Archive number: 980
Date interviewed: 23 September, 2003
You are listening to the interview audio
So, Felix. Tell us about growing up in Western Australia?
Well I was born in Albany. My father was the local headmaster at Mount Barker. Yes, I was born in Albany and being a headmaster he shifted around from school to school,
so I went to quite a few schools. Toodyay, Busselton for 8 years…which was a long stint for a headmaster in those days. He would shift about every two years. So I was 8 years in Busselton and then he was transferred to Perth to be headmaster at East Perth State School. So I then went to Christian Brothers College.
I’m a Protestant but there were quite a few of us who went there because of convenience, catching buses and being dropped right in front of the college itself. So I went there for 3 years. Of course in those days everybody…I got the Junior and a language. After that everybody had to work virtually. There weren’t a lot of people who were lucky enough to go on to university.
I wasn’t too keen on that. I wanted to get a job and that was the same for most of them.
Felix, it must have been quite a difference going to all these small country towns like Busselton and Albany and moving to Perth?
Yes, I like the country towns and I still like them. But coming to Perth was necessary in those days
In order to get a decent education you had to come to Perth because most of the small country towns didn’t have a high school. You went to school up to about 14 and then it was up to Perth or somewhere where you could get a reasonable education in a good high school or college. My brother went to Guildford Grammar School and I went to Christian Brothers and got a pretty good education there.
Your father would have been pretty determined to educate you well?
Yes, I did my homework I can assure you. I used to sometimes go to school and he’d call up those who haven’t done their homework…he was pretty strict and he was very good with the cane. So I would just sit there and not say anything. And he would say, “Come on my son, you didn’t do your homework.” I thought I got away with it but I didn’t.
So yes. But he was a good father and a good teacher and what happened at school was never ever mentioned at home. That was great.
How did life in the country and life in the city compare to you?
Well by the time I got to the city I was 14 or 15. Most of my childhood was great in the country towns because you lived in quiet streets and
all your doors were left open. You slept out on verandahs if it was hot. You didn’t have to lock anything or worry about anything being vandalised. We used to play in the local recreation ground. I used to be close, or somewhere, a spare paddock which is where the kids played cricket or footy or rounders or whatever. So actually country
life was free and easy. And when we got up here of course it was certainly different. You were catching buses and everything seemed to be regimented as far as I could see. But I enjoyed my college days, it was good. I met a lot of good friends there. It was great.
Where were you living when you were in Perth?
I was living in Queens Park…I’ll have a little drink.
No actually, we were living at Rivervale at that time and he was teaching at the East Perth State School. So it wasn’t too bad. I would catch the bus and it would just drop me outside the school. And the same when we came home. And after the school days,
once I finished with my college education it was then of course look for a job. So I secured a job in those days in the motor industry, Sydney Atkinson Motors at the bottom of William Street which was called Temple Court in those days. I was with them right up until war broke out.
With growing up in the bush during the Depression, did you feel any of that pressure?
Not a lot. I was a bit lucky that my Dad was a headmaster and worked for the government. So you didn’t feel the pressure as much as some of the other people did, who were just working locally. It was pretty tough. Yes, things were restricted but it was the old story, everybody helped everybody and
this was especially so in the country. Those people who were having a tough time were helped by people in the town and everybody seemed to manage ok. It was tough for some people and they just shifted on or went somewhere else.
How did people in the country help each other differently than in the city?
knew everybody. When you walked down the street it was, “G’day Jack” or “G’day Joe”. Everybody knew everybody, and the women especially. They had the Country Women’s Association and all sorts of things. They were always helping somebody. They might be making clothes for kids or making stuff to sell to help people. So everybody seemed to pitch in without any question.
You didn’t have to search for volunteers, they came from everywhere when things were a bit tough. That seems to still be the case in a lot of little country towns.
So would you say it was a bit more brutal in the city?
Yes I think so. Everybody was so busy. All working. And they’re working a bit longer…insomuch in the country you worked in the town you were in,
and just walked home or got on your bike and went home. Whereas in the city you had to catch buses or drive in order to get home, so the day was always much longer, so therefore you didn’t have time when you got home to meet everybody in the area. I found that…you’d know the neighbour each side of you and the one across the road.
So it was the rule of four. So that seemed to be the thing that struck me most, I just didn’t know everybody. When you walked down the street you would think, I wonder who lives there. And unless you went out of your way to try and meet people you didn’t meet them. Plus the fact there weren’t things happening in the suburbs where you could meet everybody, unless you joined some sort of organisation.
That was the best way to find out who the people were. You would run into somebody and say, “Where do you work?” And they might say, “I live 3 doors up from you”. But I had never seen them before. So that was where the country…I go down to Nannup, my daughter lives down there. I find all the people down there when I go down there….it’s a totally different
way of life. Everybody knows everybody and everybody helps everybody. That’s just the difference. I think people in the city don’t really get to know everybody. I know even in the street where I am now, in my age group of course, during the day they’re all at work, and there’s nobody in the street hardly, so you don’t see them. They leave early in the morning and they come home at dark.
Like the chap over the road said he was going away for 3 or 4 weeks and so I said, “Is there anybody I can contact?” because I’m here and I can keep an eye on his house. So that’s the way it seems to be, the difference between the country and the city. Whatever happens I don’t think that will ever change. It’s only because everybody gets to know everybody.
You have a circle of friends that you know are going to be there no matter what happens.
When you came to the city what sort of groups did you join?
I used to do…when I was about 17, I used to do quite a bit of singing,
so I joined a local society that used to do a few plays and mess around. We were all young and we did this. It was a church, a congregation of people who were running it. There were some pretty keen operators and they virtually got us going on that. Then later on I went and learned singing with David Lyle
and of course once I joined up in the forces, that just about blew my voice to pieces. It didn’t do it much good.
Did you come from a musical family?
My Dad played the piano and as the headmaster of the school he played the piano quite a lot.
I started to learn the piano but the temptation was too great. There was a recreation ground and I used to look out the window. Here am I practicing the piano and the kids are playing cricket or footy. So I didn’t practice as much as I should have. But I just learned enough to knock out a bit of a tune. I didn’t worry any
more about music until I came back after the war. I made 2 or 3 guitars because no one was going to buy me one so I thought I would build one myself. So I made 2 or 3 of those. I gave one to my grandkid and I’ve still got the original one. But that’s as far as my musical life goes. I’ve sung a bit down at the Yacht Club and I’ve sung a bit at weddings, but that’s as far as my musical talents went.
What sort of subjects did you enjoy when you were at school?
I liked French. I liked history and I liked geography. I wasn’t too keen on maths but later on it didn’t worry me much because when I went to work I realised you had to be reasonable at that otherwise you were in trouble. Most subjects I liked.
I didn’t like trigonometry much. I wasn’t bad but I couldn’t see the value in it. I liked chemistry and physics, that was good.
How aware were you about the political situation as far as the build up of war was concerned?
I followed what you could read in the papers and
I was very interested in it because a lot of my friends were all talking about it and we started talking about it…that we should join up and do our bit. If we stop here all our mates will be gone and we’ll be on our own. So it became a sort of thing. Fifteen of us one lunch hour went and joined up. And that’s how
I joined up.
Before we go into that part of you joining up, tell me a bit about the big car firm that you worked in?
Sydney Atkinson Motors. They were formed in Pier Street in 1928. Sydney Atkinson himself was the big chief. We always called him the chief. He was a terrific guy.
The company grew and they shifted from there and they went down to Temple Court Buildings which was next to the Embassy Ballroom. All that corner was the one company, Sydney Atkinson, and they sold Chevs [Chevrolets], Pontiacs, Buicks and all the big cars, the imported American cars. Until later on they had the Holden agency. It was a pretty big company
and then they opened up a big service section in Adelaide Terrace where the Hyatt Hotel is now. That was the Sydney Atkinson Motors area there. When I joined up I went into the spare parts department and I was always interested in cars and I would always drive Dad’s car when I was about 14.
So I was always interested in motors and cars and I was always aiming to get onto the selling side of it. I could see that was where the money was in those days. So I worked in the spare parts department for about 10 years and then I was made sales manager for that department. And then later on they took on Fridgedair,
refrigeration and they wanted someone to manage that, so I did a refrigeration course with General Motors in the eastern states and I managed that for a few years. Then they said they wanted me back into sales, car sales. And so I said, “Fine, that will do me”. So I went into car sales then. I was with Sydney Atkinson Motors for 18 years,
then I managed an electrical firm in Hay Street called Swanseas. They had Fridgedair products and that’s why they wanted me. So I went up there and I managed their company there and the one down in Fremantle. After that Sydney Atkinson Motors got onto me and said, “How about coming back?” So they made me a pretty good offer
so I went back selling again. Then things got…they were the biggest motor company in the state. We had 55 country dealerships which we used to supply. General Motors didn’t supply the cars. We bought the cars from General Motors and sold them on to all the dealers. So we had all their spare parts business and
we sold them cars as well. We were selling 400 Holdens a month in those early days. You could have any colour you liked so long as it was black. And so it grew from that. It became a very big company and then competition came in and eventually Sydney Atkinsons became top heavy executive wise and
some of us could see the writing on the wall, and we heard that City Motors were interested in buying out the company so I started to look around and then I got a job as Truck Manager for Attwood Motors. So we set up Major Motors and Major Motors is still going now and I was Sales Manager there for 3 or 4 years. Then I
went into…I had had enough. I had been working for General Motors for about 35 years and I had had enough of them standing over me and telling me to up my percentage. They would say I had to get a certain percentage of the market. Anyway, I said, “I’ve had enough of this”. I had an executive above me who I couldn’t agree with very much. He was
a four hour lunch hour man and he would come back and sack one of my best salesmen a couple of times, so I said, “I’ve had enough of this”. Then I went into real estate for something to do for 3 or 4 years. While I was in that I saw a newsagency going so I bought the newsagency and put my wife in it and stayed in real estate for another 6 months then I jumped in there. And that was the best little business I’ve ever had.
I worked at that for 7 years and then I retired. So I’ve been retired for 21 years.
You certainly crammed in a lot of things in that time?
Yes. I was always on the go. I loved selling. I liked the selling side. I used to always frown on people who were never honest in their selling.
I used to see salesmen come and go and they used to make a big dash for a while, but they wouldn’t get repeat business. They weren’t honest in their dealings. A guy who was honest in his dealings you would find he had repetitive sales, brothers, cousins, uncles. They would all come and give you business. It was a matter of just doing the right thing because there were quite a few shifty guys around.
Whether it be insurance or real estate it used to poke out a mile. In the short time I was in that I didn’t like it much. I had an office in Fremantle and I didn’t like what I saw in the business itself. When people were spending probably the most money they will ever spend and being misrepresented and
just for the sake of getting a sale, wasn’t my kettle of fish.
Would you say both industries have changed with the lack of humanity?
Yes. There were no laws in real estate in those days. You could advertise…people would put advertisements in the paper…Norwegian captain retiring in Perth, wishes to buy a home in such and such a suburb
and cash deal, immediate takeover and all the rest of it. It was all fictitious. All they were searching for was for someone to ring up and say oh yes I’ve got a place like that. Then it would be oh yes, where is it. I’ll come out and do an appraisal and it was only to get a listing. They used to tell all these big furphies
to get listings. And I’m afraid…you’re not allowed to do it now, but in those days you could get away with anything. And unfortunately a lot of people missed out on money. So I didn’t like it and that’s why I got out and got into the newsagency. That was great. I loved that.
I used to treat people the same as when I was selling cars. I wouldn’t stay behind the counter. I’d go up and talk to all the old dears and virtually make friends with everybody. I found that business just doubled every year. It went well and I think it was that personal touch. The wife used to look after
the cards and make sure they were all decent cards and not just let the salesman come in and put any sort of cards in the racks. She would pick them all. So it worked out very good. We had everything you could think of in that shop. With a newsagency you’re not limited to any regulations on what you can sell. So
I had everything you could think of. Toys and office equipment and books and wools and cottons. You name it. Printing stuff and stamps and things. I would go to the schools and find out what books they wanted and get their school list and they would send all the parents along to me.
I would have the books there and they would bring their orders in and I would have them all ready for them. They wouldn’t have to be chasing all over the place. It used to be a bit difficult to get school requirements. Certain shops would have certain things. I used to make sure…once I got the list I would get all the things in and that turned out to be a good little business.
That was very enterprising of you but it also sounds like you had a really great time?
Yes I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it every day. I’d say that every day I worked I enjoyed going
to work. But I feel sorry for people who have got to work and don’t enjoy it. It would be awful to hate going to work. I can’t understand…unless you’re really desperate for a job, why they would continue to do that because you can’t do a good job unless you really like what you’re doing.
Just going back to Sydney Atkinson, how did you get the job there in the first place?
A job was advertised in the paper in the spare parts department. I got 2 or 3 references. My Dad came with me and we went and spoke to the accountant. Anyway he gave me the job on the spot. I never had any trouble getting a job.
The funny thing was, when I had to report to work I was on holidays down at Busselton and I had just met a nice little chick too at that stage. So anyway that was the end of that. Back up to Perth and back into work. So I enjoyed that. Then again I was meeting people at the front counter all the time.
I was always interested in meeting people.
You had a romantic disaster but you ended up with a career?
Yes that’s right. I often wondered what happened to her.
So you were talking about a group of chaps and yourself all decided to join up together.
Yes. One lunch hour I said,
“Are any of you guys going to join up?” So we thought we had better because everybody else was starting to join up. So I said, “Right ho, what say we go up now.” So 15 of us got up out of the dining room…there was a big dining room down the back. So 15 of us all went up and we joined up. We didn’t know what the heck…I had tried to join up just before that. I tried to get in air crew and there
were 3000 people queued up in Pier Street, and it was very early, as soon as the war broke out. And of course everybody wanted to get into air crew. But naturally they had the pick of the lot there and they only took those who had the matriculation or the leaving certificate or a language.
The picked the eyes out of the lot. So we said we’re not going to get anywhere with this. So we’ll have to go for ground crew. So I went up with all these guys and we lined up. I wanted to join up as a fitter, being interested in cars. But by the time my turn came up they said they didn’t want any more fitters. “What about armourers?” I thought “What the heck’s an armourer?”
They said we would be working on guns and you’ll be one of the crew for the pilots and you’ll be taught air gunnery and if you go to a bomber squadron then there will be a good chance you can do air gunnery. I thought, “Well, that sounds alright”. So there was a group of us…3 of us who all went in as armourers and
they gave us a date to come back to do a trade test. You had to cut out a dovetail in steel and they had to fit perfectly and they’d look at it and they’d pass you on the work you did. I was pretty handy with tools and my Dad as a headmaster taught me manual training. He was the manual training teacher as well. So I didn’t have much trouble.
But the air force made a big mistake. Once they finished, they’d chuck all these things back under the table and there was a big stack of these. I’d often see a guy, his fit wasn’t too good so he’d go through the stack until he got a good fit and he’d get a pass. Then we just waited for a while, it wasn’t very long and we were called up.
I was called up on 28th October 1940. We went straight out to Pearce and that’s where we did our rookies course out there.
Did you actually manage in this particular draft go in with a couple of your mates?
Yes. As a matter of fact later on, Bill Gordon
who was with me, he went overseas to the Middle East. Then about 3 months I got posted overseas and blow me down if we didn’t finish up in the same squadron up in Lebanon. It was 3 Squadron and we were operating from a place called Riyaq in Lebanon. So we did our rookies and then you did 3 weeks
drill with rifles on the square, rifle drill and all this sort of thing. The old drill instructors were pretty tough on us in those days. Anyway we did 3 weeks there and then we were posted or sent to Laverton.
Before we get to Laverton, with the 3 weeks that you’re doing at Pearce, what were the conditions like to live there?
Excellent. The conditions were good. We lived in huts, around about 25 in the huts. The conditions were good.
I’m working out when I came back later on and then we went up into a room. But once you were trained and everything else, then you had rooms and sheets and it was good. But for the rookies we had about 25 to a hut.
You had to…they were meticulous about keeping the hut clean and tidy. We had to fold the blankets a certain way otherwise you were in trouble, and the mattresses had to be folded up. Then we’d go out onto the drill course and we’d drill all day. Of course periodically you’d have to go and get all sorts of different needles. You’d get inoculations of all sorts. Some
real big guys would just keel over. But in the main it wasn’t a problem and you did your rookies course there. Then you’d go on…then I should have gone on to the armament course and that was at a place called Point Cook over east, which was the biggest air force station in Australia. It was a huge training station as well as an operational station.
Anyway they sent us to Laverton first and said we would have to wait there for 3 weeks. So what did they do? They said you can have another rookies course so they put us through another one. A drill instructor only did 6 weeks. We did 6 weeks. So we were pretty good and we got booked for a couple of ceremonial parades for funerals and this sort of thing.
So this was all because you had done so much that you were completely perfect?
What sort of funerals were you doing?
An air force chap got hit by a train at Werribee and …(I’d be alright if it wasn’t for this cough). Anyway,
we carried on at Laverton. We did our rookies course and we did this ceremonial thing at the graveside.
What sort of things did you have to do as part of the service?
Line up each side of the grave. There was generally about 6 per side. And you just fired your rifle, 21.
It was good for the people, the parents of the lad. I don’t know what his rank was so he could have been an officer, I’m not sure. To have a gun salute like that I would think he would have been. Anyway so that was quite an experience and
then right after that we were sent over to…they said you’re ready to do your armament course, so I went over to Point Cook and did Number 8 Armament Course.
Before we get into the armament course, how did the facilities between Pearce and Laverton compare?
Oh, Laverton was a huge station. It was really a training station for fitters and riggers and they had everything there. It wasn’t a flying station at all. It was
all training, machine shops and work benches and there was room. They were doing rookies courses there for some of the local Victorians. And that’s the reason we went there and as soon as the Armament Course Number 7 had finished then there was room for us to commence number 8 armament course.
Are you still at this point with your mate Bill?
Yep. He was still there. And another chap who was with us was Reg Allen. He came from a station up…way up near Mount Samuel or somewhere. He was a station lad. His Dad had the station up there. We had
guys from all walks of life. You wouldn’t read about it. There wouldn’t be two who did the same job hardly. Anyway…
How did you get across to Laverton from WA [Western Australia]?
By train. It was just one of the normal train carriages. Some of the army weren’t so lucky. Some of them went over in what they called cattle trucks. And they used to just go over in these cattle trucks.
I had never seen it like that before. But there were so many of them to shift and they had to get them over at a certain time. So they went in open trucks and a lot of us went in carriages. They didn’t like that much. The blue manikins they used to call us. Blue orchids. That was just a bit of friendly rivalry. It was always there
between the army, navy and air force.
