3 Squadron STORIES
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4. Egypt - Hot Pursuits of Sheilas and Camels
5. Italy – Out of the Frying Pan, into the Icebox
6. "Everyone’s Trying to Kill Me"
7. Yugoslavia – the Lousy Long March
8. Back to Italy – La Dolce Vita
9. Back to Oz − an Officer and a Heartbreaker
Chapter 4. Egypt - Hot Pursuits of Sheilas and Camels
Once out of the Bay of Biscay and into the Mediterranean, the waters became calmer and the weather warmer. Unlike the American system of two meals per day, this vessel stuck to the time-honoured British method of four meals per day. Inefficient, time consuming and with stodgy food, it just went to show that without the Yanks we couldn’t have won this war!
The convoy proceeded uneventfully, unlike most preceding ones which had suffered severe air attacks. Fighters from the American aircraft carrier flew reassuringly around us, but perhaps the Germans were busy elsewhere. Earlier in the voyage I had struck up a friendship with a quite nice-looking WAAF named Jean. We were getting along famously for a while, until her eye alighted on another bloke from our contingent, a good looking young fellow of Spanish appearance. This was the end of my social interaction as, by this time, everybody else had paired-off and, it seemed to my jaundiced eye, at night in the blacked-out ship, that they were all really behaving rather badly! So I solaced myself by running a Crown and Anchor game with my pal David Linacre. As this was another illegal activity we selected venues in the remoter parts of the ship away from the prying eyes of the forces of authority. After some initial losses we ended up making quite a bundle, which proved to be very useful when we landed at Port Said.
Very hot, Port Said - lots of urchins diving for coins etc. Thence by troop train across the desert to Cairo, where the inevitable eternal wait took place for transport to wherever it was to be. Linacre, the eternal opportunist, spotted an empty truck, so some of us hopped into it and, after some delay, were driven away, waving benignly to the multitude left behind in the blazing sun, to a destination we knew not where. Eventually we arrived at a large transit RAF camp situated on the desert outside Cairo where we acquired a tent, mess gear etc. This camp was at Almaza and after we had been there for three days we realised that there were none of our fellow travellers about. Enquiry revealed that we had come to the wrong camp – this was a camp for troops leaving Cairo and we should have been in the one for new arrivals in the Middle East, which was situated some distance away at the Heliopolis Oasis, where we now made our rather fearful way. Luckily no trouble ensued, in fact I don’t think that the camp authorities had yet realised that any of us were missing. So, with relief, we got ourselves a room in what turned out to be the Heliopolis Palace Hotel which, rather like the hotels that we had stayed at in Brighton, was a stately Victorian relic, rather the worse for wear.
After several weeks we received our postings to Operational Training Units, again splitting up friends, as some were posted to Ismailia and some of us to No. 73 OTU, Fayed, situated near the Great Bitter Lake, which was part of the Suez Canal.
By now it was October 1944 and the war fronts were changing dramatically. The Russians in the East, having stopped the Germans in late 1942 at Stalingrad in the South, Moscow in the centre and Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg once more) in the North, were advancing west relentlessly, over huge distances, while the western Allies: USA, Britain, France and other Europeans, were approaching Germany from France, liberating places such as Paris on the way. In addition, as I mentioned earlier, the Germans were being subjected to the most gigantic aerial bombing campaign - both night and day - ever known to this point in history. To add to the Germans’ troubles, the British Eighth Army and the Americans had combined to push them out of North Africa, then Sicily, and were moving north past Florence. (The Italians, having already decided that they had had enough, had changed over to the Allied side in September 1943.) This was the state of the war when we went to No.73 OTU, where we thought that we could have a choice of aircraft to fly and that we could make this decision to some extent ourselves based on our personal proclivities and our perceptions of the degree of activity in the various Theatres of War.
Arriving at Fayed we were presented with a choice of three different types of aircraft on which to learn operational flying. These were Spitfires, Kittyhawks (P40Es) and Thunderbolts. It was difficult to decide. The Spitfires, by far the most beautiful, slight, elegant, and reputedly a joy to fly, filled our imaginations with memories of their victories in the Battle of Britain. To choose these meant a chance of being sent to either France or Burma, the latter Theatre of War being a very low priority with most us. The Thunderbolt, a large, ugly, immensely powerful (2,000 horsepower), modern American machine, awed us with its destructive power; but it meant Burma for sure, so most of the course participants rejected this idea. The Kittyhawk was a sturdy, attractive veteran of the North African campaign but without the Spit’s charisma. As they were only operating in Italy, at least Burma was ruled out! - We Australians, however, had the choice removed from us.
We were told the Aussies amongst us were destined for Italy, as both Australian Squadrons (numbers 3 and 450) were operating there, supporting the British Eighth Army, as they had done throughout the long Western Desert campaign. Indeed, 3 Squadron had been in the Middle East since June 1940, during which time it had had many updates of aircraft type, starting off flying Gloster Gladiators, a semi-obsolete biplane which would not have been out of place in World War One! Actually it was about this time, unbeknown to us, that No.3 was converting to the best and most effective fighter of the war, the P51, known as the Mustang, but little did Lew Ranger or I think that we would end up there, flying these magnificent machines.
The airstrips at Fayed, long and level, were laid out over the desert beside the Great Bitter Lake. Apart from the heat, conditions were ideal for flying, no cloud and very little wind. In fact during the entire course we never had to fly in cloud so that we had no need for all the blind flying instruments, which was just as well as these had all been removed from the planes to save weight! This lack of emphasis on instrument flying was to cause us all sorts of problems when we flew in the Italian winter, but more of that later.
The course consisted of three squadrons. In the first we flew Harvards, an American dual-controlled training plane almost identical to the old Wirraway. This was by way of being a refresher course, as it was now some time since we had last flown, back in Blighty.
Lew Ranger and I flying low in Harvards, over the Egyptian desert near Fayed (No.73 OTU)
After some 15 hours on these, the big day came for me on October 20, 1944, when I was to have my first flight in a Kittyhawk. What an awesome thrill! To fly a single seater fighter the first time - no instructor, just you. They could tell you how to fly it on the ground but, thereafter, you were on your own. To start with it had a much more powerful engine than anything we had flown before. We had previously flown only in radial-engined, air-cooled motors, this one was equipped with a 16 cylinder, in-line, liquid-cooled Allison, which seemed to stretch out in front of you forever. Don’t forget that I still hadn’t learned to drive a car.
Unlike most present-day planes which have two main wheels and a nose wheel, P40s had a tail wheel, so that you couldn’t see in front of you until you had given her the gun and got up sufficient speed to lift your tail up. This done, you roared along the runway at maximum revs until you felt that beautiful feeling of leaving Mother Earth, and then you were flying. It is hard to describe the feeling of being in control of all this complex machinery and power. As you lift off and retract your undercarriage, the feeling of being airborne, of feeling the subtle currents of air gently acting upon your machine, is awesome. The seemingly limitless power at your fingertips and the three-dimensional control of height and direction is heady stuff indeed. However, on this first trip in a P40 there were many other things to think about; lots to remember and lots to learn and get the particular feel of this beautiful, sleek beast. Somewhat to my surprise I managed the landing OK in spite of the considerable difference in speed and feel from anything previously. It’s a funny thing that throughout my flying career I never ceased to be amazed that I could actually land these flighty creatures!
Flying training in the Kittyhawk proceeded through the usual gamut of exercises, spins, formations, cross-countries etc. Somewhere I have a few quite good photos, taken by me with a very unreliable cheap camera, of Lew and I, low- flying across the desert. This was quite a feat as I had to fly one-handed, formating with Lew, and still try to take the photos. Unfortunately at this time one of our group, a good friend and fine chap, Geoff Swinbourne, crashed his Kitty and was killed. Another funeral - we buried him in a desolate piece of desert. He was only 19 years old. But for the rest of us it was get up in the air and get on with it.
Shortly we moved on, to the second OTU Squadron, run by a very tall, eccentric, rather enigmatic Englishman, Flt. Lt. Jim Edmonds, whose rather strange mannerisms were, it was rumoured, due to an overly long sojourn in Burma flying Hurricanes, where he acquired the nickname “Jungle Jim”. Although a very quiet and reticent man, Jim demanded a skilful and dashing flying style, both qualities which, he said, he had found lacking in the course immediately ahead of us. So much so that he had requested the Chief Flying Instructor (a Wing Commander) to declare that these pilots were not fit for operational flying. This request was denied but the talk of it certainly put us on our mettle.
We got off to a bad start. Jungle Jim (we, of course, did not address him thus in person) was giving us our initial pep talk; stating what were his expectations, indeed requirements, of us, in terms of flying skills. At the same time, the Station’s loudspeaker system, which was hooked up to all the flight huts, was babbling away with the sounds of all the aircraft aloft at the time. Routine stuff of course when, suddenly came a Mayday call from an excited Jaapie (South African), saying that his aircraft was on fire and he was coming in to land. With that, we left the C/O in mid-sentence and rushed out to watch the impending crash. The Jaapie, in his haste to reach Terra Firma, brought his smoking Spitfire in much too steeply, tried to level out too late, hit the deck, wiped off his undercarriage, skidded along the runway, leapt out of the burning plane and hobbled away from it.
The reason that he hobbled was because he had been shot in the leg by a 20 mm cannon shell by one of his colleagues.
It happened thus: air-to-air gunnery practice is usually done by a pair of planes both carrying cine cameras, which were used instead of guns for obvious reasons. Both pilots would shoot at each other using the cameras, the films of which were analysed later in the Station’s theatre. In this instance there had been a serious stuff-up as one of the Spitfires was loaded with cannon shells instead of film. The pilot of this plane, Jim Fletcher, a mate of ours, lined up the other plane, laid off the necessary deflection and pressed the trigger. His aim was obviously very good as he only let loose some 12 cannon shells before he realised what was happening and took his finger off the button. The incident above resulted and we returned to Jungle Jim’s rudely interrupted monologue.
He had every right to be very angry, as what we had done was not only rude but a potentially serious breach of Air Force discipline. Jungle Jim, ever a mild man, only remonstrated with us mildly. Nevertheless, it was not a good way to kick off with a reportedly perfectionist-type instructor.
It was at this time that the penny, at last, really dropped for me and I started to fly the Kitty with a fair amount of precision and dash. I am not sure whether this was due to all the previous varied flying that I had done in different countries and conditions or, perhaps, a process of physical maturation or, again perhaps psychologically, knowing that there was no possibility of anybody else being in the plane to help you out or criticise. The latter, I think, was probably important for me, as the single seater style of flying - as distinct from, say, a four-engined bomber - seemed to suit my personality fairly well. A similar thing happened to me many years later when, at the age of 40, I fell in love with, and started to sail, single-handed racing dinghies. After years of indifferent performance racing in crewed boats I suddenly could do no wrong and went on to a fair bit of international success over the next 30 years.
Anyway, Jungle Jim seemed to be fairly happy with Lew and me, without exactly showering us with praise. Lew and I had done a hell of a lot of formation flying back in the UK, both enjoying achieving precision in being able to fly very close and maintain station continually without losing concentration for long periods. On our first go, with J.J. leading, both Lew and I formed up quickly after take-off, one on either side at the approved distance of one wingspan away from him. J.J. looked at me, looked at Lew and gestured for us to come in closer. Somewhat miffed by this unspoken but implied criticism of our skills we both moved in until our propellers were about a foot away from chewing off his wingtips. Jim took this situation in for a little while before waving us back out again!
Throughout November 1944 we continued to hone our flying skills: dogfighting, aerobatics, section attacks, low flying, and all sorts of other exciting gambits. One interesting exercise was an “oxygen climb”. Having been trained on the ground in a decompression chamber to handle oxygen lack, we were told to take a Kittyhawk up as high as we could get it, before it fell out of the sky. In my case this turned out to be 29,500 feet, at which point the poor old Kitty staggered about like a winded mule and refused to go any higher. This would barely have gotten us over Mt. Everest but later on in the war, given much more powerful planes, we could go a good deal higher than this. We then left Jungle Jim, seemingly still with goodwill towards us, and moved on to the third squadron, where we were to brush up on dive-bombing, aerial gunnery, strafing and other esoteric arts of the fighter pilot.
This squadron was commanded by a very fine Australian, Flt/Lt Ron Matthews. He and his merry band of Aussie pilots had recently finished their tours of duty in Italy and were enjoying the luxury of flying without being shot at all the time. With the help of these chaps we honed up our skills in those aspects of aerial warfare that we would be expected to perform when we were posted to an operational squadron. These were dive-bombing, low level strafing, aerial combat with cine guns and chasing stray camels in the wastes of the Sinai desert. The latter, of course, was somewhat extracurricular.
An Australian at Giza during WW2. [Stereo photo by Frank Hurley nla.pic-an23565110-v.]
We completed our course on December 4, 1944, and were posted to Embarkation Depot at Almaza to await a summons to Italy. Still with the rank of Flight Sergeant, I had managed to gain “Above Average” assessments in all three categories. These were Pilot, Fighter Tactics and Formation Flying. It is interesting that the latter - that is close-formation, was never used on operations, only on formal fly-pasts or when you wanted to show off.
All Transit camps are horrible places for those passing through. By now I had had experience of many and noted that the permanent staff invariably lived in good quarters, had good food etc. while those going to or coming from the War got very shabby treatment. The reason for this was that we were not to be there long, whereas the permanent staff were and thus needed to have their morale kept up. It may not have been all that long, but it certainly seemed, to us, to be long.
The more perceptive among our contingent noted that there was no daily roll call, so without further ado a small group of us moved out, went into Cairo and booked into the much more salubrious Kiwi Club, from which sanctuary we were able to not only take our ease but also to monitor the lists of troops booked onto flights to Italy.
These flights were, of course, Top Secret, but one of our number, David Linacre (these days a very big wheel in Australian yachting administration) was very friendly with one of the WAAFs who made up the daily lists. This knowledge enabled us to avoid the tedious duty of reporting back to the piece of desert known as Almaza every few days. We were, of course, technically AWL, which, as we were awaiting an overseas posting, was a potentially serious offence, but we were young and - what the hell - it was a rather exciting adventure.
To say that we went about enjoying the fleshpots of Cairo would be, I fancy, somewhat of an overstatement, but with the help of a few WAAFs (photos available on request), outdoor movies, visits backstage to the Cairo Opera House to see the Mikado and various other cultural pursuits, we happily whiled away the time until Christmas Eve 1944, when a routine check at the BOAC office revealed the fact that we were booked onto a flight to Italy next day. We returned to the Almaza camp, readied our gear for the trip and, next morning, attended parade and answered our names at roll call as if we had been in camp since December 4!
Chapter 5. Italy – Out of the Frying Pan, into the Icebox
The journey to Italy by DC3 transport turned out to be a bit of a saga. The planeload of mixed Army, Navy and Air Force types made it to Benghazi (now in Libya) on the 26th. After all the heat we had put up with, it was noticeably cooler, although we were still in North Africa. We spent the night in a Nissan hut with a fire going all night. Next day we took off for Malta and flew into some appalling weather. We flew at less than 500 feet in pouring rain, as the clouds were so high and dense that the old Dakota couldn’t have got above them. This was a bit of a culture shock to us pilots, as we hadn’t seen or flown in cloud since we left England some six months earlier. Flying so low and without the fancy navigational aids of today the South African pilot had some difficulty in locating Malta which, after all, is only a tiny dot in a large waterway and visibility was restricted by the cloud and lack of height of the aircraft. After some circling Malta appeared out of the mist and rain and, to the relief of all, we landed thereon. Next day we took off for Naples, but after a couple of hours we were forced back to Malta in weather that even the seagulls had refused to fly in! Spent the next two days exploring Valetta, getting a haircut and having my blackheads removed, until on the 30th we again took off and, in still appalling weather, we eventually landed in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius.
After the heat of Cairo we were greeted in Naples by snow and freezing weather. Only recently I learnt that this Italian winter of 1944-45 was one of the coldest of last century and the creature comforts presented to us at yet another transit camp were few and far between. The camp was situated at Portici at the foot of Vesuvius, which had had a very spectacular eruption the year before and, although still smouldering, failed to provide us with any warmth at all. We were billeted in a bare stone villa with boarded-up windows and tiers of hessian bunks, in which we tried to sleep and keep out the cold with an absolute minimum of Army blankets. Although there were no fireplaces or chimneys, someone was burning a pile of furniture in the centre of the lower bare stone floor. Far from warming us up we spent our time there in a vast, eye-burning fog of acrid smoke, not game to open a door because of the intense cold. At least we could see that there were some people (not the permanent staff of course) worse off than ourselves. These were the local Italians, who hung around the camp fences, tattered, cold, hungry and defeated. They waited patiently for a hand-out of the scraps or uneaten portions of the appalling food that was presented to us. Desperate times of course, but for most of us a salutary experience, as we realised that we were getting much closer to the war.
Naples itself was a disaster area. Due to the dirt and filth and lice, typhus was prevalent among the civilian population, who were also cold and hungry. We of course, as members of the conquering forces, were immune to all this - with, at least, adequate shelter and food and having been inoculated against typhus.
Americans were everywhere and this was to our advantage, as we were able to see several interesting shows put on by the US Army Entertainment Unit. The first was a production of Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirits”, a light and frothy entertainment - just the thing to take our mind off the appalling conditions. I had seen this play in London the year before, but this version was graced by the presence, in the leading role, by a famous Hollywood actress named Annabella, married to the equally famous Tyrone Power, whom we had lusted after during many a Hollywood blockbuster.
This show was followed by an even more seductive display of pulchritude by one Jinx Falkenburg.
“Jinx who?” you say. Well let me tell you, Jinx was a pretty big deal in 1944. An extraordinarily beautiful young woman, she was then the toast of New York, a leading model, an excellent tennis player and the sister of Bob Falkenberg, who played Davis Cup for USA early post-war. Trouble was that Jinx couldn’t act. However, she managed to do her bit for her country by boosting the morale of the sex-starved multitude thus: Dressed in a tight-fitting white sweater, very short shorts, and armed with a tennis racquet, she hit tennis balls into an enraptured all-male audience. - Our pleasures were few and simple in those far off days; a fact that all you moderns will doubtless have difficulty in understanding!
Indeed they were our only pleasures, as the days slowly passed with interminable cold, considerable discomfort and unending boredom. At last, one morning we were summoned to Portici’s village square where we were told that we were going north, by rail, to some ill-defined destination near where the war was. We stood there, in ranks, in the pouring rain for some three hours before a 3-ton truck arrived to take us to the train. We stood there dressed in grey battle dress covered by our greatcoats, blue for the Aussies, grey for the Poms. Although not snowing, it was freezing and by the time the truck came we were saturated from the top of our forage caps to the tip of our woollen issue socks. We were accompanied also by our entire worldly possessions, namely one large kitbag which by now was soaked right through. We remained in this condition for the next three days.
