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Malta. c. July 1943. Group portrait of members of No.3 Squadron RAAF in front of their Curtiss P40 Kittyhawk aircraft.
Left to right, back row (standing): Pilot Officer (PO) John Hooke; Flight Sergeant (Flt Sgt) Ted Hankey; Squadron Leader Reg Stevens;
Flight Lieutenant (Flt Lt) Brian Harris; Flt Lt Ian Roediger; George Hardiman; Flying Officer (FO) Jack Doyle.
Sitting on main plane: K. Goulder; Flt Sgt Neil Funston; Sergeant Jack Beer; Warrant Officer Rex (or Reg) Laver.
Front row (squatting): Flt Lt Murray Nash; PO Jack Sergeant; Flt Sgt Peter Gilbert; Flt Sgt Arthur Collier; FO Tom Russell.
Transcript of Australian War Memorial recording.
This historically-important interview has been placed here so that its content is searchable for 3SQN Website readers.
[WORKING VERSION - Currently being edited by 3SQN Assn for readability and spelling of technical terms.]
INFORMANT: TOM RUSSELL
SUBJECT OF INTERVIEW: 3 SQUADRON, RAAF
DATE OF INTERVIEW: 27 APRIL 1990
INTERVIEWER: EDWARD STOKES
TRANSCRIBER: DIANA NELSON
TRANSCRIPTION DATE: 5 JULY 1990
NUMBER OF TAPES: 2
BEGIN TAPE 1, SIDE A.
Identification: This is Edward Stokes talking with Tom
Russell, No. 3 Squadron.
Tom, perhaps we could just begin by finding out when and where you were
I was born in Sydney in the suburb of Waterloo on 8th July
Right. And did you come from a large or a small family?
No, just a small family. Just my brother, an elder brother,
and myself - he was about eighteen months, nearly two years older than me.
One thing that I think's quite interesting with people who
were involved with the second war is the looking back to the first war. As a
young boy, a young man, do you have particularly strong recollections or not of
the whole tradition of ANZAC and so on?
No, not so, no, I don't think that there was anything. I
think in our period that just didn't seem to be as significant. I had an uncle
also called Tom Russell and he was at the first world war - and I think I was
named after him. And there was another cousin of my mother's by marriage, a
fellow called Herb Kerslake; he'd been gassed and also suffered very badly from
trench feet, and I think that was sort of my most recollections of anything to
do with the war. Of course we had our, um, ceremonies at school and so forth on
ANZAC Day but I don't think it seemed to have the significance then that it has
That's an interesting point. Well, going on a little bit. Of
course as you were coming up to being a teenager it was really the beginning of
the depression, I think you were saying you left school in your second year of
That's true. Yes, that's right. I went to Randwick High
School. I went to a school called George Street School in Redfern and you had
to pass your qualifying certificate and to be able to go to a high school you
had to get a higher pass and otherwise you were sent to a technical school. I
was passed and I went to Randwick High School.
Right. And I'd imagine it must have been a fairly hard
decision to leave school, but you left I think because there was some prospect
of earning money.
Well, that's true, and I think that I realised - my dad was in
the building trade and the building industry was the first hit and when the
building industry, as it is even today, if the building industry's down so many
other things depend upon it, hardly anything within the home is not connected in
some way or another with the building industry. And my scoutmaster - our
circumstances weren't good as the same with many, many other people. But of
course a tribute to Jack Lang for bringing in the Moratorium Act where people
couldn't be thrown out of their homes and banks couldn't foreclose. And the
scoutmaster came up and told my mum that he could get me a job with Beam
Wireless or AWA as a messenger boy at a pound a week.
Right. It's hard to think back to those days. Well, Tom,
perhaps we won't go into the specifics of those years leading up to the war but
I do know, I think you said, you later worked for the Taxation Office and later
the railways. During that period when there were great political changes, and
in retrospect, very worrying ones going on in Europe: Hitler's rise to power
and so on. How conscious were you, or otherwise, of those events?
I think I'd have to be very truthful here and people of my age
group, we were intent I think upon our own pleasures. I played a lot of tennis,
I loved tennis and I did play a lot of tennis, and I think it was just reading
and hearing of these things but not without any great appreciation of the
seriousness of them. Here in our own country of course we had the problems with
Jack Lang and the banks and harking back to when, the earlier part when I was
with the Taxation Department, we all arrived one day to find the doors closed
and we couldn't get in. But the other side of the world, as people tell us even
now, we're a long way away, and I think for the teenagers the other side of the
world was a whole new world away that didn't seem to affect us.
(5.00) Sure, that's understandable. Well, going on a bit,
let's go on in fact to the declaration of war. Do you recall the day? Do you
Oh, I recall it very vividly. My wife, Nean, I saw her when
she was fourteen and I decided then I was going to marry her. And we were going
together and her parents lived at Punchbowl, and our Sunday ritual was that we'd
go over there to Nean's home and her mother would in the winter-time
particularly cook pea soup, the most beautiful pea soup, we'd all get together
and have a very, very nice meal, not a sumptuous one but a real family meal.
Then we'd get into the small loungeroom and in the winter-time the gas would be
turned on if necessary, with a gas fire, but on September 3rd 1939 we were in
there and we young 'uns would sprawl on the floor and we would listen the 'Lux
Radio Playhouse' and then John Dease - 'World Famous Tenors' with John Dease. I
can remember Mr Menzies very vividly coming on saying that Germany had invaded
Poland and England had declared war on Germany; I may have that back to front
but the declaration of war had been made and as a consequence we also at war.
What was your first feeling? Did you see yourself being
involved, or not?
No, I can't say that I did immediately but I do know that we
became very sober for young people; and I don't mean sober in the sense of
having had alcohol, we didn't have any, we didn't drink in those days. And I
made my way home to Kingsgrove where I lived and the first person to greet me
there was my darling mother who begged me not to go to war. She said, 'Son, if
they come here I'll fight them with you' - a month later she was dead.
I'm sorry, that's obviously still a .... And what was the
reaction of other people around you at the time, Tom?
I don't really .... I couldn't say much about that. I'll
just go back to my mother's death. It was so sudden, I don't think it was
caused at all by the war - the worry of the war or anything like that. She
suffered two strokes and the second one was so big that she just didn't
survive. But your other question, well, I don't know, I can't really say, but
then I was left with my father and my brother, and my mother had adopted a
little girl. In those days they didn't have the stringent regulations about age
and my mother was actually forty-four or forty-three when the baby was adopted -
I was twenty-one - and my aunt took care of her. And I think from that moment
on, and possibly with the talk, fellows at work in the railways began to join up
and I'd always had a leaning toward the air force particularly I think, too,
with things like Herb Kerslake and his trench feet and the mustard gas we read
of, I always had the feeling that if anything happened to you, you were gone, it
was clean and that was it.
Rather than a kind of lingering and just awful experience on
Right. Well, moving on a little bit, that was very interesting that
background material. How soon after war was declared did you in fact sign up?
And how long did it take for that to be processed to the point
where you were actually called up?
I think I was called up almost immediately. I made enquiries
about air crew but they were still conducting cadet courses and there was no way
that you could get in there unless you had a university education, and I don't
even know whether they were still taking them or not. And my wife's cousin who
was in the recruiting centre as a clerk. He suggested I come in on the ground
crew and then get a re-muster. Well, I went in in March of 1940 and went up to
Richmond to do my rookie training and from there I was posted down to Air Board
as a clerk.
(10.00) What's your first recollection of service life, of air
force life when you were doing your training, that first training?
The absolute power of a corporal, a drill instructor
corporal. They were really - we talked about it; they were little tin gods,
some of them I think just didn't know how to use authority. And the strange
thing about it was that at Richmond in particular, after rookies, we all threw
in together and bought the darn corporal a present and gave him a few beers at
the Clarendon Hotel.
That's interesting. Tom, this is just going back to the story
you were telling me about Narromine, the power of people in those positions of
No, that one I just spoke about that was at Richmond, of
course, a corporal, that was a drill instructor at .... Yeah, yeah.
Oh yes, sure, but this other anecdote, sorry.
The one we were speaking about before you began to record this again?
Yes, tell us about that.
Well, I think that we all wanted discipline. We were all accepting it, but
again, we had a sergeant drill instructor there, and I can't
recall his name, but he made our life pretty well unbearable and he took great
delight in punishing in whichever way he could. He'd make you polish the link
trainer floor or, er - bear in mind he was dealing just with brand new trainee
pilots - he'd make you carry your parachute all the way round Narromine
aerodrome, and anybody who's ever been there knows it's a big, big aerodrome.
And we eventually finished there and we were posted down to Wagga and our
greatest joy was that we were rid of this sergeant drill instructor. And you
can imagine our horror then not very much later we found that he'd followed us -
he'd been posted down to Wagga. Well, we put up with him again and on the day
that our course concluded - and the next day we were told to go up and draw our
uniform and our stripes, and I'd become an officer. I'd got my commission of
course, and I was a brand new pilot officer. And three of the other boys who'd
become sergeant pilots and myself, we were walking back down and this drill
instructor, sergeant drill instructor, came marching up towards us along the
main road of Forest Hills aerodrome and of course I can take nothing away from
his military bearing and his position, his expertise in what he did, but of
course to him all he could see was four pupils coming and he passed us and as he
did I swung round and I said, 'Sergeant'. And he turned around and I said, 'Are
you in the habit of passing an officer without saluting?'. Well, his face went
as red as a brick and he damn near could have burst, I think, and then he threw
me the most beautiful salute you'd ever seen and I returned it and away he
went. The other three boys, and one was a fellow called Joe Saunders who became
a very firm friend, he said, 'Tommy, that makes up for everything we've taken
from that 'b' ...'.
That's interesting. And yet if he'd been more understanding,
no doubt you wouldn't have reacted in the way you did.
Well, it was just instinctive with me, but I think it was, you
know, it did make up for some of the things that we'd felt, you know. It showed
that he applied the law to suit himself but not always to suit others, I think.
Yes, sure. Just another point about discipline that interests
me. No doubt in the army where men are actually operating in very close contact
with one another as a group there has to be that kind of instinctive discipline,
'turn left, turn right, do this, do that', in that kind of fighting perhaps.
Was that sort of discipline so relevant to people who were going to fly
aircraft? Did it have ...? Did that type of discipline in fact enhance or
detract from your later flying, or have no effect at all?
