IN SEPTEMBER 1939, HAVING GRADUATED from Point Cook in Victoria in June 1938, I was a Flying Officer in No 3 (Army Cooperation) Squadron at Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Station Richmond NSW, doing my tour as Adjutant.
I was in the officer's mess with other colleagues when the mess president came in. He was a Wing Commander, perhaps in his early forties. The RAAF was more formal in those days and we all stood for him.
It turned out the occasion was to hear Australian prime minister Robert Menzies “melancholy duty” announcement on the wireless that Australia was at war with Germany.
Next morning I was told to go to Station Headquarters and report to a Flight Lieutenant Alexander, then on the staff of the station commander, Group Captain Hipolyte Ferdinand de la Rue.
‘Kanga’, a World War I veteran, as a naval officer had been charge of a tug at Gallipoli dumping bodies at sea. He then became a pilot in the Royal Naval Air Service.
‘Kanga’ was a short fiery man who reputedly threw his telephone about his office. Junior officers were in awe of, and avoided, him. It was with some relief that I passed his office unsighted and reported to Jim Alexander, a pleasant man with a background of seaplane flying.
Alexander told me that, following the declaration of war; the Australian Government believed there could be already be a German raider in the Pacific, as in World War I when Von Luckner roamed the area sinking many allied ships.
The government had acted quickly in taking from Qantas two four-engine Empire Flying boats from the recently established Sydney-Singapore service along with their flight crews and a number of maintenance men.
These, with two RAAF Seagull amphibians and personnel, would form 11 Squadron under Alexander’s command and deploy immediately to Port Moresby to search for German raiders.
He told me I was to be Adjutant of this Maritime Squadron. Its operations were in a different field to 3 Squadron’s Army Cooperation, but I was a professionally trained officer with experiences as Adjutant - and I was available.
He told me to clear my office at 3 Squadron immediately and go to the Qantas base at Rose Bay to meet the senior Qantas Captain (now Flight Lieutenant) Gurney and deliver some papers. Flight Lieutenant Phil Graham would fly me down in a Seagull amphibian.
Graham had been a short service commission officer flying seaplanes who, at the end of his term five years before, had been discharged but with the threat of war had just been recalled into the RAAF.
It was my first flight in a Seagull, which rattled and rumbled off the Richmond strip and continued to do so en route to Rose Bay. I asked Graham if he'd done much flying since being called back into the RAAF. He said this was his first flight.
Approaching Rose Bay from the north, he throttled back and started to lose height over Clifton Gardens when the engine stopped dead.
Graham rammed the control forward and, after a very steep descent, slammed the motorless Seagull onto the choppy harbour.
After restarting the engine, rather than take off again and alight close to Rose Bay, he taxied through the heavily southerly chop across the harbour to the Qantas base, where he put down the wheels and lumbered up the concrete ramp to the large paved area and the hangars.
Here I met Gurney and his former Qantas first officer, now Flying Officer Geoff Hemsworth, and the Qantas men, now RAAF airman, in the ill fitting tropical shorts with which they had hurriedly been fitted by the RAAF.
There was work happening. On each of the two Empire flying boats, bomb racks were being fitted under the wings and a hole cut in the top of the fuselage to take the machine gun. The captain of the second Empire, Eric Simms, and his first officer were not there.
Gurney and Hemsworth had spent years flying New Guinea, were enjoying their international flying and were not exactly pleased to now being sent back to Papua.
Later, as the Seagull rumbled back to Richmond under Phil Graham’s guidance, I decided it was not the aircraft for me.
A few days later, I was a passenger in a Carpenters Airways DH86, a biplane with fabric covered fuselage and wings and four Gypsy Moth type engines. Also aboard were Flying Officer Dean Smith and an Adjutant’s clerk carrying all the RAAF manuals and publications he had hastily grabbed for setting up a headquarters.
From Sydney we flew along the east coast of Australia landing at Coffs Harbour, Archerfield, Rockhampton and arriving at Townsville late in the afternoon.
At the old Queens Hotel on the waterfront, we met up with the crews and men of two flying boats anchored offshore. They included Flight Lieutenant Simms, quiet and reserved, and his first officer Bill Purton, youngish with a lively sense of humour and an outgoing personality who I had not previously met.
The Queens was a fine old wooden hotel patronised by planters from the Pacific islands. I remember the waitresses’ heavily prim uniform fronts and table napkins so heavily starched they were difficult to open.
