Reflections on a journey from school yard games to piloting the Lancaster bombers of 460 squadron over Europe during WWII (1943-45)
It is a common theme amongst us World War II war veterans, to imbibe the adage that “The older I get … the braver I was”. This series of reflections that I have prepared is not intended to give credence to that adage, but rather to simply give my account of a unique time in European and Australian history where a squadron of volunteer Australian air-force personal were recruited, trained and shipped to England to assist the then British Empire in its struggle with Nazi Germany.
Sadly, of the few thousand aircrew that were to serve on 460 Squadron, 1,018 of them lost their lives including 589 of my fellow countrymen. It is my hope that this series keeps alive in some small way the memory of those young men and the supreme sacrifice that was made in the service of their country. Here is my story ….
Introduction 460 Squadron
Photo Source #9 – Australian War Memorial – 460 Squadron
My Story – Alan (Henry) Baskerville – Chapter 1
I grew up between the wars when aviation was still in its relative infancy. The Townsville aerodrome, in those days, was on the banks of the Ross River just across the road from the meatworks and whenever a new plane would appear in the skies, boys would hop on their bikes and pedal madly to the drome to look it over.
I can recall a Junkers monoplane arriving on one occasion – that was an unusual visitor. More regular ones were the Dragon Rapide which flew in from Cairns at about five o’clock each day, the ill fated Stinsons several of which crashed – one bringing fame to Bernard O’Reilly – and exceptional ones like the six Hawker Demons of the RAAF who put on a pageant in which one failed to pull out of a power dive and left a six foot deep hole in the middle of the field and, most exciting of all, the Southern Cross with Kingsford Smith at the controls.
Image Source #1 – Sothern Cross
My first flight was in this plane in 1934. Dad shouted himself and me. We sat on a bench on the right hand side of the cabin looking at the folk on the bench opposite and forward to the great Smithy in the pilot’s seat. I dreamt from this moment that one day I might become a pilot.
My opportunity came with the outbreak of World War 2. I was at the grammar school in Toowoomba and can well recall the sense of excitement that pervaded the Sunday prep. as the news came through that war had been declared. The walls of the Assembly Hall in which we met were lined with framed photos of old boys who had died in the first World War. And the great bronze Honour Board carried the names of all who had enlisted.
We had spent our days with these constant reminders of that great conflict and now, young as we were, we only hoped that this new one would last long enough for us to play a part.
Nothing very much happened for some six months but then came the stirring news of Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain and the exploits of the fighter pilots in their Hurricanes and Spitfires and the enthusiasm to one day emulate them became even more intense. It was hard to think of studies and future careers when such great events were happening in the world.
Source #8 – WWII Recruitment Poster
On the 19th of June, along with ten other men I took the oath of service for the duration of the war and for twelve months thereafter in the Creek Street Recruiting Depot and that afternoon, in the control of a Corporal, we were put on a train at the Melbourne Street Station and headed for Sydney.
I chummed up with a lad of my own age -most of the fellows were older -and Pat McNulty became my first comrade in arms.He was an upright, dedicated Catholic youth and we had many discussions and debates, within the limits of our respective understandings, on the great issues of the Christian faith. Our paths were soon to separate and then come together again in England. Sadly, he did not survive the war.
Training – Bradfield Park
Very special amongst my new found friends was David Sandell. He had been a cadet with David Jones . He was much more precocious than I was – already had a steady girl friend named Val – but he had not had as much schooling as me and looked to me to give him coaching in maths and navigation.
I spent my week-end leaves alternating between David’s home in Concord West and Jim’s home in Willoughby. Jim’s mother was a widow and he had a twin brother named Bill who had also been at school with me. He was a rugged footballer, had played for the firsts and been selected in the combined GPS team to play the University. He had been called up into the Army but managed to transfer to aircrew as a gunner and was killed on the 29th June 1944 in a raid on Railway Yards at Blainville in France.
Our initial training lasted for four months at the end of which we were categorised into various flying roles and sent off to our next stations. Most people wanted to be pilots but only a percentage were selected as such. God alone knows the basis on which such selection was made. No doubt results in the various course subjects were taken into account – I did well mainly because of my prior schooling to matriculation level -and the impression we made as we individually paraded before the selection panel at the end of course was considered to be a significant factor.
Whatever the basis, Jim, Pat, David and myself were all selected for pilot training.
Pat was sent off to Narromine and we other three were posted to Narrandera . Unfortunately David contracted measles and had to drop back a course but he caught up with Jim and myself a month later.
Flying Training School – Narrandera
|Image Source #6 – Tiger Moth|
Our new school was No. 8 Elementary Flying Training School and we were to be introduced to our first aircraft the reliable Tiger Moth. Our ground lectures continued but flying training filled in most of the time for the two months we were there. When I left on the 19th December, six months to the day since I was sworn in, I had 61 hours flying to my credit -27 of them being solo.
