The reminiscences of Lt. Gordon Pursall who served with the Salvage section of MONAB II at Bankstown.

This work, originally written for the Fleet Air Arm Officer’s Association entitled ‘Three Years of Interest 1943 – 1946’; it is reproduced here by kind permission of the author.

 

 

Having qualified as an Air Engineering Officer at St Merryn in Cornwall…

 

After a short leave I was appointed to Donibristle as a salvage officer (under training). The Fleet Air Arm expansion meant that the one or two land based salvage officers were not sufficient and much work had to be done by the, RAF, who I believe suggested the FAA should look after their own.

 

A salvage officer's duty was to control some fifty men whose task was to collect crashed aircraft and undertake the movement of aircraft by road where this was required. The section had its own cranes and lorries usually driven by Royal Marines. The officer to whom I was attached, and two other AEOs for similar training, was a Lt Cdr Hind RN. This gentleman had ideas which did not conform to accepted conventions, for instance the furniture of the mess at Donibristle had been augmented with furniture being unloaded at Glasgow from liners which were being converted to troop ships. These articles, armchairs, sofas etc, were 'mistakenly' put on some salvage lorries which had mysteriously found their way to the liner's side during the unloading. They were relieved of their cargo at the wardroom. No one seemed to ask any questions. After two months on this salvage training Hind and the trainee salvage officers were given a lecture by the Engineering Commander of the station, about a new organisation called a MONAB, or Mobile Operation Naval Air Base. The result of this lecture was to alter the path of my naval career.

 

After nearly fifty years my knowledge of the MONABs is somewhat vague but my understanding was as follows:- The Americans had effectively crippled the Japanese carrier force and the Japanese Navy was in retreat. The overall allied plan was to invade Japan by getting nearer to the mainland by "island hopping". Each stepping stone was to be a base particularly for aircraft, hence MONAB. There were MONABs in other theatres I believe, but I am particularly concerned with MONAB II based in Sydney, which is where Lt Cdr Hind and myself were appointed as salvage officers. Some rudimentary jungle training was given presumably if we got cut off in a jungle. One thing I remember was being lectured by an MO and told that you could drink your own urine if necessary, but after two or three days it tended to get "brackish". This advice aroused some concern at the time.

 

 

Lt Cdr Hind cleverly arranged for the bulk of the Donibristle salvage section to volunteer for service with MONAB II and sailing instructions were received.

 

hese were to board the R.M.S Athlone Castle at No 2 Gladstone Dock in Liverpool. The ship, a Union Castle liner full up with food from South Africa, was bound for Sydney via Panama. We sailed in November 1944. The ship carried the bulk of the personnel to form the headquarters staff for the British Pacific Fleet as well as MONAB II personnel. She had aboard some four hundred naval officers, seven hundred ladies (Wrens, VADs and nurses) and eight thousand non - commissioned officers and ratings.

 

By a curious coincidence welcoming me as I stepped on board the Athlone Castle was my brother, Commander (A) David Pursall DSC R.N.V.R, (He had won the DSC off Malta picking up a shot down RAF pilot whilst being attacked by a German plane. He said the air sea rescue Walrus was too slow for the hostile fighter to hit). Because of his press qualifications he was transferred after three years flying (still being alive which was unusual) to the Admiralty Press Division. He was to be stationed in Sydney to initiate a press division attached to the BPF and the US Fleet for Captain Anthony Kimmins to take over when he arrived in Sydney from Manus. Capt Kimmins was a well known broadcaster on naval affairs.

 

Certain memories of this epic voyage remain in my head after all these years, for instance, the address by the OC troops given to the officers just after sailing was to remember that the recreation deck, Deck F, was limited to use by the Wrens and officers. He instructed, we were to remember that "F was for Freddie gentlemen". The second memory was sentries were placed at each end of the corridor to which the WRNS cabins had access. One sentry was reported missing one night, he was found in a Wren's cabin. His defence was he had been asked to free a sticking wardrobe door. I believe the unofficial rate to become a sentry was two shillings per night.


At Colon, Panama where we were for five days awaiting passage through the Canal the American Navy kindly invited the Wrens to a grand lunch in their Officers Mess situated at the end of a palm tree lined avenue about three quarters of a mile from the dock.
The Wrens decided to march formally from the ship to the Mess. Great preparations of white uniforms took place and they fell in on the dockside at the bottom of the gangway to the Athlone Castle. They marched to the Mess in a manner the Guards would have envied, they were cheered all the way by US personnel who lined the route, - a treasured memory.
One reason why the journey took so long was that the ship broke down in Mid Pacific (engine timing chain). This took two days to repair and as we wallowed about, stopped, one could imagine Jap submarines on every quarter. The feeling of insecurity was heightened as rough calculations had been made which showed there were insufficient life boats.