Did you feel like you were a little bit privileged being part of the RAAF [Royal Australian Air Force]?
Yes I think so because with the RAAF you were always on a set station. You always had pretty good meals…although some stations were a lot better than others. And so everything
was static. You weren’t moving around or anything. While you were at a station you had everything there whereas with the army you were always ruled by route marches and all these different things they had to do in their training. It was a different way of life. So I think, very similar to the navy. They were always on a ship and they had their own messing setups and they were a group altogether. They were separate. Where
in the army you were a huge number of guys together and you had all sorts of duties and jobs. Yes, I thought it was pretty tough for the army as against the air force. My brother was in the army up at Kokoda. Yes I thought their life
was a little bit tougher than ours for sure.
How did you feel about your Blue Orchid uniform?
Oh good. The uniforms used to look good and they felt good when they were on. We used to…when you first got the blue uniform they were a bit furry so we would get our razors and …so as to make them nice and smooth. The officers
had lovely blue serge. Naturally the officers always had the best. So we used to titivate ours up a bit and some of the boys even got a tailor to work on them a bit. Just to make it look a bit better.
That seems to go on with all services?
With Laverton did you get much leave?
Yes we used to get weekend leave now and again. We’d go into Melbourne and we’d stay at Tomahawk House and all the air force used to go there. You would have to watch some of your gear. Now and again you’d get some of your gear pinched if you weren’t pretty careful. I’ve heard of shoes going off and I’ve heard of guys lifting up the bed and putting a bed leg in each shoe so if
somebody wanted to pinch their shoes they would have to lift the bed first. But in the main you would only stay there the first night and they had a big board and on that were lists of all the people wanting servicemen to stay at their house over the weekend. So we used to go in for those ways because you could go to parties and they would really look after you.
These people in Melbourne were excellent in that area. They were inviting people out to their homes and they’d take you out and do all sorts of things for you. Of course there was plenty of entertainment going on. The dances out at St Kilda…all the boys would know about that. And there was entertainment for the troops. Everybody was
putting the troops first, and you were never short of varied types of entertainment while you were on leave. You’d always come back from leave awful tired and a bit sick sometimes. The leave that I had in Melbourne was very enjoyable.
Interviewee: Felix Sainsbury Archive ID 0980 Tape 02
So we’ll just go back. How many weeks were you in Laverton?
About 3 weeks and we had finished the other rookies course there. We were getting pretty anxious and we wanted to get out of this drilling bit and get over to start our armament course at Point Cook.
So there was a great deal more square bashing going on at Laverton?
It was on all the time. Because we were made more or less the senior group, we had to show some of the other guys…they used to make us drill and then the other rookies would have to watch. Gee whiz you were in big trouble if you made a bit of a blue [mistake].
It’s funny with marching. We had some guys…one particular guy could never march. He was always getting out of step and he had big difficulty in just marching. So when it came to the final day, the pass out day for the final judgement on it, we sent him up to the medical section sick.
We said, “We’ll do without him. He’s going to make it tough on us.” So he went sick for the day. Then he went crook because they kept him in for a couple of days. Yes, so we got around that one that way.
Any other tricks like that that you had to make your life easier? It sounds like a pretty bonding sort of relationship?
Yes it was, because we had all been together
from when we did our rookies up in Pearce. We had travelled together and we had virtually lived together all the time. And you’re in one big hut so you get to know every guy. And of course in those days a lot of the guys smoked. It used to amuse me at night.
During the night you’d hear a bit of a rustle up the hut and there would be some guy scratching on his match box. He’s lighting up a fag in the middle of the night and we used to have a go at some of the guys because there were some pretty heavy smokers then. The first thing as soon as they got up, they’d start coughing and carrying on.
And the next thing they’d have to have a cigarette. Some of them used to smoke really heavy and they paid for it later on in life a lot of them. But I could never do the draw back properly and I was just a put on smoker. I’d draw and just blow the smoke out. But I was glad of that because it was very easy for me to give it away.
The cigarettes were pretty terrible but I can tell you all about that later.
I will be asking you about that. How was the homesickness for you? I’m thinking that you were surrounded by some pretty good mates, you might not have felt it so much?
No because I had a couple of my work mates there as well. No I was enjoying my life. I liked the life.
Just before I got discharged from the air force I seriously thought about staying in, and sometimes I wondered why I didn’t. But anyone wanted to get back to their civvy [civilian] life and wanted to go back to their jobs because a good opportunity might disappear if they stayed in the air force. So that was that. So there
was…the life was good and you naturally picked on a group of 4 or 5 guys who were real mates. The others were good mates but you generally lined up with 3 or 4 chaps who were good guys and they would stick with you no matter what happened. It was good. I enjoyed that.
So now you’re travelling up to Point Cook. How did you get there?
We went by by…they took us over in air force trucks. It wasn’t far from Laverton to Point Cooke. So they took us over there and we were amazed when we saw this huge station and these old aircraft. They’re old in terms of these days. Old Bristol Fighters and Wapitis.
Fairey Battles which they used for gunnery training and that sort of thing. It was this huge station with all these huts and when we went into the mess the first time, it was absolutely huge. I don’t know how many hundreds of guys were able to eat at once. There were all the cooks…it was amazing. I’ve never seen
anywhere before or since as big as that. Feeding all these guys and they were all on different types of training. There were armourers and signals and they seemed to be training all sorts of people there. We were only interested in getting started on the armament course. But it was a huge station. It was the biggest station in Australia at that stage.
So we were looking forward to seeing what the armament course was all about because we had no idea what it involved.
So tell me about that.
The course was very interesting because it concerned…an armourer was concerned with having to service every type of hand gun that they used in those days.
The revolvers, automatic machine guns, aircraft machine guns as well as stationery machine guns. Then you had to know all about bombs and detonators and setting up bombs to be ready to put onto aircraft. You had to know a bit about the bomb aiming. What they used to call camera obscura. When the trainees went across
they’d have a sighting apparatus at each side and they used to sight on the practice bomb when it dropped and then we’d put it on a huge chart where all the bombs dropped. We had to learn all about that but we didn’t do that there. Then pyrotechnics. We had to know all about distress signals, marine signals, pistol flares.
Parachute flares. The parachute flares were very interesting because the Germans dropped a lot of them on us. And magnesium flares on a parachute. They would drop them out of an aircraft and as they would come down slowly, the
magnesium burns with such a bright white light, and you can see the molten magnesium dropping from the bottom of it. They’re a thing about this round and this high [2 feet by 5 feet], and the magnesium drops out of it and the problem with it is, if it gets on you it burns you, or if it lobs on your tents it burns your tents down.
So we used to hate these flares because the Germans used to drop them in a line and they’d all come down. The front one would come down and then the next and the next. And they would drop them in that sequence. It would be a pitch black night and as they came down you could read a paper it would be so bright.
So just going back to your Point Cook training,
can you tell us more about some of the flares that you had to know about because obviously you have to use them in armament?
The flares…there was one called Signals Marine Distress Flare. It was about that long and it was big at the top. You had like a scratch lighter. You would pull the top off and it and you held it like that and these flares would go out. The red ones
there were a lot in this long thing and you’d put it and they’d go up a couple of hundred feet. They were for people who used them down the ocean. When they went down and they were in their rafts or if the aircraft was in the water, they’d just shoot this up and
it would shoot these red balls way up into the air. And there was a lot of them and later on we had to destroy some that were out of date. We’d line up a couple of guys down one end and a couple down this end and fire them at one another to get rid of them. Of course that was against the rules. And
there were the Very Cartridges of course. They were in a gun. It looked like an ordinary hand gun but it had about an inch and a half barrel. They used to just slide the shell into it like a shot gun shell and click it. The pilots used to carry one of these in their cockpit all the time. And that was for signalling or it could be used as a distress signal. And they’d just fire it in the air like that. That used to go…they had green flares or a red flare they could use.
What was the significance of the different colours?
Well the green flare would be, “OK, everything’s right”, and the red flare would be a distress signal. Or if they wanted another plane that was flying in and they needed to notify him that something was wrong they would fire up the red signal.
Then we got to bomb demolition. We had to learn all about blowing up bombs and doing demolition because in those days the armament course included bomb demolition. We might have to blow up a bomb that was in a building or anywhere. So
we had to understand how all the different types of bombs worked and all the different types of detonators they had. Some of the German bombs had electric detonators which were a bit of a problem.
Why were the electric ones a bit of a problem?
You had to cut the right wire otherwise you were in trouble. Anyway,
so we had to understand how bombs worked with exploders and detonators because later on when we bombed up our aircraft we had to put in the detonators and screw in the nose pistol and set it for time delay and all this sort of thing. So we had to know all about the nose pistols as well. So it was a pretty good course inasmuch
as it covered so much.
What is a nose pistol?
The nose pistol…first of all you put in the detonator and you had to be very careful about that because they were filled with fulminate of mercury. If you held them too long the warmth of you hand could blow your hand off, so you had
to slide those into the bomb and then you had…the nose pistol was a thing about this long and it had a vein on the front and you would screw the nose pistol in and then the safety wire used to come through and go through the little propeller. So once the bomb was dropped the safety wire went out, then the propeller would screw off and then the bomb was away.
So that was what that was used for and you could arrange delays for the bomb to lob and then go off after 10 or 20 or 30 seconds. So it was an interesting course and later on we fitted screamers to some of the bombs so they made a hell of a noise when they went down. We found that out from the Germans.
Why would you want
to put a screamer on a bomb?
For terrifying effect. If you fit a screamer on a bomb, we would put them on the tail of the bomb, once the bomb was dropped…and they were…remember the old type whistles, it just had a gap in them, like the old scouts whistle. The same theory. But it’s falling down with the bomb, plus the bomb screams itself and then these whistles make
a hell of a noise and they’re really terrifying. If you’re thinking of lying on your bed in the tent, you’ll jump up straight away and get in the trench. They’re terrifying. The Germans used them quite a lot. We didn’t use them much because we were in a fighter squadron. But I fitted some to one of my pilot’s bombs.
I found these German screamers and I said, “How would you like me to fit on some screamers?” And he said, “That will be good!” Not thinking, while he’s going along, it’s screaming. We fitted it on and because the bomb’s not up in the bomb bar and locked in,
it’s hanging underneath the fuselage and as he went along he couldn’t understand what this screaming noise was. And he said don’t fit any more of those! So that finished that. Yes the course covered so many things. Deflection shooting.
That was in air gunnery working how far you fire in front of an aircraft going at a certain speed so that you hit it.
How can they teach you that?
It was worked off charts and on the size of the ring that they fired through. Gee, I can’t remember now just how we worked it out. But you had the aircraft coming at a certain speed and when you got him on the end of the ring then you’d start firing.
And you knew the velocity of the bullet plus the aircraft would meet at a certain point. But there was a lot of guesswork in it. Talking to the pilots they would say that the job was to get as close as you can and make sure you hit them. So there was a
bit of guesswork in the ring until they brought out a better type of sight which was fitted inside the cockpit. It was much more sophisticated and they were quite good.
I’m still thinking about screamers.
They’re just made of metal. They’re just like a wooden…a pointed piece of wood (this was the German one. We never actually made them).
And then it was just a tin tube with a piece cut out of the tin tube and then it went back and you had a flap on it. In other words, you put it next to the tail of the bomb…the bomb tail comes out like that, and you laid it next to that and then you bent the flap around there and then bent another flat around the front and it hung onto the side of the bomb.
So as it went through the air it blew just like a whistle. The air would flow over the gap. And did they scream. If you go a stick of bombs all coming down with one of those on, by gee they used to scream and it would frighten hell out of you.
Where were you getting them from if you were getting them from the Germans?
We’d pick them up as we were going along in the desert. We’d often come across a German ammunition dump and where the Germans had been before us, because a lot of us used the same
advanced landing grounds as we moved up in the desert all the time. We’d move up and there would be a retreat and you’d just sort of gather everything up or you’d leave it. And the Germans left a hell of a lot of stuff when they were retreating and we used to use what we could of it. The New Zealanders threw away their ack ack guns [anti-aircraft guns] and used the German 88-millimetre gun because they reckoned they were a far better gun.
They used to pick up all the ammunition in the desert at different dumps and they were using the German guns against the Germans because they were a better gun. They went higher before they burst and all this. They reckoned they were good.
Just going back to Point Cook. It sounds extremely dangerous what you were doing, were there any accidents?
Not on the course because
they were very, very strict on safety. You had to be able to handle the guns…they used to blindfold you and you had to be able to put certain parts of the gun together behind your back. You had to be able to do it in the dark if necessary. I can understand that the occasion could arise where you were in the dark. All
our bombing after dark, when we bombed up our aircraft, we used to just draw on a cigarette butt to put in the detonator in the bomb and then screw the nose pistol on. You weren’t allowed to have a light of any type or anything that reflected when you’re in action because the German aircraft…as soon as they could see something that glittered at night, they’d
immediately be on to you and although it might be only an observation aircraft, the next night another few aircraft would come over and start dropping bombs on you. They would just plot you. So you had to be careful. All the trucks, we used to smear the windscreens with oil and chuck the desert sand on them and then just scrape a little T like that on it so we could
see through either way. And that’s the only thing, because the moonlight reflecting on windscreen glass would attract the enemy, of course. They would see them all glittering in the moonlight and they’d say, “Hello, there’s trucks down there” and they’d want to bomb and strafe you.
With Point Cook, is your mate Bill doing the armoury course?
Yes he did the armoury course…now how did he get in front of me? He might have gone straight from…he might have gone straight to Point Cook because his number was 29161 and mine was 29162. Somehow or other he got to Point Cook
before me. No he didn’t. He did the course with me, that’s right. He did the course with me. I was posted to Cunderdin. I can’t remember where he was posted to. He didn’t go back to WA I don’t think. I think he was posted to somewhere around Melbourne. But somehow or other he got posted to 3 Squadron about 2 or 3 months before me.
I didn’t meet him again until I got posted to the squadron up in Lebanon.
With Point Cook, how many of you are in the armoury course?
There would have been about, from memory, around about 20.
So it was a fairly small group?
Yes. That’s right.
Of course, don’t forget, the air force in those days was just in their infancy really because the Empire Air Training Scheme hadn’t started. 3 Squadron was the only squadron overseas in the Middle East and 10 Squadron went to flying Sunderlands in England. So
they were the only Australian representatives. As I say they didn’t require the numbers in the air force just at that point in time.
So you’re saying the courses were much bigger when the EATS [Empire Air Training Scheme] came in?
Oh yes. Once the Empire Air Training Scheme came in and all these squadrons were being set up in England and Canada and all over the world, of course they required a hell
of a lot of men then to support all the aircraft. Because for every aircraft you fly, you’ve got to have at least 8 or 10 people to keep it serviced. So I don’t think people realise the importance of ground crews to these airmen.
If you’ve got a good ground crew then you’ve got a good aircraft under you. Your very existence in the air is dependent on just how good your ground crew really are. We used to…with the fighter aircraft, there was always the fitter who looked after the engine. The rigger looked after the fuselage. The armourer looked after all his armament.
His machine guns and we bombed up his aircraft with bombs and checked his bomb sights. There’s no point in him being up there if his armament isn’t going to work properly. You’re putting the pilot’s life in danger straight away. Especially in the early days when we were there
it was 20 to 1 against us. So every time 6 or 5 of our guys would go out, they’d be up against another gaggle of 20 or 30 enemy aircraft. They were fighting against the odds. So his aircraft had to be good and his guns had to keep firing. So we took
a lot of pride in what we did and in the pilot coming back and saying that everything was great. I still get a bit emotional about that. We lost quite a lot of pilots especially in the early days. We would have done anything for them.
So the pilot really appreciated and they were unstinting in their praise of a good ground crew because they knew their lives virtually depended on them. So if the motor didn’t go well or if the flight section on it didn’t work well on the fuselage, and there was no point in him even being up there if his armament wasn’t good.
That’s a sad story if they’re up there and they’re just trying to keep out of the way because their guns won’t work. So we were lucky in being an all Australian squadron, and being the type of squadron we were there was absolutely no bulldust wrapped up in the squadron anywhere.
We didn’t salute anybody. We were just a bunch of guys all helping one another. So there was none of that officer men bit at all. We virtually lived together and fought together. The pilots were great and they really respected what we did. Yes, our squadron was most unusual.
We never had any parades. We just all pulled as a team and we were known throughout the desert for some of the things we did and the teamwork that was involved. So there were some good times and there were some bad times amongst it all. In the early days up there
the Germans were really good at what they did, and Rommel [German General] was an excellent general. I would put him down as possibly the best there was on both sides. He was an excellent guy. He was a permanent soldier. He wasn’t a Nazi. He treated his prisoners well. There was never any ill treatment….
The Italians now and again did but not very much. But Rommel, I always thought that our generals learnt from Rommel. He would operate his tanks…he was always up at the front line himself and not sitting back in Cairo or somewhere else, like some of our guys did.
So he was a good operator and a professional soldier and I think our generals learnt a lot from him. During an advance, he would always make use of the natural elements around him. If a huge sand storm came through…and believe you me they could come through at up to 2000 feet high and it was just dust.
It comes over and it completely blacks out the sun. When I say completely, you have to get in your tent, lash your tent up to keep the sand out and light the hurricane lamp. You’d just sit there and it would be as hot as…it would be just like an oven. The dust just filters through everything. Into your bed rolls, but Rommel used to make use of this sort of thing. He’d follow in behind with his tanks. He’d follow in behind
the dust storm. Nobody could see him and he’d make use of the dust and he’d make use of everything. When it did rain in the desert, really it was just a quagmire, and he’d make use of that. He would do an advance or something. You had to advance to another water hole because water was a very, very scarce commodity
and had to be carried 100s of miles at a time, so when an army advanced they had to virtually make sure they made the next waterhole. When you’re talking of hundreds of thousands of troops you’re talking of a lot of water to drink, you’re thinking of a lot of water to drink, and there’s water for all the vehicles. There was a little bit to wash with but washing wasn’t on the agenda at all. We would
perhaps take a cup full of …if there were say 3 of us in the tent, we’d get a water bottle every second day. That would be about a litre and a half today. And then it used to be a pint or a pint and a half. They were only about this big. Now that was our water for two days and it was for drinking, a cup of tea if you were lucky enough and if you wanted a bath we would all take a cup full each out of our water bottle
put it in an ammunition tin and we’d put that in there and then we’d toss to see who was first in. Gee whiz I lost that toss a few times and have to get into the muddy water. But that was it. That was the only
way you could ever have a wash because water was more valuable than petrol. When we used to get a sand storm and the dust used to get into the aircraft. You couldn’t use any of the controls. They used to seize up completely with the dust, so we used to drive up with a fuel tanker and there would be 99 to 100 gallons of 100 octane aircraft fuel and we’d just pour it all over the aircraft just to wash the sand out to make the aircraft serviceable again.
