Australia needs to show more Anzac spirit to PNG
The first and the last kiss from Kosia

The Gordon Steege story 2 – Air war in Papua & Libya

AIR COMMODORE GORDON STEEGE DSO DFC
As told to Bill Brown

Gordon SteegeNEW TO THE SEAGULL flying boats, I first took a couple of local flights around the Port Moresby area.

These included the hairy experience of flying Commander Hunt, who headed a small naval surveying detachment, delivering some mail to Yule Island at low level over offshore reefs in a strong south-easterly, when the Seagull appeared to be going as fast sideways as forward.

Then my CO, ‘Alex’ Alexander, asked if I would like to take the Seagull down to Samarai.

I jumped at this, and with a Sergeant Navigator, Wireless Operator and Engineer Fitter we had an enjoyable straight and level flight on a beautiful day, perhaps three hours at 90 knots, along the coast to Samarai.

I moored the Seagull at anchor off the east shore, and, leaving an anchor watch aboard, three of us were taken ashore and accommodated in Mrs Skelly's attractive old Queensland type hotel, one of three on the island.

In those days, Samarai was strikingly beautiful and romantic, rightly deserving the description ‘Pearl of the Pacific’. There were no engine-driven vehicles on the island, and crotons, hibiscus and coleus lined the attractive paths

Dressed in my best tropical uniform, according to the order given to me by Alex, I called on Mr Aumuller, manager of Burns Philp, in his attractive house on the highest point of the island, and then went on to the Resident Magistrate, who was away, so I met the ARM.

Syd Elliott Smith was an impressive head of government on the island, a lively, strong and likable personality. He kindly had me to dinner at his house that night with his wife and a Mrs Champion whose husband was away on the mainland.

I suspect it was Claude Champion, one of the brothers who were so notable in Papua New Guinea. I learned years later that Claude had lost an eye while based on Samarai. It must have been his wife I met that night.

I was reluctant to leave this beautiful island, but next morning we weighed anchor in a strong breeze and short high chop, taking off to the north-west just off shore with many watchers for there had been only one previous visit by a Seagull - from one of our pre-war cruisers.

Somehow that beast of an aircraft ran from the wind and we careered along the line of chop with the port wing float dragging low and dangerously in the water. So I had to backtrack and start again in front of the Samarai audience.

But the morning was not over. An hour en route to Moresby, one of the crew reported strong stomach pains, and the other two were also in difficulty, as I then found I was myself.

With no alternative, I chose to alight on the open sea about a kilometre offshore. When holding off just above the water, I saw flashes of light below the surface. It was a reef which could rip the bottom from the Seagull. Not a desirable outcome on that lonely coast. So I powered on until I was sure I was over blue water.

There were apertures in the Seagull: at the bow, a lidded hatch; more on each side of the glass-enclosed cockpit; aft of the high mounted pusher engine; and also a lidded hatch in the top of the hull to take a machine gun. Immediately four white backsides pointed out over the side to groans of relief.

The take-off into the offshore swell was, as usual, a little hairy. Then half an hour later I saw coming in from the northwest, and right across our track, the nastiest and blackest guba (northwest line of storm) I had seen.

The Seagull’s instruments were limited to turn, bank, climb and descend and I knew I could not fly it, or for that matter any aircraft, through that maelstrom.

The Sergeant Navigator pointed out Abau government station on the map, so I decided to seek shelter there. I asked the Wireless Operator whether he had been able to advise Moresby and he said, “I was trying to do that when you took the trailing aerial off on the trees, pal.”

With thought of coral which might lie unseen just under the muddy waters in Cloudy Bay, we alighted well offshore and taxied to anchor in the river on south-east side of the tiny island of Abau.

A heavy whaleboat with a white man in the stern and two Papuans came out and came against the hull without discernible damage. I explained the situation to Mr Lambden, the Resident Magistrate, and he said if we had landed half an hour later we would have hit submerged rocks.

Leaving the Seagull at anchor, he took us ashore. I noted he was concerned when I told him of our toilet stop – he hoped we had not brought dysentery with us. But he put us up for the night as the guba passed.

In Moresby, I met Alison, the teenage daughter of Mr Lambden, home on school holidays, who later married David Marsh, Patrol Officer and District Commissioner, who became a lifelong friend. At Abau I saw the lonely marble gravestone of a Mr Flint, Resident Magistrate who had died there some years earlier.

On 27 February 1940 Sir Hubert Murray, Lieutenant Governor of Papua, died in Samarai, while touring the South-East in the Government Yacht Laurabada. He had been in Papua since 1908 and was highly respected by Papuans and expatriates.

One of the 11 Squadron Empire flying boats was sent to Samarai to bring the casket to Moresby for the funeral. At the jetty where the casket was to come ashore there was to be a large contingent of the Royal Papuan Constabulary and the Heavy Battery all with fixed bayonets and half a dozen Navy Surveyors.

The airmen I had available for the Air Force guard were mainly ex-Qantas men who had had no rifle drill, so I paraded the RAAF guard with side arms. They turned out well but even so one of them managed to surreptitiously slip on a camera and strap.

The big Empire boat flown by Gurney and Hemsworth came in from the southeast low over Ela Beach and just above the Top Pub to alight close in. 