 

Even a ships concert failed to raise morale. Some New Zealand soldiers returning to New Zealand after release from German POW camps sang as their turn "Now is the Hour", this did not help, as they reduced some of the audience, particularly the ladies, to tears. The tears failed to alleviate the ensuing water shortage caused by the breakdown. Home seemed very far away.

 

 

On arrival in Sydney in February 1945, MONAB II was sent to Bankstown a RAAF aerodrome about fourteen miles out of Sydney so replacing the RAAF personnel. It became an FAA station with the task of repairing and preparing machines for transfer to the Fleet as replacements and also forming a reserve for the eventual invasion of Japan. This meant that MONAB II lost it's purpose as a mobile base and became a static one.

 

The salvage section consisted of Lt Cdr Hind and myself (promoted to Lieutenant (A) RNVR shortly after arrival in Australia) four Chief Petty Officers, twenty Royal Marine drivers and about thirty naval airmen as mechanics come drivers etc. Their original task, as mentioned, was to collect crashed aircraft and the movement of aircraft and stores by road.

 

Bankstown had by now become a service aerodrome. The aircraft to be serviced came from the US or UK either as deck cargo on escort carriers or in some instances fleet carriers or in crates in ship's holds. The vessels arrived at Pyrmont Dock in Sydney Harbour, which had been designated an FAA dock and was run by the Australian Port Authorities in conjunction with the Royal Navy.

 

It was more convenient for the Salvage Section to be based in Sydney rather than Bankstown and we were moved to Woollamaloo. At the same time my unit was transferred to,and came under the control of, Flag Officer Naval Air Pacific (FONAP) who was at the time Rear Admiral Portal. Because FONAP had more important tasks the section was given considerable licence on the running of it's affairs. Lt Cdr Hind after about five months sought discharge from the Service due to alleged bad health. He made no mention of an Australian widow who owned a boarding house between Melbourne and Sydney on the coast. I was then put in command of the section with the promise of promotion (which did not materialise).

 

At this stage it may be helpful to mention the situation of the war in the Pacific, particularly that of the British Pacific Fleet. The war in Europe was coming to a close and Churchill and Roosevelt decided that Britain should take a more active part in the Pacific War. Churchill had, it is believed, two reasons for this. One was to show Australia that they had not been forgotten and the other to wean them away from American dominance (not that they needed any weaning as they had outstayed their welcome; I saw the US Officers mess in flames in Brisbane with the fire brigade delayed). The other was to avenge Singapore. As an aside; Churchill, after Singapore fell was asked by a Member of Parliament why he had not checked the 360 degree traverse of the defending guns so they could defend if a landward attack took place. Churchill replied by saying, he had not checked this any more than if he saw a battleship being launched he would check whether they had put a bottom on it So the BPF was decreed with Admiral Bruce Fraser in command. It was to be based in Australia and work as part of the American fifth Fleet (Adml Nimitz). It was very much the junior partner (we had about ten carriers and the fifth Fleet had over forty), but never-the-less it was the largest Fleet the UK had ever formed, " The forgotten fleet ". It was also dependent on the US for many supplies particularly aircraft. The British FAA aircraft were unsuitable for the prevailing conditions and were now flying almost entirely US machines.

 

A story is told of Admiral Fraser asking Adml Nimitz for three Avengers for training purposes. He was refused and on asking the reason why, was informed they only let them out in groups of six. But if a bottle of Scotch could be found they might increase this quota to twelve.

 

But returning to the Salvage Section now in Sydney. The duties were as mentioned before principally the organising of motor vehicle convoys to and from the docks at Pyrmont and Bankstown. These convoys of about eight aircraft carrying vehicles plus attendant NSW Police escorts and a FAA officer drove through the city. As the officer in charge dealing with irate Australian drivers, NSW Police, not noted for their tact, and Royal Marine drivers, frequently raised problems I did not associate with FAA duties. The lorries were supplied by US or RAAF and were specially constructed to take aircraft. They were known as Spiders. They carried various types; Seafires, Fireflies, Hellcats, Avengers and Corsairs. All were difficult loads when negotiating Sydney tram cables and lines.

 

Our relations with the NSW Police were cordial. How this was achieved it is perhaps best not to enquire, but petrol and whisky were scarce. It was said that a former Governor General when inspecting the motor cycle police remarked, "when I saw their uniforms I thought they had been cleaning their motor cycles with them, until I saw their machines". In spite of this their control of traffic was ruthless and efficient.

 

The occasional crashed aircraft was collected but flying conditions were much superior to those in the UK so the frequency of crashes was not great. When a carrier arrived by the dock the aircraft, possibly up to seventy, were taken to Bankstown, serviced and returned to the carrier for transfer to the Island aircraft parks north of Australia. It usually meant working night and day for about three days as when the last load was delivered the first load was ready for return to the carrier. The ships arrived about every ten days.