No, I don't think .... It was never laid down as tight
discipline but you knew what was expected of you in certain circumstances and
you knew what you had to do. You see, 3 Squadron was probably the first
squadron to have what was known as a pilots' mess. We didn't have, for
instance, an officers' mess and a sergeants' mess. We had a ground crew
sergeants' mess, but we had a pilots' mess so a sergeant pilot messed in with a
group captain. And I think that the men were sufficiently knowledgeable or
disciplined to know that they could not take advantage of this and they had to,
there was no such thing as saluting as you passed now because we were on equal
grounds in a war zone. But it was a little different I think back in Australia
when I came back, rank seemed to mean a heck of a lot more. But I think it
might be getting away a bit from the question you asked me as far as ....
(15.00) Yes, well, I was more asking about, in terms of your
effectiveness as a fighter pilot. How much did that sort of parade ground
regimentation have a bearing on your effectiveness as a fighting pilot, or did
it have no bearing?
I think it must have had a bearing. It'd be very hard for me
to categorise it, but I think that when you're trained, and I think it must have
all been a part of our training, you were disciplined that you knew what to look
for in an emergency. You were taught to - I know this doesn't come back to
parade ground discipline or that, but I think discipline's done in many
different ways. It can be done in just the way the CO would say good morning to
you. I think it's all sort of building you up for the job you're supposed to
Yes, that's interesting. Well moving on a little bit, with
the training, Tom. Just one other initial thing, you of course having been in
the air force for some time I think passed what were the twenty-one lessons that
people had to do if they didn't have a high level of education, or in terms of
official certificates and so on which meant you could head for air crew
training. What prompted you to do that? To opt out of, you know, what no doubt
would have been a much safer future as an air force clerk?
Well, I think I said previously that I'd looked at the air
force and I'd looked at being an air crew. Just on that twenty-one lessons, as
I think I said to you before, maybe before we were recording, that I don't know
that twenty-one lessons were specifically if you didn't have certain credentials
but it may have been just to see - we had to do trigonometry and so forth. And
maybe that was just to refresh you, or if you hadn't been able to do it, but the
second part there as far as why I went into - I think I answered that too, that
I just felt that I wanted to be in air crew and maybe, if I'd been medically
unfit for air crew, maybe I might have just as quite easily have stayed quite
happily as a clerk.
Right. Oh well, that's very understandable. Going on then to
your actual flying which I think began at Narromine, August '41 we've got, EFT.
What's your first recollection of being up in the air, perhaps your first solo
flight? Was it exhilarating, a little bit scary? How did you feel?
No, I think I'll give you an answer that I think almost every
pilot would tell you; you're just too darn busy to be frightened. We were
talking about this the other day as far as going off in the desert on early
morning shows and we would be very, very nervous before we got into the
aircraft, but once you're in the aircraft you seem to be so busy and have so
many things to do. My first solo I can remember very vividly, because the
aerodrome at Narromine is about a mile and a half long and three-quarters of a
mile wide, and it was sort of broken up by a bit of a roadway across the middle
that made it into, say, three-quarter mile square paddocks, and my flying
instructor, Flying Officer White, got out and took his parachute and he told me
to do a circuit and landing. But they had always impressed upon us that if we
were not happy with the landing we had to put the throttle on and go round
again, take off and come around for another one. I finished up doing seven
circuits and landings and .... Oh no, it wasn't Flying Officer White that got
out, I'm sorry, I'd been up with Squadron Leader Lonergan who was the chief
flying instructor. And he walked all the three-quarters of a mile back to the
mess while I'm up flying around the air and Flying Officer White said to him,
'How did Russell go?'. He said, 'I'm so-and-so if I know. He's still up there
doing circuits and landings'. That was my first solo.
Right, so you were trying to get the right approach to put it
down. At Narromine, and perhaps we could also bring in Wagga here and also for
that matter Sale where you did your later operational training, how would you
rate the quality of your instruction: adequate, mediocre, good, very good?
Yes, I'd say all our instructors were very, very good. I had
Andrew Macarthur-Onslow of the Macarthur-Onslow family as my instructor at
Wagga. Unfortunately he was killed not long after I left there. And I couldn't
complain about the training at Wagga or Narromine at all. The SFDS at Sale left
a little bit to be desired because I don't think the instructors had the
experience to tell somebody else how to fly. They weren't returned airmen who'd
been in operations or anything and I don't think they really had the experience
to tell another person how to go and fly in a dog, conduct a dogfight or do
dive-bombing and so forth.
(20.00) That's an interesting point and it would certainly
bear very much on squadrons like, say, for example 75 that were being formed -
this is the end of '41 we're talking about - that were being formed soon after
that with untested pilots.
That's true. 75, 76 and 77 were formed about that time and I
could quite just as easily have ended up on one of those squadrons. But I think
that's true, but I think that we found out in the desert that once you get in
and somebody's shooting at you, or you've got to go down and drop a bomb or
something, experience is a very great teacher.
Sure. Just a few other things about the flying training
period, Tom - the general physical conditions of the different schools in terms
of facilities, messes, recreation, that kind of thing. Were you well catered
for, or not?
Oh yes, I don't think .... As a matter of fact I mentioned
this to, um, Wing Commander Heath, who is the present CO 3 Squadron, on ANZAC
Day. Our facilities at Wagga were absolutely wonderful; we had individual rooms
- a hut was divided by a corridor and the rooms were on each side - we had
individual rooms which made it very easy for us to do our study. The kitchen
and the meals in our mess room were absolutely terrific. Narromine, I couldn't
complain about either. The barrack facilities weren't quite as good; we were
all in the one big hall, but the food and so forth was all very, very good.
Right. A couple of other things too, about training. How
strong a feeling was there, if there was, that as future flyers, as future air
force pilots, you were something of an élite amongst other service men and
Yes, I guess that could have come in too, because you see as
trainee pilots we had a little white sash on our forage caps and we did get
some, I think, they applied some names to us - 'Blue Orchids' - and probably
that applied to all of the air force, ground crew and so forth. But I don't
know .... Did you mean within our own feeling, or the feelings of other people
Either perhaps, but let's begin with yourselves. Did you
yourselves as a group or yourself as an individual, was there a feeling that you
were somehow a little bit different to other service men and women?
Yes, different, but going back there, different but not
superior. I think that it's just like owning a very nice motor car, you get a
sense of pride in it, and I think there could have been a little bit of a sense
of pride in the fact that we were going to be, we all hoped to be pilots, but
eventually we had to go before a selection committee .... Oh no, we went before
a selection committee at ITS and the joke there was that one of the officers,
Squadron Leader, his name escapes me, who was on the selection committee, he was
a very staunch and keen rugby union supporter. And they'd ask you the
question, 'What sport do you play?' and you'd mention rugby union about five
times and with any luck then he'd ask you what you wanted to be: 'a pilot',
and with any luck you got your wish.
That's interesting. One other thing too, as you were saying
before, your route into flying training had been a little bit roundabout, given
that you, or anyway as you said at the beginning, if you'd wanted to go in right
at the start there might have been problems because they were only taking young
men who'd, you know, had been able to go on at school and so on. Was there ever
any feeling that men such as yourself were, um, did you ever sense that men
who'd go in directly as officer cadets regarded you as second-rate or second-run
in any way at all, or not?
No, I've never experienced that, but sometimes you do hear semi-derogatory
remark that 'he's one of the permanents', referring to the people in the
permanent air force. But the ones that I've met I just couldn't complain about
their acceptance of we blokes who came in later.
Well, perhaps one last thing about training. At Sale, I think
you were saying that you were flying Wirraways, and for that matter at Wagga, at
what point did you make the choice, or was the choice made for you that you were
destined for single-engined fighter aircraft as against heading towards bombers?
(25.00) No, it was never our choice. I was never asked for a
choice. I think that was done by the selection panel. I think that steady men
- I think they looked for older and steadier men that .... And then of course
they had to diversify and find out who they were going to have as navigators as
well. Usually people with maybe better education were selected as navigators,
but to my knowledge, I can't ever remember being given a choice. I think I was
either selected or it just happened. I do crack a joke about that sometimes on
ANZAC Day, and the joke goes on: that when you went before the selection
committee they looked in one ear and if they could see right through you were a
Yeah, I can imagine that. Right, well, just one, perhaps,
final thing: if you look back to the period when you finished your operational
training, flying in Wirraways. Or two things. One is how good a pilot do you
think you were? And two, could you list some of the different skills that you
would say you had gained from your training besides obviously basic flying.
Let me just ask those questions again, it's rather confusing firing two
questions at people. The first one, what were the different kinds of training
that you received if you could break it up into component parts
such as navigation, basic flying, etcetera? What are the other things you would
Elementary flying training was on Tiger Moths and it was
specifically mostly to do with learning to flying aircraft and to find your way
around. You'd have cross country flights, um, most courses made up their own
songs about getting lost on cross countries and so forth. Service flying
training went a bit further and we were then given .... The Wirraway had a
couple of guns firing through the, um, or a gun firing through the propeller and
we were given some shooting and also we were given dive-bombing practice. The
OTU more or less just carried on in that vein, there wasn't a lot of it done
there as far as I was concerned. So I suppose basically they were just giving a
grounding in, a very good grounding in, learning to fly and land an aircraft.
Anybody can fly an aircraft, the getting it down on the ground is probably the
most difficult part, and they don't want to write aircraft off too much. The
other part was that we knew there was a machine-gun - we had to learn the
component parts of the machine-gun and how it operated and why. And then there
was the dive-bombing practice that we were given, just to show how that we ....
And one thing that you learned from that is, an aircraft has, suffers - at the
end of a steep dive-bomb or any dive - it suffers from what we call squash, and
you don't just come round in a perfect circle or come out of a dive-bomb you do
squash towards the ground as you're changing altitude. I think that's about
all, just the basic elements of it.
Right, well, that's interesting. The other question
associated with that, Tom, is: in a general sense, as you recall it, how good a
pilot - I don't mean so much you as an individual - but were pilots at the end
of their operational training, how ready were you to actually go off on
You see, we wouldn't have known just how good you had to be,
but we felt, I suppose, that we'd reached .... We were passed out, I was passed
out as an average general purpose pilot - and that would have been ninety-nine
per cent of us I guess - there wouldn't have been too many that would have been
passed out as real ace pilots without having fired a shot. But I think we were
probably the required standard by the instructors and so forth, who thought that
maybe we could then control an aircraft enough to do the job they probably had
in mind for us.
