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A story from "Valiant Youth" by J. C. Waters
1941-06-06. LYDDA, PALESTINE. PILOT OFFICER PETER TURNBULL OF NO. 3 (RAAF) SQUADRON,
ONE OF THE ORIGINAL AND BEST-KNOWN FIGHTER PILOTS IN THE MIDDLE EAST,
HAS RECENTLY BEEN TESTING THE NEW TOMAHAWK PLANES WITH WHICH THE SQUADRON HAS
BEEN EQUIPPED. HE IS FROM GLEN INNES, N.S.W.
[AWM 008318. Original negative by Damien Parer.]
The youth was Peter Bruce Turnbull, who three years later was to become "Hawkeye", "Tomahawk Joe" and the "Flying Cowboy" of the Middle East, win the Distinguished Flying Cross with Australia's No.3 desert fighter squadron, and meet his end beside a broken palm on the foreshore jungle of Milne Bay. He was 25.
The number of nicknames given a young man is sure indication of affection. Pete Turnbull had a fourth. It was "Bower Bird". Alan Rawlinson, D.F.C. and Bar, an original of No.3 with Turnbull, laughingly vouches for the story that Turnbull used to "pinch" gear from everyone and always travelled with three or four kit-bags. The ritual went something like this:
Peter: "It's mine!" Other Pilot: "It isn’t!"
Then, "is - isn't- is - isn't," until the O.P. gave up and Peter pushed whatever the article was into his bag. After some of that, no one worried much. It was Peter's habit to grow tired of so many full kitbags and at some appropriate time distribute largesse to all and sundry. Thus in due course all articles would find their rightful owners - or did they?
Sturdy blood of the Scottish border ran in Peter's veins. His grandfather Turnbull settled early in Australia and his grazier father is one of the Commonwealth's best-known horse and cattle judges. Peter himself was one of our best rough-riders. Tall, splendidly proportioned, with the strength of a Hercules, he was adjudged one of the best physical standards to enter Point Cook when 200 were selected from between 3,000 and 4,000 in 1938. That he used a cousin's Intermediate Certificate to pass the educational requirements was only one indication of his resource!
Ian McLachlan, D.F.C., first commanding officer in the Middle East of No.3 Squadron, which has produced so many outstanding fighter pilots, considered Tumbull the best of the early team. He was quick to learn fighter tactics, was quick to the kill, and was able and courageous in leadership. In April, 1941, when his formation attacked 16 Messerschmitts, Turnbull shot down three of them. He won his D.F.C. after 116 operational flights, the citation stating that he had shown "magnificent fighting spirit."
That was the fearless spirit that flourished in the clean wind and fresh sunrise of the bush country; the spirit you find in men who handle horses and cattle and are not afraid of the morning. He fought hard and he played hard with the iron constitution of youth. There were occasions when, after mixing it in combat with Germans and Italians, he and his comrades would find relaxation in the night clubs of Cairo. Rawlinson has a happy mental picture of Peter, brown hair flower-bedecked, conducting a band with a mutton-bone baton. That was his sense of fun. Everyone enjoyed it because Peter was everyone's friend, with the sunny nature of a Truscott, the solidity of a John Jackson, and the innate "wildness" of a Winten. Next to fighting in the air, he loved dancing best.
From the drab wastes of Libya and the colour of Egypt, he was swung suddenly to play a notable part in the early defence of Australia against the Japanese. But before that, his impish humour had pointed a grim necessity over the desert. No. 3's early planes were not fast enough to catch the speedy Italian Capronis. Back home Peter's camp-horse Ortogo could race him alongside a fleeing steer ready for the jump. In the desert the Capronis got away. Toward Christmas, Peter wrote on his combat report, apparently after a fruitless chase: "Please, Father Christmas, send me a Hurricane!" It was the joke of the squadron, but at length the Hurricanes did come and Peter called his Ortogo.
Up in New Guinea early in 1942 he stood with "Old John" Jackson and 75 Squadron to defy the Japanese attacks on Port Moresby. John was a comrade of the desert and Peter took control at Moresby when Jackson was eight days missing. When, a few months later, as commanding officer of sister 76 Squadron, Turnbull was killed in action, 75 was fighting with him. There, at Milne Bay, the two Kittyhawk squadrons put up one of the most remarkable non-stop fighter battles of the Pacific War. Les Jackson, D.F.C., who fought over Moresby and Lae and Salamaua with his brother, led 75. Peter Turnbull had with him as flight commanders Bluey Truscott, D.F.C. and Bar, and the slim, dark, and handsome Bardy Wawn, D.F.C., who had fought long and well together over the English Channel.
Men of irrepressible nature like these were needed in those days. At 1 a.m. on August 26 Japanese troops landed in rain and low cloud with Milne Bay airstrips as the objective. Defeated in May by the Americans in the Battle of the Coral Sea, they were now making their second thrust in the plan to invest Australia. They were anticipated. Australian troops were waiting and 75 and 76 Squadrons were there in support.
