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A HAWKER DEMON AIRCRAFT OF NO 3 SQUADRON AT RAAF RICHMOND, NEW SOUTH WALES, IN 1939.
Transcript of Australian War Memorial
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: HARRY SILK
SUBJECT OF INTERVIEW: 3 SQUADRON, RAAF
DATE OF INTERVIEW: 25 OCTOBER 1990
INTERVIEWER: ED STOKES
TRANSCRIBER: MILISSA BYRNE
Identification: this is Edward Stokes talking to Harry Silk, No. 3 Squadron, tape one, side one.
Harry, could be perhaps just begin with you place and date of birth please?
November 12, 1920, in Melbourne.
Right. And I think you were saying your father was an Englishman.
Yes, he was. He came to Australia and married my mother, who was, I think, a fifth generation Australian.
But about age nine, for family reasons, you moved to Hobart, I think?
That's right, yes.
Could you tell us who you lived with?
I was brought up by my grandparents in Hobart and educated - for want of a better word - in Hobart and enlisted in Hobart in 1940.
You were saying you left school at about fourteen. I think you had a short stint as an office boy and then you moved into newspapers.
I became a cadet journalist with the Launceston Examiner, employed in the Hobart, branch and was in that position when I joined the air force. I was called up in March 1940.
While you were doing your cadet journalism, I think you were also doing some part-time studying.
Yes. Because of the deficiencies in my education, caused by the fact that I left school at fourteen, I went to night school from the age of fourteen and did various courses, including accountancy and courses in English and other subjects, to equip me for what might have been ahead.
Right. Just some other general questions about your childhood. The general tradition of the ANZACs, of the involvement of Australian and New Zealanders in the first war, were you particularly conscious of that as a young boy, or not?
Not really. No, I have no great strong recollection of being more than moderately interested in their exploits.
Did those exploits present to you, do you think, a heroic or horrific picture of war?
They certainly didn't ... at that age, I don't believe they did either. I was conscious of it. If anything, I suppose I did not - I avoided the extremes. I didn't regard them either as heroic or horrific but somewhere in between. Again, you're asking me a question which relates to a young boy and I don't believe at that age that young boys are quite conscious of the emphasis - of where the great emphasis might be in those sort of times of history. That was my case anyway.
Sure. The declaration of war, do you remember where you were when war was declared? Do you, perhaps, even remember hearing it?
I recall pretty clearly. I used to play in a dance band in Hobart and I was playing in this dance band on the occasion when war was declared and it happened to be at the Anglesea Barracks in Hobart and the news came through and it was announced and it immediately changed the whole mood of the evening.
Do you remember your thoughts at the time, or were they not formed?
I don't know that I had a very - a light on the road to Damascus sort of experience. I was conscious that something was going to change. Perhaps in a dramatic sort of way but I, again, because of my immaturity I really didn't sort out the extent of the dramatic development that might occur.
Right, well moving on a little bit. I think you were saying it was November '39 that you enlisted. Could you specify what thoughts prompted that and was it patriotism, adventure, what sort of mixture of motives?
I think as much as anything, there was an escapism. I'd grown up in Hobart, which is a pretty insular sort of town, away from the influences of the mainland. I was conscious of a sense of boredom, although I was in a reasonably interesting job, and I thought that here was an opportunity to escape into some sort of adventure which would be at least a much more exciting than the type of life I had liven [sic] to that time.
That's most interesting. And did your grandparents support your decision or not?
My grandfather was a fairly reticent man. I can't recall him passing an opinion either way. My grandmother was a very emotional woman and she cried and I think she went off to church to pray for me.
March '40 you were called up. But before actually getting to Laverton, why the air force?
I've asked myself that sort of question. I think mainly because it was being the most modern of the services - or the newest in those terms - of the services, it had some sort of attraction which the more traditional army and navy lacked. I had no intention of being - of subjecting myself to the sort of discipline which I knew existed in the navy. The army did not seem to me to be terribly attractive and for some reason the air force, with all its associated exploits of the 1930's aviators and so on, had obviously made some impression on me, and I think that's probably why.
Would you associate the word 'glamour' with the air force?
Yes, I think I would, yes, I think to some extent that's right.
And when you joined, Harry, was there any interest or hope on your part of actually getting into flying, to being an air crew person?
At that time I had. Yes, there was that thought and I, again, because I did not understand or appreciate the demands that were made on people to join aircrew, I thought it might be a relatively easy manner to finish up in air crew and that certainly was a factor in my decision.
Well you did go to Laverton where you did your rookies training, about four weeks. Those very first weeks in the air force, the discipline for instance, how did it strike you?
I was quite at ease with it. It didn't seem to me to be too onerous. I adapted pretty well to the communal type of life. I found that I related well to other men and youths of my age and a bit older. I had no troubles at all in adjusting. I quite enjoyed the period of training and was quite well pleased with myself and with the air force.
Good. The training itself, what you do you remember being involved in doing?
Mainly being taught to recognise and salute officers; being made to march, backwards, forwards, sideways; and a stint of training with rifles, mainly in drill; and my main recollection was the drill sergeant of the day, who was an old permanent air force man saying, when he was teaching us to distinguish the various ranks, 'Well, I'll teach you up to air commodore because it's not likely that any of you lot will ever meet anybody of an air commodore or above during your time with the air force', and that of course was one of the great misstatements of the decade as far as I was concerned, because I found out that there were a lot of people of air commodore ranks and above, later on in the air force, when I was ....
That's interesting. Can I just pause a moment?
Some other aspects of the Laverton period, Harry, living conditions? How were you set up?
We lived in huts and quite comfortably. My main objection at that time was the fact that it was reasonably cold in the mornings and I found the showering and the shaving a bit on the chilly side, but again, I recognised that this was a fact of life in the services and again, I came to grips with that fairly quickly.
(Chuckles) Doesn't sound quite so comfortable. Recreation - did you get any time for leave? Was there any music for instance? You were saying you'd been in a band.
We had weekend leave as I remember it. My major recreation at that time, or what I hoped to be, I had always had aspirations to play football with St Kilda, so I found myself at the training track with St Kilda and to my great disappointment I found that neither the firsts nor the seconds were the slightest bit interested in me and I finished up having a trial run with the under 19's and in the first game I got bad concussion, recovered in the last quarter, and that ended my aspirations to play league football in Melbourne.
Or anywhere else perhaps?
Or anywhere else.
(Laughs) Sounds pretty sensible. From Laverton, you were posted to Victoria Barracks. I think the section you were working in was concerned with the establishment of different units. Could you tell us a little bit about that work?
I was only there for a matter of a month I think and the officer in charge of it was Squadron Leader Murdoch, who was later I think, to become the Chief of the Air Force. He certainly became a air vice marshal and the department's job - or section's job - was the filling of the establishments of the various units and in the course of that I found out that 3 Squadron was being formed to go overseas. The prospect of going overseas excited me. I asked him if he could get me transferred to the squadron and he was quite happy to do so and that's how I joined the squadron.