During my three-year service career I had many train journeys; some good - like the trip across USA; some bad, like the sardine special from Uranquinty to Sydney; but none quite like this one from Naples to (as we found out three days later) Arezzo. Italy isn’t very wide, but is quite long and we had a big load of Army and Air Force troops aboard what could best be described as a cattle train. I suppose the exigencies of war can account for much of the ensuing organisational disaster, but really, I dunno. A few bare wooden seats, no lights, no heating and no food on the train at all. The engine, which had been strafed by the Allies and patched up, exuded steam in all sorts of unintentional directions and after every run down a slight incline had to stop at the bottom for an hour or so to get up sufficient steam to attack the next slight incline.
We set off north into the night, no food and still clad in wet wool. Someone produced a candle and another (Lew, I think) a battered primus stove and we made a cup of tea. Nowhere to sleep and I, in desperation, got off at one of the frequent stops, walked along the train and found a vacant carriage - wooden seats but a net luggage rack into which I crawled, still in my wet gear, and went to sleep. About an hour later the train stopped and a mob of soldiers poured into the carriage and I was summarily kicked out by their officer and returned to the cattle truck.
Due to the cold and the fatigue and the hunger, the next couple of days are a bit of a blur. I remember arriving in Rome next day and we were told that we would be there two hours and to bugger off and find something to eat. Somehow some of us managed to find the Kiwi Club, where I managed to lay my hands on half a stale sandwich, then return to the train. Rome, to my jaundiced eye, did not look like the eternal city.
Later that day we did get officially fed. We stopped alongside a Field kitchen consisting of a huge copper filled with watery stew, well known to us as "M&V". A ladle full and then a cup of tea. Unfortunately I had no mug and was forced to drink it out of my just-used and unwashed pannikin. On through the night, sleeping fitfully on the floor, huddled together for warmth. We reached our destination (Arezzo) next day, where we learned that we few were headed towards No. 5 Refresher Flying Unit, situated on the wide plain between Perugia and Assisi. How do we get there? “Make your own way”, said the RTO, “We only assist with trains!”.
It was now snowing hard and bloody freezing. We all split up and Lew and I managed to thumb a ride in a jeep going to Perugia. We tossed for seats and I got the front one. When we got there Lew was literally frozen stiff - we had to lift him out of the jeep and straighten him out, after which we stood on the still-hot roadside fire for some time, thawing out.
The rest of the journey is a bit hazy. Only Army types there, no RAF, and nobody knew where the Airfield was. It was obviously well off the main roads and all the secondary roads were covered in snow. We must have got a lift somehow towards the plain, but all I can remember is trudging across the plain, knee-deep in snow, looking for this airfield, which was beginning to take on mythical proportions. Somehow we eventually located it, but, as there was obviously no flying, all personnel were evidently sitting cosily in their billets.
But where were these billets? No sensible person was about in this weather to ask. Eventually, however, we must have found some information and were directed towards a huge barn, which was where we were to spend the ensuing refresher course. I have no memory of how our gear, our worldly possessions, reached us, as we could not possibly have carried it all this way.
Fano, Italy. c. November 1944. Recent heavy falls of snow in northern Italy have curtailed the activities of No. 3 (Mustang) Squadron RAAF
to some extent, in their operations against the enemy on the Eighth Army front and in Yugoslavia. Standing beside one of the Mustang
aircraft after a heavy snowfall are, 20785 Leading Aircraftman N. De la Motte, transport driver, and 4644 Flight Lieutenant K. N. McRae MBE
of New Lambton, NSW. engineer officer. [AWM MEA2207]
The upstairs of this bare, concrete-floored barn was to be our home for the next three weeks for some 30 odd pilots. Surrounded by our gear, we slept on folding camp stretchers with five Army blankets which, with care, could be laid down so that you had five layers underneath and five on top. As long as you stayed perfectly still, you could almost keep out the cold while sleeping.
No water and no toilets - ablutions were accomplished at the well, downstairs and outside, where you had to break off the icicles, pump up the water and hastily splash your face, before going to breakfast, where you ate the two eggs that you had obtained from the local peasants in exchange for twenty American cigarettes. No amount of heated bargaining by us ever affected this seemingly inflexible exchange rate.
The heating problem was solved by some ingenious pilots who managed to steal a 44 gallon drum of 100 octane aviation fuel from a nearby dump, roll it up the stairs, attach a copper tube to the lower outlet with a small tap leading to a small metal dish on the floor, into which petrol from the drum was allowed to drip. A match was then applied to the petrol and a satisfying explosion then ensued. Another smaller empty drum with holes cut in was then placed over the dish of burning fuel and as everything warmed up the drips became a jet spray of petrol, a rhythmic chuffing sound, rather like an overexcited steam train, emanated from the whole system. Lovely (if somewhat alarming) heat radiated from the now glowing red-hot drum, but the fumes in this enclosed space were overpowering. Undeterred, the creators of this device went off and “liberated” about 30 feet of 6" steel pipe, a hole was cut in the side of the small drum, another in the brick wall of the building and the pipe connected to both. This proved to be an elegant solution as, apart from a bit of leakage here and there, the fumes were minimised and, as the system heated up, not only the drum glowed red but also the entire length of the pipe! Those camped nearest to the pipe were not only the warmest but were able to spend their evenings toasting left-over bread on it.
We all started our flying course on Kittyhawks (P40s) but those of us destined for 3 Squadron (Lew Ranger, Peter Martin, Ron Horton and myself) soon converted onto Mustangs (P51s). This was a tremendously exciting prospect as this plane was state of the art in fighters, combining all the best features of American design and powered by the latest Rolls Royce engine (made in the USA by Packard under licence from RR). Its speed, range, firepower and strength made it ideal for long-range bomber escort and also dive-bombing and strafing. We four were thrilled, while our mates were envious.
Learning to fly a new type of single-seater plane is always an interesting experience and quite a challenge. No simulators in those days - you had to study the manual, try and remember the different locations of all the bits and pieces, and hope that when you first opened-up all this amazing power, you would remember where they were and how they operated. I had had, by this time, some 70 hours flying Kitties, but my log book tells me that when I left Perugia to join No.3, I had exactly 5.30 hours on Mustangs! Such are the exigencies and vagaries of war!
RAAF Mustangs in Flight
This short conversion completed, we moved into the nearby hill town of Assisi, famous of course for Saint Francis and for his church and huge monastery. Civilization at last! Lew and I were billeted in a hotel with the unlikely name of the Hotel Windsor. Absolute luxury for us. I don’t think I had even taken my clothes off for three weeks, let alone have a proper wash, so when I first looked in a mirror I looked like a miner just up from the depths. Lew and I tossed for first bath: I won, got in and the hot water ran out. I bathed as well as I could in the rapidly cooling water, got out and surveyed a bath full of grease and coal dust. Poor old Lew had no option but to hop in and do the best he could.
We had a few interesting days in Assisi (I have a few photos of this and the preceding period in my album) before the truck came to pick us up to join the Squadron, which we did at the Eastern seaboard town of Fano. No. 3 Squadron (RAAF) was one of six squadrons which made up 239 Wing which, in turn, was part of Desert Air Force. Not much Desert around here, but DAF had been formed, of course, in North Africa years before - and even now, in Italy, retained the name. No. 3 was an original member, having been in the Middle East since 1940.
This was about February 10, 1945. By this time 3 Squadron had operated as a fighter squadron up and down the Western Desert several times, in Syria, El Alamein, North Africa, then Sicily and finally mainland Italy, all the way up from the toe to where they now were at Fano.
Each squadron was an organizational entity of between 300 and 350 personnel. There were usually about 25 pilots, with all the rest being support staff, such as fitters, riggers, armourers, truck drivers, signallers, administration, cooks etc. A lot of these functions were in different locations in the town. All the personnel were stationed and billeted in various parts of the town, but rather than drop us at the Orderly Office, the truck dropped Lew and I off at the Pilots’ Mess, where we found a number of pilots on their way to early inebriation by imbibing the only liquor available (egg nog and cherry brandy, known to all as “blood and guts”). We were warmly welcomed by the gathered pilots and offered a drink, which Lew accepted and I, as a teetotaller, rejected. (My, how things have changed!). My not being a drinker also created a little difficulty, but this defect in my personality was soon overlooked in the rough and tumble of life in the Pilots' Mess.
To add to this macabre scene, sitting on the bar was a complete human skeleton with a DFC attached to his fifth rib. He was introduced to us as Stinky Miller, DFC, and, it seemed, was carted around wherever No. 3 was posted as a sort of good luck charm.
Overwhelmed by the hospitality, we completely forgot about the formality of reporting to the Orderly Room with all its attendant red tape. This didn’t get us off to a very good start with the administration and the Adjutant gave us quite a rocket.
The six Squadrons of 239 Wing DAF consisted of two Australian (numbers 3 and 450), three RAF (numbers 112, 250 and 260), and one SAAF (No.5). All this was commanded at this time by an Australian, Group Captain Brian Eaton DSO, DFC, who had commanded No. 3 back in North Africa and who, post-war, became Chief of Air Staff, RAAF. All these squadrons, together with a Wing of American P47s (Thunderbolts) were clustered around a solitary strip of pressed steel plate (PSP) which served us all as a landing and take-off facility. There were, of course, many side strips of PSP leading to many parking bays required by all of us. On this extensive network, without much experience, it was very easy to lose your way. To guard against this, all aircraft had to have a ground-staff man sitting on the wing while you taxied for seeming ages both to guide you and to prevent collisions; because the huge long nose of a fighter plane prevents the pilot, while taxiing, from seeing ahead of him. The whole area, apart from the strip, was a sea of mud, so it was essential that you literally stayed on the straight and narrow.
Kittyhawks taxiing for take-off on PSP strip. Note crew on wing tips to guide pilots. [This picture taken at Cervia]
My logbook tells me that on February 20, I did one hour and 10 minutes practice in a Mustang and later that day took off on my first mission. I use the term “mission” advisedly, because the correct term, as laid down by the RAF, is “sortie” and a perfectionist like Lew would be a stickler for this usage, but I have a preference for the American term. It has a much nicer connotation, don’t you think? In any event it is almost universal these days.
At this stage in my career I had about 70 hours on Kittyhawks and six on Mustangs, but it was the latter that I had been ordained to fly in anger. Even worse, there were two different types of Mustang extant, the Mark III and the Mark IV, both with somewhat different shapes, armament and controls and it was the Squadron’s practice to allot either at random to any pilot. This was OK if you had plenty of time to think about what you had to do and how you were going to do it, but this luxury was not always available.
DAF was a Tactical Air Force, as distinct from a Strategic Air Force, such as the various long-range bomber forces of the RAF and USAAF. Within this structure, RAAF No. 3 Squadron had, over the years, performed a number of roles: reconnaissance, dive-bombing and strafing, bomber escort, and aerial fighting, sometimes individually and sometimes all together. In my time, and for some time earlier, the main role was close-support for the ground forces of the British Eighth Army. This entailed moving up fairly close behind the advancing ground forces, in order to respond to their requests for help ASAP and also shorten the range of the flights. This latter, however, was becoming less important with the advent of the longer-range Mustang. As it was now the depth of winter, both the British and the American Armies were bunkered-down on both sides of the north/south running Apennines, so there was almost no call for close support. Instead we spent our operational time ranging widely over Yugoslavia, Austria and Northern Italy, dive-bombing bridges, strafing trains, trucks, tanks and even horse-drawn vehicles, which the Germans were increasingly needing to use.
We also did some bomber-escort duties which, for us, were “a piece of cake”, as there was no German aerial opposition to worry about. When the bombers reached their target, we would move to one side while they copped all the flak. I personally took part in three of these to Vienna, Klagenfurt and Graz and the trips, for us, were uneventful (although not so for the bombers). - Except for Vienna when, for a few brief minutes, high above us we saw one of the new German jet or rocket fighters streaking across the sky at tremendous speed. This put a serious dent in us Mustang flyers’ sense of aerial superiority, but it was only brief and never recurred before the war’s end.
My stay on No. 3 lasted until April 3, 1945, when I was shot down on my 25th Mission. Though brief, this period was, for me, replete with incident - in contrast to that of my peers, Lew, Peter Martin and Ron Horton, all of whom had joined the Squadron at the same time and all of whom went through the rest of the European War unscathed and (apart from the usual exigencies of dive-bombing and strafing under fire) without too much drama.
Let me explain a bit. Some months before arriving, both 3 and 450 had apparently, through attrition and tour expiration, run out of experienced Flight Leaders. So an SOS was sent to Australia for some pilots with one tour of operational experience. As a result, four pilots with a tour done in the Jap war were flown from Australia straight to Italy, two each for 3 and 450. They, of course, were excellent and experienced pilots, but the aerial war against Germany into which they were now thrust was vastly different to that which they had experienced in the SW Pacific. In the event, all four were shot down: the 3 Squadron duo - FLTLT John Hodgkinson DFC and FLTLT Barney Davies - both while flying in front of me!
At full strength, we flew 12 aircraft in three sections of four: "Red", "White" and "Blue". We flew in very loose formation, called “battle formation”, a method that the RAF had learned from the Germans years before, during the Battle of Britain. The pre-war tactics of showy close formation had proved disastrous in that campaign, as the pilots’ attention was totally taken up watching each other and they failed to see the enemy coming.
Each four flew at staggered heights with the mission leader as No. 1 in the Red section. Newer pilots (“sprogs”) flew in the No. 2 position about 75 metres behind the leader, while the other two in the four formed a square with 1 and 2. It was the number two’s job to search the sky continually, while the No. 1s checked the ground and also navigated us to the target. Our squadron’s radio call sign was “Shabby”. (Hence the name of my Laser “Shabby Red 2”. It was from this position that I got shot down.)
But prior to that, on March 7, Hodgkinson, as Red 1 (with me right behind him at Red 2) got shot down in rather dramatic circumstances, after attacking a bridge at Padua.
After bombing, he called me up, sounding rather cross, to come up close and tell him what was wrong with his bloody aeroplane. I closed in and noticed large bits falling off the back of his plane. I was mulling over just how to break this news to him when his plane suddenly went into a vertical dive, hit the ground and exploded. "Hodgy's bought it," I thought; but in the same moment a parachute opened and he hit the ground with a hell of a thump right beside the burning plane. As I circled, he lay motionless while some bods ran towards him. At least a broken back, I thought - and as things were 'warming up' a bit, I headed for home.
Hodge was taken prisoner. The Squadron straggled home, even more untidily than usual, instead of assuming a planned, impeccable and tight echelon formation aimed at impressing a D.A.F. film unit which had arrived at Cervia that day to take P.R. movies. Earlier on, they had filmed the briefing while we all stood around doing our best to look alert and intrepid. I believe the film subsequently appeared on Australian newsreel screens. I'm sure that, wedged amongst the Cervia footage, there were some extraneous shots of excellent echelon formation flying.
On April 1, two days before I copped it, I was again flying Red 2 behind Barney Davies when he too got shot down. Flying over a mountainous area of Yugoslavia, Barney had spotted a couple of trucks full of German troops. He told the rest of the squadron to stay up and called me to follow him down to strafe. This was fairly exhilarating, as we had to dive and weave our way through the peaks of the mountains to get at the trucks. As we started shooting, a large amount of flak (anti-aircraft fire) came up at us. Neither of us was hit but we had to pull up very steeply to avoid the mountain on the other side of the road. We circled back to where we had started the attack and Barney (who was nothing if not intrepid) said:
“All right, Shabby, we are going in again!”
“Shit!”, I thought, for not only had the flak been heavy but we had been briefed never to attempt a second run as the enemy would be:
(a) Better prepared and;
(b) Rather angry and thus liable to do nasty things to you if you got shot down.
Which is exactly what happened to Barney. At a low point in his dive (about 100 feet or so above the trucks), he was hit by several 20 mm cannon shells. Cool as ever, he called:
“Hit! - Bailing out, Shabby.”
He pulled up to about 1,500 feet, with me quite close on his tail, where he executed a perfect ‘bunt’ bail-out; that is, after jettisoning the Mustang’s Perspex canopy, freeing himself from all the impedimenta (such as straps, helmet, radio mike, oxygen mask etc.) he pushed the nose of the plane hard down (he was still climbing at this stage) and floated upwards, beautifully turning somersaults in the air until he pulled the rip cord and that life-saving canopy mushroomed out.
“Wow”, I thought, “that’s the way to do it, so easy and graceful. That’s the way I’ll do it, if and when my turn comes.”
But, as I found out, it is not as easy as it looks first time (and this was, I think, Barney’s third go at it). By now, in spite of my general inexperience, I was the leading Squadron close-up eye-witness of bale-outs, one very good and one botched, almost fatal one. Mine, two days later, was similar to, if not worse than, the latter.
At this point, while on the subject of bale-outs, I may as well go forward to recount my own bale out, two days later on April 3. This was to be the day of an athletic carnival for No. 3 and supposedly we had been stood down for the day. As an athlete of some past standing, I had been looking forward to this event, but the Operations phone rang, summoning us into the air.
Cervia, Italy. 3 April 1945. Sports day for No. 3 (Mustang) Squadron RAAF in northern Italy was a big event. The weather was fine,
the competitors were keen, and the spectators cheered lustily as their particular champions proved themselves.
Shown, 422721 Warrant Officer J. B. Taylor of Youie Station, Coonamble, NSW, clearing the bar in the high jump field event.
The reason for this sudden change of plan was as follows: Several days before, a large Russian advance had revealed an enormous column of retreating German troops, tanks, trucks etc., on a road in Slovenia. The retreat had been temporarily halted by bombing a passing train at a level crossing, thus the column was at our collective mercy. Many squadrons had been involved in the two-day carnage, while the column was halted, and it was to this that No. 3 had been summoned.
Now, ever since the Battle of Britain in 1940, it had been a fighter squadron tradition that, at the sound of an alert, the pilots belted, helter skelter, to their machines and took off in a cloud of dust. Although the need for such urgency was long since past, it was still deemed prudent to get airborne with some celerity. So off to the strip in our 3-ton truck (we were now based at Cervia) and into the waiting planes. To expedite take-off, all aircraft were allotted randomly and each had a parachute with dinghy attached in position, with straps spread out so that the pilot leapt in, clipped on the parachute harness, then the restraining straps, helmet, goggles, oxygen mask, and radio; then roared off into the wild blue yonder.
Pilots rigged up waiting for briefing for Op. Note Mae West life jackets and “six shooter” side arms.
