The reminiscences of Sub Lt. (A) Peter Hyde RNVVR who 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
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
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
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
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
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 rejoin 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
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.
I still remember the uncomfortable, 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
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
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
"Hello" he exclaimed.
"'Melbourne wasn't it? Get back alright?"
"Yes thanks," I replied, somewhat gingerly.
"What will it be?"