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Transcript of Australian War
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INFORMANT: S F N (DICK) HICKSON
SUBJECT OF INTERVIEW: 3 SQUADRON, RAAF
DATE OF INTERVIEW: 9 MAY 1990
INTERVIEWER: EDWARD STOKES
TRANSCRIBER: DIANA NELSON
TRANSCRIPTION DATE: 30 JUNE 1990
Identification: This is Edward Stokes with Dick
Hickson, Squadron 3, tape one, side one.
Dick, perhaps, could we just begin by your date of birth and so on?
30th March 1915.
And where were you born? Where did you grow up?
In Warwick, Queensland, was where I was born and my
people had a small property outside Dalby, sheep property, on the
Darling Downs, so I'm a country born boy with a country background and
the things that go with it.
Right. Lovely country up there. Just a
couple of things about your childhood. One general thing about
the first war, in a sense. The tradition of the ANZACs, the
Australians' involvement in the first war and so on, was that a very
strong part of your childhood, your boyhood, or not?
Oh yes, very much. I had a cousin, a nephew of my
father's, who was killed in the first day of the war. I've
forgotten where it was but .... He was too old to go to the war
but was very conscious of it and I'm sure that we were born and bred
with the traditional British loyalty and 'King and Country', very
Day and so on?
Days were ...?
Oh yes, very much so.
Where did you finish your schooling? And to what
level did you go?
I did junior school in Queensland at Slade School.
Left, joined the Bank of New South Wales, studied accountancy,
qualified as an accountant when I was twenty-one, and then did the
first year at Brisbane University's Chamber of Commerce degree
course. Unfortunately I was transferred to Sydney by the bank
and that was the end of the university course for me, and shortly
after that the war, so.
but you were a qualified accountant.
I think it was at some stage you were in the Militia and
in fact reached the rank of corporal?
Yes, I was in the 17th Battalion, Royal Australian
Regiment, or it was then the Militia, and I was going to join the AIF
with the 17th Battalion if we could have joined as a battalion.
They weren't allowing us to do that, I had to go to one of the AIF
units and would have lost my army friends and ....
But I had previously applied for a commission in the air force as an
equipment officer, pre-war, because I foresaw this as being within the
realms of my capacity and training and I thought this was a more
interesting way to use it than working as a bank
clerk. In the event, of course, it didn't happen and I wasn't
called up until 4th December 1939 at the rank of lance corporal.
Right. That's most interesting. One other
thing just before the war, Dick. Were you particularly conscious
or not of the general political developments in Europe, and for that
Europe particularly. I don't think Japan cut that
much ice in my recollection at that stage, although it was a
burgeoning power. We'd regarded Japan as probably carrying on
where it left off from the first world war as a potential ally, but of
course events proved otherwise.
And people didn't take too much notice of the general
advance through China and so on.
They were concerned by it but I think they thought that
wasn't to do with us, direct and other ways, and hopefully, also would
provide Japan with a diversion and with another area for development
of themselves. We didn't understand probably the population
densities and the lack of scope in that sort of territory for the
growth and extension that Japan was looking for.
Do you think, was there any perception on your part at
least, that if war did eventuate in Europe it wouldn't be short and
sharp but long, drawn-out and very bloody?
(5.00) I don't know that that .... We didn't
think it would be probably a very protracted war, but then we didn't
approach it with much knowledge of the relative strengths. We
were concerned of course with the, you might say, the neglect of
Britain for arming itself and being prepared for war. That was,
neglect probably ran deeper, was more serious than we'd anticipated or
saw the situation at that time.
Well moving on a little bit, let's get into the air
force. I think it was January '40 when you actually got out to
Richmond, having been called up as an equipment officer, and you were
attached to 2nd Aircraft Depot or 2 Aircraft Depot Richmond. I
understand your training was mostly on the job.
Yes, you were taught by current serving air force
officers and the training as I recall it, was not very deep, it was
pretty practical. The extensive use of Air Force Orders which
was the bible by which everybody in those days, certainly in January
1940 was, still saw themselves as a peacetime air force
substantially. Hadn't accepted, and I don't think probably in
the services generally, had accepted the reality of war up till
then. And probably for another twelve months that was still,
prevailed as the attitude.
That's a most interesting point. In that they
didn't believe they would be sent to Europe? Or that it was all
just too remote to comprehend?
Well, it still might never happen, it was still the days
of the phoney war and all that sort of thing and they weren't very
sure that what was going to come out of it all. We had to be
prepared to some extent but the preparation was pretty primitive.
Let's just detail the basic aspects of your training
because obviously they relate to your later work. What were the
Well, as I say, it was probably Air Force Orders and you
were given very little training as to the organisational structure of
the air force. I suppose it was mentioned but I can't recall it
now with any detail. We were taught how to be foot soldiers,
foot drill and army drill and the necessity to command an air force
detachment or unit on parade. And you had to familiarise
yourself with that need with varying degrees of .... Part of my
course mates ability to master that, there was some very left-footed
gentlemen amongst us.
I think the aspect of stores was an important thing, of
recording and chaining stores and so on.
We were shown, of course, all the forms that were used,
they were part of Air Force Orders, and in fact many of them were
detailed in Air Force Orders. The range of equipment that was
handled, of course, went from clothing L group's barrack's stores to
highly technical A group and B group air frame and engine parts.
The equipment tables were themselves fairly obscure documents but for
complexity that, nothing would compare to those that emanated later in
the war when, for example, we got re-armed with Tomahawks and
Kittyhawks. The manuals that one had to handle and supplies that
one had to arrange as a basic requirement for this unit were much
deeper than the manuals that I'm talking about which in those days
related to Hawker Demon which was a fairly elementary type of
aeroplane; a bit like a wheelbarrow compared with a sophisticated
motor mower, I suppose.
That's most interesting. Just a couple of other
aspects about your training. One is this desire, that I think in
fact eventuated later, to become a pilot but we might bring that
anecdote in now. Tell us that story?
Yes, well, I used to do a fair bit of flying with the,
Jock Perrin and Al Rawlinson especially, both of whom became fighter
commanders in 3 Squadron. And, as I say, my friendship with 3
Squadron dates back to my days at Richmond and 2 Aircraft Depot.
These boys used to let me know when they were going out on a flight in
the afternoon and if I could detach myself or make up the time
.... I might say that 2 Aircraft Depot with all the air force
units you were working twelve, eighteen hours a day, so you take half
an hour off or an hour off, nobody sort of took a lot of notice.
(10.00) And the assumption was that people just
worked hard and you fitted it in, so there was no sort of finicky sort
of inspecting when people were and weren't working?
No, no. Well, I think you soon got a reputation
whether you swung the lead - lead swinger or keen to get on with the
job. But I became .... One episode when I applied to join
the air force as equipment officer I had no particular yen to be a
pilot, I was not a .... I was probably older than the young
people of my day who had no ambition other than to be a pilot.
But when I became more familiar with it at close quarters in the air
force I thought, 'Ah, this is the life. I would love to be a
pilot.' And I also got to know the medical officers at Richmond
and when I came up for a routine medical I saw an opportunity to see
if I could get myself passed fit for flying.
I might say I was a reasonably fit sort of a fellow in those
days. I'd been a miler of some note who ran for Queensland and
that sort of stuff, and used to train around the oval. Wilf Arthur
as a matter of interest, he came to the squadron as a cadet at
that stage. And I asked them could they give me a flying test,
medically, which they did and which I passed very well except for me
eyesight which was not exactly the best but they reckoned that, oh
well, there'd been some others got into the air force as pilots who
were probably not much better than me, so it was a fair shot.
When I went back to my unit, I rushed back to my commanding officer,
Wing Commander Seachamp and said, 'I've been passed fit for flying,
Sir. What do I have to do next?'. He looked
at me, asked me to repeat it and then said, 'Sit down'. He
pointed out that they had taken several months to train me as an
equipment officer, and equipment officers were fairly few and far
between but pilots were a penny a bunch, and he didn't give me any
chance of getting my transfer approved, and he certainly wouldn't
that was that.
So I went back to Alan Rawlinson and was grizzling away in mess that
night and he said, well, what sort of bloody fool was I, wanted to be a
taxi driver of an aeroplane, or be useful as an equipment
officer. I suspected that it was meant to comfort me which it
didn't succeed in doing but I must say that when I left the Middle
East I was quite satisfied, I was much happier to be an equipment
officer than a pilot officer.