My allotted plane for this mission (another armed recce) was a Mark III [serial KH631, marked "CV-V"], a slightly older model than the new Mark IVs, which were now arriving regularly as replacements on the Squadron. It was armed with six 0.5-inch machine guns and two 500lb. bombs. After clambering in, I was amazed to find that the parachute straps were set up for an impossibly huge person. Instead of fitting snugly, the straps flopped about so loosely that there seemed to be every chance of falling out of them if I had to bale out. In addition, the ripcord metal ring, which you had to pull to open the parachute, instead of fitting neatly in its slot on your chest, was dangling on a foot-long piece of wire almost touching the floor of the cockpit.
"Very piss-poor maintenance," I thought. But, no time to speculate, off I went to take up my position behind our newly appointed flight commander, FLTLT 'Tubby' Shannon, who had arrived several weeks earlier to start his second tour of operations. One thing about being young and silly (I was 20 at this time): you feel indestructible, bullet proof as it were, and so I said to myself: “Well, it will be all right just this once.”
However, with Murphy’s Law always lurking in the background (albeit as yet undiscovered) - it wasn’t. So off we flew, across the Adriatic and into Slovenia until we had almost reached Maribor, a large town on the Austrian border, where somebody in the formation spotted a Fieseler Storch aircraft flying low beneath us. This was exciting stuff as most (if not all) of us had never seen a German plane in real life before.
Tubby decided that just he and I would attack it; so leaving the others up top, we jettisoned our bombs (all 2,000 lbs of them) and dived down to attack. At this point I should explain that the Fieseler Storch is a light reconnaissance aeroplane, totally unarmed and capable of a top speed of about 90 mph (150kmph), whereas we were much faster and very well-armed.
As Dusty Lane had shot another one down two days before, there was some speculation as to why such aircraft should be flying at all. Wing Intelligence had suggested that these planes may have been transporting high-ranking German Army officers trying to escape from both the Eastern and Western fronts, which, by now, were rapidly approaching each other. Their escape plan was, presumably, to try and reach the Austrian redoubt which, as yet, had not been overrun.
However, there is an alternative possibility. These planes had been used to spot Partisan movements in the mountainous regions nearby and it is possible that this accounted for their aerial presence. Whatever, down we swooped, putting down our flaps and throttling right back to reduce our speed. The Storch, by this time, had spotted us and, staying just above the ground, positioned himself behind a nest of German anti-aircraft guns (Oerlikon 20 mm cannons as it turned out) so that we had to fly right across these - low and slow - to get at him.
As we did this, he banked steeply to fly at right angles to us, so as to make it as difficult as possible for us to hit him. In other words he was maximizing the 'deflection' we had to use to shoot him down. (By way of explanation, when you are shooting at a target crossing your path, you have to aim a certain amount in front of it in order to hit it, otherwise the bullets will just pass harmlessly behind him. The amount you have to allow for, of course, depends on the speed of the target, which you estimate and then lay off the correct amount on your gunsight - rather like clay pigeon shooting really.)
We both opened fire as we drew near the German guns; every fifth bullet of our combined twelve 0.5-inch machine guns was a “tracer”, that is a bullet that has a fiery glow, thereby indicating the path of all the other bullets. I was amazed to see our bullets run up the wing of the Storch , which then burst into flame and crashed.
Almost immediately, there was a hell of a hit which seemed to lift my plane up in the air. Large flak holes with ugly jagged edges appeared in both wings and ailerons, the engine started pouring black smoke and my lateral control of the plane almost disappeared. The engine, however, continued to function, even though it was emitting sounds of dire distress that suggested to me that I wouldn’t make it back over the Adriatic. I had managed to climb to 5,000 feet and decided to head southwest. While I was doing this in my terminally-stricken plane, which was pouring huge amounts of smoke (presumably indicating some, as yet unseen, fire) and uttering horrible sounds of malfunction, Tubby kept badgering me with R/T calls, asking me where I was. Momentarily taking my mind off my multifarious problems, I had a look around: green fields below, mountains in the distance. How the fuck could I know where I was precisely?
So I ignored Tubby and got back to the problems at hand. Decisions had to be made; getting back across the Adriatic was obviously out of the question; should I head for the mountains, where Partisans were allegedly active, or for the Russian front which was only some 30 miles to the East? The latter had some difficulties, so I elected for the former.
Let me explain. As we operated fairly close to the advancing Russian front quite regularly, we were equipped, among many other bits and pieces, with a flag, a Union Jack that hung around our necks and was accompanied by the words “Dobra den, ya sum Englesi piloten.” (Good day, I am an English pilot.) As we were all dressed in grey English battledress and were wearing wing brevets, the possibility existed that you could be mistaken for a German soldier by the necessarily trigger-happy Russians and summarily dispatched. In the event of being shot down in Russian-occupied territory we were told by Intelligence to advance towards their troops with hands up and quoting the abovementioned words. I thought the Partisans might be a better bet.
Nearing the mountains, I thought it would be wise to blow off the canopy in case of a sudden loss of control, as was the case with John Hodgkinson. This was a mistake as the smoke and leaking glycol now poured into the cockpit, forcing me to decide to bale out immediately, even though I was some way short of the mountains. It was at this point that I remembered my loose parachute straps and, taking my eyes off the flickering instruments, glanced with some dismay at my dangling ripcord.
No choice - I undid my seat straps, took off my helmet with attached radio and oxygen mask and contemplated which bale-out method to use. Somehow, the bunting method seemed to be losing its previous appeal. Wouldn’t it be easier and safer just to go over the side and risk hitting the tailplane? Thus persuaded, I let go of the control column and tried to clamber out. Halfway out, the slipstream hit me, forcing me back against the cockpit edge with such force that I could neither get out any further nor get back in to regain control of the aircraft. The plane, out of control, slowly went into a dive, the ground appeared directly in the windscreen as we hurtled towards it with increasing speed, with me desperately trying, to no avail, to reach the stick.
A swift and violent death appeared imminent. Still pinned immovably against the rear of the cockpit, the engine noise and smoke reached a crescendo of violence. Then the next thing that happened was an incredible quiet; an eerie silence in marked contrast to the preceding turmoil. Bewildered (in a state of shock really) I wondered: "...Is this heaven? How quick! No booking-in formalities. No sign of Saint Peter." Glancing upwards, above me was a beautiful white silk canopy. Wow! Relief! - But tempered by the fact that the parachute had about an 8 foot tear in it, stretching from the edge inwards. Did chutes with tears continue to do so under the pressure of descent? Shelving this query for the moment, I looked down to see green fields seemingly a long, long way below.
As I hung there in the pristine silence there appeared to be no detectable downwards movement whatsoever. Am I going to hang up here forever? I wondered. After what seemed to be an eternity I began to detect a slight downward movement and also a slight sideways progression towards the West. People appeared running towards my descent path. Friend or foe? Ah well, at least I had my trusty Smith and Wesson 38, with its four bullets. Misjudging the final 100 feet or so, it seemed as though I would drift gently and gracefully onto the forgiving earth; nothing happened for a bit then the earth rushed up to meet me and I hit with a dreadful thud while travelling backwards at about 15 mph due to the wind. Dragging along the ground at speed I hit the release buckle and came to rest - more or less in one piece.
People were running towards me, civilians not soldiers, so I walked towards them, whereupon they turned and fled. Perhaps with my grey battledress, winged chevron and trusty six-shooter at the hip I looked like a German to them…or maybe an alien of sorts. So I grabbed the parachute and looked for somewhere to hide it, as per orders. No real hiding place so I put it, as best I could under a small bush and headed for the distant hills as I could see what appeared to be German soldiers coming my way from a distant village. As I glanced back, I saw the peasant women pulling my ‘chute out of its hidey-hole, evidently assessing the quality of the material.
Much later, thinking about the bale-out, I have concluded that the following was the most likely scenario. When the plane began to dive, because I couldn’t reach the control column, this must have acted as a partial bunt, perhaps just elevating me slightly from my trapped position. The dangling ripcord ring must have caught on one of the many projections and levers in the narrow cockpit. This would have triggered the opening of the parachute in the cockpit! Spilling out into the slipstream, I must have been dragged out perforce, narrowly missing the tailplane, which must have caught the silk of the chute and torn it. Needless to say I didn’t say anything about this horrible bungle in my official report later, back at the ranch!
At this point I will go back in time to deal with some other aspects of life on a fighter-bomber squadron. As the fighting spearhead of some 300 odd personnel, we pilots (25 or so of us) ate and socialized together in the Pilot’s Mess without distinction regarding rank. This was unique, I fancy, in the RAF; usually there was strict segregation between officers and other ranks. For instance, a bomber crew of seven mixed officers and sergeants upon returning, say, from a mission to Berlin would have to go to separate Messes (Officers’ and Sergeants’), even if the captain of the aircraft may well have been a Sergeant and the navigator a Flight Lieutenant. There also were substantial pay differences and other privileges which tended to make some of us “lesser lights” a bit Bolshie. Mind you, such discrimination was the same in the Russian Services and is still, in this allegedly enlightened world, today!
Our relations with the Italian locals were complex. Perforce, we were living amongst an alien and defeated enemy. There was, of course, a certain amount of interaction with the local populace. However, this was limited - by their hostility and fear, and by our inability to speak their language - to exchanges of merchandise and the like. But more on this interesting topic some time later.
Living, as we were, in a state of heightened emotions, there was a tendency to have a lot of parties. One such was arranged not long after Lew and I arrived at Fano. One way or another, three other pilots and myself were delegated to go off in a 3-ton truck and escort a bevy of New Zealand Army girls who, somehow, had been invited to the party. Now the back of 3-ton trucks are not really designed for the transport of party guests, rather the transport of more utilitarian items, so we loaded up the truck with a couple of armchairs and a sofa.
Off we drove in total darkness on a freezing winter’s night, rugged up in winter woollies and greatcoats, taking about 40 minutes to reach the NZ camp. I had no idea where we were (nor have I to this day), but we met the waiting Army girls and loaded them aboard for the return journey. This 40 minutes, as far as I can remember, was passed in pleasant chitchat and in the complete darkness. As far as I am aware, there were no gropings or otherwise indecorous behaviour.
This, I am compelled to say, was not the case on the return journey many hours later. The party got under way with dancing, drinking, and much general merriment. There were four Army girls and a lot of lusty pilots, and as I neither drank nor danced well, and was generally deficient in the social graces, I retired to the lounge room to read a book and listen to the increasing excitement going on in the nearby bar. I, of course, had long given up on the girls, but when the party was over, the girl whom I had escorted to the 'do' sought me out and insisted that I should escort her home. I am not going to give you guys any gory details, suffice to say that the 40-minute return journey in an armchair, in the cold and dark and with a girl on my lap, was a revealing experience for a well brought up 20-year-old from Vaucluse! I wish I could remember her name, if indeed, I ever knew it.
Some time in February, 1945 (I have no record of the exact date) we moved up the east coast to Cervia to be closer to the front line for what was obviously going to be a big Spring offensive by the British Eighth Army. I flew a mission that day from Fano, but landed at our newly completed strip at Cervia, while Lew and others went up by truck to pitch tents and generally make ready our new home. Lew had a tent put up for him and myself when I landed - and this we shared until I was shot down.
The tent that Lew and I shared in Cervia.
Note canvas bag for water and canvas washstand outside. Spring had arrived.
As always Lew, in spite of linguistic difficulties, had some success with the local damsels, which I did not, but he also, with his adventurous techniques, managed to corral a couple of English Army girls with whom we spent some pleasurable social moments.
This was made possible, in part, by our three Padres, the Anglican Bob Davies, the Presbyterian Fred McKay, and the Catholic John McNamara. These three remarkable gentleman really invented Ecumenicalism and, in an age when religious bigotry was rife, combined together admirably to look after (at least some of) our social needs. Mind you, they had, of course, been appointed to look after our spiritual needs, but rapidly learned that most Air Force personnel's’ needs (and I suspect all other services as well) were more venal than spiritual.
Being practical men, as well as men of the cloth, they set about establishing, wherever we moved to, small clubs called "Koala Casas", where we could get a cup of tea and a cake and socialize generally. This they did in addition to supplying the necessary religious counselling to those few who felt they needed it. All of us have wonderful memories of these very fine gentlemen. Padre McNamara died many years ago, but Fred died just last year aged 90+ and Bob Davies, who became Archbishop of Tasmania, is still alive - and although very shaky can still tell excellent, if vaguely risqué, jokes at 3 Squadron reunions. Fred McKay, after the war, went on to a lifetime of distinguished service for the Flying Doctor Service (at which pursuit he had started pre-war with Flynn of the Inland) and the Uniting Church as Moderator. A true scholar and a true Christian.
RAAF Padres Davies (left) and McNamara (right) with "Stinky Miller". [AWM MEC2455]
Chapter 6. "Everyone’s Trying to Kill Me"
Apart from the odd riotous party, social life in the Pilots' Mess centred around the bar, where most operational pilots relieved their tensions most evenings. The local townspeople kept to themselves and it was too cold to go out on the town anyway. As we had lost both our Flight Commanders (see earlier), Tubby Shannon, who had recently arrived for a second tour of operations, took over one of the Flights. He was a delightful man, a little older than most of us and a font of wisdom on matters of the world etc. As he is now dead, I can recount the following.
If you have ever read Catch 22 you may recall a piece of dialogue that goes like this:
“They’re trying to kill me,” Yossarian told him calmly.
“No one’s trying to kill you,” Clevinger cried.
“Then why are they shooting at me?” Yossarian asked.
“They’re shooting at everyone,” Clevinger answered. “They’re trying to kill everyone.”
“And what difference does that make?”
“Who’s they?” he wanted to know. “Who, specifically, do you think is trying to murder you?”
“Every one of them,” Yossarian told him.
“Every one of whom?”
“Every one of whom do you think?”
“I haven’t any idea.”
“Then how do you know they aren’t?…”
Well, although it wasn’t quite like that with Tubby and me, I have subsequently joked about three separate incidents wherein it could be construed that Tubby was trying to do just that to me!
Tubby’s first tour had been in the Desert somewhere and he had yet to settle into European aerial warfare conditions when he got promoted to Flight Commander to succeed the now POW John Hodgkinson. Thus his techniques were a little rusty. Perhaps promoted rather like the Peter Principle in commercial civilian life, where executives were sometimes promoted to a level beyond their capabilities, there to remain, doing the job badly, for the rest of their working lives.
On March 16 we were briefed for a mission to bomb some bridges, four in all, across the Sava river at a town called Brod. It was a very extensive briefing for a number of reasons. Brod was a long way, near the Hungarian border, and very close to the Russian front. In order to carry two 500lb. bombs there was no room for extra fuel tanks, so it was decreed that we would have to land at a secret aerodrome somewhere in Montenegro on the way home to refuel before recrossing the Adriatic to Cervia. We were given the call sign of their Radio Direction Finding Station to help us find the place, as it was just a remote grassy field, virtually indistinguishable from zillions of other fields. (Our own Italy-based RDF station, called “Commander”, would be of no use, as we would well out of its range.) As usual we were given all the courses to steer, the wind direction, the weather over the target, photographs of targets, maps etc. Also a rendezvous point near the target (a mountain, whose name now escapes me). This was necessary to sort out the inevitable post bomb-dive chaos and confusion and help us all to regroup into full squadron formation before heading back.
This was to be a bigger-than-usual operation, comprising two full squadrons of 12 aircraft, ourselves and a South African squadron. Tubby was to lead No.3, but the overall leader was to be the Jaapie leader, so we flew above the SAAFs. I was assigned 'Blue 2' behind Bill Andrews. We four were the top cover for both formations and I, of course, was supposed to search the sky unceasingly for enemy aircraft and never look at the ground below, this task being left to the leaders who were leading us to the target. I am sure we looked impressive as we took off; 24 Mustangs bristling with bombs and guns and headed out across the Adriatic Sea.
After about an hour’s flying the SAAF leader called up and said that there were the targets straight ahead. Tubby called up the leader to acknowledge and confirm that he too had identified the targets. It seemed to me to be a bit soon to have reached such a distant destination, but who was I, a sprog, to argue with such august and experienced leaders. As we got closer we certainly could see a river, some bridges and a town but, even though we in Shabby Blue were the highest part of the formation, it seemed to us that the bridges had already been bombed.
Undeterred by this awkward fact, Bill selected the bridge furthest downstream and we bombed it. I can’t remember whether there was any flak at all but I do remember, as I pulled out of my bomb dive, seeing the SAAFs bombing a bridge across where the town stood on both sides of the river. They didn’t appear to be hitting the bridge but rather the town as huge piles of masonry seemed to be filling the air near the approaches to the bridge.
By now, of course, we are all out of formation, planes whizzing about everywhere looking for the rendezvous mountain, which was proving difficult to locate. Lots of confused chatter on the radio - Tubby was calling us all up and insisting that he had found it and where the fuck were the rest of us. Being a conscientious sprog, I spent a hell of a lot of time diligently searching for this mythical mountain and, not finding it, thought that this must be due to my ineptitude. This fact was agreed to by Tubby, rather irately, over the R/T.
Allen "Tubby" Shannon (left) pictured in 1943 during his earlier tour with 450 Squadron. [AWM MEA0378]
Eventually silence prevailed, no aircraft of any sort to be seen and I realised that they had all long since headed off, presumably to Montenegro, so I climbed to 13,000 feet and tried to reconstitute my badly mangled thought processes.
“Right,” I said to myself, “get out the map and find out where you are exactly by checking with the landmarks down below.” Couldn’t make head nor tail of it; couldn’t relate the map to the ground at all (the reason for this, of course with hindsight, was that I was looking at features on the ground that were at least 100 kms away from the bits of the map that I was reading. Frustration and a certain amount of panic grew. Cloud cover above, sun completely obscured; was I flying West or could it possibly be East? Check the compass. But unfortunately another unforseen problem arose.
Let me try and explain. In all my previous (two years plus) flying experience I had always used the time-honoured bowl compass, which had a floating needle pointing to Magnetic North. Around the bowl was a bezel which, when turned, controlled two parallel lines stretched across the bowl. If you wanted to fly your plane on a course of, say, 270° (west), you turned the bezel until 270 was at the front of the compass, then you turned the aircraft until the needle, which always pointed North of course, was parallel to the two aforementioned lines and, voila, you were flying West.
However, the P51 was the last word in modern fighting machines and it was fitted with the last word in modern navigating devices, namely a “radio compass”. Instead of being horizontal, this gadget was a vertical dial on the dashboard with just a moving needle and a dial of 360 degrees. Now, if I had had my wits about me, a moment’s thought would have made me realise that the needle showed the course that you were steering and wasn’t just pointing North.
