Located approximately 100 miles West of Brisbane, Royal Australian Air Force Station Oakey, Queensland opened on 14 October 1943 as the home of No. 6 Aircraft Depot (6AD). The stations function was to act as a Receipt and Despatch Unit & forward depot for aircraft operating from New Guinea and northern Australia. The station also operated as an aircraft repair yard, carrying out repair and overhaul work to relieve the load of its sister unit No. 3 Aircraft Depot at Amberley. The Depot was to process Beaufort, Mustang Norseman, Wirraway and Spitfire aircraft.
As part of the build-up of equipment in Australia for supporting the British Pacific Fleet aircraft carriers the Admiralty was searching for additional facilities in Queensland to help take the pressure off the newly arrived Transportable Aircraft Maintenance Yard No.1 (TAMY 1) at installed at Archerfield, Brisbane. Om May 6th 1945 Commander Senior RN and Commander Morgan RNR visited RAAF Oakey to make arrangements and preparations for the erection of Seafires for the Fleet Air Arm on the station.
On May 11th four Seafire fuselages and four sets of mainplanes arrived at 6AD for erection; a further six Seafire fuselages and three sets of mainplanes arrived on the 15th. Unpacking in preparation for assembly of the Seafires commenced at the Aircraft Repair Squadron on the 17th ahead of the arrival of a party of three Petty Officers and twenty-one other Ranks which arrived from TAMY 1 at Archerfield on the following day to commence assembly, along with a further eight sets of Seafire mainplanes.
Aircraft arrived in several crates, containing engine, fuselage, and mainplanes (wings). These were unpacked, checked, assembled and test flown. The final stage of the process the aircraft were painted in British Pacific Fleet colours and markings before being flown to Archerfield for storage or issue to an active unit.
Several members of naval staff visited RAAF Oakey on June 7th to inspect various aspects of the Seafire erection programme. Sub-Lt H. Sykes, from the staff of F.O.N.A.S.(A) (Flag Officer Naval Air Stations (Australia)) arrived on the Unit to carry out Seafire Gyro Gun Sight inspection, while Mr. C.C. Bosworth, visited the Unit as ROTOL Representative to F.O.N.A.S.(A). Lt. Cdr A.B. Napper of V.(A) Staff British Pacific Fleet visited the unit on inspection duties concerning Seafire tyres.
Technical problems were to cause some initial delays; fuselage and mainplanes were matched items and the receipt of unmatched mainplanes did occur on occasion, this caused delays in getting production started and a shortfall in production targets. The first completed Seafire III (PR196) was not ready for dispatch to TAMY 1 at Archerfield until July 14th. This was followed by a further eight aircraft on July 30th. The small RN detachment was supplemented by the addition of 50 ratings and NCOs from MONAB 7 from the beginning of August; MONAB 7 was a forward area receipt and dispatch unit but had been installed at Archerfield to work alongside TAMY 1 upon its arrival in Australia on July 28th.
On August 2nd two more officers from F.O.N.A.S.(A), Cdr Coote R.N.V.R., and Lt. Armstrong R.A.N.R. visited the station in connection with its possible further use by the Royal Navy; both RAAF Station Oakey and RAAF Station Amberley were being considered as a base to house MONAB No.8 which was not expected to fulfil its designated role as a forward area fighter support MONAB for some months after its arrival in Australia. Amberley was finally chosen but the need for its transfer to the RN had passed with the cessation of hostilities on August 15th.
Following the surrender of Japan, the men from TAMY I and MONAB 7 marched through the streets of the town taking part in the Victory parade marking the end of the war in the Pacific.
A further 19 Seafires were to arrive on the station during August and work continued through September and October. The final two aircraft, PP954 & PR285, departed Oakey for Archerfield on October 19th. With the departure of the last aircraft the naval detachment began packing up their equipment having completed and dispatched total of 29 Seafires. The personnel of the RN detachment left RAAF Oakey to return to Brisbane on October 26th.
Forward area reserve aircraft pool holding combat ready front line aircraft.
Maintenance, Storage & Resave No.1
One Mobile Maintenance Unit
Avenger Mk. I & II
Corsair Mk. II & IV
Hellcat Mk. I & II
Seafire III & L.III
Lt. Commander (A) (P) D. A. Horton RNVR 16 June 1945 to 17 September 1945
Memories of those who served with MONAB III and at Schofields
None at present
© 1999-2021 The Royal Navy Research Archive All Rights Reserved Powered by W3,CSS
Pityilu is a small island, 22 Miles East of Ponam on the outer reef of Seeadler harbour, about 5 miles N. of Manus in the Admiralty Islands. Recaptured by US forces in March 1944 the island was to house a coral airstrip for the U.S. Navy, and a Rest & Recreation facility designed to accommodate up to 10,000 servicemen a day. Construction of these facilities was carried out by the 140th Naval Construction Battalion (NCB), which arrived at Manus during June 1944, the airfield facility comprised of a single runway, made of crushed coral, and living areas for squadron personnel and about 5,000 other servicemen. USN Airstrip Pityilu was to be the home of Carrier Air Support Unit (CASU) 42.
As with Ponam, a detachment of the 140th NCB (one company) operated on the island until April 14th 1945 when they were replaced by Construction Battalion Maintenance Unit (CBMU) 587 which arrived at Manus on March 30th, 1945. This unit was permanently quartered at Pityilu, and at war's end the unit was still stationed there, with a detachment based on Ponam Island
Reg served with M.S.R. 6 and wrote down his memories in the form of a story ‘A WISH COME TRUE’ which he has kindly allowed to be reproduced here. Copies of his work are lodged with the Fleet Air Arm Museum, and the University of Leeds.
Back in the early 1930's going to the cinema was a regular Saturday morning occasion, I don't think that my friend and I ever missed a matinee at the DELUXE theatre in Gloucester where, with great excitement, we used to watch serials such as The Last Of The Mohicans, The Lone Ranger, and Buck Rodgers etc. During the interval, the organ would rise up from the pit and we would sing along, with the help of words pointed out on the screen by a bouncing ball. It was after this that we'd be shown a travelogue and I well remember the paradise islands of the Pacific they portrayed: palm trees swaying-gently in the breeze, beautiful blue lagoons and exotic food in abundance.
Visitors to those shores were embraced by dusky maidens in grass skirts, festooned with garlands of flowers and regaled by the cascading harmonies of Hawaiian guitars to which the grass skirted ladies sensually gyrated. Trance like, the closing words of the narrator never varied: "And as the golden sun sinks slowly in the west, we say farewell to this island of paradise". I used to long to visit such an island and dream about my wish coming true.
On the 9th of December 1944, having been seconded to the Royal Air Force for nine months, I received a draft to return to H.M.S. Gosling in Warrington. This Fleet Air Arm camp was where I had received my basic training in March 1943 and I associated it with square bashing and disciplinary training that I and other raw recruits had been put through.
What was the reason for my return? During the customary F.F.I, and general joining routine, I met a few other bods who were wondering the same thing. All was revealed in a pep talk on how we were going to win the war and how we were to be trained in the art of self-defence, jungle fighting and survival. On the matter of survival, the only thing I knew was that you should never eat yellow snow.
Three months of intensive Commando training followed, in the middle of winter - how we ever survived the ordeal, I’ll never know. I was supposed to be a Leading Air Fitter and so what the hell was I doing, fighting fit and dressed in Khaki battle dress? At last! Order of the day: 14 days leave, and then report back to Gosling. 7th of March 1945: marching orders, destination Liverpool Docks. As part of a unit known as M.S.R.6, we piled into the usual mode of transport, the faithful old Bedfords.
Later while embarking on the cruise liner Empress of Scotland, close observation revealed that the word "Japan" had been blacked out and "Scotland" painted over it. Was this an omen?
With 10,000 souls on board, we joined a convoy, and headed north round the tip of Ireland and then south into the Atlantic before parting company with it at the Azores; the convoy continued onwards to the Med. Swinging to starboard, our course was south west across the Atlantic. With our speed increased from 6 to 22 knots it would be almost impossible for a submarine to sink us (so we were told). The old Empress shuddered as the taps were opened up, but she finally settled down as she reached cruising speed en route for the Panama Canal.