Yes, that's interesting. Just a couple of other
aspects about your training, Dick. You made a very interesting
point about the training, or rather lack of training, that officers
were given in the general qualities of being effective officers.
Yes, this appalled me with the air force, right through
my service days. I'd, as I mentioned, risen to the dizzy ranks
of lance corporal in the army. To do which I had to attend
courses, was tutored on my responsibilities as an NCO and ostensibly
they were much greater with my officers. And I knew young men
who became officers and they told me what sort of training they'd had,
and basic training was looking after men, that was the prime
responsibility. It wasn't fighting men, it was looking after
men, and being sure that they understood, were taken care of,
quartered, fed, you would be the last man to go to sleep. You'd
make sure everybody else had a bed.
So when I arrived at the air force after being in Brisbane for about a
week or ten days or something I enquired, when did we see
the airmen? The officer who was one of my instructors looked
blankly at me and said, what did I mean, when do we see the
airmen? He said, 'They live over in the barracks over there, we
don't see them at all except at work and that's plenty of time'.
In fact I explained what I was about and he said, 'Oh, they wouldn't
give you a thank you'. And I think that was true, they wouldn't
have because been tutored to expect it. They regarded it as a
gross interference and loss of liberty and privacy and all those sort
But it always worried me that, in the air force there was no tuition in
leadership qualities or the requirement of handling men, man management
of any sort at all. If one came to the air force
with that sort of skill or capacity that was good luck, there was
nothing done in my experience to induce it. I can remember
pilots who graduated to eventually become COs of squadrons, they had
no idea in the wide world as to how they ought to command men, or what
was expected of them as commanders. If they happened to know,
God bless them.
We'll actually come to talk later about some of the
general qualities of particular COs, not in a personal sense, and that
will come out then, I guess. Just one other thing on this
relationship between officers and the men. Talking generally,
not just of your training period. Do you think you could
generalise to see a real difference in both the qualities and the
attitude of wartime officers versus permanent officers; wartime men
versus permanent men, or not?
(15.00) Well, I think there was a fundamental
difference in the basic approach. And I came in at a period, as
I say, right at the beginning of the war so I saw those officers who
were permanent force lists and I was on the permanent force list
strangely enough, myself, but we didn't see ourselves as permanent
officers. Those who, Alan Rawlinson for example, would have seen
himself as a permanent officer and Peter Jeffrey would have seen
himself as a permanent officer, but nonetheless they hadn't been so
long in the service as to be inured with the problems that I saw as
besetting the peacetime permanent officer.
were those problems?
Problems of lack of purpose, lack of direction, lack of pragmatism, and
being governed by the book, the holy book. I can
remember going to see an equipment officer and saying, 'What should I
do about such-and-such?'. And the first thing he'd do was then
up to his shelf and pull down Air Force Orders. And that wasn't
the sort of answer I was looking for at all, and I think that probably
encapsulates the attitude of permanent force people.
this extended down the ranks too?
Oh yes. Of course, I admit that the air force was governed by
rules and regulations and properly so, but nonetheless, as a wartime
entrant, with the prospects of war becoming imminent,
more imminent daily, I thought the approach would have, could have,
should have been different.
I think what you said about some of the adjutants you
saw in your first year in the air force was interesting in this
regard. These were older, often world war one men, I think.
The majority of adjutants we had at 2 Aircraft Depot
were first war air Flying Corps fellows who had volunteered for
service and been recommissioned and came in as adjutants and personnel
officers in these sorts of units. Some of them were very good,
some of them saw this revival of service as a revival of the good days
of war and they didn't seem to remember the need to observe the hard
training and hard attitudes and disparate attitudes, and in fact would
fail sometimes to make parades and make, just not turn up on a Monday
morning, probably having had a heavy weekend in Sydney or
something. I was the unit accountant officer and assistant
adjutant and I found myself more often than not the adjutant of the
That's interesting. Just moving on a bit, Dick, but
putting down for the record. I think, that at 2 Aircraft Depot
you were the paymaster for some time.
You then went on to Williamtown where a new air force base was
being opened up, I think, mainly to assemble men to go overseas.
I think you actually were the first officer there.
Yes, that's right. It functioned as an embarkation
depot, particularly for 450 Squadron and subsequently for later units
only I didn't stay there long enough for witnessing that.
Right. Well, just putting on record a few things
you told me. There was the embarkation, I know, of
450 Squadron and being station equipment officer, you were not
only running your own equipment but advising the officers of new units
Yes, that's right. They were, well, most equipment
officers in the service in those days were inexperienced and they were
certainly inexperienced so it was a bit of the blind leading the
blind. We seemed to get there one way and another.
One thing we may just talk about though, is this episode
in the sergeants' mess. It, of course, does refer back rather to
what you were saying about these somewhat artificial divisions.
Tell us that story.
Oh well, it was always thought, as far as equipment and
ground staff officers were concerned, a privilege to be invited to the
sergeants' mess. Some possibly abused that privilege but
personally I and most of my colleagues viewed it importantly and you
stayed and had two drinks very formally and left punctiliously.
So it was very much a mark of confidence and respect in
Yes. There was a mutual mark of esteem and we
enjoyed each other's company, worked together, and there was never any
question about lack of paying attention to rank or any of those sort
of things, never.
(20.00) Just as a matter of interest, in the mess,
the sergeants' mess. Were you 'Sir' or were you 'Dick'?
Sir. It was only in the squadron itself in the
field off duty, having a drink with men, which was pretty rare because
grog was very scarce in the unit. But in the desert if we got a
bottle of grog or something and there was a session with their boys,
they would call you Dick or the officers by their Christian name as
you always called them by their Christian name anyway, although you
occasionally called him Sergeant or Warrant Officer or something or
I remember an episode where there was a change of draft on the squadron
- I think this is important - and one of our flight commanders, Peter
Henderson, became, had a few drinks with his outgoing
flight and his incoming flight sergeant. The next morning he was
walking towards the ops tent when the three sergeants, the two
outgoing and the one incoming were approaching him, as is the case in
such events usually after that sort of fraternal greeting or fraternal
evening there'd be a punctilious desire to pay regard and respect and
the officer would be saluted. I wouldn't think they would be
saluted on any other occasion. Well, on this morning, 'Morning,
Peter', sorry, correction, 'Sir, good morning', salute from the two
outgoing sergeants, the older hands. The new bloke said, 'Good
day, Pete'. They were walking abreast, the two passing elbowed
the, with their right elbow or left elbow, the new coming sergeant who
was on the inside and lay him flat on his back in the dust, teaching
him the lesson that you could be familiar but there was a time and
place for everything.
a very interesting anecdote.
It's a really strong picture of the discipline in the
squadron. I was shocked by what I thought was lack of discipline
when I first arrived there. Oh dear, fancy this.
Could we perhaps come back to that later, because in
fact I had interrupted up to the story, just going to the sergeants'
mess story. I understand you were rather ill-treated or ...
I got myself a bad mark from the commanding officer who
listened to the report of his station administrative officer, a first
war service policeman who had all the marks, the less popular marks of
an army service policeman, army military policeman. And I was
hauled before the area equipment officer to give an account of myself
and when I related the incident, the area equipment officer entirely
took my side. There was no record of the incident there but I
still had my papers marked. I wanted a posting to the Middle
East, somewhere overseas, it wasn't the Middle East particularly it
was Singapore I hoped in those days.
this was something of a black mark?
Well, let's go on to the actual posting. I know
you did ask for Singapore and didn't get it. Of course that was
rather a stroke of luck.
But the Middle East, you did get a fairly mundane appointment.
Yes, I was told I'd have a draft to the Middle East but
I wouldn't be too happy with the posting. It was to Base
Accounts in, I've forgotten the name of the place down in Italian East
Africa. And I said, 'How do I go there?'. He said, 'Via
Cairo'. I said, 'Well, thank you, Sir. I'll happily accept
the posting if I can get myself to the Middle East if I can't get
myself into 3 Squadron or some better, the appointment to Base
Accounts will deserve to put up with the consequences.'
Right, better to act on the spot. You were, I
know, attached for a brief time to Bankstown and then
embarkation. When you came to leave Australia, how did you
feel? The war was really in earnest now, you were off to it, how
Very exciting prospect. And the massive ships
lined up in Sydney Harbour, huge convoys, the biggest convoy that ever
left Australia. The
Queen Elizabeth was the ship I was on with a large draft of
twelve or fourteen hundred air force people. The Queen Mary,
not the Aquitania ....
think you said the Ile de France?