 

One Sunday morning much to their displeasure the Section had to report to the aerodrome. All available personnel had to paint out with green paint any red on the aircraft, roundels, stripes, warning notices etc. This was because the Fleet when attacked by Kamikazes tended to fire on any plane showing any red, Japanese planes had a rising sun insignia. At this time the threat of Kamikazes was growing. The sight of HMAS Australia coming crippled into Garden Island was not pleasant, she having been hit by a suicide pilot.

 

About the middle of 1945 another unit for moving aircraft was set up in Brisbane. This was a much smaller affair in charge of a CPO with frequent supporting visits by the writer. The job in Brisbane was much simpler because the aircraft could be towed on their own undercarriages, not possible in NSW because of State Regulations. The aerodrome in Brisbane was Rocklea.

 

It was interesting from our flat window, overlooking the harbour and Garden Island, to see the various warships flying the Union Flag a few days after their return to Australia from extensive periods at sea when they had been supported by the 'Fleet Train' This indicated a court martial was being held usually misdemeanours caused by drink. I had once to appear before Sydney magistrates defending a member of the Salvage Section. In a fit of zeal he had driven a milk float through a shop window. His reasons for doing this were not at all clear. His defence, which I supported, was that his judgement had been effected by Dunkirk and every other naval action since Trafalgar. His bravery under fire was unsurpassed. He was let off with a caution. This defence plea was instigated by an Australian lawyer who said this was the standard procedure for Australian and British military personnel under similar circumstances. It seemed to be accepted by NSW's courts.

 

As I write, further memories return, for instance; I was responsible for losing a Seafire, I had the bright idea of unloading the newly arrived carriers from both sides. The dock side using the ships own derricks and the open side by lowering the aircraft onto a lighter by a small floating crane, then bringing the lighter to the dock for unloading. Unfortunately I had overlooked that passing harbour ferries caused considerable wash. On the first occasion this method was employed a ferry passed just as the derrick had lowered the machine onto the lighter, the sudden rise and fall of the lighter caused the plane to fall off the crane hook and after bouncing on the deck fell into the harbour. Horrified, I saw a great big oily bubble rise to the surface. The mishap was duly reported. After submitting the report expecting to be court-martialled or at least shot, I never heard anything else, curious, because if the Section lost a bucket all hell was let loose.

 

It was difficult to stop various petrol fiddles, as all aircraft when moved by road had to have their tanks drained. Crashed aircraft removed from carriers at Garden Island were usually drained in a hurry and not always completely. When they arrived at Bankstown for breaking up or repair, they were then completely drained. The residue which might be up to twenty gallons was unaccountable. Australian farmers would pay up to five shillings per gallon for aircraft fuel to augment their rationed poor quality petrol. This practice when discovered was forbidden, at least orders were issued to stop it, but…

 

My most unpleasant period in the war occurred after the Japanese surrender. After this event the section's main activity ceased and its attention was turned to loading carriers with medical supplies, ambulances etc, for the relief of prisoners in Singapore and Hong Kong. The unloading of the ships on their return to Sydney with ex POW's, internees etc, most of whom were in a very distressed condition, did not endear the writer to the Japanese. The dock was besieged by anxious Australians who were searching for any surviving relations as there had been no knowledge of whether they were dead or alive during their captivity. The survivors were hurried away in closed buses to various local hospitals. I was of the opinion at the time when seeing these poor men, women and children, that two atom bombs had not been enough.

 

After the Japanese surrender I can vaguely remember VJ night at Kings Cross (the so called artist's quarter in Sydney). This was very much an occasion and fully made up for missing the VE celebrations in the UK, Australians can be very cheerful at times. I took part in the VJ Victory March in Sydney carrying for the first time a Naval sword which got heavier as the March progressed. The warmth of the reception given to the RN contingent aroused considerable emotion as we marched.

 

The departure of Captain Kimmins and my brother who went to Tokyo to witness the signing of the Japanese surrender meant clearly the war was at an end. I was recalled to the UK on a Class B release to return to Rolls Royce. My last duty was to supervise the loading of a carrier with about seventy aircraft for dumping into the Pacific Ocean as an agreement under the lease lend arrangement.

 

I finally obtained a passage to the UK in R.M.S Andes via Suez arriving home just in time for Christmas. I brought with me a crate full of canned food. The NAAFI in Sydney had warned those personnel returning to the UK that people back home were starving. They would not tell us this was the situation because they did not want to worry us, fighting the war as we were. So it was recommended we took home as much food as possible, Camp Pie being particularly recommended. It was a tissue of lies of course, they were getting rid of their stores.

 

Finally, it was said that a signal was issued to the effect that any Japanese aircraft attacking allied shipping, either because they had not heard of the armistice or because they refused to accept it "were to be shot down in a friendly fashion".

 

As for the Camp Pie, even our dog would not eat it.

 

My war was over.

 

 

G. A. Pursall

 

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