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BRIAN EATON INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT
Australian War Memorial
Kairouan, Tunisia. c. 1943. Informal portrait of Squadron Leader Brian Eaton, commanding officer of No. 3 Squadron RAAF on the airfield.
Note the nose of the Curtiss P40 Kittyhawk aircraft behind him. [AWM MEC0195]
(O344) Eaton, Brian Alexander (Air Vice Marshal)
22 November 1990
Brian Alexander Eaton, 3 Squadron RAAF, interviewed by Edward Stokes for The Keith Murdoch Sound Archive of Australia in the War of 1939-45
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This is Edward Stokes recording with Air Vice Marshal Brian Eaton, No. 3 Squadron, tape one, side one. Could we perhaps begin by your date of birth and where you grew up please?
Yes, I was born in Tasmania on 15th December 1916, and then we moved to Melbourne where we lived at Camberwell, and then East Camberwell. I was educated at Carey Baptist Grammar School in Kew. My father was killed and we were a bit short of money so I joined the Air Force. I had hoped to be a doctor, but I had all the education so I went straight into the Air Force.
Had you thought of flying much before that or not?
No, very little. I'd done some instructional work but I was not a pilot.
And the change from medicine to the Air Force, was that because you had to pay for your –?
Mainly due to finances. I decided I had to get a job.
Right. Of course they were hard times in the …?
They were, yes, right in the depression.
Yes, right. Just a couple of other things about those early years. The general tradition of the ANZACS of Australians and New Zealanders fighting in the first war, some of the myths and the reality of it too, did that impact much on you or not?
Yes, I remember the old diggers used to come to our house selling buttons and small things. My mother always bought something from them. But that's about all I can remember. Oh, I always went to the ANZAC Day marches in Melbourne, too.
Were you conscious of the patriotic fervour and so on associated with it?
I think so, yes, oh yes.
In the period through the '30s, including after you went to Point Cook, of course there were very dramatic political military developments in Europe and Asia for that matter, Japan invading Manchuria in China. How conscious of those events were you?
We were not very conscious about the “yellow peril”. That didn't seem to worry us. We were more worried about Hitler and Mussolini. And the RAF sent Air Chief Marshal Salmon to look at us. I remember that was in 1936 when I was a trainee and that had more impact than the Japanese. We never thought much of the Japanese. They reckoned they couldn't fly and they couldn't see at night, and they were too weak to handle an aircraft. But of course we were wrong.
Didn't do a lot of good for Singapore did it.
Moving on to the period at Point Cook, could you tell us a little bit about your first reactions, your first months in the Air Force?
Well I think my first reaction was leaving the Victoria Barracks in an old World War One truck with hard tyres and we went down the road to Point Cook. I was a bit homesick for a while but soon settled in.
The discipline that was obviously inherent in joining the Air Force, how did that affect you and also how important do you think that parade-ground discipline was for later flying?
Well we didn't have a great deal of very strict discipline, not like the army, not like the cadets at Duntroon. It was more of a “getting to know you” sort of thing, and you had faith in your instructors, and you had your instructor right through your whole training and generally it was a very, very happy life and a comfortable life really.
Right. The general background both social and educational of the other young men you joined up with, could you make any general comment about that and did you at all see yourselves as something of an elite amongst the services?
I think we thought we were elite. There were 480 applied to join and only forty-eight of us taken – only two of us alive, I think, now. Oh no, we thought we were, I suppose we thought we were elite, yeah. We had a good, we all had our sports cars and our money and we didn't do too badly. Had all our girlfriends.
Right. And the training. Could you tell us a little bit about the early training, the different aspects of training?
I think the main comment I've got about the training –- it taught you to fly but it never taught you anything about fighting. They never told us anything about the First World War. I learnt more in the first ten minutes of a dogfight than I learnt in the four years in the Air Force before the war.
Mm. Let's develop that a little bit further; was there no discussion, for example, of tactics in aerial combat?
No, nothing. No, no. The only thing I remember 'em saying was “Beware the Hun in the sun”. There was very little teaching of tactics or fighting. It was just flying, that was all. They just taught you how to fly.
Right, and including formation flying?
Formation flying, yeah; night flying, yeah.
But no –. And what about things such as gunnery training?
No, only fired a hundred rounds in the whole twelve months. No, very little warlike training.
Yes, I think in your notes that we were looking through before you did make the point somewhere that you fired, I think, as much ammunition in the first –
The first fight as I'd ever fired in the four years before, yes.
What was the reason for this do you think? Was it that the Air Force had become isolated in some way, or –?
I think we just switched off about war. We didn't. ever admit that there'd be another war. All the old soldiers said there'd never be another war after World War One, and I think that was why none of them …. Whereas now, they are ready to fight. We weren't ready to fight in 1939, and our aircraft were pretty useless too.
Mm. Tell us about the aircraft. What planes did you first fly and later train on?
I flew a Cirrus Moth - and I've still got the propeller that 1 cracked – and the Wapiti, which was used in the North West Frontier of India.
The training that you did you, both theoretical training and in-air flying, aside from the fact that it didn't include this combat aspect, how good would you rate that training?
I think our flying training was good - just pure flying. I'm talking about fighting. There's a great difference between flying and fighting. We were taught to fly – in fact we were taught to fly too good, too well. If you're a good pilot, you're not a good fighter pilot. It's the rough diamonds are the best fighter pilots – so I don't think it helped us very much.
Yeah, sure. Towards the end of the training, obviously – or after it – some men were, air crew at least, pilots were sidetracked to fighters, some to bombers. Was there any science in that selection or not?
I don't know. I've often wondered that, because when I was instructing we had to recommend, and if you picked a pilot who was a good pilot you put him onto fighters; if he was a bit heavy-handed you put him onto bombers. That's about all I remember.
Do you think there was any delving into the psychological aspects – that a certain kind of man –?
No, no. They never worried about the psychological aspect. In fact, they put a lot of square pegs in round holes I think. That's how I found out that occasion when I took that boy to the Middle East. He said he was a lack of moral fibre. He should never have been charged. He should never have been in the Air Force.
We might come to that in a moment, during the actual journey. Well after the period at Point Cook, I know you did then go I think to Canberra, to Melbourne and to Darwin. Where were you when war was declared?
I was in Laverton with Air Commodore Lucas, and we all said, ”Hoorah”, and he said, “Don't be bloody fools; you’ll regret it”. I remember that well, yeah.
And he was a World War One man?
Yeah, World War One, yes, old Luke, yes.
Right. What's your general recollection of those first postings in Australia? What were you doing, and how well were you utilised?
I think we were utilised alright – as an instructor. I was training pilots. I took some, two light aircraft round Australia and selected civilian instructors, and then we took them to Point Cook and trained them in our way, and then they formed the new flying training schools. So we were well used then and sensibly used.
Was there a great difference in the kind of training that they'd been giving as civilian air trainers and with the service training?
Yes there was. Theirs was more a general training; ours was more specific for war.
Right. Later you did go up, I think, to Darwin?
Yes and then fighter control sector.
When were you posted there? Was that before or after the Japanese …?
Just after the first attack there. In fact we were bombed the second time, we were in the second raid.
Tell us about that.
Oh just blew their own mess up and blew our living quarters up. Be a fair few of us were killed.
And how long were you in Darwin for?
Tell us a little bit more, if you can, about exactly what you were doing during that time?
Well, mainly controlling the American –. The Americans sent us some Kittyhawks. In fact, you could find your way to Darwin from Adelaide – there'd be empty beer bottles on one side and the crashed Kittyhawks on the other. You just fly up the centre. And then they came. They weren't terribly good, but at least there were some fighters there. And just controlling them. But for a long time we had nothing, only Wirraways, and they were absolutely useless.
Yeah, sure. How easy was that liaison with the American Air Force?
Oh very good. We had Wordsmith, General Wordsmith ‑ he was a colonel then – wonderful chap. He was killed later on in the war. And ourselves, all Australians. We got on very well together.