Early on in the journey, I found night times the worst. I clearly remember the day the Skipper assembled us on the promenade deck and told us that we were heading for Sydney, Australia, to join the Pacific fleet. We were given a lecture on how to survive should we have the misfortune of being torpedoed. That night in my bunk I was looking at a porthole immediately above my head and like all others it had been covered over with a thick steel plate. I realised that we must have been very close to the water line and that if attacked, a torpedo would enter the ship just below my bunk and that the Skipper's lecture seemed a complete waste of time; in any case I couldn't swim and even if I could, where would I swim to? After weighing up the situation I remembered that someone once told me that drowning was quite a pleasant experience, from then on for some reason or other, all doubts in my mind disappeared. On reflection, how can anyone know that drowning is a pleasant experience; I sometimes think that somewhere along the line we were all brainwashed to think that it would never happen to us.
After a few days out we ran into rough weather; it appears that the Captain had taken evasive action to avoid the worst part of the storm but even then, gale force winds lashed the old Empress and you could hear the creeks and groans as she battled against the elements, there were moments when I thought that all my birthdays had come at once; this was my first- introduction to rough weather and sea sickness.
As the days passed, life became very boring; nothing to do but pace the deck or stand and watch the hypnotic effect of the bow wave making instant changing patterns, or stand aft watching the wake left behind like a wide watery street reaching back to infinity. We were by now entering the tropics: The Empress was beginning to warm up; conditions below decks were gradually becoming almost unbearable. The holds were opened and large canvas sheets hung in an attempt to channel fresh air to the lower decks. Order of the day: sun bathing. Having received a lecture on the dangers of over exposure, on the first day we were only allowed 10 minutes on the front and 10 minutes on the back. This was extended at the rate of 5 minutes 'a day until we all had an acceptable tan protecting us from serious sunburn. Some of the lads did not heed the initial warning and suffered great agony of large blisters on their shoulders that could only be described as having the appearance of fried eggs. Because the injuries were self-inflicted, they received very little sympathy from the sick bay and had to suffer in silence.
At long last, land ahead! We had reached the port of Colon, the entrance to the Panama Canal. The Canal Zone had been occupied by the American army to ensure the safety of Allied shipping. We were allowed ashore, but only in the immediate vicinity of the Empress. Something I shall never forget is when a native attempted to sell bananas from the dockside. They were arranged on, what looked like, two massive hands each being almost as big as himself and suspended from a pole across his shoulders. Not having seen a banana since the outbreak of war, it was like showing a red rag to a bull; the poor fellow was mobbed. The unfortunate native disappeared without trace.
While the Empress was refuelling and taking on supplies the American U.S.0. (the equivalent to our E.N.S.A.) entertained us with the big band of Tommy Dorsey and the ever-popular Dinah Shaw.
We also enjoyed a demonstration by the American Jitterbug champion and, if my memory serves me right, Paddy Lewis the youngest member of M.S.R. 6 was one of the volunteers to have a go. Coca Cola and doughnuts were the order of the day, then back on board and the fantastic experience of passing through the Panama Canal. With just inches to spare we climbed up through the locks to the freshwater lake; what a relief! freshwater showers, the first since leaving home. Leaving the lake behind, we continued onwards and down to the Pacific (which I'm told, is higher than the Atlantic). We had witnessed the result of a feat of engineering beyond all words to describe; it has to be seen to be believed.
After a few days the Empress, continuing South West, began to cool down, making conditions more acceptable for the last stretch of our journey. Eventually we reached our destination, and what a welcome sight as we passed through Sydney Harbour Heads was the old coat hanger bridge spanning the harbour and the view of the city beyond. All around us, anchored in the harbour and tied up to quays were ships of every type Imaginable.
We were told that they were part of the famous Fleet Train on which we were later to rely on for our existence. Without them, indeed, the B.P.F would never have existed. On disembarking, and after a short journey out of Sydney, we arrived at R.N.A.S. Bankstown, or H.M.S. Nabberley, manned by M.O.N.A.B. 2, where we were soon involved in building Seafires which were transported to the Fleet by means of the escort carriers of the Fleet Train.
&In the first week in May we were given 14 days leave. My good pal, Harry Watts and I opted for a stay at a sheep station at a place by the name of Gidley. The station was in excess of 400 square miles, we were warned not to wander off out of sight of the homestead on our own; it was all too easy for anyone not conversant with the bush to get lost with serious consequences. On the 8th of May we received the news that Germany had surrendered. Mr Robinson the station manager immediately organised a Victory parade and Thanksgiving service at the Gidley war memorial. My claim to fame is that Harry Watts and I, were the first ever and only, F.A.A. ratings to lead a Victory Parade.
After sampling the generous hospitality of the Australian people, we embarked on the escort carrier H.M.S. Arbiter on the 18th of May to join up with M.O.N.A.B. 4 on the island of Ponam.
At last my wish of my younger days was about to come true; I was on my way to see for myself the swaying palms and dusky maidens of a paradise island in the South Pacific, but things were not quite as they had been portrayed in the travelogues. Firstly, I found out that the Pacific Ocean was not as tranquil and blue as they had made out. After about four days out somewhere around New Guinea, we hit a typhoon.
Huge waves broke over the flight deck which was loaded with supplies and, despite being securely lashed down, several crates were washed overboard.
During the height of the storm the Arbiter registered a list of 48 degrees and, without doubt, if it had not been for the full tanks of aviation fuel acting as ballast, she would have turned turtle. Had the tanks been only half full, the weight of fuel shifting to one side would have assisted in taking her under, fortunately the Captain had been well briefed on taking evasive action when confronted with such severe conditions.
There was an event on the 18th of December 1944 that involved the U.S. Navy's Pacific Fleet and was little known to the R.N. or to the public. The Scene for the catastrophe was set about 300 miles east of Luzon. During support missions for the invasion of the Philippines, the fleet was caught in the middle of a vicious typhoon. Three destroyers, the Hull, the Monaghan and the Spence quickly capsized and went down with all hands. Carriers Miami, Monterey, Cowpens, San Jacino, Cape Esperence and Altamaha were all seriously damaged, as were D.D.Aylwin, Dewey and Hickox, lesser damage was incurred by 19 other ships. Serious fires broke out on three carriers when aircraft smashed into each other in the hanger decks; 146 aircraft on various ships were lost overboard or sufficiently wrecked by fire or impact to warrant their scrapping. 790 men were killed and 80 were injured. Rolling of 70 degrees or more was reported from destroyers that survived. The severity of the disaster was due to the Fleet Commanders trying to maintain Fleet courses, speed and formations during the storm. Commanders failed to realise that they should have given up such attempts and instead, directed all attention to saving their ships. After this terrible tragedy, Admiral Nimitz issued orders to the effect that the safety of the ship at all times was of paramount importance even if it meant dropping out of battle formation; the ship would be saved to fight again and, in any case, the enemy would be similarly affected by turbulent conditions.
On entering the Bismarck Sea, we were warned that we'd come within range of enemy aircraft based at Rabaul in New Britain. The damage control party was closed up and all bulkhead doors kept shut, this being normal routine when in an operational area. A Corsair, which had been lashed down on the catapult, was checked over; it had not suffered any damage during the storm. An interesting thought: had it been necessary to have launched the Corsair there was no way that it could have landed back on board with the flight deck loaded with cargo, I presume that the Admiralty considered Pilots and Corsairs to be disposable objects.
Approximately 300 miles further on and we were approaching Manus, the main Pacific Fleet anchorage in the Admiralty Islands. We were lulled by a calm sea, a gentle breeze, the clear sky reflecting on the water, flying fish and dolphins riding the bow wave. My wish had started to come true; all I needed now was the tropical island and a blue lagoon. I was rudely awakened from my meditative state by a blast from the Tannoy, "M.S.R. 6 MUSTER IN THE HANGER DECK" we were told that we would be reaching our destination, Ponam Island, the next day The following morning we sailed into a massive anchorage of shipping, with the similar variety of ships seen in Sydney.