Ile de France, yes, and two or three other major
ships whose names escape me now.
I'd assume with those large ships there was no question
of slipping unannounced out of the Heads.
(25.00) Oh no, there wasn't any public
display. I mean, you just woke up in the morning and left sort
of thing and, or they left whatever the time and tide required.
But were there yachts, ferries, et cetera, tagging along
farewelling you, or not?
Oh, no. No ceremony at all connected with it.
Well, let's push on a bit. The voyage to Perth I understand was
rough to say the least, crossing the Bight. Perth and beyond
there, the Indian Ocean, I understand once you left Perth there was
great disquiet, to put it mildly, on the part of the men?
Well, that was in Perth actually. There was a lot
of discontent on the, among the other ranks because they were being
robbed as they saw it by the ship's crew. The ship's crew was
taking advantage of various supply possessions they enjoyed to
diminish the rations available to, or to lower the quality of rations
available to troops; grog and so on. And that was accentuated by
the fact that in Perth the troops had thought that they would get
shore leave and there was great anxiety to not have shore leave
because this meant it would have [inaudible] abroad the fact that
there was a convoy of this size on its way and heaven knows what the
consequences might be.
And there were [raiders?] sensibly [?] in the area, or
potentially in the area so concern that the secrecy should be
maintained at all costs; no shore leave. And that on top of the
other discontent, and conditions certainly were pretty rugged
downstairs; masses of men and cramped quarters, the stench was
unbelievable, food was poor, so, you know, it was fertile ground for
unhappiness and rebellion.
I think you were saying that the outright, well,
rebellion if you like, was led by the, mostly by the army and you were
suggesting it pointed to a real difference between the quality of men
in the army and the air force.
Yes, I think the army were all fairly new recruits, of course, they
weren't permanent army people, they were new recruits and they'd joined
the service to fight a war and all that sort of stuff and
here they were being treated like monkeys and they didn't, resented
it, and they would let their heads take over from ....
Discipline and so on hadn't been ingrained into them at that
stage. Airmen on the other hand I think, even though some of
them were fairly new recruits, nonetheless were, had some service
background and moreover the majority are tradesmen of one sort or
another, and that training injects discipline in my view which stands
them in good stead for whatever they were doing in the services.
Therefore I think there would be an element of two-thirds, one-third
discipline, inherent discipline, in people in the air force.
Perhaps we'd better not pursue this issue too deeply,
simply because of time on the tape and so on. But I understand
yourself with two other officers did confront your men and basically a
settlement was worked out.
Flight Lieutenant Toohey was our OC Draft. He was
one of the brewing family of Tooheys, and I had a high regard for
Irving Toohey. He decided to front the men and extricate them
from the mass of people in the milling, in this great hall where the
meeting was, on one of the major decks on the Elizabeth.
And we marched into the room, there was Toohey, myself and O'Donnell
in that order, marched in with a horrible feeling of not knowing what
was going on behind you, not being game to look. Toohey marched
into the centre of the hall and said that he understood there were
problems, and so far as the air force was concerned he proposed not to
discuss them with them there but he would see them up on the sundeck,
A deck, or whatever it was, in ten minutes' time and meet them there.
END TAPE 1, SIDE A
BEGIN TAPE 1, SIDE B
Identification: Edward Stokes with Dick Hickson,
Squadron 3, tape one, side two.
When all were mustered at the appointed place Toohey
proceeded to talk to the fellows and made them aware that, yes, there
were problems and some of them were being addressed, some of them they
could fix and they would be fixed, others were beyond the ship's means
or our means to rectify. And then he asked were there any other
problems. And somebody said that, I think two or three fellows
complained bitterly that the beer was being watered. He made it,
he said, 'Oh well, you know, as far as I'm concerned you know my name,
my family's been concerned with the brewing of beer for the last two
or three generations and to the best of my knowledge and belief
there's always been ninety-five per cent water and somebody's got the
gall, you've got the gall to complain because somebody's adding
another bloody one, five per cent'.
that was touché.
That brought the house down and created, did a tremendous amount of
good in creating goodwill in that ship, and having an understanding
between our men who'd been assembled from all over Australia to join the
ship, so we'd had no previous connection with
ninety-eight per cent of them.
Right. Well, I know another thing that happened,
we might just put this down for the record, is one of the future
padres of 3 Squadron, I forget his name.
Bob Davies. Stan O'Donnell and I were in the
appointed orderly room which we'd snaffled for that purpose. It
was a fairly large room, it was airless, had no air-conditioning in
it. In the middle of the Indian Ocean it was as hot as hell and
we were sitting there one day working in our shorts and no shirts and
a figure presented itself at the door, this timid little knock, and
said, could he come in. He was .... And I said, 'Who are
you?'. Well, he was Padre Davies, he thought he might be able to
do something for us. And I said, 'Well, what the bloody hell do
you think you could do, Padre?'. He said, 'Oh, well', very
mildly and quietly, 'I thought I might have been able to arrange a few
concerts and a boxing tournament or two, something like that'. I
said, 'Come aboard, you're in, you've got a job'. And he was a
magnificent fellow that, I obviously apologised for my inherent
rudeness and he never seemed to take great exception, or fail to
understand the causes of it. When subsequently, the liaison
officer, Group Captain Duncan, Bill Duncan, rang me up in the desert
somewhere and said, 'I've got a fellow wants to join the padre's,
chaplain's service in the air force. He's a [inaudible]
padre.' I said, 'What's his name?'. He said,
'Davies'. I said, 'Don't let him out of your sight. He's
about the best recruit you're likely to get ever.' So he was the
third of the valuable - invaluable to the air force - trio of padres;
McNamara, Johnny McNamara, Fred McKay and Bob Davies.
Yes, that's interesting. I've heard a lot about
those padres. They obviously did a great deal of good.
Well, going on perhaps to the end of the journey, obviously the
concerts and so on I assume took a great deal of that pressure off.
Yes, [inaudible] concerts contribution, very attractive.
Right. Arriving in the Middle East, it was at Port
Tewfik, a very different place to Australia, what was your initial
impression of the place and the people?
Oh, wide-eyed and, recognised my lack of knowledge and
experience and, but whacko, we were in the Middle East so let's see
what it had in store for us. And I think that would be the
attitude of most Australians. There's the ilk of that Australian
attitude which always complains that somebody's not doing it the way
it is done in Australia, the way we used to do it at home or something
or other, but they were in the minority and they soon get pulled into
gear with the facts of life.
(5.00) And most people appreciated the differences?
Well, moving on to the actual work in hand. You
headed into Cairo where a friend of yours, I think, who was 3
Squadron's accountant officer was temporarily in Cairo and hoping to
be there longer, I think.
He'd attached himself to the former CO of 3 Squadron,
McLachlan, who was the liaison officer in Cairo and he and Alec Atwill
had formed an association which, I don't know how effective it was
from a liaison point of view, I'm not able to say but they seemed to
be enjoying the fruits of fleshpots of Cairo to some extent. And
I thought Alec was very off-hand and not very pleased to see me,
considering that he and I were course mates, but I didn't understand
why until I realised that he probably had a vested interest in staying
in Cairo and he thought that here was a fellow who arrived from
Australia and might take his place there.
When I explained that I was in fact posted to Base
Accounts wherever that was, but I wanted to go to 3 Squadron, his face
lit up and he couldn't write out a rail warrant fast enough to put me
on a train to 3 Squadron. So everybody was well satisfied and
Mm, very mutual arrangement. When you went to
3 Squadron, Dick, I think your key role was as paymaster but you
were also assistant in charge of equipment. Is that correct?
Oh yes, 3 Squadron was a unique air force unit in that
serving overseas and detached as it was from its bases in Australia,
it was of a size larger than that of any other unit that I'm aware of
in the service. And it had duplicated roles in many respects and
in fact there were always two equipment officers. One of them
served as the paymaster and was assistant equipment bloke.
There were frequently two medical officers, there wasn't at that time
but later there came to often be two medical officers on the unit.
