey.”
The Advance Party was transferred to a ship of the same line, the SS Montoro, on Friday the 7th and sailed from Sydney on Monday the 10th. The ship travelled via Brisbane and Thursday Is and the main activities for the members onboard were PT, boat drills and lectures. It was lecture topics such as “Historic Events in China” that probably inspired the members of the contingent to arrange their own musical concerts.
The Montoro docked at Darwin at 1445 hrs on Monday 24 July 1939, and as Arthur Hocking led his men down the gangplank it signalled the arrival of a permanent RAAF presence in the Northern Territory.
The drab tropical uniforms that had provided so little protection from the icy winds of Laverton, were now black with sweat as the Advance Party struggled under the tropical sun to get themselves and their equipment onto the RAAF trucks. By 1730 hrs everyone had arrived at the old Vestey’s Meatworks where they were to share the accommodation with the Darwin Mobile Force (DMF), an Army unit.
The deteriorating situation in Europe had resulted in the decision to deploy 12 Squadron to Darwin well before the Permanent RAAF Drome was completed, and so it was that the squadron found itself quartered at Vestey’s. The squadron was to operate from the Civil Drome near Parap until the RAAF Drome was completed. The Civil Drome had only rudimentary facilities and before 12 Squadron could take up residence, they would have to build two Bell- man hangars for the aircraft and a Temporary Hutted Camp (THC) for workshops, accommodation and messing.
The day that the Advance Party had arrived in Darwin, the recently promoted Wing Commander Eaton, with F/ Os R F Wiley, Les Collings and Jock Whyte and eight airmen, set out from Laverton in three Ansons on a proving flight to Darwin. The flight proceeded without incident and the first 12 Squadron aircraft touched down in Darwin on July 26, 1939. Three days later, 12 Squadron held its first official function in the Northern Territory with a parade at the Civil Drome, where the Administrator, Mr C A Abbott, turned the first sod for the THC and officially welcomed the officers and airmen to Darwin. The three Ansons arrived back in Laverton on August 1.
While the Advance Party had been making their way to Darwin a group of four NCOs, including CPL Jimmy Truscott, had been sent to Archerfield in Brisbane to undertake training on the construction of Bellman hangars. This group arrived in Darwin by Empire Flying Boat on 4 August 1939.
Meanwhile, back in Laverton little flying was being carried out, as considerable effort was expended on packing of stores and preparing aircraft for the move to Darwin. “A” and “B” Flight aircraft with the exception of one Anson and “B” Flight Commander, F/O Jock Whyte, departed Laverton on 27 August for Darwin. After staying over- night at Broken Hill and Alice Springs these aircraft arrived at the Civil Drome, Darwin at 1505 hrs, 29 August. The Advance Party had been busy since their arrival and by the time these aircraft arrived, one of the Bellman hangars could be used to house aircraft. Part of the Civil Hangar was also taken over for use by the squadron.
Combined Fortress Headquarters was formed at Darwin on August 30 with W/Cdr Eaton being the Air Force Member. Following a meeting of the Darwin Defence Co-ordination Committee on that day the squadron’s first patrol from Darwin was flown on August 31, just two days after the arrival of its aircraft.
The difficulties of command and control of a squadron in such a remote location was causing RAAF HQ in Melbourne some headaches. Although point to point W/T communication was established with Laverton on 1 September, advice from the Air Board caused this means to be discontinued, and point to point communication was made using the Government PMG Telegraph. Communication with aircraft was made via Darwin Aeradio – a Department of Civil Aviation network operated under contract by AWA. This system later changed when RAAF radio equipment was installed.
Back in Laverton, “C” Flight was re-equipping with the CAC Wirraway while the Main Party was making preparations to move north. Cec Fisher recalls;
“Towards the latter half of August our first silver Wirraways – Australia’s first – arrived from Fisherman’s Bend, an event which caused considerable excitement, and those of us into whose hands they were delivered felt rather priveleged at being able to work with these new, modern aeroplanes. We had been accustomed to the NA 16 and the NA 33 type aeroplanes from which our Wirraways had been designed, but these sleek low-winged monoplanes were our very own.
As the departure date for the Main Party neared, the squadron became a real hive of activity – packing tool box- es, spare parts and the multitude of equipment required to keep a squadron in the air. Also, there was an intense round of social activities around Melbourne, including some rather wild farewell parties.
The main squadron group, of which I was a member, boarded the SS Marella late in the afternoon of 1 September, the day on which the German Army invaded Poland. We sailed early the following morning and were at anchor outside Sydney on the Sunday night when we listened to the broadcast by the Prime Minister, Mr Menzies, announcing Australia’s declaration of war. I remember how we really lived it up in Sydney during our stay there. As we sailed out on the following Thursday, many of us wondered if we would ever see Sydney again.
It was really a luxury cruise in that early September, inside the Great Barrier Reef with the seas as calm as a mill pond. After brief stop overs in Brisbane, Townsville and Thursday Is, we arrived in Darwin Harbour late at night and dropped anchor. The next morning, September 16, the ship docked at the wharf and we disembarked.
I can recall boarding those large steel sided trucks with the ‘hot to touch seats’, travelling up from the wharf and rapidly along Cavenagh St, across the Daly St bridge, past the old cemetery to the turnoff to Bullocky Point and the sign amongst the spear grass which read, ‘Abandon Hope All Ye That Enter Here’.”
While the Main Party was making its way north, the five newly acquired Wirraways of “C” Flight were being flown up from Laverton. Escorted by Jock Whyte in the Anson that had remained at Laverton, these aircraft travelled via Narromine, Winton and Daly Waters, finally arriving at Darwin at 1030 hrs, September 5. The arrival of the Wirraways was a significant event for this remote community that had just been flung headlong into a war. The crowd of a few hundred that had turned out at the Civil Drome included the Administrator, Mr Abbott, and his wife. It was with horror that the crowd watched as one of the first aircraft over the Drome entered a spin at about 100 ft and crashed in front of the Civil hangar. The aircraft, A20-5, was destroyed in the crash and the pilot, F/O Arnold Dolphin of Recruit Training Depot, Laverton and the Observer, CPL Harold Johnson of No 12 Squadron, were both killed. It is believed that Dolphin missed a radio call, directing all the Wirraways to change fuel tanks, and that he had run out of fuel as he arrived over Darwin. While trying to perform a ‘dead stick’ landing the aircraft had entered a spin and crashed in front of the crowd. These men were possibly the first Australian servicemen killed in World War II.
It had taken a little over two months to move the majority of the squadron from its base at Laverton to its new home in Darwin, but the hard work of establishing a permanent RAAF presence in the Northern Territory was only just beginning. The Temporary Hutted Camp was still far from complete and it was imperative that the work be finished before the wet season.
VESTEY’S MEATWORKS AND THE TEMPORARY HUTTED CAMP
Upon arrival, all the squadron personnel were housed at Vestey’s Meatworks. This was a huge, rambling set of buildings that had once processed the Territory’s beef. Cec Fisher was;
“….. completely amazed at the enormity of the buildings and vividly remember how we sweated up those long flights of stairs carrying our beds, bedding and cabin trunks. The view across Darwin Harbour from our airy ‘Bayview Mansions’ was excellent but that evening we discovered just how airy our new home was when we had our first experience of a lashing wet season storm.”
Dick Veasey, a Fitter IIE who had joined the squadron in March ’39, also had fond memories of Vestey’s.
“This accommodation was of the best tropical type I had during the war in the Pacific. Although we had to climb many steel, ship type stairs, the view together with the cool breeze was worth every bit of the climb.” According to Jim Truscott;
“The sergeants were quartered on the ground floor immediately below us , till they realized that the moisture falling on them at night from up top wasn’t water. They then moved to a safer area.”
But Vestey’s was not designed to be used for accommodation and hid many dangers for the unwary. At night there was only dim lighting from a diesel generator on the ground floor and on September 9 at 2230 hrs ACI R J Hudson fell through an opening from the airman’s quarters on the first floor. He died three days later and was buried in Darwin Cemetery on September 13, just one week after Dolphin and Johnson had been buried there. Following this incident, no movement was allowed at Vestey’s after ‘lights out’ at 2100 hrs.
Vestey’s was also used as a bomb dump and Ted Roberts remembers the reaction of the soldiers of the DMF;
“They were a good bunch of blokes but did tend to get a bit white around the gills when asked to lump 112 and 250 pound bombs around the storage areas at the meatworks, particularly when the bombs were just sent crashing down from the railway trucks onto the ground.”
Contamination of the water tanks at the old meatworks began to cause some infections and eventually the drinking water was brought from the Civil Drome and stored in canvas bags. Victuals were provided by the DMF but airmen still had to do their share of kitchen duties.
In October Eaton cancelled all flying except that which was considered essential so that all members of the squadron could assist in building the camp. Cec Fisher takes up the story;
“Our CO, now happily reunited with his dog ‘Sandy’, informed us that completion of the camp prior to the onset of the wet season was vital.
So there at the Civil Drome were heaps and heaps of sections of prefabricated galvanized huts with heaps of galvanized iron, angle iron struts and bearers, cypress floor joists and six by six fabricated floor sections with bags of round head bolts and nuts. Now can you picture the scene, the area piled high with this material, concrete stumps already erected and gazed upon with almost complete bewilderment by well over a hundred personnel, for ‘Moth’ had said that everyone from pilots to cooks, observers to mess hands, maintenance blokes to orderly room types would be on the job ‘without exception’.
The first buildings up were the toilet blocks (no septic), ablution block, kitchen, airman’s canteen (used by all ranks – and a wet canteen at that) followed by the two hangars. The Sergeant’s and Officer’s Messes (also tin huts) were to be last. They were too. The adopted name, Temporary Hutted Camp, Civil Aerodrome was promptly replaced by the name ‘Tin City, Parap’ that being the name of Darwin’s outer suburb.
Everything commenced enthusiastically and smoothly with the medical tent well occupied in tending to skinned knuckles, mashed fingers and sundry cuts from inexpert workmen but the spirit was there and the morale was high under ‘Moth’s’ example. The temporary wet canteen helped a lot.”
Jimmy Truscott and others were issued with dark glasses to combat the glare whilst working on the galvanized buildings;
“Girders and rafters were assembled and hoisted by block and tackle, no crane or hoist to help. The three trucks burnt out their clutches helping to raise the frames so eventually a hand operated winch was pro- cured.”
While the camp was being constructed the CO, Orderly Room and Signals Section moved into offices in the Civil Administration Building on the Civil Drome. Tom McRae Wood who was an engineer with Guinea Airways at Darwin had to laugh when he went to the Civil Admin. Building and found “No 12 Jagstaffel” painted on one of the doors.
The second Bellman Hangar was occupied on October 2 and 10 days later Eaton was put in charge of the Civil Aerodrome which was declared a ‘prohibited place’. The move from Vestey’s to ‘Tin City’ began on 18 October when six officers and 120 NCOs and airmen moved into their newly constructed huts. The last of the squadron’s members were settled in at the THC by the end of the month. The rapid progress on the THC was in no small way due to Eaton’s leadership. His concern for his personnel and his sincere and persistent inquiry into their welfare led to the question , “Are you happy?”, becoming a catch-phrase within the squadron.
OPERATIONS IN THE TROPICS – 1939
The members of 12 Squadron were pioneering RAAF operations in the tropical, northern Australian environment and their success did not come easily. There were many hardships to be overcome. Jim Truscott who was on the Canteen and Mess Committee recalls some of the problems encountered;
“Darwin was supplied by ship, mainly from the Eastern States, so that before a ship arrived things were beginning to get in short supply. Bully beef was supplied by the Navy victualling store which was based at Vestey’s and the tins were stamped 1916. This bully beef was served cold, stewed, curried and any way that it could be eaten. Initially at the Civil Drome there were no stoves, only Fowlers Ovens (coppers), so food was initially poor. Later on, an oven arrangement was used.
Tinned butter, rancid smelling stuff, was thrown out the window as a protest. Pork and apple Sunday dinners caused a continual queue at the lavatories and these meals were banned by the Medical Officer, F/Lt Leleu. Every day at the midday meal there was iced lime water and bread and vegemite on the tables. But the cooks did a marvellous job and there was no serious outbreak of disease on the area. At the first signs of trouble we were often paraded and had our throats painted.
When Darwin had a meningitis epidemic our beds were placed six feet apart and all town visits were banned. The only place we were allowed was Fanny Bay beach. Tinea, dermatitis and dengue fever were prevalent in the wet season. There was also two airmen who were returned south while at Vestey’s – alcoholic inebriates.”
Construction of the camp buildings was only one of the many tasks that had to be completed in preparation for war. Cec Fisher and the other members of Armament Section were also busy;
“Armament Section constructed five Bomb Dumps on the perimeter of the Civil Drome near Fanny Bay Gaol. These dumps contained bombs with exploders, pistols and detonators ready for use, as well as aluminium sea markers, flame floats and distress flares. Construction involved the digging of sand at the beach at Fanny Bay, filling sandbags and then constructing the blast walls of the dumps.
This was followed by bringing the required numbers of 112 and 250 lb bombs down from Vestey’s to be fuzed and stacked ready for use. More bombs and ammunition were sent by rail to the Katherine area in case of emergency.
Our task did not stop there, for next we had to establish air to ground gunnery and bombing practice ranges. The large remote beaches were ideal but the difficulty lay in reaching them by land. Though rough work at times, to those of us involved, it was a most interesting and enjoyable exercise in selecting the site and finding the best all-weather access route through the Territory’s fascinating bush.
We finally chose a remote area near Lee Point lined with coconut palms for the bombing and gunnery ranges and an area out at sea off Gunn Point for the air to air work. There were, of course, no concrete shelters nor standard signals for the ground party – only a substantial sand dune and canvas strips for ground signals, with red flags and Very cartridges for emergencies. We also carried rifles to keep off inquisitive crocodiles, angry buffalo and wild pigs.”
With the THC nearing completion, the squadron was now able to concentrate on the task for which they had been sent north. A busy flying programme was undertaken including shipping escorts, seawards reconnaissance, coastal patrols, air to air and air to ground gunnery and bombing training. Completion of work on the camp also meant that there was time for some social activities. On Tuesday, 14 November, a squadron “smoke social” was held at the THC for the entertainment of squadron personnel and their visitors.