Right, that's interesting.
END TAPE 1, SIDE A
BEGIN TAPE 1, SIDE B
Let's go on from training, Tom, I know that after training and
of course you came out a pilot officer, you went down to Air Board for some time
and it was from there that you were posted with a couple of other fellows I
think, and joining, I think, four other men, six in all to travel to the Middle
East to join 3 Squadron. In all that, in the decision to go to the Middle East
rather than stay in Australia, and of course - Japan's now in the war - to go to
No. 3 in particular, did you have any say at all, was there ever any
consultation or was it just a decision from on high?
No, it was just a posting, it's .... And I've had fellows,
one chap who was on course with me at Narromine, he subsequently became - he
stayed in Australia and flew nothing but Tiger Moths - but eventually became a
Qantas pilot. And he always says, 'Oh, you and Joe were so lucky, you were the
only two who went overseas out of our course', and ....
Really? Out of the entire course.
Of 16 course, on our 16 course. There was a 16 course at different places,
you see, some were at Uranquinty and some were at Narromine. But
of the people that were with us, we were the only two that were posted overseas
at that juncture, from that conclusion of our OTU. As I mentioned to you
before, I think off tape, that I can't understand why we were posted to 3
Squadron because the other three squadrons were being formed here - 75, 76, 77 -
but the other boys were all pilot officers as well, so there were six pilot
officers. It could have been that maybe the squadron was under strength as far
as officers were concerned.
Right. That's interesting. And when the decision did come
through, obviously you were aware you were going to a very active theatre of
war, what was your first reaction? Was it one of exhilaration, apprehension,
how did you feel?
No, we felt all right. We all felt all right. We were all
very excited and as it was when we first got our flying kit, the first thing we
could do was whip home and take it all home - winter flying jackets and
everything which I never ever wore - and show our people. No, I think we were
all very, very excited and of course the prospect of a trip to the other side of
the world - I couldn't even save £35 to go to Fiji when I was only fifteen or
sixteen or seventeen. And to think that we were going to be able to travel to
the other side of the world. The theatre of war didn't seem to worry us so
much, I suppose the Middle East had a little bit of glamour about it because
obviously we all associate the Middle East with the pyramids and the sphinx and
the mysteries of the East and so forth. But no, I don't think there was any
apprehension with any of us.
Was your departure on the - I know you went on a lone cargo
ship, not a convoy - was your departure on that ship a great hush-hush event,
where for example relatives couldn't come to see you off, or was it fairly open?
(5.00) Oh no, there were no, it was just very quietly done.
There were we six, and two of them were killed overseas incidentally and one
became a POW. Nev Austin, a lovely young man, and Bill Diehm were both killed
over there, and Joe Weatherburn went into POW camp. But no, my memory of it is,
that we went from, um, a sort of a holding depot and we were taken down to the
wharf and the name of the ship was the SS Querimba. It was only about
8,000 tons ship. And we just went on board and I can't even remember any air
force officer coming down; there must have been somebody took us down but there
was no official there to say 'bye-bye'. We all had huge tin trunks and quite a
lot of gear to get on, and as far as I know we were just put on the ship and
that was it.
Were there other service passengers or was it just you six?
No, there were no other Australian service passengers. There
were actually only ten passengers altogether, and a little cargo ship like that
usually has the central parlour or saloon down below and you have your meals
there and do everything within that and the bedrooms are around off it. We had
a fellow called Ted White who was an American correspondent for Time-Life,
or for Life magazine, no Time magazine at the time; I think they
joined later. And he was an American, I guess he was an American war
correspondent. Incidentally I kept getting copies of Time magazine back
here in Australia for many years from Ted because we formed a fairly good
friendship on the way across to Colombo. Then there were two RAN officers, I
don't know where they were going, and there was another old chap on board and he
was an engineer, and I believe he was trying to make his way to China to look
for a job in China as an engineer. So that made up the ten of us.
He must have been a fairly adventurous fellow going to China
at that period, I would have thought.
Well, perhaps without dwelling on the voyage for too long because the tape's
running on and perhaps there are other more important things. Are there
any key memories of the voyage to India, and then I know you went across India
by train? Any really outstanding recollections?
Well, you know, the normal day life was very, bitterly cold.
We went almost down to the South Pole I reckon, once we left Melbourne, and then
way out into the Indian Ocean because there was quite a bit of submarine
activity in the Indian Ocean and we came back into Fremantle almost from the
south-west position, and we were bearing north, north-west, I'm sorry, nor-east
to get into it, so, um .... I believe there was another ship sunk somewhere
about the time that we were in the Indian Ocean. No, we did all the normal
things and we had a party on board for Bill Leeds' birthday; that didn't go down
too well with the captain, we made too much noise and his cabin was way above
us. He wasn't a terribly friendly bloke and he used to allow one of us to come
up and hear the radio, there was only one radio on board, and only one at night
could come up and hear the news and then he have to go and relate it to the
others. And it was during that time the raid on Sydney Harbour took place and
we heard it then. Of course all of us wanted him to turn the ship round and
I was actually going to ask you, in fact forgot, before you
left Australia was there any feeling that Japan by then being in the war, that
you would have preferred to have stayed to have been involved in Australia's own
No, I can't say that there was. Um, no, I don't think so, but
I can't really recall at the moment whether we were actually told. I don't
think we would have been told that we were actually going to 3 Squadron, so
after all we may not even have known at that time, again as I say, memory's a
little dim on that. We mightn't have known just where we were going, for
Right. Well going on, I know you did have this very
interesting journey through India and then finally of course you arrived in the
At Bombay, we went to, and then went across from there of
course. Yes, we picked up with another group of men ahead of us at, er, Hill,
who also went to the squadron, quite a heap of us, we were going at the one
Well, moving on because I think we probably better to keep a
balance on the tape. I think it's August '42 when you were attached to 239 Wing
based near Cairo where you did initial training on Kittyhawks; very short
training I think, three and a half hours. Tell us first about the Middle East;
a very, very different world to Australia or to Sydney. What's your first
recollection of that being in this old, old place and quite different people and
(10.00) Well, you know, you've got to accustomed to their, the
squalor and the dirt of some parts of it, particularly in India I found it, that
was our first, that was the first experience of it, in Ceylon, in Colombo and
the betel-nut chewing. In Cairo the streets seemed to be clean, there didn't
seem to be the same poverty as there was in Colombo, but obviously we were very
strongly warned on the ship across by the transit officer, 'You must never drink
the water', and all of the precautions that we had to take with food and so
forth so we were pretty well forewarned what it was like. But out of the cities
it was quite nice. We didn't find any problems with it out in the desert.
Sure, and the actual historic sites and so on, in all your to-ing
and fro-ing on, you know, active operations and occasional leave and so on, did
you get much of chance to see around the place or not?
Yes, well, where we did our first flying was at the base camp
at Minya which is very close to the pyramids and the sphinx, and we used to get
a great delight in flying around them and having a good look at them. And with
the - of course, being so close we'd only fly once or twice a day in training
then we could go into town and we managed to see quite a bit of Cairo and its,
well, its sites which you normally see within a city.
Right. Well the other thing I wanted to ask you about at this
point too, is the plane itself, the Kittyhawk. Of course you came into 3
Squadron after they'd gone through quite a progression of aeroplanes, from
relatively primitive planes to now the Kittyhawk, and of course the Kittyhawk
was far more powerful than planes you'd been flying in Australia. We might just
talk for a moment in some detail about the Kittyhawk itself. What's your
general recollection of the plane? How did you feel the first time you saw it,
the first time you got into the cockpit?
Well, I guess I was pretty nervous because as you progress
from one aircraft to another and you see a slightly heavier one or bigger one,
you wonder how the heck it's going to get into the air. But all I can say about
the Kittyhawk, that it's a very nice aircraft to fly. I later flew Spitfires
and Hurricanes and I would say that a Spitfire is a most delicate, beautiful
aircraft I have ever flown but I can only say that I really did enjoy flying
That on balance Kittyhawk had, came out on top of the
Spitfire, is that what you're saying?
Only for the .... The Spitfire could never have done the job
that the Kittyhawk did. The Kittyhawk was structurally strong and for the job
that it had to do .... We've had fellows with their tail-plane almost shot away
and they still got back home quite well; the aircraft flew all right. I don't
say it would have flown forever and whatever, but I mean, the aircraft seemed to
have so much inner strength, and it was a lovely aircraft to handle.
Of course the Kittyhawk was very strongly protected in terms
of the pilot's own safety I think compared to ...
Mm. Did that make, you know, was that a big issue for the pilots; the knowledge
that you had that metal behind you?
No, bear in mind that it was only behind you, and you know,
the side of the aircraft was just as vulnerable as any other aircraft. You
didn't get very many people attack you from head on of course, or even from
front quarters, it was more or less usually from behind or rear quarter, so I
suppose the armour plating .... But I don't think that ever really entered our
heads, well, it didn't enter mine; and you don't say, 'Well, I've got that
wrapped around me, I'm not going to - if he shoots me from there - I'm not going
to get shot', because you could get hit by anti-aircraft fire from the ground
and come in from underneath even, you know.
Sure, or ricochets, whatever. Looking at other
characteristics of the Kittyhawk, for example its ability to climb, its speed,
general handling - manoeuvrability, how did it rate there?
Very slow in climbing and it was a horror to have to go round
again because the wheels were very slow coming up. And to go round again, if
you have made an abortive landing, somebody was on the runway, or for some
reason you had to go round again, it was a very slow process but the aircraft
again had the power to do it. But with a Spitfire, and the opposite way was if
you went around, you just pressed a button and 'bang, bang' the wheels went up
and you were flying again almost at full flying speed. Climbing wasn't all that
good, diving was terrific and it did have a tendency to turn to the left in a
(15.00) Yes, that's an interesting point I have heard from
75 Squadron people that the diving power was so good that a common strategy in
terms of attacking was to dive, attack as you came down and keep going and you'd
be away from any danger. Was that a common ploy when you were with No. 3
Well, that normally was. When we, of course, when I came back
to Australia they put us through a refresher course, or a scrub course; they had
so many pilots they were looking, I think, to get rid of some. But their method
of dive-bombing was straight down and straight up. Well, nobody ever did that
because you used that power to keep low to the ground till you got away from the
target area and tried to get yourself up into the air again. I've forgotten the
first part of your question as far as ....