And of course, that fitted in very well with the scheme of operation which developed in the squadron and probably was there before
my arrival, but when 3 Squadron had been converted from army
co-op to fighter unit exclusively and they shed therefore their A
Flight, and 3 Squadron to my knowledge is the only fighter unit
that had a B and C Flight and no A Flight, and that historically was
always the situation. And I reminded the current serving
3 Squadron at Williamtown, and suggested they might adopt it too.
I think you were saying that the squadron was basically
divided into the men and equipment who remained at a base camp and the
B and C Flights which would leap-frog as you advanced and so on.
That's so. The base squadron .... There were
three elements to the squadron: B Flight, C Flight capable of
operating under their own steam with a bit of support by some
personnel drawn from the base unit which was the main element of
personnel on the squadron. And all the heavier maintenance
people and all those sort of people, were retained in the one unit,
and they moved forward, say, B Flight moved up to be the forward
flight, C would move up and base would come up and then C would move
on to the next flight and so it went on. I was going to say, and
rising from that we developed a format which related to the ops tent
which was the first tent on the airfield and which set the focal point
for the organisation of the squadron. And we had a plan that the
flights occupied and base occupied set positions in relation to that
ops tent so that therefore you could move a flight in or out in the
middle of the night and they knew where to put tents. And so on
and precisely they only had to discover the date and everything else
fell into place and that saved a lot of trouble, a lot of
disorganisation. I wasn't aware of any other unit that had the
(10.00) Just continuing on this theme, Dick, I
think that you were saying that one of the points of this larger
number of men in No. 3 Squadron meant that, for example, men could go
on leave and come back and yet the squadron itself could continue
Yes, that's right. Of course, leave was, pilots
had leave according to their operations and we ran camps down on the
Mediterranean from time to time, rest camps for local purposes.
But as far as the airmen were concerned in general terms the leave was
dictated by geographical situation in which the squadron was
functioning. Nonetheless if sickness or hospitalisation or a
need for leave in specific cases, we'd arrange for them to go back to
base areas like Alexandria or something and we had enough strength to
be able to sustain ourselves and maintain the situation, the
operational situation, that is.
And so in that case a man would come up from base as a
That's so. Internally we could function as a unit
and reinforce ourselves so to speak. Later in the war some
relief was obtained also, and given, to meet air force requirements,
RAAF requirements in the ATS units and so on by transfer of personnel
from one squadron to another. I don't know to what extent or I
don't know what the, whether there was a specific policy to deal with
that, but I know that it happened.
One other point that I think's an important one to bring
out is the point you were making that whereas pilots basically served
a tour depending on the number of hours and so on, the squadron as a
whole just kept going.
Well, airmen would have stayed at least twelve months,
mostly eighteen months, two years, as a tour of duty. I know,
speaking of myself, I had no leave ever while I was at the Middle
East, nor did I want it, except you might break here and there or a
forty-eight hours doing something or other, or on the way to do this
you'd stop off and do that, and have a breather but there was no
regular leave. Airmen got probably a week here or there
occasionally but that's how it was.
Just on that point, obviously not when there was action
on, you know, I mean, if you were retreating or whatever, you just did
it. But when life was quiet was Sunday kept as a day apart?
We didn't know what day it was. I remember going
into Air Force Headquarters, I was looking for a particular bit of
equipment and Tiny Gilmore, the service policemen of the unit had sort
of attached himself to me as a sort of general aide and PA or
whatever, was my driver. And I came out of the headquarters and
got into the ute, grumbling and grizzling and said, 'Bloody so-and-so,
he wouldn't know what day it was'. So we drove about another ten
kilometres down the road and Tiny said, 'Excuse me, Sir, what day is
it?', and I hadn't a clue either.
Right. So by implication you just kept going,
there wasn't one day a week taken off?
No. As a religious question, however, when a padre
arrived on the unit, the word went out to the adjutant, or the
equipment officer who was functioning as the adjutant on that
particular flight, 'There's a padre here, we want you in the mess for
a service tonight', or some time, or midday, whatever it was.
And I remember we had a RAF padre, he wasn't a bad fellow but he
arrived, announced that he was on the squadron and there'd be a
gathering of the fellows. And we had to parade all the stores
personnel and the orderly room personnel to give him an
audience. But when McNamara or McKay or Davies arrived the whole
squadron turned out, irrespective of religious, so there was no
The men were more interested in the character of
...priest than the religious aspect of ...
Yes, Catholics might have a special mass or something
occasionally but nonetheless there was a general service so the
Well, let's actually go on to your in fact joining the
squadron which may be stepping back in time a little bit. Of
course you were a little bit older than probably the average run of
the men, this was at the end of the Syrian campaign, at I think
Rayak, sorry. Peter Jeffrey's the CO. What
was your first impression, your general impression, of the squadron as
(15.00) Well, I was shattered by the lack of
discipline, airmen and NCOs didn't salute officers and called each
other by their Christian names, it was very slack to my preliminary
and cursory experience.
How does that tie in with the, what you have already
expressed, as your high regard for Peter Jeffrey, and a regard that's
been expressed by other people, too?
Yes, well, I'll lead to that. I rapidly realised
that I was completely wrong, had the, absolutely the wrong assessment
of discipline. I'd been used to pukka stations and it would be
undreamt of to behave any other way than I'm saying, saluting and all
the rest of it. In 3 Squadron the discipline was much deeper,
much more real, much more practical. I mentioned that incident
of those NCOs and their flight commander and their respect for
him. There was never any doubt as to who the boss was, and he
knew what he was doing, and he got the respect because he knew what he
was doing. And he got his, the respect from him.
And I remember, you know, the airmen would never salute an officer
around the squadron or on .... The only time they'd salute was if
there was a parade in the CO's office and the orderly
room trailer, that was a formal occasion and they would salute
then. I remember on the other hand when you'd meet them by
chance in Alexandria and they were on leave, they'd embarrass you by,
the three or four of them walking along the street together, making a
point of a most punctilious salute. They weren't going to be put
down by these Pommie bastards or anybody else who thought they were
ignorant Aussies and had no respect.
1091 (261091) Flight Lieutenant Staveley Frederick Norton Hickson (left),
2147 (262147 Pilot Officer Colin Goderich Greeves (centre) and Leading Aircraftman A Steele (right) in the Orderly Room of No. 3 Squadron, RAAF
Just talking about the Pommies, whether bastards or not,
how did this ...? That's very interesting what you said about
what you describe as the deeper discipline in 3 Squadron. How
did that compare with the discipline as you saw it when you
occasionally brushed up against British units?
Oh, they had discipline, the British units, and the
longer they'd been in the desert the more they got like 3
Squadron. If they were a new unit then it was very pukka and
very formal but I had .... Look, any units, I think, that had
been under, on active service had that attitude in that respect or
they weren't any good and they didn't stay long as active units; that
was an inherent part of discipline in the services on active service -
the respect. Peter Jeffrey's word was law, he didn't have to
issue orders. He didn't have to make a big fellow of himself or
raise his voice.
I would assume that the corollary of your point about 3
Squadron's discipline as you came to learn it properly, was that
morale was high.
Very high, that was the criteria they always maintained
serviceability of the squadron aircraft was second to none and that
couldn't be beaten. There was only one time when it deteriorated
and that was in the days of Dixie Chapman and the discipline and the
morale was very poor.
Equipment: obviously your second role but
obviously something you were very close to. How good or bad was
that when you joined the squadron in terms of planes, transport and
also all the back-up you needed for repairs and maintenance?
Oh, it was very good. You see, we had the
advantage of an enemy source of supply for a lot of our requirements;
particularly in the transport field, we had a very good fleet of
German and Italian vehicles. There were specialist
vehicles: we had a workshop trailer that was of Italian origin
that was second to none, and we were the envy of most squadrons'
engineering sections. We could virtually do a complete overhaul
on the squadron with the gear that we had so the squadron was always
well supplied in the area of the general environment in which they
Obviously there were times when, in the Middle East, as a command they
went short of things because supplies hadn't been able to reach there
because of disruptions in sea traffic or something of
that sort. But in general terms whatever was there we had more
than their share because our NCOs and airmen were very good at lifting
bits and pieces that might come in handy for the squadron, and the
discipline supply was good also.
Of course there're always stories, I think, that
Australians had perhaps more initiative and therefore were better at
lifting things here and there than the British troops. Do you
believe that's true or was that a myth that Australians liked to
Oh no, that's very true, but you had to be careful and
it depended on the CO and officers to make sure that it was kept
within bounds and didn't get, go over the fence. There were a
couple of times when it did and fellows got punished. And often
that punishment was from their other ranks, not from, the officers
didn't have to do anything.