Towards the end of November, 12 Squadron was called upon to carry out seawards reconnaissance between Darwin and Timor. Ted Roberts took part in this episode;
“Before the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee was finally scuttled in the River Plate, there was speculation that she had entered the Indian Ocean and was possibly bound for Japan for re- stocking and further action in the Pacific. With this possibility in view the RAF in Singapore and the RAAF flew a number of seawards reconnaissance patrols in search of the elusive ship.
12 Squadron obliged by fitting long range tanks to the Ansons and flying a series of patrols from Darwin to the Timor coast, along the coast, and back again to Darwin. We found no trace of the battle- ship as it was eventually sighted back in the South Atlantic, but we sure learned a lot about flying in ‘The Wet’. If we flew at a reasonable height we couldn’t see the sea. If we could see the sea we were in very turbulent air and in a region of very high electrical activity. On several occasions, I had electrical discharges of some six inches taking place from the trailing aerial to my knee, before I could earth the aerial effectively. Under these conditions medium and high frequency radio reception was virtually impossible, and I don’t think anyone was sorry when these patrols were called off after about a week.”
A new phase of operations began on 4 December 1939 with the commencement of the Darwin – Wyndham – Derby – Broome weekly patrols. This was the first regular surveillance patrols of Australlia’s remote northern frontiers.
At dawn on Monday 18 December, the No 12 Squadron guard, ambulance and doctor were called out when a Guinea Airways Lockeed 10, VH-UXI, crashed about a mile from the Civil Drome. The aircraft had suffered an engine failure about five minutes after take-off and had crashed while trying to return for a landing. The passengers and crew escaped serious injury but the aircraft was completely destroyed in the crash and subsequent fire.
Operations in the tropics was always providing new and unexpected challenges to be overcome. Cec Fisher recalls one unusual source of annoyance;
“We had some fun with insects for a while. Firstly, the wasps learned that pitot tubes made good nests, which caused covers to be made and more drill to remember to take them off. Also they developed a liking for rifle and gun barrels. The presence of a shocking smell for many days resulted in the discovery that part of an Anson mainplane was flyblown. The blowflies had developed a liking for a new glue in the plywood, resulting in a large lavae infested area. Another Anson undergoing a 120 hourly inspection had its wing tip touching a side of the hangar. Within a week it was found that the wing tip section was full of termites. Another night there was a terrific crash (no explosion) when the timber supports of the bomb dump stands collapsed, riddled with white ants. Live bombs were rolling all over the place in the long spear grass. Good fun!”
As Christmas 1939 approached, the squadron – now established as a hard working, close knit unit – could look back on a year in which they had accomplished a great deal. It was time for a little rest and recreation. Friday, December 22 was set aside as a day for celebrations. Under the billowing, cumulus clouds of a Darwin summer, a Christmas Treat was held for the families of personnel. This included a Christmas tree for the children and a formation and aerobatic display by three silver Wirraways. In the evening the Administrator joined the squadron members and their la- dies for a ‘Smoke Concert’. Ted Roberts describes the event;
“As our first Xmas in Darwin was fast approaching, plans were made to suitably celebrate the event with a gala (not galah!) concert. The usual run of singers and comedians were listed for the programme, including the CO Wing Commander ‘Moth’ Eaton in a comedy skit with our Intelligence Officer, S/Ldr Pender.
The venue for this concert was our newly completed Bellman hangar which housed ‘A’ and ‘B’ Flights. Everyone, from flight commanders to mess hands, had all laboured hard and long in the construction of the hangars, and what better way to celebrate their completion. By emptying the aircraft out of the hangar and building a stage supported by empty beer kegs (no shortage of these!) and a limited amount of stage dressing and props all was set for the big night.
One of the major events of the evening was to be the finals of a speed drinking contest between the different sections of the squadron. This resulted in a dead heat between two representatives of the Transport Section, who had deadheated all the way through the preliminary rounds of the contest held in the Wet Canteen over the previous couple of weeks. From memory, either the W/T or Armament Section were runners up in the event.
One of the offerings was a popular colloquial ventriloquist duo by Frank Courtice and his dummy, AC1 Jerry. As this ‘took the mickey’ out of the establishment it was well received. Despite rumours to the contrary, Frank was not penalised for this performance.
The tropical scene was enhanced by a magnificent, if somewhat wobbly, hula ballet rendered by a hairy legged quartet including the largest member of the squadron, a Service Policeman named Hatswell. The highlight of this act (no pun intended) occured when a slightly inebriated steward set fire to Hatswell’s grass skirt, with very interesting results. This finale was greeted by shouts of enthusiastic laughter, not least by the wives and local ladies invited to the concert. In fact an encore was demanded and attempts made to book the act for several Army do’s were only stopped on the grounds of ‘damage to equipment’, notably Hatswell’s.”
This period was also a memorable time for Cec Fisher;
“Christmas 1939 approached with a supply of hams and puddings from the south, but no poultry. We armament blokes claimed to be the best shots and we had the guns and ammo anyhow, so with much personal enjoyment we went off as a shooting party and came back with a good supply of mag- pie geese and wild duck – enough for us and the Army and Navy. It was a magnificent Christmas / New Year period.”
Reg Skillman recalls Sunday, 24 December 1939 as Hamper Day;
“Hampers were received from an organization in the south. Each parcel contained many useful items such as socks, ties, Christmas cake, tins of fruit and the like with a card of thanks to be filled in. The hampers were thankfully received by us all.”
Although the Christmas period provided an opportunity for members of the squadron to relax and enjoy the festive season, the operational activities continued without interruption. The weekly Darwin – Broome patrol departed on time on Christmas Day 1939.
The new year brought a new look to the squadron with the arrival of Wirraway A20-26 on January 11. This was the first camouflaged aircraft in the squadron and the remainder of the Wirraways were eventually changed to the new paint scheme.
Construction of the RAAF Station was sufficiently advanced in January that W/Cdr Eaton, F/Lt Leleu and Sergeant Major Grendon were able to occupy their married quarters and the Barracks Store could also be used.
A Unit Concert was held on 6 February to celebrate the squadron’s first anniversary. Many of the personnel who attended this concert were also present at RAAF Laverton on 6 February 1989 to celebrate the squadron’s 50th anniversary.
With the Civil Drome being a ‘Prohibited Place’ and with petrol, bombs and pyrotechnics being stored in re- mote locations around the airfield perimeter there was always the need for the airmen to stand a guard. The squadron’s Operations Record Book relates an incident which occurred on the night of 4 March 1940.
“Shots fired at unknown intruder at Civil Aerodrome, DARWIN. At approximately 2230 hours an airman whilst on beat as roving picquet along the petrol and bomb dumps had to challenge two persons unknown for trespassing. On the order ‘halt who goes there’ no reply was given and the two persons concerned ran away. The sentry again gave the order,’Halt’ but they kept on running, the sentry then fired three shots at them, but with no result.”
The Record Book entry two weeks later reveals;
“A searchlight was brought into operation in connection with guard duties. The searchlight is switched on at odd intervals, the beam of which is made to traverse the boundary fence on the west side of the aerodrome. If trespassers were in the vicinity of petrol and bomb dumps along this fence they would be revealed immediately.”
This searchlight was located beside No 1 Bellman Hangar, adjacent to the squadron ambulance and fire tender.
Another ‘unauthorised trespasser’ is remembered by Dick Veasey;
“Dr Clyde Fenton, the Flying Doctor, failed to stop on the order of the guard at the main gate. The CO convened a mock court martial with squadron members in the usual positions. Dr Fenton took it all in good part and was fined a barrel of beer, which we all shared.”
Spares support in such a remote locality caused Ted Roberts and the other maintenance personnel many problems;
“On the maintenance side of the Ansons of ‘A’ and ‘B’ Flights, we had many headaches with the lack of spares. We used to fly periodic patrols down as far as Broome and we had ‘Aggies’ hanging in the air by their bootstraps, al- most literally. One of the main deficiencies was exhaust ring assemblies and eventually we had a number of aircraft return from Broome with flattened roofing iron patches wired over holes in the exhaust system.”
12 SQUADRON AND THE WHARFIES
As has been previously mentioned, Darwin was dependent on shipping for most of its supplies, so when the waterside workers held strikes in early 1940 it was found necessary to use the military to unload vital supplies from three ships. Cec Fisher was present at the showdown with the waterside workers;
“It resulted in a real fracas. They had gone on strike for ridiculous reasons and barricaded the wharf entrances leaving the ships idle. These ships carried essential materials, foodstuffs including perishables, coal for the power house and, worst of all, our bulk liquor supplies. The orders were given to unload the ships. We did – and damaged many wharfies in the process! We did not have much trouble with them after that.”
Between the 4th and 6th of April 1940 12 Squadron officers and airmen in co-operation with Naval and Army personnel, unloaded 700 tons of coal from the SS Montoro.
Jim Truscott was with the RAAF team;
“We unloaded coal from the ships. The RAAF and Army shovelled the coal into baskets while the RAN drove the winches and the trains. Every man in the RAAF was detailed to do his turn, even the CO and the doctor did their share. As an act of thanks Burns Philp donated one crate of beer to each service mess – nine crates total! A ‘generous’ offer seeing they saved thousands of pounds in the unloading.”
Dick Veasey believes that;
“We created a record for the unloading of coal from the ships which I think was never beaten.”
These incidents were reflected in one of the cartoons drawn by Fitter IIA G G ‘Pony’ Brown for the ‘RAAF News Summary for Christmas 1940.
F/O K.C.H. EKINS AND THE PUSSER’S DUCK
To assist in the squadron’s air to air gunnery training programme a No 9 Squadron Seagull V, known as the ‘Pusser’s Duck’, had been sent to Darwin from Rathmines to perform target towing duties. The aircraft A2-17 arrived on 22 November 1939. It was flown by F/O K.C.H. Ekins who made a lasting impression on many of the 12 Squadron members including Cec Fisher;
“He was always in strife because of his wild, uncontrollable mischief. A compulsive gambler he was, however, one of the most likeable and interesting characters I have ever met. He was attached to us for six weeks and stayed for nearly six months.
Air to Air gunnery practice began in earnest with both Ansons and Wirraways doing front gunnery and then gunnery from the air gunners and observers in the back. Ekin’s ‘Duck’ carried several drogues and flags and after each firing detail he would come back and drop his target at the hangar door. He boasted that he could drop them on a theepenny bit and took fiendish delight in draping parked civil aircraft with his flags.”
A popular pastime amongst squadron members was to fly with Ekins on extended test flights. It was quite coin- cidental that these ‘test flights’ were all done at low level amongst the mangroves in some of the local estuaries. The passengers were able to unload a great deal of lead from the single Lewis Gun mounted in the bow cockpit of the air- craft, much to the dismay of the Darwin crocodile population.
On another occasion a main inspection plate had been removed from the hull of the ‘Duck’ so as to keep the aircraft cool in the tropical heat. Ekins and a party on a mud crabbing expedition alighted on the water across the harbour having forgotten about the removal of the inspection plate. The aircraft sank! Fortunately the engine, which was mounted high behind the wings, remained clear of the water. Ekins and his party continued with their crabbing and at low tide taxied the ‘Duck’ up the beach, allowed it to drain, then took off for Darwin with a load of mud crabs.
One day during the air gunnery exercises Ted Roberts was walking from the Guinea Airways hangar across a plank walk over a very large storm water drain;
“At the start of the plank I met ‘Moth’ Eaton and so I stood back to let him take precedence in crossing the bridge. He said excitedly,’Look at this, its inevitable!’ From where we were standing we could plainly see two Ansons taxiing up to the hangar closely followed by the ‘Duck’. Sure enough No 2 Anson braked as No 1 slowed and the poor old ‘Duck’ with no brakes at all just waddled over one stabiliser and elevator of the Anson and also dingled the rudder with the leading edge of its lower mainplane. I don’t know if ‘Moth’ was able to declare himself a witness as well as chairman of the Board of Inquiry.”
Ekins was also reputed to have earned a place in Naval history by hauling a fish up from the water to his cabin porthole alongside the gangway just as an Admiral was boarding the ship for an inspection. Cec Fisher said that when Ekins and the ‘Duck’ finally left;
“We somehow felt a little poorer with the cheeky little beggar’s departure.”
FUN IN THE SUN
The first five months of 1940 had seen the squadron carrying out a full programme of training, patrolling, naval escorts and search missions. Having settled into life at the Civil Drome the squadron members were able to take advantage of the recreational opportunities offered by the local area.
Trips in the local luggers were a popular pastime and the sergeants received permission from the CO to go on a fishing trip in the Arafura Sea. Bad weather delayed their return and even a search by squadron aircraft failed to locate them. They eventually returned after having taken shelter on one of the many islands.
Swimming at one of the many local beaches also proved popular, but it was soon found to be quite dangerous during the wet season. Jimmy Truscott still bears the scars and burn marks from a Portugese Man-of-War. Vinegar and Reckitt’s Blue did little to soothe his painful stings.
Sporting activities proved popular but exhausting in the tropical climate. A cement cricket pitch was built be- tween the runways on the Drome and an inter-hut cricket competition was begun. The squadron formed a cricket team that played against local clubs and also entered a football team in the Darwin Football Association competition.
As for the town, Cec Fisher recalls that there was always something to do. There was;
“…the partly open air Star Theatre hosted by the genial Tom Harris – Tomaris to the local aboriginals;
…the dance hall with its good orchestra – because of the preponderance of males, a partner was not easy to get but the music was always good to listen to;
…Chinatown which was always an interesting place to visit and in which at night many of us tried to make our fortunes at Ins and Outs and Fantan;
…the famous or infamous Don Hotel, nicknamed ‘The Bloodhouse’ which was the haunt of the wharfies, many of whom were refugees from the southern law.”