By this time I had about 20 hours flying Mustangs but became aware that I had never had the need to look at the compass. Couldn’t identify the ground objects (they don’t put labels on rivers, towns or state boundaries!); couldn’t see the Sun, was unsure of the compass function. So I took a punt (correct fortunately), opted for the needle pointing to the heading that I was on and set course vaguely west, still unsure whether I was flying towards Italy or Russia!
Assuming I was flying in the right direction, the next problem was to locate and set a course for the hidden airfield in Montenegro. To do this, I needed to know the call sign of its radio direction-finding station. Needless to say I had forgotten it. Our own one, “Commander”, back in Italy, was, of course, out of range; nevertheless I climbed up to 20,000 ft. and called it up on the R/T. No reply of course but after a series of plaintive calls a voice came on the air:
“Hello Shabby Blue 2 this is “Tall Yacht”.
“That’s it!” I cried. “Tall Yacht - how could I have forgotten?”
I set the course given me, adhered to it with great concentration, glancing around furtively for enemy aircraft as I was a long way from home and deep in enemy territory. After some time I found myself on a converging course with a USA Flying Fortress and, with many incidents of trigger-happy Yanks in mind, thought it wise to break off my course and avoid him. This necessitated another course correction which the ever helpful Tall Yacht provided.
Approaching the coast I was unable to spot the airfield and found myself over the sea. This necessitated yet another request to Tall Yacht, this time to bring me back inland again. This time, luckily, I spotted a wing glinting in the sun as a plane landed in a field and down I went and landed.
“God, Nobby, that was a bloody awful landing!” said Bill Andrews later.
“But, Bill,” I replied, “any landing that you can walk away from is a good one.”
Incidentally, the town that we bombed by mistake turned out to be Banja Luca, now in the newly-founded country of Bosnia Herzegovina. As a sequel to this incident, the next morning at dawn Bill Andrews and I took off to do another weather reconnaissance to the mysterious city of Brod, which we located without difficulty, radioed back the weather conditions and returned uneventfully to base. Flying at this time in the morning was pure delight; green fields, rivers and mountains drifting by down below, smooth progress through the still air, the world beginning to wake up, steam trains and trucks starting to move around the countryside before the Allied air might was up and about. Tempting though it was to break off and attack these artefacts of the enemy, we stuck to our allotted task, the weather report.
To digress for a moment, I have always been puzzled by the rationale of weather reccies and, to this day, have never had a satisfactory answer to my queries from any authority or oracle that I could find to consult. What possible relevance did the weather at dawn have to the prospect of a mission scheduled for 3 p.m., I wondered. And what message did we give to the Germans by flying over several bridges early in the morning and then going away? I suppose some other squadrons did eventually bomb Brod, but I bet they got a hectic reception!
On March 26 I took off with two 500 lb bombs in a flight of eight aircraft led by Tubby. I don’t remember the target and my log book makes no mention, as I didn’t get to it anyway, but with two big ones it was probably a bridge. The cloud cover was low and total - i.e. 10/10ths. Now, to fly in formation in dense cloud, it is absolutely essential to fly very, very close. Because, if you don’t, you can’t see each other, can’t keep together, and are in grave danger of colliding. We, as usual, were in battle formation, i.e. about 100 metres apart laterally and the No.2s (including me) about 50 metres back. At 3,000 feet, still climbing, we entered dense cloud and lost sight of each other.
At this point let me pause and give you some info. on blind flying. This aspect of our flying training was the most exacting, difficult and important skill that we were to acquire. To fly blind you are completely dependent on your instruments as you are completely disorientated spatially, rather like a hooded bird. Trouble is, your mind does not really believe this and likes to believe that it has an infallible intuitive grasp of spatial reality. Many, many trainee pilots died because of this belief and so all of us who survived these gut feelings spent many tedious, concentrated hours under hoods, inside Link Trainers (old fashioned simulators) and flying at night to acquire these instrument flying skills. However, while I had done a lot of all this stuff in both Australia and the UK; in the Middle East we did none. Doing OTU in the desert there were never any clouds. Indeed, to lighten up the Kittyhawks they had taken out all the blind-flying instruments to aid performance. So, the last blind-flying I had done was back in the UK in May 1944!
On this trip I was actually flying No. 2 to Bill Andrews again and at about 3,000 feet we flew straight into dense 10/10ths cloud. Instant panic. Couldn’t see Bill or the leader; what to do? Keep climbing straight and hope you didn’t run into anybody or vice versa. To do this necessitated the scanning of a number of very essential instruments: the air speed indicator, the rate of climb dial, the turn and bank indicator, the artificial horizon (absolutely essential to keep your wings level with this), the radio compass (I now knew how this worked!) and lastly to plug in the directional gyro to help in maintaining a straight course when you couldn’t see anything at all in cloud, through which you were belting at several hundreds of mph. It was also useful to glance at the numbers of temperature and pressure gauges but there was little time for this latter, as one’s mind was desperately focussed on all of the former.
All the above adjustments to this new situation took place, I would estimate, in little more than a minute, during which time another aircraft flashed past my nose, missing me by a whisker. Either he or I or perhaps both had not held our course properly and the wonder of it all is that there weren't a number of collisions in this inscrutable fog. After regaining some composure and dredging up from yesteryear some of the old blind-flying skills, I proceeded upwards, still in cloud, for what seemed an eternity of sweaty concentration until I broke out into beautiful blue sky at about 15,000 feet. This was an enormous relief, tempered only by the fact the sky was totally devoid of other aircraft. The tops of the clouds, sparkling white in the dazzling sun was what, in those naïve days, I imagined heaven would look like - but of course, I had to get back down to reality a long and murky way below.
Now one of the serious problems of flying in cloud was mountains; you can’t see them and therefore can run into them if you are not high enough. Italy has a lot of mountains and the ones that particularly concerned me were the Apennines which, as you no doubt know, form a North/South spine down the middle. As I could now not see the ground, I had no idea where I was or whether I was over land or water (the Adriatic) so I figured that if I flew East for a while before descending, I had a better chance of being over water. What about the two 500 pounders? Well, I thought, better not to jettison from where I was in case I inadvertently obliterated some unsuspecting village (it was necessary to jettison because you couldn’t risk landing with them, as one unfortunate Mustang pilot had attempted to do at Fano several weeks previously. I still have a series of photographs showing the resultant hole in the runway and the small pieces of P51 lying about).
When I felt it likely that I was over water I started to descend through the all-encompassing murk. When my altimeter showed my altitude as 1,500ft, I was still in dense cloud and beginning to worry about the accuracy of my previous assumptions. No option but to press on downwards and, to my immense relief, at 1,000 feet broke into the clear over water. As I was obviously well out to sea, I jettisoned the two big ones and as I was not under fire could observe the resulting explosion in some detail. What a terrible waste though - I don’t know how much it cost to make those bombs, but I felt it a dereliction of duty to waste them in this way. I then made my lonely way west back to our strip at Cervia and to relieve my feelings did a slow roll before landing on it. What had happened with the rest of the formation was that, as Tubby had not issued any orders after entering the cloud, Bill Andrews had called out, “This is madness, let’s go down and get out of this!” I had not picked this up on my RT for some reason, so I had pressed on regardless as we used to say.
Occurred on April 3 when, as you know, Tubby led me, flying low and slow with flaps down, over a nest of gun emplacements, which promptly riddled my poor old Mustang with 20mm cannon shells.
When we were back in Australia in Bradfield Park awaiting discharge from the RAAF, I mentioned to Tubby that, even though I had no car and, indeed, could not even drive properly, the possession of a Driver’s Licence might be handy in civilian life. He promptly got some official (letterheaded) RAAF paper and got a nearby WAAF to type a letter to the effect that I was licensed to drive four wheeled vehicles on No. 3 Squadron. Armed with this fictitious document, I went to the RTA and was given a license straight away and I still hold it to this day. Perhaps Tubby felt that he owed me one… or two!
I see that I have digressed more than somewhat from “life on a squadron”. If you can recall I was writing about the social life. Now for a couple of other features.
Food: Not too bad really and certainly much much better than for the Italians. We were rich and they were poor; we had plentiful supplies of the basics, cigarettes, liquor etc. and they lived in abject poverty, trading eggs etc. for cigarettes which, because of the enormous inflation, they then used as currency. There was, of course, a certain amount of monotony in the food and it was hardly cordon bleu cooking, although Bill Nash, the Pilots’ Mess cook, did a pretty good job in the circumstances. Take Spam for instance. Sometimes we would get it 3 times a day: Spam fried in batter for breakfast, Spam salad for lunch, and Spam stew with dehydrated spuds mashed with Oleo margarine (filthy tasting stuff) for dinner. Still, in hindsight, it was better than eating with the Partisans.
Hygiene: Pretty well non-existent, especially in the bitter winter of 1945, when we just went dirty. I can recall though one visit to Fano (and it was the only one) by the DAF Shower Unit! The Shower Unit set up in the middle of a snow-covered field, placed down some wooden duck boards, surrounded it with canvas (to shield us from the gaze of the locals or perhaps vice versa), fired up their portable oil furnace and set up six showers. We queued up and in groups of six, were given 30 seconds of hot water, then a minute to soap up, followed by another 30 seconds to wash off. And that was it for the winter of ‘45, shower-wise.
Some other vignettes of life at Fano which now come to mind. Finding some Australians (us) nearby, a number of the New Zealand Army types, mostly Maoris, issued us with a challenge to a game of Rugby on a local mud patch and I was roped in to play Inside Centre. Having seen NZ footballers, especially Maoris, play rugby in Australia, I was not overly filled with enthusiasm for this encounter but, like going on an operation, one was not able to refuse. The actuality of the game proved to be even worse than the prospect and we were defeated by a substantial margin before we could remove our battered bodies from the field. I have always disliked wet-weather Rugby at any time, but this was the pits. I can’t recall how we cleaned up afterwards, but the Shower Unit had moved on.
Another incident occurred when a new pilot joined the Squadron at Fano, several weeks after Lew and I got there. He was a Flying Officer, but with no previous operational experience, and he was allocated his first operation on March 3, 1945. At the briefing, the "job" (as we called them) was explained - we were to dive bomb and strafe some gunpits defending a series of bridges, while two other squadrons were bombing the bridges. This poor bloke was so frightened that he was visibly shaking all over; so much so that it was embarrassing to look at him. Anyway he got off the ground and proceeded in formation with us until we got to the target and did our dives, after which the usual confusion resulted until we got sorted out and found that the new bloke was missing. Someone said that they thought he had bailed out, but there had been no word at all from him. After the war he returned to the Squadron, having spent the remaining period of the war in the Apennines with the Italian Partisans, none the worse for wear. I have subsequently wondered, and of course I will never find out for sure, whether he didn’t just bale out to get out of a war that he had barely entered. I have not heard of him since we came home.
Another new arrival about this time was a bit of a surprise. A new, very tall pilot with a ginger handlebar moustache turned up; none other than our old Squadron Commander from OTU at Fayed, Jungle Jim Edmonds. A surprise, because we had never had an English pilot posted to our Australian squadron before, but it turned out that Jim was lined up to take command of, I think, No.250 Squadron in the near future and was sent to us to acquaint himself with flying conditions in Northern Italy, which were quite different from those experienced by him on his previous tour of operations in Burma. In the event, he didn’t make it to 250, as he was shot down and killed flying from Cervia.
Three Squadron pilots at Cervia, March 1945. I am fourth from left in the front row. Jungle Jim Edmonds is far right.
In this period of the war, late March and early April, No. 3 SQN had an extraordinarily high casualty rate. Nine planes were shot down in a period of some 10 days. Dave Tennant (North Italy), John Hodgkinson (POW), Barney Davies (Yugoslavia Evader), me, Ken Higgins (POW and badly wounded), John McInerheney (same op. as me), Don Williamson (crashed onto the Venice Lido), Don Redenbach (POW) and Jungle Jim. Extraordinary because, of all that number, only Jim Edmonds died in action.
Looking up into the Slovenian hills where Al’s Mustang crashed, about 12km WSW
of the town of Ptuj.
Al floated down into the green fields (probably in this area), and hid his parachute under a bush in a ditch.
Chapter 7. Yugoslavia – the Lousy Long March
Now I think it is time to return to the story, which will take us from the bale-out landing to my meeting Clark Cornell some three weeks later. “Only three weeks,” I say to myself. So much happening; so much drama; so many strange experiences; it seemed at the time like three months.
Having unsuccessfully tried to hide my parachute, I set off at a fast jog for the nearby hills with, I thought, a German posse just coming out of a distant village. Spurred on by this thought, I paused little until I was well up into the hills, which seemed to be uninhabited. Proceeding at a fast walk, ever upwards, I eventually came to a clearing with a small house on it. By this time I was fairly exhausted, the surreal shock of the whole event was starting to wear off a little, but I didn’t know what to expect at the house, pro-German peasants, anti-German peasants or, indeed, Germans themselves. What I found was a middle-aged couple with whom, of course, I could not communicate and therefore could not determine which category they subscribed to. Now we had been well and extensively briefed on what to do in these situations and had been issued a booklet with a series of phrases in some 10 different dialects and languages. Fortunately I still had it in my battle dress pocket as well as my Union Jack (in Russian) around my neck.
Some of the languages were printed in Cyrillic, some in Roman script. I showed the booklet to the couple but neither of them could read; some other people arrived but they could not read either. At last a 10-year-old boy was fetched who could read and he located his language and proceeded to read out the phrases to the burgeoning gathering. Unfortunately the first phrase was “I am hungry/thirsty” so out came some food from the house. This, of course, was the last thing I needed as I gazed anxiously around for approaching Germans - although I tried to eat some of this unfamiliar food, but couldn’t manage it. Ironically, much later it would have been very welcome indeed.
Eventually, after much discussion I was taken to a bunker some little distance away and placed inside and the lid replaced. This bunker was excavated from soil in a steep hillside; it was about four feet high, six feet long and five feet deep, with a trapdoor lid which was covered by the peasants with leaves which were thick on the ground outside thereby making an excellent hiding place which was just as well as during the next day or two I could hear search parties moving around very close outside, but evidently they didn’t have dogs or I would have been a goner.
Left alone in the dark, I took stock of myself and my situation. I very badly needed a cigarette but these had come adrift in the bungled bale-out along with all my emergency kit and rations. I seemed to be in one piece except for cuts in the back of my left hand where my watch had been smashed against it. That night the man brought me some more food and very sour wine, neither of which did I want. I think I was in the bunker for three days and nights; it seemed like an eternity. Unable to stand upright or move around, I just sat there in the dark and gloomily pondered my future. I wondered how mum would take the news when it reached her and, of course she had no way of knowing that I was still alive (actually, if I can find it, I will include the very extensive telegram that she did receive).
On the third night the farmer came and escorted me to the house, where he gave me to understand, by words and gestures, that the partisans would be coming later that night. At about midnight a group of some five or six youths arrived, dressed in a motley collection of uniforms and armed with a motley collection of weapons. They were all in the 17 to 19 age range and appeared to have no particular leader. I stood up and gave them my best military salute but, understandably, they appeared unimpressed. For about two hours they just sat around talking to the family and drinking schnapps, testing my always limited patience, as I was anxious to get on with the obviously lengthy business of returning to Italy. There was some talk about taking me to a secret Partisan aerodrome which cheered me up a bit, but was never to eventuate. At about 2 am they decided to get going, so off we set with many kind gestures from this very obviously poor family who had risked severe punishment, if not death, for harbouring me. If I ever got back, I resolved that I would fly back to this area and drop them a parcel of food, soap and cigarettes but, alas, this was not to be as, at war’s end, or rather shortly thereafter, the “Iron Curtain” descended and we were told that if we flew over Yugoslavia, we would be shot at.
It was a pitch black night as we set off walking at a cracking pace through the forest. “My word,” I said to myself, “these blokes are good,” as I tried to keep close to the black shape in single file ahead of me. Just then a resounding crash came from the front of the column, accompanied by a series of expletives such as ‘porca Madonna’ and some others whose meaning was not clear to me but whose intention was. The leader, it seems, had fallen into a deep gully from which he was hauled still mouthing oaths in Slovenian. We proceeded at a more circumspect pace, came to a gravel road lined with telephone poles, whereupon the Partisans decided that it was their patriotic duty to chop these down and take possession of the wire. They were making a hell of a noise in the process when, suddenly, a shot rang out and we all hit the deck. “Christ,” I thought “the bloody Germans have arrived!” but it turned out to be one of the Partisans mucking about with his rifle.
I was to learn, in the next month or so, how much they loved their weapons and, although I personally didn’t see any, I was told that accidental shootings of themselves and each other accounted for most of their casualties. I did, however, witness an incident some time later while sitting with a group of young Partisans outside a remote house, which the group leaders were using as a headquarters. The usual ritual gun-cleanings, swappings and discussions were taking place, when up the mountain came a patrol of theirs, preceded by a youth of about 16 who was crying and being kicked hard in the bum every few paces by the jackbooted leader behind him. “Ustachi,” the group I was sitting with me said, as he was taken into the house for interrogation. As the kid was in civilian clothes I wondered how they knew that he belonged to this group of Croatians who were their bitterest enemies, even more so than the Germans. After a short while the alleged Ustacha member was taken round the back of the house and shot. Everybody just went on with their usual routines.
The next couple of weeks were passed with interminable night marches with no discernable pattern, and not always in the same direction as sometimes we retraced our steps, but basically we headed East which was toward the Russians whose gunnery we could hear rumbling in the distance, about 30-40 kms, I figured. This was not the direction I wanted to go, as the way home was west, but it was explained to me in sign language that it was basically impossible to get through the German lines at this time. This was apparently due to the Russians’ relentless advance through Hungary, towards Austria and Slovenia, which was where we were, causing an unusually large concentration of German troops in the valleys surrounding our section of the mountains.
By day we spent a lot of time hiding in bunkers or small farmhouses, but eventually we reached a slightly larger house, which turned out to be the headquarters of a slightly larger group of partisans, who looked a bit more like the real thing compared with the youngsters I had been with from the start.
The commandant of this group was a fellow of about 20 (my age, but I felt older!), named Boris. All the Partisans in this group wore uniforms of some sort, mostly tending towards the jack-booted Teutonic style so beloved of these peoples. I got the distinct impression that, because my style of dress was insufficiently militaristic, I myself could not possibly be part of a proper military force. Nevertheless they undertook to get me back whence I came, eventually via, it was hinted, this distant (and to me, somewhat mythical) hidden airfield. The rank and file, including myself, slept outside on the haystacks, while the officers, female Partisans and some civilians occupied the house, which also served as an office. Among the civilians were an Austrian couple of distinguished appearance and dress whom, I was told, had fled a large Austrian town of which the man had been the mayor. Apparently he had been told by the SS troops to execute a number of people suspected of aiding Partisan groups, but he refused and he and his wife fled to these Slovenian mountains with all that they could carry in haversacks. Shortly after, they left for some unknown destination in their escape plan and I have often wondered if they survived the final turmoil of the war and made it back to their probably devastated home town.