One thing I did want to ask you was, perhaps thinking back to the period before you were in Darwin, before, well in fact thinking back to pre-Pearl Harbor, so the war really is only Europe, excluding what the Japanese are doing in China. How close did the war in Europe seem to you in Australia?
In some ways it seemed closer to us in Australia than the Japanese in China. I don't know why, but we were more akin to Europe in those days than we were to China.
Did you get a lot of feedback from your people in Europe? I don't mean through newspaper accounts, but was there a lot of feedback of information that affected training and so on?
No, not at my level. There might have been higher up, I never got it down to my level.
Right. When you were appointed to Number 3 Squadron, which I think was from Darwin?
No, I came back to Melbourne and then left from Melbourne.
Was there any feeling that, now that Japan was in the war, your place – or the place of men such as you – was Australia, not Europe?
No, no. We took our turn. Depending on where you were posted to you just went on and did your job.
Right. Well before we move on to the Middle East, which is really the focus of this story with Number 3 Squadron, would you think there is anything significant about your, those first years of the war that you spent in Australia that are worth recording?
No I don't think so, no really, no.
Right. Well let's push on. I think it was October '42 that you sailed from Melbourne, in charge of I think seventy airmen, eight pilots, two doctors and one prisoner. What were your thoughts on leaving Australia?
Oh a bit homesick, but my main worry was when we were just leaving Perth and the captain called me up and he said, “My boy, we're not going to Cairo, we're going to Calcutta”, and that was a long, long away from Cairo to me. And then I had to work out how I was ever going to get them off.
I see. His ship was ending the voyage in Calcutta?
At Calcutta, yeah, which seemed a long way from Cairo to me.
And you knew you were posted to …?
I was posted to Cairo, yes, with all these chaps, yes.
What about any thoughts of future combat and so on, that you were leaving what was obviously a relatively safe country and, you know, really going into the thick of it? How did people feel about that?
We were more worried we'd get to the war too late, the war'd be over before we got there. That was the main worry.
Tell us about the prisoner on the ship. I think that's quite an interesting story because it does say something about this whole issue of getting people into the right position.
Well he was a good young lad, and he just couldn't take the aircraft. He couldn't take flying, and so he was branded a coward and sent ….He deserted. That where he went wrong – he deserted. And he came back to Australia and he was caught here, and the Australians sent him back to be court-martialled by the RAF – shades of Trooper Morant I think – and I had to take him back. I didn’t realise for halfway across the Indian Ocean he had a revolver, so I took that off him. He was a good kid. I felt sorry for him. I saw him later in a Cairo prison.
What actually happened? How long was he sentenced?
I don't know, I don't remember. And he was a good kid, he just never …. He should never have been put onto aircraft. He might have done very well in the infantry. He probably would have made a good tank commander.
Sure. You were also saying that the men you had with you were, I think your words were “a pretty wild team”. Tell us about that.
Well they were very very, just young Australians, and out to enjoy themselves. And when I got them off at Madras, I went to the movement control and they gave me a train which I had ….The toilet was just a hole in the floor, and there was not much food, not much grog, and then the troops got a bit fed up and they'd keep pulling the communication cord all the way and stopping the train. And the old engine driver'd put his feet up and go to sleep until we got going again.
Yes, of course, in India, that would –. Indians are very phlegmatic about that kind of thing.
Just going back, though, before you got to India, before you reached Madras, how difficult was it you as a relatively young officer to establish discipline, authority with this fairly wild troop?
Well I was a permanent officer, I'd been handling troops for a long time, and we got on well with them. I had no trouble with them, no real trouble, until we got into Bombay and then I had a bit of trouble.
Right. And the voyage itself, were the men kept fairly busy with training or activities? How did that go?
Oh we had to have drill and using machine-guns and pistols. Oh we had plenty to do. They were quite well-disciplined on the ship. It wasn't until we got on the troopship that I had trouble with them.
Right. Well let's move on a bit. There was this journey across India, that I think was two days and two nights that I'd imagine was fairly grinding.
Well the only trouble we had, we had a cow, and I remember we had to wait until the vultures cleaned it up, then we moved on – which they did very rapidly. That's all I remember about the trip going across.
Right. Well at Bombay you, I think, discovered that a troopship had just left for the Middle East?
It had, yes, and we had to wait three weeks I think for the next troopship. I went up to New Delhi to see the Australian Consul up there – he'd never heard of us. So I came back and got the British to get us on this troopship, which they put us on, and then everything went wrong.
Well just tell us briefly about the time in the transit camp, because I have heard from other people – or certainly one transit camp at Bombay was a pretty bleak place, to put it mildly. How did you find that?
Well as I recall we were at Worli, just north of Bombay, and it was quite comfortable there. The food was good, the accommodation was reasonable – tents – but it was quite good. I had no complaints.
And the men?
And the men, they were all happy.
Right. Well you were then set up on this, I think, Indian Army troopship. What were conditions like there?
They were pretty bleak. They had hammocks and the food wasn’t very good, and we didn’t get on with the Indian officers – they were all a bit too “pukka” for us, I think.
These were British Indian Army officers?
They were British - the British Army in India officers, yeah.
Did that difference in attitude between Australian and British officers, was that just something you noticed there or was that a more general thing?
No, I came to know the Indian Army very well at Monte Cassino. Like, I thought very highly of them. But we didn’t hit it off so well with the officers on this troopship, that was all. Just the first reaction.
Hm hm. There was some interesting anecdotes of that voyage that reflect a bit on it. First of all, there were these Sikhs who were locked in a brig?
Yes, one of our young officers went round and let them out, and that caused a bit of a stir with the OC Troops, and then the OC locked him up. So then I had to go and take over then. And then our doctors found the rum ration. They had more rum in that ship than the whole British Army had in the desert – and we cleaned up most of the rum. That didn’t help us very much.
Did the British officers - the British Indian Army officers - do you think see some of this as just youthful high spirits, or did they have a scathing attitude towards what they might have regarded as colonial indecencies, if you like?
Oh yes, there could have been a bit of that, but I don't think so, not really no. They were just well-disciplined officers and we weren't as well-disciplined as they were. I think that was the trouble.
Right. Any other general recollections of the voyage across?
No I'm afraid not, not now.
The voyage ended, I think, at the Suez Canal.
And you, with some of the other pilots, went to the, I think, El Ballah?
El Ballah Air Fighting School.
What kind of aircraft were you flying?
You see, Hurricanes for the first week and Kittyhawks the second week, to just, learning to use our guns and cannons.
Had you flown either Hurricanes or Kittys before?
No, I'd never flown a Kitty. I had flown the old Hurricane in Australia. The RAF sent us one out, and left that with Air Marshal George Jones - one of the kind.
Right. Well of course they were quite highly powered aircraft.
Well for their day they were, yeah, yeah.
What was your first recollection of - let's stick to the Kittyhawks, because it was Kittyhawks, I think, you later flew with No. 3. What was your first recollection or – or your recollection now – of flying a Kitty?
They were very reliable, very solid, very secure, and they could take an awful amount of damage and still get you home. They were a wonderful aircraft.
Did you ever find it an intimidating plane to fly?
No, never. No, I'm a very kindly plane flyer, very forgiving, if you treated it properly.
Yes. Let's just talk in perhaps a little bit more detail about the Kitty because we do like to get some views about the plane itself. Could you describe for us the routine, for example, of getting into the cockpit, of actually taking the aircraft off?
Yes, I think so. You clambered in the cockpit and then the troops strapped you in, put the straps round your shoulders. You put your, had your parachute on, and then when you were firmly in, then you started the engines, taxied out and took off, making sure you had enough fuel. They were really first class aircraft for their time.
You've got out on to the airstrip and you're preparing to take off. What were they like to get up into the air and then to climb?
They were very good. They had a lot of power, had a Rolls Royce Merlin engine – a Packard Merlin, which was very good. Some had the Allison, but the Packard was the more reliable engine. And, not only that, they climbed beautifully. They weren't as good as the Mustang – that was a wonderful aircraft too but for their time they were very good – although the 109s were a hundred miles an hour faster than we were,
I was going to ask you that. Now did the Kitty compare with the planes you were – the German planes you were by and large coming up against?