How much training at Point Cook did you get in relation to the kind of conditions you were going to get?
None at all. The conditions, nobody even expected the conditions we had. Even the clothing we had, the footwear, nothing was suitable really for those conditions. The dust caused absolute
havoc. The aircraft engines only did under half the hours they should do because of the dust in the motors. It played havoc with all the trucks. It would cut out the engines and the same with the tanks. Later on they found out that a tank advance could only do about 1400 miles and by that time the tank was absolutely worn out.
The motor was stuffed and that was it. Rommel used to…another thing with Rommel. He used to retreat…he’d retreat 1400 miles and then he’d turn and attack. He’d know the tanks were just about useless at that stage. Their motors were just about worn out. He was a very, very cunning and astute general.
So he just made use of everything around him.
You mentioned you had a brother at Kokoda?
Yes, my brother was in the AIF [Australian Imperial Force]. He was in the signals section laying signals. He was on the Kokoda Track and he went through there. I knew he was in the AIF but I never knew where he was. There was no way we
could contact one another because you have to realise that mail in those days…we would get letters from home and I might get a bundle that thick or tied up. I’d have to sort out all the dates to get it to make any sense. We’d wait six months before we had any mail. Out in the desert sometimes we’d come up to a desert post office which
was a tent sort of place and if there was a retreat on or something then all our mail would be lost. So our mail was very, very sketchy.
Would everybody get their mail all at once?
Yes generally. There would be a bundle for 3 Squadron say. Somewhere they must have been holding it until they were able to get it up to us because we were way out in the middle of the Western Desert.
Transport and that was always a big priority and it couldn’t be used just for delivering mail. Now and again it might be dropped by a plane coming through but we never knew how we were going to get our mail half the time. It always came through RAAF Headquarters in Cairo and they had to try and get it right up through the desert. We were
a hard crowd to catch because we would only operate for 3 days on one landing drome. We had what we called an advance…I was in charge of the advanced armourers. We used to move in straight up behind the army. The aircraft could land, we could service them and then they’d only have a short distance to fly to the front line. So they could do a lot of sorties in one day without flying miles and being at risk
of being jumped and all the rest of it. So our flights use to leapfrog like that. We were behind the army and if the army moved fast then we would move fast. Sometimes we’d be 2 or 3 days in one place and then we’d have to pack up all the guys and their gear and we’d be on our way. We’d be given 20 minutes or half an hour
to move. You’d just have to throw your tents down and get cracking on a retreat because you were getting chased by German tanks. So you very smartly moved out.
Precarious position that you’re constantly in?
Yes. I haven’t mentioned anything about night bombing.
We’ll change tapes and get there.
Interviewee: Felix Sainsbury Archive ID 0980 Tape 03
So how were you assessed during your training course at Point Cook?
Well, like any normal examination, we had a written and an oral examination. We had to demonstrate that we could efficiently pull machine guns and pistols and all types of armament to pieces and put it together again in a certain time.
How was the oral examination conducted?
It was conducted individually and it was just general questions and answers. Probably they assessed you mainly on your ability to handle the products. They’d do all sorts of things to it and you’d have to
fix it so it would operate.
Can you give us any examples?
There’s a section in a machine gun called a machine gun lock. It completely pulls to pieces and it’s all bits and pieces and they had a time…I can’t remember how many seconds it was now, but you had to pull it to pieces and put it back together.
It was a pretty tricky operation and the same with the hand guns, pulling those and putting them together. A lot of that they assessed your ability to do it throughout the course. Then when it came to the final examination, the main was the written examination because you’ve not only done the physical side of it,
you had to be able to express it on an exam paper.
How did you go?
I went alright. I really got wrapped in this and I done a bit of shooting in my early days up on farms up in the wheatbelt and I was a bit interested in guns
anyway. But I found it great. I was glad I was in armament. It was a completely mystery to me what I was going to face up to. I enjoyed it. I was interested in all the different hand guns and the rifle shootings. You went down on the rifle butts and you had rifle shooting and later on
when I went to Cunderdin I had to instruct in that, with the machine gun deflection shooting and that sort of thing. Yes, it was a pretty full on sort of examination but full marks to the instructors. They were excellent. I just can’t remember if anyone failed or not.
Can you name some of the arms you were learning to operate?
Yes it was the 45 Colt, the hand revolver. The 45 automatic. And the Smith and Weston 45 and the old Webley. The old Webley Colt revolvers which were used
in World War I. They were still using them. But the Smith and Weston was the gun that most pilots wore and they were able to legally carry one. Then the other one was the big 45 automatic. But I never …the Yanks [Americans] used to use them and carry them but
I never knew of any Australians who carried them at all. But we had to know about them because we didn’t know where we were going to finish up anyway. It was just all armament. And of course the old 303 rifle was one. The next one was the sub machine gun. The Thompson sub machine gun which was the
main one that was used as a quick operation. Then we went into the machine guns. The gas operated machine guns which was the one generally used for air gunnery. It was smaller, more compact and it used to fit on what they called a scarf ring. It used to sit on this and you could pull it around and fire it in any direction.
That was mainly used for air gunnery training because once you got into a big bomber squadron then you had the big perspex blisters and you had point three or 303 machine guns in pairs and they used to fire them and later on they went to the point five’s. But early in the war they only had the small 303’s
in the turrets, the Bristol turrets. So it was…I’m just thinking what else. And of course then we did all our demonstrations on the bombs and the pyrotechnics and the parachute flares and all the signalling rockets and all that sort of stuff. There
wasn’t a lot of that stuff, not like today. In those days…and we never got to use a lot of it. Had we gone perhaps to Catalina bombers we would have had a chance to use the signals distress marine or have more to do with them anyway. But in the fighter squadron that I was in, we didn’t have any use for that type
of signal anyway. But we just had to know everything because we didn’t know what sort of squadron we’d finally finish up with. We just had to know whatever it was to do with armament.
Sounds like a serious cache of weapons that you had your hands on?
Oh yes. I was very interested in all the revolvers
and things we had and later on I had a pair of German Lugers which I picked up in the desert. There was no shortage of picking stuff up in the desert. We had Lugers and Italian Barettas and all these sorts of hand guns. They were very prevalent in the German. The German Luger I would put down as the best automatic hand gun I’ve ever seen.
They were a beautiful gun and they also had a paratrooper’s gun that had a barrel on it about that long. They had a little click up arm rest. That was accurate up to 600 yards which is a pretty long distance for a little gun.
The beauty of the Luger automatic is, it’s got a very comfortable hand grip and they had a clip of 9 or 10 shots. When you fired it the whole barrel recoiled on the top. The barrel did the recoiling. You didn’t get any shock into your hand at all. You could just hold it there and the gun would stay absolutely still.
And just the barrel would recoil and fire. So it made for very accurate shooting. So everybody wanted a Luger when we were overseas, so the first thing you did was when you found any German equipment or stuff anywhere, we’d be looking to get ourselves a Luger automatic.
How would you go about acquiring ammunition for it?
Oh, no trouble.
Ammunition dumps everywhere, and especially where we were when we were advancing and then retreating. The ammunition dumps were just left and we would just dive in there and grab some. There were tons of ammunition. There wasn’t a problem with that.
Would you have left behind as much ammunition and weapons as the enemy did?
No I don’t think so.
Why do you think they were so loose with it?
I know they were retreating but why were they so loose with their equipment?
That’s a good question. I think it was their system…I think they must have had a system whereby they carted truck loads of ammunition and what have you and they would put them in a certain position and the army would be moving up and they’d draw
from it as they wanted. When a retreat came about…see a retreat is not a thing you could say, we’ll move out in two days. You might have to move out within an hour or more. It depends on how rapidly the tanks are approaching and you’ve got to get rid of your aircraft and you might want to scatter bombs all over the runway to try and hold them up. To do anything to hold up the enemy.
They just ran themselves out of time and they either didn’t have the equipment or they didn’t have the time to go and load up ammunition. They can replace that but they can’t replace the trucks as easy or the manpower. These retreats were hot and fast. I can tell you, they were a nightmare because once you get embroiled in a retreat you’re driving flat tack
in your truck and you’re scattered all out in the desert. Don’t forget in the desert you can get lost in the flick of an eye. There is nothing to guide you. The only reason you go from here to there is because there’s a house there and a house there and you know where to go. But in the desert…once you go into the desert, especially at night. We used to get lost going from one tent to the other, and you would always hear people saying
“Hello, hello”. And they say, “Where are we?”, and you’d say, “You’re over in 3 Squadron, you’re over that way”. It was so easy to get lost.
On how many occasions did you find yourself in a retreat with 3 Squadron?
We had 3 big full retreats.
Would you be able to talk me through each retreat?
Yes. When we got to the Middle East…we didn’t have a retreat up in Syria. The Syrian campaign only lasted about 3 or 4 months. I lobbed with the squadron in Lebanon. Anyway
after the Syrian campaign…there was quite a lot happened up there I could tell you about. After the Syrian campaign we went back to the Western Desert and we met up with the squadron. They had flown down to a place called Amiriya, and it was the dirtiest dustiest joint I’ve ever seen. It never stopped blowing.
So then we moved up through Sidi Barrani and Gambut, up to a place called El Adam which is about 11 kilometres from Tobruk. It’s right up on top of the escarpment. You’ve got to understand the character of the country there and the desert. You’ve got the Mediterranean Ocean there and you come back sometimes 10, sometimes 20 miles
and you get a huge escarpment, it comes up like that and there’s a big plateau on top which is the desert country. And there’s only one tar road in all that section of the desert. Just a little black strip next to the ocean that follows the coast. It’s what they call the Coast Road. That was a good road but never to stay on very long
because they used to strafe you all the time. Anyway we went up and we operated and we went up as far as El Adam which was an old German-Italian aerodrome just above Tobruk. We used to watch Tobruk getting raided up there and then they used to raid us on the way in And we got up to a place called Gazala. And then all of a sudden there’s 250
German tanks had broken through the line. So we sent our aircraft bombing, dive bombing and machine gunning them. In one particular day we did 68 sorties or attacks. We were very successful,
gee whiz back behind them further they had another 400 tanks coming through with 1200 transport. So we had a big front coming through. So there was no alternative. We had to start thinking about retreating or getting to another advance landing ground. These advance landing grounds are only a strip of flat desert and they put
some 44 gallon drums along and that’s your landing strip. The sandy desert there was a gravelly sort of stuff so it wasn’t bad to land aircraft on. So any way we retreated out of there. We just got out of there in time. We stayed back and
threw…some of the enemy bombs that were there, we just laid them all over the strip, and we thought that might hold them up a bit from landing an aircraft. It wouldn’t make much difference to the tanks. And then we scattered a few bombs around which we couldn’t carry. We had some bombs in the bomb truck and the ammo truck was ok. And we had a personnel truck. We only had 3 trucks in the armament section.
I drove the personnel truck.
What timeframe did you have to sabotage the strip?
Not much. As a matter of fact when we left that particular strip, as we left the strip the German tanks were coming in at the other end. The shells were lobbing on the drome anyway. We said, hey that’s close enough so we just jumped in the vehicles and
shot through as quick as we could. I can’t remember if it was that retreat or another one that we….as we were coming back we found a NAAFI [Navy, Army, Air Force Institute] camp which is like a Red Cross supply camp with all sorts of supplies for the troops, but they sell it to you. We dived in there and got a few crates of beer and tinned peaches and all this stuff.
Stuff which we didn’t think was even available in the desert because all we had had was bully beef and biscuits. So we got this. They had already panicked and left the whole lot. Talking about leaving stuff, it was there. Stores of all this food and stuff.
So was that allied Red Cross?
NAAFI they called it.
National Army and Air Force group or something like that. They were attached to the British forces. They were like a big canteen type of place where we got our stocks and supplies from. Anyway we got a bit of beer and some tinned stuff. These tinned peaches looked good to us. We hadn’t
even seen a peach over there because you didn’t get any vegetables or anything. You got a little tablet like that that was supposed to make up for that. So we only lived on hard tack as we called it. Old bully beef and biscuits. Now and again we’d get a bit of Italian rations that we had grabbed somewhere on our way through. But anyway we were out of there. We gave ourselves another 15 minutes and then off.
We just packed up and chucked everything in the vehicle and off. And gee whiz when you went off you went flat tack. If you had to drive at night that was a big, big problem in the desert because where these armies had been moving forward and back, there were areas where there were lots of slit trenches, and you hit those in a truck at night, you’re in real trouble.
I broke a front spring on two separate occasions. The spring broke but luckily it broke at the back hangar. It broke off at the back so the weight of the wheel was holding it straight all the time. So I could keep going. But if we had stopped we would have been captured that’s all. Captured or they would have just shelled us I guess.
It would have been better to just leave the truck and get out of the road because we were carrying bombs and detonators and so on. So that’s another reason why nobody wanted to park near us when we were on convoy in case we got strafed. So then you’d just go belt hell for leather until daylight and then you’d try and get your bearings. And often we’d say, “God
we’re lost” because when you look around the desert there’s nothing to indicate where the hell you are. And we weren’t supplied with any compasses. So we used to use the sun and the stars. Anyway we saw a great lot of dust away in the distance so we headed for that and luckily it was our own squadron, where the aircraft were. So we saw the dust and we didn’t know where the hell we were. It could have been a German camp for all we knew,
but we knew the tanks were close because when we bedded down and tried to get a bit of sleep we could hear the tanks. We thought, “Gee, this is no good”, so off again. In the desert you could hear sounds a pretty long distance away because there wasn’t much to stop it depending on which way the wind was going. You had always to be mindful of a dust storm,
because if you got a really ranging dust or sand storm you’ve got no idea where you’re going then.
Before a retreat or when a retreat was decided, what plans would you make with the aircraft crew?
What we’d do. They say the retreat would be on so we’d get the aircraft serviced straight away. The pilots would say, “We’re going to fly back to El Gazala” or
Gambut or one of the other landing grounds we had been at on the way up. So they’d say we’re going to make for that. And our other flight would be there. We had two flights. When we advanced we’d leapfrog over like that. So C Flight were probably back there. We didn’t know where they were. We didn’t know where the base was or anything like that half the time because communications were
very poor. So the pilots…we’d get them off the ground, and then any aircraft which was unserviceable and couldn’t be shifted, we’d just destroy. Although one of our fitters at one stage, he got an aircraft going and he flew it back to the next advance ground. He was an engine fitter.
A very experienced guy and he said, “Blow it, I’m not leaving my bloody plane here”, so he took off and he took back to the next drome. He just had to follow the coast along. So that was that retreat. Now that wasn’t….although we came back a fair way. We came back past Tobruk,
Sidi Barrani, Salum Pass…and that’s another story, coming down these passes. There were 3 passes along that coastline.
Is this a retreat story?
Yes it was. On one particular occasion we had to come down the pass. Now these passes were a death trap really because the Germans…especially when there was a retreat on, they were flying and observing everything.
Now observing in the desert is dead easy because one truck just ploughing through the desert, the dust trail that it leaves can be identified from the air from thousands of feet up. And you’ve got no cover. You haven’t got anything. They can just come down and strafe you or bomb you. There’s nothing you can do. You can keep driving or you can pull up and just run away from your vehicle and lie on the ground.
Anyway we came down this pass, and you’ve only got to go down the pass once to see all the vehicles that have been strafed and pushed over the side of the road. It’s about an 1100 foot drop in 2 miles. You’d come down these passes and they were built by the Italians and they came around like this and it’s just a single road and you’ve got to take a correct lock on your truck
or you’ve got to stop and back them. They were fairly well built originally but they had been bombed and strafed and bombed that much that they were pretty rough and rugged when we came down them.
I imagine you were travelling in a pretty low gear?
Oh yes. You’d have to stay in a very low gear because the steepest of the decline and you had to stay on it. And if you went off the edges you were likely to hit a mine.
You either hit an S mine or a ratchet mine. That’s another story, I’ll tell you about mines later. So you had to stick to the middle of the road and if you transgressed off the side of the road you could hit a mine. They were aware of this when they set their mines. Places where you were likely to go off the edge of the road.
That’s why whenever we passed anybody we’d pass them that close. Sometimes we might even knock them with the trucks. So you didn’t like getting off the road at any time. So coming down this pass with the German aircraft in the vicinity, it was a pretty scary operation because you know they were shot half way down there. It was no good jumping
out because it was a drop off each side. You were up against the cliff on this side, but on the other side it just dropped away and you’d see trucks that had been shot up and shoved off the road by the tanks and they just rolled down the bottom. So we never ever liked the coast road or these passes. Hellfire Pass, Salum Pass and Duna Pass.
There were 3 big ones and gee whiz they took a heavy toll on transport at times. The Germans knew them well and they were always waiting to strafe or bomb them, particularly when there’s a retreat on because when there’s a retreat on there’s nothing organised. All your trucks are nose to tail going down that coast road. We used to stay in the desert whenever we could.
We reckoned we were a lot safer up in the desert, away from that coast road. Even though you left dust trails, at least you could scatter, and we used to scatter our trucks right out, never follow each other unless we were absolutely positive we were safe.
Did you ever lose any trucks on a convoy?
Oh. We’ve lost…
I had only just joined the convoy when we lost a water tanker. He got strafed and the driver was killed. Over the time I don’t know about C Flight and our base what they lost in strafing and bombing but that was always your biggest fear, being strafed by enemy aircraft. At one
stage we were on convoy and they dropped a stick of bombs right along parallel with the whole convoy. Gee, we stopped and we jumped clean over the side. We didn’t even worry about opening the door. It lobbed onto the deck and we raced into the desert. I threw myself guts down and put my head in what
they called a camel thorn. They used to grow in the desert. Just a thorny bush about four feet high. I put my head in the bush and thought that might be safe. Anyway the bombs lobbed on the other side of the convoy and if we had run that side we would run right into them. But they lobbed on the other side, and all we got out of that was a lot of shrapnel damage.
Now this shrapnel can be just as bad as a damn bomb because when those bombs blow to pieces the ugly bits of metal which are about this thick are all jagged and they’re red hot. They go whish through the air like that and they go in all directions. Some go up and some just go across level with the deck. And shrapnel can be a terrible thing to get hit with
because it’s all jagged and you don’t have much chance if you get hit by a piece of shrapnel. Yes, shrapnel…it’s the same with the ack ack shells when they burst up there. You get the bombs and all that rubbish then afterwards down comes all this stuff from about 33,000 feet they generally burst at. And all this shrapnel starts to drop.