As the year progressed some of the original members were posted back south, but a steady stream of inwards postings resulted in the squadron strength as at 31 May being 27 officers, 3 air cadets and 209 airmen. With the new RAAF Station nearing completion and the need to have more squadrons in the area for the protection of the northern coast, No 12 Squadron was broken up on 1 June 1940 on direction from the Air Board by Signal O.539 dated 27.5.1940. Almost the entire strength of the Squadron HQ formed the new Station HQ and most of the personnel and all the Anson aircraft of ‘A’ and ‘B’ Flights became No 13 Squadron under the command of S/Ldr ‘Sammy’ Balmer. 13 Squadron was the first and only squadron ever to be formed in the Northern Territory. ‘C’ Flight personnel and their Wirraways remained as No 12 Squadron. W/Cdr Eaton was appointed Officer Commanding RAAF Station Darwin and F/Lt Clarence P Glasscock assumed command of 12 Squadron.
Glasscock had joined the RAAF in 1932 and was posted to 12 Squadron on 17 April 1940. Later in the war he was awarded the DFC whilst commanding No 30 Squadron flying Beaufighters in New Guinea. He was killed on air operations near Cape Hoskins Strip, New Britain on September 19, 1943.
By August, Station HQ and No 13 Squadron, now re-equipped with Hudson bombers, had moved to the new RAAF Station. Due to the lack of accommodation at the new Station the much depleted 12 Squadron was left in residence at the Civil Drome. The squadron would eventually be built up to three flights but it would be another nine months before it would be able to move to the comparative luxury of the hangars and quarters built for it at the RAAF Station.
It was ironic that just after 13 Sqn had replaced their Ansons with Hudsons a shipload of Anson spares arrived in Darwin. It was promptly about faced and sent back south.
John Gerber joined the squadron in June 1940 as a Corporal Air Observer. John flew with many of the replacement pilots;
“Some of them held civil certificates and were given service training on Wapitis and Demons. These included Peter Smith, Tom Philp, Colin Munro and John Hickey, all of whom were from Queensland. Later arrivals were George Shave, Brian ‘Foxy’ Todd, Bert Hayes and Cyril Stark. The first of the EATS pilots were Lou Wettenhall and Allan Tutt.
The Air Observers with the squadron were Tim Clarke, Reg Hackshall and Wally Cox. Jim Yeatman and I were posted in from 23 Sqn and Alex Spooner from 25 Sqn. To overcome the shortage of Observers four wireless operators were taken from 13 Sqn and trained as Observers with 12 Sqn. These were Joe Werner, Keith ‘Flag’ Avery, Bruce Beales and Peter Fisken. The first EATS trained observers to arrive were Col Harvey and Arthur Jaggs.”
The dust and weather conditions of the Northern Territory were taking their toll on the aircraft. At regular intervals several machines would be flown to Laverton, where they would be replaced by new aircraft and returned to Dar- win. In 1940 aeroplanes of all types were regularly flying across the Australian continent but a return flight from Dar- win to Laverton was still quite an adventure. Jim Truscott undertook one of these flights with P/O John Hickey in Wirraway A20-8. They departed Darwin on 12 July 1940 and this account of the flight is taken from Jim’s notes;
“Before leaving Darwin the machines were cannibalised so that we only had bare aircraft with not even a com- pass. As a guide for our course we followed the telegraph line to Alice Springs then the train line to Port Pirie. We left Darwin in the early morning and landed at Daly Waters where we refuelled by hand pump from 44 gallon drums. This method was used at all refuelling stops.
Our next stop was Tennant Creek where we blew our tail wheel. We had no means of repairing the tyre so it meant hard, rough landings from then on. Alice Springs was our overnight stop and the next morning our first refuel was Oodnadatta. After landing at Farina we found there was no petrol so it was on to Maree for fuel.
From Maree the winds were so strong we went into wide formation and flew lower than the telephone wires and just higher than the railway fence, only coming together again to go through the Flinders Ranges Pass. We landed at Port Pirie at dusk and checked the fuel in our tanks. Satisfied that we had enough we took off for Parafield following the coast and traffic on the road and landed safely in the dark.
The next morning, Sunday, we left for Laverton but because of fog around Ararat we returned to Nhill where we refuelled and stayed overnight. We arrived safely at Laverton on the Monday and the chaps there were amazed at the deteriorated condition of the aircraft.
Eventually after a long delay our new Wirraways arrived. They were A20-89, 90 and 91. Preparing to leave on a Monday morning the engine of my aircraft A20-91 caught fire. The fire was put out, repair work carried out and the next morning we left for Richmond in New South Wales. We were climbing in the cloud and losing formation when the controls started to freeze. I was standing, looking over and talking to the pilot when he suggested that we return. I agreed. We carried out a steep turn and after eventually seeing a hole in the cloud we dived to sunshine and found our way to Richmond.
After refuelling we all left for an overnight stop at Scone. Early next morning our engine cut out with a bang and we managed to land safely amongst tree stumps and sheep. The other two aircraft landed and we all helped to change the carburettor with the spare we were carrying. We took off for Coonamble then Bourke where the pilot, realizing he was overshooting a little and heading for a railway embankment, slewed and ground looped smashing the wing and undercarriage. Replacements were brought from Richmond and we did repairs good enough to fly.
We left with an unserviceable aircraft though, as one wheel would not retract. After overnights at Cloncurry and Newcastle Waters we arrived at Darwin where everybody was out to welcome us home. Was I glad to see the township of Darwin below then put my feet on the ground to stay.”
Another ground crew member who was glad to get out of a Wirraway was Reg Wood. Cec Fisher and some of the other fitters had bet him that he could not fit into a Wirraway cockpit;
“He did, but the sides had to be taken off to get him out, plus several pints of beer to prevent him from dehydrating in the tropical heat!”
Anticipating that their role in any conflict would include attacks against shipping and interception of aircraft, the squadron continued with its advanced training programme. On 18 July squadron aircraft in conjunction with 13 squadron carried out mock bomb attacks on the HMAS Manoora. The squadron also displayed its air defence capabilities when four Wirraways intercepted and escorted a Percival Q6 flown by The Honourable J V Fairbairn, Minister for Air, enroute to Darwin for a tour of inspection. All this training looked as if it would be put to the test when, on September 10, a striking force of six Wirraways were bombed up and put on standby at the RAAF Drome. The 12 Squadron crews waited anxiously as 13 Squadron aircraft searched for an unidentified ship that had been sighted in the Timor Sea. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when the ship was identified as the Greek freighter Elias G Kulukundis.
Because of the tedious nature of the squadron’s duties some of the pilots pushed their aircraft almost to the limit in a search for excitement. F/O John Hickey was doing a spot of low flying in a Wirraway, along the beach near Rap- id Creek, when his propeller hit the sand. With the blades bent back at right angles about 9 inches from tips he performed a long flat turn out to sea and flew home up the Rapid Creek Road. He was not much more than tree top level when he crossed the perimeter of the airfield and the aircraft dropped onto the deck as soon as the undercarriage was lowered. Cec Fisher recalled that the CO had to get tough with Wirraway pilots who were coming home with salt spray on their wingtips and John Hickey spent a prolonged period as Orderly Officer.
As Christmas 1940 approached Fitter G G ‘Pony” Brown, the squadron’s unofficial artist, prepared an RAAF ‘News Summary’ showing some of the funnier events that had taken place during the year. These were sent as Christmas cards to many loved ones back down south.
With the formation of ‘C’ Flight, on 21 January 1941, 12 Squadron was once again operating three flights, with a total of 15 aircraft. F/O John Hickey was appointed as ‘C’ Flight Commander. While advanced bombing and gunnery training remained a high priority the squadron continued flying anti-submarine patrols, shipping escorts, reconnaissance and a coastal patrol which eventually covered the area from Port Headland to Millingimbi. Interestingly, one aspect of the duties of the coastal patrols was to keep a close watch on luggers operating along the coast. Many of these vessels were Japanese. Because of the very large distances involved in the coastal patrols it was necessary to have refuelling and other facilities at various airfields. By 1941, Advanced Operating Bases (AOBs) had been established at Port Headland, Wyndham, Derby, Broome, Bathurst Is., Drysdale River Mission and Millingimbi. The only way to transport bombs to many of the AOBs was by air and aircraft on coastal patrol often carried a full bomb load which they delivered to an AOB.
The squadron suffered its second fatal aircraft accident on 15 March 1941 when Wirraway A20-132 crashed near Adelaide River Railway Station. Both the pilot, F/O F B ‘Pete’ Smith, and the Observer, SGT Wally J Cox, were killed.
A NEW HOME
The long awaited move from the Civil Drome to the RAAF Station took place on 1 April 1941 and the squadron commenced operations immediately. Just as this move took place the last of the original members of the squadron, including Reg Wood and Cec Fisher, were posted back south.
In May 1941, No 12 Squadron came under the command of Group Captain F W F Lukis, Air Officer Commanding Northern Area with his headquarters in Townsville. By 31 May the squadron’s aircraft strength had in- creased to 18. This number was increased on 13 July when a Fairey Battle aircraft, No L5791, flown by F/O J H Harper, arrived for target towing duties. F/O Harper was relieved later in the month by SGT Doug Cruickshank. Joe Werner recalls the effect of the arrival of the Battle;
“The arrival of a new type of aircraft in Darwin at that time meant that every other pilot wanted to get his hands on it and consequently Doug Cruickshank had a very lean time as a pilot and became very unhappy. It was decided that Doug should do a bit of flying in Wirraways to keep in practice. At that time a lot of trouble was being experienced with the interrupter gear during pilot gunnery training and it was not uncommon for propeller blades to be holed by bullets from the two front guns. I understand that pilots were supposed to be alert to any possibility of trouble, usually indicated by longer bursts of firing, and to cease firing immediately if in any doubt. I don’t know if Doug knew about this because he came back from his first gunnery exercise against a towed target with about four holes in each prop blade and this earned him some sort of record. I know it was possible to flex each blade an inch or so back and forth with the thumb and forefinger. Doug said at the time that he thought he was getting in some good long bursts for a change.”
Besides using towed drogues for gunnery practice the squadron was also using ‘Shadow Targets’. This involved one aircraft flying over water in sunny conditions, while the other aircraft used its shadow as a target. While this provided good training, great care needed to be exercised because of the low altitude at which the operation was carried out.
During 1941 there was a general awareness of the probability of war with Japan. At RAAF Station Darwin slit trenches were being dug and air raid and anti-gas drills were being carried out. Black-outs and dispersal of aircraft around the airfield were also practiced. It was perhaps prophetic that during large scale manoeuvres held in cooperation with units of the AIF and RAN on 5th and 6th of August, it was found necessary for 12 Squadron to deploy to Batchelor. But the war had not yet come to Darwin and it was still possible to indulge in activities common in the peacetime Air Force. Such was the case in August 1941 when a unit dinner was held at the Hotel Darwin to farewell S/Ldr Glasscock and welcome the new Commanding Officer, S/Ldr Peter Parker. Most members of the squadron at- tended the dinner and the toast, ‘The King’, was proposed by the junior member present, AC1 P E J Clay.
S/Ldr Parker had served in Malaya prior to his posting to 12 Squadron. He eventually retired from the RAAF in 1968 after a most interesting and varied career. He was awarded the DFC and AFC, served in the UK and USA, and participated in 14 operational sorties in South Vietnam in 1965.
THE SQUADRON BADGE
About this time a squadron badge was designed and submitted for approval. The central motif was a water buffalo head in front of two crossed boomerangs. The proposed motto on the badge was “NGILLIMURR MARACHINA MAKARRDA”, an aboriginal phrase, the TRUE meaning of which seems to have been lost over the years. Various translations have been given.
The Koolminda College of the Summer Institute of Linguistics believe the motto came from the Gupapuyngu language, which is used by the aboriginies in the Millingimbi area and means “ALL OF US GO UPWARDS”. They also say that the correct spelling should be NGILIMURRU MARRTJINA MAKARRATA.
Andy Kelso had Miss Joyce Ross, an aboriginal linguist of Yirrkala translate the motto in 1974. She said it is in the Yirrkala (Gove) language and means “WE COME FOR PEACE”, or literally, “THE PEACE MAKING CEREMONY”.
Whelan of the Northern Territory Department of Aboriginal Affairs, in reply to an inquiry by Jim Purdon, explained how it is the Djapu language used in East Arnhemland and means “WE GO TO WAR”. He/she also corrected the spelling to NGILIMURR MARRTJINA MAKARRDA.
Perhaps a compromise might be “ALL OF US GO UPWARDS TO WAR, IN PEACE”???? It is probably fortunate that when the badge was finally approved by the King, in September 1943, the motto had been changed to the Latin “ERRAMUS ET IMPUGNAMUS” – the meaning of which is clear – “WE ROAM AND WE CHARGE”.
FAREWELL TO “MOTH”
In October, Eaton was replaced as OC RAAF Station Darwin by G/Capt F R W Scherger, AFC. Such was the respect for Eaton that an elaborate stage show, ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ (A Burlesque), was produced as his official fare- well. The show was held in the recreation hall at the RAAF Station and was produced by the 12 Squadron Adjutant P/ O S C von Alwyn.
On December 7, 1941 Japan entered the war and the squadron prepared for action. All members were recalled from leave and flights were dispersed to Bathurst Is., Batchelor and the Civil Drome. In the midst of these activities S/ Ldr Brian ‘Blackjack’ Walker arrived to take over command of the squadron. ‘Blackjack’ Walker was a well known RAAF pilot during World War II. He later commanded No 30 Squadron, leading them on numerous strikes against heavily defended Japanese targets at Buna, Lae and Salamaua. For his service whilst commanding 30 Squadron he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
On 15 January 1942, the Air Board removed the Northern Territory from Northern Area and formed a new North Western Area under the command of Air Commodore W E L Wilson. His headquarters was established at the RAAF Station at Darwin.
Prior to the Japanese raids on Darwin, 12 Squadron flights had been variously dispersed at Bathurst Is., the Civil Drome, the RAAF Station, Batchelor and, for a few days, Daly Waters. On 19 February, Squadron HQ, ‘B’ and ‘C’ Flights were located at Batchelor while ‘A’ Flight was located at the Civil Drome.