I suppose that I stayed there for a week or so when I was told that I was being taken to another station where there was an American pilot, who had been shot down some weeks before. My escort and I walked all one day pretty well due east to get to another partisan outfit where, three weeks after being shot down, I met Clark Cornell, a USAF P38 pilot who had crash-landed his flak-damaged P-38 Lightning about four weeks before.
[14/3/45. P-38 serial 44-24189 of the 48th Fighter Squadron/14th Fighter Group. Marked "9". Hit by AA fire while attacking a railway bridge two miles SE of Ptuj, Yugoslavia.]
A P-38 Lightning of the USAAF 14th FG.
We soon got down to sharing what little information both of us had gathered. As we were now so far east, we could hear the Russian guns quite loudly and we seriously debated the possibility of walking as far east as we could, staying hidden in the hills and waiting for the Russian tide to roll over us. After some time I think this proposal was vetoed by the Partisans and, in the event, the Russians swung North and did not enter Slovenia, although when we later started to walk west, the Russian guns seemed to be following us as we walked.
The courier route that the Partisans ran to take escapees back to Italy was mostly from this lot of mountains, across a huge valley to another range of mountains called Pohorje, where other groups of Partisans were hiding out. Halfway across the valley, other couriers from Pohorje would meet us and take us on. Clark Cornell had made three attempts to do this, going down in the valley to get across it at night. He had been repulsed by German forces. In one case, some of the partisans had been killed, failing to make it across one of the little rivers, because of the concentration of Germans in the villages scattered along the valley. On another attempt, the couriers from the other side failed to make the rendezvous halfway across, and he had to again abandon it and return to the hills.
After much discussion of our options, we elected to stick to the Partisan plan which, they said, would take us through Pohorje and on to a mobile “British Mission” and thence on to a secret aerodrome where we would be evacuated. The British Mission, which moved around organizing supply drops for the Partisans would, they said, help us on our way.
It was at this point that I first acquired my lice. Clark was pleased; he had had them for several weeks and now felt happier that I was able to share them with him. They stayed with us for the duration and the eventual delousing was a very extensive process.
At last the Partisans decided to make another attempt to get across the wide valley to get us to Pohorje. After Clark’s three previous attempts had ended in failure, he was naturally a little sceptical, but we set off on the great adventure at about 3 pm one afternoon with one distressingly sick member – me!
Unfortunately I was extremely ill with diarrhoea at the time and I was really in a distressed state. As we walked down the mountain I rattled away like a burbling brook inside, having to stop frequently to excrete impure water. Having no toilet paper I used silk maps to clean myself. It was uncomfortable, I wasn’t well, but we had to press on so that we could reach the foothills by dark, cross the valley under cover of darkness, and get to the other side before light, which was a fair walk. Down we went, stopping at a few little houses that the partisans seemed to like, people that they seemed to know. On we went to the foothills in the dark as scheduled, then set out across skirting little villages. We could hear some shouting, from drunken soldiers presumably.
We went through fields if we could. Later on we had to sneak through a fairly sizable village/town. Crossing the river had to be done between the bridges, because all the bridges were guarded. It was bright moonlight so we felt vulnerable out in the open. In the distance we could see a bridge. We crossed it at a ford, where we had to wade in icy cold fast-flowing water up to our waists. We moved on, still stopping at the odd house to inquire of the inhabitants what was going on ahead. This went smoothly, lulling Clark and myself into a false sense of security. Eventually our little group of partisans (the leader of whom only looked about 16, if that), armed with guns and grenades, came to a house about 11 pm in a wide open field, where the partisans knew the people. Our companions, with Clark and I, went up to the house and went in. The light was on. It all seemed odd to me. - There were two German soldiers sitting there at the table, so we bolted out the door, went and hid across the field in some bushes. The partisans had a conference and decided that we would shoot the Germans. We were going to have to creep across the field with our guns out, shining in the moonlight, feeling very vulnerable.
Clark said, “Lets go back.” This was his fourth attempt. I was so sick and had walked so far, and was so tired, there was no way I was going to go back.
I thought, “Bugger it! Push on, get on with the job,” and said, “No - I’m not going back, I’m going to press on.” So we decided to raid the house. We stalked across the field, rushed the house, and found that the soldiers had gone out the back door. They were probably more frightened than we were. They were probably garrison troops, old blokes not much good for serving on the eastern front. It was quite an exciting little event.
More hours of walking, more plugging along, till we met couriers who had come from the next area, Pohorje. They met us about half way across the valley. They chatted for a while, then took off - walking on little country roads where we could, stopping cautiously at the odd house to inquire about the road ahead. I began to feel really tired and I started to fall asleep on my feet. I was in danger of falling over.
We came to a house about 2 or 3 in the morning. We went into the house where the people were still up. The partisans talked. I fell asleep at the table as I was. After 30 minutes later we had to leave, having had nothing to eat or drink, not that I could have eaten anything anyway.
We went across a tunnel under a railway line and further on, till just on dawn we arrived on the main road, which crossed our path. There were a few German cars going past as we hid in the bushes. We waited for a break and then we rushed across. We got a few hundred yards across the road, and I couldn’t go on any further. No one else was up to going on either, we were all so exhausted. We found a little copse of trees and sheltered in it. It shielded us from view and we stayed here all day. I was dead tired, but couldn’t sleep after all that time and I was still feeling very ill. That night we took off again towards the mountains, this time from the foothills.
We had picked up a new guide. Unusually, he was an older chap of about 45. He set a terrific pace and we had trouble keeping up with him. It was a nightmare getting up that hill. Eventually we slept on a haystack. I can tell you haystacks aren’t all that much fun to sleep on. They are itchy and you get full of lice. (If you aren’t already covered in lice, which I was by this time). We spent the night there and then proceeded on till we met up with a bigger group of partisans.
Let me tell you a little about lice; you have a choice of three, head, body and crab. Each type, rather strangely, sticks to its own area and does not visit others. Head and body lice are usually associated with dirt and lack of hygiene, while crabs are acquired from sexual intercourse or, as most sufferers insist, from infected toilet seats (hmm…). I, needless to say, had acquired the body type (there was certainly no chance of getting the crabs in our neck of the woods in the Pohorje mountain range! Apart from their propensity to spread disease (in previous years the Partisan forces had been ravaged by typhus), they are extremely uncomfortable to live with. We were wearing our winter gear, in my case woollen singlet, woollen khaki shirt and woollen grey battledress. The lice laid their eggs in all the seams and cemented them in, so that their removal was practically impossible, unless you could burn them out with a lit cigarette (which we rarely had). At night, as you tried to sleep in your haystack, forest floor or floor-boarded shack, you could feel them coming out of the seams to roam your body and feast. During the day, when there was not much doing, you would join the Partisans trying to reduce the burgeoning numbers of the little buggers.
Me, wearing battledress, feeling the cold.
We got up into Pohorje and eventually arrived at what turned out to be the 13 Partisan Brigade, which was the biggest outfit we had seen. They were well-equipped with brown belts, buckles, knee length boots and all the Prussian type militaria that was popular in Europe at that time, whereas we were just in old battle dress looking very unmilitaristic.
The fact that our uniforms were not really officer-type uniforms was often criticized by the Partisans, who took great pride in their martial style gear. For Communists, they were surprisingly conscious of their ranking in their army’s hierarchy. Mine was just a battledress used for utilitarian purposes like flying aeroplanes. The Partisans were very fond of guns or, indeed, any kind of weapon. The female Partisans, for instance, often walked around festooned with hand grenades. Apart from the language difficulty, this made any form of social congress virtually impossible!
Clark and I had to display our two weapons. His was a Colt 45, a decent-sized firearm, whereas mine was an old style Smith & Weston six shooter. Upon seeing it, the Partisans held it up in the air and said, “Boom boom, Tom Mix”, which I thought was interesting, as Tom Mix was a Hollywood cowboy hero of the 1920s (such is the extent of American cultural imperialism!).
Everyone fell about laughing. They wanted us to have a shooting contest. Only having four rounds of ammunition apiece, we didn’t feel like doing too much so only fired off only one round each. We also met the Colonel in charge, a jackbooted nice fellow of about 30 (they were all young). There was also a political commissar. We discovered that there was a commissar attached to each group of partisans, who dictated their strategies and tactics and generally told them what to do, just like the Russians.
There were also a number of female partisans, two or three of whom were very beautiful. They were of mixed ethnicity. Some were very dark and Turkish-looking, with beautiful olive skin. Another, who was secretary to the commandant, was blue-eyed and stunning. All were armed to the teeth. On our first night there we slept on the floor of a hut. I slept right next to this beautiful blue-eyed girl, who didn’t even bother to take her hand grenades off!
This group told us there was a British mission only three hours away, which was there to guide the dropping of supplies to the Partisans. This much talked-about group, they said, would help us further on our way and direct us, hopefully, to the mysterious secret aerodrome.
We set off walking towards the alleged mission. They were always on the move, because the Germans were always looking for them too and they couldn’t afford to stay stationary. They were moving well away from us and we didn’t catch up with them for days - and we began to wonder if we would. During that time we slept in the open. One night Clark and I slept under a pine tree and we had a snow storm. It was bitterly cold, but we still had fairly warm gear and, of course, the lice helped to keep us warm.
Eventually we arrived at the British mission and we met a Major Owen [probably Major Owen REED] who had been in Yugoslavia for three years, dodging Germans and organizing supplies for the partisans. He had a mission of 18 people combined with an American group as well. The previous winter they had been attacked by the Germans and forced up to the top of a mountain. Most of the mission was eliminated and Major Owen and two or three others were the only ones left. That’s why they were moving around.
They certainly looked after us well and gave us some delousing powder, which helped a little bit. We spent several days there cleaning up a bit. Major Owen, when we found him, was rolled up in a parachute on the floor of a hut. He had a great big handlebar moustache. He got up straight away and introduced himself, “Major Owen, old boy”. We talked and he told us his story. I often wonder what happened to him. To have wandered around there for three years in those terrible conditions was a marvellous effort. While we were there for those two days, he organized a drop for the partisans. Huge amounts of supplies came down by parachute, dropped from Halifax aircraft onto a little flat piece of land. The partisans collected the stuff and decamped very quickly. They were always moving somewhere.
YUGOSLAVIA. 1945. PARACHUTE-BORNE SUPPLIES BEING DROPPED BY THE RAF TO PARTISAN FORCES. [AWM SUK13565]
I also found out that W/O McInerheney, who was on the same mission as me, was shot down on the same day, just a little later than me. He had come through the mission a week before me and went on his way north through Austria, which was a clear route now opened.
We went on again, walked across the Savinger river, and met a new group of partisans, even bigger than the last lot. By this time we were getting to an area where I knew that my Flight Commander Barney Davies had been shot down, right in front of me, the day before I was. I thought it highly likely that he had moved on, but on enquiry about an Australiano Piloten, was told that he was still nearby. Lo and behold there, on a mountain overlooking the Sava River, was Barney gazing with melancholy mien towards the distant uncrossable river.
I walked up and slapped him on the back and said, “G’day Barney!”
He turned around and said “Jesus Christ - Nobby Clark!” He was surprised to see me. We also picked up a couple of French soldiers who had been dropped in by parachute with all their equipment, including radios, to help the Partisans, as well as two British escaped Prisoners of War who had been imprisoned for many years in Germany. Somehow, they’d got out. One was a Welshman, Taffy, who we got quite friendly with. He was a private in the army and hadn’t been home to Wales for 13 years. He’d joined up in Wales when the choice was the mines or the Army. He was sent to India, where he did his seven years, and he was on his way home when war broke out and he was sent to the Middle East. He was involved in the desert warfare, where he got captured in 1940/41. By this time it was 1945, so it was a long time since he had been home.
On we moved, often getting nowhere, but moving for obvious reasons. We met strange little groups, including a battalion of German soldiers who had deserted and joined the Partisans. They were still wearing their German Wehrmacht uniforms, which were not unlike the one I had on (grey English battledress with a pair of wings on). They had red armbands to indicate they had now joined the communist cause and were (sort of) fighting with the Partisans.
One of them took exception to me and wanted to take my wings off. He thought I was a German soldier and shouldn’t be wearing wings on my uniform. We couldn’t communicate very well, so nothing much happened with that. We walked up and down all these pine-covered hills, not getting anywhere, one hill after another, deer running around. I found I had not only lice, but some huge ticks on my testicles. I had great difficulty getting rid of them.
We horsed around up there for some time, living uncomfortably. Rations were mostly pollard and water. Groups of six would sit around a bowl with a spoon and each would go for their life. We walked a lot, always along the ridges, as the valley of the uncrossable Sava was crammed with Germans. Sometimes on a still night, the Partisans would break into song - the most beautiful harmonies issued quite naturally from them, sounding marvellous in the mountain air. The Welshman was entranced. He understood the harmonies, which he did his best to teach me to perform, but being unmusical, I couldn’t do it. It was quite a moving experience listening to them in the midst of all that wartime slaughter.
They also sang warlike songs. One memorable one, sounding magnificent, was “Hey Slovenski Brigada”, the martial strains of which floated and echoed over all the nearby hills and vales.
By this time it must have been early May. On all fronts, the Russians were coming. They were following us, actually. They were getting into Austria by now, bypassing Yugoslavia. Just as well we didn’t wait for them. One morning, which I will never forget, I heard on the radio “La Guerra in Italia e Finito” - the war in Italy is finished. The partisans and everyone cheered; we got out the piano accordion and the flags, and they started to march down the mountain playing and singing.
We all went down the mountain towards the town of Trbovlje. It was full of Germans of course. We went until we got to a road (hundreds of us) where we came to a roadblock. Behind the roadblock were Germans, who opened fire and we wondered why. We thought they were going to surrender! We retreated back up the mountains. What we had heard on the Frenchmen’s radio had only been the surrender of Germans in Italy. It was almost a week later when total surrender of all the forces in Europe occurred.
An old postcard of the coal-mining town of Trbovlje.
That night, after our retreat, there was a tremendous battle all night between the Germans in the town and the partisans in the hills. The sound of machine guns mostly. There were red tracers flying back and forth, machine guns going, houses catching fire and burning. It looked very dramatic but no one got hurt as far as I could see. We stayed up there and the Germans stayed down below. Nothing happened for a week, during which time various surrender options were discussed by all and sundry.
The Partisans decided to try and negotiate with the Germans so they went back down the mountain again to meet and discuss terms with them. The Germans would not surrender to the Partisans, fearing no doubt the likely ensuing revenge. They wanted to surrender to the British forces, who were ensconced in Trieste, but they had been prevented by Marshall Tito from entering Yugoslavia, so a difficult stalemate existed. So it was decided that maybe Barney, who was a Flight Lieutenant, or Clark, who was a US Second Lieutenant, could take the surrender on behalf of the Allies. This was not acceptable to the Germans, so we reached another stalemate after several days of negotiation.
Eventually the Partisans agreed to give the Germans safe passage back to Austria. This was quite a moment for us. It was now over a week since we had heard on the small radio the huge celebrations of VE day in London. This last week had seemed like an eternity and we were impatient to do a little celebrating ourselves. So we went down the mountain, waving our flags and playing the squeezebox. The interesting thing was that, as we came into the small mining town, every house had a flag hanging out the window. All nationalities were represented. I don’t know where they had come from after six years of war and occupation. The townspeople were waving and cheering although I think they had mixed feelings about the partisans. Nevertheless we were the conquering heroes .
We were billeted in the local hotel, which had previously been occupied by all the German officers. Still much confused, we managed to clean up a bit in the Mine’s shower sheds and get rid a few, but by no means all, of the lice. It felt much better. It was a strange feeling to be able to walk around a town, albeit small but with a few shops, a tavern and all the little things pertaining to civilization that we hadn’t seen for a while. We met a few of the locals and were invited into their homes, but none could speak English. I got some names and addresses which I still have and after the War I made a few desultory efforts to correspond, with little success due mainly to the language difficulty.
That night in the hotel, Clark engaged several of the young Partisans in lengthy arguments re the respective merits of Capitalism and Communism. The discussion was carried on in German (through Len Ireson, the English POW, as interpreter) and got pretty heated. Clark, of course, was for Capitalism rampant as you might expect from any red blooded young man from the good old USA, but there was no doubting the sincerity of the beliefs held by the Partisans.
The next morning, I think it was, the German Army started moving out, heading for Austria. As a lot of them were coming from the east they all had to pass through our little town heading west. We heard the clatter of their passing and came out of the hotel to watch. What an incredible sight to see, so close up, this feared enemy of recent years! Filled with hubris and pent up aggression I stood on the road, chest out and with trusty six shooter (and all 3 bullets) strapped to my side. So these were the feared enemy, the people from whom I had been running in recent weeks and whom previously I had been strafing and bombing and who, in their turn, had been shooting cannon shells so ferociously at me.
The passing stream wound on all day and all night, and all the next day as well. What a motley collection of humanity; defeat and resignation written all over them. Most trudging on foot, some on horse-drawn vehicles with all their pots and pans and other oddments of equipment dangling from the back, followed by the camp followers, their women folk in shabby rags who had elected to go with their soldier friends, rather than stay in Slovenia and risk the wrath of the local populace.
The occasional officer on horseback rode past, but looked little better than their lowly underlings. What surprised me particularly was the large numbers of the troops who were of Asiatic appearance. I found out later that a lot of these were actually in the Russian Army originally, had been captured or given themselves up, and had been forced into the German occupation force as virtual slave labourers. All this vast mass of dejected humanity slowly wended its way towards Austria, there to join other huge masses of people throughout Europe all to become known as Displaced Persons. This, of course, posed enormous logistical and social problems for the Allied Administration, which were not easily solved in a hurry.
As I watched this passing parade, I wondered at the enormity of problems that faced these unfortunates. How would they find their way home and, if they made it, would there be anything left when they got there? Almost 60 years later, last year in fact, I found out. A certain Count Tolstoy, in England last year was suing a bloke for, I think, libel or slander. This bloke happened to be the British Brigadier who was in charge of the Occupation forces in Austria in 1945.
