The reminiscences of Aircraft Artificer 4th Class (Electrical)
Laurence Russell who served with MONAB II at Bankstown.
Laurence joined HMS Nabberley whilst 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 some-one 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.
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.
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.
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 every body 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
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
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
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 up hill.
Criminal 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
Another generator had to be wired into
the workshop area sub-station. Being a cautious person I opened the
switch supplying the sub station 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 sub station.
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
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 poster proclaimed:
“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 any where 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.
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
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
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.
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 girl friend 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.
Back to top