Towards the end of January, the presence of a Japanese carrier force in the Flores Sea had been reported. The Japanese Naval Staff had ordered the Nagumo Force (Admiral Nagumo) to rendezvous with Admiral Yamaguchi at Palau Is. on 15 February and to attack Darwin. The Nagumo Force consisted of: The aircraft carriers Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu, combined, capable of carrying 84 light bombers, 84 dive bombers and 84 fighters; the heavy cruisers Tone, Chikuma, Maya and Takao; and nine destroyer escorts. This was the same force, commanded by the same Admirals which had carried out the devastating attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941. Early on the morning of 19 February 1942, this force reached a position 220 miles NNW of Darwin, and launched a strike force of 187 aircraft (80 ‘Kate’ level bombers, 71 ‘Val’ dive bombers and 36 ‘Zero’ fighters) led by Commander Mitsuo Fuchida.
Fuchida had also led the Pearl Harbour raid just over ten weeks earlier. The Japanese attack on Darwin began at 0955 hrs. The squadron Operations Record Book contains the simple entry;
“1942 Feb 19 – Information was received at approximately 1000 hours from DARWIN that enemy aircraft were overhead.”
The first attack lasted about 30 minutes and was followed up at 1158 hrs by another raid, this time by 54 land based aircraft, 27 Mitsubishi G4M Type 1 ‘Betty’ bombers and 27 GM3 ‘Nell’ bombers, from the 23rd and 21st Air Flotillas, operating out of Kendari and Ambon.
‘A’ Flight, located at the Civil Drome, was in the area bombed. The squadron suffered no casualties but two of its aircraft, A20-232 at the Civil Drome and A20-180 at the RAAF Station were damaged by shrapnel. P/O Humphrey Champion de Crespigny, a graduate of No 13 EATS course who had joined the squadron on Christmas Eve 1941, was at the Civil Drome when The Japanese attacked;
“The equipment store at the RAAF Station was badly bombed and set alight and, being perhaps over-patriotic, we hijacked a truck and moved five loads of Wirraway parts back to the Civil Drome. As it turned out this was very badly planned, because the Army, in the meantime, pinched all the booze from the messes – which were temporarily deserted.”
The squadron’s Wirraways were vastly inferior to the Japanese fighters which escorted the raids, and were only saved from anihilation in combat by a signal that had been issued on 21 January 1942. The signal from Headquarters North Western Area had instructed that;
“Wirraways are reserved only for dive bombing and not to be used in the fighter role.”
The day after the raid, all servicable squadron aircraft were bombed up and standing by for operations, obviously anticipating a Japanese invasion. On the 21st, searches were begun for survivors from ships that had been at- tacked. 17 survivors were located by P/O Lou Wettenhall, and during a sortie to drop supplies later in the day he succeeded in sighting an additional 20. SGT R W Crawford, in the meantime, had located wreckage and three dead bodies on the beach at Bathurst Is. On the 23rd, Sgt Crawford succeeded in locating the Motor Vessel Koolama. All hands including three injured were saved.
With the threat of imminent invasion, the anti-submarine and coastal patrols took on a new significance. Also, Army cooperation tasks, including message, supply and ammunition drops; anti-aircraft and searchlight crew training; and photographic and reconnaissance sorties became more frequent. S/Ldr Walker was able to take pride in the fact that his squadron had ‘stayed put’ during this time and had continued to operate effectively.
On 11 March, ‘A’ Flight proceeded to Batchelor to join the remainder of the squadron. John Gerber recalls;
“After the bombing of Darwin things were grim. ‘Dad’ Bladin (appointed as AOCNWA on 25 March 1942) came and briefed 12 Squadron aircrew. ‘We expect them to land at Bynoe Harbour. We’ll let them land and then throw you chaps in. We don’t expect any of you back, but by that time we’ll have a couple more squadrons up from the South!’ Good stuff! At this time split flaps were introduced in the Wirraway to improve their dive bombing char- acteristics. After a couple of aircraft pulled the wings off, this idea was not used – not by the hard heads anyway. Anti-personnel bombs were not available so the armourers fitted three feet of water pipe to the front of 250 lb GP bombs, fitted arming veins and away we went. Trials showed they were good for clearing scrub.”
Despite the increasing military presence in the north of Australia it was still a very remote place. Sgts Lex Dwyer and Warwick Carmody found this out when they made a forced landing on 20 March 1942. They had departed Batchelor in Wirraway A20-62, in company with the CO, ‘Blackjack’ Walker, and were conducting a coastal patrol enroute to Wyndham. Lex Dwyer recalls being;
“… on course over Joseph Bonaparte Gulf when A20-62 lost power and blew oil back over the windscreen and glasshouse, so I turned south and headed for the coast. Oil was a problem on goggles, in eyes and on the bare chest but the propeller was still wind-milling when we got to the coast. I turned west and put her down on the mud, wheels up, at about 1020 hrs.
We inspected a clear area nearby but decided that it was unsafe for a landing and waved ‘Blackjack’ off. We took an inspection cover off and scratched details of the aircraft on it and wedged it in a tee-tree a couple of hundred yards SE of the aircraft.
We took what little we had and started out for a water bore about 18 miles SSW. We camped one night on a bit of high ground in the salt marsh. The mosquitoes were bad so we made a smoke fire of swamp grass but were then invaded by every four-legged animal from miles around.”
On the 21st ‘Blackjack’ located the downed airmen and dropped food to them. Reaching the bore on the third day, Sgts Dwyer and Carmody settled down to tend to their blistered feet and await rescue. They did not have long to wait as the rescue party, which had already been despatched, reached them the next morning. The rescue was led by Charlie Pretlove out of Carlton Hill Station. During the ride to Ning Bing station, where they spent the night, Lex Dwyer once again came crashing to earth when his horse bolted and threw him. Warwick Carmody had chosen a more sedate mode of transport in the form of a donkey, which he reports had a strange effect on some of the locals;
“My mother had sent me up a large silk handkerchief which I was wearing under the tin hat inner. Some of the local aboriginal boys were ‘mission trained’ and with the donkey, the silk hanky and a few days growth of beard, they reckoned that it was the second coming. They had a corroboree that night, then went ‘walkabout’.”
The party finally reached Carlton Hill Station where the airmen were picked up by three squadron aircraft on 29 March.
With the squadron firmly established at Batchelor, ‘Blackjack’ Walker handed over command to F/Lt Ron Mac- Donald on 26 April 1942. MacDonald was granted the acting rank of Squadron Leader about a month later on 18 May.
Japanese attacks on Darwin continued and one raid, on ANZAC Day 1942, was intercepted by Curtiss P-40s of the USAAC 49th Pursuit Group. One of the flight leaders, LT Sims, succeeded in shooting down a bomber but a shot out oil line forced him to land on Bathurst Island. When he did not return from the engagement, No 12 squadron co- operated with the USAAC in mounting a search. The P-40 was located at Bathurst Is on the next day and P/O Humphrey de Crespigny flew out to the island with a USAAC mechanic and returned LT Sims to his base at Adelaide River.
It was an incident with a P40 on 26 April that earned SGT Warwick Carmody his nickname of ‘Flash’;
“In early April 1942, the American manned P40s went on standby at Batchelor strip. Fully armed, full of fuel and with the pilots in the cockpit these aircraft sat at the end of the strip awaiting aerial action. Instructions to other crews were to land upwind or downwind over or by the P40s. On 26 April SGT ‘Lew’ Dwyer (pilot) and I came in from Darwin and we landed downwind by the half dozen P40s on standby. After running the full length of the strip Lew turned off about 90 degrees to port. Apparently the P40s were ordered to get airborne. The first one staggered off the ground and I reckon he cleared our aerial by about five feet. Another quick glance down the strip showed a dual take-off with both aircraft staggering. That was enough for me! I slammed the parachute release and hopped over the side to Mother Earth. I reckon I could see the oil on the aircraft going over the top. The acting OC of the Flight, F/Lt Bert Hayes, had come along the strip in his Jeep and saw my rapid exit. He reckoned it was carried out in a flash and so the name ‘Flash’.
Strange as this action may seem, my log book shows that on the afternoon of 29 April 1942, an American General, Hal George was killed (standing by the Lockeed 10 in which he was travelling) by a staggering P40 trying to get airborne. He did not die immediately and a 13 Squadron Hudson stood by for a trip to hospital down south. Unfortunately he died that night. (Also killed in this incident was the USAAC 49th Fighter Group’s Personnel Adjutant, Leut Robert Jasper).
Needless to say Bert Hayes had little to say after the latter event.”
The arrival of Capt W J Catton (8th Infantry Brigade) as Army Liaison Officer on 28 May allowed the squadron to embark on an intensive training programme covering the use of small arms, airfield defence, Army organization, unarmed defence, bayonet drill and section leading. It very quickly became obvious that all this training was directed at repelling a possible Japanese invasion of Australia. A further indication of the possibility of invasion was the increased emphasis put on Army co-operation flying. The majority of this flying training was directed at supporting troops in the field during combat.
TO PELL AND BACK
The squadron was again on the move in July when they relocated to Pell Airfield at the 65 mile peg on the highway from Darwin. There was another fatal crash on 2 August during practice on the bombing range at Pine Creek. Wirraway, A20-544, lost the port wing during a practice dive bombing attack and crashed, killing the pilot, P/O R F Ellyard, and the Observer, Sgt A M Nicholls. Ellyard and Nicholls were buried at the Adelaide River War Cemetery the next day.
Major changes were being planned for the squadron and they are reflected in the August 1942 entry in the Operations Record Book;
“Aircraft Policy and Location of Squadron. Duringthe month it was learned that Air Board policy was that no further Wirraway aircraft would be allotted to No 12 Squadron and that as soon as available and after Squadrons’ Crews were trained, rearming with Vultee Vengeance, Dive Bomber Aircraft, would be carried out.
North Western Area advised on the 22nd AUGUST, 1942 that the Squadron was shortly to move to BATCH- ELOR to occupy the camp previously occupied by 46th Air Base Group when this camp was ready for occupation.”
The first four aircrew members departed for No 2 OTU at Mildura on 31 August to undergo a Vengeance Conversion Course.
7 SEP 1942 – 12 SQN (DB) SQUADRON FORMED
On 9 September 1942, F/L Cyril McPherson with George Taylor as his Nav/W, was ordered to fly to Melville Island to drop supplies of food and water and a mosquito net to a Kittyhawk pilot from 77 Squadron, who had made a forced landing there two days earlier. The 12 Squadron crew did not know the identity of the pilot, who was rescued by lugger two days later. It was not until 1993, when reading Robert Piper’s book ‘Great Air Escapes’ that Cyril learned that the pilot concerned was F/O John Gorton, who was to become Prime Minister of Australia in 1968.
By 16 September 1942 the squadron was once again located at Batchelor. Some permanent fixtures such as messes, kitchens, water supply and showers were already in place but sleeping accommodation was to be completely in tents. The conditions ‘in the bush’ are remembered by Chas Nottle who joined the squadron as a wireless mainte- nance mechanic on its return to Batchelor;
“I recall an unvarying routine and monotonous meals of Tom Piper bully beef, apricot jam, tinned butter (usually melted!), tinned cheese and the occasional heavenly change of REAL meat and proper butter. I can remember being very thankful for the camp canteen where one could splurge on tinned fruit and other such luxuries.
In my early days at Batchelor, as a 22 year old and a non drinker I was most popular whenever there was a beer issue. Needless to say, by the time I was eligible for the Sergeants Mess later in my service career, that had changed! Rest day was always welcome although a busy time, with the washing to be boiled up in a four gallon tin over the ‘doover’ and scrubbed on the bamboo slat table. Then the obligatory letter home, plus an original to the special girl- friend plus copies with the altered names to the other strings in the bow.
There was considerable excitement near one of the flight workshops on one occasion when an ants nest was demolished and coiled up underneath it was a python, which after being summarily despatched with a .303, was found to measure about 14 feet in length.
Showering was usually put off until later in the evening during the hottest weather, as the exposed pipeline conveying water to the camp was the equivalent of today’s technology of solar heating and could be hot enough to scald.
One popular source of entertainment was the camp amplifier system, operated mainly by we wireless mechanics as it was right next to our tent. We had quite a good selection of records and always closed down at night with Bing Crosby singing ‘Lullaby and Goodnight’. One of the aircrew was posted south so we had a quick whip round and gave him the money collected to buy more records to send up – we never did see any records so I guess he had a wonderful pub crawl on our money.”
BAD LUCK STRIKES WITH A VENGEANCE
On 3 October 1942, the 12 Squadron Officer’s Mess at Batchelor, which had been extended and improved over the previous month, was made a combined Officers and Aircrew Mess and all Aircrew NCOs of the unit became members. Despite the presence of the NCOs in the Mess that night there was little celebrating. One of the squadron Wirraways had gone missing that morning during the daily anti-submarine and coastal patrol (Darwin to Cape Forde) and searches by aircraft from 12 and 2 Squadrons had failed to find it. The search continued the next day with addi-tional assistance from P40 aircraft. The wreckage of the missing Wirraway, A20-503, was located by S/Ldr Ron Mac- Donald and F/SGT Dennis Holmes to the SW of Batchelor near Mt Litchfield. F/O Jack ‘Squizzy’ Taylor and an Army party were directed to the scene of the crash from Litchfield Station, but when they arrived they found both the pilot, P/O Peter Hughes, and the observer, SGT Stanislaus Corcoran, had been killed. Both men were buried at the Adelaide River War Cemetery by Padre Harper on 6 October.
24 October 1942 was also a bad day for No 12 Squadron. Not only did the Japanese bomb Batchelor but, more importantly, the squadron lost a cricket match to No 77 Squadron, which had recently arrived with No 76 Squadron to replace the USAAC 49th Fighter Group. The Japanese had attacked at approximately 0430 hours, dropping sticks of bombs across administrative buildings at OB Batchelor Headquarters. No RAAF personnel were injured and no squadron aircraft were damaged. Chas Nottle recalls;
“In all the time I was at Batchelor there was only one occasion we had to go for our slit trenches. I remember it was a clear moonlit night – the planes were clearly visible and we could even (so we reckoned!) hear the bomb releases click as they let their bombs go.”
In a desperate search for a small victory the squadron played cricket against No 2 Squadron the next day but once again 12 squadron was defeated. This run of bad luck continued on 28 October when one of the pilots, SGT E W Cosh was attacked by a crocodile while swimming in the Finnis River about 5 miles NW of Batchelor.