Everything that goes up has to come down. You don’t know where the hell it’s going to come down. It used to go through our tents and you’re sitting in a slit trench. You’ve got no cover except for your tin hat and boy you put a lot of faith in that tin hat. That shrapnel you could hear it coming and bank on the deck. So we kept ourselves well down below the deck and hoped that none came into the slit trench.
Were there many shrapnel casualties in your squadron?
No, not a lot and I put this down to the way we operated. A couple of other RAF [Royal Air Force] squadrons and later on when the Americans came in, they put all their tents together and all their trucks together, and that wasn’t on.
When we got to an airstrip in the desert, we used to scatter our tents hundreds and hundreds of yards apart. They were all over the place. Our tents were camouflaged and we covered all our windscreens. Even the windscreens on the aircraft were covered, so the moonlight wouldn’t reflect on them. So it was very difficult to find us at night.
And if they did bomb us we were so dispersed that we must have saved hundreds of lives. We lost quite a few guys but more with mines than we did with shrapnel. We’ve had bombs that…we had a big 500 kilo bomb lob between our tent and another tent, but it didn’t go off.
This used to happen with sabotage in the German bomb factory and the underground guys who worked in some of these things would make it so the bomb wouldn’t go off. So every now and again you’d strike a bomb that didn’t go off.
You’d have to pinch yourself wouldn’t you?
Yeah, I had it happen twice.
At this place called El Adam which is just above Tobruk, and we used to watch Tobruk getting raided every night. The aircraft…that was our biggest problem. We weren’t able to get any sleep. It might go on every night for two weeks and you’d be in the slit trench every night. And then you’ve got to rearm your aircraft and bomb up and they’d do sorties every day and you’re not getting enough sleep. So we used to
lie in the bed and say, “Damn it, I’m not getting out of this bloody bed tonight”. You’d lie in the bed and you’d hear the German aircraft. They had a distinct sound, there used to be a high and a low, a high and a low, and the Italian aircraft were different again. After a while we could tell what aircraft they were and we’d say, “Oh gee listen to that”.
“We’re not getting out of bed are we?” “No, none of us. We’re stopping here. We’re not going to spend a damn night in that slit trench again”. So we were laying there…“Is anyone getting up?” “No.” And then we heard this stick of bombs whistling down and you can hear them scream as they’re coming down. Gee whiz, what happened to all the promises. We’re all trying to get into the slit trench
at once, all getting out of the trench. And we get into the trench and there’s nothing but bums and legs and tin hats. We got into the slit trench as quick as we could. The fear when bombs are dropping and especially if they’re concentrated in the area is pretty high. Once you hear those bombs scream.
It sounds like a fairly persuasive sound?
Yes. Well there’s the element of risk. You think, “Gee I wonder if one will lob near us what will happen”. The blast is as bad as the shrapnel effect. It just blows straight across the deck like that. It just takes everything with it, so you don’t dare get caught in the blast because then you cop the shrapnel too.
And the actual explosion. They’re pretty devastating, a bomb, because of the big area bombs can eradicate a lot of things. They would blow trucks over. A blast is a funny thing. I’ve seen pilots that have crashed and the shock of the crash …
…their shoes have been blown completely off their feet without unlacing them. They’ve come off their feet. The body just constricts with the shock and blast. It’s a story all on its own.
We might come back to that. Can I suggest Felix that we perhaps retreat back to Point Cook and …you’re just completing your exams and where do you get posted?
Then the next thing they put up on the notice board: “Postings”. So everyone rushes up, “Where are we going to?” You never ever go where you want to go.
Where did you have hopes of going?
I didn’t care a lot and I wasn’t too worried so long as I went where my mates went.
So long as 2 or 3 of us all went to Queensland together or South Australia or somewhere, it wouldn’t have been a problem. But what generally happens, you go all points of the compass and you’ll find a Queenslander will go to WA and a WA chap will go to Queensland. You get scattered all over the place.
I went to Cunderdin and I didn’t even know they had made an aerodrome there.
Where did your mates end up?
Bill went up to…I think he went somewhere around Melbourne. Another one went to Queensland. They went to training stations mainly because we never had any operational stations. Not in 1940. The war was just sort of getting
started. So we all went to training stations and we were loading practice bombs and they were doing practice bombing. The station I went to was what they called…it was Number Nine IFTS which was an Initial Flying Training School which was where the aircrew boys go for their first go at flying.
It was in Cunderdin. They had about 100 little Gipsy Moths, Tiger Moth planes. You see them fly from Jandakot here, the little yellow ones. And they fly those and that’s where they learn to fly. After about 7 or 10 hours they then probably take their first solo flight. So they do their training there and
our job with them was to teach them…we had a trestle gear set up with a scarf ring and a machine gun like air gunners use. We used to train them in deflection shooting.
Interviewee: Felix Sainsbury Archive ID 0980 Tape 04
We were at Pearce and you were just telling us about the living conditions there?
Yes that’s right. We were living in the big brick blocks there and we had a room each, a bed. Every Monday was Panic Night they called it. You had to polish the floors, clean the cupboards and fold everything up. It was immaculate.
The floors, cripes there was that much polish put on it. And Pearce was a good station. I turned up at the Armament Section and they allocated me to Flight Lieutenant Learmonth. You know Learmonth Aerodrome out near Exmouth. That was named after him because
he was flying a Beaufort bomber. Now they were having trouble with these things getting into an uncontrollable dive and they couldn’t pull out. They had lost a few pilots, and he was test flying one of these off Rottnest. This was later in the war. And he got into this uncontrollable dive. He worked out what the problem was and he got on the
radio. He said, “I’m in this dive. I’ve got no way of getting out of it. Your problem is with the trim tabs. Check trim tabs.” And then he crashed into the water. So the named the airstrip after him. He was a great guy.
What can you tell me about him?
He was a flight lieutenant flying these Hudsons then.
How he got onto the other type of aircraft later on…he must have been sent onto them. But it was out to sea off Rottnest. But he…I used to look after his aircraft for him and he used to do bombing practices and he used to often say, “What are you doing?”
And I would say, “Not much now that I’ve got you ready to get off the ground.” And he would say, “Come along with us.” And he would often take me for a fly. He was a real genuine sort of guy. A really competent pilot and I think he was in the permanent air force. I’m not sure on that. He was a flight lieutenant then in the early stages of the war. So I would say he would have been in the permanent air force.
He was a good pilot and he gave his life to fix up the problem with that particular plane. They never had any problems after that. But they had lost quite a few pilots before. They would get into an uncontrollable dive.
Was he one of many great relationships you had with aircrew?
I had…especially…it wasn’t so prevalent in Australia because they had a lot of pilots and only a few aircraft. So the same pilot wasn’t always flying that aircraft. So you might be servicing the aircraft and you didn’t know who was going to fly it. But when you went in operations and you had the same pilot flying the aircraft most of the time.
You’d get to know him very, very well. And in 3 Squadron we had a terrific relationship with the pilots. They were never treated as officers. They were just one of the guys which was great.
What was happening at Pearce?
Yes I serviced aircraft for Bobby Gibbs and Nicky Barr. Nicky Barr’s just written a book. Bobby Gibbs is an ace.
Nicky Barr was a real ace. He finished up with an OBE [Officer of the British Empire, a Military Cross, and DFC and bar [two awards of the Distinguished Flying Cross]. He shot down 8 aircraft in his first 35 hours flying. Then he
got shot down 3 times and walked home. One time he came back on the back of a camel dressed up as an Arab, and as he came through enemy lines he took note of all the military establishments and he gave all that information to the army. He just returned back to the squadron on a camel dressed up as an Arab. It’s a really good book.
He eventually got shot down and was captured and was sent to Italy. He escaped twice from there and they caught him. And the third time he jumped off a train with some other chaps. The others got shot and he got away. He joined up with…he got back to British lines and he joined up with the Special
Air Services. They’re a commando group. He operated in enemy territory for the next 8 months I think, blowing up trains and sabotaging German stuff. He had some pretty narrow squeaks.
Are you still in contact with Nicky?
Yes. When I wrote
my book I sent him a copy and he’s sent me back a copy.
So where’s he living these days?
He’s living in Queensland. He’d be 87 now.
You’ll have to mention the archives to him. Hopefully he’ll be interested in speaking to one of our teams over east?
Gee, has he got a story to tell.
Bobby Gibbs is another chap. He was our CO [Commanding Officer]. Poor old Tiny Cameron, he’s dead. These were all pilots of mine. I was lucky. They were all aces.
How did they qualify to be an ace?
I don’t really know but I think you’ve got to shoot down more than five
aircraft and you’ve got to have so many hours flying. That’s only my own opinion. I’m not sure what the true definition is. I think they just relegate it to guys who are outstanding and did some pretty brave things. Yeah, Tiny Cameron was another one. He brought a monkey back with him when he came back
from Bombay. He brought a little monkey and that finished up the squadron mascot. He brought it back to the squadron and he even took it for a flight in the Kittyhawk.
How did the monkey like that?
The little monkey…he sat him in there and he took him for a flight but the trouble was the monkey started to play with all the switches. And he said that would be the last trip he’ll ever have.
When we did get a beer ration, old Buzz the monkey was up on the counter and into his can of beer. He loved it. Then the next morning you didn’t get too close to him. He used to get a terrible hangover. He’d go for everybody. And Buzz was with the squadron, and then Tiny
got shot down eventually and he was taken a prisoner in Italy. And Buzz fretted for him a lot, although we looked after him. Anyway…
What did you feed Buzz, did he like bully beef and biscuits?
They must have fed him on that.
Yes, the biscuits, he would have gone for them, and the bully beef would have been alright. And when we could get some fruit. A couple of times we struck an oasis where there were some dates and stuff which was good. I must tell you about the chant wine too. So yes, when Buzz started to fret a lot
we found a place in Cairo where a nice old English couple had a monkey exactly the same. So they said they would love to keep him until Tiny got out of the prison camp. Anyway after the war Tiny went back and thanked them and brought Buzz back to Queensland.
But he had trouble getting him in because of the quarantine. He wanted to take Buzz because he came from West Queensland in the inland there. He had a station there and he wanted to take Buzz back with him but they wouldn’t allow it. So he did a deal with them and Buzz was put in the Brisbane Zoo
with some other little monkeys, the same breed. So Tiny whenever he came to Brisbane he used to take him a little can of beer. Old Buzz loved his drink of beer. He must have eventually died there I guess. Tiny’s dead now.
That was a great relationship with him and his little monkey.
What did Buzz being a mascot mean to the squadron?
It was good because no other squadron had a mascot. Some of them might have a dog or two. But nobody had a little Rhesus monkey. He was one of the squadron boys. He was around all over the place.
He used to travel in the trucks and cars and he would get into mischief and he was into everything. So everyone knew about Buzz and of course they all looked out for him. He was a beautiful little friendly thing. He’d just jump on your shoulder and walk with you.
He must have been a constant source of entertainment?
Yes he was. Especially if there was a bit of a party on.
He’d be into everything. So he came back to Brisbane Zoo. I’ve never found out but he must have lived out the rest of his life. I don’t know how long monkeys live for but I know Tiny, whenever he went to Brisbane from his station, he’d go in to see old Buzz.
And bring him a bit of contraband.
Yes. I don’t know whether he smoked or not. He did everything else.
Let’s just backtrack to Pearce…what was happening at Pearce?
At Pearce there was 25 Squadron, which was the City of Perth squadron and they were flying Wirraways. And these Hudsons were 14 Squadron. That
14 Squadron was an operational squadron in those days and they would probably have been used on coastal patrols and all this sort of thing. But the aircraft were not top class aircraft. The Wirraway was built in Australia and was an Australian made fighter with a radial engine
and it was built mainly for training purposes but it was used in operations up in the islands. I think they had them at Milne Bay because one of the ex-3 squadron chaps died there flying them. Old Claypan Jackson we called him. He crash landed in a clay pan. He shouldn’t have been flying. He was short sighted. He chased a dot on his windscreen 40 miles out to sea.
Poor old Claypan Jackson. There were 3 brothers I think, all in the air force. There were some characters, quite a few of them.
Yes, 14 Squadron…I had only been there for about 2 or 3 months and one day they said you’re posted, and I said, “Where to? Not back to Cunderdin.” And they said, “No, you’re going to the Middle East.” And I said, “Where?” And they said, “Don’t know where 3 Squadron is but that’s the squadron you’re going to.” I said, “What are they?” And they said they were a fighter squadron so I said, “That will do me”.
Everybody wanted to get overseas and into operations. You only had two chances, 3 Squadron or 12 Squadron in England which was a coastal patrol flying Sunderlands and Catalinas. So I was glad. It was a quick posting because straight away I had to go and get my clearance papers and everything done.
I had …
What was the procedure for getting your clearance papers?
Well, you had to get cleared. Everything you that…your rifle, the mattress, everything you had on an airforce station was on your charge sheet. You were in charge of it. And if anything happened you were supposed to replace it some way or other. So you
had to go round with a clearance paper and you would go to the places where they supplied mattresses or whatever and you’d sign that off. That’s been returned and that’s been returned. So long as everything’s been accounted for, and you had to get a signature for it. It was never a problem. Just a ritual they go through. So we did that.
I’m trying to think what leave I had. Yes, I had disembarkation leave. I think I had 10 or 14 days. So I had leave for that time. I went home.
What did you do on leave?
a young guy at 20 would do. Around to the pubs, meet up with his mates. We had to report down to a place called 5PD which was at the bottom of William Street, right on the water there. Right opposite the Esplanade on the other side. That’s where it was. It was just huts and what have you there. And we had to wait there until they were ready
for a convoy to pick us up and take us to the Middle East. Nobody knew when these convoys were going to get here because it was hush hush because of submarines. Anyway the next day when I got back we heard we had to be ready at 8 in the morning, you’re going out to the convoy. It was 3 ships:
the Queen Elizabeth; the Queen Mary and the Aquitania which were the 3 biggest ships in the world. So we said this is good and we thought we’d be going down to Fremantle in the truck. They said we weren’t going by truck, but the old Zephyr. It used to be an old ferry on the river. It used to go to Rottnest and back. So they took us. There were about 30 of us.
They took us down on the old Zephyr. It used to cock-a-doodle-do on the old whistle. We go out there and this Zephyr pulls up alongside the Queen Elizabeth. Seventy-five feet to the first deck and this little ferry pulls in right next to the side of the ship and we looked up and said, “How the hell are we going to get up?” there?
The chap said, “You just wait, something will happen.” Fair enough. They dropped down a concertina of ladders that go like that. They sort of fold and they just drop right down. What you’ve got to do. You’ve got to climb up carrying 3 kit bags. Blue kit bags about that big. We were supposed to have overseas…one big white one…and 3 kit bags. We put 2 over our shoulders and
this and our rifle and we’ve got to go up this rotten set of ladders.
What was your reaction?
“Gees”, I thought, “Bloody hell. How are we going to get right up there with all our gear? Isn’t there some other place they can open a hole on the side of the boat?” We found out later on that there was one about half way down. I think they only did that twice.
They put them through this big package…it’s a big hole as big as this that they can open up and put in all the produce. Anyway…later on we saw them putting kegs in there. We clambered up there and we were absolutely knackered when we got to the top. We thought, “Jesus, that was a hell of a climb”. I don’t know how many steps it was.
Why somebody didn’t fall off I’ll never know. But when you think of the Zephyr up against the side of the Queen Elizabeth…and yet that Zephyr came out here in 1912 from England. It came from England and they put ballast in it and they brought that damn thing from England. And then when it got here in 1914, it took the AIF across to India.
Thank god, I wouldn’t have liked to have been on that thing. The gunnels were only about this high out of the water. Just a riverboat. But it went for quite a few years. It was still here when I got back after the war. Yes, so we went up there and we joined 11,000 other troops. About 11 or 12,000 on each boat.
What was the scene when you made it onto the deck?
All the guys, the army guys and there were New Zealanders and Maoris and Free French on board. They were all giving us a hoy. “Come on you Blue Orchids. Put your best foot forward!” And they were giving us hell and we climbed up. All good natured stuff. And we got up and they helped us with our gear.
They took us down below and showed us where we were sleeping. We were a bit lucky. There were some eastern states air force guys. They were in hammocks right up the pointed end of the boat. And we were down in R deck. There’s 37 and a half miles of passage way on that ship and we were right down in this R deck.
This boat was all set up for luxury cruising when war broke out.
Ok. Sorry to interrupt.
The cabins were great and what they had done was they just put in an extra two bunks so it would have slept 8 people. But they had just nailed them into the lovely furniture. Just pine to make up a couple more bunks in each cabin.
The biggest battle was to find the dining room. It was a huge dining room with…the ceiling would have been 25 feet high I guess. Great big pillars all done with pale blue leather and gold stars on it. Some of the stars went off as a matter of fact because at the end of the trip we were all charged three [shillings] and sixpence each.
Anyway the mess was huge and of course the problem with troopships is, the old troop captain on board, he makes sure there’s a job for everybody, so they had work parties. You were either cleaning decks or cleaning out the kitchen or something. I thought, “This is not for Felix”. I
looked around for a while and I found out there was a concert party on and they were making up a concert party. I thought, “That will do me. I can sing so I’ll jump in there.” I took a mate of mine with me who could play the trumpet and he was good. He even joined the Salvation Army for 18 months to learn properly because their bands were great in those days. And so he came with me and we finished up
with a concert party of about 30 of us and we put on 3 shows a week, 3 nights a week. When we weren’t there we were up with these New Caledonians and Tahitians who’d all play the guitar. They would just chuck the guitar to another chap and he would just play on. They’d be playing all their island music and singing and that would be on every night up on the top deck. So we got to know a lot of these Free French chaps
and I ran into a couple of them later on in the Middle East in the Western Desert, where the Free French were. We got them out of trouble at one stage. We got the aircraft to blow a hole through the German defences and got them out. We got a nice signal of appreciation from them.
And this André, he was one of the Tahitians. He was a terrific guy. He had his own Hawaiian orchestra in Sydney, and so of course he was in the concert party too. Anyway in this retreat he left his guitar in his tent and he was all ready to clamber aboard and he said, “No, I’m going back to get my guitar.” So he ran back to his tent, grabbed his guitar
and as he was coming back, a shell burst and he got shell splinters in the eyes and he was blinded. Anyway on the boat that I came home on there were a lot of New Zealanders and Maoris and a lot of these Free French chaps. Who should I run into but André. Of course he was blind but he still had his guitar with him.