Flying Officer Gordon Steege and Guard of Honour, 11 Squadron RAAF, Port Moresby, February 1940The flag draped casket was brought to the jetty by the RAAF launch and came ashore directly in front of the RAAF guard then passed the fully armed Navy party and Heavy Battery to what appeared to be a couple of hundred armed Royal Papuan Constabulary and the entire population of expatriate residents of Moresby.

The cortege was followed by thousands of Papuans and set off along the road around the harbour foreshore to Konedobu, Murray's last resting place. It was a beautifully organised and most impressive ceremony.

“But who is like him in Papua?” asked a Hanuabadan at the great masai ariana or death feast which was attended by thousands of Papuans.

In May 1940, Alex informed me that men from business and commerce were being brought in as Administrative Officers to be appointed to posts as adjutants, and pilots such as myself would return to full-time flying appointments.

With my ex-civilian replacement on the way, Alex asked whether I would like to remain with 11 Squadron, and I said; “And fly what?”

He said; “Seagulls.”

“No thanks,” I said.

“I understand 3 Squadron is to go overseas. I would like to return there.” Which I did.

***********

After two and a half years in the Middle East, including command of 450 Fighter Squadron and attending the Middle East Staff School at Haifa, I return to Australia at the end of 1942.

By now Wing Commander, I was appointed to command the newly formed 73 Wing and move its two fighter squadron (Spitfires and P40s), a Beaufighter and a Boston Squadron to a forward base to be developed on Kiriwina in the Trobriands.

This was to be a forward fighter base to refuel US P38 fighters to enable them to escort eventual B24 strikes on Rabaul.

I had learned that soon after the Japanese occupied Rabaul, the Americans sent a single B25 day bomber on a mission to bomb the large base there. Gurney, then commanding a Catalina Squadron in Moresby, volunteered to go in the B25 as the Americans did not know the area and Gurney knew well.

They were attacked by Zeros over Rabaul, were badly hit and were limping home damaged when they were forced to make a crash landing at Kiriwina.

Later, when the strip on Kiriwina was under construction, I took a P40 there from Goodenough and saw nose and main wheel drag furrows leading to Gurney’s B25 which had rolled onto its back. Gurney, in the nose, died there. I think the Americans also did not survive.

And what happened to my other comrades?

Purton, flying an Empire boat with a full load of refugees from Java to Broome, was shot down by Zeros.

Hemsworth was captain of a Catalina which found the Japanese naval force heading for the Coral Sea engagement, and being instructed to shadow and report, was soon shot down by Zeros.

John Anderson, in a Hudson converted to a bomber, did not to return to Darwin from a strike against Japanese shipping in the Celebes.

Beaumont and his Seagull went down with the Australian cruiser in the battle of the Solomons.

So much for the “Bludgers of Papua”.

Of the nine aircrew in the original 11 Squadron only Flight Lieutenant Eric Sims (ex Qantas Captain), Flying Officer John Hampshire (RAAF Navigator) and Flying Officer Gordon Steege (Adjutant) survived the war.

***********

After the war, I became Director of Operations at RAAF HQ in Melbourne and then made what to some might be a surprising career change, arriving in PNG as a Patrol Officer in January 1947.

My first posting was to Esa’ala and I then spent six months at the Australian School of Pacific Administration before being posted to Kairuku in January 1948.

In late 1948 I was transferred to Madang where the District Officer was J K McCarthy and the ADO Tom Aichison.

By early 1949 I was off to Bogia where the ADO was Lloyd Hurrell.  With respect to Lloyd, who I have always held in high regard, I do not and have never had flat feet! If I ever said I had, as he insists, it was a bullshit comment.

In mid-1949, I was promoted to Manus as ADO under DO’s Ken Bridge and then Tom Aitchison.

In August 1950, after a last patrol to the Western Islands, my wife ill, I resigned from the Territory service to return to the RAAF as Wing Commander.

______________________________________

Gordon Steege (Newcastle Herald)

Footnote

On 18 February 1941, after his despatch to north Africa following the initial Papuan stint, Gordon Steege attacked four enemy aircraft in succession over Libya.

Army sources confirmed he had shot down three of them in this single engagement.

Steege later flew Kittyhawks against the Japanese in New Guinea and became an accredited fighter ‘ace’ having shot down eight enemy aircraft.

Upon his return to the RAAF following his kiap days, Steege spent time in the 1960s commanding RAAF bases at Amberley, Butterworth and Edinburgh, retiring with the rank of Air Commodore in 1972. Since then he’s lived in Palm Beach, NSW.

Comments

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Peter Kranz

Rathmines here on Lake Macquarie was a seaplane training base during WW2.

The base, with Wing Commander J E Hewitt in command, became operational when 9 Squadron transferred from Point Cook to Rathmines, with Seagull flying boats.

Catalina flying boats arrived at the Base in February 1941, and by September 1943 the base comprised 14 Catalinas, two Seagulls, a Dornier and a Dolphin.

During training, many personnel brought their families to live in the towns and villages near the Rathmines base which influenced the establishment of other services such a school and post office. Still there!

http://www.catalinaflying.org.au/rathmines.htm

Laurence Quinlivan

There is a feature article in today's Courier Mail about one Les Hall (now 90) who flew Sunderland Flying Boats with Squadron 40 out of Port Moresby during the war.

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