During the trial, for some reason, evidence was given about the fate of these German troops when they reached Austria. I can’t recall the relevance of this, but there was quite a lot in the Press about it last year. Tolstoy claimed that the Brigadier dispatched these woebegone troops, at Stalin’s request, to the Russian zone, where most were either shot or sent to the Gulags. What a fate for the poor bastards, merely pawns in a gigantic chess game, just trying survive in a very disorderly world. Have you ever seen Brecht’s play, “Mother Courage”? It describes the situation to a tee.
When this vast migration was over, the political climate, vis a vis the Partisans, changed subtly. They now had dominion over all Yugoslavia. Tito was determined to maintain control and forbade the Allies, who were by now ensconced in Trieste, guns bristling, facing Tito’s forces, to enter. No one knew which way the cat was going to jump or, indeed who was going to do what to whom. We in Trbovlje were mindful of what had happened in 1944, when the Germans left Greece. The power vacuum was filled by the Greek Communist Partisans, who promptly imprisoned all the Allied evaders in Greece at that time. This didn’t happen where we were, but it seemed to us that the Partisans were delaying the onward movement westward of our group.
Could we possibly become hostages, we pondered, in some putative international power play? After a few days of inaction, Clark, impatient as ever, said, “What the hell, I’m off. - Anyone coming with me?” We all declined, opting to wait another day or two, and he disappeared heading west. I was not to see him again until 2000.
After these two days with no word from the Partisans as to our future, the rest of us decided to head off on our own, which we did with no farewells, and seeming disinterest by the Partisans who, after all these years, could now get on with their construction of a Brave New World. We (Barney and I, two Englishmen and the two Frenchmen) set out towards the railway line where, by some luck, there was a locomotive and several freight cars getting ready to head west. We climbed onto a flat-top and off we set, very slowly, judging by the wheezing and hissing. We got as far as Litija where the viaduct over a small creek had been destroyed, so it was "out and start walking" again.
We then managed to hitch a ride on a hay-wagon (horse of course) into Ljubljana, the Capital of Slovenia, which we had flown over many times whilst on the Squadron. It was, and is, a beautiful old city, untouched by the war and still retaining some of its mediaeval buildings. Oh boy! Civilization at last, but what to do next and where to go? We had no money, no gear, nor any idea of where to go from here. Having been in the mountains for several months, we were overawed by the hustle and bustle; the citizens were going about their business as though there had been no war, while the Partisans were trying to take over the administration of the city and impose a new political philosophy on the country. In my brief stay there I got the impression that this undertaking was far from popular with many of the citizens.
An old postcard of Ljubljana.
We made contact with the Partisan headquarters where they arranged billets for the night. The French officer, who had some currency, then offered to shout us a meal at a leading restaurant. We trooped in looking, of course, like something the cat had dragged in. The staff looked a bit shocked at these vagrants but managed to serve us, albeit disdainfully. I can’t remember anything about the meal but the bill must have been enormous. The Frenchman pulled out a large wad of currency but, shock horror. It was all Deutschmarks! None of us had realized that German currency had become worthless at war’s end, a week or so previously. Again I can’t recall how this issue was resolved but, after all, you can’t get blood out of a stone.
The (still being set up) Partisan administration then sent us to a suburban home as a billet to sleep. The worthy burghers, husband and wife, were less than impressed with this idea. They looked to be of Italian rather than Austrian ethnicity, but Barney and I got the impression that they, whatever they did, were happier under German tutelage than this newly-arrived regime. The house was clean, immaculate in fact, and I felt extremely uncomfortable, and indeed embarrassed, as I slid my filthy louse-ridden body in between the pristine white sheets. I couldn’t sleep - it had been so long since I had slept in a bed, but got through the night, had some reluctantly offered food from a grim-faced housewife and off we went back into town, where we were told to wait on a street corner for some transport.
We waited some hours - Len and Taffy, Barney and I and the two Frenchmen. During this time we attracted a small crowd of curious locals. Two women in their late twenties who spoke good English spotted our Australian lapel brevvies and were intrigued by the presence of two baby-faced flyers from the antipodes, in downtown Ljubljana. Another bloke who said that he was from Dalmatia wanted to know if we would like to buy some cigarettes. When we explained that we had no money, he went away, came back a little later with a carton of excellent cigarettes, which he gave to me and then went off again. Such bliss! Eventually an old, battered truck, presumably ex-German, arrived - loaded with fellow refugees desiring to go west.
We all got on, standing room only, and set off on the long winding mountain road leading to Trieste. Some little distance along, the truck broke down and the French sergeant took over the attempted fixing procedure, as he seemed to be an expert on such matters. After hanging about for a while, a jeep came towards us from the opposite direction. As they neared, we picked up English words which, as they slowly drove past, were unmistakably Kiwi in accent. This sent Barney and I into paroxysms of delight as we yelled out as loudly as possible in Australian. This familiar accent caused them to stop, come back and investigate the unlikely fact that here were Aussies in darkest Slovenia.
There were three New Zealand soldiers in the jeep, who turned out be Artillery men from the NZ Division with the British Eighth Army, then stationed in Trieste. This was the Army that had fought, since 1940, up and down the African desert, and finally from El Alamein (80 kms from Cairo), up the North African coast to Tripoli, thence to Sicily, then mainland Italy until, five years later they reached Trieste. Here they faced Marshal Tito’s Partisan forces, erstwhile allies, but who were now determined to keep their country free of any sort of invaders.
Most of these years the Kiwis had been the spearhead of the Eighth Army, which was a hazardous place to be, but, if you survived the big advance, certain opportunities for looting etc. presented themselves - which is what these blokes were doing. An exploration and foraging trip looking for victors’ spoils. I don’t know how they managed to get into the country - just years of practice, I suppose. However, meeting us modified their plans, so Barney and I set off in the jeep, leaving behind the rest of the group who were still standing around awaiting repairs. I never saw any of them again, Clark Cornell being the only person in the adventure whom I have subsequently met.
We reached Trieste and spent the night in the Kiwis’ tent, swapping yarns and, in my case, guns. One of the NZers wanted to swap my 38 six-shooter for a German sub-machine gun, to which I readily agreed. I later became rather sorry that I had done this swap, as I had become quite attached to my old six shooter, even though I had only ever fired one shot with it and that was at a target.
Chapter 8. Back to Italy – "La Dolce Vita"
The next day Barney and I took our leave of the NZers and made our way into the centre of Trieste with a view to finding, hopefully, some administrative advance guard of the Desert Air Force. The war had been over barely a week, chaos and turmoil reigned everywhere and we had no idea where to go or, indeed, whom we were looking for.
Wandering through the main square we spotted a 3-ton truck in the distance. As we drew closer we noticed a large crowd around the open tailgate, brandishing bottles of exotic liquors, other goods useful for barter, and large sums of money. Standing in the truck was a bloke, a serviceman, busy collecting all this loot and, in exchange, doling out cigarettes, bully beef and all sorts of other useful comestibles. Waving their wares, the crowd were calling out “Bill, Bill,” to attract his attention. Closer inspection revealed that the truck was an Air Force one; still closer we spotted a 3 Squadron badge on the side and the bloke on the back was one of our operations drivers, Bill Sims!
We managed to gain his attention in the din, and when he spotted us in the crowd he nearly keeled over with amazement. We too were amazed, as the last time we had seen Bill was way back at Cervia, where he used to drive us from the Pilot’s Mess to our planes in this very truck. What the hell was he doing in the middle of Trieste? Well, actually, we knew quite well what he was doing. All the experienced old hands, like Bill, who had probably been with the Squadron for three years, opportunistically followed up any rapid military advance (as had just happened) to seek out any commercial or, indeed, other opportunities that might present themselves. In these matters, speed was of the essence and legality ran a poor second.
Bill, it seems, was supposed to be on a transport errand some hundreds of kilometres in a different direction but, to his eternal credit, upon spotting us he ceased his trading activities and offered to drive us to the Squadron’s new location. We, in turn, offered to not tell the C.O. (Murray Nash) where he had been! The whole of No.239 Wing (all six squadrons) it seems were in the process of moving from Cervia, where Barney and I had been stationed, to a grassy plain outside the Northern Italian city of Udine (pronounced “Oo-deen-ay”, for you of the niente cognoscenti).
Number 3 had been allocated a village called Sammardenchia, some 10 kilometres south of the city and about 40 kms north of the Adriatic coast. This was where we set off in search of, with Bill in his 3-tonner. If you look at a map of Northern Italy you will see that we had to traverse what is known as the "Austrian Riviera", which is similar to the French Riviera in topography. No doubt you have all seen movies of the latter featuring high-speed car chases around the cliff-top roads. Italy is just the same - a winding two lane road, cut high up into the vertical cliff face, with a nice view of the Adriatic some 200 metres below, almost uninterrupted by any fencing.
Bill was driving a right-hand drive British truck, but unfortunately in Italy you also drive on the right hand side. This was OK if you were willing to stay in column behind a lot of slow-moving trucks, but Bill was intent on maximum speed. Barney was sitting next to Bill and I was in the left hand window seat, so Bill could not see a thing when he went to pull out to pass, which he did frequently. I, being first into the visual situation, could at least yell at him if the oncoming traffic was about to pulverize us, but this was not much help when you are on the outside of a mile or two of trucks, going like a bat out of hell around the tortuously bendy road with no place to hide. Even the normally phlegmatic Barney had white knuckles!
Coast road on the Austrian Riviera.
With luck however, we arrived safely at Sammardenchia, to be greeted with some amazement by a small group of the advance party who had just arrived themselves (and had, as yet, no time to start getting organized). This small group consisted of Murray Nash (CO), Jock Gale of the pilots, and some ground staff, such as Norm French and Norm Saville and some I can’t recall. By this stage I was a "lousy", nine stone, somewhat jaundiced scarecrow, with nowhere to live, no money, no clothes and no prospects. All my gear had been sent to Cairo, my log book had been sent to somewhere in North Africa and my paybook was sent to Algeria.
The Squadron’s equipment and clothing caravan with the equipment officer in charge had not yet arrived from Cervia, so I could not discard my infested clothing until they turned up. Also I would have to wait for my uniforms etc. to be returned from Cairo and, until my paybook returned, I would have to rely on charity to survive.
The next task of the advance party was to arrange suitable accommodation and facilities for some 300 or so personnel and all their equipment; no easy task. Sammardenchia was a one-street village, narrow and cobbled with a little central square, wherein lay the one and only village pump. In the square all the old men of the village sat around watching the old women pump up the water. All the young women were out working in the fields. There were no young men. In the square there was a café and bar, the sole social centre of the village; there were no shops of any kind. Opposite and down the road a bit was a large park, set back from the road, which belonged to a large mansion, then empty, as was often the case in rural Italy. This was probably due to either the exigencies of a long war or, as was not uncommon, the residence of an absentee landlord. Up the road a bit, almost opposite the bar-café, was the inevitable Catholic church, wherein resided the inevitable local priest, the font of all wisdom and guidance on all matters both venial and spiritual, from God to birth control. His church was in no way remarkable (for Italy), but still stood as an example of minor splendour compared with the humble abodes of his poverty-stricken parishioners.
The few locals in the bar and scattered around the square looked at us invaders askance, as well they might - as it now became evident to me that our advance party was about to commandeer a portion of their village. Of course, as we learned later, wild rumours had been circulating amongst the local folk as to the nature of the invaders. They had heard that some Australians were coming to take their village. Australians! Who were these strange and no doubt fierce antipodeans? Were they cannibals? “Let us ask the priest.”
“Yes they are,” said the priest, “and child molesters as well. Worse still, I hear... that they are Protestants also!"
Many countries have been conquered by an enemy, who then usually proceeded to occupy that country and inflict looting, pillage and rape upon the local populace. Many books have been written about this throughout history, so there was nothing new about what we were doing. By now, May 1945, Italy had been occupied for nearly two years and 239 Wing had been part of the process all of that time and the old hands had lots of experience in the art of occupation of enemy territory. I think that a little looting and perhaps some pillage took place from time to time but, as far as I know, no raping!
Anyway there I was, about to witness my first and only village occupation. Although of course I had been billeted in a number of taken-over towns, Cervia, Fano, Naples etc., I had given absolutely no thought to how the process of acquisition was achieved. Isn’t it amazing how one can take something for granted, something that can cause a lot of people extreme amounts of distress and suffering? Nevertheless, the exigencies of war meant that we had to be ruthless and insensitive.
Jock Gale was one of our older pilots with a lengthy war record before coming to No. 3. He was also the Pilots' Messing Officer and in that capacity he, the CO, several others, Barney and I strolled into the café and looked around speculatively, checked out the upstairs accommodation and decided that this was to be the Pilot’s Mess, with sleeping upstairs, while across the road in the large grounds of the mansion were to be put all the Admin. trailers, signals equipment, ground staff tents, supply trailers and offices, Pilots Mess marquee (where we were to eat) etc. Other sections of the Squadron, such as Transport, Engineers, Electricians etc., were to be installed further afield, where there was more space.
The occupants were told to pack their things and leave… forthwith! There was a terrible to-do; much weeping, wailing and gesticulation. Where would they go? What would they do? Jock was firm, “Out! Now!” After much protestation, they packed up and headed off down the road, I don’t recall any threat of violence on our part nor any show of firearms. Perhaps the priest’s words about cannibalism had their effect. One of the most vigorous protesters had been a 16-year-old daughter of the house, named Dolores, very attractive (especially at this juncture), with dark, flashing eyes. When the dust had settled, several weeks later, she came back to work for us as a cleaner, but remained proud and aloof and volubly abusive. Forgiveness took a lot longer.
Meanwhile, other personnel were checking out other houses in the village, to billet more of the pilots. It did not occur to me at the time to ask whether we gave any financial recompense to any of the locals - I think I probably assumed it was all just part of the fortunes of war to the victor and bad luck to them! Interestingly enough I have, over the years, thought a lot about these matters and have asked some of my wartime mates whether they knew the answer to these issues. So far, I have not found anyone who knows or, indeed, has ever thought about it. I really should pursue this issue more assiduously; there must be somebody who knows about it.
This was about May 17. Soon the rest of the Squadron arrived and we all settled into tents or billets. Sammardenchia had never seen such action; the natives were agog! Lew and I got ourselves a room above the bar, as a nice change from a tent, although some of the ground staff actually preferred tents as they had used them for years and were adept at making themselves very comfortable with all mod cons such as showers made out of old belly tanks, carpets, electric light etc. The equipment officer and his caravan arrived and I was able to start the delousing process and get some new summer gear. As I was being fitted out, a crowd of local urchins gathered, hoping to beg, borrow or steal some of the apparel. This was a common phenomenon all over Italy at the time, especially where there was food about. We were the rich, the conquerors; they were the poor, the hungry, the downtrodden.
Much had to be done; the bar was equipped with furniture and liquor, some looted, I suspect, and some obtained from a brewery in Brescia. I have always been amazed at the power and omnipotence of Allied Intelligence. Never mind about enemy gun emplacements or troop dispositions, not a brewery nor a distillery in all of Italy went undetected by their unceasing vigilance.
The occupied Sammardenchia cafe once it became the bar of the 3SQN Pilots' Mess Sammardenchia - featuring "Stinky Miller".
[Photo from the Arthur Pardey Collection.]
A kitchen under canvas was installed in the park beside the Pilots Mess marquee, so we were able to resume our steady consumption of Spam. We also let it be known that we needed a Mess Waiter, and up rocked a rather distinguished-looking bloke, about 40, who claimed to have been the head waiter of the leading hotel in Udine. We hired him at a salary of 80 American cigarettes per week. At this time of the year, and as we were in the 'field' as it were, we only wore shorts and open-necked khaki shirts, but the newly-appointed waiter (whose name now escapes me) wanted to know whether he should wear tails! Our only Mess rule was that you had to wear a shirt to dinner, but nevertheless I like to think that we always gave him the respect that he deserved. It took him, and the village as a whole, some time to adjust to our informal and casual Aussie ways.
Once we had settled in, some bright spark decided that Stinky Miller would be better placed hanging up outside the front door of the bar (I still have a photo of this). This was the final blow for the locals, who nearly shat themselves. All the priest’s words came flooding back in their full horror; had these blond-haired, blue-eyed invaders actually eaten this scarecrow? The priest was persuaded to approach us about the lack of delicacy, tact and general non-appreciation of his flock’s sensibilities. Common sense prevailed, and Stinky was returned to his usual position on the bar.
We settled in and gradually adapted to our new environment. Life was very pleasant, the weather had warmed nicely and as yet the aircraft and landing field were not ready to resume flying, which we were all anxious to resume, especially as there was now nobody to shoot at us. A party of pilots had headed off for Austria to see what they could find in the way of loot from the defeated enemy, especially cars. They had the approval of the Group Captain, Brian Eaton, who requested that they find him something special in the vehicular line. They came back some days later with an Adler for the Groupie, a Volkswagen, a Chevrolet Station Wagon and several nondescript cars, which the pilots used until we left Italy some months later.
Some of the local women were recruited for cleaning and laundry duties and, as there was no flying, we spent our time lazing around the Mess or the bar playing cards, usually poker or 500, playing volleyball with the unoccupied ground-staff, or swimming in the local irrigation ditches. Life was good, parties were organized with other 239 Wing Squadrons, as well as some nearby NZ Army troops. We had the chance to meet up with some of our old Aussie mates from 450 Squadron and even a few Australian Army blokes, ex-POWs, who had escaped in the chaos of the last days of the war and who, somehow, had made their way to Northern Italy, found out that there was an Australian squadron in the area and lobbed in. That’s initiative for you. We took them in, fed and watered them and they found life as equally pleasant as we did. This great life lasted until May 26, when we heard from headquarters down in Naples that they understood that No. 3 was harbouring some evaders (Barney and I) and some POWs - and that we were all to report to Naples forthwith.
This we did by flying down to Naples in an Avro Anson (the fondly-called “Aggie”) which was semi-obsolete and so slow that we had to spend a night at an RAF station in Ancona, a town on the East coast, before proceeding to Naples next day. At Ancona, Barney and I were split up for the first time since we had met in Slovenia. This was, of course, because he was an officer and I was not.
At the camp the WOD (Warrant Officer, Disciplinary) came up to us, saluted Barney and said, “CO’s compliments, Sir. He would like you to join him in the Officer’s Mess.”
“What about me?” I asked. He looked at me disdainfully (even though we were the same rank, I had not yet acquired any badges of office, as there had been none in the Squadron’s stores and anyway on the Squadron we never wore them).
“Sergeant’s Mess for you,” he said contemptuously.