Even the arrival of the squadron’s first Vultee Vengeance aircraft, A27-8 (F/Lt Black) and A27-11 (SGT Pedder), was tainted with bad luck. Of the six aircraft that had set out from 1 Aircraft Depot (AD) at Laverton only two arrived on time on 30 October. Of the other aircraft two were awaiting spares and repairs at various places enroute while A27-14, flown by Bill Lockley was held up at Charleville due to the pilot being ill. Bill’s violin did not suffer being left in the back of the Vengeance for two weeks very well. The other aircraft A27-10 was written off after a landing accident at Oodnadatta. The embarrasment of only two out of six aircraft arriving on time was compounded by a loss to the US Army’s 102 Bn A/A Regt in a rifle match.
But with the end of ‘Black’ October came the end of the bad luck. On 1 November, 12 Squadron beat No 1 Mobile Works Squadron at cricket by an innings and 60 run – the drought was broken! The squadron was visited on 16 November by the Minister for Air, Mr A H Drakeford. He was accompanied by the Chief of the Air Staff, A/M Jones and the Air Officer Commanding North Western Area, A/Cdre Bladin.
Althought the Vengeances had been used widely in November for dive bombing demonstrations, their first operational sortie was not carried out until 2 December. On this day S/Ldr Macdonald and F/Lt Black flew two aircraft out to sea to protect Naval vessels against possible attack from enemy aircraft and cruisers.
On Christmas Eve the squadron’s new Padre, F/Lt David Bush, conducted a well attended service in the Sergeant’s Mess.
With the squadron once again settled in at Batchelor and with little likleyhood of a move in the near future, officers and airmen set about making the camp more comfortable. The Operations Record Book entries in January 1943 record;
“The official opening of the Recreation Hut took place on this date. (16.1.43) The Hut which is 60′ by 30′ was built entirely by members of the Unit. One portion of the building has been partitioned off, and is used as a Chapel and writing room. The remainder of the hut is occupied by reading tables and indoor games. The Hut is proving a wonderful asset and source of entertainment to the Airmen, and the attendance of 80 men each night is a true indication of the popularity of the place. Outside the building five Badminton and Deck Tennis courts have been laid down and each evening, all these courts are fully occupied.
During January, splendid progress was made with the Vegetable Garden which was commenced in November. A large and varied number of vegetables were planted and are now making rapid progress. Already Cucumbers have grown sufficiently enough to be served with meals.”
In the Aircrew Mess, improvements were being made all the time but everyone, including Jason Hopton, denied any knowledge of how the brass footrail, which had once resided in the Parap pub, had suddenly appeared in the mess. Life in the mess was usually quite lively on the night that the alcohol rations arrived. F/O Doug Scott who, along with F/O Jason Hopton, had joined the squadron in early 1943, recalls;
“The squadron received a grog issue every fortnight. That was the night the Army Officers paid us a visit. Naturally our issue of drink, which was supposed to last us the next two weeks, would be practically consumed in the one night. It was on just such an occassion, that Frank Blaubaum got a fit of the blues and decided to drown them in drink. No one took any notice, until someone said, ‘Where’s Blauby?’ No one knew, so a search was organized. Our camp tents were dispersed amongst the scrub and it was a fair-way between each tent, so it would be very easy in the dark to wander off and get lost. We made our way to Frank’s tent to check if he had turned in. Nearly there, we heard a call for help. We made our way to the sound and found Frank trying to claw his way out of a slit trench. He was kneeling down and couldn’t reach far enough up to lever himself out. Someone shone a torch into the trench and told him he had better hurry up or the snake would beat him out. Frank seemed to have gathered some strength and height from somewhere, because next second he was on the bank of the trench looking back to see the snake. It had disappeared.”
One of the squadron’s tasks was to carry out a daily patrol along the coastline from Darwin, south-west to Cape Ford, looking out for possible enemy activity around the several bays and inlets on this stretch of coast. The squadron also provided a service to some of the remote Army and RAAF observation and radar stations along the coast by deliverering mail and fresh rations to the airmen and soldiers isolated in such places as Peron Island and Red Cliff.
Cyril McPherson flew many of these patrols;
“Originally the patrol was flown in a Wirraway armed with 2 X 250 lb anti-submarine bombs. When the squadron converted to the Veangeance, it retained a flight of Wirraways for several months and these continued to be used on this patrol until about mid April 1943, after which the job was taken over by Vengeances.
This patrol, which took off at first light every morning, was known in the squadron as the ‘Bread Run’, because every couple of days the aircraft involved would drop a supply of fresh bread to airmen manning a radar station on Peron Island at the northern end of Anson Bay. The method adopted was crude in the extreme when compared with later developments in supply dropping techniques using special containers attached to parachutes. There were no such refinements in this particular case, as the loaves of bread were simply wrapped and tied securely in a couple of layers of hessian or jute sacks and while such wrapping would not have done much to protect the bread when it hit the ground at about 100 mph, at least it prevented it from disintegrating into breadcrumbs.
At the same time, mail for the airmen concerned was also dropped, and early in 1943, arrangements were made for the ‘Bread Run’ aircraft to make a regular weekly pick up of outward mail from the island. This was an interesting exercise, requiring a fair degree of flying skill on the part of the pliot concerned. The bundle of mail would be attached to the lower end of a loop of rope which was strung about ten feet above the ground between two poles about ten feet apart. Operating through the Wirraway camera hatch, the navigator would lower a special hook attached to the under- side of the fuselage. The pilot would then have to fly just above the poles in order to pick up the loop with the hook and the navigator would then haul in the loop to retrieve the bundle of mail. As the hook extended only about a foot below the radius of the airscrew, this particular trick called for accurate flying and in turbulent conditions it was some- times necessary to make two or three passes before collecting the mail.”
Doug Scott was also involved in some of these resupply sorties;
“The only way to get perishable food to the fellows was by air. We would fly over and attract their attention. They would then indicate where they wanted the drop to be made. The pilot made a couple of dummy runs, to get the feeling of the wind effect, speed and direction of flight. Then we’d make our first run for the drop. I can remember on one occassion I dropped the bag of bread a bit late and it bounced through the mess tent.
It was quite amusing to see the chaps tearing around in their birthday suits, picking up the packages from where they finished bouncing. They were always very grateful even though sometimes our drops weren’t as accurate as our pride would have liked them to be. The last chore was to pick up the mail. This required pretty accurate flying and quite often required more than one run, but eventually he would make it and there would be cheers and hand waving from the lads, as we made the final salute fly past and headed for home base.”
The special apparatus used to pick up the mail and messages had been devised and developed by No 12 Squadron.
On regular flight that was a little out of the ordinary at Batchelor was the meteorological flight very early each morning. Jim Purdon was one of the pilots that flew these sorties.
“The flight was in a Wirraway specially equiped with a barometer and thermometer attached by a broad strap to the wing root. The standard procedure was to take-off as soon as there was sufficient light to see the instruments and climb at an exact 200 feet per minute for as high as the aircraft would go – usually about 16,000 feet. Recordings were made by the Nav/W each 200 feet. No oxygen and the kite was sluggish nearing the top.
Getting down again was easy – a controlled spin – one hour and twenty minutes to reach 16,000 feet and another five to ten minutes to be back on the ground and switch off. Base was spiralled throughout the exercise. On at least one occasion – not with me – the instruments detached during the spin much to the disgust of the Met. Officer.
I can’t remember Vengeance aircraft being used and I did not fly them in that exercise. On an odd occasion when bottled beer was available, they chilled very nicely stowed firmly behind the rear seat. No risk with that precious cargo!”
During this period one of the squadron’s flights would often operate out of the AOB at Millingimbi, conducting anti-submarine patrols along the Arnhemland coast. During these deployments the flight would eat at the Methodist Mission. SGT Bob Logan, a pilot who had joined the squadron in July 1942 remembers eating at the Mission;
“We were served by topless young aboriginal girls, who when serving food leant over the seated airman’s shoulders. Very disconcerting for the young innocents.
Showering was carried out at a secluded area well away from females but the young male aborigines were fascinated by the white airmen. They would laugh uproariously and pointing at certain parts of the anatomy would cry out ‘YINDI GORKA’, which roughly translated meant ‘Big P ‘”.
It was while carrying out an anti-submarine patrol out of Millingimbi AOB, on 25 February 1943, that F/O Cyril McPherson suffered an engine failure in his Wirraway, A20-545. Luckily, he was close to land and managed to make a wheels up landing in some swampy land in the centre of Howard Island. Cyril McPherson continues;
“Fortunately we were operating in pairs and my partner, F/O Berry Newman, saw me go down. He was later able to contact the Methodist Mission on Elcho Island and two days later two missionaries, Rev Frank Ellemore and Harold Shepherdson, came to our rescue in the mission lugger. They took my observer, P/O Lindsay ‘Joe’ Hope, and myself to Elcho and a couple of days later shipped us back to Millingimbi.
Apart from a bent airscrew and flaps, the Wirraway was not badly damaged and a few months later, during the dry season, a salvage party from an RSU was ferried to the island by the Navy. They repaired the aircraft and cleared a rough airstrip from which one of our squadron pilots, F/Lt Barry Keys, flew it back to our Headquarters at Batchelor. I was told later that the expedition to salvage the aircraft came about as the result of an argument at the RSU when one officer bet a colleague that it could not be done, but I cannot vouch for the truth of this story.”
A NEW BOSS
There were several fighter squadrons providing defence for Darwin in early 1943. On 15 March, S/Ldr R E Thorold-Smith, the CO of 452 Squadron, was killed during an engagement with the Japanese. S/Ldr Ron MacDonald was appointed as his successor three days later and the command of 12 Squadron went to the ‘B’ Flight Commander, F/ Lt John Hooper (granted Acting Squadron Leader rank on 1 May 43). While in command of No 12 Squadron Ron MacDonald had been mentioned in despatches. His citation read in part;
“This officer has been in command of No 12 Squadron since 26 April 1942, and by his leadership in the air has made his squadron one of the best disciplined flying units in the area… By his qualities of command and leadership, he has set a splendid example to the members of his squadron and developed a strong fighting spirit throughout his unit.”
John Hooper was no stranger to combat. He had been a member of No 21 Squadron, stationed at Sungei Patani in Malaya, in December 1941. Just one day after Japan entered the war, John found himself flying a Brewster Buffalo in a dog-fight against six Zero fighters. It is a tribute to his flying skills that he escaped this combat unscathed. One week later, he survived a crash landing in a paddy field where his Buffalo overturned three times.
DEATH IN THE SQUADRON
On 1 April, Doug Scott had a narrow escape from death;
“I was detailed to fly with SGT Spedding in a formation flight. F/O Newman had arranged the crews. I was sitting in the aircraft, waiting for SGT Spedding when SGT Walker came up and asked me what I was doing in the aircraft. He said that he had been detailed by F/O Newman to fly with SGT Spedding. He took a bit of persuading, but eventually I convinced him that it was better for him to fly as he was new to the squadron and needed to familiarise himself with the countryside. So I got out and he got in. I was walking back to the briefing room when SGT Thompson called me over and asked if I would fly with him. I said ‘OK’ and climbed into his aircraft.
The schedule of the flight was to form ‘V’ formation and climb to 8 000 ft, then tight-turn dive, keeping on each others tail, until at 2 000 ft break off, reform, climb to 8 000 ft, change the leader and repeat the performance. We were on the last detail with F/O Newman in the lead, SGT Thompson second and SGT Spedding as ‘Tail End Charlie’. Suddenly, Spedding made a move to get past us and pull in on Newman’s tail. My pilot veered away as the aircraft cut in in front of us. We watched as Spedding dived and pulled into a very tight turn to get onto Newman’s tail. Suddenly, his plane flicked over and went into a flat spin. We watched, horrified, as the aircraft continued to fall. Then it hit the ground. It was obvious that no one could have survived. We left Berry Newman to make a closer check while we made for the base to report the crash.
The enquiry, at which I had to give evidence, found that the aircraft had crashed through misadventure.”
Jason Hopton was one of the group who was detailed to put the bodies in the coffins;
“The lovely padre, F/Lt David Bush, said,’I’ve got a bottle of brandy which we might drink afterwards or we can bribe the nurses to do the deed and put the lads into the boxes.’ We gladly gave up the grog!”
Just over a month later Doug Scott witnessed another tragic accident. On 15 May, Vengeance A27-5 crashed during take-off for a ferry flight to 2AD, Richmond. The pilot was F/O D C Wilmot, of Ferry Flight, Laverton and the navigator was SGT Cotter of 31 Squadron. Doug was returning to the mess with Jason Hopton as the aircraft was taking off;
“We watched from behind as the Vultee became airborne, then suddenly we could see flames coming from the engine and the plane started to lose height. He didn’t have enough strip left to make a landing and crashed into the scrub.
I belted on the cabin roof of the truck and yelled to the driver to change course. We tore down the strip to where the aircraft sat amid smoke and dust and flames. We found the pilot and navigator near the aircraft; somehow they had been thrown clear. I dashed over to the pilot, whose clothes and helmet were alight, and put out the flames. I had to cut the helmet from the pilot’s head; it had shrunk and tightened from the heat and flame. While we were wait- ing for the ambulance the pilot told us that he was in a hurry and hadn’t given the Vultee the proper run-up procedure. He said that he had to get back to be at his daughter’s birthday party. Thirteen hours later he died from multiple burns. The navigator survived the ordeal.”
These incidents demonstrated the result of not maintaining safe flying discipline in an operational area.
The last operational sortie by 12 Squadron in a Wirraway took place on 15 May 1943. Crewed by SGT John Sheehan and SGT Williams, A20-545 was used to search for a missing Beaufighter. This same crew was involved in an incident with a Vengeance just over a week later.
On 23 May, 15 Vengeance aircraft took part in a Fighter Interception Test. Taking off from Batchelor, the air- craft proceeded to Melville Island, thence over Darwin, where they succeeded in ‘bombing’ the town. Interception by Spitfires took place during the latter part of the bombing, and continued until the aircraft reached Coomallie Creek.