In your experience while you had been in that unit, how much of that kind of background, if you like, wheeling and dealing or doing slight favours for known people went on?
That's the only time I knew of it. I had no other knowledge of any other similar activities.
Is there anything else, do you think, of any interest to record about that period at Victoria Barracks?
No, in essence I found it a very dull period. I thought the prospect of being there for the duration of war appalled me.
Right. So Richmond, No. 3. You were an AC 1 and I think you went straight to work in the orderly room. What was the general - I mean the squadron was obviously being formed up ready to go overseas, what was your first impression of the squadron?
Difficult to answer because it was still a fairly - what's the word - amorphous sort of thing that I was in and being surrounded by. I didn't have any strong identification with 3 Squadron as a unit. We were just, it seemed to me, to be a collection of people who were in a unit of some description. In my innocence, ignorance and little knowledge of the air force and its doings, I was fairly confused I must say.
I'd imagine working into the general administration of a squadron would be quite complicated, at least in the number of different forms and routines and so on that would be involved. Had your training prepared you for that, or was it a matter of learning on the job?
It was very much a matter of learning on the job. There was no formal training that I had received in the air force to prepare me for the sort of work that was going to be required of me in the orderly room.
Just stepping back to a question, in fact, I meant to ask before. Obviously you had the skills of typing and writing and so on from your newspaper work, was there ever any question that you might be used in any different way, or once the air force realised that, were you slotted fairly quickly into administrative work?
I joined the air force as a clerk general, which was the classification in those days, which meant that I needed to have a degree of skill in shorthand and typing to be accepted for that classification and the air force certainly used me in that capacity when I joined - very quickly.
And there was never any question or discussion of the air crew aspect?
None at all, no. It was never put to me as a proposition or an alternative.
I think you were saying that in this early period with No. 2 [sic] you were involved mostly in typing returns, reports, et cetera, for the adjutant and CO. Could you elaborate on that at all?
In those early days, no. I don't think I could, because it was all a matter of - as I say a bit confused and also I had a fair bit of time in the sick bay with German measles, I'd had my teeth extracted, and I had several injections and I was a pretty sick and sorry little fella for about a week, or two weeks, in the preparatory stages. So my - I have only a very vague sort of recollection of what I was doing or what I was supposed to do.
Right. Well, let's move on to the move overseas. When you first heard that you were definitely going overseas - or had you known that definitely before you joined the squadron?
Oh yes, I knew that for - by being told when I was working in Victoria Barracks in Melbourne, yes.
In the period leading up to the actual departure, what preparations were made administratively, that you recall?
Other than issuing daily routine orders and sort of movement orders to prepare the squadron for its actual movement, I can't, in all honesty, recall any great specific instructions or methodology or anything that was done that sticks in my mind that related to the move, other than the movement, sort of general orders and the getting together of the squadron and telling them that you were going to move from A to B and C and how it was to be done on the time.
Did you have any final leave?
Yes, I had final leave, which I took in Melbourne, yes, and very nice too.
And was that seeing your family?
No, because my family were in Hobart and I only had enough time to get to Melbourne and - but that was nothing .... I didn't lose anything by that (laughs). It had its compensations (laughs).
Right. I can imagine. Let's go on to the actual departure. You of course, sailed on the Orontes. Do you remember your first days on the ship? Do you remember, in fact, boarding the ship?
Yes, I remember boarding the ship because being of a fairly small sort of bloke I had great trouble with my two kitbags and most of the bigger fellas were able to hump them over their shoulder where I had to drag mine along the ground and that presented me with a few problems, going up until the bags - or one of the bags, I think, was taken from us and was dumped in the hold somewhere and we were only left with what we needed for the voyage. Having got on board, we all went on trips of exploration to find where we were and where everything was and that was a moment of some excitement and also the actual leaving of the harbour where we lined the rails and waved goodbye to anybody we saw and were quite exuberant about the prospect and of course we all joined in the famous 'Roll Out the Barrel' chorus.
Yes, I could imagine that would have been quite an exuberant sort of feeling.
Yes, it was.
Once you'd got to sea, tell us about living conditions on the Orontes, how comfortable or otherwise were you?
We were very comfortable. We dined well. At first when we went in the dining room we were actually waited on by the old Orient line waiters who were still employed in that capacity on the ship. So we thought this was a home away from home. I shared a four-berth cabin with three other fellas. We were very comfortable. We did it very nicely and we thought if this is war, this will do us and we had deck exercises and deck games and all the rest of it. Most of the time that I was on board I was working because there was always something happening that required the services of the orderly room members and we seemed to find ourselves working while all the rest of the squadron were play [sic] on the decks or doing exercises or having a bit of sun bathing.
Yes I was imagining that, that you would have been quite involved in typing up routines ...
... and so on. What other aspects of life on board ship do you remember? Did you in fact, get any time for recreation, or not?
Oh Lord yes. We had recreational periods where we could just sport ourselves on the deck or engage in some sort of mild sky-larking or just sit around chatting. And of course, the ship was also occupied by elements of the 6th Division, so there were quite a lot of people on board and there was - we seemed to find something to do with our time most of the time.
Was there any submarine spotting?
I don't recall being required to do any submarine spotting on the Orontes but we certainly were given jobs on the Dilwara when we transferred at Bombay, then we did have submarine spotting duties.
Well I was going to go on to ask you about the Dilwara. The figure we had, discussing around the table before, was that the ship was actually built to carry about 800 men and had something like 2,000 on board. Other people have described how poor the conditions were and there was this well-known incident where there was a virtual walk-out or mutiny. How did that begin in your recollection?
I think there were two things that caused it. One was the quality of the food, which was quite appalling and literally stank. It was - they served us kippers as I recall it and the food was condemned by our medical officers - Squadron Leader John Laver - and the other, and even more - probably even more important than that - was the requirement of the ship's captain or the OC of troops that we should occupy bunks down below and batten down below. The atmosphere was quite fetid, it stunk. There was very little air and in Bombay, where we boarded, it doesn't take much to imagine what sort of squalid and odoriferous sort of conditions that we would have been experiencing. So there was a general revolt against this and after intervention, as I understand it, by our commanding officer, Ian McLachlan, we were permitted to sleep on deck and also the quality of the food was dramatically improved.
Yes, I think you do believe that McLachlan had quite a key role in all this. Could you elaborate on that?
I was not aware of that at the time so I have been informed subsequently by Peter Jeffrey and other people in squadron that Ian McLachlan was primarily responsible for getting the matters solved to his and to our satisfaction.
Do you think the incident said something in a broader sense about the different attitude towards the troops, evidenced by the British and the Australian services, or not?