We did navigation exercises in the form of cross countries and this was regarded as something of an accomplishment – mapreading from Narrandera to Henty and then to Forest Hill at Wagga; landing and refuelling and then flying back to Narrandera. The open cockpit of the Tiger, the helmet, scarf and flying suit and the very plane itself were all reminiscent of World War 1 flying – the Sopwith Camels and the Spads and fighting against the Red Baron and all that -all very romantic to impressionable youths.
In our off duty hours we were allowed into Narrandera itself where we went swimming in the baths – an enclosed section of the Murrumbidgee River and on one occasion we had a Saturday picnic on the banks of the river. David was there making a statement as was his older brother Alan who was a Sergeant Pilot Instructor.
On our final day we rolled down the driveway in tenders singing a rather raucous ditty telling the C.O. and his leading henchmen what we thought of them for denying us a promised leave and we were delivered some hours later to Uranquinty and No. 5 Service Flying Training School.
Leave to Brisbane
Image Source #4 – Qantas Empire Flying Boat
On arrival we were told that we could have four days Christmas leave. I wanted to get home to Brisbane but the only way of doing so was to fly from Sydney and the only planes in those days were the Qantas Empire Flying Boats. I managed to get a seat on one and took off one morning from Rose Bay and landed some hours later in the Hamilton Reach of the Brisbane River.
There were two sergeant pilots on board on their way to Darwin to join a Vultee Vengeance Dive Bomber Squadron. I often wonder whether they made it through the war. Apart from them there were some privileged civilians and of course the flying crew who could be clearly seen on their elevated flying platform.
Flying Training School – Uranquinty
Image Source #5 – Newlambton Education Wirraway
At Uranquinty we were to learn to fly the Wirraway. This was a step up from the Tiger Moth. A low winged monoplane, built in Australia as a modified version of the North American Harvard, it had a radial engine capable of pulling it along at maximum cruising speed of over 200 mph. It had a retractable undercarriage which we had to make sure was down when coming in to land – if it wasn’t a loud horn blasted out its warning note behind the pilot’s head as soon as he pulled the throttles back on the approach- and it had things like flaps and an enclosed cockpit and guns that fired through the propeller and sometimes shot it off if they ran away out of synchronisation -all very warlike!
The course was in two sections: the first, an Initial Training Course lasting some six weeks which was designed to teach us to fly the plane and then an Advanced Training Course in which we concentrated on more interesting things like formation flying, low level and high level bombing, air to air gunnery -and air to ground gunnery. The air to ground gunnery was with live ammunition firing at ground targets. The air to air couldn’t, by the nature of things be with live ammunition and, as we didn’t have camera guns, we could only really practice deflection shooting.
Wirraway Cockpit – 1942
This was done by positioning oneself above and to the side of the target aircraft who had to keep a steady course and then turning towards him on a shallow dive and on a selected course which had to be held. If the deflection was right you would then pass immediately below the target aircraft. Then it would be his turn. Whether this was really helpful in practice we never got the chance to find out.
Some of the more foolhardy amongst us used to formate together one having his wing tip under the other’s wing. He would then roll over violently away from the other plane, the wing would come up, hit the other’s and tip him over on his back. I could never see the sense of doing something that might get one scrubbed before getting into the real thing so I would have nothing to do with it particularly as the planes came back with dented wings which must have caused some raised eyebrows.
Getting my wings – Wings Parade Uranquinty – 1942
In early April after some sixteen weeks of training we graduated and received our wings and sergeant’s stripes. The Wings Parade was a very formal affair and each one of us had the wings pinned to our chests by the Station Commander. We were all duly proud to have achieved this coveted recognition and we could be excused if we initially walked a little lopsided with left breast held forward to ensure that nobody missed noticing what was pinned to it.
This parade was also the occasion for advising us of our next posting. Some would go to Australian Operational Training Units to be further trained for duties in the South West Pacific. Some would be selected as Instructors and some as Staff Pilots and others would be sent to England to serve with the RAF. For many of us this was the most coveted option.
When the formalities were over names were called and those called were told to assemble in groups on various parts of the parade ground. I found myself in a group of some twenty fellows. Jim was amongst them; so was Phil Thomas whom we had chummed up with at Uranquinty and, anxiously, we awaited the arrival of our course sergeant who was to tell us where we were going. What joy when he said, “You’re all off to England.” Our dream of one day flying a Spitfire was just that one step closer to being realised. Little did we know!