There were tramp steamers, tankers, cargo vessels and rust buckets of all shapes and sizes and nationalities. It was an International Fleet with Officers and men from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, and Canada etc. This was Task Force 112 better known as The Fleet Train. Its anchorage at Manus in the Admiralty Islands was the main forward supply base for the British Pacific Fleet
After unloading supplies and aircraft the Arbiter weighed anchor and preceded to Ponam Island just three hours sailing from the anchorage, I had at last arrived at my island paradise. Going ashore however was a great disappointment. Where were all the dusky maidens with there garlands of flowers?
Why, in the travelogues, was there no mention of the sun reflecting off the coral and burning your legs, or the sand flies, coral snakes, land crabs, mosquitoes, the high humidity, no flush toilets, no fresh water, tinned and dehydrated food, the list goes on and on. Needless to say no mention was made of the necessity of being armed with a Sten gun.
There was no doubt about it. All those travelogues that I had seen were part of a big con. I felt like complaining but unfortunately there wasn't a complaints department on the island. One Submarine Captain described the Admiralty Islands as the 'Islands of Lost Souls'.
Having grown a full set, and having suffered the agony of bugs getting trapped in it, I decided one morning after a restless night that enough was enough. I set to work with scissors and razor. I clearly remember the white mask that appeared all over my face. My beard had protected my face from the sun and I looked like the Phantom of the Opera, Even so, what a relief! However, my relief had a price attached: I was put on a charge for altering my identity. My pay book had a photo of someone with a beard but the person holding the pay book had no beard. This was a very serious charge and had I been anywhere else I would probably have been hung drawn and quartered or at the very least, been stripped of my hook. Fortunately, the skipper, apart from being sympathetic had a sense of humour. I was given 14 days confined to barracks; it was not recorded on my documents.
On the island we worked from dawn to dusk, there was no time for tropical routine, but it was not all doom and gloom. At times we received the privilege of extended "make and mends" when we would put on boots and gaiters to explore the shallow expanse of the lagoon where every type of coral and tropical fish existed. There was a deep pool in the lagoon, which had been scooped out of the coral with explosives either by the Japanese or the Americans and used for swimming, The water temperature rarely fell below 90F, and the only way to cool down was to stand wet in a slight breeze. As regular as clockwork, we would get an advanced warning of a tropical rain storm, because it was always preceded by the rustling of the palm trees as the wind sprang up.
M.S.R. 6 (Mobile Storage Reserve) was one of the many units making up M.O.N.A.B. 4. Some of us were detailed to the eastern end of the island to operate the dispersal site where, during our time on Ponam, literally hundreds of all different types of aircraft were despatched to carriers of the B.P.F. Due to the unpredictable weather and extreme conditions in the tropics the average life of a British aircraft was 15 flying hours, and of an American aircraft 25 hours. The difference between them was that a Seafire was designed as a short-range interceptor for use in temperate climates, whereas a Corsair was designed for long range and operation under tropical conditions; it even had an air-conditioned cockpit.
Earlier on I mentioned that we had no flush toilets. A walkway approximately 60ft long led to a platform over the sea covered with a roof of palm leaves. Inside was a low bench with a series of holes where one would drop shorts, sit on a hole and contemplate. The most unusual thing about this bench was that at times every other hole would be left vacant to allow each occupier to gaze down the adjacent one while holding in one hand, a fishing line. For some reason there was always an abundance of fish in this area; I have no idea what type of fish they were but we called them s**t fish.
In exchange for a tot of rum, I had obtained from one of the Yankee Sea Bees a primus stove, on top of which a piece of steel plate made a perfect barbecue. After de-scaling the fish it would be placed whole on the plate and well cooked, allowing the flesh to fall off the bones. This left the bones and intestines intact thereby stopping the contents o-f the stomach contaminating the flesh. This fresh meat made a welcome change to our diet.
Wednesday August 15th, we received the good news that the Japanese had surrendered. Order of the day: 'Splice the Mainbrace'. We were warned not to be too complacent; 1,000s of Japanese would not accept defeat and we were still considered to be operational, in fact it was not until March 2nd 1946 that the Americans considered that all hostilities had ceased. Anyone who served in the American forces up to that date were awarded the Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal which was accompanied by the award of a pension for services rendered.
During our stay on Ponam we came under the command of William. F. Halsey who was the Commander of the American 3rd fleet. He was put in charge of all Naval Forces in the South Pacific. At the end of the war the Asiatic Pacific Campaign medal and pension was offered to all who had served under the command of the American Flee. unfortunately for us, the new British Labour Government of 1945 would not allow us this privilege.
There is just one thing, which rather irks me; it is an entry in Ron Lewin's unofficial diary, which makes me very envious of him and everyone who were on board H.M.S. Unicorn. It states; Thursday August 16th 1945 the 2nd day of celebrating has for us proved noteworthy in only one respect, namely the enjoyable dinner provided. The soup was quite commonplace, but the main course of turkey, stuffing, potatoes and green peas was liberal (a whole turkey between nine of us), well cooked and a complete change from the usual monotony of meat. There followed Christmas pudding and finally a raw apple. The ship "piped down" during the morning. Where the hell did they get such an abundance of good food? I think that the best we had was a tin of Spam and dehydrated potatoes. Somebody somewhere owes us a Christmas dinner!
With reference to the end of the Pacific War; sadly and in some ways prophetically, Admiral Rawlings wrote, "I have not seen the personal signals, or indeed seen all the official signals, but I am in no two minds about one thing; that the "fading out" of the task force and the manner in which this is being done is not only tragic, but is one which I would give much to avoid. To me, what is happening to its personnel and its ships seems to ignore their feelings, there sentiments and there pride; in so doing quite a lot is being cast away, for the Fleet accomplished something which matters immensely".
I am not speaking of such enemy they met, nor of the difficulties they overcome, nor of the long periods at sea; I am speaking of that which was from the start our overriding and heaviest responsibility, the fact that we were in a position which was in most ways unique and was in any case decisive; for we could have lowered the good name of the British Navy in American eyes for ever. I am not certain that those at home have any idea of what these long operational periods mean, nor of the strain put on those in the ships, so many of whom, both officers and men, are mere children, for instance Leading Seamen of 19 and Petty Officers of 21.
When I look back on that which this untrained youth has managed to accomplish and to stick out, then I have no fear for the future of the Navy, provided, but only provided, that we handle them with vision and understanding, and that we recognise them for what they were and are-people of great courage who would follow one anywhere, and whose keynote was that the word "impossible" did not exist. And so, I question the wisdom of dispersing a Fleet in the way in which it is now being done. At the very least there should have been taken home to England a token force somewhat similar to that which was left in the operating area with the American Fleet when the tanker shortage required the withdrawal of the greater part of the Task Force. It seems to me that here was a matter, which could have been utilised in a dignified- and far reaching manner-the arrival in home waters of ships who had represented the Empire alongside their American Allies, and who were present, adding there not ineffective blow, at the annihilation of the Japanese Navy and the defeat of Japan.
It may well be that the days will come when the Navy will find it hard to get the money it needs. Perhaps then a remembrance of the return and the work of the British Pacific Fleet might have helped to provide a stimulus and an encouragement to wean the public from counter attractions and those more alluringly staged. The arrival home of a token force at the time of the Victory celebrations might have fixed the British Pacific Fleet more firmly in the public's memory. But it was not to be. In time the Fleet quietly faded away, with the result that the Far Eastern fleets may have been the largest assemblies of Commonwealth ships in history but, like the three old ladies locked in the lavatory, nobody knew they were there.
In 1995 Harry Bannister of the Ponam Association applied to the Pentagon on behalf of its members for the American Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal in recognition of their service with the American Fleet. As from late 1997,' after 52 years, the American Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal has been made available to all those who served in the British Pacific Fleet
The possibility of pensions or medals, or reflections of a forgotten fleet were not on our minds as we prepared to leave Ponam for home. On the 20th of September 1945, H.M.S. Vindex was anchored off the sea loading line to the south of the island. Fortunately, M.S.R. 6 were to be one of the first units to leave. The Vindex which had set off from Java had on board hundreds of ex-prisoners of war including some women internees. Several of the women were accompanied by young Japanese children and babies. These mothers had offered favours to Japanese officers in the prison camps in exchange for extra rations and medical care for sick and injured men.