Well, I think I was saying in the desert, was that a common
tactic used, of diving and attacking as you went through?
Oh yes, because particularly when we were strafing. And
particularly strafing as we did from time to time, you'd strafe convoys, supply
convoys; we always, nobody ever thought that there were people in the seats or
whatever, you were just attacking trucks. But you had to remember too, that
there was always somebody there to fire back at you, so you got as much speed as
you could to keep yourself, so long as you kept yourself straight, and then you
kept yourself low to the ground and got away on a climbing dive or a weaving
climb or ....
That was just an interesting point we might just broaden on
out for a moment there. You were saying that as you attacked, came down on
trucks, you thought you were attacking trucks, not the people in the trucks.
Was that a consciously thought out thing or was that just an unconscious defence
mechanism against what obviously for most people must be, in a sense, an
abhorrent act of killing individual people whether they're enemies or not?
Look, I can only speak for myself in this, but I know of
certain things that I've experienced in my wartime, and I've found that other
people had the same feelings, other pilots. I never consciously thought of
there being a pilot in an aircraft if I happened to be shooting at it. I never
consciously thought of people being in a truck on the ground. We just knew that
the New Zealanders were being harassed at a place called On.... They were
trying to get around the back of the Mareth line and we knew that these supply
convoys were taking supplies up to the people at the Mareth line. And they had
these most wonderful eighty-eight millimetre guns that they were keeping
everybody - and the poor old 51st Highland Division was just about decimated
when they attacked. But no, I would say quite truthfully I never ever thought,
'I'll shoot that so-and-so in that aircraft', it was just the destruction of the
Right. In other words the destruction of
Yeah, once the aircraft was destroyed, well, nobody could fly it.
Well, that does lead on to another question, that actually is
on these sheets here that I think is quite controversial and I have certainly
never been aware of it myself, but it may be worth asking, and this certainly
isn't intended in a personal sense as to what you did or didn't do. But did you
ever hear, was it ever the case, that pilots who were parachuting out of enemy
aircraft would be shot at? Or for that matter pilots who might be, for
instance, standing by aircraft that had crash landed where they'd somehow got
Oh yes, that happened. I can't tell you absolute particular
events but I do know that in the desert two or three times our pilots, or pilots
on our side were shot at on the ground. As far as shooting in the parachutes,
I've got a feeling that most of the German pilots were just like us, they were
just young blokes who - they didn't know us or hate us; I don't know if they'd
been taught to hate, we most certainly hadn't. Some of the English blokes could
do a bit of hating because they'd seen what had happened to their homes and
their cities. Alan Righetti, just quickly, Alan Righetti incidentally was shot
down alongside me and he parachuted but before he was shot down he also shot an
aircraft down, a German aircraft down, and a fellow called Wing Commander Burton
was CO of our wing at the time, an Englishman, and his wife had been killed in a
bombing raid on the Crystal Palace. And Alan went across to him - and the
German pilot had parachuted down and he'd been taken prisoner by our ground
forces - and Alan went across to the wing commander and asked him could he bring
the pilot over to our mess and Burton said, 'Why didn't you shoot the so-and so
in his rigging?'. Well, I guess that was because of his hatred of them because
of his personal loss.
(20.00) One other little thing about that, the story goes and I can't ascribe
to the veracity of it, but we did have a Polish flight later on
up there, flying Spitfires, and the story goes that they had knives or sharp
instruments attached to their main planes and that they would go and cut the
straps of the parachute. Again, I say, these are stories that you hear but I
couldn't say how truthful they are.
That sounded an absolutely appalling thing, I mean, if you are
going to do it, do it quickly and with your guns. Anyway, that's just a
But you've got to take in the fact of what hatred can do. You
see, Poland was overrun. If you were a Pole living near and you'd seen your
families bombed and crushed or whatever then maybe you mightn't consider that to
be horrendous, you might consider, well, 'that'll get him' sort of thing, you
Yes, sure, I was going to say that comment of mine was
obviously totally out of context, and here am I sitting in this lovely place in
Australia. Yeah, it's obviously based on those real experiences. Tom, I was
just going to ask, to follow on from that, you were saying that you did know of
cases where the Germans, Italians shot at Allied airmen on the ground where they
got out of their planes. Was it ever the case that Australian pilots shot at
enemy pilots beside grounded aeroplanes?
Well, I couldn't answer that truthfully either because I think
that, I don't think that we got the real truth about our own forces, as I don't
think the Germans got the real truth about their forces. I don't think we were
squeaky clean. I never ever knew of any occasion when that happened, and I
think it would be a little bit foreign to the ordinary Australian's nature, but
again, as I say, I just couldn't answer that one.
Yes, sure. Well, let's just go back to the aeroplanes because
one other thing I wanted to ask you, we were talking about the Kittyhawk and its
particular performance. If you had to compare it with some of the planes you
flew such as the Messerschmitts and the dive-bombers, the Stukas, how did the
Kittyhawk rate by comparison in different aspects of flying? In other words
were you in a superior plane or in an inferior plane?
Well, I think we were in .... As far as a Stuka, of course,
relating it to the Stuka is a little bit .... A Stuka was essentially a bomber
and it was a fantastic bomber, they could almost stand it straight up on its
end, and they had air brakes and so forth, they could really pinpoint for very
accurate bombing. It was also a very good defensive, more than an offensive
aircraft; it was quite a difficult aircraft to attack, I didn't have a lot to do
with Stukas I probably only on two or three occasions I was involved with them.
But some of our fellows came and they would tell you that the best way to attack
a Stuka, um, but with the 109 - climbing it was superior to us. I think we
could out-dive it and we can most certainly out-turn it. If we could, if it was
a turning - well, we had a much better turning circle than the 109 did.
The 110, the Messerschmitt 110, I think, that had, I think, a
I didn't meet many 110s, I think it did have rear .... You're
talking about the twin-engine aircraft?
I think so.
Yeah. And I don't know that we struck a heck of a lot of them in the Middle
East, I think, there were probably more coming on towards Sicily and Italy. I
didn't think there were a lot of them in the Middle East.
Right, okay. Well, moving on Tom, we were discussing before
how you did your training in Kittyhawks near Cairo. I think it was about
August '42 you joined No. 3 Squadron finally at Amiriya; a very romantic
sounding name. What was the place like?
It was just a spot in the desert, it was half-way between
Cairo - a little more than half-way - between Cairo and Alexandria, and it was
just a spot on the desert. Actually we were mostly known as LG91, or Landing
Right. In the period before joining No. 3 Squadron, they'd
obviously made really quite a name for themselves as a squadron in different
periods of the war there. On joining it, did you have a feeling of joining a
group that had a very, very strong morale or not? What was the situation when
you reached it?
(25.00) Well everything, yes, I think everything was very
friendly and I think you did get the feeling that you joined a very good
squadron and I was fortunate I think to join it at the time I did because we had
two fellows there, Danny Boardman[?] and Keith Kildey[?] who were sergeant
pilots and they were leading wing shows with squadron leaders flying behind them
under their orders; and Bobby Gibbes was our CO. And we did have a couple of
officers brought in as flight commanders later on but Danny Boardman and Keith
Kildey seemed to have something that went through to the pilots and through to
the ground staff as well. And as I say, I think that we got the feeling with
the squadron that it was .... It had done things and you seemed to feel that
you had something you had to live up to; I think that put us all on our mettle.
Right. Bobby Gibbes, of course, as an individual pilot was, I
gather, very much a sort of ace pilot. What's your recollection of him as a
leader of men, as a squadron leader?
Well, I have to be very honest here I think, and I think that
Bobby Gibbes may not have endeared himself to all of the ground crew but I do
feel that Bobby Gibbes probably had the idea that the ground crew had a
ninety-nine per cent chance of getting home, where each time a pilot took off he
didn't know whether he was going to come back. Now, whether that was actually
his feelings or not I don't know but I do know that certain parts of the ground
crew have not very favourable feelings towards him. I don't know how he got on
with all other pilots, I can only speak as I know him. He was a fairly strict
fellow. Bear in mind that we'd gone over there and had very little time to get
accustomed to Kittyhawks, and he had no hesitation at all in sending any of us
away again for further training; some of them were sent over to the west coast
of Africa, particularly if you crashed an aircraft. Well, as I've shown you in
my log book I had forced landings in two aircraft, I didn't write them off, but
I had forced landings in two of them and he sent me back for further training.
Well, you had to accept that and I think that probably was as much for our own
good as it was for anything else. Just as a strict pilot I've no idea really
how good Bobby Gibbes was, all I can say is this, that his ability to find
targets was uncanny; whenever I flew with Bobby Gibbes he could find the target
we had to go to. On other occasions I'd been with fellows leading and they just
couldn't find the target. He had what I consider to be the best - or the
ability that I wouldn't know whether too many other commanders had or not - but
if we got scattered in a dogfight he had the uncanny ability to get us back into
formation in a very short space of time. He could call us and he seemed to know
who we were, where we were and he'd get us back into formation. As far as a
leader, a squadron leader, leading a squadron in action I don't think there
could have been too many better than him.
That's most interesting. Perhaps we could just deviate here
briefly for a moment because I was going to ask you about flying in formation.
I understand at different periods in the war with No. 3 Squadron there were
different strategies flying, for example I think in what were called 'step
pairs' and then later in what I understand the Germans called 'Waltzing
Matildas' where you were flying together but much more constantly weaving about
and so on. What's your recollection of formation flying? How tightly
controlled was it? And what were the different formations?
Well, the one that I experienced most was, we used to fly in
sixes. 'Red One' was our leader and then you'd have two Number Ones on each
side, one on each side of him, and then you'd have the three Number Twos behind
that. If we were flying in twelves, of course, you'd have another six above it,
and slightly to the side but it would be under control of Red One who was the
CO. The rear vision from a Kittyhawk is .... Spitfires used to fly in a 'Vic'
of three and they had very good vision behind them and they didn't have to
weave; the Vic of three could cover each other's tail quite adequately, whereas
we had to weave. And just a quick, funny little story on that one is ...
Could I just clarify, you had to weave to give yourself the
So as you weaved left you'd look back and so on.