Yes, I think it said a great deal. There were some British troops embarked at Bombay to accompany us to wherever we were going and their attitude was one of docile acceptance of what they received. There was no apparent dissension on their part. They were quite happy to accept the quality of the food and the fact that they were to be cramped under decks. Again, there was another sort of straw in the wind about indicating the difference in attitude was when the - after our mutiny, the order officers of the English troops who got duty, alternating with our own - whenever they were on duty they always insisted on having one of our officers accompany them because, as I have subsequently discovered, they were quote, 'terrified', unquote of these unruly and fairly difficult to handle Australians and they were quite frightened that some physical harm might have occurred to them during their rounds.
Do you think that's true, or not?
You mean, is it true that something would have happened to them? No. I don't think anything would have happened to them. I think they would certainly have been subjected to some verbal comments and perhaps some verbal abuse. I don't think that they were ever liable to any physical injury.
The journey across the Indian Ocean and up the Red Sea, after this had been smoothed over, did that go relatively easily, or not?
Yes, it went quite easily and it was a not an unpleasant trip from there on in.
The best quip of the war in your estimation, I think, was aboard the Dilwara.
The best quip I thought was - one of the best I heard during the war was after we'd established a rapport with the English troops. We had a liking for them, if not an affection for the them, and they the same towards us. There was a lot of good natured bantering between the various groups. We kept pretty much to ourselves and they to themselves. But on deck of a night, we would engage in a bit of banter and on one occasion an Australian said, 'You know what the definition of a Pommy is, you fellas. It's an Englishman who comes to Australia and marries a prostitute and drags her down to his own level'. There was a slight pause and then a Cockney voice floated across the night air, 'Aye lad, and the descendants are called Australians'.
(Chuckles) Very quick. That's a lovely one. Did it go down well?
It went down very well. There was a burst of laughter everywhere and it was all accepted in good fun, which was the way in which it had been intended.
Sure. Well the arrival in the Middle East obviously was a very, very different place to anything - or to the Australians - that people were obviously used to. How did that cultural change affect you? How did the country and its people strike you?
I think it was quite a cultural shock to all of us. Australia in those days was a much more insular country than what it is today, so that our exposure to different races, different cultures, was non-existent, quite literally non-existent, and to see the way in which the Arab population lived, the poverty in which they existed, the things apparently they are prepared to tolerate, it was quite a salutory experience in my own case. For instance, we used to have a dhoby boy who used to make our - and we called him a dhoby boy I think - but he used to look after our laundry. He'd get a cup of tea for us when we woke up and generally look after the barracks wing in which - the dormitory in which I found myself at Ismailia and I think we each contributed about twenty piastas a week towards his upkeep, which was a pretty small figure. But he was a man of some thirty or forty years old, apparently had a family and all this sort of thing, and that to us - to me anyway - seemed quite extraordinary that this fella was existing on the handout of that sort of nature and doing these very menial tasks for a bunch of eighteen, nineteen, twenty year old fellas. I thought it was pretty appalling.
Appalling in the sense that Australians were having it done, or that he was willing to do it?
I thought that if this was the best that a man of that age could get for himself, it said very little for the country - for his country - and for the social sort of - the social atmosphere or the social conditions in which he lived.
Right. The squadron itself - let's go back to that - there was a degree of uncertainty, if not downright confusion, that's quite well documented when the squadron arrived in the Middle East, vis a vis its role, planes, even where it would be. What's your recollection of that?
Not other than a vague recollection that there was this air of confusion and the confusion was, of course, in the type of aircraft that we had been given, in the Lysanders, and as I understood it at the time the actual role that the squadron was supposed to play. There was a difference in the interpretation of what the roles was, as I gleaned at the time, between what we took to be the role of the squadron and what the RAF determined the role of an army support unit. So our own officers and our own hierarchy seemed to be a bit confused and if we thought about it at all, we just sort of shrugged and said, 'Well they will sort it out somehow, but meanwhile we just paddle along the way we are'.
Did that degree of uncertainty have much impact on your own work in the orderly room?
No, not really, not at all. No, that was something for somebody else to worry about. My job was in that area that I was doing and I was doing it to the best of my ability, that's all I was being paid to do and I did it and to hell with the rest of it. That's the way it was.
Did you see the uncertainty reflected in the senior officers. For example, McLachlan, was there a degree of tension or friction as a result of it all?
No, I didn't discern anything of that nature in those terms, no.
Well let's move onto the period when the squadron did come together. Where do you remember that happening?
Well we really only got all together when we went to Gerawla and that was in November and that's where we - and that of course, is where our first operational flights were made from and where the squadron operated totally in its own entity and where everything really started to come together and we became a cohesive operational force.
Just a moment.
END TAPE 1, SIDE A.
BEGIN TAPE 1, SIDE B.
Edward Stokes with Harry Silk, No 3 Squadron, tape one, side two.
Harry, that coming together, do you recall that having a clear effect on the general morale of the squadron?
No, I don't think anybody could say 'Wow! Now we are a great unit and we're all functioning and hooray for 3 Squadron' and that sort of thing. That's not the way that blokes reacted in those sort of conditions, that's been my experience. It was just a sort of acceptance of the fact, well now we can get together and do the sort of thing that we're supposed to be doing and let's go - away we go. Australians in those sort of circumstances are not a - don't display any great emotion, they don't sort of wear their hearts on their sleeve as it were. There's never that sort of outward demonstration that here we are, let's go and do it boys. That's not the sort of thing that happens, in my opinion.
So it's more just a quiet realisation that ....
... you were set and you were ready to go.
Did your own work at that stage get into more of an even routine once you'd settled down a bit?
Well yes and no. The work would, to some extent, be determined by .... Well the work was determined by two factors. The normal routine that is involved in the administration of a unit. The other work that would be affected on a day to day basis would be the operational activities, so that if the squadron were busy operationally, obviously there would be a direct effect on every part of the squadron, not just the administration part and so we would all feel the affect of that.
The living conditions at Gerawla, how do you remember that? Were you, at this stage, in tents, or what?
Yes, we were living in tents and we were generally six to a tent, which were fairly sparsely furnished with .... We were sleeping on the ground with a ground sheet and blankets. There were no great home comforts, but we seemed to manage to dig in and make it comfortable for ourselves with little bits and pieces that we'd get from here and there.
Your tent mates, were they people who just naturally gravitated together, or was that generally laid down from on high?
Generally in the squadron, like would settle down with like. For instance, a ground crew in a flight would get together, if they were fitters for instance, and so it would be the dead end kids would get together in a group because they were like with like. The orderly room, a couple of us were together with other chaps, we're a pretty small section, only five of us, so we were more inclined to spread ourselves a bit. I found several other fellas of a like nature, more than a like work and we sort of stuck together in a tent right through the desert and usually bunked down together. It was a mixture of both but the influence of where you worked and the job you did was probably greater than what the other part of it was.