The hanger deck was full of stretcher cases of men suffering from the effects of treatment received at the hands of the Japanese. I have never seen such a sight of human suffering in all my life than that which I witnessed on that day. It made me realise h idyllic our lives had been in comparison, and that my youthful wish had actually come true: I had visited the island of my dreams in the South Pacific with its waving palms and blue lagoon. ...And as the golden sun sinks slowly in the west, we say farewell to that exotic paradise island of Ponam
Peter Hyde flew as a maintenance Test Pilot with MONAB 4 and later served with 723 Fleet Requirements Unit at R.N.A.S. Nowra.
This reminiscence piece was not written with MONABs in mind, Peter is recalling the chain of coincidences which led him to the pacific theatre and eventually, to an encounter in a bar in London after the war. The work is reproduced by kind permission of the author
Why did ten minutes spent in a Nissen hut on a Scottish airfield towards the end of the Second World War lead to a unique experience on a South Pacific atoll and to near disaster in the Australian skies? The answer: a series of coincidences, each setting the stage for the next, and documented by entries in my flying log book. The account that follows illustrates the powerful role of coincidence in shaping the direction of our lives.
It begins with my arrival on 28 December 1944 at R.N.A.S. Ayr, the birthplace of Robbie Bums. I was there for a three-week conversion course. I would learn to fly the Navy's first-line fighters and torpedo bombers, and I hoped, complete six practice deck landings on an aircraft carrier in the Clyde.
By then I had logged 455 hours, some at flying schools in Britain and Canada, the remainder while "stooging" in Boulton-Paul Defiants. Designed for night fighting, they were found to be lacking in speed and manoeuvrability, and were soon reassigned to other duties, one of which was drogue towing. The monotonous task of hauling sleeve targets at the end of a long cable, backwards and forwards along a designated sector of the Cornish coast between St. Merryn and Tintagel, so that they could be fired on by student fighter pilots, was one of the safest of all wartime flying jobs. Now, at the ripe old age of 20 I was about to realize my dream of joining an operational squadron and going to sea in one of HM's carriers.
Little did I realize that fate would intervene and deposit me on the other side of the world. Picture the scene at Ayr on January 4th, 1945. At latitude 55 degrees, 30 minutes north, the sun is about to set. It is 1530 hours and the sky is overcast. Flying has ended for the day, and the pilots and their instructors are awaiting transportation to the Mess, located on the far side of the field.
A utility van known as "Tilly" is sighted wending its way along the perimeter track towards the aircraft dispersal area. As soon as it arrives there is a rush to clamber aboard, for there is only enough space for about a dozen. The laggards, an instructor, another student and myself, must wait in the hut until the return of the van. As it happened, the conjunction of my tardiness and a high-level decision in London to assemble a British Pacific Fleet to lend direct support to the U.S. forces during the final months of the war were to have an immediate effect on my future.
Suddenly, the telephone rang in the next room. The instructor appeared briefly in the doorway to ask which of us was available for a flying exercise on the following day. As my companion was already booked, I was asked to give my name and rank, which were repeated to the caller. Minutes later, "Tilly" returned and whisked us away to the Mess. On arrival, the Senior Pilot casually informed me that someone from the Admiralty had "phoned and I'd been appointed to join 723 squadron in Australia. "Get your things packed and go on embarkation leave tomorrow. Take the morning train to London and get kitted out for the tropics. You'll receive further instructions in due course." So that was it—-not an exercise but half way round the world in a troopship. "What an extraordinary coincidence," I thought.
The six-week voyage to Australia was completed without incident. After embarking in the troopship "Dominion Monarch," along with thousands of others, including many homeward bound Australian and New Zealand aircrew, we departed from Liverpool on the afternoon of January 15th. By daybreak we had joined a convoy of some 200 merchant vessels assembled off the coast of Northern Ireland; preparatory to crossing the U boat- infested North Atlantic at the speed of the slowest ship, about eight knots. It took all of 16 days to get to the Panama Canal.
After refuelling and victualling in Colon, we crossed the Pacific unescorted. Towards the end of the voyage we were scheduled to disembark several hundred New Zealanders, however, the plan was hastily abandoned upon the discovery that a Japanese submarine was shadowing us. The fact that the ship couldn't slow engines preparatory to entering harbour came as a major disappointment to the Kiwis, many of whom had been away from home for four or five years. Two days later, we arrived in Sydney.
After a few days of luxurious R & R in the spacious accommodations of HMS "Golden Hind," occupying the grounds of Sydney's pre-war racecourse, I travelled by train to HMS "Nabbington" at Nowra, a naval air station about 100 miles to the south, only to find that I was supernumerary, as the vacancy in the squadron had been filled. By yet another coincidence, a requirement had arisen for two maintenance test pilots to be sent to what were vaguely referred to as "the islands," lying somewhere to the north of Australia. To that end, another Subbie and myself were to receive training for the job at Bankstown, an R.A.A.F airfield on the outskirts of Sydney.
During our several weeks at Bankstown we were instructed in the fundamental principles of test flying in the leading naval fighters of the day, the Vought-Sikorsky F4U Corsair and the Grumman Hellcat, both designed and built in the United States, and the British-built Seafire Mark III, the naval version of the famous Spitfire. All were fitted with retractable arrestor hooks to facilitate deck landings, and with wings that folded hydraulically to facilitate storage below decks and in the limited space available near the forward end of the flight deck.
From Bankstown, we were ferried in an R.A.A.F DC-3 Dakota to Port Moresby in what is now known as Papua-New Guinea, and from there to the vast U.S. naval base at Manus, by far the largest of the string of Admiralty Islands forming part of the crescent-shaped Bismarck Archipelago.
After its recapture from the Japanese, Manus became the headquarters of General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of U.S. ground forces in the Pacific Theatre. Furnished with an excellent natural harbour, it served as the staging area for many hard-fought operations by U.S. ground forces against enemy-held islands lying farther to the north. By the time we arrived, MacArthur and his staff had already departed for their new headquarters at Manila in the Philippines.
From Manus, a light aircraft ferried Sub-Lieutenant Jack Jones and myself to Ponam, an atoll lying about three miles off the shoreline of the 60 miles long, jungle-covered Manus Island. The approximately mile and a quarter-long Ponam had been transferred by the U.S. Navy to the recently formed British Pacific Fleet. It incorporated an airstrip of crushed coral; aircraft repair shops and communications facilities; prefabricated buildings for the storage of aircraft parts; jeeps, trucks and other rolling stock; a launch in which a callow Midshipman named Balls deftly negotiated the treacherous waters of the reef; gasoline and oil storage reservoirs; a small control tower; a desalination plant to supply brackish drinking water; and accommodations for several thousand men. Air Artificers, riggers, fitters, armourers, radio technicians, electronics and communications specialists, to mention only some of those with state-of-the-art training in their trades, comprised the bulk of the Ship's Company. Known as HMS "Nabaron," MONAB 4 was the most northerly of the wartime MONABs.
Again, by coincidence, this was the very unit with which I had embarked at Liverpool earlier in the year for the six weeks voyage to Australia. I had never given a thought to its purpose or ultimate destination, and none of the lads had taken the trouble to enlighten me.
On thinking back, their studied silence undoubtedly reflected the high level of secrecy that surrounded every aspect of a brilliantly conceived mission. During the closing months of the war, "Nabaron" played a vital role in enabling forward repairs to be effected to British carrier-based aircraft that had been damaged in strikes against the enemy. The majority could be flown ashore, but the occasional severely mauled "kite" had to be ferried on landing craft that picked their way through the reef and the lagoon. Our job was to test fly them upon the completion of repairs, to ensure that they were airworthy and able to land-on and re-join their squadrons.