But the day had not gone completely as planned. While transiting to Melville Is, the Vengeance of SGTs Sheehan and Williams had disappeared from the formation. With an electrical fire on board and his radio not working, John Sheehan had not been able to inform his flight leader as he threw A27-208 into a steep right turn and headed for the coast. Flying in shoes and socks instead of flying boots caused problems too, as molten electrical insulation began to drip onto John’s ankles. The fire was in the fuse box, next to which was located a 17 gallon fuel trap tank.
Considering all the options, John decides to push on to try to reach the coast. Slowly, a scattering of tree tops appeared in the heat haze ahead. A low, flat island appeared with a great stretch of level sand in front. John took the aircraft straight in, wheels up and no flaps. The Vengeance hit the sand at speed, skided along and slewed to a stop. Before SGT Williams could climb out of the cockpit John Sheehan was out of the aircraft, shoes and socks off, cooling his burnt ankles in tidal pools in the sand. Gathering up all that they could carry they set off across the sand towards the island. But nobody had told them about the tide. In the Darwin area it rises and falls from 20 to 30 ft twice a day. The tide began to come in with exceptional speed. The first thing to be discarded was the machine gun and ammunition. Other luxuries were also dropped in the race to beat the flood.
Safely on the island, the crew set about constructing a mosquito proof parachute tent, for it appeared that they would be staying the night. A signal fire failed to attract one of the squadron Vengeances the next morning as it was carrying out the daily anti-submarine patrol. Later in the morning a larger fire, signal mirror and Very flare did attract a Vengeance that was out searching for the missing pair. A Seagull amphibian rescued the two airmen a few hours later.
Fighter interception practices were often carried out using 12 Squadron Vengeances as the ‘Enemy’, but carrying out this type of activity in an operational area had its disadvantages. On one occassion the CO, S/Ldr Hooper, led 12 Vultees many miles out to sea at low level. The large formation was turned back towards the coast, the inside air- craft having to be careful not to get too close to the water during the turn. As they approached the coast the ‘attackers’ climbed in preparation for a mock attack on an American Liberator Base. Jason Hopton threw his aircraft onto its back and followed the rest of the squadron in a vertical dive onto the airstrip as the defending Spitfires dived from above.
The Vultee crews had been monitoring the ‘defenders’ radio chatter and felt distinctly uneasy when the comment was passed that the attackers looked like Japs. The Spitfires were a little slow with their attack and after pulling out of their dives the Vengeances raced away and managed to avoid interception. John Hooper was shocked when, on his return to base, he was confronted by an irate W/Cdr Clive ‘Killer’ Caldwell who blasted him over tracer being fired at his Spit- fires. When the incident was investigated it was found that an American Liberator returning from an operation, upon seeing ‘Jap’ dive-bombers attacking the field, had let fly with his guns from below.
12 SQUADRON STRIKES
Towards the end of April 1943, most of the squadron’s Vengeances, which were, by then, about due for major inspections, were replaced by new aircraft, which were referred to in the squadron as the ‘200 series’. This was a reference to their identification numbers which commenced at A27-200. It was quite a treat for the pilots to have brand new aircraft, as the initial issue had already clocked up substantial hours at OTU before being allocated to the squadron.
On the 13 June 1943 a Lightning from No 1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit took photographs of an airfield being built by the Japanese on Selaru Is. Selaru, the most southerly island of the Tanimbar group, was only 300 miles from Darwin and posed quite a threat if a Japanese air base were to be established there. 12 Squadron was ordered to bomb the villages of Lingat and Werain, as it was believed airfield workers were camped there. Finally, after almost four years on a wartime footing, No 12 Squadron was to be given a chance to strike at the enemy. F/Lt Cyril McPher- son led one flight of Vengeances in the attack and this is his account of the raid;
“Our aircrews, having been re-equipped with Vengeances, were anxious to try them out in action, but the first half of 1943 went by with nothing more exciting to do than carrying out routine patrols and such activities as searching for Spitfire pilots who had come down in the sea after chasing Japanese raiders who had bombed Darwin, or engaging in fighter affiliation exercises with the fighter squadrons stationed in the Darwin area. By June 1943, many of our crews, including myself, had been with the squadron for 12 months or more without firing a shot or dropping a bomb in anger and under normal circumstances we would have been due for posting to some non-operational unit in the southern states. Naturally, we were keen to carry out at least one bombing sortie against the enemy before leaving the squadron and we were, therefore, absolutely delighted to learn about mid June, that we were to carry out an attack against Japanese forces which had landed on Selaru Island in the Tanimbar Group some 300 miles north of Darwin and were constructing an airstrip there. Our targets were the villages of Lingat and Werain, which were located at either end of the partly constructed airstrip and were, according to our intelligence, being used by the Japanese as bases for the airfield construction work.
We were to take two flights of six Vengeances each and there was naturally much wheeling and dealing among the crews to ensure a place in the team, but it fell to me and my fellow flight commander, F/Lt J B “Barry” Keys to make the selection. In the forlorn hope of saving any argument, I decided that I should take those crews who had been longest in the squadron and naturally had the greatest experience with Vengeances, irrespective of rank or seniority, but if I thought that my decision was going to make everyone happy, I was badly mistaken. Such was the morale of the squadron that everyone wanted to be in it. The crews were;
|F/Lt Barry Keys||F/O Dennis Holmes|
|F/O Berry Newman||F/Sgt Ron Davies|
|P/O Alistair Bond F/Sgt||Trevor Blanche|
|F/Sgt Andrew Fisher||Sgt ‘Doc’ Davis|
|F/Sgt Bob Logan||F/Sgt Rod Kefford|
|F/Sgt Jim Purdon||F/Sgt Tom Lester|
|F/Lt Cyril McPherson||F/Sgt Ken Smith|
|F/O Jim See||P/O ‘Pop’ Hodgens|
|W/O Don McKerracher||P/O Noel Aldous|
|P/O Bob Laughlin||F/Sgt Neil Hargrave|
|F/Sgt Roy Pedder||F/Sgt Joe McKenna|
|F/Sgt Bill Lockley||F/Sgt Ralph Davey|
May I here pay a tribute to our Nav/W’s as we referred to them. In this category they were probably the most qualified wireless operators and air gunners. Our squadron was particularly fortunate in that most of our Nav/W’s were very competent and experienced men and from the pilots point of view, it was a great comfort to have men of this calibre in the back seat. I might add that a few of them were quite capable of flying the aircraft as well. Our Wirraways and Vengeances were all equipped with basic dual controls and I was quite happy to hand the controls over to some of the Nav/W’s with whom I had flown. This did not extend to allowing them to make a landing but I am reasonably confident that, in an emergency, quite a few of them could put the plane down in one piece. Indeed, quite a few Nav/W’s subsequently underwent pilot training and made competent and successful pilots.
The plan was for ‘B’ flight, under Barry Keys, to attack the Werain target at the western end of the airstrip, while my flight would attack Lingat at the eastern end. Because Selaru Is was approximately 370 miles from Batchelor and the two way trip would have stretched the Vengeances to the limit of their range or beyond, it was decided that we should land at the emergency airstrip on Bathurst Island, about 100 miles north of Batchelor, where our fuel tanks would be topped up. Each aircraft carried four 250 lb bombs and takeoff from Batchelor was at first light on 18th June. It was necessary for this part of the operation to be well timed as we were to have an escort of No 31 Squadron Beaufighters from Bathurst Island to our target. We therefore had to be ready to take off from Bathurst Island when six Beaufighters were due over head at 0930 hrs.
‘B’ flight took off from Batchelor a few minutes ahead of my flight and when we neared Bathurst Island I was surprised to see all six ‘B’ flight Vengeances circling in what appeared to be a holding pattern. The reason soon be- came apparent as we drew closer and were able to see that a shallow but thick fog completely covered the airstrip. The morning was bright but very still and there was no way of telling how long it might take the fog to lift. As all twelve aircraft circled the strip, the same thought was going through everyone’s mind – would this fog delay us to the extent that we would not be able to make our rendezvous with the Beaufighters? Such was our eagerness to get into action that we would happily have gone on without the Beaufighter, as we did not expect much, if any, fighter opposition, but we were under orders to abort the mission if we failed to keep the rendezvous.
Now the Bathurst Island airstrip was a very basic affair for emergency use only. My recollection is that it was simply a stretch of about 1000 yards of reasonably level ground with an unsealed surface of buckshot gravel, a material which was in plentiful supply in that part of the world and was often used to surface temporary airstrips, taxiways and roads. The eastern edge of the strip came right to the edge of the cliff, so that from the the air, it was just possible to discern the eastern extremity of the airstrip.
After circling for a few minutes, it occurred to me that it might be possible to line up the few yards of the strip that were visible from the air and attempt a landing in the hope that visibility in the fog would be 50 or 60 yards as was quite likely. Apparently the same thought was going through Barry Keys’ mind because as I was weighing up the possibilities, I saw him lower his undercarriage and make a landing approach. I think we all held our breath as he dis- appeared into the fog, but a few seconds later, a thick cloud of dust billowing up through the fog a few hundred yards further west, told us that he had landed safely and had throttled on to taxi off the strip. Thus reassured, the remaining five pilots of ‘B’ flight followed suit, and then it was our turn. Making a landing approach into fog on a strange airstrip was not the most comfortable experience, but with a lot of luck and possibly a little skill, we all made it safely, much to everyone’s surprise. I suppose that in landing in these conditions, we broke a fundamental rule of airmanship but having reached this point, we were not going to permit a bit of fog to stop us from carrying out our first airstrike. Fortunately the sun began to shine through as we were being refuelled and the fog had completely disappeared by the time we were due to take off.
In the meantime, I had encountered a slight problem. On taxying back from the refuelling point, my tail wheel tyre went flat, but my Nav/W, Ken Smith and I decided to keep this misfortune to ourselves. It made taxying some- what difficult but I figured that, once lined up on the strip, it would not present much of a problem on take off, so I broke another rule of airmanship.
Unfortunately for FSGTs Bill Lockley and Ralph Davey, their aircraft developed an electrical fault and their engine could not be started when it came to time for take off, so regretfully, we had to go without them. I had never seen two more disappointed airmen, and I felt terribly sorry for Bill who was a very enthusiastic pilot and a popular member of the squadron.
We made our rendezvous with the Beaufighters at 0930 hours and set course for Selaru some 230 miles across the Arafura Sea, flying in two flights of two Vees of three each, or more correctly in my case, a three and a two. In perfect weather, the flight was uneventful and on sighting the island, the two flights separated and headed for their respective targets, flying at about 10,000 feet. As visibility was good, I had no difficulty picking up our target and with no opposition, my flight formed echelon right as we approached and carried out a copybook attack, diving vertically and releasing the bombs at about 2000 feet. Although the target area would not have been more than 50 yards by 100 yards, all 20 bombs scored direct hits, a result which we learned later, had astonished some of our escorting Beaufighter crews.
As we climbed away and regained formation, I looked to the west and saw the bombs from ‘B’ flight exploding on their target, and I mentally registered the fact that mine had been the first bombs to find their target.
My flight encountered no opposition, but some ‘B’ flight crews spotted a Japanese fighter which, however, made no attempt to intercept them.
The two flights returned independently to Bathurst Island where all landed safely just three hours after departure. Having refuelled, we took off again for Batchelor, where we landed in mid-afternoon, feeling rather pleased with ourselves. By the time I had taxied to dispersal, about all that was left of my tailwheel tyre was the beading around the rim, whilst the wheel itself was beyond repair but, in the circumstances, that was of little consequence.
One or two aspects of this operation may be of interest. As you may be aware, there was a rectangular opening in the floor of the pilots cockpit between the seat and the control column. This opening was approximately 14 inches by 5 inches (if my memory serves me correctly) and when the bomb bay doors were open, it was possible for the pilot to see the ground directly below him. Quite a lot has been spoken and written about the difficulty experienced by pi- lots of these aircraft in judging the exact point at which to commence a dive in order to ensure that the dive was as near as possible to the vertical. This supposed problem was caused by the fact that the leading edge of the wing was several feet forward of the pilot’s position and at, say 10,000 feet in level flight, the target would disappear from the pilots view quite some time before the aircraft would be directly over it. In the absence of any other explanation, I accepted that the hole in the floor was designed to give the pilot a vertical view of his target. I could think of no other reason for it being there. In practicing dive bombing attacks, pilots in 12 Squadron had made use of this hole to line up the targets with considerable success, but of course it must be admitted that this technique could only be used against readily identifiable targets. Because of the restricted view, it would not, for example, be of much use in trying to locate a relatively small target in jungle country. In the case of our attack on Lingat, the circumstances were ideal for employing this technique. The target was right on the coast and easily identifiable in relation to features of the coastline, of which I had a very good map. I was therefore able to fly north up the island’s east coast and when two or three miles from the target, open my bomb bay doors and follow the coast line through the hole in the floor until the target was directly below me. I then rolled left onto my back and into a vertical dive, followed closely by the rest of my flight.
I stress, however, that conditions had to be right to do this. If there was fighter activity about, for instance, a flight commander could not afford to have his head down in the cockpit, peering through a hole in the floor. It is significant that this technique was never taught nor used at the Vengeance O.T.U. The procedure there was to count several seconds (I cannot recall how many) after the target had disappeared under the port wing root, then wing over to port. With practice it was reasonably easy to achieve dives between 80 and 90 degrees by this method. In all dive bombing attacks, the dive brakes were extended a few seconds before entering the dive.
Reverting to the Selaru mission, all pilots were told at briefing that, under no circumstances, were we to fire our guns. Like other pilots, I took this to mean we were not to carry out any strafing runs after the bombing attack, as this was to be left to the Beaufighters if they considered it appropriate. I had found from earlier experience in practice bombing attacks that, in a vertical dive, if I had my target in the reflector sight and fired my guns and the tracer was hitting the target, I could release my bombs with reasonable certainty that they would be fairly close to the target.