Well, they could handle the CR42, the Italian aircraft, but they couldn't handle the 109 I'm afraid, as I found when I was shot down by one.
Was that because of their speed or the manoeuvrability or both?
Mainly their speed. The Germans could always out-climb us and they always came from, they always attacked us from on top. They had the height advantage on us every time, and they could come out of the sun, and they could out-turn us, too.
Right. You've spoken about the good points of the Kitty. Besides these points vis-a-vis other aircraft, did the Kitty itself have any defects as an aircraft in your view?
No I don't think so, no.
Right. Well turning back to the training, the Air Fighting School at El Ballah? How effective was that training? What did you do?
Well I think we just, we did shadow shooting across the desert and across the lakes and we didn't do much tactics. We didn't do many formation. We just went out and shot at these shadows, the other aircraft, just learning deflection.
You didn't do any firing at drogues?
No, no. Neither fixed drogues nor airborne drogues. We used to go and turn feluccas over in the Canal Zone in the morning with our slipstream.
Tell us about that.
Well these little feluccas, little single sail, and they'd sail up and down the Canal Zone. We'd go after them and as we came up, then we'd turn, and our slipstream'd turn the boat over. It wasn't very kindly on the wogs but it was a lot of fun.
Yes, well I don't think I would have appreciated that if I'd been a local. Was that sort of thing very common or not?
Oh yes, very common, yes.
This was just a bit of ..
A sideshow, yes. We didn't have a very high opinion of the Egyptian.
Well tell us about that. Why was that?
Well I remember I went in and sent a lot of presents home, and he said he'd pack them up and send them home and they haven't arrived yet – that’s fifty years ago. So we didn’t have a very high opinion of them.
But I guess it took some time to realize they hadn’t arrived.
Oh it did yeah.
Why, I mean was there tension between Australians...
No, no tension, we just didn’t like them. I’m afraid that was it.
Right. Did you get to know them much at all? Did you, for example, mix with families where you might have learnt more about …?
No, no never. No, we never tried that. Never took any girls out or anything like that. We didn’t think much of Farouk or Queen Faria either. That’s another story.
Right okay. Well moving on …. Oh, just finally, on this aspect of training. Were you at this stage being taught by men who themselves had been involved in combat?
Yes, the CO had been in combat. I don't think the other instructors had been though, as I recall. We weren't told much about aerial fighting.
So it seems, even at this stage, even coming very close to where the war was being fought, there was –
They still didn't tell us much about fighting. We didn't learn much at all there.
So there was this real barrier between –
Oh there was, yes. We could fly but we couldn't fight.
Right. Well I think it was late in '42 that you actually reached No. 3 Squadron at..?
Bir Dufan, and then Castel Benito at Tripoli, yes.
Bobby Gibbes was the CO.
What was your initial impression of the squadron?
I thought they were very good. They had a good name, a good record, and we were honoured to be serving with them. We were very lucky to be there. The chap who was the commander had been shot down the day before I arrived – Watt – so I knew I was second in command, if I wasn't shot down.
Right. This was the period after El Alamein?
That's right, yes.
Was the morale of the squadron high or not?
Oh very high, very high yes. It always was high I think.
And what about the organisation of the squadron? How effectively was it organised in its day-to-day running?
Well it was very effective. You had the two parts of the squadron – the rear part and the forward part – and the forward part would move forward and prepare your base and you'd fly in. They'd arm you and fuel you and you'd take off again. And that happened –. We were leap-frogging all the way. We did that right through Sicily and right up through Italy.
Was the key to the squadron's organisation certain personalities or that certain guidelines, routines, had been very clearly developed over the past years?
I think it was the people we had. Bobby Gibbes was a good CO, and we had a very good engineer officer, Coity McCrae and a very good transport officer, excellent chap – I'll think of his name in a moment. But it was mainly experience. They learnt all the way. They'd been backwards and forwards, leap-frogging backwards and forwards in the desert for two years. They'd been to Syria and they had a very highly experienced squadron.
Bobby Gibbes as a CO, what were his strong points and did he have any weak points?
Well the only weak point he had, I think, you knew if you were shot down you always had to get yourself home. Nobody ever worried about you. His strong point – he was a very good shot and he was a good leader. Oh, he was a good CO.
When you said you had to get home, the onus was completely …
Entirely on you, yes. They never wor –. Once you were shot down you were on your own.
Right, in that the squadron wouldn't be sending out search parties?
No, no. Had to get yourself home. That's my experience anyway.
Was that his, a personal attitude of Bobby Gibbes? Or was that widely shared in the squadron?
I think it was just Bobby Gibbes.
Right. Yes, well I could imagine he himself would have seen that as something of a challenge.
Yes, well yes.
Well of course, you yourself later became Squadron Leader – the date we've got here is April 18th 1943 – after Bobby Gibbes. What did you see as the main challenges of being a squadron CO?
I think living up to the chaps who went before was the main challenge. The squadron made you – you didn't make the squadron. I'm sure the squadron made me – I didn't make the squadron – and you could never let the squadron down. You always had to face the enemy and lead in first, and of course every time we fought we were always fighting over enemy territory. We never fought over our own territory, so you had to be loyal to your squadron.
Right, and were the most important duties of a squadron leader, in your experience, were they the duty of leading the men in the air or of coordinating on the ground?
I think coordinating on the ground was the main one, but the second most important was looking after your pilots, and for that reason you always slept with your doctor, and you could talk about pilots, about how their morale was going, and you could see if they were going to crack up. And you'd talk this over at night, and if he was going to crack up you'd put him off flying. That was the most, about the second most important thing to do.
That's most interesting. Let's pursue that for a moment. What you're saying is that the doctor, through either men approaching him or his general observation, had a fairly good feeling about their condition?
Well the CO and the doctor you could tell, the two of you could tell, when a pilot was going to crack, and then you'd put him off flying before he cracked.
Who was your doctor?
Jenkins, a wonderful doctor. In fact we were tight as ticks one night. After the North African campaign finished, we had a car race and we all went to the mess and got considerably worse and I got a sore throat, and he diagnosed diphtheria. That's the only decent diagnosis he made in his whole life he reckoned. He was a wonderful chap.
Where does he live now?
I think he's somewhere in Victoria. I don't know where he is though now.
Right. Was there ever a time as squadron leader when this consensus of opinion between you and the doctor was that somebody oughtn't to fly, but the demands of the situation meant that somebody had to fly?
Yes that could have happened. I don't recall it precisely though. That could have happened, yes.
Well we might come on to talk about that medical aspect a little bit later. I wanted to bring some other aspects out. Turning to flying, do you actually recall the first time you were involved in active combat?
Yes. Will I talk about the time that I was shot down now?
Well I was going to ask you about those in a moment. Was that the first combat you were involved in?
No, oh no. The first time in combat I saw the black smoke from the eighty-eight millimetres flying around and I didn't realise they were flak. I didn't realise they were shooting at me. I just thought they were cloudbursts I think.
And what kind of operation was that?
Just strafing on the road to Tripoli.
How did you feel when you, you know, the realisation did dawn that other people were shooting at you?
Oh you got a bit scared and shot back.
Any other recollections of that first –?
No, I'm afraid not, no, not now.
When was your first aerial combat? Was that that period when you were shot down the first time or before?
No, I think the first time was in a dogfight on 26th February '43, when six or seven 109s were fighting for about twenty minutes, and I was hit behind the cockpit by a twenty millimetre shell. The hydraulics and the radio went out and the tail and wing were hit, and I crash-landed at base.
Let’s find out a little more about that particular incident. How did the fight develop, do you remember?
It was my own fault. I saw these 109s gaggle along, I broke formation and went after them, which you should never do. I was only a flight commander then, I wasn’t the CO. It was the first month of the war.
END TAPE ONE, SIDE A.
BEGIN TAPE ONE, SIDE B.
Identification: This is tape one, side two of the interview with Brian Eaton, 3 Squadron, on 16 October 1990. This is Edward Stokes.