(20.00) Is this just where they were lifting things
for their own personal good or transgressing private rights?
Yes, could be that, or could be just thoughtless:
it might come in handy type of thing, and it wasn't a disciplined
approach to the question.
Right, so in other words you're suggesting that the
lifting that did go on was quite purposeful, clearly thought out.
Yes, there had to be a perceived need to justify the
Dick, just to differentiate between lifting material,
for example abandoned in the retreat of the enemy or perhaps seeing
some item of civilian property where there was a clear owner of that
property around the place, was that a distinction or not? If the
item was wanted, even if it was a civilian-owned item, was it taken?
Oh, to my experience never. The civilian rights
would be respected, but I have to say that we didn't operate as a
squadron anywhere in the civilian areas. I mean we wouldn't, in
Alexandria or Cairo, pinch anything of civilians; never dream of
it. But Vichy French in Syria; anything that the French
abandoned that was fair game. One of the best cars we had was a
Ford, fancy model, I've forgotten the name of it now, which for a long
time was the CO's car on the squadron was a Vichy - had belonged to a
Vichy French general.
Just one other point about equipment, you were saying
before that the items such as food, clothing, et cetera were drawn
from the general army supply, but of course, for instance, air parts
were the responsibility of the air force. What was the sort of
process there? I mean, obviously there was a constant need for
aircraft parts. Were they constantly being fed through to some
base in the Middle East or were you feeding back orders saying what
you needed that governed supply?
The supply chain was: forward you had the squadron
and our own base party which was, almost functioned like an air stores
park in the early days, subsequently we had well organised air stores
parks that were forward supply depots, if you like, for service of
aeroplanes, whatever was functioning in that area and that
command. And they were based on stores depots in areas of
Alexandria, [Hasbala?] and those sort of places. And there was a
headquarters, supply headquarters, that covered the whole range of
technical spares and clothing and that sort of thing.
Air force, RAAF clothing was virtually non-existent but
you always seemed to get supplies of it from the RAF to meet our
needs. The army didn't supply clothing or boots or any of that
sort of thing but petrol, motor fuel and rations they had to
supply. And I suppose there was some area of barracks gear that
they supplied, I can't remember now precisely where the division fell
in that area.
Could we just turn now again to the sort of general
issue of leadership and so on? One thing that interests me
is: did airmen pay a very high regard to the squadron's leading
pilots in terms of fighting ability, number of planes shot down, et
cetera, or did they just see that as, you know, some men perhaps were
lucky, they were in the right situation? Were they particularly
interested in the flying ability as against the personal qualities of
Oh, very much so. They had adopted the pilot they
were responsible for, and his flight crew attached to a pilot
virtually, to service that aeroplane and whoever flew it was very much
the apple of their eye; good or bad. I mean, they would be
critical among themselves of a lack of ability or care or discipline
or whatever but nevertheless very proud and very loyal to that
individual. At any cost they would service that aeroplane, you
know, the fitters were aeroplane engine and armourers. It was a
very personal attachment; both ways.
Just going on to talk about this issue of leadership,
and of course the focus here isn't on the rights and wrongs of
particular individuals as individuals but on the qualities.
Peter Jeffrey I understand was, or you regard as an outstanding man, I
think you suggested some of the later squadron leaders perhaps didn't
have his experience or touch.
(25.00) Well, that's true. As I said earlier,
going back to the lack of training of air force people and officers in
particular, and especially those who were about to move into command,
it wasn't contemplated that they had to do anything other than fly an
aeroplane. If they were a good pilot that's all that mattered;
seemed to be the official view which I thought was a serious neglect
by the air force organisation of a very real need.
Peter Jeffrey in my view was an older man, what experience he had
before the war I don't remember or if he had much
experience, but nonetheless he was of a calibre of a man and of timbre
of person that commanded respect, and had a good commonsense capacity
to handle people and to know what was sensible and what wasn't
sensible and what was fair and just and not fair and so on.
But you regret then seeing some of the younger officers who found
themselves overnight forced into either commanding a flight or more
elevated to squadron commander. It could be the result of a few
prangs and bad casualties and there they are CO of a
squadron, or of a wing or whatever without really any training for
that capacity much.
They could rely on their adjutant or equipment administrative staff to
supply some of the needs but you can't do it all for a CO;
a CO's a CO and if he makes a wrong move or handles himself poorly it
takes a fair bit of work to recover the lost ground. Adjutants
or people like the adjutant have a responsibility to protect their
commanding officer against those sorts of things, and if he loses
ground to recover it, or endeavour to recover it for him.
Yes, that's interesting. In fact Bobby Gibbes
himself said to me just the other day on tape that he found himself,
or the whole process of his becoming squadron leader almost,
well, both magical and ridiculous, I think. Oh, he used
words of that tone in that he realised he was ill-prepared. You
were telling a story, I think, of a man on charge with him that I
think reflects that.
Yes, well, I think the adjutant and I were present and
my service policeman, Tiny Gilmore, was parading a fellow for AWL, I
think at Amiriya. We were very concerned to give our unit leave
but it had to be organised, and as we were only a few miles out of
Alexandria we were very concerned that if that, it could easily get
out of hand. We could have lost half the squadron if they went
off on leave and forgot to come home, and if there was any thought
that they could do this with impunity. So that when this man
went AWL, unfortunately for him, he was there to be made an example of
so that nobody in future would treat it lightly.
And I recall this fellow was being paraded in the orderly room in front
of Bobby Gibbes. It was the first occasion he had to deal with a
situation such as this and I think the conversation probably, I'm not
certain of the words, probably went along, 'Well, what
am I going to give him?'. Well we said, 'You've first got to
make up your mind that he's guilty'. 'Oh, yeah. Well, if
he's guilty then what am I going to give him?', you see. So we
explained about that and the need for care in making sure that the
penalty was adequate to be the deterrent we expected it to be.
And Bobby of course - in orderly room trailer the desks are at either end of the trailer so the commanding officer can't sit behind the desk and address the accused - he turns around in his swivel chair, and Bobby foolishly crossed his legs. And of course anybody, even experienced people would be, if they were nervous, it presents itself straight away with a trembling foot: Bobby's was going up and down like a yo-yo when he delivered the coup-de-grace as far as this fellow was concerned; and he, poor fellow, got some days in field punishment which caused a bit of anguish around the squadron. But that's the sort of thing that, there were several elements in that incident that I think demonstrated the lack of care, lack of training of commanding officers.
END TAPE 1, SIDE B
BEGIN TAPE 2, SIDE A
Identification: This is Edward Stokes with Dick
Hickson, tape two, side one, No. 3 Squadron.
Dick, going on with the story of the squadron, you were
saying that in terms of the general movement of B and C Flight and the
Base Depot that you would spend some time at the base, some time with
different, well, B or C Flight. How did that work out in more
It sort of came about, I suppose, when we'd, the
squadron would be together and then a detachment was moving forward;
we'd decide at the time who was, for example, I served with Bill
Macinnis quite a bit. Bill had a lot of bad health so that he
was a very fragile fellow with more guts than most other people put
together but occasionally I'd say, 'Well, look Bill, I'll go up on B
Flight or C Flight for this job; look after that for you', or look
after that, or it would just be agreed that that was the way it would
Other times when, after Bill left and came back to
Australia, I just don't recall now, I then became the equipment
officer and other people came in as my assistants so to speak and had,
usually therefore lacked some experience so it was a question of what
had to be done as to who was best able to do it would determine those
I take it from that that you yourself must have endured
a fair bit of to-ing and fro-ing.
Oh yes, I think I was about two years in the desert and
one couldn't contemplate being anywhere else but the desert. You
got a curious sort of detachment, a lack of .... You'd be
offered an opportunity to go back so I had to go back from Agebabia
[sic] I think it was, to collect the gear to re-arm the squadron with
Kittyhawks. And they said, 'Oh, you're lucky to be going
back'. I couldn't think of anything worse frankly to have to go
back to a post, but I obviously enjoyed it when I got there.
That's an interesting point, you used the word
'detachment'. Was that solely a function of the fact that you
were with a frontline unit that was obviously involved in essential
and valuable fighting, or was it also the desert environment that
perhaps gave that sense of, a keen sense of being alive?