Milne Bay was then one of the worst malarial spots in the world. It must also be one of the worst air-combat areas and among the wettest. Six inches of rain fell in one day when the squadrons were erecting their tents. Machines bogged as soon as they left the runway. Cloud squalls came down with the speed of diving aircraft. Ground crews worked and ate in the rain; mildew impregnated clothing, infested hairbrushes, clung to blankets. Fever and dysentery attacked them.
The smile and the light heart of a Turnbull made all of it bearable. His was the job of "Old John" all over again - the job of inspiriting and inspiring. Australian troops on that August 26 had made contact with the enemy and bitter fighting was going on in the squelching matted jungle fringing the coast. The Turnbull and Jackson squadrons were out at dawn, came in only at dark. They found and burnt landing barges, stores and ammunition dumps, and turned their guns on the invaders they could not see in the jungle below.
Next day they were at it again. The Japs had advanced. They had landed eight miles east of their intended point of attack. The Kittyhawks, co-operating with the Army, sprayed them incessantly with lead from treetop height. This was something the six-foot stockman enjoyed. With his men he came in, reloaded, went back. Mud caked inches deep on wings and brakes. Water lay inches deep on the runway. There were water-filled hollows 50 yards long in the mesh. Planes took off and landed enveloped in slush, slithered dangerously this way and that. Mud-caked guns ran hot. In the end some had only two out of six that would operate. That day they pumped 85,000 rounds into the Japanese lines, probably a world strafing record for two squadrons. They repeated it next day, and in between fought off raiding Zeros and shot down predatory bombers.
MILNE BAY, PAPUA. CURTISS P40 KITTYHAWK FIGHTER AIRCRAFT FROM NO.76 RAAF SQUADRON, WHO PLAYED A BIG PART IN REPELLING THE JAPANESE ATTACK ON MILNE BAY.
A GROUND CREW MEMBER SITS ON THE WING TIP TO GUIDE THE PILOT WHO COULD NOT SEE OVER THE NOSE WHILE TAXIING ON THE PIERCED-STEEL PLANKING ("PSP") RUNWAY. [AWM 026645]
At night, enemy warships slipped into the bay to assail the Australian lines. They slid out before dawn. There was sleep for neither soldier nor airman. Peter Turnbull's dark brown eyes lost their sparkle. He ran them anxiously over his men. They were weary and mud-caked; they had dysentery; they had malaria; they had high temperatures, but not one of them would say so.
"Just tired, Pete, that's all," they would say, and stick as he knew they would.
At dusk he went out and didn't return. The Japanese were advancing still. One of their tanks was threatening our positions. Peter flew low to strafe it. He shot it up. Kerville, his No.2, was astonished to see the plane go straight on and in.
"Incessant fighting and lack of sleep," said Kerville, "had taken toll of his seemingly tireless energy."
On the night of August 31, the Japanese reached the strip farthest east. There was a metallic sound. An Australian sentry fired a rocket. It threw into light several hundred Japanese massed for attack. There was a fast rattle of rifles and machine guns. This was the first time the enemy had been caught in an open field of fire. Most of them were killed. Others broke and ran. We had won the Battle of Milne Bay. It was the first time in history that Australian airmen and Australian soldiers operating as a component force had met and conquered an enemy.
It marked another important turning point in the Pacific War.
Major-General Clowes, in command at Milne Bay, recorded his appreciation of the work of the fighter squadrons.
"When the story is complete," he said, "it will be found that their incessant attacks over three successive days proved the decisive factor in the enemy's decision to re-embark what was left of his force."
The Commanding General, Allied Air Forces, added his "earnest appreciation" of their "tenacity, determination, and fearlessness."
So Tomahawk Pete died not in vain. A third of the way up the eastern airstrip that he did so much to defend stands a rude cairn with wooden cross. It marks the farthest point west reached by the enemy. It commemorates Australian Army officers, N.C.O.s and men who lost their lives. Below lie the bleached bones of Japanese Marines.
The name of the strip officially commemorated the lovable and laughable Bower Bird of the Middle East. - It was called Turnbull Field...
DOWA DOWA, MILNE BAY, PAPUA. 1942-08-20. CROSS ERECTED TO THE MEMORY OF SQUADRON LEADER PETER TURNBULL, DFC,
COMMANDING OFFICER, 76 SQUADRON, RAAF , WHO WAS KILLED 1942-08-27 WHEN HIS AIRCRAFT CRASHED INTO THE JUNGLE
DURING A STRAFING RUN AGAINST JAPANESE FORCES DURING THE BATTLE FOR MILNE BAY.
Also click here for our fully-illustrated story "Milne Bay - the RAAF's Forgotten Finest Hour"
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