Your tent mates, were they also your closest mates or not?
Yes, I think that could be said. They were, yes.
So if you were going off on leave, would you normally try to go off as a group?
Yes, we would, we would usually go as a group with a couple of other characters of course from other tents, but you tended to stay together pretty much with the same blokes that you lived with.
It was in early November, Harry, that the squadron first flew on an active mission and I think in mid November they were involved for the first time in actual aerial combat. How did that change the feeling of the squadron once the men - the pilots - were actually fighting?
I think the effect was felt much greater by the pilots than by the ground staff. I know the reaction by the pilots was one of considerable excitement. The ground staff accepted it as something that had happened and were more than interested of course. But I think it took a little while before - and several operations - before it became .... It's difficult for me to answer that question. I suppose it brought home to most of us that, well, now it's started and now this is starting to get fair dinkum and this is what it's supposed to be all about, on the one hand. But there was still a certain remoteness from those who were not directly involved with the pilots or with the aircraft. And after all, a large percentage of this squadron is not closely related to the aircraft or the pilots, they're all the backup staff and this, that and the other. So, you know, it would be reflected differently in different sections of the squadron.
That's most interesting. Obviously people such as the ground crew who were specifically maintaining planes were a lot closer to pilots, one would assume, than anybody else.
Exactly, and they, for the most part, formed a very strong attachment, an emotional attachment between pilots and ground staff. The ground staff fellas would become, in many cases, very closely attached to their pilots and vice versa.
Going on to early December, the squadron had moved to Gambut, this is about sixty miles west of Bardia, and this was now a very active period of the - well of the squadron's activities. What's your general recollection of that period?
I think after Bardia fell it was the stage then where the shortcomings in equipment and food and general sort of living conditions of the squadron were becoming apparent. That we were, in many areas, hopelessly ill-equipped, inadequately clothed for the sort of the operations in which we were engaged. Those were long before the days of the sort of battle blouses and other forms of clothing which were later developed to provide for the sort of ease of movement of people. We had a choice either of wearing overalls or uniforms and in the coldness of the night - desert nights - we either wrapped ourselves in blankets or we wore our famous short overcoats - those of us who'd taken them into the desert that is, and many didn't of course. So we did suffer from that sort of shortage of adequate clothing. So after Bardia fell of course, we were able to get access to Italian depots and we sent foraging parties out as we continued to advance and they brought back not only supplies of food, which were well accepted, and of course Italian wine and cognac, which was equally well accepted if not more, but they were able to bring back equipment and our transport department were able to almost overnight, change over or add to our fleet of transport trucks by a considerable degree.
Had there been no realisation do you think before that once you started a rapid advance that there would be this fairly urgent need for more equipment and so on?
Oh look, I think that's bound up with the whole inadequacy of our whole war preparations. It's not just 3 Squadron but I think it could be said probably of the whole of Wavell's army and navy and the air force generally. You know, it's just one of those things that when war broke out we were just not prepared for it.
Did men talk about this much? Was there much bellyaching or griping about the lack of supplies, perhaps the lack of forethought?
Not to the extent where it became a morale problem. Any group of men will always bellyache about the things that are obvious and there are obviously should be bellyached about. If I might recall, you know, Peter Drucker's great observation in The Age of Discontinuity, 'It's all right to be discontented provided you're discontented about the right things'. Now the sort of things that the troops were discontented about were the right things to be discontented about, but it never got to the point where it became a morale problem.
You were telling us before about your own typewriter situation, I think that's an interesting reflection of this?
Yes, the typewriter that we lugged across on the Orontes and the Dilwara and which worked reasonably well in those conditions, didn't last too long once it hit the desert conditions. It soon packed up and refused to budge and not all the efforts of the instrument makers or myself or anybody else could get it to go. But fortunately, during the foraging trips, we were able to procure an Italian typewriter and it was in good order and pretty new. It had a different keyboard from the English one, which meant that I had to do a crash course on relearning the keyboard, which wasn't all that difficult, and once I'd mastered that we had a nice bright new typewriter which stood us through the test of time for rest of the desert during the time I was with the squadron.
And just the readjustment at the end of it all getting back to a ....?
Yes, getting back to another one, yes (laughs).
Right well, just going on. As you were saying, there was this quite significant learning curve, I think you put it that way before, Harry.
There were, I think, two very significant organisational advances that were pioneered by number 3 Squadron, vis a vis, the flights - the two flights and the headquarters and the air crew mess. Tell us about those?
Well they're pretty well documented in the, I think, in the official history and certainly in other unofficial histories. The squadron pioneered the advanced landing ground technique in which a flight would be sent up as an advance flight and settle a base and the aircraft would operate from that advanced landing base and then the rest of the squadron would follow up and catch up. Having done so, then an advanced flight again would go on ahead and again the rear guard would catch up. Now this was new, a type of squadron operational tactics which was pioneered by 3 Squadron and was later adopted by the desert air force.
The other innovation which was introduced by the squadron was the introduction of a pilot's mess as distinct from a mess for officers and a mess for other - for NCO aircrew. Almost from the first days, 3 Squadron had one mess for the pilots and irrespective of rank that was the mess which they all went to, and that mess also was used by the officers who were not pilots, such as the equipment officer, adjutant, and so on. So that was an innovation. I don't know if that was ever followed by the RAF, it might have been a bit too extreme for them.
I have actually heard that in some other RAF squadrons that did catch on. Was that introduced during the leadership of Peter Jeffrey?
No, it was introduced, I think, during the leadership of Ian McLachlan. I think it started almost from the early days from Gerawla onwards I think. It could have even been at Gerawla, but it was certainly came into vogue very quickly after we started the advance.
Both those reorganisations if you like, with the benefit of hindsight perhaps, but they still seem in a sense extremely obvious. At the time, did those changes say much to men such as yourself who'd come into the war about the thinking of the peace time air force?
No, I was not - I didn't have the intellectual capacity to understand the strategical or tactical thinking of an air force or of any other branch of armed services. It really didn't register with me at the time.
Right. Once this rearrangement had been made with the squadron split into the kind of headquarters base that would move up slowly and the two flights, did that increase or decrease the amount of administration you were involved in yourself?
Not to a large extent. It was only ever - it was always only a matter of a few days that separated the movement and the squadron would catch up very quickly and I don't recall that it meant any great deal in terms of administrative problems at all.
People sometimes gripe, Harry, about the sort of general red tape, the form filling and so on of the services generally - the air force - how justified do you think was, or is that?