Soon after arriving, Jack Jones and I decided to stage an exhibition. We would do some unauthorised low flying in Seafires over the United States base at Manus, and after landing, provide an opportunity for the U.S. pilots to examine the famous "Spits" at close range. Upon returning to Ponam we were told to report immediately to the Commander (Flying). Lieut-Commander John Boteler R.N., a product of the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth, ordered us to stand stiffly to attention while facing him, and proceeded to read out a blistering signal received by Captain Bingley from the American Rear-Admiral a few minutes earlier. I recall hearing the phrase "not conducive to the development of good relations"... etc. etc. After telling us never to attempt such an "idiotic, blankety blank" performance again, "for if we did, that would be it," he shook hands warmly and the three of us sloped off to talk things over less formally in the Mess.
John Boteler, who was old enough to be our father, was immensely popular with a wide assortment of flying types. In exchange for a case of Scotch, he had acquired a home-made Piper Cub, built by an American sergeant in his spare time, and was in the habit of taking to the air in the old crate in the late afternoon hours. I can still "see" that tiny speck in the sky, some three-quarters of an hour later. It flew so slowly that it was impossible to lose sight of it. Getting back before dark was what really mattered, as Ponam lay only two degrees south of the Equator. He had some nasty prangs though, one of which consisted of tipping a Hellcat upside down after landing on the runway, and being forced to hang helpless in the straps, to the great consternation of the onlookers, the fire crew, the ambulance driver and the padre. Who knows! Perhaps he had applied the brakes too heavily? We were all saddened to learn of his demise, which as far as I know, was the result of yet another mishap.
I enjoyed my three months on Ponam; especially the time spent in the air, when one could open the hood and obtain blissful relief from the all-pervading heat and humidity on the island. It was with mixed feelings that I returned to Australia in mid-July, leaving behind an all-male community that included two Air Engineering Officers who were my cabin mates, the overhead coconut trees, the afternoon siestas that ended with a violent thunderstorm precisely at 4 p.m., followed by superb swimming within the safety of the reef, knowing full well that hungry sharks and barracuda lurked just outside it, the multicoloured birds and fish, the friendly lizards that shared our living space and pounced on uninvited insects, and the mysterious flying foxes, which could be seen among the treetops just before sunset.
Another lingering memory is that of watching Nabaron's padre, popularly referred to as The Bishop, explore the mysteries of the coral reef, with the aid of a snorkelling device. He did this every day. All one could see of him were the bubbles.
In the Australian spring and summer that followed the end of hostilities, I remained on strength in 723 squadron until space became available in a troopship for the return voyage to the UK.
It was during this waiting period that a ceremonial flypast of British carrier-based aircraft took place off Melbourne as part of the victory celebrations. In the course of it, a Hellcat had become unserviceable and was forced to undergo repairs at Point Cook. A signal to Nowra was made, requesting that a pilot be sent to collect it, as the Fleet was already steaming north and it was necessary for the Hellcat to land-on.
The task was assigned to me and on September 6, 1945 I was flown from Nowra to Melbourne's Essendon airfield as a passenger in a clapped-out Avenger torpedo-bomber, piloted by a well-known Lieutenant Commander, one Freddie N.
drafty flight of several hours duration. We arrived in the late afternoon and agreed that on the following morning we would meet at 2,000 feet, and then fly back in formation. Over breakfast we finalised our plan. We would take-off simultaneously, he from Essendon and I from Point Cook, join up over the city, and head for Nowra and Bankstown, respectively. As he was by far my senior, I assumed that all matters pertaining to navigation and safety would be his responsibility. This was the only occasion I had ever taken off without a map, a chart, or some knowledge of the weather. All that I knew were Freddie's call-sign and the frequency of his receiver transmitter on the VHF radio band, essential for voice communications. It was easy to see him silhouetted against the ten-tenths ceiling. I had no idea of how thick the clouds were, and expected it would be easy to remain in formation as we climbed through them. At flying schools in Canada and Britain we had been thoroughly trained in the stringent demands of instrument flying, both at night and in cloud. But never before had I attempted to fly on instruments while keeping station on another aircraft. I soon discovered that it was impossible to do both. One would have needed two pairs of eyes. Cease watching his port wing for a moment and there would be an immediate change in your airspeed, course, altitude and the aircraft's angle of attack. The need to trust one's instruments implicitly and resolutely ignore subjective sensations was repeatedly emphasised in the training courses. Given that formation flying necessitates keeping the leader constantly in view, so as to instantaneously make corrections, the total loss of visibility was twitchy, to say the least. I hadn't expected the clouds to be so thick and had no alternative but to remain glued to the instruments until breaking clear of them.
The fact that the Avenger was heavier than the Hellcat and climbed more slowly added to the difficulties. On breaking into sun, Freddie was nowhere to be seen. I immediately contacted him by VHP. His reply: "Continue to orbit and I'll find you." Describing huge circles in the sky at an altitude of 9,000 feet, I wondered how long it would take him to spot me. About ten anxious minutes passed, during which I checked the amount of fuel in the main tank and the auxiliary drop-tank, which would provide an additional 45 minutes of flying. To my relief, both were registering full. There was no sign of the Avenger and I felt twinges of nervousness. The flight path between Melbourne and Nowra, approximately 500 miles to the northeast, crossed a major structural element of Australia's Great Dividing Range; it is known as the Australian Alps. The mountains trend north-eastwards from Melbourne at least as far as Canberra.
"Where the hell are you, Freddie?" I shouted, without switching on the transmitter, of course. Suddenly, the radio crackled in my earphones and he was saying "I can't see you. You had better proceed independently;" whereupon he gave me a bearing in degrees of azimuth on the compass, ending with "Good luck! Out."
Now, the course that a pilot steers in order to make good a desired track is governed chiefly by the force and direction of the wind. It was fortunate that, despite the absence of maps and weather information, I was able to recall the orientation of the departure runway at Point Cook and the approximate strength of the wind. Ideally, you take-off directly into the wind, so as to use up as little space as possible before becoming airborne. Knowing the compass heading of the runway, it was a simple matter to arrive at a rough approximation of the wind direction. By mentally working out a "triangle of velocities," I calculated a course that was based on the velocity of the wind at Melbourne and the direction and distance to be flown. The compass heading thus determined lay well to the east of the course I'd been given. After reflecting for a moment I decided that this easterly course was preferable. Getting lost over the outback would have led to my premature departure from this world!
Although I was counting on a break in the cloud, which would provide for a visual fix, after an hour had elapsed about half of the fuel had been expended and there was no indication of this happening. I was "sitting on the bearing," but the question that nagged me most was-"-how far away was the coast?
For a number of reasons, I didn't dare reduce altitude. For one thing, on the previous day we had flown close to or over Australia's highest peak, Mount Kosciusko, rising to more than 7300 feet. Secondly, if I were to turn 90 degrees to starboard, fly eastwards until well clear of the coast, and then come down through the clouds, I might still be above the land, as the course I'd worked out could have been wrong. The alternative of ditching in "the drink" and inflating the emergency dinghy was distinctly unappealing. It was safe to assume that there were sharks out there. There was no alternative but to remain on course and continue to hope for a break. After a further 45 minutes had elapsed I became seriously worried. The main fuel gauge was registering almost empty. I would soon have to switch to the drop tank. I peered downwards and could see only solid cloud that gave no sign of dispersing. Several minutes later, I looked down again. There were fleeting patches of cloud that presented a darker shade of blue. Then suddenly, I realized that the clouds were beginning to disperse. This was fact, not a mirage. Within minutes, a continuous expanse of dense eucalyptus bush country came clearly into view, some 10,000 feet below.
Now, for the moment of truth. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and turned my head to the right. After a moment of hesitation, I cautiously opened my eyes. Some 30 miles off the starboard wing was exactly what I'd been hoping for—a magnificent stretch of coastline. I breathed an enormous sigh of relief, made a rough estimation of the aircraft's position, and within half an hour was safely on the tarmac at Nowra.