Oh, the desert environment induced that. You were
on your own; you were, I say you were on your own, the unit was on its
own I mean, or in its element environment in the wing. That, the
whole world revolved around that small circle of contacts and
requirements and personalities and all the rest of it. It was
very much a detached world and you belonged to it and you had your
place in it and everything revolved within that world and the order of
things was not to be disturbed if anything could be done to preserve
Do you think your bush background had something to do
with your appreciation of this lack of other people?
Probably, yes, I think so. Oh, as a child I had,
an only child living in the bush; I didn't go to school till I was
nine; not that we were that far away from anywhere but we didn't have
motorcars and things in those days; horse and buggies and
things. I can go down the back and lose myself almost.
(5.00) We were just talking about the impact of
isolation in the environment and on this feeling of aliveness you were
saying down here at the back of your house, Dick.
Yes, the same thing, I enjoy it; detachment and the
birds and the bees and the trees and the plants and it's all very much
a part of life.
I think Australia really has.
Going back to the Middle East, records, obviously an
important part of any unit and you were directly connected with
them. You were saying, I think, they were generally left at the
Oh yes, the personnel records, pay records, all that
sort of stuff were kept in the, in what was virtually the headquarters
of the squadron, and that had to be taken care of and maintained, and
was maintained by good people who looked after them.
Occasionally they'd have relief by going up front with the other
flight to do this or that or something ....
And you were saying about pay, obviously an important
thing for the men, that it was regularly entered but irregularly paid,
Yes, I can't really recall now the I dotting, T
crossing, in fact I probably didn't do very much of it in any case, I
had a very good pay corporal who looked after it for me, Corporal
Lazarus I recall - Lazarus, good fellow - and look after the records,
referring any questions of postings or elevations or whatever.
The pay books were maintained like a bank book really I suppose;
credits. You could work out a fellow's pay entitlement even if it
hadn't been entered. There was that date, his rate of pay was
fixed and you could calculate the number of days from
thereon in, giving the credit, and then he may be allotting certain
portion of it had to go back home, or he could decide to send it home
and those sort of things; it was a very good system.
Right. One thing that I know did create a certain
degree of dissension or dissatisfaction was the promotions of men in
the Middle East. I think you were suggesting before that there
was a degree of envy on the part of men back in Australia in all this.
Yes, I think you'd have to look at the different
branches of the service probably. As far as pilots are
concerned, general duties people, the permanent force people wanted to
get active service on their record and hopefully gongs and things like
this which would run to their credit in subsequent peacetime
duties. As far as ground staff officers were concerned you were
probably envied by those people who couldn't get an overseas posting
and that would have entailed the majority of the fellows who were
running the system at headquarters in Melbourne or 'Headwaters' we
referred to it. I personally had the feeling that I couldn't
expect to serve in the ....
I might say that I finished up being the most senior squadron leader in
the equipment branch, being highly overdue for promotion
and subsequently had served all ranks up to a group captain; I never
had an acting rank in my life. And I put that down subsequently
to, substantially to the fact that my superiors envied the fact that I
had all this wonderful experience in the Middle East and India and
places like this and I couldn't expect that and promotion too.
But you were also suggesting I think that that lack of
more rapid promotion wasn't, for you at least, an issue.
Oh no, I wasn't greatly concerned. The only thing
that concerned me about it when I came back and had to call people
'sir' that I didn't reckon were entitled to it, what shall I say, the
credit that it implied that they had. And looking at it postwar,
that was an absolute anathema to me to think that some of these
fellows who had never done anything or distinguished themselves or,
not so much that, but they hadn't got the attitude of service and
ability to do their job, and weren't relying on ability but were
relying on rank that irritated me very much.
Yes, well, we'll touch on that when we talk about the
end of the war. Just generally, living conditions:
obviously they varied a great deal as you moved from place to place,
and I'd assume Syria was far more comfortable area generally than the
desert, but overall how would you describe them?
(10.00) Oh, they were pretty rough but, for
example, most of us I suppose and certainly I had a, all the officers
I shared the tent with; there was the armament officer, Edmonds, and
equipment officers, at least or Bill Macinnis in his day, and the
adjutant then, a man named King. We all shared a tent, we all
had a sleeping bag on a stretcher of some sort; the linen didn't get
changed once a week; you were lucky if it had linen at all; and you'd
glare at the blanket .... We had freedom from lice and that sort
of thing, there was none of those problems. And tucker was
pretty basic, bully beef and, in fact enjoyed bully beef, tinned
stuff, very little fresh vegetables but occasionally you'd get a load
of fresh vegetables and that sort of thing.
Did you get much citrus fruit? I was just thinking
of the Middle East being ...
Yes. I don't think so, I don't remember it, I
don't think so. The grog was very rare, scarce, army did better
I think than the air force. We rarely got rations.
Just on grog: were you aware at any time, this is
in the Middle East of grog being run, I mean in a commercial sense
rather than people occasionally bringing back a few beers for their
Oh no, never, absolutely never, no, not at all.
The basic supply wasn't available in any case and civilians didn't
have it so that was it.
Toohey hadn't established a brewery.
Well, let's move on to something different, Dick.
It was after the period in Libya and before the advance following that
into Tobruk, towards Tobruk that the squadron was re-equipped with
Kittyhawks, obviously a great plane, or so the pilots say. How
was that for you?
That was from El Alamein. I think I used the wrong
name. I think I said Agebabia but El Alamein I remember was
where I went from to get the equipment necessary and set up the chain
of supplies and so on to re-equip the Tomahawks. It was a very
similar aeroplane to the Tomahawk and I don't remember any particular
servicing difficulties. As far as the engineers were concerned
we had very skilled engineers and very competent technical fellows and
fitters and ...
But in terms of, or in the re-equipping process, was
there a great hiatus and then a very difficult time-consuming period
of reorganising your lines of supply, or did they just follow through
Oh no, they were pretty efficient as I recall. I
remember going around Helwan, the big RAF stores depot in the Middle
East, looking for bits of gear and one thing and another and they'd
carried dispersal out to a high degree and in fact had lost some of
the gear themselves. And I remember marching around in the
desert kicking lumps of sand till we found an engine because they'd
put them out and they'd had heavy bombings in that area at one stage
and a lot of this equipment had been safely dispersed and buried in
deep dugouts, holes dug in the ground and covered over very safely
because it was a dry climate and engines were properly protected, but
it became fairly difficult to get them; we didn't have mine detectors
in those days. But anyway they located them - it was only an
anecdote of that episode.
And compared with current day computer storage systems that are in
vogue, the RAF corporal or sergeant would stand on the ground and he had
civilian Italian, at least Egyptian civilians, pretty primitive fellows
and he commanded them and they'd scamper around the
fixtures about thirty feet off the ground. The way that he'd
retrieve a nut or a bolt from a specific bin that he wanted was quite
remarkable - pretty to watch.
That's most interesting. Well, let's move on a
little bit. After the Syrian period, the first occasion on which
the squadron was actively involved was on the general advance towards
Tobruk and then beyond there, before of course yet another
retreat. What was your recollection of that period of advancing?
(15.00) It was a very traumatic experience going
over the battlegrounds as you did sometimes a day later than the army
advance - tanks and the wreckage left over by war was quite
horrific. We also had the commitment as far as ground staff
officers were concerned to go look for our pilots that had been shot
down; and we were given map references to try and track their bodies
and see that they were properly catered for, properly marked. I
remember, just to give one illustration, the battle occurred up on the
coastal fringe, down south was a no man's land ...
is over the escarpment on the plateau?
Yes, or wherever, once you got beyond - it was marked on the map of
about, say, fifty kilometres or something - below that anything was
likely to happen; you were likely to find a German or a
Frenchman or a Britishman, British soldier, or whatever, all scouting,
all touring round and they wouldn't take much notice of you unless you
were hostile to them specifically, they just went about their business
whatever it was. You see, these were the days of long range
desert group and all these sort of people. SAS are the modern
counterparts of some of these services.
I remember going off with Col Grieves I think it was, or Barney Terry,
but I'm sure it was Col, to go look for a fellow named
McTaggart whom I'd, whose family I knew in Brisbane funnily enough,
but he'd been shot down south of the battle zone. You'd stop,
there'd be nothing in sight, you'd see a vehicle and ignore it, you'd
stay there for perhaps, on this occasion I remember making a cup of
tea, boiling the billy, which you did by scooping up a heap of sand
and pouring petrol on it, and lighting it. A 'wog' arrived out
of nowhere, he just sort of appeared, he was standing beside you, you
wouldn't see him come, you wouldn't see him go; they were very clever
and of course made their livelihood out of roaming about and ...