Let's just develop this issue a little more. When you broke formation, which I know generally was not the practice, were you going against –?
Commonsense. You should never break formation and go against 109s on your own.
Was that sort of, if you like, lack of discipline in the air; was that censured later by other people or not?
Oh no, just told not to be a bloody fool, yeah.
Right, so anyway having broke formation you were hit. Tell us what went through your mind, if you can remember, once you had been hit, you realised you didn't have full control over the plane.
I thought, “My God, I've had it”, but then I found I could control the aircraft and I turned around. I saw him coming at me head on. He was diving through me and he missed me. I was very lucky.
And what happened then?
I pulled up and fired at him, and I missed him too. We both missed.
And did you have any contact with him again or not?
No, never. Never found out who –. He was a yellow nose. Yellow nose squadron – that was my side squadron. Very very good squadron.
So I assume at this stage you turned for home?
I turned for home and went home.
How long did it take you to get back?
Oh about fifteen or twenty minutes.
And with the hydraulics gone, obviously you couldn't get your …
I couldn't get my undercarriage down – it had to crash.
So I'd imagine that must have been a very tense approach.
No, you're not afraid once you're shot down. You're never afraid when you're being shot down. It's only when they're shooting at you that you're afraid. When you're shot down, you're fighting for your life, you're trying to control your aircraft, and it's no good baling out – you'd be a POW. I was more afraid of being a POW than I was of being killed, always.
Hm, that's interesting. Why was that?
I just didn't know how I'd react as a POW, and I didn't want to be a POW. I always flew my aircraft, always stayed with my aircraft.
But was that really to the point where, for example, if you were …
If I'd been on fire I would have got out.
Well that's what I was going to say.
Oh yes, if you're on fire, you get out, yes. And then you go in the bag. That's what happened to Nicky Barr, He got shot down strafing his troops – he may have told you did he?
Yeah, sure. Anyway, on this particular approach you, I think, did manage to crash-land.
I crash-landed at base, yeah, in my airfield.
How difficult was it to bring a plane like that in and crash-land it without, at the same time, killing yourself?
Oh just the normal landing. You just wait till your undercarriage hit, wait till your belly hits the ground, and then you come to a grinding halt. Oh, nothing to it. You just slipped in.
There wasn't a likelihood of the plane somersaulting?
Oh it could have somersaulted, but if you are a good pilot you can always crash-land safely, and I thought I was a good pilot. I don't know whether I was but I thought I was.
What are the actual techniques in, what are the key points in maintaining a safe crash-landing?
Keeping you speed up is the main thing. If your speed drops you’re dead.
Because you’ve dropped…
Spin in. That’s how my cousin was killed in the First World War. He turned back and lost control.
By keeping you speed up you can …
You can control your aircraft.
Right. Well going on a little bit, it was in fact I think only a week or so, or less than that, on 1st March, when there was another incident when you were shot down, I think involving twenty and forty millimetre flak?
Yes we flew over the lines on this occasion – we always fly over the line – and I must have been hit by thirty or forty millimetre – I didn’t realize I was hit. And about ten minutes later the engine failed and I force-landed in the desert, south-west of Tripoli. I had my undercarriage down thinking I could land. There were hummocks of sand and I hit one and that took one of my legs straight off – and I crash-landed. I got out and ten some …. I walked about an hour and some Senussi – Arabs – came round. I didn’t know if they were Berbers or Senussi. If they’re Berbers They cut your balls out and sew 'em in your mouth. Sorry about that, but that what we were told.
Didn't you carry papers that warned them against doing that?
No, no. No warning. Anyway, they circled me for about an hour and I had a revolver. Fortunately I didn't use it, and they came right in. I didn't speak Arabic - I knew [inaudible], a few words, but not many. Anyway, we made each other understand each other and he put me on a camel and took me out. He knew where my airfield was. I don't know how he knew – they're pretty good the Senussi. And they took me for … I was nine hours on the camel. We stayed overnight with them in a tent, and they had all their Arab women there. They wouldn't let me sleep near them, but who would want to – they smelt to high heaven. And then he got me to the airfield, and when we got back I gave him tins of coffee and biscuits, which was very valuable to them, and I gave him a gooly chit which he'd go and claim in Egypt after the war for fifty pounds. You always got paid in gold.
Right. They were the chits that were …
[Inaudible] yes. Entitled them to a reward of fifty pounds in gold.
Do you think that kind of reward was the motivation for what they did, or was there an element of human compassion?
I think with the Senussi it was compassion, but also the money helped, of course. That was probably the first thing, money.
Right. And when you reached the squadron, had they, was there any assumption that you might have been killed or not?
Oh they thought I had been killed. They just took a photograph of me on the camel, which I've still got. This was very early morning too. I remember the shadows on the ground, and oh they just congratulated me on being alive and gave me another aircraft and told me to get stuck into the war.
Was it easy or difficult after that kind of incident, and in fact there'd been two really, to get back into a plane and fly it?
No, no worry at all. Just felt normal back in the cockpit and just went on fighting.
There was no feeling of wanting to get away from it and distance yourself from these dangers?
No, no. None, nothing at all. I wanted to get stuck in more.
Was that because of a feeling that, well, the war was going on, or was it that you were conscious that that was the best way to overcome –?
No. I just thought it was my job and I had to get on with it.
Right. Well, I think it was about nine days, well in fact not nine days after you returned but nine days after you had been shot down, that you were involved in a third incident?
Yes, on the 10th March the Germans attacked at Mareth, and takin' a hell of a lickin' – we got about fifty tanks – and then Freyberg – we were having trouble getting through the Mareth Line, it was a French line – and then Freyberg did an outflanking movement and he came behind them on El Hamma. It was the first time we really co-operated closely with the army, and we went in to keep the 88 millimetre guns down, while our tanks went in, and my job was to strafe the 88mm guns. I got a lot of Germans lined up round their caravan, and I got a tank and an armoured car, and I was strafing these 88mm guns and I pulled up to see if I –. I lost him, and as I pulled up he got me on the right wing and I crashed in the middle of a tank battle. The noise was terrific. I got out –. I went as far towards our line as I could and then crashed - I got out and these New Zealanders came up to me and took me back. They had a mobile field bakery there, I remember that well, and I had fresh bread and a bottle of whisky.
And then next day I went home in a Bombay transport, Bombay bomber, yes.
Could you tell us in a little more detail perhaps, what it was like both seeing this tank action going on beneath you and actually landing in the midst of it?
Well I had no alternative. I had to land because the engine had stopped. I had to come down rapidly. But just watching the tanks fight is fascinating. I saw 'em again at Catania. Our tanks fought against the eighty-eight millimetre guns and they were from here to the end of the room away, and they blew each other up. Fascinating, yeah. I saw them at Kasserine again, too.
Was it also horrific?
Oh yes. We flew over Kasserine, The Americans attacked there and they made a mess of it and the Germans really blew them up, wiped them out. It was such a mess we couldn't even do anything to help them.
I think on 26th March, which again is barely two weeks later, there was a fourth incident when you were shot down?
Oh, I made a mistake there I think. I'll correct this. On 10th March was when the Germans sent a flying column, when the Free French were coming out of Lake Chad. I wasn't shot down that time. I just missed the OC – the OC of the wing, Billy Burton – we missed by about two inches. We were strafing the Germans and they held their hands up and we had to shoot them. I've never been happy about that.
Yes, well I was going to ask you about that incident. Perhaps we can just develop it for a moment. This was, I think, a German reconnaissance column. It was –
It was. It was a flying column sent out to stop the Free French getting, in joining 8th Army from Lake Chad, and we hit them about three o'clock that afternoon. If we hadn't shot them they would have cleaned the French up, so we –
And they, during this engagement, they obviously were wishing to surrender?
They were, yes.
And how did you know that?
They were holding their hands up. We just went ahead and shot them.
That incident of shooting up these people who were obviously trying to surrender, how did you feel about it at the time and later?
Well it didn't worry me at the time. It worried me a lot later and has since, but it didn't worry me at the time.