My only other encounter with Freddie took place six months later in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve Club on Hill Street in Mayfair. Noticing that someone had just taken an adjoining seat at the bar, I was astonished to find that it was he. How's that for a coincidence! "Hello" he exclaimed. "'Melbourne wasn't it? Get back alright?" "Yes thanks," I replied, somewhat gingerly. "What will it be?"
Laurence joined HMS NABBERLEY while it was forming up at R.N.A.E. Risley. When MONAB II closed at the end of March 1946 Laurence was drafted to HMS NABSTOCK at Schofields, also soon to close down. Laurence returned home to the UK on the same vessel which carried him out to Australia, the troop ship ATHLONE CASTLE.
Leaving RNAS Arbroath I went on leave, before the end of the leave I received a letter and a rail warrant with instructions to report to an RAF station, the Technical Research Establishment at Defford in Worcestershire. This was a very secret place; it had high twin barbed wire fences with Alsatian dogs running loose between them. I was there to learn how to install two types of radio equipment in Firefly aircraft. One was called Rebecca; I cannot recall the name of the other. Because of the need to know protocol, I had no idea what this equipment was. I was never called upon to install it; it was not until in 2003, while listening to someone reminiscing, that I ever heard of it again.
From Defford I went to HMS GOSLING at Risley between Warrington and Leigh in Lancashire. By either chance or design there was a flock of aggressive geese inhabiting the playing field. There was a sad incident when a perimeter sentry shot dead a rating coming in through the fence.
We were there to kit up for the next job in the Pacific. Tropical uniforms including a pith helmet were issued, the pith helmet was taken back soon after. We were also issued with khaki battle dress, for we were to be a MONAB (Mobile Operational Naval Air Base.) These were intended for island hopping through the Pacific. Eleven MONABS were formed, but only one fulfilled its intended role. It went to the Admiralty Islands. I was in MONAB II also known as HMS NABBERLEY.
Before we embarked we were addressed by the First Lord of the Admiralty, (The Minister in charge of the Navy, the senior Naval officers are called Sea Lords) He said you are going to the Pacific to fight the Japanese, but you have another duty, to counter the growing American influence in Australia.
We sailed from Gladstone dock in Liverpool on 22 December 1944 aboard a Union Castle Line ship R.M.S. ATHLONE CASTLE, arriving in Sydney on 25 January 1945. All we carried on board was a very small steaming bag, so I had no spare cap. While I was leaning over the side a rope dropped from the deck above and knocked my cap into the water. I spent a lot of the trip explaining why I had no cap. The ATHLONE CASTLE had aboard some four hundred naval officers, seven hundred ladies (Wrens, VADs and nurses) and eight thousand non - commissioned officers and ratings, many times the peacetime number of passengers.
Toilets were seats over a galvanised iron channel continually flushed with seawater from one end. Occasionally someone would float a piece of burning paper down the channel causing a ripple effect on the customers. A great deal of time was spent queuing for the canteen. The ship was supposed to have been cleaned but there was accumulated dirt under the bottom rail of the mess tables. We managed to get hold of tools, moved the tables and scrubbed them, this reduced the number of unwanted passengers somewhat.
The ship sailed in a North American bound convoy about half way across the Atlantic before turning south for Panama. We were allowed ashore in the dockyard at Christobal, The dock was swarming with the biggest cockroaches we had ever seen, though they were no larger than you find in Australia. The American USO a services welfare organisation put on a concert on the dock, which we thoroughly enjoyed. The next day the ship entered the canal and for a few days, we had the pleasure of fresh water showers. Parts of the canal and the locks are very narrow. You had to select a side of the ship to sit or stand and face dire consequences if you crossed to the other. Sailing through the lakes is like being on top of the world the horizon is so sharp.d.
The US military establishments along the Canal had large “Shame Boards” proclaiming the number and last occurrence of everything from road and industrial accidents to venereal disease. The voyage across the Pacific was not without incident. A timing chain on one of the engines broke and we drifted for about two days until it was fixed. There was a possibility of Japanese submarines, so everybody had to stay below deck to avoid the appearance of a troopship. I do not know why appearing as troopship did not matter while we were under way. Perhaps our 21-knot speed would outpace submarines. The ship carried a gun, perhaps a 4.5 inch, but the gun crew had only had one practice while we were aboard which was not very encouraging. Pitcairn Island was on our course, and we hove-to while a surfboat came out to exchange mail.
The food was reasonable but included an inordinate amount of rice, which I imagine had been picked up on an earlier voyage. This led to a slight embarrassment when at dinner in Australia our host proudly presented a rice pudding. Proudly because rice was very difficult to get, it was mainly reserved for the Chinese community.
There was not much entertainment, the traditional crossing the line ceremony and a race day. I have a picture of the race day, but I do not remember it. I lost my twentieth birthday to the International Date Line.
The first sign of approach to Australia was somewhere to the north of New Zealand the ship’s radio picked up a Sydney commercial station with the exciting message “Ding Dong. Start the day well with Kinkara Tea and remember Mothers Choice Flour in every home.” The ship berthed in Woolloomooloo, and was greeted by a pipe band that I was convinced had followed me all the way from Arbroath.
MONAB II was based at Bankstown Airport, part of which was RAAF No 2 Aircraft Park. It also housed a De Haviland factory. The bus trip to Bankstown showed us unfamiliar housing styles and livestock grazing at the side of the road
We moved into unfinished and unfurnished timber framed corrugated iron clad huts. This being the day before the ‘Australia Day’ long week-end nothing was done for some time to improve this situation. For some days, we slept on sacks of straw. Hardwood was a new experience; attempts to drive nails into it with a ball Paine hammer were generally unsuccessful.
At first, the food was not up to scratch, tinned meat and vegetable stew followed by prunes and custard, and such fare; disappointing in a country so rich in food. It became good quite rapidly though. After four years without them, the great joy was bananas, the first stop in town was the fruit store, before going into Sydney on the train or to the swimming pool. Transport into Bankstown was by ancient busses, one did not have a battery cut out, the driver held a piece of wire on the steering wheel whenever the engine revs were high enough. They often had to be push started, and if heavily loaded some passengers had to get off when going uphill. .
OCriminal activity was not uncommon. The sewage system sometimes failed because pumps were stolen from the treatment plant. A number (six if I remember correctly) of .45 Webley pistols were stolen from the armoury. One of them turned up in the 70’s under the car seat of a man that I knew, the Secretary Manager of the Returned Servicemen’s Club in Engadine N.S.W. On tobacco issue day, two civilians walked through all the ratings huts with sugar bags and handfuls of notes buying duty free tobacco. When the MONAB was closing down a truck containing an ice making plant was driven through the gate and as far as I know, has not been seen since. When I had to return to the store a number of battery charging petrol electric sets many of them were missing, a problem that I found it expedient to solve by partly disassembling the remainder and distributing the parts into the appropriate number of boxes. A criminal activity in itself I suppose. Ah well, there is a statute of limitations.
Armed sentries were posted in some spots, their rifles loaded with blanks for fear of the repercussions if one of the locals were shot. One incident in which a weapon was involved concerned a Marine who went berserk, held up the Guardroom, and tried to let the prisoners out. They would not go, saying we are in enough trouble already.
The Major in charge of the Royal Marines died when the bonnet of the jeep he was driving flew open, totally blocking his vision. He drove into a power pole. In another incident, a civilian who ignored instructions from the escort of an aircraft convoy lost an arm to the wing root of an aircraft on a low loader. He was probably driving gripping the gutter, a common practice before it was made illegal.
There were many dogs loose around the site. Divisions one day were made entertaining by all of them in pursuit of a bitch on heat running across in front of the assembled ships company. Nothing was done about them until one tried to jump through the propeller of an aircraft that was being run up. While here I became a Petty officer, first as an Air Artificer (L) 4th Class then as a result of changes to the engineering structure an Electric Artificer (Air) 4th Class.