So they no doubt had a much closer feeling than you as
strangers did to the minor depressions and so on in the landscape that
could easily conceal you.
Yes. If the army wanted lessons in using ground as they
use it in the army, the term, they'd be the experts. I wanted to
say that we found this McTaggart's body, he'd been buried in a very
bad way and of course the terrain was pretty - in that part - was
pretty stony and Colin and I had very primitive tools and we got to
work and dug a better hole than the one he'd been in and put him in
that. But you went back to the unit and 'Where have you
been?'. 'Oh, we'd been down south looking for fellows', and that
would be the end of it, we wouldn't pursue that question with the
You mean in the sense that the airmen didn't, at a
deeper sense, really want to know.
Let's just pursue that for a moment because it's certainly never been
talked about on any of these tapes I've made. It's
very sad obviously but perhaps significant. The, I mean,
obviously you must have faced appalling sights, I'd assume, knowing
how planes can finish up. How did you cope with that? And
also were the bodies always buried on site, or were they sometimes
brought back to be taken to larger cemeteries?
Oh well, later they would have probably been taken back
and picked up by proper arms of the services whose job it was to look
after these things but ...
But it seems as though, in this case of McTaggart, that
you would have located and identified the grave so it could be again
Oh, yes, marked it as best we could so it can be picked
up and taken care of properly. But you had to inure yourself to
that sort of situation, and surprisingly, I think this was true of
most men, faced with the situation you've just got to handle it and
you did handle it.
Dick, while the pilots were off flying, of course
sometimes being shot down, the bases themselves were often very
vulnerable. How much fear was there during this sort of advance
of attack by enemy aircraft or artillery?
(20.00) Very real fear of attack by enemy aircraft
and we were subjected to bombing and strafing on many occasions, and
the people who were most frightened in that situation were the pilots
because they were, predictably so, because they were used to being
able to combat it on equal terms in the air, but faced on the ground
with the situation they dreaded it.
I remember Peter Jeffrey - Bill Macinnis and I and King, the adjutant,
were digging ourselves a slit trench which we added a GO machine-gun
to. We were proud of this, we had this all fitted
up and Peter came past and said, 'What the hell do you fellows think
you're doing?'. We said, 'Well, we were getting buggery last
night so we thought we'd have a go back'. He said, 'You'll do no
such thing. You'll leave the thing alone, we don't want to draw
the crabs any more than ....' If you open fire, you know, it
would attract angry fire then and it would be far worse.
That's interesting. So he was, in a sense, saying
let them fly by and do their bit but we won't fire back.
No, he'd meet them in the air but not on the ground,
there was no point in .... Well, he was right when one reflected
on it because if they attacked the field more assiduously than they
were doing his aeroplanes would all get badly messed up and shot up,
apart from the damage done to the personnel and so on; so it was
really a very shortsighted attitude on our part.
The level of fear as you went through the period that
you served in frontline combat situations with the squadron, did it
ease off after a period as you became inured to the threat of attack,
or was it just a constant nagging thing? Did it perhaps get
worse as time went on?
Oh, I don't, I'm not suggesting I was any sort of a
hero; to me it was just a matter of it happened or it didn't happen,
you treated it, it wasn't aimed at me, it wasn't going to hit me, I
would be immune from what I thought .... I remember an air raid
at Gambut, a very heavy raid, and I was very fascinated by the
fireworks at night and I took up, got up, stood in my slit trench
trying to take photographs of it. Well, if the bomb or
something, attack came that close I was gone anyway so what the hell,
might as well get a picture of it. And I think that was ...
And I suppose in keeping busy doing something, you
Oh yes, very true. I think that would be true of a
hell of a lot of people because there are some that are made
differently and would be very terrified, and understandably so, I
never thought any less of them if that were the case. I would
think less of them if they didn't do their jobs, however.
Yes, that's an interesting point. People often
wonder how photographers take photos in very difficult situations,
often it's the taking the photo that allows them to do it.
Oh yes, that's what you're busy doing.
Just going on with the story of this advance, Dick. Is there
anything else that you recall as being particularly significant?
Do you want to go to Antelat and return from there?
Well, onto Antelat; we might stop and then do the
Well, we eventually found ourselves at Antelat which is
the furthest point of that advance as far as we were concerned where
the airfield had been selected by an Australian wing commander fellow
who was attached to Air Force Headquarters, Tactical Air Force
Headquarters, and we looked at this and said, 'Oh, the man must be
mad', because he'd chosen a wog cultivation patch, and everybody, we
reckoned, ought to know that a wog cultivation patch was about the
only place in the desert that got wet when it rained because that was
the point to which the water would run and be retained for some time.
Sure enough it rained. We had two or three very uncomfortable
days, people with dysentery and so on, and toilets being heavily
used. But what was the worst feature, that our aeroplanes couldn't
take off and during that period the German .... We weren't therefore, our task was to give close support to our army
units further advanced than ourselves. The Germans on the other
hand were flying from airfields in Tunisia or further west round the
Gulf vicinity, not inconvenienced in that way and were airborne and
they gave, meted out a fair bit of punishment to the army units who
had to retreat, and we withdrew ourselves from there and as far as I
remember it was all pretty orderly.
I think the convoy I was leading had probably about ten or twelve
vehicles in it, I'm not certain of the precise
number. And the transport drivers who were with me - they were
pretty good fellows these transport blokes - and they had previously
come up to that point, one or two of them, quite recently. So I
said, 'Well, you'll know the way back and where the minefields are,
the best track to follow'. They didn't think that was a very
good idea at all. They said, 'Oh well, Sir, we'd be happier if
you led us', and I realised they were all been fairly, they were just
about to expire; they'd had a pretty tough time, these blokes.
So I said, 'Alright, okay'.
The thing was that one had to, you had blacked-out vehicles with a
small glim light in the front following a tail-light that was only just
a very glim light down on the differential of the
vehicle, so that was the chain of connection. And the trick was,
of course, never to take a route that was, hadn't been traversed by a
vehicle recently, because otherwise you'd never know whether you were
running into landmines or whatever.
(25.00) You were saying before there was this
interesting routine where I think you drove until last light, waited,
boiled a billy, accustomed to the darkness and then pushed on.
As you went on in the dark how did you really differentiate between
old and new tracks?
More by feeling of it, but I think the point is that
you'd usually see, you'd try and follow a swathe of tracks.
There'd be half a dozen or more vehicle tracks and that was the
approved way and you could usually do that and the important ....
We stopped after last light when it reached the point that you'd lost
visibility and your eyes hadn't got accustomed to the now dark
conditions; sometimes it would be a meal or something or other that
On this particular occasion, we stopped and normally
when we stopped at that point you'd say, 'Oh well, fellows, you might
as well get some, boil the billy and have a bite of something or other
and that'll keep you going till the finish'. And this time we
stopped and I didn't take the precaution I usually took of telling
them to disperse their vehicles; they were fairly clustered, a
convenient walking distance from one vehicle to another.
As was customary in the desert we lit a primus and the primus was
filled with petrol, and that was alright if you knew how
to handle it and were careful with it; you put a blanket over the
cabin of the vehicle which was used as cookhouse for the
purpose. On this occasion we did all that and we were chatting,
waiting for the billy to boil and just as it was about to boil a
German aircraft came overhead and dropped a large bracket of
flares. We discovered to our astonishment and horror that we
were in the middle of a concentration of Polish artillery that was
moving up to the battlefront.
So panic ensued and the fellows tried to put the primus
out and I had, travelling with me, in my truck a bloke named McLeod
who was a former, who was the intelligence officer going back, he'd
ended his tour, he was going back to post to go home; some other
fellow, I've forgotten who it was; a third chap who was Eric Bradbury.