Was that an isolated instance or do you remember other occasions?
No, the only occasion it ever happened to my knowledge.
And was there any official summary of that action or was it just glossed over?
It was just accepted. No, nothing was said about it.
Right. Well, did you want to say something?
Well moving on a little bit. The period that you joined No. 3 Squadron was really leading up to the end of the North African campaign. During that period what had been the main uses that the squadron had been put to?
Mainly ground strafing, stopping MT and troops and tanks, and ack-ack guns. We used to take off at night and try and spot the ack-ack guns that were shooting at our airfield.
Did you do any reconnaissance flying?
Oh yes, all the time. We found them, and then our guns were sectored on to them, and that stopped them for a while, but I don't think it wiped them out.
But the main role was –?
Mainly ground interdiction.
And the aerial combat was just as a –?
Just as it happened, as it arose, yeah.
But you weren't actually seeking –?
No, we weren't seeking aircraft.
Right. How effective was the Kitty in that role of ground attack aircraft?
I think it was very good. It could take an awful lot of punishment and still get you home. It was a very, very –. You had six .5s, could carry two 250-pounds – later two 500-pound bombs – and still later carried a thousand pound bomb and two 500- pound bombs. So almost like a light bomber. Oh, it was a very good aircraft.
Would it be possible to tell us the kind of typical sequence of a typical ground strafing attack, how it was set up, how you went in, how close you pushed the attack?
Well first of all you'd bomb from about 10,000 feet down to about 3,000 feet, then you'd pull up and see what was left, and then you'd get round, come in, come in low at speed and strafing. But the closer you got the more accurate you became, so the closer you got the more kills you got. And then try, always try and get a flame again.
What do you mean by a flame?
We'd get it on flames – you'd hit his petrol tank – and then you were sure you had him.
You're talking about aircraft here?
No, trucks. Trucks and tanks.
Hm, How low were you flying when you came in on those strafing attacks?
Oh about a hundred feet.
So, I mean, very very low.
Very, very low, yes, oh yes.
Now much time did you have? I mean, from when you would see a target and begin firing, to when you were literally over it and beyond it?
About two minutes; oh two to three minutes I suppose.
And how long would you have, what period of time would you have in which you could actually fire, you were close enough to actually fire?
About twenty seconds, and you only tried to do one strike and then get out of it. If you did too many strikes, you always got shot down. If you kept doing circuits and bumps on them, you're bound to get shot down.
Right, so by and large, after the bombing you'd have …
You'd have one run-through and then get out.
Right, and you wouldn't come back again?
You wouldn't come back, no.
When you were involved in air-to-air combat or strafing, was it difficult or easy to distance yourself from the fact that besides destroying equipment, you were also probably killing men?
No, you never thought of that, never thought of killing men. They were just objects. It never crossed your mind that they were humans.
Was that talked about amongst pilots, or was that just a –?
No, no you never talked about, not in the mess. We had a pilots' mess, remember, too – NCOs and officers. We all mixed together which was a good idea.
Yes. Well before we go on to the period after you've left North Africa, could I just ask you some more general points about fear. By and large, most pilots admit to experiencing fear at some point during their combat life. In your recollection, did you, and when was the fear you experienced worse –.before or during or after operations?
The one time I remember … twice being scared. Once was at Cape Bon when I had to face a lot of flak going through an armoured column, and again when I got a DFC I was afraid, when strafed and nearly got a Tiger tank. But the only time was really terrified was in southern Italy when I was leading the squadron and a forty millimetre got on my nose, and for about twenty seconds he just kept pumping shells at me on the nose, just bursting just above my cockpit. And that really scared me. But I wasn't scared being shot down.
Hm hm. Thinking not only of yourself but perhaps your other pilots, and thinking of the period when you were squadron leader, how much did pilots talk to their mates, talk to the priests or to the doctor, to let loose their feelings a bit?
I don't really know. We had three wonderful padres, and of the three [inaudible] wonderful padres – Church of England, Methodist and Roman Catholic – wonderful chaps. They looked after us wonderfully, but I don't think we talked much about fear or about courage or anything with them.
Did the Padres keep a close eye on the men, and how did they do that?
Oh just by talking to them and watching them. Oh they looked after the men wonderfully. They looked after our ground crew staff wonderfully too. Wonderful chaps, yeah.
In instances where it was fairly clear from talking to your doctor or your own observations that somebody was likely to crack, or might crack, howwas that handled?
Well you just had a talk to him, and then you'd persuade him to give up, to stop flying, and then you sent him down to the hospital and sent him off back to Australia, or back to the main airfield or back to the training unit.
In typical instances, did men see that as something of a, well not a demotion, but a rebuff, or did they welcome the opportunity to get out?
Some would welcome it, some would feel a rebuff. It would vary with the individual himself. And it didn't happen very often.
Right. Okay fine, let's just leave it there. Right, this is just going on after a break. You were telling me incidentally that after the desert campaign, the British COs all returned to Britain and were sadly lost. Tell us that story.
Well Billy Burton and Pedro Handbury and Ack Axely, all the RAF COs, were given leave. We were not allowed to get to England, we were Australians and New Zealanders and South Africans. We had to stay in the desert but they all went home and had a month's leave. And then coming out, leaving Northern Ireland in a transport aircraft, they were an hour late taking off. The CO, the pilot should never have flown back in daylight. And they crossed the Bay of Biscay in daylight and were hit, were shot down by long-range Ju88 and all killed. It was a great loss to the Desert Air Force.
Hm, that's a great tragedy obviously. Why was the plane allowed to take off late, as it was?
I don't know. It was the pilot's mistake. He should never have taken off that late. Should have waited another day.
Talking more generally about the loss of life, was it, how difficult was it to get over the loss, not of anonymous pilots who you didn't know, but of people who you were close to and obviously friendly with?
Well, I mean we lost Jacky Darwin. His wife was killed dancing with him in the Cafe de Paris in London, and he took over after Billy Burton was shot down, and he didn't, he only lasted about a fortnight. He was very nervous and he was flying straight and level over ack-ack guns. We told him not to do it. We were all experienced so we told him not to do it. He kept doing it and he just got, he and his number two were blown out of sky. That hurt us a lot. But we took death pretty easily.
Oh yes, you didn't worry too much about it.
Is that the only instance you recall of being deeply touched by an individual’s death?
The only one I recall, yes. Oh, and the Polish officer at Cassino. We'll come to that.
Right. During the period in North Africa, had you had any time for leave to get away from the squadron, or had you been on duty all the time?
No, on duty all the time. I had two years of it without a break.
Did you get any time, just for odd days here and there, excursions, or was even that fairly rare?
That was very rare, very rare.
You were saying before about these British COs getting to England but the Australians couldn't. It has been said that the Australian Air Force in North Africa, that there was a level of resentment in that things like pay, promotion and so on seemed to happen very, very slowly, that you were out of touch with the system so to speak. Do you remember that? Do you –?
No, it never worried me. It never concerned me. I had a good smooth run through.
But was it a thing that other men griped about at all?
I never remember any griping about it. Must have been there though, for some of them.
Right. Well during the period when the squadron went to Malta, I think you were saying you were in hospital with diphtheria in Tripoli?
So we could perhaps skate over that. You rejoined the squadron, I think, in Sicily?
In Sicily, yes. I went to see my brother. He was a bomber on Wellingtons. He'd been shot down the day after I got there, so I kept going. I had an old Ghibli, an old Italian transport aircraft we'd captured. We used to send them down the desert and fill it up with grog. I flew that over with mail and a few troops and landed at Pantelleria and then landed in Sicily. And as I came over I was greeted with ack-ack and Spitfires came up, and I thought I'd nearly jump out of the Ghibli I got such a fright.
And they didn’t have any idea, what, there was no radio communication?
No, no radio communication. I just waggled my wings and they saw I had the roundels on the aircraft and they didn't shoot me.
Right. The Sicily period. How long were you there, based in Sicily and what were the main roles of the squadron?