He still played. Gee there were some nice guys amongst some of those Free French chaps. They made up a pretty awesome group, the Maoris and the South Sea Islanders. And gee whiz they could sing. And all their island music, I’ve never heard anything like it since. But it was
stuff that’s been handed down from generation to generation. It was really good.
What was in your repertoire?
I just mainly sang songs that were popular at that time.
Do you recall any of those popular titles?
You can always reckon on ‘Waltzing Matilda’. That was always on the programme. And ‘The Lights of London’
and I would sing a bit of semi-classical stuff like ‘Because’, ‘Begin the Beguine’. I’m just trying to think. And then some lighter stuff: ‘Lady in Blue’, ‘It’s a sin to tell a lie’ and all that sort of stuff. That was all the go in those days.
Do you think you could sing a verse of ‘Waltzing Matilda’?
No, not now. I’ve got a cold. I ruined my voice during the services probably screaming and yelling. If you’re taught singing you know that the worst thing you can do is strain your voice. You can do yourself quite a lot of damage. Although
after the war I sang at a few weddings and down at the yacht club a couple of times. But I …that’s probably why I turned around and made myself a couple of guitars. But I gave them away. I’ve only got the original one I made left. I made it the wrong way but it worked.
After my Dad died I didn’t have anyone to play the piano, so I didn’t carry on with it. And don’t forget in those days …there was no opportunity for a guy to sing. I went into a couple of amateur trials that used to be in Anzac House in those days. I sang there a couple of times. But
the opportunities weren’t around for anyone to make a living in those days. These days, God they’re teaching them at school. You can get into orchestras and bands. You’ve got so many opportunities for young people these days. If they’ve got any sort of a voice they can do something with it.
What other events took place on the voyage over there?
On the voyage over? Yes there were about 200 air force, the rest were AIF and New Zealanders and Maoris. There must have been about 180 on board. They
used to do gun training. On the stern of the boat they had a…it looked like about a 3 inch navy gun mounted on the back and they were training these guys to be gun crew on it. These
merchant boats often had a gun on the back just for a bit of protection I guess. Anyway they had a guy who was carrying a ribbon…a MBE [Member of the British Empire], I’m not sure. He was a great big tough looking petty officer.
He was about 6 foot and built like an outside dunny. A big square framed guy and he was as tough as they come and he had tattoos all over him. He had a knife tattooed down the side of his leg. Why I’m telling you this, he earned his ribbon in a sea battle in the English Channel off the French coast.
His boat was bombed and it was sinking. They were told to abandon ship. He didn’t leave. He stayed on the ship and he kept firing and apparently he shot down an aircraft and he kept down until the boat went down and somehow he got out of it. And he got a medal for that. But why I say that,
he was instructing these guys on gunnery. And over on the side he had a big shell, a big 3.7 shell. It was as much as a guy could carry. Now he said to these chaps, “I want this gun to be charged and firing in 7 seconds.”
They said, “It’s impossible.” And he said, “It won’t be. You guys are going to be able to do that before we finish this trip or you’ll be here all day and all night.” Anyway he got them started and they went for ages. Of course we were all standing up on the deck above watching all this. The poor guy who made a mistake he would tear into him and say, “Over there!”
And he’d have to pick up this shell and he’d have to jog around the deck where they were, carting this shell. Every time you made a mistake they had to go and jog around the deck carting the shell. Anyway he had these guys and he was hard but he was fair. And he had them in the finish and they were slick. But he trained them and it took us 5 weeks to get there because we went
way down south because of a sub scare. We knew we had gone south because it was getting damn cold. But he trained these guys and incidentally it takes quite a number of guys to charge up one of these guns and put the shells in and he was doing it on his own when that boat went down. That’s what he got his recommendation for.
He was a big guy. And he did the whole lot on his own, lifted the shell and charged it and all the work they do, ramming it and the lot…all on his own. So those boys got some real expert training and they were really really slick by the time we got well into that cruise.
What route did you take up to the Middle East?
We left Fremantle about five o’clock at night and we thought old WA disappearing into the distance and we all looked at one another and thought, “Are we going to see it again?” Anyway we went straight out to sea due west and after about a day’s sailing we picked up the
[HMAS] Shropshire, the English battle ship cruiser and she escorted us for a few days, or about a week, and then she disappeared. I don’t know where she went and then all of a sudden we started going down south because it was getting colder and colder, and then of course everyone realised that any submarine would love to get the 3 biggest ships in the world carting about
11 or 12,000 troops on each. So we went right down south. It was very difficult for a submarine because they couldn’t catch any of these boats because they all did about 28 knots, and that was fast of their size.
So the only way a submarine could get them was to lie in wait which is probably why they kept changing course. Normally they do a zig zag course like this. But this course was a bit different. So that’s why it took us that time to get there. And we called into a place called Trincomalee. It’s on the
north east side of Ceylon. What’s it called now, Sri Lanka. We went into this harbour. I’ve never seen anything like Trincomalee harbour. It’s a naval harbour. It’s that narrow. Only the Queen Elizabeth went in. The other two stayed out. I don’t know why, perhaps the Queen Elizabeth wanted to pick up some more stuff, I don’t know.
So we went in this narrow…and the sides of the boat were that close to these huge cliffs on either side. We went into there and it’s a very deep harbour apparently. We weighed anchor in there and we were staying there overnight, and what do you reckon happened?
A couple of carly floats accidentally fell over the side and some guys…the Tahitians dived from the top deck…now the first deck’s about 70 feet. They came from further up somewhere. They dived from there and they were going to go ashore and have a couple of beers. They dived in and some of the AIF guys pinched this carly float and went ashore. Anyway the service police went in a bit later and
brought them back. And some of them didn’t get back until the next morning and boy they were sick looking boys. But anyway they got back. I don’t know if there were any charges or whether they did anything with them. They had drunk all the beer between Sydney and Perth so they had to put on another 30,000 gallons of beer.
And I think we cleaned that up before we got into Port Tewfik. But yes, we pulled out of there the next day and then we went straight on, up the Red Sea off the coast of Arabia to Port Tewfik.
The bottom of the Suez Canal.
Did you have any more escorts?
We didn’t see one while we were right down south but we picked up one…I can’t remember the name of it. It wasn’t as big. It was only a destroyer…off the coast of the Red Sea there. We didn’t have an escort going up there.
So that was about it except it was hot. It was that hot. The water was like oil. There were sharks all lying on the top of the water. When we went passed Aden…what a terrible looking place that was. That was as hot…it’s about the hottest place in the world they reckon.
Interviewee: Felix Sainsbury Archive ID 0980 Tape 05
Before the break we were talking about Aden and how big it was?
The township of Aden itself was back from the ocean but the port of Aden is close to the ocean naturally. It’s all white houses and it was just a hot day and there’s a huge rock behind Aden, like a huge mountain.
A solid black rock and the shimmering heat coming off it made all the white houses shimmer. God it was hot. So it just looked hot and it was desert all around it. It wasn’t very inviting one little bit.
Did you take some leave?
No, we never stopped at Aden. We went straight on up the Red Sea to Port Tewfik,
which is the port for Egypt. Once we got to Port Tewfik we were taken off there on…no, we pulled into the quay there and we were all unloaded. The air force got loaded into trucks. The AIF got put into marching order and they had to march about 20 miles to the camp.
That’s the difference between army and air force, and we felt a bit ashamed as we drove past in the back of trucks and there’s those guys who we had got to know having to march in the heat. But that’s the thing the army always did. They really trained them hard and that’s why I think they were such good soldiers, they were trained well and they were tough.
And that’s why they did so well in the Middle East. That was the 6th Division and the 9th Division.
Did you say goodbye to some of the mates that you had made?
Yes, on the trip over. I didn’t see the Free French chaps until when we got back from one of the retreats. André I didn’t meet until we got back on the boat on the way home. We knew the Free French were in the area and they were fighting as a unit
and we got them out of a place called Bir Hakim where they were surrounded. We got notification from the army that they were in trouble, so 3 Squadron dive bombed for about 3 days. Dive bombed and strafed the German transport. We managed to make a big enough gap for them to get out.
How do you hear this news?
By the army and by this long range desert patrol. They were operating 400 miles into German territory. They lived next to the Germans virtually. Some of them were very fluent in Italian and German and some of them even went on leave into the towns. They would be dressed up as Arabs or in German uniform.
They used to pick up all sorts of valuable information. They would bring it back and they always had radios with them. They used to radio back to intelligence headquarters with anything they could find. Sometimes they would just sit on the edge of a road at night and count all the tanks going up and back, or transport. And identifying everything they could. Then they would radio back.
They were invaluable really in the Middle East. People have never ever heard of them. That’s why if you ever see that book, pick it up, it’s a really good read.
With these long range blokes are they sort of the precursor to the SAS [Special Air Service]?
Yes because a chap by the name of Stirling started it off. It was just for intelligence reconnaissance.
But they got so good at it, operating behind German lines. Stirling, I think was a lieutenant then and he was a real big chap and a real go-getter. He thought we should make use of this. We should start up a commando unit to travel with them and to use these people as intelligence and then commandoes go in and do work for them.
One particular instance. At an aerodrome called…the Germans were occupying it, it was called Matuba. They had a lot of aircraft on this aerodrome and the long range desert patrol boys went in and identified it, and the SAS boys that Stirling started up, these commandoes. It wasn’t SAS at the time.
So he said, “Righto, we’ll take in 6 jeeps and we’ll take in sticky bombs or time bombs”, which they just stick on the aircraft, “and time to 30 minutes or whatever and then get out again”. He said they would go onto this aerodrome and see what they could do. So they created a diversion first. They camped probably 10 mile off it that night
and just before dawn, when it’s at its darkest, they moved in with their jeeps. They just drove onto the aerodrome. They machine gunned everything they could see and the boys put bombs on 45 aircraft. So in one night…they went in and did that, they didn’t lose a person and lit up ammunition dumps, fuel dumps and god knows what while the others were putting these bombs on and they destroyed 45 aircraft.
Now a pilot could fly all his life in the air force and not get that many.
Did you meet some of these blokes?
Yes. They used to come into the squadron when they got short of ammunition and supplies. They often called in and we just set them up from the armament section. We would set them up with what we could.
But that’s how they used to do it. They would call into army places and pick up extra grenades and stuff. And they operated absolutely on their own and they were a mixture of all types of people. This Stirling went around to all army brigades around Alexandria and Cairo and said he wanted volunteers. He used to get volunteers
and sort out who he reckoned he would take. He generally liked to take the guys who were always in trouble and getting into fights and this sort of thing, and he’d turn around and make excellent sabotage men of them. So he gathered all these chaps from the Black Watch and every type of unit he could think of. He went to headquarters and he wanted to see the big guy at the top and
he was one of these chaps who never wanted to deal with anyone but the top man in order to get a decision right away. And he was a personality plus sort of a guy. He used to get into places where nobody else would go. He’d walk straight in to the field marshal and put his case. He wasn’t a negotiator but he nearly always got what he wanted. He told them he wanted to create a commando type of unit.
He put it up to them and they said they would give him a try. So they gave him trucks and jeeps and he got what he wanted. He lost a few men on the first show and then he worked out that it wasn’t the way to go to take big trucks. The shot was to have well armed jeeps with a supporting truck or two to bring supplies. So they moulded this Long Range Desert Group and
these commandos in together and they created history all through there. They were operating often 1500 miles from Cairo right down in the desert. They would go right through the sand dune country. At one stage they got over to the boarder of Chad which was under French control in those days and the Free French had some troops there. They used to operate from there, right through the Sahara.
Every part of that Western Desert they had been. They had a base camp at an oasis called Jalu. They had several oases through the desert where they would bury supplies, ammunition and all that type of stuff. They would go in at night to the main roads to wherever the enemy was operating from and send back all this information that was suitable. Then
the commando boys would then go in and of course they wouldn’t take any prisoners. They couldn’t take any prisoners. If they wanted uniforms they would just shoot up a convoy at night, take what uniforms they wanted, whether they be Italian or German, and some of them used to infiltrate into the local villages and towns.
One of the chaps was supposed to have gone into one of the big German officer’s messes. He said he was from the place down the road and got all the information he wanted. Then he walked out again.
Did you actually meet this Stirling guy?
I can’t remember if I actually spoke to him but he was there in the crowd when we were rearming
and he was moving around talking to everybody. I did talk to him once because …he was dressed up as an air force squadron leader at this stage. He wasn’t, he was actually an army chap but you didn’t know. The next time you would see him he could be dressed up as an Arab. And these guys used to roll up with 5 or 6 jeeps all armed to the teeth. There would be 3 of them in a jeep. The driver, one behind a two point five canons and another chap
sitting with a cannon out the back. They were all loaded up with time bombs and hand grenades and demolition type stuff because if the Germans were retreating, they would get in front of the Germans and blow up the bridge if it was over a wadi or something. And incidentally, a wadi is a breakaway…I told you it goes from the coast and it goes up this escarpment
and it goes back probably 30 miles and then you get another escarpment and then you get back into the real sand dune country. Yes, they’d go and set charges and blow up the bridges across the wadis and as the Germans were retreating and as they got there and found the bridge was gone, they would have to make a detour. So as soon as they made a detour, they can’t
do much about destroying that. It’s just a track through where they’ve made. It just made it easy for the following army, they just went straight through the same detour you see. So that was on all the time. They used to just sneak in and do these things…just the same as the SAS does now. So I’ve always reckoned that that was the birth of the SAS.
With these blokes you said they were pretty much recruited from being biffo maniacs, how did they strike you when you actually came into contact with them? Did they strike you as being really rough?
No. They came across…to me they came across as good solid guys. They were tough
guys who possibly didn’t like to live under strict discipline. They had to work on their own initiative and make their own decisions because often they were split up and they were on their own and they had to make their own way back to the base camp in the desert. It was virtually survival of the fittest. But they came over to me as good tough guys. The sort of guys you’d like with you.
Yes, they were great. Some of them look rough. They had beards….they would be able to carry a lot of gear so washing wouldn’t have been high on their agenda. Although they would go to the coast and have a swim now and again knowing them. But yes, they were a tough looking bunch. They always wore the Arab headdress,
and then they wore like normal battle dress slacks and shirt. But they’d always have the Arab head dress and they threw away all the army shoes and that because they were useless in the desert. They wore Arab type sandals. But gee, when they slid into the place they really looked the part. Of course they carried all sorts of guns, one each, and machine guns
and tommy guns [Thompson submachine guns]. You name it, they had it. You could see that the guys he picked were well suited for the job.
With these blokes…other members of the RAAF, how did they view these blokes?
They were all heroes as far as we were concerned. They were….
we used to hear these stories which would filter back to us. How they just slid into a convoy over night and just wrecked it.
When you would give them armaments would there be something you had to tick off, or they could have whatever they wanted, no questions?
Yes, just give them whatever they wanted. We never checked on anything. I never saw anybody sign any papers or anything. Truckloads…someone somewhere must have said,
deliver so many bombs to 3 Squadron and so many to someone else. And these trucks were a special English unit and they were great big covered trucks and that’s all they did. Carrying supplies of petrol, ammunition, bombs, detonators, mines, you name it. That was their whole job, transporting their munition supplies.
Sounds pretty dangerous consider…
Oh yes. They used to travel a lot at night. You’d hear them sometimes going through. They would strike a lot of strike with strafing and bombing. That’s what the Germans would be looking for and there was always a big convoy of them. They’d spread out where they could but often they were isolated on the Coast Road.
because of the weight of the stuff they were carrying and what have you. It wasn’t always the way to go.
I would imagine they would be an enormous moving target because there would be a domino effect?
Yes that’s right. But they were spread fairly well apart because of that sort of thing. I think that’s why they probably did a lot of night travelling. But you know, night time…it was alright on the coast road I guess but you wouldn’t want to go off the edge of the road anywhere.
There were mines. And in the finish the Germans devised what they called a ratchet mine. They would bury these in the road itself. There would be just soft metal or tar over it and they could set this from 1 to 100. They might set it at 50. That would mean that from truck one up to truck 49 could go over it, but the next truck would cop it.
So that did away with the idea that you had to go off the road to cop a mine. They could put a ratchet mine right on the road itself. Three trucks in front of you might go over it and nothing would happen but if you were number four then away you went. We lost ….his name will come to me in a minute. He was our convoy leader.
He had a little jeep and he went off the road and bang. It killed him. He was on his own. Blew the jeep up and killed him on the spot. I was driving and there was a truck in front of us, an English truck and it hit one of these mines and it killed five of them.
Sorry, what were you doing?
I was driving. We were in convoy on this coast road. One of the rare times we were on it because we stayed off
it as much as we could. We were in a convoy and we couldn’t do anything about it. There were trucks behind us and trucks in front of us. We were just going along and all of a sudden, about 3 or 4 trucks up in front hit a mine and bang, it killed five of them. Mines are very intangible things. You don’t know where they are and early in the piece
they didn’t have mine detectors to find them. And seeing we’re on mines I’ll tell you about another mine which was called an S mine. Detectors couldn’t pick them up or they hadn’t made a detector that could identify them. They would bury them in the ground and they’d have 3 prods that came out just level with the ground.
If you tread on it, you would put 30 pounds pressure on it and it would go down. It was only when you lifted your foot off it would then, the primary charge would go off and bring it up about that high off the ground and then the main charge would go. And in the main charge were 370 little cast iron balls
and once it got to two foot high they would just spray out like that and they would kill at 80 or 100 yards. Our armament truck, one particular aerodrome we were at, called Marble Arch. There were 1000 mines that they dug out of just the runways. It was so bad with these S mines that you weren’t game to work on soil…if there was a
truck wheel mark you’d walk along that until it crossed another one and then you’d go along that, just to be sure that you didn’t tread on a jolly mine. The armament truck pulled up and one chap jumped over the side and killed five of them. One chap jumped on the mine and the others were just getting over the side of the truck and killed the lot of them. So
these S mines were cows of things. I’ve only known of one chap who did tread on one and lived to tell the story. He was an AIF army lieutenant. I don’t think he was AIF, I think he was a British Army lieutenant. He stood on one but he was an engineer so he knew all about these. He realised he had pushed one down, so he put his
foot away and put his hand down and kept the pressure there and lay flat on his back knowing that it had to jump up that high before it goes off. He finished up with just….he had a few wounds on his back but it didn’t kill him. He had the presence of mind to do that. The only way they could get them out was to get a row of engineers with bayonets and they’d push them in at an angle like that.