This mention of class distinction reminds me that I forgot to mention our Intelligence Reports, which, of course, Barney and I had been required to submit to our Squadron Intelligence Officer, Bert Ellis, shortly after we returned. Bert, a Flight Lieutenant, then sent these on to the DAF headquarters Intelligence Officer, a Wing Commander, who then summoned us up to DAF (Desert Air Force – if you haven’t been paying attention) to meet the really big cheese, the Air Vice Marshall who, it seems, wanted to talk to us about our Slovenian adventures. So Barney and I made our way to DAF headquarters, he wearing his Flight Lieutenant’s brevvies and me, in khaki shorts and shirt, with bugger-all. Now, DAF was pretty sumptuous and, instead of one Officers’ Mess, it had three: A, B and C.
'C' was for ranks up to FLTLT, 'B' for Squadron Leaders and Wing Commanders and 'A', where we were instructed to present ourselves, Group Captains, Air Commodores, Colonels and Generals (the Army ranks applying to the South Africans) and the CO DAF, Air Vice-Marshal Forster. We entered a large Mess lounge and were directed to two hard-backed chairs, where we sat rigidly upright receiving strange querying looks, especially directed at rankless me, from an assortment of Groupies and Colonels. When anyone of slightly higher rank entered the room all the occupants leapt to their feet until the enterer told us to sit. Quite disconcerting, really, and I longed for the familiarity, camaraderie and relaxed atmosphere of good old No.3’s Mess. This nerve-wracking process went on for some time, but no sign of the Air Vice Marshall who had requested our presence.
Then it was lunch time and everybody trooped off to the dining room, with Barney and I bringing up the rear, fearfully wondering whether we could cope with the expected (but unknown to us) dining rituals and protocols. In the event it wasn’t too bad, as we were completely ignored where we sat with our elbows pressed closely to our sides. The food was nothing to write home about - not much different from No.3, but without the spam. We never did get to see the AVM, who was presumably occupied with more important matters of state. (I actually did get to meet him later, but in a different context.)
From Ancona (next day) we flew to Naples in the Anson with the usual 120 turns of the winch to retract the wheels and the same chore to lower them for landing - nothing too modern about the Aggie. Here we proceeded to the POW repatriation camp, where again Barney was whisked off to the splendours of the Officers’ Mess, while I was directed to the Sergeants’. This camp was a British Army one and run mostly by permanent Army types, whose ideas of hierarchical structures and discipline were vastly different from the informality and egalitarianism of an Air Force Pilots’ Mess.
My rank of Warrant Officer First Class was the highest rank achievable by a non-commissioned officer; so, in the Mess, I was allocated a seat at a table reserved for WOs. I still had no badges of rank to indicate my exalted status and, although I was 20, I must have looked, to the grizzled army veterans at the table, about 16. In the British Army it took about 16 years to achieve the rank of WO1, by which time the traditional procedures and pecking order were thoroughly ingrained in their limited minds. All of a sudden, in walked the senior WO and everybody at our table stood up, rigidly at attention. Everybody that is, except me; I just kept on eating. "Blimey," I thought "this is worse than at the bloody AVM’s Mess."
I was, of course, ostracized; but this worried me not one iota for, after being shot down and spending two months in Slovenia, I had a fair bit of hubris upon me and disdain for these Army types, who had probably spent the War sitting on their respective arses. After lunch I found the kit store and acquired a shiny new WO's badge and strap and wore it thereafter. “That’ll show these oafs,” I thought.
In the next few days I was interviewed, medically examined at great length, and deloused properly. Some of the rigorous Air Crew fitness tests proved a bit beyond me, but otherwise they said that I was OK. The interviews were about repatriation to Australia. All the Australian Army POWs were, it seemed, to be flown to UK prior to shipping home. This idea had a certain amount of appeal to me - I envisaged looking up all my well-scattered girlfriends in England. However this move did not apply to RAAF personnel who, we were informed, were to go home via the Middle East. “Not Cairo again,” I cried in horror. “Send me back to the Squadron.” And thus it was arranged. But while awaiting transport back north, I had the opportunity to wander around this huge camp, which contained a multitude of displaced persons, both service and civilian.
There were civilians, both Australian and British, who had made their way here from all over Europe, seeking repatriation to their homeland. Some from France and quite a few from landlocked Switzerland and some from all sorts of exotic places, all with fascinating stories to tell, but most intriguing of all was a smallish group of old men, all Aussies, who had deserted from the AIF in France during World War One and lived with their French girlfriends from 1917 until now, 1945. Some even had these now old ladies with them and all they desired was to return to Australia. (Of course, desertion in WW1 was an offence punishable by death and although no Aussies were shot for this, quite a few British were. Technically this also applied to WW2, but the penalty was never invoked - except, I think, for one US Army bloke.) Anyway, I gathered that these fellows had been granted an amnesty by the Australian Government, but I doubt if they got any back-pay! All this was but a small part of a Europe-wide mass movement of displaced persons seeking to return home - in many cases to find utter devastation if and when they got there. So the French Aussies were very, very fortunate.
I remained at this camp until about June 12, when Barney and I flew back to the Squadron, which had started flying again and had just taken part in a massive DAF formation flypast to honour the chief of all Mediterranean Armed Forces, Field Marshall Alexander, an event I still have a couple of photos of. A pity to miss such a significant event but I guess you can’t be everywhere.
Desert Air Force farewell flypast, watched by Army and Air Force chiefs, Northern Italy, July 1945.
[3SQN "arrow head" formation of Mustangs.]
Poor old Barney had of course been replaced as Flight Commander, so was demoted to F/O. (Which was a shame, as he was a far better leader than Tubby, who had replaced him and, you will remember, nearly had me killed three times.)
My log book, which never lies, tells me that I resumed flying on June 15 with some local flying. So, it seems, I must have remembered how to do it. This was the beginning of a marvellous period, where we mixed great flying, interspersed with lots of leave, sport, card-playing and lots of leisure activity, a bit of social interaction with the local girls, reading and just lolling about. I suppose we were all there to ensure that the peace was maintained and so, to that end, we flew and trained as a squadron, as a wing (six squadrons), and sometimes individually.
The latter was the best. I felt that I was getting to know the aircraft really well – something that had not really been attainable whilst on operations. I took a Mustang up to 40,000 feet, something that you couldn’t do in a Kittyhawk, just to see what the Earth looked like from up there. I flew one upside down to see how long it would go before the motor conked out (about 3 minutes as I remember) and sometimes I just horsed about, jinking all over the sky in this beautiful, lethal, powerful machine. And, of course, there was always the incredible thrill of low-flying at more than 700 kph. Nevertheless, having survived the war to this point, I was conscious of the need for some caution when low-flying, as the countryside was studded with high-tension power lines, which had brought many an over-enthusiastic pilot undone.
Actually my only accident happened on the ground. Previously, when we were operating from Cervia (and thinking that it was 'about time' that I learned to drive) I persuaded Bill Sims, our Operations truck driver, to let me try and drive it down to our planes. The truck was a 3-tonner, with crash gearbox. These short trips were judged by the other pilots in the back of the truck to be more hazardous than the actual mission! Thus little progress was made in my driving skills, until the following occurred at Sammardenchia:
Returning rather late from an enjoyable solo flying exercise, I found that all the other pilots had returned to the village in one of the two 15-cwt trucks belonging to our Flight Commanders, leaving the other one, which belonged to Ken "Pee Wee" Richards (DFC and bar), with one ground-staff bloke ['Erk'] in attendance. It turned out that he couldn't drive either, so I elected to have a go at driving the three or four kilometres back to the billets. The roads were gravel, with very deep ditches either side. These ditches had already been the undoing of many a truckload of inebriated revellers returning home from one of our parties, and proved to be mine as well. Making the last turn off the main road, going too fast, and attempting the (to me) difficult double-declutching manoeuvre, we skidded in a circle and fell into a ditch backwards, with front wheels pointing skyward. Back at the Squadron this was not going to be a feather in my cap, but fortunately a 3-ton Army truck came by and hauled us out. I swore the Erk to secrecy and circumspectly drove back the rest of the way. I only told Pee Wee about this a year or so ago. After 50 years, he didn’t seem too fussed.
Actually, with the euphoria induced by Victory and the ability to do as we liked, the Wing experienced a number of tragedies. One of the greatest and most memorable excitements was to fly up the valleys of the Swiss Alps, soaring and weaving between the snow-covered peaks. Unfortunately six Mustangs from 112 Squadron, flying line-astern, were doing this while the peaks were covered in cloud down to about 12,000 feet. Weaving through the narrow valleys, turning sharply around a blind corner they were suddenly confronted by a snow-covered cliff. They all pulled up hard into the overlying cloud to avoid it, but only the sixth pilot, who had slightly more time to react, made it out. The other five crashed into the cliff. Later we flew over to have a look; all were dead, of course...
[The peak, Carè Alto, is so inaccessible that some of the wreckage is still there. The five 112 Squadron Mustang pilots - all South Africans - were buried in Padua War Cemetery.]
A couple of the other squadrons also lost the odd plane, running into one of the many monster mountains in the region. No.3 were a bit more circumspect, it seems, but one of my old mates, Cec Abrahams of 450 Squadron, flying very, very low over Lake Garda, hit the water with his propeller and promptly burst into flames. Cec pulled her up a bit and managed to bale out into the lake. Cec had been an above-average pilot at OTU, and the keenest flyer you ever saw, but after he pranged a Kitty at Perugia and then this, he seemed to lose enthusiasm for piloting.
Perhaps our most exciting, and dangerous, escapade was when six of us 'shot-up' Venice Shipping Harbour for an extended period (metaphorically, no guns), thereby terrorizing the already bomb-happy locals. In doing this we were really showing off to a group of American Army officers, whom we had befriended in Venice itself. It was thrilling, but we got a bit disorganised and several times almost ran into each other, let alone the shipping in the harbour.
We were given leave several times; in groups of about half the pilot-strength, while the other half kept flying. A group of us took a truck down to Venice, only about 100 kms away, for a stay of seven days. There the Australian Comforts Fund had established a pensione for Aussies on leave, on one end of the Venice Lido, which is a long island protecting the Venice lagoon from the Adriatic.
While swimming on the ocean side, we came across a party of US Army officers also on leave and staying at the nearby Grand Hotel. They were from the 12th US Mountain division, mostly from Colorado and ranged in rank from Lieut. Colonel, down through Major to Captain. We, on the other hand, were only masquerading as officers, but nevertheless we struck up great rapport with these blokes and had a lot of fun with them during the next week. I struck up a particular friendship with their Regimental Adjutant, captain David Rosendale from Aurora, Colorado, a man of perhaps 35 with whom I corresponded after the war. I still have his wonderful letters written while he remained for several years with the Army of Occupation. I also still have some photos of him and me taken on the Lido.
We spent a lot of time, of course, in Venice itself, doing all the usual things one does there. Being officers, we had access to the top-line hotels such as the Danielli and the Europa, where we wallowed in what was (to us naïve, young Aussies) the lap of luxury. Allied servicemen and women, mostly American, were everywhere celebrating victory, but there was very little fraternization with the local populace, who mostly chose to remain aloof.
The trip to and from the Lido, too far for a gondola, was done by a US Army Duck, an amphibious vehicle which provided a regular ferry service. One night I missed the last one and found myself staying in a hotel room with an RAAF Squadron Leader liaison officer, who turned out not to be heterosexual as he had stoutly claimed, so I had a fight on my hands to preserve my virginity! (Several days later, Lew had the same problem with this bloke but, true to form, adopting his usual vigorous methods, dropped him with a solid right.)
We had a lot of fun with our American friends who, like us were letting off steam after the victorious conclusion to the war. They were all highly-specialised troops, skilled skiers and mountain climbers, who had been in the vanguard of the USA forces in the final push to the Italian border, where they had performed the notable feat of climbing a 3,000-foot cliff in the Dolomites, to take the retreating Germans by surprise from the rear. One rather bibulous dinner, they offered to demonstrate their skills by scaling the outside wall of their 10-storey hotel. We disbelievers were amazed to see these not-so-young and highly-ranked officers get out their grappling irons and ice axes and climb the wall like a swarm of delinquent schoolboys. I don’t think it did the walls much good though.
They were exciting fellows to be with, and when we left to go back to the Squadron we promised to come down to Venice, where they were remaining for a while, and put on an aerial display for them. In return they invited us all up to their headquarters at Gorizia, up in the Dolomites, for a weekend. We turned on the aerial beat-up, as I mentioned earlier, and some weeks later we spent a riotous weekend with these lively characters. Their ringleader was Lieut. Colonel Hank Hampden from Oakland, California, who was the executive officer of the regiment (that is, second in charge). The big boss was a full (or “chicken”) Colonel, a West Point graduate and, of course, permanent Army type, quite different in temperament and attitudes from his rather boisterous and egalitarian underlings.
Fortunately, he had been away on leave when we were up there, but arrived back on the Sunday to a scene of some chaos and disorder, which he promptly set his chastened juniors to put to rights. Before I left for Sammardenchia, David gave me an excellent set of skis and an ice-axe. I brought these back to Oz with me, but never used the skis and broke the ice-axe trying to penetrate the hard black soil in Moree.
Back to flying after Venice, and it was absolutely marvellous. It resulted in an unexpected promotion.
On our previous flight back from Naples, Barney had suggested that I should apply for a commission, but I had grave doubts. If you missed out getting one off-course, as Greg and Dave had done, it was a much more difficult procedure. First you had to get the C/O to recommend it (and ours, Murray Nash, who was always somewhat aloof, had always proved difficult to deal with). In addition, you traditionally had to wait until you finished your tour of operations (some 200 hours) before applying and the most recent case of a bloke going tour-ex, John Turkington, had had his case rejected by Murray Nash. (For reasons that none of us could fathom, as John had been an excellent pilot and operational leader, as well as being a good style of bloke.) Finally there were at least eight W/Os more senior to me, but who had not completed their tours when the war ended, so I thought it not worthwhile even approaching the rather distant and withdrawn C/O.
Squadron Leader Murray Nash. [1944 Painting by Dennis Adams. Copyright AWM ART25984]
However, I had a stroke of luck when one day we duty flyers were sent up in pairs, to practice some advanced formation flying, followed by a dogfight between each two planes. I was down to fly with the Boss, who of course was regarded as a shit-hot pilot, and at this stage was the possessor of two DFCs and a DSO. We took off in pairs and, once we had sufficient height, I close-formated on Nash as required. As I mentioned earlier, I had become fairly skilful at this back in England, so I tucked in very close and maintained position precisely, as the boss increased the degree of difficulty of the exercises. Actually, this was the first time I had ever flown formation with him and, although there was no verbal communication between us, I got the feeling that he was impressed.
Next item on the agenda was the dogfight. It had been arranged at the briefing that the leader should first try to get the No.2 (me) off his tail. First the C/O flipped his plane on its back and screamed off vertically downwards, spiralling wildly as he went. I managed to follow suit and, in spite of his evasive manoeuvres, stuck to his tail like glue. Eventually, well after the time I theoretically could have shot him down, he threw me off with another vertical dive from which he pulled up so hard that to stay with him I blacked out completely with the force of about 3 or 4G (G for gravity), so that when I had regained my sight, I had lost him. He explained to me later that he had pulled up starting a loop but rolled out of it and finished up somewhere well above me.
However, I seemed to be having a good day, finishing off with a beautifully-executed landing manoeuvre right beside the boss, so that we arrived back at the parking bays virtually simultaneously, rather than the more usual tardy straggle. During the post-flight discussion between the two of us, I could see that the boss had been impressed, so I seized the moment to ask would he put me up for a Commission. After some pause for thought, to my enormous relief he agreed to do so.
Actually, that was the hard part. The next interview, with the Wing Commander (Group Captain Brian Eaton, DSO and Bar, DFC; who didn’t know me from Adam) was a breeze. - A five-minute chat and that was it - approved!
But one more hurdle remained, an interview with the Big Chief of Desert Air Force, an Englishman - Air Vice Marshall Forster, who arrived at our village with, as one would expect, some degree of pomp and ceremony. He was the bloke whom Barney and I were supposed to tell our story to some weeks earlier, but other matters intervened. His visit to the area no doubt had to do with matters much weightier than interviewing me, but he chatted with me at some length about my family background, including items like my parents’ divorce and my mother’s working as a telephonist in a department store. Nobody had ever asked me such personal questions and my hopes sank, as such background matters, it seemed to me, were unlikely to prove to be the requisites of an officer and a gentleman. Nevertheless, he seemed to be well-disposed towards me and I think he must have indicated at the conclusion of the interview that I would get it. The commission came through a month or so later, when we were in Cairo waiting for a ship home.
Incidentally, of all the WOs on 3 Squadron (some 10 or so) I was the only one to get a commission and thus was the last one appointed to this rank during the rest of the war, the end of which, of course, was not all that far away. Whether any of the others applied, and were rejected, I know not.
Meanwhile back in Sammardenchia the locals were not only getting used to us but starting to recognize the social and economic benefits of our presence. In spite of our boisterousness and bravado, they came to realize that we were just a group of young men going about our business. We didn’t look particularly militaristic, bloodthirsty or even fierce. We didn’t walk around wearing guns, we wore casual clothes, not jackboots, and spent most of our spare time playing volleyball, swimming in the irrigation canals, and playing cards on tables set up on the cobbles outside the erstwhile café and bar, which was now our billet. The dark-eyed Dolores and her two lovely sisters, Clementina and Aïda, now smiled at us occasionally. Perhaps the fact that “quality youth” was in short supply had something to do with this.
We helped the old ladies pump water from the nearby village well and paid them to do our laundry. We were able to give them tinned food, cigarettes and other goodies - the like of which had never been seen in this poverty-stricken region. Some of our few Catholic members, Peter Martin for instance, may well have attended Mass at the local church, but I have no particular memory of this.
Because of this burgeoning good feeling, the Mess decided to have a dance and invite the locals. We were able to supply the music via a small group of ground staff musicians, led by my good friend Norm French playing the saxophone. They called themselves the “3 Squadron Hotshots” and they performed admirably. Norm was an amazingly gifted bloke, a pre-war motorbike racer and superb mechanic, an artist (he devised a squadron badge with all the relevant images), a musician; a lovely bloke, somewhat feckless who, perhaps for that reason, never rose above the lowest rank in the Squadron.
Cervia, Italy. 30 Mar 1945. Transport drivers of No. 3 (Mustang) Squadron RAAF in northern Italy are proud of their dance band, which provides many a bright spot in the squadron's entertainment roster.