Ah yes. Well there are two points of view I suppose and I can sit back and be a bit objective about this. At the time, particularly in an operational unit such as 3 Squadron was, and being so heavily involved in the war at the time as it was, like I suppose, most people I thought that the form filling and the red tape and the bureaucracy was of - quite inexcusable at times and why don't we get on with the war and forget the paperwork and I was as guilty, if you like, as anybody in thinking in those sort of terms. But since the war has ended and I have become interested - and later in the war as I was involved in the war history unit - I of course, had a different point of view. I became aware of the importance from an historical point of view of having these records and even nominal rolls. The laborious task of typing out a nominal roll as fell to us from time to time, and bringing the squadron records up to date of the number, rank and mustering of everybody, which was a terribly tedious task. Today I can see the great value of it because from time to time we've been involved - I've been involved personally in doing some historical research and it's marvellous to be able to go back to the source of all of that and there it is, the dates and the relevant information, whatever it might be, in all its glory and think, 'Well by golly that is interesting', and so there are two points of view, both of which are conditioned very much by the time in which those two things have occurred at the time and later on of course.
That's most interesting and I could imagine in certain extreme situations. For example, if you'd been - if things had gone badly against you and the unit had been captured, then those records would have had another kind of importance.
That's exactly right. They certainly would have, yes. And one of the things which we've had trouble in later years is in tracing some of the prisoners of war who were taken from the squadron and there has been some areas of doubt about who and when some of the people were taken prisoner. And the reason for that is that some of them were detached from the squadron and the very semantics of the air force helped to confuse this. They used to have two terms. When you were posted to a squadron it meant that you're on its permanent strength and when you were attached to a squadron it meant that you still belonged to your parent unit but that you were attached for a certain time. You might be attached for six months or twelve months, but you still retained your posting on the original squadron. Now that made all sorts of problems when some of the people that we had in the squadron, particularly wireless air gunners and wireless operators were sent to other squadrons, they stayed on the strength of our squadron but were attached to other squadrons, and that's caused a lot of confusion in more recent years.
Yes. In fact I know a little bit about that from one of the wireless operators and that's most interesting the way you put it. The preoperational briefing of the pilots, after some time in the desert I think there was an intelligence officer and cipher offsider to him operating out of a little truck. Were you at all involved with their work or not, Harry?
No, I was not involved with their work. They were quite separate and they were strictly on their own and to this day, I'm not quite sure what sort of thing they used to do and in fact the truck burnt down when old Primrose, who was a delightful old boy - the intelligence officer - sent fire to it - inadvertently - one night and up went a few records and so that didn't help either.
Just to clarify that. Their whole organisational structure was quite separate from the day to day running of the squadron, was it?
It certainly was as far as the orderly room was concerned. They ran their own race as it were. I can't recall us having any - I can't recall us, in the orderly room, having any great sort of day to day activity with them. They were more involved with the CO if you like, the flight commanders and the operational side of the squadron.
The - we've just been joined by a friend here. Moving, the squadron moving on, Harry. Were there always formal written orders vis a vis movements or would it sometimes happen too quickly for that?
Often it would happen to quickly for - particularly during the retreat - for written orders or any formal orders to be prepared and that is when, again, the squadron showed its initiative and innovativeness by being able to turn up at a given point, often only across in the middle of the desert somewhere, having been briefed in a fairly brief sort of way by the CO and other officers and yet the squadron would turn up in right order.
While you were travelling, I think your work was carried out from a truck, the orderly room truck. Tell us about the truck?
The orderly room truck was an office prepared on a chassis of a truck and it had room inside the office part for the CO would occupy one side of it with his table and his little desk and his chair and on the other side would be the adjutant. We had a tent annexe in the same way that caravans today have annexes and that would be the accommodation for the four or five clerks who were comprised the staff of the orderly room, so that we'd all virtually be under the one roof. The clerks would be outside in the canopy and the CO and the adjutant would be inside in the office part of the truck.
How did the general heat and dust of desert conditions work in with this mobile office?
Well, there were times when the - the heat we had to put up with but the times when the sandstorms would become so bad that it was quite impossible to function. It was impossible to work. Certainly the typewriter wouldn't work in terms of dust storms or severe storms and everything would be impregnated with sand and the office would be covered with it and so it was just a matter of sitting out the storm before we could resume the form filling.
Did you have containers to cover all your equipment such as typewriters and files and so on?
Oh, just the usual sort of bits of canvas and this and that and trunks to put papers in and cases. Anything that was useful in that sort of thing - nothing special.
So it was fairly makeshift?
Yeah, very makeshift, sure, yes.
When you were working, would you normally have been in uniform or was it just a matter of grabbing whatever clothes were to hand and ...?
In those days I thought, I think from memory I had - my usual gear would be a pair of air force overalls, I had an Italian officer's coat of some sort, I had a pair of lovely desert suede shoes which came out of an Italian dump somewhere. They were beautifully made and they were very comfortable and I'd wear a fur felt hat to keep the sun off or the beret when there was a sand storm. That was about my going and some of the gear that the fellas wore was incredible. One fellow turned up for parade on one occasion dressed in a full evening dress which he'd purloined from some Italian (laughs) dump and everybody in the squadron - everybody, including officers often would be seen wearing some strange bits and pieces of foreign uniforms and if it hadn't been for a lot of that sort of gear we'd have been a very threadbare unit indeed and giving more credence to the description which Lord Haw Haw gave to us as 'Shabby Squadron'.
Yes, that's most interesting. Did officers, incidentally, wear their epaulettes of rank and so on, or were things like that discarded too?
I think they did. From what I can recall, they usually wore their uniforms with their - from their point of view it was important because if they were knocked down in a combat and taken prisoner, it was better for them to have their proper rank because they got treatment according to their rank and so it was better for them to .... Or that's how I understood it.
Just one other thing to do with names. Were men such as yourself, were you on personal name terms with the officers you brushed up against or did they expect a 'Sir' out of you?
Well yes and no. The adjutant, Harry King, was a stickler for - he was a permanent fella who'd started off his life in the order room and he'd got a commission and he was very conscious, seemed to me to be conscious of his rank and conscious of his position. He always addressed me by my rank and by my name. It was never Harry or 'Silky'. Other officers with whom I rubbed shoulders would call me Harry or Silky and be more informal in their approach. McLachlan was always a stickler for the proprieties. Peter Jeffrey, if he - he wasn't too fussy what he called you and he wasn't too fussy about what people called him. On one occasion, Lord Tedder or somebody very important, was visiting the squadron and was looking for him. He went over to a flight where he'd been sent to find him and one of the ground staff - Peter had his head under the cowling of an engine or was doing something, and the fella yelled out, 'Hey Pete, there's somebody here to see you', and the AOC or whoever it was, was quite upset about this lack of reverence shown towards our commanding officer. But that was the way Peter Jeffrey was.
Mmm, interesting, we'll come onto more details about Peter later. Harry, you were saying that you were involved with typing up the pilot's combat reports, how were they normally given to you?