The local power supply was overloaded and there were many power outages. There was a large diesel generator near the main gate, which we had to supplement with transportable generators. The large generator was manned twenty-four hours a day. The people on the night watches used to cook fried snacks of chips and the like. The place stunk of diesel fuel, when people coming off shore tried to scrounge chips they were told “OK but you know we cook them in diesel oil, you get used to it quite rapidly”. Many doubted the truth of this but very few were game to try. One of the transportable generators was for the wardroom. I selected what I thought was the best site spent all morning connecting it up, and after lunch tested it. A window opened and a very irate captain’s voice said, “What the hell is that?” I replied “The Wardroom generator sir” He replied “Take it away and put it outside a bloody Sub Lieutenant’s cabin” This generator figured in another incident. The Electrical P.O.s were on both a duty electricians’ roster and the general duty rosters; complaints about this fell on deaf ears until one night the Wardroom generator broke down when the duty electrician was on the other side of the airfield.
Another generator had to be wired into the workshop area sub-station. Being a cautious person, I opened the switch supplying the substation and padlocked it open. I was bolting conductors onto the bus bars when I got a jolt on my elbow. I checked the switch, it was open, said to myself “must have imagined it” a few minutes later it happened again. A check of the drawings showed that there was a relay on the other side of the switchboard with a stud sticking through to the side on which I was working. This was the street light relay. There were no streetlights; all the lamps had been removed. The relay was controlled by a switch in the telephone exchange, which happened to be turned on. It was fed from another substation.
There was no NAAFI wagon, mid-morning the local milk truck drove round selling ice-cold bottles of milk. An enterprising pair fitted out an unused aircraft crate with milk shake machines and for a small fee turned your bottle of milk into a milk shake. I assume this was a legitimate “firm”; its operation was quite open.
Railway stations had large posters warning of poisonous spiders. On night, I was working alone, dressed only in shorts and sandals, standing on a stepladder with my arm right up to the elbow in a wing inspection panel when an extremely large spider ran down my arm, the side of my body and my leg then scuttled across the hanger floor. It was not one of the poisonous varieties; I didn’t immediately identify it and felt quite stressed.
The First Lord may have been concerned with the American influence, but there was no doubting the welcome given to The British Pacific Fleet and its offshoots. A huge building in the middle of Hyde Park near the centre of Sydney was the British Centre. It was built by public subscription.
“A British Naval Force is coming, £200,000 is needed for The British Centre to provide meals, accommodation, recreation. They did not fail us, we must not fail them.”
There were dances here every night, it was crowded with girls many of whom seemed to be under instructions from their parents to bring a sailor home to visit. At Bankstown policy was that no offers of hospitality were to be refused, on occasions men on stoppage of leave were told to change into number-ones and go to a dance at a local hall. The NSW Government Railways provided passes to travel anywhere on the metropolitan network which extended about 50 kilometres round Sydney, for a few shillings a month
One day I was on Central station, a troop train was standing at the next platform. A soldier got off the train and crossed the line to where I was standing just as a train came in. I tried to pull him up, but the train hit him before I got him onto the platform. He was killed instantly
The job at Bankstown was to unpack aircraft from crates or remove their protective coatings and assemble them. The aircraft were Grumman Hellcats and Avengers, Supermarine Seafires, Fairey Fireflies and Vought Corsairs; also a few Vultee Vengeance which we modified for aerial insecticide spraying. After inspection and fixing faults, they were test flown and any further problems were corrected. They were then delivered to aircraft carriers or transport ships at Garden Island.
Most of the time the weather was hot and dry, with tremendous dust storms, for this was at the end of an eight-year La Nina drought, in which major rivers such as the Hawkesbury and the Hunter virtually ceased to flow. When the drought broke the grass airfield became unusable. Aircraft were flown off from a hard standing in front of the hangers and landed at MONAB 6, HMS NABSTOCK, located at Schofields about 40 kilometres to the west of Sydney, and delivered from there.
I made acquaintance with a new device, a petrol blowlamp, I have never seen one since. This one had a built-in jet pricker which broke off and blocked the jet while I was preheating it. This had the effect of over pressurising the tank and forcing more petrol into the preheating tray. I tried to put it out with a handful of wet cotton waste. A whoosh of flame escaped and caught me on the face, removing my eyebrows and melting the fat on the end of my nose!
When the announcement of the Japanese surrender was broadcast over the PA there was a Hellcat suspended from the crane. The crane driver said “They won’t be needing this now” and let it down with a run.
There were about 700 American aircraft there at the end of the war. These were what were called Lend Lease equipment. The U.S. provided them without charge, or sometimes in exchange for other goods or services. These aircraft evidently had not been exchanged in this manner so they still belonged to the U.S. The war being over there was no immediate use for them. To prevent them finding their way onto the second hand arms market the U.S. required them to be dumped at sea. This meant the use of aircraft carriers that could otherwise be sent home and “paid off”.
Therefore, there was some urgency in all this; working round the clock the aircraft were loaded onto semi-trailers, taken to Garden Island Dockyard, transferred to aircraft carriers and taken several kilometres offshore. The fuselage was split open with axes to ensure that they sank rapidly, and then they were pushed off the flight deck. You would think that they would never be seen or heard of again. However, many years’ later newspapers were reporting bits being caught in trawl nets.
There was no lighting where the aircraft were parked. My contribution was to fit out a 5-ton Bedford truck containing a diesel generator with a large number of hanger pedestal lights lashed to the frame, it also carried a quantity of extension leads and more pedestal lights to illuminate the current loading area.
Payment was monthly, and only in notes. It was very difficult to pay a bus fare with a fairly high value note, and equally difficult to keep enough change to start the next pay period. Several ratings had bought horses. It was an unconventional sight to see Liberty-men falling in with saddles over their left arm.
I spent a few days leave with a friend on a half cabin boat exploring Sydney harbour. The dinghy broke loose while we were going across the Heads. I swam to recover it. When I got back to the boat, I thought of sharks and decided that I wouldn’t do it again. I got stung on the hand by a fish though. A visit to a local doctor resulted in a referral to the Naval Hospital at Herne Bay, now known as Riverwood though we called it Hernia Bay. I was surprised that it took an operation under general anaesthetic to remove it. Because I had had an operation, I was given a week’s convalescent leave and a rail warrant to anywhere in New South Wales. With my eyes closed, I threw at dart at a map in the canteen, it landed on Wingham near Taree. I stayed there for a few days and travelled back to Sydney by road with an insurance salesman who was selling to country school teachers. A totally new look in Australia, one teacher schools with hitching rails for the children’s horses, corrugated dirt roads and paddocks full of ring barked trees.
It is March 1946, and the MONAB at Bankstown was closing down. I am drafted to the Royal Navy Barracks was HMS GOLDEN HIND at Warwick Farm. It had been a tented camp on the racecourse, but when I went there in March 1946 it had moved into a complex of wooden huts that for many years after the war served as a migrant hostel.
The first night that the cells were occupied several prisoners escaped. A contractor had “forgotten” to remove some hacksaw blades. The main reason for being in the cells was desertion. With the war over, some sailors were looking to a new life in Australia and went to live with girls, who when the money ran out, turned them in. The Provost Marshall had a waiting list for the cells and arrested candidates as vacancies occurred.
I was only at GOLDEN HIND for twelve days, but I got lumbered one Saturday with the job of Petty Officer in charge of the Shore Patrol in Parramatta. There are two sorts of Naval Shore Patrols. The first is a properly trained full-time patrol. These mainly operate in major ports. Ships visiting small ports and establishments remote from major ports provide their own patrols. The patrol was randomly selected for a one-day duty. There was no training, experience of observing other patrols was the only guide. A webbing belt with a bayonet, gaiters, and an armband are the only equipment, no baton, no handcuffs and certainly no pistol. Reliance is placed on superior numbers (hopefully) and respect for authority. There is another factor, next week you might be the enforcer.
Parramatta is a few kilometres west of Sydney, there were very few sailors there, but two of them gave problems. The first a cook was lying unconscious in the churchyard with half a bottle of rum beside him. I called the local police paddy wagon, put him in a cell, had his property listed except of course for the half bottle of rum. The patrol enjoyed that! When I released him some hours later and escorted him to the railway station, he spent a great deal of time bemoaning the loss of the rum. We were called to a cafe to find a quietly drunk Chief Petty Officer, he posed two problems first if I were not in charge of the patrol he outranked me, the second was that he was a very strong man. He was sitting waiting for his meal and passing the time twisting the admittedly rather flimsy forks and spoons into fancy shapes. Fortunately, he cooperated and I took him to the Railway Station and not the Police Station.