That's right, the weaving allowed you to clear your tail, and
incidentally, the Number Two behind the CO was usually the newest pilot in the
squadron. He was more or less, that was, he was protected from front and side
and that was - he was usually put there for his first few flights to get the
feel of it. We were going up and we were going to a place where they, I think
it was somewhere near Enfidaville and the Germans had surrendered ...
Just to put this in context, Tom, how ...?
END TAPE 1, SIDE B
BEGIN TAPE 2, SIDE A
Identification: This is Ed Stokes talking with Tom Russell,
No. 3 Squadron, tape 2, side 1.
Tom, I was just asking you before you begin this recollection of formation
flying, and I think you answered this was some time after you joined
No. 3 Squadron.
Yes, it was after the surrender up towards Tunis. And we
heard there was a POW - all the POWs were held in a railway yard - so a few of
us went up looking for the Luftwaffe fellows and as we were going by the water
tower .... Incidentally the Germans were all lined up at the water tower and I
heard an American voice: 'Say Aussie, have you got a cigarette?'. And I looked
around and I couldn't see anybody that looked like an American but it turned out
to be an American who'd been in Germany on holidays and he got caught up and
drafted into the army, and we gave him some cigarettes. We pressed on though.
We found the Luftwaffe fellows but we didn't catch up with any pilots there, but
they were the ground staff and they had this most beautiful eighty-eight
millimetre gun which was a constant scourge to everybody on the Allied side.
And one fellow said to me - he could see our wings of course - and he said,
'What do you fly? Hurricanes and Spitfires?'. I said, 'No, we fly Kittyhawks'.
He said, 'Oh, you are the people who do the waltz, the English waltz'. So
they'd see us weaving as we did and that's how we got .... And you read that
out to me in your notes about the Waltzing Matilda. Well, they didn't know
about Matilda of course, I think that probably would have come from New Guinea,
but they classed us as doing the waltz in the sky. And I just simply said to
him, 'Well, of course, with that gun of yours, no wonder!', and he said, 'Oh,
wait till you see the new ones'. I don't think I ever came up against it but
they must have been a beauty coming afterwards.
That's most interesting. Just going back in the story a
little bit, Tom, and in fact you were hinting at this a minute ago when you were
talking about Squadron Leader Gibbes; there was this episode of - I wasn't sure
if it was a crash landing or a forced landing - in a village and then you were
sent back for further training. Could you describe what happened and how you
felt when you realised you had a problem with this aeroplane of yours?
Well, again, I think you get so busy .... What happened with
that one, I was up pretty high and probably round about fifteen, sixteen
thousand feet and I went to switch from one tank to the other and for some
reason or other, I don't know, it just wouldn't go and I was obviously out of
petrol and I tried to find a place where I could do a forced landing, and
obviously you don't put your wheels down until you know that your are going to
be able to do that, and I couldn't. And then I finished up, I forced landed
right on the edge of a canal near a village. And I spent the night there. I
had to tell the Arabs and so forth, or, they were town Arabs they weren't desert
Arabs and I had to make sure that they didn't get near the machine-guns and I
told them .... I made everything as safe as I could and I was taken up to the
mayor's place; he tried to get me to eat some fruit there and some eggs mashed
up in a bowl but .... And he kept feeding me Egyptian cigarettes which made my
mouth feel most terrible, and I tried to get a message back to the squadron. I
couldn't, but I eventually got on to the Provost in Alexandria and they sent a
fellow out to pick me up in a car and there was blackout on in Alexandria of
course, and we were going back home in the night-time. And I think the ride
with this fellow back to Alexandria was the most .... Was worse than having to
make the forced language - forced landing, I'm sorry. I was going to say his
language was very colourful and he kept looking across to me to talk and we're
hurtling down pitch dark roads.
(5.00) Anyway we got back to this - must have been some sort of residential
place for the Provosts. And I asked .... More or less they asked me did I want
something and I asked them for a beer and because I didn't have
the money to pay for it I just didn't get a beer. And the worst part was that
the next morning they were all so terribly busy they said that they'd put me on
the road with my parachute just outside of Alexandria and I had to hitch-hike a
ride back to the edge of the aerodrome at Amiriya. And I got through the fence
and I walked across the aerodrome with my parachute on my shoulder and as I get
near the mess Bobby Gibbes saw me and he came racing to me and he said, 'Oh
Tommy, where have you been?'. And I said, 'I've been trying to get in touch
with you, Boss, but I couldn't'. And then I told him what had happened. Well,
he went absolutely livid and Col Greaves[?], the adjutant, told me later on, he
said, 'Tommy, you should have been here when Bobby Gibbes got on the telephone,
you'd have loved it'. So I think he probably told them not to treat one of my
pilots like that. But that was just ....
Oh, sorry, he was livid about your treatment ...
By the Provosts.
Not livid at your having to crash land.
Oh no, he didn't .... He asked me about it and I probably haven't told you
as much as you asked me about that. As I said earlier, when you're
in an aircraft and you're in that situation I don't think you have time - if you
have time for fear you might as well just jump out. I think you're so busy and
again our training came into it; we were told that no matter where we were
flying we should always have an emergency landing ground in our eye, and I think
pilots are probably told the same, that you've got to know where you can put
your aircraft down if something happens.
So it's almost second nature; you're on the lookout without
hardly thinking about it.
Well, you're looking for somewhere to get down, you're not
thinking about crashing.
Sure. Well, after that you did off for this period of
retraining, I understand, and then you rejoined the squadron ...
It was only about a week, or so.
Right. Incidentally that week of being sent away for some retraining, do you
think your squadron leader's primary motive there was serious retraining or was
it just to give men a kind of a psychological break from what might have been a
fairly harrowing incident, to let them come back and start afresh
in a sense?
I think it was probably more that Bobby Gibbes was entrusted
with a very serious task. He was commanding a squadron that was doing battle
with an enemy and he had to have - you just couldn't get aircraft ad
infinitum - and he had to have those aircraft and those men to do that
task. So I think that he wanted his men to be properly trained and probably he
thought that I wasn't properly trained, or sufficiently trained. I shouldn't
say properly because all your instructors from go to whoa, even from the ground
instructors, they followed the curriculum that was designed and built around and
made by people who knew what had to be done, to fit you for doing this
That's a very interesting point, Tom. Well moving on a little
bit to when you did come back to join the squadron, of course this was the
period when things were really hotting up, I think, around El Alamein. Could
you list for us, in sort of general terms, the main activities that the squadron
- that you yourself were involved in during that period?
Yes. I began my operations on the morning of October 24th
1942 and the offensive - our 9th Divy had been pushed back to Alamein and they'd
got ready - and the offensive began at around about ten o'clock on the night of
23rd October. Our main - we've always been known as 9th Divy's squadron, I
think probably they bring 450 in that as well, maybe the Wing even - but our
main task was to try to soften up the area and keep the opposing air force away
from our forces; dive-bombing; not such a lot of strafing, I can't remember in
those days; and also escort .... There was a heck of a lot of work being done
by the Baltimores, Mitchells and Bostons and that .... You'll find that they
did a tremendous amount of work; and we used to fly as cover for them.
(10.00) And the pattern of the cover with them was usually that six aircraft
of ours would take bombs and we'd fly three on either side of the bombers and
our other six and maybe sometimes we'd have another squadron
above that as a fighter cover too. But the three alongside the bombers, when
the bombers dropped their - and remember they were just straight bombers, they
weren't dive-bombers, they were just flying straight and level. And we used to
get a heck of a lot of flak coming up and they'd just stooge whereas we'd want
to weave like hell. But when they dropped their bomb we'd sort of just cock our
side in and throw the bomb in with them, just as an extra bit of diversion.
That's most interesting. Can you recall, at all, the first
time you were actually engaged in active combat, and by that it could either be
an air to air combat or heavy bombardment from below, and if you could, what was
it like? What were your feelings at the time?
To answer that question; I first became involved about a week
after I began my operations on 31st October. We were doing top cover to 112
Squadron which was an English squadron attached to our wing. And they were to
do an armed recce over the Fuka-Daba area. Daba was the first aerodrome up from
Amiriya and usually, mostly they had 109s there, and Fuka was an aerodrome
further on where they had their Stukas and so forth. The Stukas - what our job
was really was to stop the Stukas coming and bombing our ground forces. We met
up with about twenty Stukas escorted by 109s and Macchi 202s; and that was the
first time I think I'd seen an Italian aircraft in the sky. And of course a bit
of a dogfight developed and I got separated and I fired a few shots at one 109
but I can't say that I hit him or caused him any trouble. And then it wasn't
all that intense, they seemed to go and we seemed to go but I don't think that I
could say what feelings I had because once you get into that situation it's just
probably self-preservation, but you don't think of it in those lines; you're
just in there. Now, I think it's probably like some of the rugby league
footballers today; if they could see on TV what they did in there, they'd wonder
why they put their body to such intense pressure.
That's a rather good comparison, Tom. Well, just going on to
ask some general things about flying and fighting at this time. Of course, some
of the pilots with No. 3 Squadron had been there longer than you and they'd also
gone through this very interesting change in technology from, you know,
relatively primitive planes to the Kittyhawks and so on. Was there much talk
amongst pilots generally, including these original pilots, of how their tactics
and strategies had changed - if they had - with more powerful and sophisticated
aircraft coming along, such as the Kittyhawk?
No, I can't recollect that. And when you say that they'd been
there .... I don't think there was anybody there who had been back any earlier
than the Tomahawks, so they were virtually similar aircraft but they were much
more powerful. I didn't fly Tomahawks in action, I did fly Tomahawks, but I
couldn't compare them as aircraft. But no, I think most of the others .... Of
course, there again too, you see that when new aircraft came we sprog pilots
didn't get them; the top echelon got them obviously and the CO would get the
best aircraft - I think that's normal - then the flight commanders would have
them, and we weren't getting, except when they took over from Tomahawks, they
got fully re-equipped with Kittyhawks but from then on it was only replacement
aircraft as they became available. And then we did get on, we had the Packard
Merlin engine came in and they, you know, I mean, the Allison engine was a very
good engine but I think that the Packard Merlin was probably a better one. But
I'm not a technical man, I'm afraid, and I just couldn't, really couldn't give
you any .... You just flew the aircraft you felt .... There were some pilots
there, there's no doubt about it, that they were very technical minded and they
would explore it, whether they flew any better or whether the aircraft did any
better, I don't know.