Consequently, when I had satisfied myself that I was diving vertically on my target at Selaru, I opened fire with my guns, saw the tracer going into the target, and thereupon released my bombs, with very satisfactory results. However, at debriefing, in answer to a specific question, I said that I had fired my guns and I subsequently received a ‘please explain’ from Area Headquarters as to why I had fired my guns in contravention of a specific order. Not wishing to involve myself in long winded explanations and possible arguments, I replied, with the connivance of the squadrons operations officer, that I had fired a test burst to ensure that the guns were in working order should they be needed, and nothing more was heard of the matter. However, I have wondered by what strange logic someone had chosen to give this order in the first place. The point I am making is that here was an aircraft armed with six forward firing machine guns capable of causing the enemy considerable aggravation, yet there we were attacking an enemy installation while being forbidden to fire our guns ‘under any circumstances’. It occurred to me that if there had been any Japanese ack-ack crews in the target area, a few hundred rounds of machine gun fire aimed in their direction might have dampened their enthusiasm. A classic case of ‘ours not to reason why’.
It is a matter for regret that Vengeances, as far as I am aware, never had an opportunity to demonstrate their destructive ability against shipping. With the degree of accuracy which they achieved in vertical dives, I believe that they could have been tremendously effective on attacks on shipping. Admittedly, as with torpedo-carrying aircraft and other dive bombers, they would have had to run the gauntlet of anti-aircraft fire in attacks on naval shipping, but the fact that they dived vertically and, if permitted by higher authority, could blaze away with their six machine guns at the target during the dive, would make the job of the anti-aircraft gunners considerably more difficult and uncomfortable.”
This raid was the first occasion on which Vultee Vengeances had been used against the enemy in the SW Pacific Area.
RAAF Command had given orders in May that the squadron was to move to Merauke in Dutch New Guinea (DNG) where it was to operate under the command of No 72 Wing.
The squadron was divided into two groups for the move to Merauke. The ‘Ground Party’, a mixture of 270 ground and air crew, departed Darwin on 29 June 1943 on the American Liberty ship ‘Charles P Steinmetz’. On the same day the ‘Air Echelon’, consisting of 17 Vultee Vengeances and two DC3s, departed from Batchelor and travelled via Cloncurry and Townsville to Cooktown. The ‘Air Echelon’ was to remain at Cooktown until the camp at Merauke had been prepared by the ‘Ground Party’ and sufficient dispersal had been provided for the squadron aircraft.
George Richards, a navigator who had joined the squadron in May 1943, travelled with the ‘Ground Party’;
“On arrival at Thursday Island we boarded the Dutch coastal freighter ‘Jansaans’ for the overnight trip to Me- rauke. On arrival we set to to unload the ship and to commence construction of the camp in virgin jungle. I was in gen- eral charge of construction, a job that kept me busy. Three of us made a very good plan of the camp by the old ‘paces and bearings’ methods – it was used for some time.”
The ‘Ground Party’ had arrived on July 8, and although advice had been received that approximately one third of the buildings would be completed by 15 July, not one single building had been commenced by that date. The officers and airmen set about constructing the camp but with building materials at a minimum, the progress of erecting messes, barracks, stores etc was extremely slow.
Among the few aircrew who travelled direct to Merauke with the ground party was F/O Phil Corney, a most resourceful character. Phil, who hailed initially from Tasmania, had been a jackaroo on a sheep station in north- western Australia at the time of his enlistment. After training as a wireless/air gunner, he was posted to No Blenheim Squadron (RAF) in the Far East. When the Japanese overran Singapore and the Netherland East Indies, Phil was among a group of 12 RAF and RAAF aircrew who decided to attempt an escape to Australia from Java in a ship’s life- boat. The story was fully told in the 1942 Australian War Memorial publication “These Eagles”. Under the leadership of the CO of No. Squadron (RAF), W/C Jeudwine RAF, the party finally made a landfall on the north-west coast of Western Australia after a voyage of 44 days, during which they encountered many hardships and problems. In his re- port on the voyage, W/C Jeudwine paid a particular tribute to the efforts of Phil and another RAAF Segeant Lovegrove, who appointed themselves shipwrights and showed considerable ingenuity and determination in repairing the rudder, which had broken away on two occassions. To quote W/C Jeudwine’s words – “I say unhesitatingly that had it not been mended, we should never have survived.”
When the ground party arrived at Merauke, it was discovered that building materials were in very short supply and it seemed that Phil naturally assumed responsibility for acquiring, by fair means or foul, any suitable materials. In the course of his enquiries, he learned that there was an abandoned Dutch sawmill a couple of miles up the Merauke River from the campsite so, with the help of a few airmen with the necessary technical knowhow, he took the mill over and in a short time had it producing sawn timber for use in mess buildings, tent floors etc.
In the course of these activities, Phil learned that the American Engineers at Merauke were short of timber, so he came to an arrangement to supply its timber requirements in return for a supply of masonite hardboard and mosqui- to wire. The result was that the 12 Squadron Aircrew Mess was the most substantially constructed building in the area and, more importantly, it was completely mosquito proof, ‘mossies’ being the bane of serviceman’s lives in Merauke.
Doug Scott, one of the aircrew who accompanied the ground party recalls;
“Merauke was flat and sitting on a bed of shellgrit. Dig down a couple of feet and water seeped into the hole. Our first job was to construct buildings and to make roads strong enough to withstand the weight of large vehicles.
All personnel were housed under canvas, two to a tent. F/O Brian Winspear and I shared a tent alongside a creek. With the use of 3/8th metal mesh,mosquito netting and aircraft dope, we insulated the inside of the tent against mossies. Fortunately we erected the tent on two foot high stumps and floored it with split sago palm trunks. When the rainy season came and the creek flooded, we were high and dry in our tent.
The officer’s accommodation area was divided from the administration section by a large swamp. It was a long walk around for duties, so it was decided to construct a causeway. F/O Harry Cumes was given the task. He cut stumps and drove them into the muddy base, then split sago palm trunks and laid them on the stumps in pairs. It formed a narrow but dry path to the other side.
The airstrip had to be completed before the aircraft could be accommodated. This was being done by an Ameri- can group. The area had been cleared of jungle and the shell surface covered with steel mesh. These were put down in sections and locked together. When the aircraft landed or took off, it sounded like a lot of tin cans being rattled togeth- er. On one occassion the Americans (Negroes) were having a game of baseball at the end of the strip, when three Boomerang aircraft took off. The pilots held them down until the last minute. Suddenly, one of the negroes saw them coming and yelled a warning to the rest. They ran in all directions. A couple of us jumped into a trench and watched as the aircraft came down the strip. A big, lanky fellow came past our trench going as fast as his legs could carry him.
His head was back and his arms were pumping like a steam train. He was mumbling as he went past,’Come on feet, keep up to ma body’. They were a real entertainment to listen to.”
Along with the rest of the squadron Chas Nottle was required to take precautions against malaria;
“Taking anti-malaria ‘ATABRINE’ tablets caused our skins to take on a yellowish tinge and it was essential to wear long trousers with gaiters and long sleeved shirts after dark. A trip to the latrines was only undertaken in case of dire necessity once the ‘mozzies’ took over night patrols!
One of the first jobs I fell for was to assist in the laying of a main communication cable through one of the swamps – sometimes above the waist in foul smelling, clinging ooze. I reckon some of the shorter chaps would have gone under if they hadn’t been supported by the cable.”
The airfield at Merauke was being shared with Nos 84 and 86 Squadrons and the hectic activity to establish the base did not go unnoticed by the Japanese. On 9 September, a new radar station at Cape Kombies detected enemy aircraft approaching Merauke. The Japanese force consisted of 16 Betty bombers escorted by 16 fighters. The raid was intercepted by 14 Kittyhawks of 86 Squadron and four Boomerangs of No 84. Despite widespread gun trouble among the defenders, two fighters and a bomber were shot down. Damage to the airfield from the bombing was minor and was repaired in less than an hour.
Meanwhile the ‘Air Echelon’ had settled at their temporary camp at Cooktown, where they were accommodated at a disbanded mission station. The NCOs and ground crew were housed in an old shearing shed across the river from the airfield while the officers were quartered in an old mission building near the strip. Life was good at Cooktown, with fish and rock oysters plentiful, butter and fresh bread available from the local Chinese Bakery and the local pub just a few miles down the road. But there was to be no rest from operations and the squadron began flying convoy escort and anti-submarine patrols over the Coral Sea. By flying overlapping sorties the squadron was often able to provide continuous air cover, during daylight hours, to many of the convoys operating between Port Moresby, Milne Bay and Australia.
On 5 July, just three days after arriving at Cooktown, F/Sgt Colin Cagnacci and his navigator Sgt Harry Hawk- ing ran into difficulty. They had taken off from Cooktown at 1509 hrs in Vengeance A27-217 to carry out an anti- submarine patrol over Force KL. They had patrolled over the convoy until 1655 hrs but as they headed back towards land, the weather began to deteriorate. The aircraft reached the coast at 1740 hrs but because of poor visibility and the crew’s unfamiliarity with the coastline they were unable to determine their position. F/Sgt Cacnacci gave orders to obtain a D/F bearing but, despite repeated calls by Sgt Hawking, no replies were received. With the light quickly fad- ing the crew followed the coastline looking for lights. It was just after dark when they spotted the lights of a town and, with fuel now running low, F/Sgt Cacnacci carried out a wheels up landing on a wide expanse of beach nearby. The airmen were safely on dry land, on the beach at Port Douglas, at 1836 hrs. The aircraft was later successfully recov- ered from the beach.
F/Os ‘Chesty’ Bond and Dennis Holmes were not so lucky just one month later. While carrying out an outer anti-submarine patrol for Force HJ on 4 August, they ran into fuel problems. After flying for only 1 hr 50 mins the out- board tank of A27-235 cut out and power could not be maintained. Switching to the inboard tanks F/O Bond headed the aircraft towards land. After 20 minutes the inboard tanks also cut out and, despite using the hand pump, power could not be maintained. Unable to reach land, the crew prepared for a crash landing on a nearby reef. At 1250 hrs ‘Chesty’ Bond touched down as gently as he could on the shallow green waters of Ruby Reef, 35 miles SE of Cook- town. As the aircraft began to sink the crew climbed into their rubber dinghy. Luckily their distress calls had been received at Cloncurry and was relayed around ‘the North’ to Cooktown and Cairns. By 1730 hrs they were safely in a 20 Squadron Catalina that had been diverted from another mission to pick them up.
There was double reason for celebrating that night. Not only had ‘Chesty’ Bond and Dennis Holmes been plucked from a watery grave, but Cyril McPherson had received a rather cryptic message through the RAAF signals system. It read;
“Attention F/Lt McPherson. Fittings female hydraulic pumps delivered safely Aug 3.”
This advised Cyril of the birth of his daughter, Dianne. In anticipation of the arrival of a daughter Cyril had already had the name ‘Dianne’ painted on the nose of his Vengeance, A27-209, NH-L some weeks earlier.
Convoy patrols often took the Vengeances far out to sea. It was late in the afternoon on one of these patrols that Jason Hopton was beginning to worry about getting back to Cooktown before dark. He was about to leave his patrol area when a delay was caused by a light signal from a passing Catalina. The signal reinforced Jason’s concern about his distance from land. It read, ‘What carrier are you from?’
HOW WE BROUGHT THE GOOD BOOZE FROM CAIRNS TO MERAUKE
On 3 September, S/Ldr Wilfred G Guthrie arrived at Cooktown to take over command of the squadron from John Hooper. S/Ldr Guthrie flew the first Vengeange to Merauke on 20 September. F/Lt Cyril McPherson was or- dered to deploy his flight to Merauke on 23 September, but the new CO had another task for this flight before they departed Australia. Cyril McPherson continues;
“As the lads at Merauke had had little or no grog since leaving Darwin, the CO suggested that I should remedy this sad state of affairs by taking my flight down to Cairns, there to acquire from the bond store an adequate supply of alcoholic cheer.
Accordingly, on the day before our scheduled departure for New Guinea, six Vengeances landed at Cairns on Operation Thirst Quencher and, having comandeered a RAAF truck, I despatched a couple of my most ruthless negoti- ators (perhaps that should read navigators) with orders to return fully laden. They acquired about fifty dozen bottles of beer and about twenty-five dozen bottles each of Gilbeys gin and Corio whisky (the latter affectionately known to the troops as COR Ten, as it was claimed to have a similar taste or effect to COR, a well known brand of motor spirit).
As all this liquor was destined for consumption outside Australia, we were able to purchase it ‘duty free’ so to speak, simply by signing a declaration to this effect at the bond store. My heart bleeds when I recall that the beer cost us something like ninepence (seven and a half cents) a bottle and the spirits two shillings and threepence (twenty-two and a half cents) a bottle. Oh happy days!
So far so good, but when the precious cargo arrived on the Cairns tarmac, we had a slight problem. The beer was packed in large wooden crates which would not fit in the Vengeance bomb bays, so we had to scrounge around for a supply of suitable cartons which held about a dozen bottles each.
We were in the middle of breaking open crates and transferring bottles into cartons, with crates and cartons scattered all over the tarmac when a runner arrived with an urgent message from the control tower to the effect that an aircraft bearing none other than the Chief of the Air Staff was due to land in 15 minutes and if we didn’t ‘get that bloody mess cleaned up and all the booze out of sight immediately, heads would roll!’ In compliance with the polite request, all hands doubled their efforts and even a couple of our more superior pilots who, until that stage, had been merely supervising their navigators’ labours, condescended to help.
As a result the mess on the tarmac was cleaned up, the cartons were all safely stowed in our bomb bays and the crews were all aboard awaiting my signal to start up as the aircraft bearing the CAS appeared in the circuit area. But it was then that tragedy struck.
The starting procedure for the Vengeance motor required the pilot to select one of his hydraulic systems to ‘operate’ in order to dampen the sudden surge of hydraulic pressure through the system when the engine fired. Either the flap, dive brake or bomb bay door control would be selected for this purpose. Unfortunately, my very good friend and deputy flight commander, F/O (later W/Cdr) Berry Newman, in a rare moment of forgetfulness, selected his bomb bay doors to ‘open’ and as his motor kicked over, about 20 cartons of lovely assorted booze landed unceremoniously back on the tarmac, much to the consternation of the other crews. With one accord, six anguished pilots and their navi- gators, with visions of broken bottles and soggy, liquor soaked cartons, abandoned their aircraft and raced to restore the situation.