After GOLDEN HIND, I went to HMS NABSTOCK, MONAB VI at Schofields, I was in charge of the Instrument Workshop here. One day a F24 Aerial reconnaissance camera came in. I tested it could not find anything wrong with it and sent it back noted as “unable to fault”. It was not long after that an irate squadron commander appeared, saying “What do you mean there is nothing wrong with it”, and flourishing a handful of very peculiar looking prints. I then got the story; a Seafire had been modified for this photographic role, these prints were the results from the first use. A study of the peculiarities showed that the shutter was opening while the film was being wound on. I checked the controller, it was OK. There was only one thing left, the wiring between the controller and the camera.
I examined the wiring harness from a system that had not yet been installed. Part of it was a cable with a 7-pin plug at one end and a 7-pin socket at the other. They had been wired from opposite ends. Pin 1 was connected to 7, 2 to 6, 3 to 5 and so on, only pin 4 was correctly wired! It was only luck that this set of misconnections did not result in a fuse blowing.
Schofields is about 30 kilometres from Sydney harbour bridge. I had a girlfriend that lived at Lindfield well up the North Shore. An evening out involved taking the train into Sydney, out to Lindfield, going back to Sydney for entertainment, see her back home to Lindfield, then back to Sydney. The last train to Schofields left fairly early, but I got the first morning train, I spent the night at Central Station. A blanket deposited in a left luggage locker ensured a comfortable nights sleep. I really got value from that railway pass. The drought had now broken; the road to the station from the airfield was sometimes flooded, so it was trousers rolled up, shoes, and socks in hand.
My next move was back to England, once again in the ATHLONE CASTLE. After a 12-hour delay due to mechanical problems we sailed round the south side of Australia to Fremantle, Western Australia. Due to further engine problems we had two days leave to visit Perth. A run ashore in Perth saw a group of us having lunch at a hotel with a few beers. When lunch was over we asked where we could go to drink. The answer was “Take a train to Mount Helena” which was the nearest country hotel to Perth. This was a wood fired train; occasionally a lump of wood that was too big to fit the firebox would fly past the window. In Sydney there had been a complete dearth of bottled beer, when we pleaded for some bottles to take away we were astounded to be asked “Yes how many”. While buying this beer we heard a loud whistle. It was the train signalling patrons to leave. As we walked down the platform the driver leaned from the engine and said “are you the last”. Once we were settled the train took off. There were four other people in the carriage who came from a railway town and knew the train crew. When they invited the guard to have drink he declined because there was a station master at the next station. He joined us later however. These were the type of carriages that did not have toilets, at one point the guard flashed his lantern to the driver, the train stopped, and it was ladies to the left gentlemen to the right. I blotted my copy book here coming off shore two hours late.
At Singapore we picked up soldiers going home for "demob". Their complimentary comments on the troopship food which we thought not to up to Navy standard made us feel that we had in the past been too harsh on our cooks. We made one more stop; a few days in Aden to restock supplies before continuing on through the Suez Canal and the Med to Southampton. Travelling up the Red Sea we saw many overcrowded pilgrim ships heading for Medina, the port for Mecca. One of our group commented “This is where the next World War will start” There is still time for him to be proved right. The Bay of Biscay lived up to its reputation. The weather was awful.
Bruce was drafted to R.N.A.E Risley to join MONAB II. He remained with this unit until its closure when he joined MONAB VI during its run down to paying off at RNAS Schofields.
On Completion of my Technical Training at R.A.F. Hednesford, I was with a group of F.A.A. ratings loaned to the R.A.F. We started at R.A.F. Kenley, Surrey. (by luck a modest cycle ride to my father's house in Epsom, a pilot in one of the Canadian Squadrons gave me an aerial view of Epsom & home. From there we were posted to Warmwell in Dorset, our first meeting with U.S.A.A.F. flying P.58s, following on to Ford, Sussex, dealing with visiting aircraft.
Having returned to Lee-on-Solent I was posted to a unit forming at R.N.A.E. Risley; this unit was MONAB II, HMS NABBERLEY. After sitting out and training we had a final full parade, we were inspected by and briefed by the first sea Lord. Then we joined the R.M.S. ATHLONE CASTLE at Liverpool.
We church goers, in discussion with two Salvation Army lads, decided that the Free Church members should have our own service. The Padre (from HMS ANSON) arranged for us to have the first-class saloon for 10 a.m. service, after which, as a token of appreciation we went down one deck and became the choir for the C of E service.
After crossing the Atlantic we tied up in Colon, Panama, where a local group entertained us. The Panama Canal was very impressive, especially the contrast between the giant locks and nearby jungle. Mid Pacific, we suffered a 3-day breakdown on one engine; all the usual rumours were circulated as to what had happened. Then at 5 a.m. one morning we were awakened by a chorus of Kookaburras; we had arrived in Sydney.
We disembarked to be detailed to quarters at R.A.A.F Bankstown. The Station was taken over by MONAB II as a centre for the reception & inspection of aircraft, crated engines etc. I was part of the Test flight line crew, inspecting aircraft before they were check test flown. We made our inspection reports to our officer; he then issued them to the appropriate departments for the aircraft to either be test flown before being returned to service or returned to the hanger with faults. I also did some of the ground testing; this testing was done in the parking areas, the starting up of the engines raised clouds of dust so we were completing our work in semi-gloom.
I volunteered for town patrols; these were to check on the behaviour of ratings ashore and traffic direction. Good relations were established locally, but this was sometimes spoilt by new arrivals. When activities eased 10 days leave was granted, the first part I spent in Melbourne and then went on to Temora, some 300 miles from the sea. In both places we were treated very well with special outings in the mountains and hunting in the bush.
We had a celebration to mark VE Day and then it was back to business as usual. We also had a party after VJ Day.
I left HMS NABBERLEY on March 21st 1946; I had a short stay at HMS GOLDEN HIND (a week) where some of us went back to school. I was then posted to HMS NABSTOCK, arriving March 29th.
There we spent a short period servicing usable aircraft in preparation for them flying off onto the carriers; we then turned our attention to collecting scrap. Wreckage of trucks and aircraft was collected into enormous heaps in the middle of the airfield. The C.O., after a short speech, fired his signal pistol into a trench of petrol, supposedly to deter dubious local scrap dealers coming onto the station. Several truckloads of scrap were dumped two miles out in the Bush.
At the start of trucking the first load into bush one of the team used an "X" word and a LAF/E (a fan of pre-war radio entertainment) told him “do not swear in front of the children”, a well-known catch phrase from one his favourite shows. The result was not one swear word for whole of that week
My next move was being detailed to join a unit returning to Sydney. Upon arrival we were put on a ship that was to take us home, much to my surprise, it was the ATHLONE CASTLE. After a 12-hour delay due to mechanical problems we sailed round the south side of Australia to Fremantle, Western Australia. There a funny incident happened; a Mother met us with a pushchair rounding the dock buildings, this sight was to be greeted by loud chorus of “She’s come for you Jack!!"
Due to further engine problems we had two days leave to visit Perth. Being a member of the Rotary club I Presented my Rotary “intro” card at the Perth branch and I met the branch president who gave me a tour of the city.
The ocean on route to the East Indies was like a sheet of glass; the opposite was the case between Singapore and Aden with us running into a typhoon. Local fighting was still going on around the islands, were told that it was Indonesians against the Dutch.
We collected army personnel at Singapore, going home for "demob". We made one more stop; a few days stop in Aden to restock supplies before continuing on thought the Suez Canal and the Med. The Bay of Biscay lived up to its reputation, weather wise it was awful.
The R.N. were on manoeuvres as we came through to dock at Southampton, where a big N.A.A.F.I. welcome was received when finally, our turn came to disembark.