(15.00) That's interesting. Well, going on to another
different aspect. After the El Alamein period of course there was quite a rapid
advance across the north of Africa. Without going into the specifics of names
of different airstrips and so on because that perhaps isn't so important and
recollection might be a bit difficult, what's your general recollection of the
airstrips you had to fly in and out of? How well were they set up in terms of
communications equipment, other equipment, and the airstrips themselves? Or how
poor were they?
They were generally pretty good. As a matter of fact Danny
Boardman - we flew from one airstrip and we called it 'Danny's Acre' - and
generally you could nearly pick an airfield anywhere in the desert; they were
generally fairly good. But the ones that had been prepared and made they of
course were quite a bit better. Incidentally, I've got a clock, a Kittyhawk
aircraft clock in here, and it's from an aircraft that I was flying when we got
up to Daba; that was the first aerodrome we moved up to from Amiriya; and that
was on November 8th 1942. And I was flying an aircraft, Kittyhawk, with a
number of FL366 and we were taking off for - bear in mind too, this was just
after 'Gibby' had sent a few of us back for retraining not so long before - and
the aerodrome was in the shape of a 'T' and the usual practice was that to mark
the 'T' they put forty-four gallon drums full of sand, one lot around and
another lot on top. And Gibby had taken off with the other five aircraft and
then I was to be in the top six and being the sprog I was the one right on the
left and I don't know just who was leading that six, I'd have to refer to other
books, and instead of keeping straight down the strip he began to veer across
towards the left. The Kittyhawk has one bad feature that you've got to be doing
a pretty good rate of knots before you can get your tail up and until you get
your tail up you're absolutely blind forward, you cannot see. And by the time I
got my tail up, all I could see in front of me was a heap of forty-four gallon
drums and I just reefed the stick back straight into my stomach and put my
throttle on as hard as I could and I wiped my undercarriage straight off, and by
the grace of God I just skidded on my belly half a mile into the bhundu,
missed the other petrol drums on the other side or I'd have been dead, and by
the grace of God I wasn't carrying a bomb.
So, you cut your wheels off?
Cut my undercart right off. The aircraft was US completely written off.
Before the dust had settled and I was back in the op tent my fitter and rigger
had that aircraft clock out, that was the habit, and that was my memento.
They gave it to me, and that was my memento. I waited in the ops room with
George Barton till they came back, and I said to George Barton, 'Well, I think I
might as well pack my bags now, George'. I said, 'The boss will send me for
sure'. Anyway Gibby came back and the first thing he did, he raced over and he
said, 'Are you all right, Tommy?'. I said, 'Yes, Boss, I'm all right', you
know, and he said, 'I saw it'. I knew then that he'd seen it wasn't my fault
that the fellow had veered across the runway and I'd hit these drums, and, um,
all I've written in my log book: 'Hit petrol drum on take-off; aircraft
Very cool and unemotional statement, perhaps to cover up how
you were actually feeling.
I wasn't very cool at that time, but again, I think, that the
realisation .... See, we had fellows who landed on their bomb and blew
themselves up and we had what we called a 'stick' bomb; it was, er, on the
detonator they had a stick about eighteen inches long and it was designed so
that - it was called an anti-persona bomb - and it was designed to explode above
the ground rather than go into it, and of course if there are troops nearby, and
obviously we had to, if we had to bomb troops, we had to bomb troops, we were
told to; and we had two cases of that. I think a fellow called Biden[?] in the
early days, he blew himself up and we had another fellow who landed with the
wheels up. Of course your undercarriage has got to be up for this to be any
problem and he couldn't get his undercarriage down and he decided to have a try
at it, and he bent the stick almost in a U and didn't blow his bomb up.
I was going to ask about this. I suppose with, these bombs
were carried under the wings, that they had to be armed before take-off unlike
bombs in a bomber where I assume they're armed during flight, is that correct?
(20.00) Well, I don't know about the bombers, but we did also
carry bombs underneath the pilot, underneath the fuselage and they're the ones
I'm talking about with the stick bomb. Later on we began to carry two 250 bombs
as well, under the main planes, yes.
Right, but just leaving aside bombers, what that does mean is
with your planes, once your bombers were loaded, they were loaded fully armed?
Yes. No, not, well .... Well, yes, they were but they could
be de-armed. I mean, obviously they didn't go off until it was detonated, but
they were prepared for us just to drop, we had no function with them once we
were in the air, except to drop them.
So in other words if there was an impact they should go off.
Right. That's a very interesting story. Well, going back to the airstrips;
that fits in very well sort of, with these general questions. Dust, of course,
was a great problem I understand. What's your recollection of
that? And how could you counter its effects?
Well, the main thing is you always wore your goggles on
take-off because we usually took off with our hood back or we, you know, some
people might have done differently ....
Why was that, incidentally?
So that there'd be no sand, or we'd have .... Oh, I'm sorry, I was thinking
about another aircraft. We usually had the cockpit closed so dust didn't get
in, the swirling dust. But I don't think the dust was a problem to
us so much as it was to the ground staff. How those men performed and serviced
those aircraft and engines in the conditions they had to work under is an
amazing thing. Just a little bit of levity there too, that when we were at
Zuara I think it was, and we were waiting to go across to Malta, we were filling
in time with shadow firing; one fellow would fly along in his aircraft - you
know what shadow firing is - and we'd do a lot of that. And then of course as
the ground staff do, they'd start talking who was the best pilot and who was the
best aircraft, and my aircraft can fly faster than yours. So they got to 'em
and they'd polished the main planes and the fuselage and they'd bring the petrol
wagon up with 100-octane in it and they'd hose the cockpit out with 100-octane
to make sure there was nothing in there, no dirt or anything; but dust was
generally a great problem for anyone operating in the Middle East.
Yes, and it must have been a great problem, I'd imagine, with
the engines having dust getting into the engines and damaging the working parts.
Well, I think that's true too, and a lot of our old Tomahawks,
I believe, I ferried - when we first got to the squadron they used us as ferry
pilots on a couple of occasions - and we'd take the Tomahawks back to, maybe
straight to a South African squadron or back to a holding place. And I think
the South Africans got most of those Tomahawks and I believe they reckoned they
had more losses from engine failure than they did from enemy action.
That's very interesting. Just going on with this theme of
airstrips. How would you rate the facilities in such as communication
equipment, radio equipment; the whole sort of infrastructure that gave you
support, briefing support, before operations and during operations; weather
forecasting for instance?
Well, that was usually done from our own ops room and weather
conditions were never really much of problem; they knew .... Sometimes you'd
get a sandstorm that would last for three or four days, well, you just .... As
a matter of fact, as I mentioned earlier, about Nev Austin being shot down, that
was a day for very bad sandstorms; well, we did have to fly, and quite a few of
the blokes didn't get off and we were left short and Nev was just about the odd
man out, and that's how he got hit by a 109 but .... I know you asked me this
before: the communications. Well, again I can only relate it there, I think
our squadron was pretty well set up in that and they did, you know, as far as
our calls and whatever to them; bearing in mind that once we got in the air that
radio secrecy, radio silence, was very strictly enforced unless we were being
attacked when you then would call out and warn your leader if he hadn't seen it.
Right. What was the situation, and what were the routines you
were supposed to put into action if you got caught in this way where having
taken off a significant dust storm did blow up, and unlike bad wet weather which
was high up and at least when you get under it you can normally see, but dust
storm generally hugs the ground, and I'd assume at times could blanket the whole
ground out completely?
Well, do you mean as far as aborting an operation?
Well, say, an operation is in progress, you're up in the air,
a heavy dust storm builds up so the ground is literally virtually invisible, how
do you get back again?
(25.00) Well, I can .... As far as the whole time I flew in 3
Squadron I can't ever remember, I know I've got in my book here that the leader
of the gaggle couldn't find the, um ...
... the target, couldn't find the target, but I can't ever remember it being
difficult to get back to our own airstrip. The only time - if I've just got
a moment I can tell you a little incident that happened to me after I left the
squadron, I know I'm going on a little bit but you were talking about sand
storms. I was at a place called Abu Sueir which is near Ismailia and I was
doing instructing there. And I was to fly a dentist up to Palestine. We took
off in one aircraft and it was US so we came back and we decided I'd take him up
in a Harvard and we got just over the Canal and above the Sinai and we got a
most shocking sand storm. I couldn't get round it and I couldn't get over it,
and eventually I told him, I said, 'Look, I think we'll have to turn back', and
of course it was just as bad, but by the grace of God I found a little hole in
it and I forced landed on a beach near Port Said. And we spend the night with a
couple of English fellows in a radio shack of some kind and it was near a place
called Romani, and that was where our Lighthorsemen were in the first world war
and there were still bully beef cans from the first world war there. In the
morning it all cleared perfectly and they'd got a note to let them know we were
safe, they got a message over, and I just got down with the help of a dozen
Arabs, we pushed the aircraft out onto the side of the heavier packed sand and I
just took off and flew him back. I never ever got up to Palestine.
That's very interesting. Tom, I was just going to ask about
navigating in the desert, but obviously a very open landscape, was that on
balance an assistance or a hindrance to navigation?
With a single engine pilot I think that we did have map
references that we were given that we could go by. We had maps of the areas,
but I would say that ninety-five per cent was on visual navigation. Obviously
you had your compass and you knew the general direction but targets and so
forth, once you found them you knew what they were and, you know, it is such a
big open place that anything on it sticks out a mile.
Well, the last thing I was going to ask you about this general
push on beyond El Alamein, perhaps getting back into the context of the story,
what's your recollection of messing facilities and living conditions at all the
different places you stayed at, often I think for not very great periods of
time; how comfortable or otherwise were they?
They were very basic, but I've got to pay a compliment here to
our cooks; they could make bully beef taste very, very good. I know there's
some fellows will say, 'Who called the cook a so-and-so, who called the
so-and-so a cook?'. But I only spoke about this on ANZAC Day as well - we had a
cook called Jack Morrison - and pre-dawn shows in particular - I know this is
not a meal - but we never ever went off without a hot cup of tea or even pitch
dark he'd get up and he'd get the thing going. But generally speaking they did
a terrific job with the stuff that they had available to them. One of our
fellows Bill Shoesmith has written his own book and had it - he couldn't get it
published - so he had it printed himself. And it's purely Bill Shoesmith's war
and as he said, he had a wonderful war. He was sent away on forays to get
supplies and things that were needed so he was never very close to the real
hardships of it but, as I say, just the simple answer to your question is that I
think that our cooks and the stewards did a wonderful job with the stuff they
Billy Shoesmith, I think you said, what was his official
role? Was he a cook or an admin person for supplies?
