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.

 

 

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.

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 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 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 airfield.

 

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 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 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.

 

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 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.

Laurence Russell

 

  Back to top

 

   1999 - 2011 www.royalnavyresearcharchive.org.uk

 

ANNOUNCEMENT