Eric we'd found the day, earlier that day, running alongside the road
hailing us. He, according to his story, he'd been shot down, he
was a fighter pilot, been shot down two or three days earlier, had been picked up by the enemy, then escaped and jumped onto the
back of an enemy tank and rode on the back of this until he eventually
got bounced off or left it when he got picked up by some army units of
ours. And he was trying to get back to our squadron, and he saw
us coming along the road, the vehicles were marked with CV and a
kangaroo that he recognised and hailed us and we picked up, old 'Brad'
He was pretty heavily shell-shocked, as you can imagine, terribly
shocked and a horrible mess. But when this all happened, Brad
started to act up and jump up and down and 'Mac' was adding to the
pandemonium, and there was all hell .... I could see I had
a panic situation developing on hand and I had to do something very
rapidly to fix it. The best thing, the bloke that was making the
most noise was Bradbury and I socked him on the chin and flattened him
and we got him back to base.
END TAPE 2, SIDE A
BEGIN TAPE 2, SIDE B
Identification: This Dick Hickson, Squadron 3,
tape two, side two.
And we picked ourselves up and I told the fellows at
that time to drive on till they couldn't see the vehicle in front sort
of thing, it was just maintain contact and when they were in that
position I'd come along and pick them up and away we'd go; so that we
did. And we eventually got Brad back to, I think, whether he got
an air ambulance or something or other, got him back to base.
I didn't see Bradbury for years after the war but one of
the first reunions he rejoined us in Sydney he marched up to me and
said, 'Good day Dick, you're the bastard that knocked me flat on me
back'. And I was tremendously pleased that he recovered to the
point where he could talk about that and see that as a worthwhile
episode; it made me very happy.
Yes, it must have, rather than his brooding and being
all involved in it.
Well, that's very interesting. One little thing that I did want
to clarify; this is an account I've heard from somebody
else which I think I doubt. This is the story of twenty planes
being bogged during this retreat, and because they couldn't be flown
off and they were going to be captured, their being destroyed; you
haven't heard this, I think?
I have no recollection of that, I think if there'd been
twenty planes - I'd be surprised if we had twenty planes. I
would think we had twelve or fifteen would be the most, and I don't
remember any number of planes being bogged as I recall that, and I
don't remember it. I mightn't have known about it of course,
although I'd have heard because we'd have had to replenish them, those
aeroplanes. I don't think, it might have been two or three at
the most, but they probably would have been US anyway because I recall
that we got all our aeroplanes out.
Right. Well moving on, Dick, I know it was after
the end of the retreat when I think you'd reach Amiriya, or soon after
that, that you left the squadron. How did you feel on leaving
No. 3 Squadron?
Oh, I was very sad. I'd been away from the
squadron before on detachment to an RAF headquarters which I welcomed
because it was very good experience for me and in the equipment - it
was equipment headquarters. But when I was moving this
time, I thought it was only temporary and I would be coming back
to the squadron; it was my ambition and aim, and I had to go to 454
Squadron in Qualara, south of Mosul to form 454 which was a new unit
just starting up. And when I finished that job I was going back
to Cairo and said, 'Well' - to Bill Duncan - 'Well, nice to see you,
good day Sir, I'm going back to the desert'. He said, 'No you're
not, you're staying here', so that was the end of my 3 Squadron days.
Right, and I know there was a period in Cairo, as you
were saying, as a liaison officer, then I think you were in India -
it's a rather exotic posting as a liaison officer. There was an
interesting thing that I think does comment on, you know, some of the
issues we talked about before that began in Simla, I think, to do with
Well, there was an Eastern Group Supply Council, it was
run by B S B Stevens a previous, an earlier premier of New South
Wales, Bertie Stevens, not that I ever met Mr Stevens but there'd been
approaches from the RAF command in India seeking RAAF support in
trading some of the stuff which they could provide from Indian sources
with what was peculiar to, manufactured to Australia. And there
were some Beaufort parts and Tiger Moths they required for training
and so on, sort of - I can't think of the word I want - but anyway
(5.00) Of potential benefit to both sides.
Yes, that's right, and whereas they could supply without any trouble
bags of clothing and rough gear suitable for jungle warfare and that
sort of thing, certainly not extremely well finished, but adequately
finished for the probable life of the garment. So I
thought this was a pretty good scheme and I came back to Australia
very impressed with the message I bore, expecting it to be greeted
with open arms by my commanders. Instead of which the airmen
that were supplying the equipment went white, blanched at my
enthusiasm for this and said, 'Oh, no, no, no, Hickson, I'm sorry but
really, oh, no, it wouldn't do at all'. And I insisted that I
had a message to deliver from the powers that be in the Eastern Group
Supply Council and I intended to deliver it, God bless him, would he
please make the arrangements? And he arranged for me to
interview the Minister whose name escapes me for the moment, I'll
think of it later .
that doesn't matter.
But the Minister explained to me very painfully and at
painstaking length that Australia had been busy this war building up
its manufacturing resources, which was fair enough. And he said,
'We've built up the textile and clothing industry' and that sort of
thing which he wasn't going to see dissipated by supplies being
brought in from any other source, and as for the other side, well,
that was too bad. I pointed out of course that we could have
runs of, manufacturing runs that would have been much more economical
than the size of demand we had, the orders we had for our own
All of this, it didn't cut any ice with the Minister and he said, oh,
no, that wasn't his idea of carrying out the war effort. I said,
'I'm sorry I thought the war effort was designed to
finish the war'. He didn't seem impressed with that idea either;
I think that was one of the reasons I referred to earlier of not
receiving any reward for acting in the different ranks, that sort of
So national self-interest in many ways lay at the heart
Let's go onto Morotai, or onto the islands. I know you went up
there, I don't know with which squadron.
No, I was on First F Headquarters. I had done a
war staff course at Mount Martha and they then posted me up and I was
responsible for the logistic planning under an air, airman and pilot,
GD fellow, and myself. We were responsible for the logistics
planning for the three: Tarakan, Balikpapan and Labuan
Right. Perhaps we won't go into those specifics
Dick, because the focus here is on No. 3. But just in general
terms, I think you implied that your feeling up in the islands was
totally different to how you felt about the war in the desert.
Yes, well, you know, when I left the desert, being under
the command of the RAF commanders coming in and people of this ilk in
the Middle East, I couldn't think of a better way to carry on a war
and better service to be in than the air force, and I reckoned that I
would be fairly happy if I could spend the rest of my days in that
service. I suffered a bit of a reversal in Iraq with 454
Squadron, I realised that the inactive commands were much more poorly
served, the calibre of the officers, the commanders, that were
present, but nonetheless would still work.
When I got back to Australia and up into the islands I
was absolutely disgusted with the attitude of the powers that be; the
war had deteriorated; the Yanks had in effect said to us, 'If you want
to play soldiers at wars you can go there, we'll give you enough
petrol and a few boats to take people around the island. You can
play there to your heart's content with a few Japanese that are left
on the island. There's no particular issue to be solved or
direction of the war to be fought or maintained; don't bother us
particularly, that's it.'
Despite which the commanders were requiring people to go on missions
well beyond the range of the fighter aircraft, or the safe range of
fighter aircraft and so on. So there was pretty poor morale,
pretty poor attitude. And the only reason I could
find why this was pursued was the self-interest of the commanders that
themselves aim at advancement in the service and gongs before the
war's ended; they had no previous claim to fame, so it better be now
or not at all.
(10.00) So you obviously gave all, or felt at
least, full support for Wilf Arthur and his ...
Oh yes, very much so, yes. And a lot of the
others, I saw some of the other COs that I had some respect for, and
knew them, and battle positions deteriorate in terms of the ambitions
and the direction of their, directions they were following personally
you referring to the issue of trading grog?
Yes. I don't think those fellows, it never occurred to them in
the Middle East, but everybody else was in it for a bob,
they'd better get some of it.
was all this perceived do you think by the men?
Oh, as one would expect, terrible. The morale in the islands in
general was abysmal.
Dick, perhaps excluding this last point that you've made
very clear, when it was all over, the war in Europe and in the
Pacific, you look back on it and how you'd been involved, how did it
all seem to you?
I don't know whether I thought of it in those terms, I
was too busy trying to find a niche for myself in 'civvy street' and
that wasn't easy. But I was proud to have been a part of the
unit, 3 Squadron particularly, and generally, my service in the air
force, I was very happy with it, up to and including the Middle East,
and thereafter it sort of tailed off down to the bottom point which we
reached in the last mention.
Right. Well, thank you very much for making this
tape on behalf of the War Memorial, Dick. It'll be a good
addition to No. 3 Squadron.
Thank you, thanks very much.
END OF INTERVIEW
S F N (DICK) HICKSON
[3SQN Assn repaired version of original transcript on https://www.awm.gov.au. ]
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