Next morning in the DH86 we landed at Cairns and then Cooktown, where we were taken by truck into the sleepy frontier town for lunch at a hotel. Back to the aircraft and across the Coral Sea to land at Port Moresby strip at the east end of Ela Beach, so short the DH86 used every inch of it.
We, and tho men on the Qantas flying boats which had arrived earlier, were accommodated in tents with the heavy battery which was completing the installation on Paga Hill of 9.2 inch coast guns for the defence of Port Moresby.
11 Squadron HQ, Squadron Leader ‘Alex’ Alexander, the clerk and I as Adjutant were set up in Mr Geoff Clay’s trochus store with its pungent odours. The airman were lodged in a house on the hill to the east of and looking down on the town and the officers mess, set up in the house of a Dr Strong (an absentee anthropologist) on Ela Beach.
Alexander and Simms had houses on Paga Hill as their wives had also arrived. The officers in the mess were Flight Lieutenant Gurney, Flying Officers Hemsworth, Purton, Hampshire and Anderson, RAAF navigators for the two boats, Dean and Swift, and myself.
Nights could be noisy. One night in a room off the bar in the old top pub, Purton, Hemsworth, Hampshire and I were in good voice with Mr Clay, always immaculate in whites, who, a World War I digger was teaching us to sing Do You Remember Yvonne and her Estaminet on the Hill.
Some miners from Bulldog were also in good voice. The publican, unable to control the scene, kept switching off the lights and he eventually left them off to the resentment of the miners.
As our party left in the darkness, down the steps, we were stopped by a tall dark figure, at the same time as a miner called out, “You treat a man like a bloody dog”.
The tall dark figure was the town policeman. He thought we had made the comment to him, and he advised, “This conduct is not becoming for you air force officers. Now go home -and quietly.”
Next day, in my office with Purton and Hampshire, none of us appreciating the ever-present trochus odour, the publican came in to see the CO. Purton and Hampshire immediately shot through.
The CO called me in and said, “I understand you and some others were creating undue noise in the hotel last night.”
I replied that we were just singing some World War I songs with Mr Clay.
Whereupon Squadron Leader Alexander said, “From my house, I could hear, ‘Oh please don’t burn our shithouse down, Mother has promised to pay,’ and I could hear your voice leading it.”
Our thoughts were of the war in Europe. Strangely we were not conscious of the Japanese threat of invasion.
We knew Commander Eric Feldt in Moresby was using the Empire flying boats to visit government officers and planters at outlying posts and plantations to set up the Coastwatcher organisation, but this was more related to a threat from German raiders.
Purton wrote the following memorable ditty:
We come from over there,
Not over it here, where C’est la guerre,
And although we’ve volunteered to go
We will never see the foe
And when it’s Peace Day
What will we say
Stick your Peace Day
We are the bludgers from Papua
And we never saw the war.
As Adjutant, it was my duty to encrypt and decrypt the secret messages which flowed between 11 Squadron and Defence in Australia. For example, instructions for the flying boats on patrol in areas north and east of New Britain and New Ireland.
The code use was known as the ‘one-time pad’. It involved two books, the larger the size of an exercise book containing pages of five-figure numbers; the smaller, a virtual dictionary of words and phrases, each with a number.
A message via Moresby radio would open with the number of pages in the large book, then a line number, then the number of five-figure groups on that line. From this the next number in the message would be subtracted and the result referred to the small dictionary where it would be given a word or phrase.
This was a laborious process which, after dinner at night, I would return to the office to undertake, occupying some hours. Walking home along Ela Beach sometimes around midnight I would pass a figure in the dark and invariably get “Good night Taubada.” No fear walking in the middle of the night. Moresby was a law abiding place in those days.
As Adjutant of 3 Squadron I had regular flying and in 11 Squadron I missed this. Alex was a sympathetic, and said, “I’ll teach you to fly the Seagull and you can get some flying in that.”
He knew I had a background of sailing so had experience of picking wind direction on the water, coming up to a buoy and so on. So we got into the cockpit of the Seagull, he took the left-hand seat and controls, did a circuit of Port Moresby, then changed me into that seat for a take-off and alighting.
I managed a reasonable take-off, but coming into approach I was Hawker Demon - a steep gliding turn - and the thing went down like a brick to level out as I put it on the water in what I thought was a reasonable manoeuvre.
As we taxied to the buoy, a white-faced Alex said; “Gordon, don't do that again!” Then he got out of the aircraft and sent me off alone for a couple of circuits.
Tomorrow: Gordon Steege continues the story of his air war over Papua – and tells of a surprising post-war career change….