Well sometimes, they would dictate them to me. Sometimes they'd write them out in long hand before hand and give them to me to type. Sometimes I would receive them from an intermediary to be typed. It didn't - you know, there any way of two or three ways they would come. Some of them of course, wrote them out themselves and didn't bother getting them typed, so that's the way it was.
And a report would be written for each individual operational flight?
Oh yes, each pilot would put in a combat report on every flight he made, yes indeed.
How detailed were they?
The forms exist today in the air force history section have got them and they are - I thought they were very well prepared and gave .... A pilot only had to fill in the relevant points to have a very good summary of what happened and most of them, if not all of them, were pretty meticulous in the way they filled them in.
It's often struck me in talking to pilots that in retrospect after the heat of a combat and it often happened extremely quickly and with a great number of things going on around you, that recalling it in precise detail later must be quite difficult. Was there ever any discussion on that point as to how accurate pilots, in fact, could be?
I never heard it discussed, not in my presence. I have no doubt that it must have been, but the point is a good one you make because I always had the same feeling. I had the feeling that when a pilot came to me and either gave me a written thing to be typed or dictated to me, I was always very impressed by his recall of what happened during the dog fight and whether he omitted anything or added anything I wouldn't know, but it seemed to me that they always had a pretty good recall of the, certainly the important features of what happened during those aerial combats.
Perhaps it was that they lived very, very intensely through those moments and it really was seared into their minds?
Yeah, you'd have to ask them because I can, you know, I can only say how it occurred to me and I was always very impressed with the nature of the reports they put in, seemed to me to be very well done and recall of the salient points very well done.
In your general contacts with pilots in particular through these reports, how close did you get personally to them?
Not close. Again, there was always a division in the squadron which was an understandable one, between the pilots and the ground staff, they kept pretty much to themselves because that was the nature of the job and the nature of the squadron and we the same. The fraternisation - what fraternisation occurred - did so on leave periods and some officers, particularly people like Peter Turnbull, would (laughs) eagerly and enthusiastically fraternise with groups of the ground staff. Others of course never did. That didn't mean there wasn't a mutual respect, liking and indeed affection, between many of the ground staff and the counterparts. I had a great respect and a great liking for two or three pilots. I was never very close to them but we seemed to get on well together when I met them and we'd have a little chat together and I think that was the experience with most people in the squadron.
That's most interesting.
END TAPE 1, SIDE B.
BEGIN TAPE 2, SIDE A.
This is Ed Stokes, Harry Silk, Number 3 Squadron, tape two, side one.
Harry, you obviously worked with a number of COs in the orderly room, how close did you actually get to the COs? How much did they reveal in thinking?
They would very rarely let their guard down in my presence. You could always sense things however. If things weren't going too well they would have a certain air of anxiety perhaps about them which is, you know, pretty easy to discern, or if things were on the other hand, pretty good there'd be a certain buoyancy. It was very difficult to read Ian McLachlan because he was a fairly - he was a man who did not display, in my presence at any time, any great emotional reaction and I found him hard to approach, in a personal as well as official sense. He did not encourage any overtures of a personal nature. Certainly as far as we in the orderly room were concerned he kept his distance and expected us obviously to keep ours from him. Peter Jeffrey was a different type of person altogether. He was a warm and gregarious man, easy to approach, seemed to encourage being approached indeed, would enjoy a joke, particularly a salty joke and would, if you asked him anything about any subject you could expect to get a reply from him which would be a candid one and couched in friendly terms.
That's most interesting, Harry. Well I was in fact going to come on to talk about the two COs you served under. I don't mean this in a personal sense incidentally. Ian McLachlan was the first CO, what's your general estimation of his period as CO?
I find it a bit difficult to answer that because it's only in later life that I have been made aware of some of things for which Ian McLachlan was responsible. At the time though, not obvious to me, but now in retrospect I can understand the value he had both to the squadron and to the Australian air force if you like. Being an old member of the permanent air force - I don't mean old. I mean old, in terms of service - member of the air force, he had an understanding of the politics both of the RAAF and to some extent of the RAF and he had to walk a fairly tight rope in connection with the EATS Scheme and the wishes of the Australian Government and the RAAF in regard to the EATS graduates. It was the wish of the Australian authorities for 3 Squadron to be maintained by pilots who were not members of the EATS. This obviously must have been difficult to administer and I understand that Ian McLachlan was able to head off a lot of problems that could have arisen and perhaps did arise between the RAF in Middle East and the RAAF back in Australia. It was a very highly contentious political issue and he obviously would have found himself pretty much in the middle of some of it.
He was responsible for the great mutiny in the Dilwara. He was responsible for handling that. Again it was something which we were not fully aware of at the time but it was through his direct intervention that that matter was settled and that was a very important matter because the repercussions from that could have been enormous if it had actually happened and the resulting publicity got back to Australia. It would have been quite an enormous sort of situation and he handled that pretty well.
Yes, that's an interesting point. I wonder if also the fact that he was in charge of the squadron at the time of moving to the Middle East and all the general - well the organisational vacuum if you like that existed when you reached there that we've talked before, that that, through no fault of his own, perhaps rubbed off on him a little in the estimation of him at the time?
Yes, he was - as I say, he was a fairly aloof man. As far as the troops were concerned the [inaudible] of the squadron did not warm to him because he had this aloofness, almost a coldness as far as they were concerned. He did not get close to them so that they were able to make a judgement on the sort of man he might have been, which may have been deliberate or may not been, but undoubtedly there was some administrative problems of a neo-political nature which were affecting the squadron and a man of McLachlan's background and nature was able to help sort those things out, where a man of lesser administrative knowledge and experience may well have floundered. So I think it must be said to his credit, that he must have played a very important role in those early days.
Mmm, that's most interesting. Peter Jeffrey is generally talked of very warmly and I think you have that general view.
Yes, I - the attitude of the ground staff to Peter Jeffrey verged on the near idolatrous. He was a man of great warmth, a man who related to other men in a very gregarious manner. He would not hesitate to express his displeasure over something, but he would do it in an open and earthy manner which would still leave the man who'd been assailed with his dignity attached to him. He would not strip a man of dignity. He would still be able to make his point forcefully and at the end of it, the man who was being criticised perhaps would feel that he'd earned it and he would lose no respect or affection, indeed, for Peter Jeffrey. He was also a pugnacious - in my opinion, a pugnacious fighter pilot, a skilful one obviously, and he led his aerial teams with much bravery and with skill. He was a rare person in that he was able to get the whole-hearted respect, support, affection of his pilots as well as he did with the ground staff. I don't know of too many commanding officers in my experience of the air force who were able to do that. Peter Turnbull, in later years was able to do it and I think Wilf Arthur would be another one, all of whom of course were 3 Squadron people.