To dodge the top of them they’d push in at an angle. The mine itself is about that big and about that thick. They would just hit it on the side. That was alright. Then they would just dig it up and stand it on top of the ground and they’d have rows of chaps pushing the bayonets into the ground. Putting them on top, putting them on top and then a truck would come along and pick them up and destroy them.
So they were dangerous for everybody.
Was there a lot of people treading on mines?
Oh yes. On that particular aerodrome I don’t know how many but all around us we could hear the damn things going off. With either trucks running over them or people treading on them.
They were a danger for the aircraft. We had to clear the airstrip before we could land there. But that place was really littered with these S mines.
Well, how much mine clearing did you end up doing?
The only mine…that wasn’t our job. As soon as we knew there were mines, we would keep well away from them if we could and
we’d call the army engineers. That was their job and they even had a tank later on with a big roller with chains on it and as it went along the chains would smack the ground setting them off. And that was fairly well in front of the tank. They were in the tank behind and they’d just drive this thing along and that would make a road way through the mines.
I ran into a minefield once. On a retreat we were travelling and it was nearly dark and around the mine fields they used to often have a piece of steel that went up with a curl like that and a curl on the top and sometimes they would run a wire through them to say where the mine field was. Anyway
we were going along in the truck and as I drove I heard this funny tinkling rattly noise and I said to the boys, “Hey, did you hear that?” and they said, “Yes, it’s too dark and we can’t see what it is.” And I said, “Well, I think we might be in a mine field.” By this time I had gone in quite a few hundred yards.
So I said, “Don’t anyone get out.” They had bigger mines for trucks and big vehicles. So I said, “Righto, all watch out the back because we’ve got to back out on our own tracks.” We knew that was safe. So that’s what we did. We back out and back out until we went over this little fence thing again.
Then we followed that along and it disappeared and we thought we must be right now so we just kept on going. There were so many mines laid with the advances forward and the retreats, that in the finish I don’t think either army knew where the damn things were. They’re still digging mines out of that Western Desert now. There’s some Dutch chap who’s been doing nothing but finding those for years.
He was on TV talking once and I don’t know how many thousands and thousands of mines he’s dug up. The Arabs are still treading on them now and again. Their camels…talking about camels. We had a mine field close to where our tent was and right in the distance we saw an Arab coming along with his camel. And the camel was just feeding.
He knew that the camel had walked into the mined area. He was walking along the side of the fence watching his camel feeding. He would have been walking along thinking oh god…because camels are pretty valuable to them. Anyway it fed its way right through and it was almost out where our tents were, almost ready to step over the wire and boom. It trod on a mine and that was the end of the camel.
They’ve created havoc and of course all over the world where they’ve used mines. In Vietnam and everywhere else. It’s havoc with the kids and that.
There’s 10 million in Afghanistan alone. How do you keep your head when you’ve found you’ve driven into a mine field?
at that stage I had been there for about 12 months I think. And you learn from stories from other guys who have been in trouble. When your life’s involved it sticks in your mind. You never really forget it and you think if that ever happens to me that’s what I’ll do. So
examples are good lessons because if you make a mistake you mightn’t have a chance. So you’ve got to…and I think we were just so used by the time to seeing death as it was. We came through some battlefields when we were moving up and there were dead Germans and Italians laying off the side of trucks and burnt. They were lying around because they
hadn’t had time to pick them up and bury them or anything else and that was on for quite a few days after a battle. So you never really get used to it because you start to analyse what war’s all about and you see the nasty side of war and you think, “Well, your own guys are going to cop this sort of thing as well”. But you get used to it inasmuch as you just accept it as being the fact of the day. I think
you get slightly immune to it. You might get a bit of an aftershock later on, but at the time, you become pretty cool and you work it out because you know your life could be at stake. So that happened quite often with the boys when they got into problems.
aftershock. I mean I’ve got myself into a bit of a sticky situation with some unexploded ordnance in Laos, and after the event everybody I was with just went over to the side of the street and just threw up. Would you do that?
Yes, it gets you afterwards. I’ve seen several pilots burnt in their cockpits, chaps I know.
They’ve landed and couldn’t get out of their aircraft and often their legs have been broken at the ankles and they can’t push up to get out. You can’t get to them because it’s just all fire and they just burned to death. Those sorts of things stay with you for the rest of your life. But certain things hit you more than others. Especially if it’s a mate. One of my mates was shot in front of my
tent, accidentally. We were fixing up point five cannons which we had taken out of an aircraft. We used to put them on a little box which we had outside the tent. We had nothing to work with. We had no workshops or anything like that. We had to work out in the open. It was just sitting on a box and his mate just pushed the recoiling back with the barrel. He fired
off five shots and Don Riley, a mate of mine, it was just at that exact time that he was walking a fair distance away in front of the guns and the shots went through his arm, through his shoulder and up through his head. Five of them. Every shot hit him. They used to fire very rapidly. So he was killed on the spot.
His mate who was working on the gun, he wasn’t any good after that. So those sorts of things…and we buried him there and then. We got an old prop and put his name and that on it and when we left he was just a mound of sand in the desert. So those sorts of things you remember.
There’s odd graves like that all through the Western Desert because the graves people couldn’t keep up with it. They weren’t picked up for sometimes years later. There’s a cemetery near Tobruk where a lot of the boys are put. But some of them were never found again. The wind and sand storms and that would come or the wild dogs would come. There
would just be some bleached bones. But that’s how it was. That was the name of the game then. That early in the war, nothing was really organised. You had to do everything yourself. That’s why when we went into this place in Syria called Riyaq. We went in there with 28 trucks and when we came out we came out with 66.
We don’t use the word stolen, we call it ‘clift-tee’. That’s the Arabic word for pinching anything. The RAF wouldn’t supply us. The Australian headquarters were too far away and they didn’t know where we were half the time. So we had to just do everything for ourselves.
So it was said, “Ok we need transport.” We can’t get it anywhere else so we’ll go in and bloody pinch it. So that’s what happened. We went in and we came away with 66 trucks. We even got a Lincoln Zephyr which was a top of the line Ford in those days. I don’t know who…one of the boys got that from somewhere. Some big rich guy must have had it.
There weren’t many cars like that around. So we brought that back and whacked it into the hangar and sprayed it and put our insignia on it, and we gave it to the CO. The funny part of that was, 12 months later when we were in the Western Desert, Field Marshal Cunningham came out and said the new push would be started soon and he was to make us aware of what was going to happen. He turns up in
a jeep and our CO turned up then and he turned up in a Lincoln Zephyr…and he’s only in a little army jeep and he’s a Field Marshal, and the story goes that as he was getting into his car he turned to his aide-de-camp, “Here I am driving a jeep and here’s a RAAF Squadron Leader driving a Lincoln Zephyr, what’s wrong?” He didn’t know how we got it. Someone picked up a Harley Davidson motorbike the same way.
I think a South African went into a toilet somewhere and when he came out his Harley Davidson had gone. That was in 3 Squadron with about 28 other motor bikes. We used to pick them up in the desert because motor bikes weren’t very suitable. The dust used to get in the carburettors and they’d cough out. So often when we were moving up we’d see a motor bike laying on the side of the road and we’d
investigate it very thoroughly before we touched it because it could have been booby trapped. They’d tie hand grenades on them and when the wheel turned the hand grenade would go off. We would just pick them up and chuck them into the back of the truck and when we got to where we were going to we’d just give the old carbie a bit of a clean out and we had motor bikes. We had 28 of them in a flight of only
about 31. But you’d only use them for a while.
Just going back to this mate of yours who was accidentally killed by the round that went off by the gun, how do you explain this to your CO?
Well there was a court martial and I think the verdict came out, accidentally shot.
That’s what it was. He fed the rounds out. There were no rounds at the mouth of the feed in, and when he fired it forward and how it picked up the end of the belt and got in…it just thread through and got out five rounds.
So that’s what the verdict was anyway. You couldn’t do anything else. It was one of his mates, his tent mate who did it.
So an absolutely tragic story?
Oh yes, and I would say those sort of stories, there would have been a few of them around. I’ve seen some near misses. We
used to harmonise aircraft…we would lift the tail of an aircraft up and we’d take a target say 250 yards out. We’d look through the barrels and check that the sights were harmonise with the target. We’d have that strapped on the back of a truck. I was out there in the truck this time with a mate of mine, Curly.
We were sitting there and the next thing we heard a burst. The cannon shell went through the back of the truck and went into the dash board in front of us. We were sitting there in the truck. We were lucky it missed. Often pilots taking off might accidentally fire off a round. I know Nicky Barr did that. I
was…where was I? I was standing on the wing next to him. He had just come in and we often run in because often after they had been flying and been in operations and done a bit of hard work, they were pretty tired. They had the parachute which they were sitting on and we’d always help them out of the cockpit. I was up on one side to help him out, the rigger was sitting on the wing and the cannons were about that far apart. There were 3 on each wing.
And they used to have little pipes that came out from the wing about that far. He was sitting with a leg between the two and Nicky Barr took his leather helmet off and put it on top of the joy stick and it tripped the…he hadn’t switched his guns off and all six
cannons went off and poor old Ray said, “What the hell…are you trying to shoot them off.? Are you trying to shoot my dick off?” And the other mate on the other side said, “Well he shouldn’t miss at that range.” God I laughed and I said, “Well that settles it. I’ll have to rearm it now won’t I?” That would have been the last few shots. There were 250 rounds and they used to just about go through the lot, strafing. And we were always on to them not to hold their bursts for too long because it would get red hot and then there would be some inaccuracies.
Interviewee: Felix Sainsbury Archive ID 0980 Tape 06
Can you tell me about your arrival at Alexandria?
Yes. We came by truck and we stayed at an army transport camp, which is a transit camp and that’s where all personnel go…to this huge camp just sitting in all the sand.
You got there and from there and you stay overnight and you get fed and all this, and then you go out to where ever your units are. So we went by truck from this camp which was called Kasfereet. We went from there through Cairo and then down to…Cairo’s inland of course from Alexandria which is the Mediterranean port.
And we went down to Alexandria. Now Alexandria is a modern city by virtue of the fact that if you start comparing it to Cairo, which is the old original city. Very interesting but …a good place for a tourist to go to but you get into the outer bits and that an d it’s
pretty dirty and filthy. And we were warned not to go out into the native quarters because all through Alexandria and all through Egypt it was infiltrated by quite a few German agents which were very keen to get your pay book. So anyone who went into the native quarters, it was out of bounds to the troops.
If they did they would always run the risk that they would get knocked over. They would get your pay book and from the pay book they can find out so much. In there is when you joined up, all the places you had been to. They’ve got a lot of information out of that, plus the fact that someone else could use the pay book. So then we went down to Alexandria
and it’s a clean more modern type of city and we always went on leave there. We went back to Cairo once to see the pyramids and the museums. But mainly we’d always go to Alexandria because the only time we ever got leave was when we came back after a retreat. We might have 10 days and we would have accumulated quite a lot of money
in our pay book. Or we thought it was a lot of money. And we spend the whole lot because we felt we mightn’t make the next one. So we had that reckless attitude, we might as well spend it all.
Can you tell me what happened the first time you arrived in Alexandria?
Yes, we arrived and we only
went through Alexandria and then we went out to a place called Amiriya which is about 15 mile out. But from there we went on leave for a few days into Alexandria to have a look around.
What kind of things did you get up to on leave?
Oh gee, unlimited. Well, when
we went on leave and we had a few days there we’d book into one of the local hotels. And that’s another story. We booked into this hotel and we were on the seventh floor. Right at the very top, it was the last floor. Anyway we thought this was luxury after the dirty filthy desert and everything. We could have
a hot shower and a bath. We went out and we went down to a place called the Long Bar which was nearly all air force. It was Stella beer, the Egyptian beer and so long as it was really cold it wasn’t a bad drop. You could have all the other stuff. You had to be careful. If you bought a bottle of whisky, you always turned it upside down to
see if it was genuine or not. If the glass had been melted you would know it had been taken out and they would put in onion whisky in its place. And boy that’s devastating the next day if you drink the lot of that. Same as Aroat and…God you could straighten out corrugated iron with it. It was very strong. Anyway…
Is onion whisky what it sounds to be?
Yes, it’s made from onion.
You can make whisky from any grain, anything really. They get the spirit out of it. But of course different types of things have different tastes. The onion whisky, I only ever had one go at it and that was enough for me. Then I found out…see we were amateurs at that stage. But after that you always turned them upside down and you could see where they took out the good stuff and put in some of their rubbish.
They were crafty. They would do anything to put it over you. So we get back to the hotel. We came back from having a few beers and look around the place. And we thought, “This will be beaut, between the nice clean sheets”. We went to bed…Reg and I went to bed. We had two single beds and we’re lying there thinking this is lovely. So we switch
the lights off and the next thing I hear Reg say, “Gee what was that?” He said, “Something bit me.” And it wasn’t long and I started to get bites and we knew there was something in the beds. We switched the lights on and pulled the sheets back and there were bedbugs. We reckoned they were as big as roos. And they bit us everywhere.
And we thought, “This is no good”. So we said, “Blow it”. So we shook the sheets and we laid the sheets…they used to have a little balcony outside the window. We’d go out on to this balcony and it was just like marble. We thought, there won’t be any bugs on that so we’ll lay the sheets on that and put a sheet over us with a pillow and see how we go. We did get any more bugs but by gee it was uncomfortable.
We felt we were going to get a bit of comfort. So that was something we always made sure about next time. But we stayed at that hotel again and made sure we got a decent room, and we were up on the seventh floor again as it happened. We just got to sleep and all hell broke loose. An air raid came on and the bombers were dropping bombs but
what staggered us was just above our room was a battery of 3.7 ack ack guns, which is three of them. And they fire a shell of 3.7 which was a shell about that big. So you can imagine the noise they would make. They were suddenly firing at the German aircraft right above our room. So we thought we’d get out of this,
so we went to the balcony outside and we stood outside there. The bombs were lobbing further over and we though we should be alright here, and the next thing all the ack ack shrapnel started falling down on the roofs and bouncing on the street and everywhere. We thought we’d better go back inside again. At least in the desert we could get into a slit trench.
But here, 7 floors up. So anyway a bit later on we heard this huge demolition charge go off and we thought what the heck was that? We found out in the morning that they had dropped a sea mine, but it had missed the ocean and it had blown out the back of the Syracuse Hotel. That night claimed 300 killed that night. And
in amongst it…one of the bombs hit the regimental brothels, so that would have killed a few of the girls and a few of the guys I suppose. But they were all run by the army in those days. It was a brilliant idea. Because if you got VD [Venereal Disease] on leave you were
on a charge and it was a very serious charge because it used to spread so quickly. The Crimean War was nearly lost because of that. So the army said, “Righto, we’ll run our own brothels” and they had a place called El Burka. I don’t know how many girls they had there,
but they ran it in an excellent way. You could go and get a drink there. They had some good card games, mainly poker. And anybody who wanted to make use of the services would get a ticket which would say Girl 22 on it, say. Now if this soldier after he got back developed any diseases, he’d
go straight to the medical officer, present his ticket and he would be examined and he wouldn’t be on a charge. But the main thing was that doctor would immediately get in touch with the doctors that twice a day used to inspect the girls in there. They were dealing with hundreds and hundreds, thousands of troops, and so….
venereal disease, when it gets into thousands of troops is a devastating thing. This way they were able to control it and that makes me think that registered brothels that they’re arguing about today could be a good thing, and be successful.
Were you a bit of a player Felix?
Player and stayer, oh yes. Don’t forget we were all single
and I suppose I could count on one hand the number of guys who were married in the squadron. I was mainly into dancing and singing and going to the cabarets and having a few beers. I was always a bit wary of it because we were warned beforehand…never take on a girl that you meet in a horse drawn garry or
a taxi or anything like that because they had around about 60 or more per cent venereal disease problem. So anybody that took a risk with a woman off the street was a fool. So that wasn’t on. I never seemed to find too much time for that. I reckoned there were better things to do.
I understand the local women were quite attractive?
Yes because in Alexandria you had such a mixture of people. You had the white Egyptians and the dark Egyptians. You had French, Italian, Maltese, and some of the women are most attractive. And I met quite a few nice girls there.
But mainly I seemed to run across…I ran across a British WREN [member of the Women’s Royal Navy Service]. I used to take this Navy WREN out. She was an ice dancer in England. These WREN’s, 80 of them turned up in Alexandria. We found out where they were staying and we had to front up to the old girl in charge
to see if we passed.
How did she size you up?
I don’t know how the heck she would work it out. Probably on the way you presented yourself. Your dress and you didn’t smell of liquor and all this sort of thing.
What other formalities were expected of you?
Bring them back. You had to be back by midnight and all this sort of thing. You had to
behave yourself. You know the story. So anyway, and another time I met an RAF girl. She was a lieutenant and at the time I was only a corporal I think.
I met her at one of the cabarets and she said to come out to the officer’s mess tomorrow. They had a swimming pool out there and a bar and I thought, “Yes, that will do me”. Something different. So I went out there and spent the day with her out there in the bar. It was quite good. Of course after that we went back off leave
the next day so I never saw her again. You never looked to any permanent relationships because you just didn’t know if you were coming back. So it was have a good time while you could. A lot of the boys…some of them slept around and they were so broad minded the people there. In these
days you could probably fathom it but in those days, we just couldn’t understand how broad minded they were. I remember one of my mates he took home a little girl…he had met her at one of these…they had a lot of these little cabarets where they would have a little orchestra poked in the corner and sell a few grogs [alcohol] and half a dozen tables for a meal and this sort of thing. He picked up this little girl, a nice looking girl.
I saw her there. Anyway he went home with her to her place. Her parents welcomed him with opened arms…you’ve got to understand these people are battling for money. Anyway he slept with their daughter and they brought him breakfast and it was all good and he went away again. And she gave him a photo of herself and what have you. Anyway back at the squadron one night in the tent,
he’s said, “How’s this for a chick.” And the boys were looking at her and about 3 of them all pulled out the same photograph. So there you go, you don’t know what goes on. So they seem to look on that sexual thing a lot differently to what we do.
Much less conservative.
Yes. But cripes, there were hundreds of ways you could get yourself into a hell of a lot of trouble there.
Oh gee…you would go to these bars and there was one place…there were two of them. There was the Petit Trianon and there was the Grand Trianon.
That was a great big place and there was a big dance floor and they’d have the Dance of the Seven Veils and all this strip bit.
Can you go into more detail about the Seven Veils?
Well this girl dances with all these veils and she takes off the veils. That’s what happened in some places, but in some places
they don’t go far at all. They just call it the Dance of the Seven Veils and nothing happens. But the further down the street you get and the lower the scale it gets, until you get to the bottom of the street, the real low dive then anything can happen. It’s just amazing.