But fate had been kind and miraculously, not one bottle had broken, despite a fall of up to four feet. In the cir- cumstances, it only took a couple of mad minutes to load the cartons back into the bomb bay, during which time the unfortunate Berry did his best to ignore snide remarks about ‘ clueless clots who didn’t know the difference between their dive brakes and their bomb bay doors’.
At the second attempt, all aircraft engines started up without incident and as the CAS came in to land, his chest doubtless swelled with pride when he saw six of his menacing Veangeance dive bombers lined up at the end of the runway, ready for take-off to do battle with the enemy in New Guinea!
We received a hero’s welcome on landing at Merauke next day, but I suspect that the warmth of the welcome could be attributed more to the sight of those cartons being unloaded rather than any joy evinced by the arrival of the aircraft and crews.
Some little time later, at a ceremony in the Aircrew Mess, we presented Berry with our own version of the Most Highly Derogatory Order of the Irremovable Digit (or the Prune Medal as it was more commonly known). In fairness to Berry, I must say that his aberration in this instance was completely out of character, as he was very thor- ough in everything he did and was one of the finest pilots I have known.”
During October, an American squadron of P39 Airacobras passed through Cooktown on their way north. After a quick refuel the P39s and their supporting aircraft cranked their engines, ready for departure, but one of the Airaco- bras (No 219949) had a hot start and caught on fire. After 12 squadron ground crew had extinguished the fire the American pilot refused to fly it and boarded the support aircraft to continue his journey, leaving the Airocobra to the tender mercies of 12 squadron’s ground and aircrews. Jim Purdon recalls how the keys to the lame aircraft were left with the American meteorologist stationed at Cooktown, but after a night on the ‘grog’ with 12 squadron the keys came into the possession of the acting CO, F/L Barry Keys. Quite a few of the squadron pilots had flown the Airacobra before and, after Barry Keys had taken it for a test flight, flying this aircraft became a very popular pastime. The Squadron Operations Record Book records;
“October 1943. Whilst stationed at COOKTOWN, aircrews gained considerable experience in interception prac- tice with fighter aircraft – F/Lt J B Keys, flying a P.39F (Airacobra). This is the first occasion that P.39F has practiced interception with Vultee Vengeance.”
Jason Hopton was present when S/Ldr Guthrie returned from Merauke;
“When the CO came back he was livid. News about the P39 travelled fast and, before we all departed for Me- rauke, an RAAF Boomerang squadron from up at Horn Is came and by some devious means, got the aircraft. They flogged her to death and later I saw her remains rotting in a shelter.”
Jason departed Cooktown for Merauke on 24 October in his Vengeance ‘Biddles’. He was accompanied on this flight by his cattle dog pup ‘Two Pot’ who sat on his lap all the way. As the flight progressed Jason noticed that Two Pot’s fleas were all coming to the surface and spent most of the flight picking them off and despatching them overboard.
By mid November all of the Air Echelon had moved to Merauke and the squadron settled into the routine pa- trolling duties that had been allotted to it. For the next six months operational flying was to consist almost entirely of daily patrols in Area ‘Peter’. This patrol followed the route; Merauke – 0900S 13930E – Cape Valsh – 0720S 13735E – Hodder Pt – along Digoel River to Mappi – 0727S 13904E – along Princess Marianne Strait to Cape Kombies – along coast to Merauke. Once again 12 Squadron had been committed to arduous and monotonous flying duties.
While patrolling Area ‘Peter’ on 9 October 1943, two Vengeances flown by P/O Fisher and F/O Barton sighted a Japanese Jake floatplane. The Jake immediately headed for cover and, despite several long range bursts from the Vultees, it managed to escape into cloud. The excitement within the squadron caused by this encounter would have to last a long time, as this was the only instance that a Japanese aircraft would be sighted by 12 Squadron aircraft during their stay at Merauke.
Despite the lack of confrontation with the enemy, flying in the tropics still held many dangers. F/Sgt L M De- vitt and his navigator P/O T F Hayes were listed as ‘missing, believed killed’ following an incident during a Peter Pa- trol on 5 March 1944. F/Sgt H J Ross was the navigator in aircraft A27-230, piloted by F/O J A Groves, which was in formation with Devitt’s aircraft, A27-209, when the incident occurred. Ross’s official report on the incident describes what happened;
“After flying for 37 minutes on the second leg,we were flying through cloud – 5/10ths (cumulus and stratus). We approached a large stratus cloud. F/O Groves immediately descended at about 40 degrees angle and came out under the cloud at 200 ft. There was light rain falling but visibility of the sea and the immediate area was quite clear. A27-209 (Devitt’s aircraft) commenced to descend, but then flew climbing slightly into the cloud at approx 2000 ft.
I was sitting facing the rear and watching for A27-209 to break through along his line of flight. Instead, I saw the aircraft in a vertical position break through the cloud base and crash headlong into the sea. This was about one minute after he entered cloud…”
Groves and Ross turned around and returned to the crash scene but all they could find was a circular oil slick on the water. No other trace of the aircraft was ever found. The Vengeance that had crashed was the one Cyril McPherson had named after his daughter, ‘Dianne’.
LIFE AT MERAUKE
Life in the camp at Merauke was a constant battle against the elements and nature. Noel Aldous, a navigator who joined the squadron in March 1943, had an encounter with nature, during a call of nature;
“The toilet facilities at Merauke were built with the emphasis on sociability rather than privacy. A crude, hessian structure, it was built on what was probably the highest bit of real estate for hundreds of miles – a mound of dirt built up a couple of meters above swamp level. On one occasion I was engaged there on my lonesome, when a beady-eyed head appeared around the hessian screen. It was followed by a couple of meters of copper coloured snake, and made a beeline – or a snakeline – in my direction, stopping when it came to me. It reared up, with its head between my knees, its tongue flicking in and out. Its not easy to freeze on a hot, steamy day in the tropics – but I froze. I didn’t know whether the snake was preparing to strike or planned to continue its trek over my slightly tremulous body. I discarded the idea of reaching for my loaded .38 Smith and Wesson revolver in its webbing holster beside me. I thought of mak- ing a quick grab below the snake’s head but figured that its reflexes would win hands down. I just sat without moving even an eyelid, hoping someone would come in and frighten the snake away. A couple of minutes that seemed like a couple of hours passed. Then the snake dropped to the ground, turned round and slithered off. Phew!”
Noel Aldous was a very competent artist and was responsible for most of the nose art that appeared on the squadron’s Vengeances as well as a life size reclining female which attracted much attention above the bar in the air- crew mess. He also had a delightfully dry sense of humour. Don McKerracher who was Noel’s navigator remembers a strange incident that occured in Merauke;
“I was walking back to our tent one day, keeping a watchful eye on the ground ahead when I observed some of those revolting brown centipede things appearing in all sorts of exotic colours. When I arrived at the tent in quite a state, there was good old Noel, having a break from painting a mural for the mess and applying all his talents to col- ouring these wretched things as they slithered through the tent.”
Despite the best efforts of the squadron members to improve and maintain the roads, they were always narrow and dangerous with soft edges. Chas Nottle was with a group returning in a truck from a picture show when they ran off the road and toppled over in the swamp bordering the road. The medical staff spent a busy night treating a variety of bruises, abrasions and cuts.
Doug Scott witnessed another incident on the narrow roads;
“Our Harley Davidson Motor bike and side-car was heading for the Officer’s Mess with about five or six blokes hanging on wherever they could get a foothold. They were going well when suddenly the bike veered off the road to the left and disappeared into a low area amongst high grass. All I could see was the movement of the grass and hear the yells and laughter of the passengers, as the bike cut a path through the undergrowth. Suddenly, it shot out of the grass, up the bank onto the road and continued on its way.”
Once again, as at Batchelor, a camp PA system was set up. Doug Scott recalls;
” A programme of entertainment was broadcast throughout the day, commencing from early morning with a ren- dition of ‘In the Mood’ by Tommy Dorsey’s Band. News and weather, birthday cheerios, urgent calls and special infor- mation was also broadcast. A roster of announcers was drawn up to maintain and present the programme that had been arranged.”
Alex ‘Snow’ Hodder, who had joined the squadron’s signal staff in early 1943, also has memories of the PA system;
” We were camped either side of the track that came down from the highlands and natives used to walk along this track on their way into Merauke. It was always a bit of fun to put a jazz record on the PA (the speakers were strung up in the trees) and watch the consternation and confusion it caused. They used to call them ‘the singing trees’.”
One of the PA operators, Cpl Frank Lillicrap, met a tragic death in the camp on 16 January 1944. While repair- ing power cables that had been blown down during a storm, he was electrocuted and died. He was buried at Merauke and later his body was returned to Australia.
The squadron Padre at the time is well remembered by Cyril McPherson;
“Padre David Bush, of the Anglican faith, who joined the squadron at Batchelor in 1943, was a man of many parts who believed in looking after the physical as well as the spiritual well- being of his flock. He was, among other things, a very good beer scrounger and on the odd occasion when his pastoral duties took him down to Adelaide River, he always seemed to be able to come back with a few dozen bottles of beer in the back of his utility.
He was reputed to have been a champion boxer in the British Army in his younger days, but whether or not this was so, he certainly knew how to handle a pair of boxing gloves. In Merauke he let it be known that he would be happy to pass on his knowledge of the noble art to any aspiring young pugilists, and before long he had quite a promising stable of young boxers in training. As interest in this activity grew, he persuaded some of the lads to help him erect an open air boxing ring and then arranged a series of Saturday night fights. Initially these were confined to members of the squadron, but when word got around, they were thrown open to all servicemen in the area. From an initial attendance of a few dozen, the fights soon became a feature of service life in Merauke and before long attendances had in- creased to several hundred.
On one occasion, the Padre persuaded two negro boxers who were stationed with an American engineers unit in Merauke, to stage an exhibition bout. They were both fine physical specimens who were reputed to have been finalists in the American Golden Gloves amateur boxing championships, and although the exhibition was scheduled for three rounds only, they gave such a brilliant display that the audience would not let them go unit they had boxed a couple more rounds.
However, the Padre’s enthusiasm for boxing was in no way allowed to interfere with his pastoral responsibili- ties and during his time at Merauke he conducted confirmation classes for a number of Anglican members of his flock and then persuaded the Bishop of Carpentaria, Dr Davies, to come over from Thursday Island to conduct a confirma- tion service. One of the squadron pilots flew to Horn Island in a Vengeance to bring him over and this must have been quite an experience for the reverand gentleman, who would have been about seventy years old, as there was, of course, no third seat in a Vengeance and he had to stand behind the navigator for the flight to Merauke and back.
The evening confirmation service was quite a moving occasion, which was very well attended. After the ser- vice the CO extended an invitation to the Bishop to join him and his colleagues for a drink in the aircrew mess, which was readily accepted. The old gentleman took quite a liking to the squadron’s particular brand of gin squash and after three or four of these he gave the impression that he would have liked several more. However, the CO, mindful of the fact that the Bishop had to make the return journey to Horn Island early the next morning, suggested to Padre Bush that it might be advisable for the Bishop to retire, which the Padre finally persuaded him to do, somewhat reluctantly.”
S/Ldr Douglas McD Johnstone became the CO of No 12 Squadron on 18 March 1944, but his command was to be a short one. Just three months later he was making arrangements for the squadron to disband prior to its reformation as a heavy bomber unit equipped with Consolidated B24 Liberators. All the squadron’s Vengeances were allotted to 1AD for storage on 17 June 1944.
12 SQUADRON LIBERATED
By August, all aircraft had been flown south and the squadron had moved to Strathpine near Brisbane and for the first time since war was declared, five years earlier, it became non-operational and located out of a tropical area. The squadron was reduced to a cadre in September with F/Lt F H Walters in temporary command.
On 13 December, S/Ldr R G Smallwood, the newly appointed adjutant, and four airmen, being the complete strength of 12 Squadron, departed Strathpine for Cecil Plains near Dalby. Here they became the advance party of No 12 (Heavy Bomber) Squadron. The Cecil Plains airfield had been constructed in 1942 and intended as part of the fa- mous ‘Brisbane Line’. It had not been previously occupied and once again the members of 12 Squadron had to set about constructing a camp.
A rapid build up of personnel and equipment took place throughout January 1945 and the new CO, W/Cdr N G Hemsworth, arrived at Cecil Plains on 3 February. He had served with No 2 Squadron, flying Hudsons, in 1941/42 and commanded Nos 37 and 25 Squadrons prior to his posting to 12 Squadron.
The squadron’s first B24 Liberator, A72-145, arrived on 5 February and three days later 159 aircrew arrived on posting. By the end of February, the squadron strength stood at 586 personnel and ten Liberator aircraft.
1973 – 1989
No. 12 Squadron was re-formed at Amberley on 3 September 1973 to fly the RAAF’s twelve new CH-47C Chinook helicopters. The helicopters were shipped from the United States to Brisbane on board the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne, and arrived in Australia in March 1974.
The squadron made its first flight in the aircraft on 8 July 1974, and was declared operational with the type in December that year. The Chinooks were primarily used to support Australian Army units based in northern Australia, though they also occasionally conducted air-sea rescues, provided flood relief and performed a range of other tasks in support of the civil authorities. Unusual tasks included placing lighthouses in isolated locations and air conditioning plants on the roofs of tall buildings and supporting police anti-narcotics operations. In late August 1980 one of No. 12 Squadron’s Chinooks flew from Amberley to Malaysia to recover a crashed Royal Malaysian Air Force S-61 Nuri helicopter; this was the longest helicopter deployment undertaken by the RAAF to that time.
Due to the need to reduce defence expenditure, the Australian government decided to retire the Chinook helicopters in 1989. Following the retirement of the Chinooks on 30 June 1989, No. 12 Squadron was disbanded on 25 August 1989. While it was hoped that the Army’s new S-70A Blackhawk helicopters could fulfill some of the Chinook’s roles, this was not successful. As a result, four of the ex-RAAF CH-47Cs were upgraded to CH-47D standard and assigned to ‘C’ Squadron of the Army’s 5th Aviation Regiment from 1995.