Yes, that's an interesting general point. Was it perhaps with other men, was it a problem perhaps that, the kind of aggressiveness that was necessary to be an effective fighter pilot as against simply flying aeroplanes, was likely to carry over into other things?
Yes, I think that could well be. I think that the pressure on a commanding officer of a fighter squadron, no matter what the fighter squadron, must have been enormous and if you look at it this way, that Peter in those days I think was about twenty-seven or twenty-eight, he was in charge of 300 men and twenty aircraft. You know, if you relate him to a managing director of a company if you like, of a similar nature, you know, the managing director these days would be getting something like a quarter of a million dollars a year. Peter, in similar terms would be getting much less than that and yet carrying an enormous weight in terms of people's lives as well as the assets if you like that they were controlling. For one small anecdote, he used to have a deal going with the provost-general back in Cairo, or Alex, and the arrangement was that if any 3 Squadron people were picked up misbehaving while on leave, or indeed on duty, the provost troops would not put them in the clink but would release them and let them get back to the squadron in return for which Peter undertook to have them suitably punished. What used to happen in effect was, the blokes used to get off by the provost, they'd get their way back to the squadron and I can recall seeing Peter reading the letters of complaint that he'd received from the provost's office and meticulously tearing them up into small pieces and dumping them in the waste paper basket and that's the sort of measure of the man, of leadership qualities that Peter Jeffrey had, in my opinion.
Mmm, that's very telling. Moving on to more general things, Harry. After the advance through the desert there was then of course, the very, very rapid retreat when the squadron moved back exceptionally quickly. It's almost impossible to believe how the whole thing could have been held together. What happened to the general routine of administration during that period?
Well it limped along I suppose is the best way to describe it and obviously when we're moving, you know, ten landing grounds in ten days or whatever it was, there wasn't much settling down where forms could be filled in and orders promulgated but again we did our best and we would make some effort to keep the bumpf going and things which were not so important would get shelved and postponed until a later time. Things which were very important and some administrative matters are very important.
What were the most important things for example during this period? What did you make sure continued?
Well if for instance, there was a casualty or casualties, it was very important for that paperwork immediately to be processed so that the people who must know about it did know about it. If there were casualties again it was important for the next of kin and all the other things that flowed from those sort of circumstances to be notified. So those things just couldn't be left for a later day. They had to be done. If an aircraft was destroyed it was important for that to be communicated quickly or any other very valuable piece of item, that must be communicated, so again, that replacement could be got. Those sort of things. Either, you know, important things affecting materials, equipment or manpower. Those were the sort of things that had to be communicated.
Just a sideline here. The letters that were sent following the deaths - confirmed deaths - of pilots. Who were they generally composed by and were they written out by hand or do you recall typing those?
No, I never once typed out any letter of condolence in those - of that nature. The sergeant in charge of the orderly room, George Stalker, might have although I very much doubt it. I think in the main they would have been composed by hand by the commanding officer. Peter Jeffrey could tell you that.
Right. Do you have any other particularly significant memories, Harry, of that very rapid retreat?
No, no, not really, because what you've already been told I would only be repeating all the sort of things you'd already be aware of. A couple of sort of anecdotal sort of things that happened. At Benina before we left it I thought were sort of - had a rather well, I thought they were a little off the beaten track. Did you hear about the story about the Italian prisoners of war assigned to the squadron and we had a couple of them working in the mess and we had one in the orderly room of all places, where all the secrets were kept and where all the confidential matters were had (laughs). Each day when we were at Benina, we'd run off the daily routine orders and I've forgotten what his name was, but he was a delightful man. He couldn't speak English, but we got to the stage where having run off the stencil for the daily routine orders and/or any other orders for that matter - operational reports or anything - we'd give them to Tony and Tony would run them off on our battered old roneo machine, make the relevant number of copies and then he'd go - and then he would distribute them and away he'd go and he'd come back an hour later and salute and say yes, he'd distributed this to this and he was a very valuable and accepted man and he loved us and we loved him. Every morning he'd go and salute. He'd salute Peter Jeffrey, go and bring him in a cup of coffee or a cup of tea and salute him and give him his morning copy of the daily routine orders, and he and the other couple of blokes that were working in the mess as messmen, they all broke down and cried when we left because it meant they had to be returned to the prisoner of war compound and they got very emotional about it. In fact, we tried to devise a way of smuggling them off with us and I think we - Wally and a couple of more of the truck drivers, we were going to try and hide them somewhere and take them with us but the MPs were too smart for us and we weren't able to do that.
Harry, how much were men in your recollection, able to distance themselves from the propaganda of war that to a certain extent no doubt had to present the enemy as evil, vicious et cetera?
I think in the main that men had a very balanced attitude towards propaganda. They were slightly cynical about our own propaganda. They didn't believe it all. They accepted it not in total. They just sort - they believed most of it but not all of it and they sorted out the enemy propaganda in a similar way. They were much more cynical about claims by say Lord Haw Haw or whatever radio program or other programs we were getting in those days, they were inclined to .... In essence they were able to make, what I think in recollection, was a very balanced view. They certainly were not over swayed by either. They took it pretty much up the middle and they sorted out pretty well.
That's most interesting. Pay and promotions. I have heard it said there was a great deal of - that things really lapsed in that regard. I think your view is somewhat different?
I would disagree with that. I've never heard that there was a great deal of discontent. In any unit there would always be some discontent and it would be exacerbated in the case of 3 Squadron by the distance we were and the time involved in recommendations for promotion being accepted back in Australia and then being promulgated and the advice of that being received by the squadron. There would often be - I know in my own case, I came back to Australia and found to my great surprise that I was a sergeant, although I'd been a corporal for some time, and it took three or four months for that promotion to catch up with me and that was the same. There was always a time lag involved with this sort of thing at the best of time, but it was obviously exacerbated by the conditions under which we were operating. If a bloke reckoned he should have been promoted and wasn't promoted, in many cases of course, that would be the responsibility of his own section commander and that was another thing altogether. He would not have got the recommendation that he thought he was entitled to. Well I guess that occurs in any field of life including civilian life (laughs).
Sure. Actually turning to recommendations, I think you were saying they were generally prepared by the adjutant and with the COs name on the bottom. Were you involved in typing those up and if so, how detailed were they?
There was, again, there was a routine method of doing that in the air force like there was most things. The recommendation for promotion would - everybody's name would be submitted. A man's name would either carry one of three things. He would be not recommended, recommended or specially recommended and the initial recommendation would be made by his section commander or his flight commander and then it would come into the orderly room and then be prepared on one master list for rerouting onto headquarters and it would of course be nominally checked and approved by the commanding officer and of course, he might or might not - it was his privilege to change it or change the recommendation if he wished. In essence there would be very little change made by a commanding officer to his section commander's recommendation because to do so would be to express some sort of difference of opinion with his ....