Oh no, he was just a common, ordinary, everyday 'erk' and I
don't know what his mustering was but he had a truck at his disposal and another
fellow with him and apparently they were given monies to go and get whatever the
squadron needed. But he'd be away sometimes, he said, for two or three weeks at
A sort of 'lone ranger' foraging across the north of Africa
Right. I hear there's some rather good stories about beer and No. 3 Squadron
and how beer was acquired, legally or otherwise.
Are you getting on to the one later on in Sicily, or ...?
Well, I've just heard accounts that there were people in the
squadron who showed remarkable initiative when it came to finding out where the
Well, that's true and you didn't see much of it up in the
desert, and ....
END TAPE 2, SIDE A
BEGIN TAPE 2, SIDE B
Identification: This is Edward Stokes with Tom Russell, tape
2, side 2.
So we didn't have very much beer up there. We did get some
for our Christmas party at Marble Arch in 1942. Bobby Gibbes sent an aircraft
back to Cairo and the story is that the beer was brought back in a long range
belly tank. But we did have beer for then but the most famous collection of
beer that we got was a bountiful supply of Munich lager that was acquired in
Sicily. Would you like to tell you about that now or later on?
Oh yes, let's have it now, let's have the beer stories now.
Well, we were at a place called Agnone that was our second
airfield into Sicily, we landed Pachino from Malta and the Germans had left in
rather a hurry from their particular sections and moving up into the corner of
Sicily prior to going across into Italy. And they came around collecting money
from everybody; they said they'd found where they could buy some beer, and
obviously they couldn't just go and take it, it may have been owned by the
Italians or the locals or whatever. Anyway they came back with huge amounts of
bottled beer and we had, even on the hillside of Agnone, we had a forty-four
gallon drum in the pilots' mess with ice in it and beer in it and we had a
lovely time. The three padrés, incidentally, Padré John MacNamara, he's dead
now, poor old John, he was a Catholic padré, Fred McKay, the Presbyterian, and
Bob Davies, the Church of England; and that was my last night I think, or close
to my last night with the squadron and I had a beautiful beer with them, out
sitting on the hillside, outside the tent. Incidentally, 450 were our sister
squadron, they also got quite a lot of beer, and I've shown you a photograph
here of the Agnone railway station, and that was before .... The pilots of 450
were using it as a place to house their parachutes and their log books. And
because the ground staff of 450 weren't happy with the distribution of the beer,
one night they took everything out of it - the pilots' parachutes and log books
and they blew the darn thing up. They were all paraded the next day but until
this day nobody knows who blew up Agnone railway station.
That's an interesting one. Just a sidelight on all this, and
perhaps not referring only to beer; it was about this time that the Americans
were coming into the war and you were coming into relatively close contact with
them, or you know, they were in the same theatre. Was there ever any resentment
towards the Americans that they either because they had more money or for other
reasons got their hands on more of the nice things of life, was there ever any
resentment felt in that way, or generally towards the Americans for being
'Johnny-come-latelys' into this war operation?
I don't think you could say it was strong resentment, or
certainly not on my part, I don't think we gave them sufficient thought to be
very frank. We used to laugh at them a little bit because when we were back at
Amiriya, a Kitty squadron came there and they'd stand up .... Actually even
though we were quite a way behind from Daba, from the battle-line at Amiriya,
one of our blokes was actually shot at in the circuit area. And to see these
Americans with their Kittyhawks standing up at around 3000 feet and pulling the
throttle right back and doing a gliding approach and landing, I think they wrote
a few off. So that was, I think, about their attitude.
(5.00) But as far as the good things of life, the thing that
sticks most in our memory is that before the Americans came we used to get an
issue cigarette called 'V for Victory', it was made in India. There was so much
saltpetre in it I reckon that it just about exploded every time you took a draw
on it but that's all we could get. We did get 'Comforts' parcels later on and
you know, a little bit of 'Log Cabin' but not so much up the desert. And we
could exchange a packet of these 'V for Victory' cigarettes for about four or
five eggs from the Arabs; you never ever saw any poultry but they could bring
eggs from anywhere. When the Americans came in they'd just throw a packet of
'Chesterfield' in for one egg; we got very, very few eggs after that. I think
that would have been our greatest resentment against them. They didn't
interfere with us in any way. Later on, I think, in Italy more than in Sicily I
think you'd find that they probably came much closer to our type of operation,
or to our operations.
That's interesting. Was there resentment later vis-à-vis
women when you were, for example, in bases, for example, in Italy where women
were - I mean, obviously in the desert it wouldn't have been an issue - but
where once again perhaps the Americans' lavish spending power put people like
Australians on a second foot?
Well, I wasn't in Italy, I couldn't .... See, I left in
Sicily and I didn't strike that when I came back to Cairo and I was in the Delta
area, when I was at Abu Sueir; well, I was mostly with RAF people then and we
didn't seem to meet up with the Americans so very much.
Right. Well, just going on to some other different things;
we'd better push on a little bit incidentally, Tom, because we're coming up for
the two hours, okay? I was just going to ask you about your recollections of
the later period, the period when you were advancing into - I find this a hard
one to pronounce - Tripolitania. What's your recollection of that period?
You're talking, I think, about Marble Arch, are we?
Well, and that's a sad part of our history because we lost
four or five ground crew boys there. We'd come up the desert and we got to this
Marble Arch; it's a beautiful edifice across the road, in those days anyway.
And I think it marked the triumph and entry in Tripolitania, or Libya, by
Mussolini; I don't think there could have been anybody there to stop him. But
the aerodrome was right alongside it. And that was where we had our Christmas
party of 1942 when I mentioned about Bobby sending the aircraft back to get the
beer. But the airfield was mined and they actually got the sappers in to have a
look at it but we had to be very careful dispersing. We had to disperse the
aircraft every night because the Germans were coming over and bombing the
airfield. But on the day they arrived some fellows in the trucks, some ground
crew boys, three or four of them jumped out and was okay and the next one jumped
onto a mine and it was a very sad occasion for the squadron as a whole.
Right. I think it was some time after this too, that you
yourself were wounded in the air. I think you were flying with Alan ...
... who came back to .... He saw you being attacked in a
dogfight. How did all this ...? How did that particular incident begin?
Well, we'd gone out, it was on January 22nd of '43 and we'd
gone to bomb and strafe motor transport at Zuara and 450 were giving us top
cover. And we had a new CO leading as Bobby Gibbes had gone missing, and a
fellow called John Watts[?], he was later killed, and some way another Alan saw
some 109s coming, he tells me - 'cause I didn't know all this until after the
war - and anyway I got cut off and I was attacked by four 109s and Alan came
back to help me. And he got, they flamed him, they must have hit him in the
belly tank and he parachuted, and they hit me in the left arm and they shot my
cockpit about a bit but my aircraft was quite flyable except I didn't have any
instruments. But Alan parachuted down and one of their motor transports came
out and got him - the Germans. Before they got near there though one of the 450
aircraft had gone down and dropped him a water bottle, but the 450 aircraft
didn't attack the motor vehicles coming out. I mean, that would have been death
for Alan if he'd have done things like that. But I was just escorted .... A
bloke called Rod McKenzie[?] allowed me to formate on him and Dave Ritchie[?]
was there, he was leading our section, and they escorted me back to the
aerodrome where I landed.
(10.00) How badly were you wounded in the arm? Was that arm
functioning at all?
Oh yes, quite .... Not badly injured at all. I could see the
blood began to run down my sleeve but I had no discomfort from it and I was
Right. It must have been fairly hard to cope, I imagine, with
the knowledge that this other fellow had come back to assist you and had been
shot down himself.
Well, I must say that at this particular point of time I
didn't actually know he'd come back. And he called a turn around, I believe,
and we discussed it later, and whether the others didn't hear him or not, they
just kept going, and he was a bit frightened he was going to maybe hit one of
those as he was doing his turn about. So I think that if Alan told me he came
back, I believe that.
Sure. Well, perhaps just some general questions, Tom, I'd
like to put to you and then we'll move on to the closing stages when you're
coming up through Sicily. In this period, well, about this period, did you
think, or do you think now looking back on it, did other men, that you were
being used to good advantage? That the squadron was being used to its best
Well, I suppose we just accepted what we had to do. We were
told what was our .... Particularly in one particular part of the time,
obviously the New Zealanders were coming up to Iran, Enfidaville and they were
getting hammered, and we were supposed to get out and do what we could to help
them. So obviously you think you're doing the job that they want you for, but I
think we just accepted the idea that our job was to bomb and dive-bomb and
strafe and be used as fighter aircraft where necessary.
Right. It has been said, I think, that mainly due to
organisational problems in terms of the Australians being rather scattered and
their European headquarters being in Britain and so on that things such as
promotion and changes in pay and those somewhat administrative things were very
slow to happen, particularly promotions. Is that a recollection of yours? What
would you say about that?
Well, I think I can speak for other people on this as well as
myself, I don't think we worried too much about it. I mean, I joined as a pilot
officer, on a certain day I was told I was now a flying officer, and I knew then
the great joy of that was I was going to get a bit more money - I think I
increased my allotment back home - and then on another certain day they told me
I was a flight lieutenant, and that was a bit better pay. And I think that in
the case of people like Danny Boardman and Keith Kildey where they were doing
the job as .... I think their promotion was long overdue and they eventually
were made pilot officers in the field, but then I think they each reached the
rank of flight lieutenant before they got out of the desert. But I think
generally speaking people just .... There may have been some who were glory
seekers and rank seekers but I don't think the general bloke was.
That's interesting. Another thing is the, just going back to
different nationalities. Was there any overt competition or rivalry, for
example, between Australians and English or British pilots, or for that matter,
with Americans, as rivalry in the sense of professional ability - who were
shooting down the most planes - or not?