We were there, I was there about a month and our main roles were shooting, attacking Sebel ferries in the Straits of the Messina, then transport on the tip of Sicily, fighting the Macchi there, [Nortica?] Macchi and their 202s, north of Sicily and near Stromboli and then strafing barges on the mainland.
And how intense were the operations? Were they, how regular were they?
Oh about three operations a day. I lost a few pilots there. Oh, plenty going on.
And that was really an average was it? Three a day?
About three a day, yes.
The strain, the physical wear and tear of keeping that going must have been enormous?
Well it was. I didn't crack up till after the war, but we were heavily bombed there at Agnone. Just down the Catania plain –I've forgotten the date. Anyway, they sent about twenty-four German night bombers over to us and they really blew us up. And I was under the table with Stevens, who had the squadron while I was away. We probably finished a bottle of VAT 69, and then I saw five aircraft shot down that night, all in flames.
German aircraft shot down by our night fighters, but they damaged a lot of our aircraft and they killed –. They also did over 224 Wing …. Cocky Dundas had been killed and about sixty or seventy troops.
Hm, so it was a very major attack.
It was a big attack, yes. The Germans tried to wipe us out. They didn't succeed but they made a mess of us.
Tell us about the scene the next day after that attack.
Well there were aircraft smashed up and they were on the runway with, still blowing up – they had delayed action mines on the runway. And my aircraft was full of earth. Bomb landed in front of it and filled all the pitot-heads with earth. I couldn't use it for about twenty-four hours. We got back, took us a whole day to get our aircraft serviceable again.
Mm, that sounds as if there was some remarkable work on the part of the ground crew.
Oh they were wonderful, yes. Ground crew never let us down.
I was going to ask you about the ground crew. The conditions they were operating in, in particular in North Africa, were obviously quite extreme – the heat, the sand and so on – and the effect of those conditions on the aircraft. How would you estimate the ground crew that you worked with?
Oh a hundred per cent. Wonderful people. In fact I'm still friendly with a lot of them.
And what were the main factors behind their ability to keep planes, by and large, in the air?
Just sheer guts I think. Very courageous and very brave. A lot of them were killed, killed in Marble Arch, blown up in mines. I remember I once drove a jeep with all my troops on board through a minefield and I went through the white tapes like an idiot, and I backed out along my tracks very carefully, yeah.
The white tape denoting …
Denoting it was a minefield but I went through it.
Marking a clear passage?
No, I went through the white tape in a hurry.
I see, and then backed along the tracks.
And I backed very carefully out, yes, without being blown up.
What else would you feel is worth recording about the ground crew that you worked with in No. 3 Squadron in terms of their material backup, their technical expertise and so on?
Well they could do anything. They even got me a captured Me202 out of Catania, and I've got a photograph of it here, all painted in our colours. They could do anything. There wasn't a thing they couldn't do. And at the end of the war, the end of North Africa, they made a two-seater Kittyhawk outfit there for me. They could do anything for you.
So they were very versatile?
Oh very versatile, very experienced too.
Were they any different, in your experience, to British ground staff?
You hear a lot about the stories of appropriating equipment and thieving, and that kind of thing. Was that more common with the Australians or not?
I think so, yes. They really had all of the captured transport and captured cars and captured grog, and they were much more versatile than the RAF, or the SAAFs for that matter too, I think.
What would you put that down to?
Just an Australian initiative.
That began amongst men and didn't have to be, didn't come from on high?
No, on no. Just, they worked it out themselves, and they were a wonderful team, though.
What about the bond between individual pilots and the few men maintaining that particular aircraft? How close was that bond?
Oh very close. Well you were very close with your armourers and your mechanics. But I think we've become closer since the war than we were then.
Are you still in touch with any of the ground crew?
Oh yes, we still have our reunions every year. We've got a fiftieth reunion coming up now, in Queensland next year.
Of the –?
Oh right, but not solely the ground crew?
No, air crew and ground crew all together.
Well moving back to the period in Sicily, just before going on to Italy, how different was it in terms of airstrips and living conditions to the North African period?
Well the difference there, we were all under canvas in North Africa, and when we –. We had desert airfields, just sand. When we got to Sicily and Italy, the weather was so poor we had to have PSP - pierced steel plank - on our runways, and we got some permanent billets. We had ….We still had a lot of canvas, but our messes were sometimes state railway stations, things like that.
You were saying about the airstrips, because of the wetness, having the metal mesh. What was that like to take off from and land onto?
Well it made a hell of a noise when you hit them and you landed. It went clank, clank, clank, and it did when you took off with a heavy bomb load. But it was quite serviceable.
Was there any tendency for an aircraft to skid with the combination of mud and …
You had to be very careful in landing. If you skidded off you'd crash your aircraft.
So how did you, when you came down, how did you avoid skidding?
Well you just land on your wheels and let your tail down very gently, and guide it on your wheels, and then turn off very slowly.
Right, so any –
You couldn't throw it around like you could in the desert.
Right. Well moving on to the Italian campaign. Perhaps just to keep it in context, what was your rank when you left Sicily?
Right. And I know you have been decorated. Had those decorations, any of those decorations, been awarded prior to leaving Sicily?
No, no. I didn't get a field decoration in Italy.
Right, well let's move on to the Italian period. How would you characterise the kinds of fighting the squadron was involved in there?
Well in Italy we came up against much more ack-ack – the German ack-ack. They'd been on their fourth or fifth tour and it was really thick. It wasn't radar controlled then, not like Vietnam and Korea, but it was very, very thick and very, very fierce, and that's all I remember about the war in Italy. We had an awful lot of flak. Not many fighters.
You were saying that you didn't come up against much aerial opposition?
No, very little aerial opposition in Italy. We had a big fight with them over Stromboli though, with the Fourth Stormo, run by Mareotti. He was an Italian major – he was killed later fighting for us over Yugoslavia – wonderful chap. And we had a fight with him. He got one of my aircraft – we got three of his.
Could you tell us about that particular action?
Well we were flying out in the north of Italy over the sea – no, north of Sicily over the sea, but between Stromboli and the northern tip of Sicily, and we flew over the American fleet and they opened up on us. And then the Macchi 202s came in and they hit Ron Laver in the leg - nearly blew his leg off – and he had to go home. Then we had about a twenty minutes' fight with them.
Was it different fighting over the sea as against over land? Did you feel differently in that if things went wrong your chances, I'd assume, were much less?
No, you never reckoned on being shot down. You always reckoned you were goin' to live, so it didn't matter whether it was water or the land where you came down.
Is that really –? I mean, there's no penetrating this sort of –?
No, no, you don't worry about what you're flying over, no.
Right. Going back to Italy, you were saying that most of the opposition you faced was ground flak and so on. What were the main uses the squadron was being put to?
Well the first thing we did –
END TAPE ONE, SIDE B.
BEGIN TAPE TWO, SIDE A
Identification: This is Edward Stokes with Air Vice Marshal Brian Eaton, No. 3 Squadron, tape two, side one.
Yes, we were talking about the uses the squadron was put to.
Well as I said, the first thing we did, we landed at Grottaglie, north of Taranto, just after the British and Americans had landed at Salerno. We landed at three o'clock, I took forty troops in with me – in a Dakota – and everyone re-armed and re-fuelled the aircraft, and about five o'clock we were sent off to relieve the pressure on Salerno. The road was absolutely crammed full of German transport and troops and troop carriers and tanks, and we had a field day. We shot them up, we blew a lot of transport up, and then we all had to find our way home. And that was a hairy job. We all landed in the dark. I lost two aircraft that day.
Had they been shot down or did they become lost and failed to return?
No, they were shot down. Wonderful fight there, and then we went on to Foggia and Bari and Barletta, and Bizerte.
During that kind of fight, how easy was it for pilots involved to really assess the damage they were doing?
Well you only see the aircraft blow up or the transport blow up or catch fire, or run off the road, or you'd see the number of the enemy you were killing. You could see that. That was plainly in your view as you came in.
Right. Well as you were going on to say, from there you went on –.