To the USA
Image #2 – HMAS Vendetta
We sailed on the 5th May. Late in the afternoon we saw the Glasshouse Mountains , much as Captain Cook must have seen them, fading from sight as the evening closed. A destroyer, now known to be HMAS Vendetta, sped past along our starboard side with its klaxon horn tooting and disappeared into the night -he was saying goodbye. And from that moment until eighteen days later when we sighted the coast of Southern California we saw neither land nor sign of any other ship -with one exception.
Sometime during that first afternoon, whether before the destroyer left us or after, we saw the hospital ship “Centaur” heading south across our bows. About six days later we heard the news that she had been torpedoed just off Cape Moreton on her return trip to New Guinea, with considerable loss of life.
Image Source #10 – Centaur
There was considerable bonding on board between Jim and Phil and myself, Cyril Covill and Sid Ward. Cyril was of our age and from Brisbane. Sid was close to thirty, married and with a wife in Sydney who was pregnant. Understandably his attitudes were different to ours but he preferred our company to that of his contemporaries.
We disembarked in San Francisco and immediately boarded a train with Pulman Sleeping cars to begin our six day journey to the east coast. What an enjoyable trip that was with so much to see: the Rockies with snow and a grisly bear, Salt Lake City, Kansas City where we marched through the streets for exercise and were cheered by the folk on the sidewalks and the girls hanging from office windows; Chicago where again we were allowed off for exercise; the Appelatians with their forests looking so beautifully green in their early summer dress; Boston and finally Taunton and Camp Miles Standish where we were to spend just on a month.
Doc & Wyn Fowles 1942
We were given very liberal leave whilst there which enabled us to go as far afield as New York where Jim and Phil, Syd and myself spent four days. We went to the Stage Door Canteen where the cast from the musical “Oaklahoma” put in an appearance. We went to the top of the Empire State Building and I went on my own to a performance of Schubert’s “Rosamunde”. I also danced to the music of Harry James’ Big Band at the Waldorf Astoria and went to a prize fight at Madison Square Garden – the latter two outings through the courtesy of a man named Herman Greenberg -a wealthy business man whom David Sandell had previously met and who had a lively daughter named Rita.
Doc & Wyn Fowles Farm – Maine
At Gourick we off loaded into tenders and shipped across the Firth to another railway station where we boarded yet another train for the long journey to Brighton in the south of England. I remember going through Birmingham and one of our fellows got off on the platform during a brief stop to get a chocolate out of a penny in the slot machine. He was quite surprised to find no chocolates in it. It was our first encounter with the oft heard slogan in England; “Don’t you know there’s a war on?”
We had only four hours of darkness that first night because of the long twilight and the northern latitude.
What a great time we had with virtually nothing to do and all day to do it. Of course the powers that be had to try to keep track of us so there were morning parades -these were held in secluded areas because of the fear of hit and run raiders. German Focke Wolfs had been known to skip across the Channel, drop a bomb or two and do some strafing and then scoot back. There was a Bofors gun and crew right outside our hotel on the beach to guard against this eventuality and they practised regularly by firing at a drogue towed behind an old Fairey Battle .
There were also occasional lectures, talks by the padres, night vision tests and organised clay pigeon shooting at which I was not very good -mainly because no one bothered to instruct us in the art. Later on in the war I was to become quite clever at it.
Australian Airmen holding center – Hotels on Brighton – 1942
For local entertainment there were the pubs, dances at the Pavilion , picture shows and ice skating. We tended to favour the latter and, after shaky starts eventually became quite steady and proficient. It was fun chasing one another around the rink, partnering the local girls if one was bold enough to do so, forming the long crocodiles where each one hung on to the one in front and, when the whip was cracked made sure that,if you were the last man you didn’t get flicked off at a great speed into the side wall.You hung on for grim death, so did the second and third last and often the break would come further up the line and three or four bodies would hurtle across the ice and into the wall.
Eventually “Goodnight Sweetheart” would be played to signify the last episode for the night and that would be it until next night.
We had some leaves. Jim and I went to the Lakes District. We also had our first visit to London: saw Big Ben and Westminster Abbey and I spent a week in Worcester as Duty Pilot at an EFTS. Here I got the opportunity to do some more flying in Tiger Moths and, in the house in which I was billeted encountered for the first time the quaint English custom of bathing once a week. The lady of the house told me on arrival,”Your bath night is Wednesday.”
Len Stretton and Me at Brighton – 1942
I ran into Len just as I was hurrying in to meet the deadline but, of course, he wanted to talk and he was staying at the Grand. When I eventually got to my room I found that the inspecting party had passed through and I was marked absent. Next day I was paraded before the Senior Admin Officer who gave me a good old dressing down and a Severe Reprimand. Severe because I already had one Reprimand for being late on one parade.