Well, again I don't know that that was on but bear in mind we
had five squadrons on our wing; our closest association was with 450 and we were
all Australians. 450 had a few Canadians I think, odd ones. 112, I think, was
mostly English and 250 and 260 were mixed EATS and maybe mostly Canadian. But I
don't think it got to that stage, but I think 3 was so far out in front anyway
that, you know, of course when you've got fellows like Waddy on 112 and, um,
what's-his-name? The famous blokes, oh, I can't think of his name now, um,
Caldwell. Yeah. When you've Clive Caldwell, of course, he is put in a
different complexion on from their point of view with 112. We used to call them
Wahad wahad, ithnan because wahad is one, for one in Arabic and
ithnan is two; mostly known was Wahad, wahad, ithnan. But no, I
don't think there was .... There would have to be squadron rivalry and I think
that would have been more in the orderly room than with us because the COs might
have been complaining about who got the jobs and who didn't. Again, I'm only
hypothetisising there - if that's a right word - but I think that that's where
there would have been any conflict. I don't think the ordinary, everyday
pilot .... I think the ground crew might have taken a great pride in it. They
did refer to you as 'my pilot', and they did take a great pride in their work
and in their aircraft, and that might have flowed on to other squadrons, but I
(15.00) Another thing that I think perhaps is interesting just
to pursue for a minute is the question of tension in terms of operational
tension. As you went through this period in North Africa, did the tension
decrease with experience, with combat experience, or was it just always there, a
kind of nagging tension of the knowledge of the danger?
I think it was always there, and I think, I just mentioned a
while ago off air that Sailor Malan wrote this book and said that, in the book,
he said that if a fighter pilot loses his fear he's of no use to the squadron,
and I think that's true because the danger doesn't decrease. Each and every
time you went into the air was the same sort of thing, you were either going to
dive-bomb or strafe or meet other aircraft in the air who'd be shooting at you.
So, no, I don't think it was and we were always, you know .... To illustrate
that I think is that you'd go into the mess of a night-time and our mess was
usually only a tent sort of thing and a couple of tables and a few chairs and
we'd have our meal there. And then the ops bloke would put the board up with
the gaggle for the next morning and if you were on that gaggle you'd see the
ones on that gaggle, they'd drift off very early to get into bed early, they
wouldn't .... There was none of this wartime, of first world war supposed
carousing and staying in the mess, here's to the next man to die sort of thing.
It was all taken very seriously and I think that showed the way that the fellows
looked at it.
Could men talk openly amongst themselves about their fears or
were they generally private things that were not talked about?
During the time that I was at the squadron I never ever heard
that discussed in that way. I think that you probably would have been a little
bit frightened to sort of admit that you did feel this way. I'm not saying
everybody did, but I do feel that the majority of pilots that I've spoken to
post-war have told me they felt exactly like that, and I think that we had
people from that war zone sent home lacking in moral fibre, or LMF. And, you
know, I think it would take a lot of courage for them to say, 'I just won't
fly'. Some people don't believe that either. I spoke to a fellow about that on
ANZAC Day and he said he thought that was a lot of rot, but I think it would
take something to get up and say, 'I'm frightened. I won't fly'.
In a general sense, what was the greatest fear that pilots had
in terms of the kind of awful ends that were, you know, possibly out there
stacked up against you?
I think fire. I think everybody, as a matter of fact, we were
supposed to wear inner gloves, silk inner gloves and I know I particularly
didn't like wearing them because we always knew that if we flamed and the silk
would burn onto your skin and you wouldn't - you know, might hurt your hands,
might be incapable of pulling the ripcord if you had to bale out. I think,
fire, you never thought actually of anything but I think if you wanted to really
be specific about it, you knew that you had the chance if somebody .... And
even a stray bullet from the ground has brought a pilot down. But I do feel
that if you ask a hundred pilots I reckon ninety would tell you that they
wouldn't have cared, you know, wouldn't have .... If they had to go, they'd
rather not have gone through fire.
Sure. In terms of crash landings, that kind of thing, how
well trained, how well equipped were you, or not, to survive coming down in the
I think we were generally, as I think earlier on I spoke about
the, you asked me about the training, how good the training was. I think it all
came back and it's just like driving your own motor car now. You become
familiar with a motor car. If you have to turn round and drive somebody else's
motor car you find that it takes you a little while to acclimatise. But flying
the aircraft you sort of became a part of the aircraft and you knew its
capabilities. Now a few years back I decided I - before I got old and decrepit
- I'd fly a glider, and I found out that the glider had a gliding range of
sixty-six to one; it was an old Blannock[?] an aluminium one. And I knew then
that if I was a mile up I had sixty-six miles of gliding so long as I kept the
aircraft in the right attitude to look for a landing field. But we were taught
precautionary landings in Tiger Moths ....
Tom, could I just pause for a moment? I think in a way we
covered that before. I was asking more about surviving having landed.
Oh, I'm sorry, yes, well ...
(20.00) In other words, basic desert survival skills.
Oh yes, well, that was all taken care of. As a matter of fact
inside one of my epaulettes on my shoulders - and we always wore our rank when
we flew - I had a razorblade, half a razorblade sewn in there. We had a little
compass that we had sewn inside the lining of our jackets. We were given - I've
got a copy of it here - we were given a copy of a letter to all Arabs to look
after us and they'd be well rewarded. We had our survival kit and we were well
trained in what would happen and what we should do. The first thing of course,
if we landed behind enemy lines, we had to destroy our IFF and if possible
destroy the aircraft once we knew that there was no possible chance of
reclaiming the aircraft. But I think generally speaking we were .... We had to
know that we were on our own. For instance, we had a lad from 450 who had
crawled all the way backwards, he had broken both legs, and he had to sit on his
backside and propel himself backwards. So I think the desert - Gibby got back -
people got back; we had quite a few get back. I think that you just had to know
which way you were heading and what you had to do. You wouldn't go walking near
a township in the middle of the day for a start.
Do you think it was easier for Australians, even if they
weren't country men, just having the general consciousness of an arid land than
for British people who came down in the desert, or not?
No, and I don't think it was any great advantage to our
country fellows, either. I think it was all much the same for everybody. The
desert is frighteningly similar, but again, if you're trained in direction, it
shouldn't be any problem. But I don't think the English would have - so long as
they were properly clothed they would have no trouble. We probably would have
been able to handle the sun much better than them, but maybe that's not true.
But, no, I don't think they would have had more problems than we did.
Right. Well, just moving on a little bit. Moving on a little
bit, Tom, I know by July '43 the squadron had reached Malta, based in Malta and
you were bombing and strafing, I think, into Sicily. I was just going to ask,
what's your general recollection of the flying you did from Malta?
Well, we didn't, I didn't fly all that much from Malta, maybe
three or four trips. But Malta was a very crowded island, about five airfields
right along it, and I think the most hazardous part of Malta was getting up and
getting in after you'd come back. There were a lot of aircraft operating from
there, Spitfires and so forth, but generally speaking there was no real problem
I suppose once we were careful.
And the missions you were involved in there, what were they
mostly to do with?
Well, they were mostly bombing situations in Sicily because
lots of people really believe that the second front was going to be coming in
from the bottom of Sicily and we didn't know of course, we weren't privy to all
the top level secret stuff, but, um, we were bombing particularly a harbour
there, Catania and generally up around the Mount Etna area. And of course, the
Germans by that time are moving up toward the north of Sicily and they were
mostly bombing and strafing runs rather than purely dogfights.
Right. I know it was during this time that you were burnt. I
think you were, or people were delousing a house, you were explaining, with some
petrol and you got slightly burnt and had to be treated. You came back again I
think after that and joined the squadron for a brief time.
Do you have any recollections of that last period with No. 3?
Well, very little except I think I did mention about the
bombing of - the boys blowing up the Agnone railway station, didn't I?
Yes, you did.
That's right. Very little happened after I came back. I'd got .... I'd
been there, we had quite a few replacements and we'd moved up to a place called
Agnone, and we were getting pretty well done over by the Germans, the bombing
there. And we didn't have any casualties as far as on the ground
and so forth but, um, as I say I had very little, I think I only flew once or
twice from there and then the CO told me - and by that time Brian Eaton had
taken over - and they told me that I was off ops. And you pretend, sometimes
you could pretend to be very angry but I don't say that I was actually relieved
but I knew then that I was going to have a bit of a rest. Because even if
you're not flying daily and all the time, there's the pressures of being there
and I think that people do, once - that's what it's designed - it's to give you
a rest between your tours of operations.
(25.00) Yes, sure. Well, just to resume, the later course of
your war, I know you did go to Ismailia, I think, instructing in Kittyhawks.
And then just for the record, later you were involved with a RAF squadron, I
think, in conversion to Hurricanes and Spitfires, and then later actually
running conversion courses, I think, for Egyptians.
Well, that's right but it wasn't actually an RAF squadron, it
was an RAF station, El Bala on the Suez Canal, and that was purely and simply an
air-firing course. And then I came back to Abu Sueir and I was in charge of an
air-firing course, and in that course were these fellows like a fellow called
Ustundag, and they were Egyptians. And there were two or three of them there,
and they'd actually been to Germany or one of the occupied countries doing
courses on 109s.
Remarkable. Well, just going on a little bit. I think it
was, well, later in '44 you came back to Australia. As you look back on it now
and thinking of the time you'd been with this very renowned squadron, how did it
all seem to you in retrospect?
Well, I think it's just that you feel such a pride then in the
squadron you're with. Not only the squadron but the fellows you met and it
seems now that we're getting more and more as we get older and our reunions as
such, and we're a very strong association, and 3 will always be something that
is a very important part in the lives of all the fellows who were there.
Right. Do you have any other things you feel you would like
to put on the record that we haven't covered, Tom?
I can't .... I think you've covered it pretty well. I'd like
to just put it this way: the last thing is that most of us were fairly average
fellows, um, I don't think it's quite fair in the history of any squadron that
certain, a few fellows get the glory and all the pilots get the glory too. I
don't think it's really fair that the ground staff don't get the actual
recognition they deserve. I know one or two COs that I've spoken to had the
same opinion as I do that we were absolutely one function, one part couldn't
function without the other, and even from the cook and the steward up, we all
had to play our part, and I don't sometimes like to hear that 3 gets all the
glamour compared to some of the other squadrons, but then I glory in it just the
Right, well, just for the record of what we're doing here, we
certainly are going to be contacting quite a few of the ground staff. We really
want to try and get that balance. That's an interesting point. Well, look, on
behalf of the War Memorial, thank you very much, Tom.
Thank you very much.
END OF INTERVIEW
[3SQN Assn repaired version of original transcript on https://www.awm.gov.au. ]
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