Well then we went on up through Italy to the Sangro. I must say, at the end of North African campaign, I must say we thought very highly of the Germans. The Ninetieth Light were wonderful troops. We saw them all in cages in Cape Bon. They were great big six-footers, and they were really good fighters and they fought cleanly too. Anyway, then we went on to Sangro and there the Germans stopped us dead. We didn't have a hope of getting through the Sangro. That's when we switched across to Cassino. There they had too much flak and they were too good for us, see. They really stopped us. I remember going in there one night, I saw five aircraft going down in flames ahead of me. They really [inaudible].
Five of your own aircraft?
Five American or South African.
Sorry, I meant allied aircraft.
Allied aircraft, yes.
That must have been very chastening.
It made you think, yeah.
Was this the occasion that you referred to before when you were very, when you did feel real fear?
No, oh no, I didn't feel that much fear then, just a bit worried about it. No, this was strafing up one of the valleys in Italy when this 0.40 millimetre gun got on my nose. He just kept the shells bursting right on my nose for about twenty seconds. That wasn't very nice. He got about twenty shells in.
Right. During the period in moving up through Italy, of course, it's much more, well, well settled country as against North Africa. How did that affect the general living that the squadron had and did you get any chances to get away and see something of Italian life?
Yes, we were all allowed to go to Sorrento in southern Naples and we were also allowed to take over houses there. I took over a nice house in Foggia. In fact we had the furniture all the way up to Italy. We took it in a three-ton truck. I think we even took a bath up with us too. The conditions were very poor in Italy. They had heavy snow and all our tents collapsed. And then one place I went to, they had a convent there, and I went to the Mother Superior and said, 'I want your convent'. She said, 'What will happen about my nuns?'. I said, 'I'll look after your nuns. I'll look after my Australians', and there was no trouble, as far as I've heard anyway.
And what, you shared the convent with the nuns?
With the nuns yeah. Some were beautiful nuns too, I remember.
Yes. Well, it must, amongst other things, have been great for men to be amongst women, because obviously in the large part of the desert campaign …
Oh, there were no women there.
– you were totally cut off.
Oh, cut off completely, yeah.
Did that boost morale?
Oh it did yes. I think there were about forty women living on our wing at one time, when I had the wing, yeah.
Right. Did men have to live on base or could they get off and –?
No, you had to live on the base.
But they could bring –
They could bring the girls into their tents if I let them.
And that was generally approved?
Right. What about the airstrips that you were operating from? What condition were they in?
They were quite fair. We had an airfield construction squadron with us, with a British Army Indian major – of the army in India – and he was a magnificent engineer and he soon bulldozed an airstrip for us, and then laid the PSP on top of the sand end the mud, and he kept us going.
And you were with them, actually building airstrips as you went along?
We were building airstrips as we went along, at Rimini and Fano. In fact, the only trouble we had was Americans shooting us up.
Surely the Germans and the Italians had had their own airstrips through Italy that you could use?
Yeah, well we used some. We used Fano and we used Rimini, but the others were, for some –. In northern Italy we were on a World War One airstrip – I've forgotten the name of it. Oh, the strips were quite good, and they were well maintained.
Right. Well as the Italian campaign developed, I think there were periods when No. 3 Squadron was flying over towards Yugoslavia?
Yeah, we did a lot of work over Yugoslavia. We were fighting for Mihailovich first, and Churchill forgot to tell us when he switched to Tito. We thought we were fighting for Mihailovich and we'd been fighting for Tito for three months. On the island of Viz, halfway across, was an emergency airfield, and I remember one time there the major commanding, the British major commanding the airfield, the partisans, the base was protected by female partisans, and you weren't allowed to make them pregnant. The Yugoslav general, or colonel, came to our major and said, 'One of your troops has made one of my girls pregnant. We shot her; now we're gonna shoot your corporal', and the British major said, 'By God, there won't be any corporals left in the British Army. So he was flown out that night.
Did those tensions ever get beyond that kind of exchange of words to real, you know, to lives being taken or vendettas being carried out?
No, I don't recall any. We did a lot of work over Yugoslavia, Banjaluka and Viz and Zagreb. We did some good jobs over there.
In terms of actual flying as against fighting, looking at things such as climate – weather patterns rather – ease or otherwise of navigating, identifiable features as against, you know, the large expanse of desert, was flying through Italy and into places such as Yugoslavia easier or harder than flying in the desert?
No it was harder, but the weather conditions were much worse. In the desert it was usually clear, had just a bit of sandstorm taking off and landing, but then once you were in the air it was clear, whereas in Italy and Yugoslavia, in the winter it was a terrible winter – snow and ice, and you could get lost in a snowstorm. I lost six pilots one day in northern Italy. They flew into a mountain. Six SAAF.
Um, just bang, into the mountain.
[Inaudible]. Got lost in a snow cloud and went straight into a mountain.
And that was the last that was ever –
The last we heard of them yeah.
Tell us about your navigation then. It was obviously important or more important in the desert where I'd imagine a bit of dead reckoning would get you out and get you home again. How did you maintain your plot and relate it to features such as mountains?
Just reading your map. Fortunately, I was a pre-war pilot so I was well trained and that helped a lot. Just map reading. There were no radio aids, no homing devices.
So as you were flying out, were you maintaining a sort of dead reckoning –?
Oh the log, the dead reckoning log, yes. And you just look at your map and fly on it.
That must have been very hard to do while you were also flying an aircraft?
No, you soon get used to it. Not very difficult.
Right. What would you regard as the other main aspects of the Italian campaign as it affected you?
Just the weather and the flak, that's all I remember about it, just that the weather was terrible and the flak was terrible. These Germans'd be on about their fourth or fifth tour and they were very accurate.
Mm. And the weather, there must have been times when you in fact didn't, could not fly.
Well I remember one occasion I had to lead the squadron over to Monte Cassino from the Sangro, and I was flying through heavy cloud the whole way and snow the whole way, when I finally saw an opening over the monastery and we blew the monastery up. There was clouds of dust came up from it - I know I'll never get to heaven!
I mean the monastery was being used as a [fortress]?
I don't think it was. They've said that. I don't think it was. It was mainly a psychological thing. The troops could see this and they reckoned the Germans were looking down on them. I think it was just destroyed purely for psychological reasons. I don't think the Germans were defending it. They were dug in all round it but they weren't in the monastery.
Was there any feeling, did you know that there were civilians in the monastery or not?
No we didn't know. We had no idea. We were just told to attack it so we attacked it.
Was there a feeling in that sort of instance, a feeling of regret of destroying the heritage of centuries?
I think there was, yeah, oh very much. We didn't want to destroy it but we were told to and we had to do it. There was nothing deliberate about it.
Those sorts of incidents where men's gut level feelings were very different to the orders they'd been given, how did you resolve those things?
Just went ahead and did your job, didn't think about it too much. That's about all I can remember about it.
Right. Well just finally, looking over the whole Italian period and your own period as CO, do you have any –? Are there any other aspects of the period that you think should be drawn out?
It's hard to say. I think we should learn from our mistakes and learn if we ever go in to fight again, learn where we went wrong. We were never told anything about the First World War in our training. I don't know if they're told anything now, probably not.
That really does seem remarkable.
What we're doing now in 3 Squadron, we're all putting our thoughts on tape for the kids in the twenty-first century. They can listen to it then.
Yeah, sure. The end of the war. Where were you when war ended in Europe?
I was just near Trieste, just near the Yugoslav border. And when the war ended we had a hell of a fire-fight with Very pistols and machine-guns. It was more dangerous than fighting. Then we had a big fly-past. I led the fly-past, the whole Desert Air Force, over Campo Formido and Udine. And then I stayed on …. Oh, another thing that happened. We had – 'Pussy' Fox was our AOC, a wonderful old general – and the Royal Air Force, the Air Ministry, sent out five chaps to take over our wing three months before the war ended. He sent them all home.
In that he felt the war was ending and he wanted…?
No, no. The Air Ministry, these chaps had been sitting on their bums in Air Ministry all the war. Then they wanted to take over our wings. He sent them back.