On stage, left to right: 36928 Corporal (Cpl) R. Bell, driver, of Marrickville, NSW; 30379 Cpl R. Edwards, fitter IIE, of Hobart, Tas; 67327 Leading Aircraftman N. French, Fitter 2E, of Sydney, NSW;
20633 Sergeant L. Henry, fitter IIA, of Sydney, NSW; 62036 LAC W. J. Chipperfield, fitter IIE, of Artarmon, NSW. [AWM MEB0285]
After the war he, his wife and three children all became dental patients of mine and his son, Kiernan, much to Norm’s joy, rose to be a Squadron Leader pilot in the RAAF, thereby outdoing his father (and the rest of us) by miles in rank and standing. During his RAAF service Kierman had the unusual experience of having his aeroplane hijacked by the Fretilin in East Timor and being forced, at gunpoint, to fly an over-full load of Fretilin fighters back to Darwin. That was in, I think, 1974 and has never been made public, so by reading this stuff you have received some exclusive top secret information. He is now flying with Qantas, lives in the old family home in Drummoyne, where Norm’s ashes now lie in his saxophone in the garage.
Back to the dance – it was quite an event. Good music, pretty girls, all the oldies sitting around watching the action - and their daughters! In these circumstances there is nobody quite as vigilant as an Italian parent - as I found out when I decided to escort Dolores home. We set off and I tentatively held her hand. No resistance but, as I came to learn about all the girls, her palms were hard with callouses due to her labouring duties in the fields. I glanced behind – Mama and Papa were following at a discreet distance. Oh well, you can’t win ‘em all.
I also got to know another handsome girl named Regina Riga who lived a few doors from our billets (photos available on request). I used to visit her in the evenings, bearing little gifts such as a tin of bully beef or spam, but there was always an old bloke sitting quietly in the corner, saying nothing. I don’t know who this man was, but he was not her father (who was, as I found out after a few visits, a POW in England). Regina, also a field worker, had the usual calloused hands and she had tremendous strength as I found out when we, for reasons I can’t remember, indulged in a bit of arm-wrestling. She used to flatten me within a second or two every time. This defeat I could handle, but during attempted conversation I was at a loss with my lack of the local language.
By this time I had been in Italy for seven months and was rather ashamed at my inability to communicate. The reason for this lack was pure superstition on my part. When we arrived in Naples, I decided that, if I tried to learn the language and succeeded, I would probably be killed - which I very nearly was of course, but nevertheless was a stupid mode of thinking. A smattering of nouns, the odd verb infinitive, and little grasp of syntax was all I had to sweet talk the ladies and this proved miserably inadequate. When the word was about that we were going back home, Regina got quite weepy, as Italian girls were prone to do.
We corresponded a bit after the war but it was a hopeless business as I couldn’t understand her letters nor could I find an Italian speaker who could. No doubt she could not manage my English as well. Her last letter to me included a photo of her looking very sad with tears running down her face. At this stage being involved in Uni work, I could see no future in this futile correspondence and so that was that. I have never been back to Sammardenchia.
Regina Riga, the Sammardenchian arm-wrestler.
Her father was still a POW in Britain in July, 1945.
Life in the village had become routine but still pleasant, the sports and cards interspersed with our flying. What a way to earn a living! A couple of events are possibly worthy of mention. We had another of our slap-up parties, during which some alcohol-affected pilots started shooting "Two Star Reds" at the local church bell tower for a bit of a lark. (Two Star Reds are very powerful phosphorous distress flares, used for all manner of things aerial from air sea rescue to aerodrome control, but were not meant to be used frivolously by inebriated airmen.) As the party hotted up, someone started lobbing the burning flares into the park, where all the ground staff were peacefully sleeping in their tents, several of which were set alight and burned down. Somehow another group of revellers got their hands on a few Very pistols (guns that fired flaming phosphorous bullets) and started lobbing fiery shells from the park out at the mob near the church. This latter group raced off and got some Very pistols of their own and soon a spectacular fiery battle was raging between the two groups. I must admit that I, although sober, was very much part of this exciting action, but when a very pissed Barney came up and wanted to borrow my German sub-machine gun to move the action up another level, I resisted his drunken pleadings and shortly thereafter the action subsided - probably because the ammunition ran out – without any loss of life or limb.
The other incident was of an entirely different character. Seated at tables outside our café playing cards and just chatting on a balmy summer evening, we were at peace with the world when along the cobbled road came a very large, black African soldier, steering a rather erratic course. When he spotted our café he must have assumed it was a bar and he went through us into the café looking for some action. A truly nasty-looking character and very drunk, he started demanding a drink – or else. None of us was game to take him on, and the situation was looking very dodgy, when along came a black African military policeman, who had evidently been looking for this bloke, and proceeded to try and arrest him. Like lightning the big bloke whipped out a large knife and slashed at the MP - inflicting a foot-long gash down his forearm - and then ran off down the cobbled road.
We all sat there stunned by the speed of the incident, all except Jock Gale, the skinny, quiet, older pilot who used to sit in one corner of the bar sipping brandy with shaky hands. Quick as a flash, Jock raced after the retreating African and brought him down on the cobbles with a perfect rugby flying tackle. Subsequent events were a bit confused, and neither Lew nor I could remember them precisely, but we both still have a clear memory of Jock’s brave reaction.
Shortly after this, some of us were given another seven days' leave and five of us (Dave Tennant, Ron Horton, Peter Martin, Lew and I) decided to head off to Milan and Lake Como (made famous in Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms”). To this end we took a 15-cwt truck, loaded it up with seven days' provisions for all of us, plus seven jerry-cans full of petrol and other odds and ends. Dave was the only one who could drive and also the only officer, but nevertheless we all got out our false officer’s brevvies, put them on and headed off along the Autostrada. The road was still choked with refugees walking both ways and we gave a lift to selected individuals from time to time – mostly, I have to say, women.
On the way to Milan and Lake Como in our 15 cwt truck.
Left to right: Ron Horton, Dave Tennant, Lew Ranger and self. Peter Martin took the picture. [Note fake officers' stripes on shoulders!]
When we reached Milan we booked into the Albergo Gran Turismo, a hotel reserved for officers only for a subsidised fee of 1 shilling six pence per day. (What we had been supposed to do, of course, was to have gone out to the Sergeant’s camp on the outskirts of the city and get allocated to a tent and live on the food we had brought with us.) As we had managed to refuel the truck at Army depots along the way, we still had all our petrol and food so we wandered around an industrial area, found a likely-looking factory and asked the management if they would like to buy it all. Would they ever!
So we got all the fuel and food, put it on the boardroom billiard table, and started bargaining. Well we ended up with huge amounts of paper currency, millions of lira, but we were to find out that it was next to worthless, as there was nothing worth buying. Most transactions were being done like ours, with barter, but we were OK as we were "all found" back at the hotel. I am not particularly proud of my part in this incident as it tends to destroy what is left of any moral fibre existing in either party to the transaction and sabotages all the attempts being made by the authorities to restore law and order to a devastated country. Similar things, I think, are happening in Iraq today.
Milan had had its share of bomb damage of course; even its magnificent cathedral had some. When we went to look at it as tourists, we observed some graffiti splashed in large letters on an outside wall which said, translated, “This building was damaged by our Anglo Saxon liberators.” But, in addition, it contained a play on the words Anglo-Saxon which they had written, in Italian, as “Anglo–Assassini”!
At this early stage Italy was dividing into two main political forces. Although nominally a Catholic country, in 1945 communism was gaining a huge number of supporters, as the local Partisanari Resistance had been purely communist. In their elections the Communist candidates captured about 50% of the votes, an extraordinary result in such a priest- and Church-dominated country as Italy, but because of the enormous gap between rich and poor and the grinding hopeless poverty of the rural peasantry, not altogether surprising.
We explored this very modern city at some length, during which time Lew and I managed to pick up a couple of girls in an outdoor café, factory workers I think, whom we persuaded to come with us the next day to Lake Como. We hired a couple of rowing boats and took the girls far out on the lake in true Hemingway style. Very romantic – except my girl seemed to panic a bit and kept saying “Andiamo!” repeatedly and, when I dived over the side for a swim, she grabbed the oars and started rowing towards the shore some two or three kilometres away. Fortunately I could swim faster than she could row and managed to catch up and clamber aboard. Although I was a good swimmer in those days I doubt whether I could have made it back to shore by that method. “Andiamo,” incidentally, means “Let’s go” – another useful acquisition for my Italian vocabulary.
Time came to return to Sammardenchia and Stinky Miller, where we found the pilots sitting at the bar, as usual, playing games of “liar dice”. We became enamoured of this fascinating bar-room pastime and spent many a leisure hour thus engaged. Village life continued its even tenor, with increasing interaction between the locals and the pilots. By now we were well into July and the flying continued to be great fun and exhilarating, while at the same time we more junior pilots were learning new skills and honing up old ones. I remember wishing that I had had these abilities when we were on operations, but nevertheless it was a marvellous feeling to be confident of your ability to fly these thoroughbred machines with dash and flair. And anyway we had, or thought we had, the Pacific war to deal with one day.
While all this pleasurable activity was going on, mail, of course, was arriving regularly from home and UK. I had already sent Mum a cable to say I was still alive which, I think, she got some time before the official notification. Most of this mail from Mum consisted of, “What do you want to do after the war?” I had no idea of what I wanted to do – all I knew was that I could happily keep on as I was for ever. I even thought about the possibility of staying with the occupation forces like my good friend David Rosendale was in the process of doing, but of course, such a pathway was not available for us. I did not suggest this in my letters to Mum but, really, I would have been more than happy to stay on there, or elsewhere in Europe, for years. Also news came that there was to be an election in Australia and as hardened veterans we were to get a vote even though we were mostly below the legal voting age of 21. I could not get enthused over this concession to the young, as my interest in politics was, and has remained, minimal.
Even with these vague disturbances to our life of hedonism we kept on flying until July 30, when my log book tells me that I flew a cross-country and also practised battle formation, which was a bit ho-hum by now. The cross-country, from memory, involved a fair bit of low flying in amongst the valleys of the 15,000-foot Alps, weaving and soaring in a way you could only do in a high-powered modern fighter.
I did not know it at the time (and if I had I would have savoured the experience more intensely) but this was to be my last flight ever. News came shortly thereafter that we were to go home via train to Taranto in the heel of Italy, ship to Egypt then ship to Oz. The locals, somehow, were already aware of this and they were looking a little gloomy – they had learned to love us, sort of. Regina cried quite a bit, but ours is to obey, so we packed up, leaving the aircraft where we had landed them. We expected to be re-equipped, possibly with Mosquitos, back in Oz but, when we paused at Rome in the train for a few hours, we saw the newspaper posters with “Bomba Atomica in Japan” and so it was all over.
Leaving Italy, August 1945, via the very tip of the Heel, Taranto Bay.
Unknowingly, I had just had my 21st birthday.
Chapter 9. Back to Oz - an Officer and a Heartbreaker
The train from Udine to Taranto took three days, but the weather was warm and, unlike the epic journey going up, we were well-fed. Taranto, like most of southern Italy, was a hole. While waiting for the ship I turned 21, but was unaware of this until Lew, who never forgets anything, even to this day, informed me. The trip to Port Said on the Winchester Castle was not unpleasant and we met some rather nice WAAFs aboard. The memory of Regina faded just a little. Back to smelly old Cairo, where we were billeted in tents on a patch of desert called Almaza.
Whilst here, my commission came through. “Whacko!” I thought, “at least I will have a comfortable trip home,” but it was not to be. The ship meant to take us, the Orion I think, broke down in the Bay of Biscay, so our waiting time lengthened. This waiting, of course, was endemic throughout the Services, so we were used to it and spent the intervening time chatting up the WAAFs. Eventually we were sent again to Port Said where we boarded the Stratheden which, to our horror, already had about 10,000 Aussies from the UK well-entrenched upon it, so that all of us, with the exception of the CO, were consigned to the aft hold. Even the CO with his DSO, DFC and bar was put in a two-person cabin with six other ranking officers.
The aft hold (meant for cargo of course) was down below the waterline and right above the propeller shaft. Here we all, officers and scum, bunked down on the floor. We had all (both officers and scum - you will note the new term for my erstwhile colleagues) recently been issued with new pyjamas that had wide dark blue vertical stripes. The hold was then named, appropriately enough, "Belsen".
We sweated our way through the Red Sea, jammed in this airless hold, perhaps rather akin to the Black Hole of Calcutta, idling away our time playing poker, at which game I proceeded to lose a lot of money. The ship was jam-packed with servicemen, mostly RAAF, and around the ship, I ran in to many old friends, acquaintances and course-mates, most of whom had survived the rigours of the European Theatre Air War. They included a couple of old classmates from Sydney High: Harry Butler and Eric Armstrong. Eric, now an F/O Navigator, had done a tour with the Pathfinders flying Mosquitos and Harry, also an F/O, a tour on Wellington bombers in Italy. From the Vaucluse Yacht Club were Frank Jackson (who had been a WAG on Mitchell bombers) and Ron Neilsen, now sporting a DFC after a tour on Lancasters.
Also on board was another ex-V.Y.C.-ian, Ian Wrigley. He was an RAN Lieutenant Commander, the equivalent rank to our CO, but being RAN he had a First Class cabin to himself, so we didn’t see too much of him. Ian is still up in Princes Avenue, so he can still lord it over us peasants (or is the term “pissants” these days?). He later distinguished himself in pistol shooting at one of the Olympics and still sails a yacht, from whose lofty heights he can occasionally look down on me sailing my Laser.
We crossed the Indian Ocean in discomfort but without incident, although I was still losing steadily at poker. Obviously I wasn’t as good as I thought I was, but isn’t this always the way in life? It wasn’t until I got to Moree in the 1950s that I learned how to play this game with any real degree of skill.
We reached Fremantle in due course where, approaching the wharf, our senses were assaulted by a female chorus of pure Australian vernacular. We were duly appalled, but what had happened was that we had all acquired a trace of pommy in our voices over the two years or so, and it took us some time to get back to normal, as it were. An evening in Perth was the treat for all the troops. Most hit the pubs. Some, who could no longer curb their impatience to get home, shot through AWL and some, like Eric and I, went to sort out the girls at a dance hall. Back to the ship late in the evening and off to Melbourne, where the load was lightened considerably further; then on to Sydney. On the evening before we reached Sydney I was given my one and only turn in the First Class dining room – very nice, but it was left to those of us so privileged to tip the Indian waiters for the entire voyage!
Ron Neilsen and his family lived in Hopetoun Avenue Vaucluse. When we eventually entered Sydney Harbour and anchored out near the Wedding Cakes, a number of small launches came out to greet us, among them the Neilsen family led by Gwen and sporting a big placard with "WELCOME HOME F/O RON NEILSEN" on it. I spotted them and, fearing a Customs inspection of a kitbag containing a sub-machine gun and some 5,000 duty free cigarettes, hailed Gwen. As they came alongside, I lowered the kitbag on a rope to them, with instructions to take it directly to Russell Street. In the event, there was no Customs inspection, but at least it got home before I did. Ron and I, by the way were both on 34 course at Uranquinty.
After staying on the water for a night, we moved up to the wharves and disembarked onto double-decker buses, which took us through the city with cheering throngs waving madly. Heady stuff!
WOOLLOOMOOLOO, SYDNEY, NSW 1945-10-20. RAAF PERSONNEL RETURNING HOME DISEMBARK FROM THE STRATHEDEN. [AWM 122120]
The buses took us to No.2 ED, Bradfield Park, whence I had departed some two years earlier. We then disgorged onto the old parade ground, where hordes of relatives (not, of course, arranged in any sort of military formation) awaited us. Much chaos, confusion and frantic rushing about, until eventually we all got sorted out. I eventually located Mum (bewildered by all the anarchy), Aunt Thistle and Jill Calman, whose letters (and mine) had grown ever more intimate as the two years progressed. Jill was a very social person, and to have a long-lost boyfriend returning as a pilot, an officer and a shot-down airman was, as Colonel Cathcart would say, a feather in her cap. It didn’t do me much harm either!
Home to an alien domesticity and thoughts of what to do next – very hard to adjust to. We were given several weeks leave, after which we reported back to Bradfield Park for discharge. I was discharged on December 5, 1945; three years to the day since I had entered the same gates.
That’s all folks!
After the war I started a course in Dentistry at Sydney University. At the first clinical session a tall figure dominated the room. It was John Hodgkinson! All this is anecdotal (and self indulgent) rather than historical, but Hodgy's remarks started these memories flowing.
Barney Davies: Barney returned to W.A. after the war, took up dairy farming and produced four daughters. Like most of us on the Squadron, he was a heavy smoker. I remember, in the Mess he would often have a severe coughing attack, followed by “Clear my tail while I jettison my left lung.” This proved to be prophetic, unfortunately, as he died of emphysema a few years ago. During the war, of course, lung trouble seemed to be a relatively minor hazard, scarcely worthwhile thinking about. Hearing that he was ill, I rang him up, the first contact in many years. He sounded terrible, could barely talk and died shortly thereafter. A sorry end for such a fearless pilot.
Clark Cornell: In 1954, while living in Moree, I wrote to Clark at the address he gave me when we were in Slovenia. Although only 20, he was already married and had set up house in Los Angeles. No reply was forthcoming. In 1973, I was in L.A. at a Congress, but didn’t think to track him down. In 1999 I had a phone call from the Chief Executive of the Australian Dental Association; “Was I the Alan Clark who had been in Slovenia with an American named Cornell all those years ago?”
- “Yes indeed!” said I. I rang Clark and he told me that his wife of 54 years had died after a long illness. Bereaved and lonely he had gone up to his attic and found a box containing my 1954 letter, as well as one from Barney. He had never replied to either. He was keen to come to Oz and see us both, but of course Barney had gone.
He duly arrived here shortly after, accompanied by a new bride! (Bit of a fast mover, the old Clark.) He also brought with him the diary that he had kept in Slovenia. We spent a pleasant few days together seeing the sights and reminiscing about our time together in Slovenia. Extraordinarily though, our recollections of those dramatic events were wildly at variance. This was puzzling but, of course, memories are notoriously unreliable so long after the events. Nevertheless I have always prided myself on having a pretty accurate long-term memory and was still convinced that my version of events was much closer to the mark than Clark’s. So Clark produced the diary. Again extraordinarily, he had not had a look at it since he put it in the attic 55 years ago! Nor had he looked at it since he got it out of the box. So we got down to the business of going through it and, would you believe it, every one of my versions of particular events proved to be correct! One in the eye for Clark, eh?
Clark and Mimi went back to a new life together in California and we corresponded, mainly through Mimi, since Clark, as we know, is a lousy correspondent. But I haven’t heard from them for a long time in spite of a number of e-mails. He was planning a trip back to Slovenia with his daughter, who had just had a book published in Serbian. When I enquired about his trip I got a two-word e-mail which said, “No Slovenia.” And I haven’t heard since.
Jill Calman at Nielsen Park, December 1945.
ALAN CLARK - DIED 25 NOV 2010.
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