I have heard it said that when non commissioned pilots came to be commissioned, there's certain stories - I've heard of men in Britain where they'd be, in a sense carpeted by their CO who'd basically say, well look you give me a few good reasons why you should be commissioned. Did you ever hear any of that sort of thing going on?
No, never, never, not in 3 Squadron I didn't, no. But that doesn't mean it couldn't have happened because I wasn't privy to what was going on between the officer and the non commissioned officer. So I wouldn't know what would have happened, but I never heard of any of those such ....
But I mean there weren't stories going around that that was the common practice?
I heard of no such common practice.
Well moving on a little bit. After the retreat of course, there was a period of leave and then later you went up to Syria. I think you've suggested that the routine of work there wasn't so different, but that general conditions of work were quite different.
Yes, general conditions were good because we were in nice buildings for the most part and we were quartered in good quarters and working conditions were certainly more congenial and so were living conditions, so all in all we were living the life of Reilly compared with the desert, sure. The best - I think the very best incident of all my experience in a way happened while we were bivouacked at Rosh Pinna when the local kibbutz took the squadron in in groups of forty or fifty at a time and gave us two or three days and they fed us and we slept there and they fed us, and we joined them in working in the field if we felt like it and we joined them in their folk dances at night and they were great people, very friendly, very good to us, very hospitable and it was an act of kindness which was not duplicated in my experience of the Middle East.
I was going to ask that, besides you know, obviously rubbing up against the civilian population in the street, were there any other incidents at all of being taken into homes?
Yes, I had an experience of it in Cairo where I - a couple of my mates and I met up with a Greek, a couple of young fellas who worked in Barclays Bank who were Greek fellas, and for some reason we started chatting and they joined us for a drink and they took us home and made us very welcome with their parents and their grandparents and they gave us a couple of great nights with them and also taking us home and they were very friendly, and they were Greeks of course and they were very much involved in the war. And whereas there were a lot of Italian and other people in Cairo and Alex who were - whose sympathies of course were the Axis and not with the Allies.
Yeah, sure. Of that period in Syria, do you have any other specific recollections, significant recollections or not?
Well that's where we had the anniversary dinner of leaving Australia on July the 15th and we had a .... That was at Rosh Pinna wasn't it, where we had the anniversary dinner? Yeah it was. That was an occasion. That was where we had the official dinner and the officers waited on the men as they do in those traditional occasions.
By this stage you had been in active combat situations for quite some time. You were saying before that it was hard to say there was a clearly - an easily identified feeling of esprit de corps, of bonding of morale, and so on, would you say the same at this stage or not?
Oh no ....
Or perhaps I misunderstood you.
Well perhaps we mean the same thing, but we're expressing it in different terms. There was always a strong feeling in the squadron of esprit de corps if you wish to put it in those terms, but it wasn't expressed in a public or sort of overt way. It was always something that you all felt. We were pretty - we all jogged along pretty well, we were all pretty pleased about what we were doing and we thought we were a pretty good bunch of fellas. But it was implied rather than expressed and I think, you know, that is the traditional Australian understatement sort of bit. It was - we didn't beat the breast and beat the drum and say aren't we great, you know, haven't we got a great spirit. That sort of thing just doesn't happen in those sort of groups of men. You know that you and your mates are - you like your mates, you get along with them, you're rubbing along, you're doing a pretty good job, that's the way we take it.
Yes I know.
It's a sort of understated sort of thing.
Sure. Harry, the final period in the Middle East because you came back to Australia, how much warning did you have that you were to come back and was that good or bad news?
Well, from my point of view it was very good news to come back to Australia. I was happy to come back to Australia. I can't recall whether I was given a week's notice or a day's notice or two day's notice but I was just told by the adjutant that I'd be going back in a few days - whenever the date was - and I accepted that and was pleased to hear it and that was that. You know, it was great.
Right. Well, moving on. Perhaps just skating over the journey back to Australia that's not specifically part of the story. I know later in the war you were involved as a kind of roving researcher. Just tell us briefly about that because I think it does - or through that, you might be able to comment back to Number 3 Squadron.
I was posted to War History Unit and I - in the role of an assistant narrator, I was a warrant officer at the time - and my function was to cover activities of - what was it? - first attack air force which was around the Pacific area, centred round Morotai and that area and all points in between and Borneo and so on.
So I spent several weeks - I've forgotten how many - months up in that area travelling through Papua and New Guinea and up to Biak and Morotai and over to Borneo and across to the Philippines and basically my job was to ensure that .... Each unit used to have a unit history sheet which the adjutant was supposed to fill in and send into headquarters on a monthly basis, or weekly basis. That is the very essence of a squadron's history. It's a day to day record of what the unit does and so on. And those things were, of course, from a historical point of view, the invaluable documents and basically, I used to check up on the units and have a look at these things and see how well or how badly they were being done.
How well were they done?
In most cases, I must say they were doing pretty well and, you know, allowing for the fact that the adjutants and COs were not trained journalists or historians, most of them had an appreciation of the importance of recording these sort of things and it was good. I also interviewed a lot of senior officers, very senior officers, and other people who'd been involved in particular operational matters which were of particular importance historically, so I spent some time interviewing Scherger for instance, and other senior officers about various matters which were happening in the area and just to make sure that we had the proper tactical, strategic background that was going to be used by later as it was George Odgers who wrote the volume - the war volume history regarding those affairs. And that was basically my task.
That's most interesting, Harry. Just finally reflecting back to Number 3 Squadron. You were implying before that through this work, you came to see Number 3 Squadron in a very clear light reflected, in a sense - or mirrored in these other squadrons, other units - and that you had a very high regard for Number 3 through that, vis a vis other units. Was there any nostalgic yearning in that for a squadron that you'd been personally attached to or was it - if not, what were the objective differences that made Number 3 really stand out?
I think it's only in post war years that you get a sort of perspective in regard to that sort of thing. It certainly was in my case. I perhaps was too close to it at the time to have any very clear prejudices or that sort of thing. As time went on and I sort of was able to sit back and look back in a fairly objective way at my war, which was a pretty modest one, I was able to see the role that 3 Squadron played against the background of what I knew had happened in other areas of the air force and I think I was able to make an assessment of the importance of the role that it played as a unit and the importance that it played in its contribution to the Middle East area of operations and in that sense, to the overall importance of the whole war and I don't think it's stretching it too far to say that that role was of quite profound significance as the official records I think adequately demonstrate.
Right, that's most ...
... clear, sure (laughs). Yeah. Well Harry, just finally on behalf of the War Memorial, thank you very much.
My pleasure. (Laughs).
END OF INTERVIEW.
[3SQN Assn repaired version of original transcript on https://www.awm.gov.au.]
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