Oh, so they were coming to get their glory as…
The glory of having a wing, so he sent them home. [Inaudible] I stayed on until November.
But of course, by this period, I think you had become wing commander?
No, group captain.
Oh sorry, group captain. You were saying that after your period with No. 3 Squadron you were a wing commander and I think you were attached to forward …
Forward air controller, and I went to Monte Cassino, stayed on Mount Trochia in front of it, and I saw the whole battle open there in the morning. When the barrage started at twelve o'clock at night, I went outside my tent and looked at the barrage. I only looked at it for about ten seconds at a time, it was so terrifying. They had all these guns shooting right over our heads, and the whole sky was alight. And they had a wonderful Polish officer there – he used to come across every night to give me targets for the next day – and he was killed the day before the attack went in. And I was the first to see the Polish flag go up at Monte Cassino.
Hm, it's remarkable. Could you tell us in more detail about the work you were doing at that time?
Well the idea was we had, our maps were bracketed off in A,B,C,D, 1,2,3,4,5 and we had a cab rank. These fighters were in the cab rank just flying up and down waiting for you to get a target from the army. And the army would give me a target, then I'd transpose it to Air Force jargon and then to point out where it was by talking to them and then talk them down onto the target. Then that way we were able to bust the Hun a bit more.
Right. So that was really quite a close liaison between the army troops?
Between the army troops and the air controller and the pilots.
And the air controller, yourself, was the –?
Put it all into Air Force language and then talked them onto the target.
Hm, the intermediary. Tell us about talking people onto a target. How would you go about doing that? Was that –?
You give them the grid, where it is, and then try and give them a pin-point, like near a house, or a river or a fence or something, or a hill, and then give them as much information as you can, and then get the okay from them that they'd understood what you were talking about, that they'd recognised the target, and then you gave them permission to attack.
And only once they'd recognised the target could they have permission?
You never attack without recognising your target, otherwise you hit your own troops.
How accurate were the maps you were working with? Whose maps were they? I mean, were they Allied or German/Italian maps, and what scale model?
I don't remember. I've got one here, I'll show it to you. [Break in recording].
This is one of the maps Air Vice Marshal Eaton was talking about. Could you just describe it to us perhaps?
Well, on the top it goes from one to thirteen, and then it’s got the full scale down the right-hand side. In the centre is Ortona on the Adriatic coast, with Pescara to the north and Chieta where we had all the flak is shown there too. There’s Chieta there on the top.
That was at the centre of all the flak.
And of course …
So coming in, they were attacking here, and I saw the five aircraft shot down. You'd talk to the pilots, you'd give them the position on the map – on their map which was the same as the one you had – and then describe where it was. You see, if you're attacking near that 'F' then on the river there, you point out the river and then point out the target, whatever the target was – might be a trench or a tank or anything.
Right. Of course, this also has relief, rivers, roads et cetera.
But it's a fairly, it's not a very…
It not very clear is it, no.
…large scale map. It's fairly small scale.
Was it difficult to get people to pin-point their targets or not?
No, you soon learnt, mainly a learning curve – and all our COs were very experienced and on their second or third tours.
Right. After attacks such as that, was it normal to send out other reconnaissance aircraft to establish whether or not the attack had been successful?
No, you'd fly back yourself and have a look, which was always very dangerous to do but you had to do it. We got shot at. And you'd see what damage you'd done, then come back and report.
Right. And how long, roughly, were you in that position, as that forward flight controller?
About two months I think.
And from there you went to …?
I went to command the Wing then, at Rimini.
Right. Just to clarify this, this is just going through the list. The Wing included No. 3 RAAF, 5 South African …
250 Sudan Squadron, 260 RAF and 450 RAAF.
Right. What were the main roles of a wing commander?
The CO? Well I was supposed not to fly but I did all the flying. My wing commander flying did all the administration.
Was that just a personal –?
A personal thing, yeah.
Did you fly because you preferred it or because you felt it was important to set an example?
No, I preferred to fly, hm. And it was just after I took over the wing and we had to go into southern France. I took two squadrons of Mustangs. We had …. four Squadrons had Mustangs and two [Sqn] had Kittyhawks – I took two squadrons of Mustangs to the west coast of Italy and then flew in from there, into Monaco is it? Monte Carlo, and I dropped my tanks over … I had long range tanks so I dropped them over Monte Carlo and I flew round waiting for the aircraft to come in, but they weren't given a time check. And I was on the way home and saw the glider tugs coming in. So I turned round – I had plenty of fuel – we saw them all land, saw them blown up and land. I saw a destroyer destroyed, the destroyer blown up. And then we kept the flak down and pulled out and went home. Wonderful show. We called it the Champagne campaign.
Hm, right. Yes, that sounds very impressive. Well just briefly turning back to the period as wing commander. You obviously had a close involvement, still, with No. 3 Squadron.
Who was the squadron leader then?
Murray Nash, wonderful chap.
Right. And did their role continue largely as you've described it to me before?
Yes, exactly the same work, yes.
And how closely, as a commanding officer of a wing, were you in touch with both the COs and the individual pilots of each squadron?
Only, probably only with the COs and flight commanders. I didn't get to know the pilots really. I got to know the COs really well actually. They used to take their squadrons out in the early morning, train busting in northern Italy.
You'd lead the other squadron?
Lead the other squadron, yes.
Train busting, shooting up trains?
Shooting up trains, yes. We hit a lot of engines. We'd always hit the engine and then work down the carriages – hit the engines first to pull 'em up.
To knock the train out.
Yea, and then shoot the carriages up.
Was there ever any feeling there that you really were attacking men who really couldn't fight back?
No, no, no. They were the enemy.
Right. Well just finally, at the end of it all, the end of – War was over in Europe, at least. How did it all seem to you in retrospect?
Well I was really worn out. They sent me to England and put me into hospital. 1 couldn't even walk up the stairs. I couldn't walk upstairs – too exhausted.
Physically and emotionally?
Physically and emotionally, yeah.
That's obviously still a very close memory.
Oh it is, very close.
How long did it take you to recover?
About six months, and then I went on to staff college, then home.
That period in the staff college, was the war still very vivid or had it faded?
Well fortunately, we were all ex-pilots, ex-fighter pilots and the staff college students hadn't been to the war, so we had a wonderful time.
I see, you were instructing them?
No, no. The instructors hadn’t been to war and we’d all been through a war, so we didn’t take much notice of it.
All sounds very topsy turvy.
Yeah, it might have been topsy turvy. Then the Australians found I'd been away too long and they sent me a signal saying, “Come straight home”. So I got the first available ship, was the S.S. Nestor. Had Lord Nuffield on board and Monty's chief of staff, Freddy De Gangong. We went via South Africa. I had a wonderful trip home. I did what I was told though. In the meantime, of course, a lot of ships had gone home sooner through Suez, but I stuck to my oars and took the first ship which happened to go via South Africa.
And returning after Australia [sic] how was that?
Oh very emotional, yeah.
Was there a sense of the men who hadn't come back?
No, not really. I lost my brother. He was shot down over Messina. Oh no, it was good to be home. But I wasn't home long – I was sent to Japan. I never tied my shoelaces for two years.
I can imagine. Well I do know that after the war you've had a very varied and interesting career. We perhaps can't touch on that because of the focus of this work, but just finally, is there anything that you feel you would like to add to this record that has not been said, that you feel you would like said?
Yes, tell the kids what war is like. Then of course, you mightn't get anyone going to war. It's not all beer and skittles. We must tell them all about what it's like.
Do you think that's done enough or not?
No, not. We never talk about it anymore.
What's your attitude to things such as films, of course videos now that by and large paint a rather unreal picture of war?
I think they're very silly. It should be more factual. Then of course, you might never get them going to a war again. But the kids are well trained now. They're much better trained that we were, and then the aircraft are much more sophisticated. They're easier to fly but they're more difficult to handle, to handle all the electronics and the weapons.
That's where the problem is.
Right. Well on behalf of the War Memorial, thank you very much for your time.
I’ve always had good cooperation from the War Memorial. Thank you very much.
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