Did you visit a few of those dives?
Oh yes, we’d go and have a look at them. But some of them
they were definitely the lowest of the low.
Low as you could go. But we used to relegate these places on how good the beer was and how good the food was. In those places you weren’t really game to touch much of the liquor or the food. They’d rob you in a flash anyway.
They were always out to rob you if they could. If they asked for 400 piastres for something, you’d immediately start by offering them about 150. Now and again I suppose they used to have a win, but they would rob you if they could. We used to say the rule of three. When you were walking out the door for the third time you were around about the right price.
So you’d knock it back each time and then you’d say, “That’s it, I’m finished. Not interested.” And just as you got near the door they’d come to your price and then you’d start arguing again. But yes, the…
What kind of things would you haggle for?
You could buy a lot of …watches were cheap. Cameras were pretty cheap because I think most
of them were contraband. I think they got a lot of them from up in Palestine where the refugee Jews were all migrating to there at that time. They brought a lot of cameras and all this sort of stuff from Europe and I suppose they had to sell them for money. Money was pretty short all through there.
There were wars going on then in Palestine. The Arabs were fighting the Jews at that stage. We went down to a Christmas dinner to the Jewish settlements a couple of times when we were in Syria.
When did you first go to Syria?
What was your operation?
That was the Syrian campaign. It’s funny, they’ve never struck a ribbon or a medal or anything for that campaign. The fighting in Palestine and Damascus and Syria and up into Lebanon. This place, Riyaq is not far from Beirut in the mountains.
It was an RAF station in peace time. I don’t know what the devil they were doing there with an RAF station, but it was. The only place we ever had concrete runways or anything. And that’s when we were fighting the Vichy French who were on the German side. That was strange. The Vichy French were fighting the Free French and they had all the same sort of aircraft and everything.
We had a General Dentz, Vichy French. He landed his plane on the tarmac and his biggest mistake was he parked his plane right in front of 3 Squadron where we were living. So the boys decided to do a bit of souveniring. They pinched the dunny out of it. They pinched his coat, they pinched his shoes.
The clock. Someone knocked off the compass. They were doing some souveniring. Of course he was under a truce and he was negotiating with the AIF because he had captured 10 AIF soldiers…men. I don’t know how many officers were amongst them. He was
negotiating his release for these men and anyway he came back to fly out in his plane and of course the plane was unserviceable. It couldn’t take off. I had the tarpaulin out of it. I used to wrap my bed roll in it.
Anyway in the meantime the AIF commandoes or troops got up there and found these soldiers and so then the army came around and grabbed old General Dentz and put him in prison. Then the CO came down and he berated us for souveniring. “What a disgrace to the air force.” And then at the end I think
the army will probably send us a letter of thanks because he didn’t get away. But that’s how it was. Our crowd were pretty unruly but they worked as a team and that’s when they worked out that there wasn’t enough transport, so we pinched it. And that’s when we went and got the extra trucks so we could get back to the desert.
We picked up a complete Italian workshop in the desert. A truck…I don’t know where the boys got that. They must have found it out in the desert somewhere. Anyway they got it going. The sides of it used to fold down and right in the middle of the truck, the full length of the truck was a beautiful big lathe. The sides would go down and there would be vices and drills all attached to it. And when you opened it up you had a complete
workshop. An old Lancier diesel it was.
How many tons would this workshop have been?
In weight? With the vehicle it would be around about 5 ton plus. It was a heavy damn thing. We always left it at base. It wasn’t much good up in the desert sand. And it had what was called an
inertial starter. You’d have to wind the front like they used to do with the old time aircraft. This big handle in the front would go….and once she wound up you’d yell, “Contact”, and you’d pull a lever back and then the motor would start up. It was a big diesel. We used to laugh about this old thing, but by gee it was still there when I left.
Old Horse Hartley he was the guy who was educated up in the Mine School up in Kalgoorlie. He was a real hot fitter and turner and gee whiz he could make anything on this damn lathe. So we used to make up some of our own parts. So it was a very useful bit of machinery. We had German trucks. We
would get them going and Opals…the Opal was the German Chevrolet. So we grabbed what enemy trucks we could. You should have seen our squadron. It was just a mixture of everything, Italian, German. The guys would come down to breakfast. There would be one in an Italian suit and another chap in a Jerry [German] Panzer Division suit and something else.
You wouldn’t have given two bob [shillings] for the lot of us.
That must have provided a few laughs?
Oh yes. We used to …I had a Panzer…I wish I still had it. It would be worth a bob these days. I had a full German Panzer division suit…officer’s jacket, the lot. I didn’t have the cap. But they were riding pants. Like corduroy proper riding pants
and the boots used to come up to here, big lace ups. I wore it in the desert especially when it got really cold. They were good. A lot of the boys were wearing these German boots. They had some good equipment. That business about them not having aluminium for this and that, well when you looked at their clothes, most of them had aluminium buttons on them.
And their armament, their trucks. We had a couple of their scout cars which was originally the German people’s car. The car they made for the German people, but they turned into a desert scout car. They were very cunning because the wheels on this scout car were interchangeable with the wheels on a Stuka aircraft. So they carried a lot of spares just by having them on their scout cars.
And these little scout cars were independently sprung. It’s the same as the VW [volkswagen]. They had an air cooled engine in the back. And you could swap one over. We had a couple of them in the scrub. Jerry, a mate of mine he had one. He would shoot up to breakfast and lunch. Other guys would come up on Italian or German motor bikes.
It sounds like you had to be quite resourceful. In what other ways were you?
If we had trouble with an aircraft and it was still flyable, we’d fly it back to base where they had the facilities to repair it. We just did on the spot repairs as quick as we could because we were up in the advance flight.
We had to service the aircraft and get them going again. Get them up in the air. If anything went radically wrong they’d be sent back to base. Things would happen. On convoy once I remember we were going up that rotten coast road again. I used to hate the thing.
There were so many burnt out trucks on the side of the road or just off the side of the road. Anyway I’m ploughing along and there’s a Pommy truck in front of me. We used to call them all Pommys in those days. He was just in front of me and we’re all bum to tail going along.
The next thing he slapped his skids on for some reason or other and I ran into the back of him and busted the radiator and I thought oh gee what a place to be broken down. So one of my mates was coming along with his truck so I yelled out, “Hey give me a tow.” I was think we might have been able to get a radiator up the track off some other truck. So anyway he hitched on
and we only went about two mile and I saw a German truck off the side of the road. It had been burnt out. So we pulled up next to that and I gingerly went over and had a look. The bonnet had been thrown off. I had a look in there and I could see the radiator and I thought, “This will be near enough. There might be some water in it even.”
So we get in there with the spanners to loosen off the radiator and I spotted a hand grenade on the fan blade. They had taped a hand grenade on to the fan blade and they had a cord from that and onto the radiator. It would have gone off two ways. If you had tried to start it or if you had pulled the radiator out.
Anyway I was lucky to spot this hand grenade on the fan blade. So I thought, “We’ll have to get rid of that first”, so we cut the cord, held the pin in then pulled the pin and threw it out into the desert. Then we took the radiator out and we took what water there was left in it and put it into ours. Then we put that radiator
in and chucked the other one onto the side of the road and off we went. That was in the truck for quite a while. It went alright. But we were just lucky it fitted. See if that had been at night time or in the dark, we would never have spotted the hand grenade so you had to beware. After you had been there for a few months you heard of all these different stories and you were suspicious of anything you saw. If you saw a motor bike
you’d say to yourself, what the hell is that motor bike laying here. It looks alright. There doesn’t seem to be any damage. So you’d start looking for trip wires and any time of booby trap system that they might attach to it. You might even see a thermos lying down there and boy, you left it there because as soon as you screwed the top off, it would explode. You know a thermos in the desert,
you’re dead right, you just leave it alone and be very careful of guns you might pick up. We were possibly lucky in armament because we were sort of fairly well aware that these things happened. We didn’t know much about booby traps but we were aware of ammunition shells and that sort of thing, whether they were fit to touch or not.
But any thing at all that you weren’t sure of, it was best just to walk away.
What was the role of 3 Squadron in Syria?
That’s where we got the first American aircraft used in this war which were Tomahawks. We were flying Hurricanes at that stage. When we first started off we started with Gauntlets, the old biplane and Gladiators which were
almost World War I stuff. See, 3 Squadron started off in 1916 in France. So we were the oldest and most senior squadron in Australia and that was before the RAAF existed. The RAAF didn’t exist until 1925. So our squadrons had a hell of a lot of experience, and we were always the
most experienced and we always reckoned we copped the worst jobs all the time.
Leave it to 3 Squadron?
Yes leave it to them. Those colonials, they’re mad enough, they’ll do it. So we went up there and we lost a few Hurricanes because they brought out incendiary ammunition and it was really hot. The wings would catch fire and we’d lose the aircraft.
Anyway when the Tomahawks came we used those. We got those up at Riyaq in Syria and on those concrete runways the Olio Struts which are the leg struts which hold the landing wheels. They weren’t strong enough and we crashed 17 of them in a fortnight. The legs just collapsed. The pilots were alright.
Were the planes salvageable?
Oh yes. We’d jack them up and get the wheel back out. And anyway straight after that they brought out a modification.
The Yanks moved pretty quickly on that and modified them. They were alright after that. They were a pretty heavy aircraft. They were a good aircraft, pretty manoeuvrable but no where near as good as the German [Messerschmitt] 109. But they were a very sturdy
solid aircraft and they performed pretty well. We were glad to get on to those and from those…we only had those for about 6 months. Then we had the Kittyhawk. Now the difference between the Kittyhawk and the Tomahawk was that it had a more powerful motor. The same design fuselage.
The same design basically and the same company. But a bigger motor, heavier in the wheel section and they had point five cannons in them instead of point three pea shooters which were about the same size as a 303.
So did the Kittyhawks put a smile on the pilots’ faces?
They loved it. And it was a good aircraft up to about 15,000 feet, but above that it started to lose its manoeuvrability.
Whereas the German aircraft, the Messerschmitt, that was a beautiful aircraft. That was an aircraft you would compare with Spitfires. It flew well. They had an inverted Mercedes 12 engine and
they used to have forced feed fuel injection in them. When they climbed they just went straight up into the sun. They’d come out of the sun at you, dive and off. They weren’t very happy about mixing it with us because under 15,000 feet, once we got down to about 12,000, 9000 feet, you could turn inside them with a Kittyhawk and we could make it really touch for them in a dog fight.
That’s what they would try and do. Cruise along under a cloud ceiling and they come for you and then you’d be onto their tails.
What bearing does altitude have on air attacks?
It does. The higher you go the more rarefied the air. The pressure on the wing surface creates…that’s where you get your lift and everything that goes with it. I’m not
an aerodynamic expert but I know that. And don’t forget the Kittyhawk would have been a much heavier aircraft than the Messerschmitt which was only a little aircraft. As I say it’s like comparing it to a Spitfire. It was lighter and very manoeuvrable. It had a very powerful motor and the fuel injection system which was unheard of in those days. And that used to help them. They used to really pour the fuel in on a climb
and they could really go.
Felix, what was life like on the ground?
It wasn’t bad because where we were at Riyaq was the only place that we ever lived in huts. We made up beds out of stuff there. We had a lot of captured stuff there that they had captured from the Vichy French and
and in amongst it was a hell of a lot of parachutes too. We noticed that a few of those went off and some of the girls back home got silk to make underclothes with. But there was a bit of sabotage there. Two or three of the huts just after we got settled were burnt down by saboteurs at night. So we weren’t too happy about that.
Who would the saboteurs have been?
Probably the Vichy French or Arabs, pro German. You never knew who was on your side or who wasn’t. It’s much the same now. We always used to reckon, never trust an Arab. And so, that’s where I saw a Free French Morane Fighter do an outside loop. Have never seen it before.
Interviewee: Felix Sainsbury Archive ID 0980 Tape 07
Perhaps I should tell you a bit about Tobruk and El Adam?
Yes definitely, because you mentioned before you were looking at the Tobruk raid?
Right. The first advance we got up as far as Gazala which is on the other side of Tobruk.
Now we’ll start from moving up again on what we called the second push, and I must try and work in the big retreat which was from well up and how we got posted missing in Benghazi, just our advance flight. So when we were moving up on the second advance
up the coast road. We went up the coast road and we struck this Salum Pass….that’s another one of these passes up this escarpment to get to the top. There was no where suitable for landing grounds down near the coast anyway. Nobody wanted to live anywhere near that because that was bombed and strafed every night. So we went up Salum Pass
We went up there at around about…it would have been in the afternoon, about mid afternoon. We came up the pass and we got up there as quick as we could. You could only be in first gear anyway. It was such a steep winding pass and we got up to the top and we got back to our old stamping ground, Gambut. This was a hell of a place. We had more raids there then
anywhere else I’d say. It was so bad, this time we thought we would try and find some caves on the side of the wadi where we came up to the top. We noticed a big wadi and we went over there, right on the edge and we saw this big opening and we went down and there were steps down into it, and there was a big cave there.
We could see by bits of equipment and stuff there that the Italians had used it. We thought, “Hey, this will be great, we won’t have to put up our tents. This will be luxury.” So we set up in this cave. We cleaned it all out. It was a big area…almost say three quarters of this house.
And the ceiling was as high as this and we thought this would be great. Anyway the first night, it happened. We were lying in bed and someone said, “Hey, did you feel that?” And someone would say, “Yes, I felt something running on my bed.” So ok, light up the hurricane lamp and see what we can find out. The darn joint was full of mice and rats.
So we thought, “How can we get rid of them?” So we were burning stuff and smoking them out. Anyway blow me down, while this was happening on comes an air raid. A stick of bombs went down along the bottom of the wadi and we thought, “Gee, we don’t like this much. What if a bomb lobs on top of the bloody place, what then?” And someone said, “It will all fall in on us.”
So that settled it. We said we were going to put the tents up tomorrow. As soon as the bombs started to lob everyone was at the opening. So curiosity was too great. So we said, “Blow this, this is not good”. So we then put the tent up the next day. And we were bombed and raided every day
and night. It must have been for about 2 weeks. We didn’t get any sleep. That was their angle. Sometimes they would just cruise around and they’d know if you went to bed you wouldn’t be sleeping. You’d have one ear cocked and listening all the time.
How did the sleep deprivation affect you?
was really crook because you were dog tired and you knew you couldn’t be tired when you were putting detonators in bombs and things you know. You couldn’t relax for a minute. So we used to swap around on some of the real tentative jobs like that. We used to swap around. We wouldn’t let one guy do it all the time. So we used to try and do it that way and we were all sensible enough to say, “Hey,
I’m too tired to do this. Give it to someone else.” And the guys used to look after one another that way. So otherwise we wouldn’t have got away with it I don’t think. We were always called the luckiest squadron in the Middle East because when bombs dropped and when things happened we always seemed to just escape. But I’ve always put that down to our wariness and the fact that we would disperse everything, our trucks, our tents and our aircraft even.
We had to drive from one place to another. We would use trucks to go just to the next tent. See I had 3 tents in armoured section with guys in them and I would have to get up early in the morning and drive to each tent and wake them up and then get them down to the mess to have something to eat. If you were close enough to the mess then you’d walk to it. That was sometimes a problem because
we might get a strafing raid when we were at breakfast. We reckoned that was bloody inconsiderate of the Germans. When you have stuff in a plate and you’ve got to run for it and chuck yourself into a slit trench or lie flat on the deck, it’s not too good. You do your breakfast in for a start. But talking about breakfast, I’ve got to say an excellent word for the cooks. Those poor cows. They were the first up in the morning,
getting breakfast for everybody, and they tried so hard to change bully beef into something else. They’d put it in batter and they’d call it…they’d have a little board and they’d say, grilled salmon, and grilled this and that. They were such happy-go-lucky guys and they tried so hard to make bully beef and biscuits come out different.
They’d have biscuits and they’d soak them in canned milk and put a bit of rice on it and they’d give it some fancy name, and that was just the old biscuits we had because rations were pretty rugged.
Can you remember anything that was an incredible success as far as the transformation of bully beef was concerned?
Yeah. A thing we used to call Doofers. We said to Curly…Curly Morrison was the cook. There was Curly and Pat Henwood
who lives over here. I’ll think of the other chap’s name in a minute. We’d line up for breakfast and he’d have these cooking. We got a bit away from the old …they used to always cook at one time in something like a 44 gallon drum. Like a copper with a lid and a chimney. And that’s all they had for cooking, and that was stews and everything, and when
the dust and the sand storms were blowing, they’d just lift the lid up and you’d be hanging onto your plate…they’d ladle it on and then they’d bang the lid down again. There was always sand in your food. How we all didn’t suffer from crook stomachs I don’t know. We must have eaten pounds of dust, but there was no way they could keep it out of the food. It was just blowing everywhere.
Anyway, he used to have this tray and we went down this morning and he had all these rissoles on there. And we said, “Curly, you’ve excelled yourself, we’ve got rissoles, gee they look nice.” They had a nice sort of smooth batter around them and they looked really good. And he said, “Come on, there’s plenty here for you fellas.”
There was always a mate of mine, Frank Seymour. He used to always go crook at us because we would always come back for seconds. We had good appetites. Anyway I went up and said, “What the hell are they Curly?” He said, “These are beautiful and I’ve been up all night cooking them.” So we took them back and thought this will be good.
And of course we cut it in half and what it was, was just bully beef done in a batter and made to look good. And we said, “Curly, you rotten thing.” But they used to make every effort. Sometimes it was called turkey and fish and rissoles, but they used to do the rice. They’d colour the rice and call it something else.
At one time in an oasis they cooked some dates with rice. They sent some little wog kid up and said, “Are they ripe?” So they cooked these dates and the dates came out purple because they were still a bit green, and it sent all the rice purple and our teeth looked purple in the finish.
So he got into trouble about that. But they were terrific. And when we were on convoy they’d always cook up the night before and put it in what we called the hot box which was like a big aluminium thing like a big esky. And it used to keep pretty warm. And when we were on convoy we knew we were always going to get a warm meal either at dinner time or tea time. So full marks to the cooks, they really tried hard
and they had a rotten job. First up in the morning and last to bed at night. You’d hear them banging and washing up their stuff. They were last to bed. So theirs was a pretty thankless sort of job. Anyway we were at Gambut, weren’t we. Ok,
we were raided and strafed and our boys had operations every day. We had to rearm and rebomb these aircraft and sometimes we were bombing up fairly late at night and we were up at dawn in the morning with very little sleep. So the days were pretty rugged when we were in full operations like that. Our advanced flight was always up just behind the army so there were a lot of sorties and a lot of ammunition
would be gone through and a lot of bombs. So we would have to go over to the bomb dump and prepare the bombs. Early in the piece we had to make up our own belts of ammunition. We would have them on a little grooved tray and just pull a lever and belt in 10 or 20 at a time into the clips to make the string of rounds. So that was hard work, but later on they supplied them already belted up.
They had a sequence of ball tracer, incendiary and armour piercing. They had them in a sequence, so when the guns fired they fired the tracer which gave you a line of where your shot was going. Then they have the ball which would make a big hole and they’d have the armour piercing which would go through anything. And then that would follow up with the incendiary which would set it alight.
So that sequence helped the pilots a lot and they could see where their shots were going. So we were flat out all the time and then they decided to move up to this place called El Adam. I picked up a Moto Guzzi motorcycle while I was there. And I
decided to ride with the convoy on this old Italian motor bike. Of course we get going and up comes one of the worst dust storms we had. I’m driving through this blinding dust and I wished to hell I hadn’t decided to do it. Anyway we got up to El Adam that night and we decided to dig a dug out and sand bag it.
We knew this place from the last time we were there. The Germans had been there prior to this so they knew exactly where it was. It was on top of the escarpment looking down and that was Tobruk. It was 8 or 9 mile down. So we thought blow it, we’ll dig in
properly this time because what would happen, the Germans would come and raid Tobruk every night and they’d come over El Adam and they’d run in towards the ocean. If it was a moonlight night the ocean would show up and they knew where El Adam was and they could run straight in and be pretty accurate right on Tobruk and the harbour. They were mainly into the harbour because
the navy used to send destroyers in. They would come …generally two and one would stay outside for protection and the other one would try and get into the harbour, unload all the stores and stuff for the AIF who were trapped in there…the Rats of Tobruk and they relied on these supplies. We couldn’t get them at that stage. So these ….
Muriel’s brother was on one of the destroyers that used to go into the harbour. The used to come in and unload and of course the Jerries were after the shipping as well as the town itself. The men in the town were well dug in. They had tunnels everywhere. It was like a rabbit warren.
Did you get in and have a look at that?
Yes I went through Tobruk…after we captured Tobruk…we got Tobruk on that push up and the boys all got out,
so of course we went in and had a look at the place. God it was so battle scarred with the continual bombing. How they survived I’m blowed if I know. They were very cunning and very good. So I had been there a little while and there was an old German hangar on this aerodrome.
So we thought we’d go up there and do a bit of scrounging and maybe pick something up. We thought we might be able to pick up one of those fold up stretchers. So we went up there and there was Jerry Bourne and I, and Jerry was about 50 yards in front of me and we walked into this hangar. He was up there ahead of me and he yelled out that
it looked like there was a bit of a room, and there might be something in that. So I said I would have a look around down here. And I just walked in and we heard an aircraft above and the next thing we heard some bombs drop. You could hear them coming down. I said, “Watch out!” and lay flat on my guts.
This bomb landed about from here to my car in front of me and I thought this is curtains. It didn’t go off. It was one of those sabotaged bombs. It was a dud and I thought gee whiz. But we couldn’t believe it.
We had the one that went between the tents that didn’t go off and we had this one. So I looked to see if my number was on it but it wasn’t. It was close.
Did you ever carry around any lucky charms?
No. I can’t think of anything I regarded as a lucky charm
I was always a bit of a fatalist. “What’s for me I’m going to get anyway.” I think most of us got that way inclined in the finish. We couldn’t see how the hell you could be lucky enough to dodge this continually. So we sort of just relied on our luck. We’re in the lucky squadron we won’t get hurt.
No, I don’t think…another thing too. All we wore was just shorts and some old shoes. We didn’t wear anything else. That used to upset all the Pommies. They could only stand 3 months in the desert then they used to send them back and then bring up another lot. They’d see us walking around in shorts, brown.
The sun didn’t worry us. We were brown and there was a lot of dust and dirt with the brown. They used to think, this is good. We’re going to get burnt like you fellas. Righto, just watch it. And gee whiz some of them. See if they got sunburnt and they had to go to hospital and be sent back, they would be on a charge because
that was a chargeable offence. Self injury. They couldn’t understand that we could walk around without our shirts on and be ok. They were as white…and coming from England and they thought all they needed was a couple of days in the sun and they’d be like us. With their type of colouring and that it just wasn’t on. So they
went around fully clothed. Another thing is, they still used to have parades every morning and all this bulldust that we wouldn’t put up with. We never had a parade about anything. We used to go crook if we had to parade. The only time we’d be in a group in a parade was when we were picking up some pay to go on leave. And that was good
because our officers didn’t expect it and while we could operate efficiently, why waste time with all that business. Often we would be on convoy, we’d go past some RAF camp and they’d be all on parade and god did we give them a hoy. No, sometimes the discipline was taken too far in situations like that. You’re right out in the desert and you’ve got a flag pole sticking up with a flag on it?
So we pleased ourselves as much as possible.
How often were you actually moving around?
Gosh, as I say, sometimes we’d spend…that was a long stay when we stayed at Gambut for two weeks. A lot of times we’d only operate for 3 or 4 days. Our aim on the advance flight was to stay up with the army who were moving forward with their tank battles
and everything. We wanted to be as close behind as possible so we could do a greater number of sorties with our aircraft. And that meant the aircraft would only have to fly 20 or 30 miles and they were over the bomb line which is the front line. And our guys were always careful to identify…they never ever machine gunned or dropped bombs on any of our own troops.
They’d come down and have a look. The Americans when they first came in over the troops, they did some terrible things to the 28th AIF Battalion and the New Zealanders. And that’s what started off that big fight in Cairo and Alexandria. It was because of that. They had a bit of an attitude thing with the Maoris.
There were several cases where they just said, “Get off the footpath nigger” to a Maori. Well that wasn’t on and it wasn’t on as far as the white New Zealander was concerned either. So that immediately started up…and then they took over the big Grand Trianon, the best club in Alexandria. They would just come on mass as they do and just took over the place. They wouldn’t let any Australians or English or anybody in there.
They tried tossing out a couple of the Maoris and the fight started from that. The Maoris just pulled their bayonets and hit them over side of the head and they were carting them off in truck loads. After that they were never ever allowed to be on leave when the Australians or the New Zealanders were on leave.
Did you have much contact with any Americans?
Yes. Well the first contact we had with them was when they first came into the war.
They set up camp about a mile over from us and they started off…they had all white tents. Now all our tents were the colour of the desert. We got khaki tents and if they weren’t then we would throw oil and sand over them. They had all these lovely little white tents, all in a row. They parked all their aircraft in rows. When they took off they flew in Pansy Vee formation.
Pansy Vee formation because they were just flying like they were in an aircraft show or something like that. We used to fly totally different to them. We used to fly in pairs like that. So every time the plane turns he’s looking over that way and he’s looking that way, and you had one plane in front and one sightly behind.
This guy was your second dicky. He watched. His whole aim was to guard the guy in front of him, and this chap did the attack and then he went in. This was all worked out by our own squadron. But these guys took off and their first operation, the Jerry 109 aircraft just picked them off one after the other. Their bombers coming over at night
could see these white tents as plain as anything in the moonlight. So our CO went over and blew them up. He said, “Hey, you’re only going to draw all these bombers over next to us. If you’re going to do anything like that, get out of our area. Get over there somewhere.” Anyway they didn’t do very much until
they had their first bombing raid and they lost a few aircraft and what have you. Then after that you could hardly see them they were that camouflaged. So I never had much faith in them in the Middle East and it was proven a little while later. Headquarters took them out of combat operations and they just did coastal patrol. So we were glad they weren’t anywhere near us at that stage.
They had good pilots with thousands of hours, and ours only had a few hundred hours, but they had had it in combat. They knew what it was all about. But these guys couldn’t seem to…our CO went over there and he felt they weren’t prepared to listen to someone who hadn’t had as many hours as they had, telling them how to fly their aircraft.
Anyway they didn’t come into combat services as far as we were concerned when we were there. They were just put on coastal patrol.
Would you say they were widely regarded as giant peanuts?
Yes. When we got up passed Tripoli and we got up to a place called the Mareth Line. The Yanks were supposed to be coming in,
the 1st Division from Algiers side. Now they were supposed to meet us half way down, down near Benghazi somewhere. They never got there and we virtually went right up to them. And at one stage they got into a bit of a scuffle and they walked away and left 200 tanks. Freyberg who was in charge of the Maori division said, “Hey, we could do with some new tanks.” So they went in at night
and they went through the German area in about a couple of days. They took the tanks for themselves. No, they weren’t strictly regarded to be anywhere near the type of fighters we had there…the English and the New Zealanders and the Australians. And the Free French were quite good.
But they were all battle scarred most of them. They all had battle experience and it’s difficult for new troops just to walk in and be aware. It had taken us a lot of experience to find out.
What did you think of the New Zealanders?
Good. I would put them on the same rating as our own. Good boys.
They’re almost identical. We were very close to the New Zealanders. We had New Zealand ack ack boys all around in the last push when we were better equipped in every way. We had New Zealand ack ack boys protecting our ALG [Advanced Landing Ground], and they were good. And the Maoris were terrific. I got to know…
I met a New Zealander back on leave, and I didn’t see him again until I was going home on the boat. This chap came up and tapped me on the shoulder. I had spent a leave with him in Alexandria. His name was King Elliott. And blow me he was wearing the VC [Victoria Cross]. He got a VC. He was such a quiet guy
you know. You wouldn’t read about it. When he went back to North Island New Zealand he became a parson and went to the church. He was a terrific guy. But you just anticipate people when they get under action situations. The very quiet mild guy suddenly pops up and he’s thought it out and he does the right thing.
But anyway we’re up at Tobruk aren’t we. So we went up to the El Adam and we were very, very glad to move out of there. We used to get raided every night.
Would you say that was the most intense…
Yes. Gambut and El Adam were the two bad places. They were both to Tobruk. Gambut were on the other side. But they were places where the Germans and the Italians had operated from and they knew exactly where it was.
So we were glad to get out of that. So we got out of El Adam and we went up to Gazala. That wasn’t much better. None of them were really good. So we operated from Gazala and then we moved up and went through the Basey Valley which is a very fertile stretch of the country and
that’s where the Italians first started their settlements. That was the best thing [Benito] Mussolini did but unfortunately once the war started he came and forced these farmers into uniform and they didn’t want to fight. And you’ve probably heard how thousands of them surrendered easily. The Germans were trying to push them and they didn’t like the Germans anyway, so a lot of them gave it away. And
their wives and families were still working the farms while the war was on there. All the time. So we went into Derna just to have a look around and met a few of them. But there were too many Arabs around for our liking.
What did you think of the Italians?
Well, the ones we met, they were great. They were just farmers you know. I can tell you a story about Italian prisoners a bit later because we met some on a boat. But yes,
they were forced into it. They didn’t want that war. They had had enough of it with the Abyssinian bit and then this. They were happy….it was a very rich valley right along there where all these farms were. Lovely country. Even eucalyptus trees. We thought we were back home. It was great to see some green. Anyway,
we just moved through there. Bardia, there was a bit of stoush at Bardia with the AIF and the New Zealanders. Then we moved on until we hit Benghazi. Now Tee-them-up Ted Tumbrage, that was the guy who was blown up on his jeep. Tee-them-up Ted. We called him Tee-Up because he would come out and say, “Righto boys, tee up your trucks.”
So old Tee-them-up Ted we used to call him. A good guy. He was a flying officer, transport…and of course he got blown up in his jeep. But we were sort of left on our own. Old Ted wasn’t with us. We were just our advance flight and we went into Benghazi and the town was just like…
like the people had just walked out of their shops and houses, got on a bus and left. Everything was left there. The shops, the lot. There was about 30 of us in this Advance Flight and I said to Jycus Whittington, Jycus, his name was Dick Whittington. That was a nick name too. He got a MBE for pulling a pilot out of a burning plane.
He said, “Gee whiz I think we should stop here for a day or two. This looks a good place. Did you see that brewery as we came in.” Then he said, “I think I might take Pud (that was his offsider) and investigate.” Anyway
in the meantime the other boys are walking into shops. There was a chap with me, he was the orderly room guy. We had one orderly room chap. He used to look after papers, I don’t know what for. And he said, “The Lord will forgive me if I take a typewriter.” So he pinched it. The shop was empty and he just grabbed a typewriter off the counter.
I got a…why the hell I grabbed that I don’t know…I got a bedspread. A beautiful Arab bedspread all done in gold. I thought that looked nice and I might send it home to my girlfriend, except she went off with a Yank. Anyway I grabbed that and that got shoved into the bottom of my kit bag.
And I thought by gee if anyone’s going to find any beer it will be Dick. We went to a little place just out of Benghazi, a place called Shameen. We holed up there. There was a mosque in there and it was sort of fenced in a little bit. There was a bit of shelter there. So
we pulled out our bed rolls and we thought we had better hole up here until the rest of the squadron or the army came up because it was quiet. We couldn’t understand this. The town was just deserted. So anyway it wasn’t long before old Dick turned up. He took the old Crosley truck with him and what he did, he found the brewery. It had great big steel gates on it. He put a hawser onto the gates and
he pulled the gates off. He went around and broke into the brewery. He came back…he said he couldn’t find any beer but he had…great big square baskets about a metre and a half square like that, and it was full of Italian Chianti. You know the bottle that comes down like that with the basket over the bottle.
Italian Chianti wine, and we thought, “You beauty”, because liquor or something we never got because there was no way to keep it cold or anything. So we thought this is great. So we all got into this Chianti. It made us unserviceable for about 3 days. We didn’t care where the army was or where the hell we were. Anyway we
hopped into this Chianti. Anyway the cooks in the meantime… old Curly said, “There’s no wood here. What the hell can I burn. I’ve got to cook you guys something.” Then he looked around and it wasn’t until we had half the Arabs around the place…they were pretty furious, they were threatening us with everything and we thought we were in trouble here and had
better pull out a gun or two just in case. Anyway we said, “What did you do Curly, you’ve upset them?.” He said, “Well I had to get some wood so I ripped the door off the mosque.” So he pulled the door down off the mosque and broke it open and cooked our tea with that. They were very temperamental and didn’t like that at all. So we thought we had better get out of here and we were deciding where to go.
How long had it taken you to get from El Adam to Benghazi?
That would have taken us only about….we believed we were chasing up the army see, and after we left Bengazi, we went through Derna.
So it would have taken us….we didn’t stop. Oh, we operated from Termini for a few days.
Because you haven’t found the army yet have you?
No, we were assuming they were in front of us. When we were pulling ourselves together and stacking a few spare bottles of Chianti
in the trucks, we thought we have to get out of here, and just about an hour before we left, up turns a Don R which is a motorbike message carrier for the British Army. He came in and said, “What are you guys doing here?” And we said, “Isn’t the army up there somewhere in front of us?” He said, “No, the army is right back there. The Germans have gone around here. They didn’t worry about going into Benghazi. You’re in no-man’s land.” We thought, God we’d been here for a week and when we got back we had been posted missing for 5 days.
That would have been a pretty alarming thing for you?
Interviewee: Felix Sainsbury Archive ID 0980 Tape 08
So we’ll just keep going from where we left off.
Yes we were at Benghazi and this dispatch rider came in and he said, “I’m heading back because the army’s back there.” We’re in no man’s land and as far as he knew the Germans had gone inland and were going around the back to try and get into the army on their flanks further along.
So we thought, “God where are we going to head?” We thought, “We can’t go back that way now, so we’ll head straight into the desert. We’re better off in the desert. We know the desert and if we have to we can probably hide and do all sorts of things in the desert. If we stay in this town we’re going to get caught one way or the other.” So beside that if we stayed in the town we
were going to get really unserviceable. So we headed out and we went straight out into the desert as hard as we could go and we didn’t know where we were going but we decided we’d drive for a day inland and just see what comes up. Anyway we were going…we must have been going most of the morning, and in the distance on top
of a peculiar set up…the range was just one great rocky sort of hill, and on the top we couldn’t believe our eyes, it looked like a castle. And we thought, “Gee! We’ll head towards that just in case any of our mob are there or something. Anyway we’ve got to hole up somewhere tonight, rather than just lie in the desert.”
As we got closer to it we could see it was an old fort. We found out later on it was one of the early crusade castles. Why the hell they built it way out there God only knows. Anyway we lined this thing up and we thought, “God, we hope there’s no Italians or Germans in it.” Anyway
curiosity beat us and we went around and went into the court yard and there were old stables there so they must have had horses there. That was the only means of transport in those days. We could see that the Italians had been there and there was water there and a well. So we holed up there for the night. We said, “We won’t stay there” because it stood out as a land mark.
So we thought we would get out and first thing in the morning we shot through. We just headed inland until we saw some dust on the horizon. We thought it’s either a convoy or aircraft landing. So we thought it just might be our crowd because it was down east.
So we headed down that way and we got very wary as we got closer. Blow me it was. It was aircraft and the place was called Marsut. We went in there and blow me it was our own aircraft. They said, “Where the hell have you been?”
We told them not to worry about that because we had a present for them. So we handed over the Chianti because we couldn’t stand the look of the stuff by now. So we gave them this Chianti and we told them about what a ball we’d had in Benghazi. So they reckoned they weren’t going to let us off on our own again. Yes, they didn’t know what the hell had happened to us.
We never had radios or any of that sort of stuff. So we were just lucky that we didn’t run across a German…they used to send a lot of armoured patrols. Armoured cars would do patrols out in the desert and you had to watch for them. But we didn’t run into any of that. We were just lucky again. We got through. And we operated
there from Ma-soot for quite a while. We were probably there for about 3 weeks.
Before you arrived there…
The army caught up to us.
How long had you been separated from your boys?
About a week.
How did they operate without you?
Well they operated from C Flight. See we had C Flight and B Flight and B Flight Advance.
I always liked the advanced flight because there was something happening all the time there. We were on the move a lot of the time. So they were operating. B and C Flight used to leapfrog like that as I’ve said. If the aircraft can’t land there because of a sand storm or a dust storm, then they come back to where C Flight are and they operate from there. So it doesn’t stop their operations.
So we operated from there. At that stage the Germans had been pushed back to the other side and we moved up to Antlett but we didn’t know it was going to rain. The most rain they had had for 11 years. And it rained. Now we never ever thought that the desert would turn into an
absolute quagmire. And what happened, our aircraft got bogged, our trucks got bogged. We were bogged down and we thought, “This is a pretty kettle of fish because we could get caught in this. If we don’t watch it we’ve got to be able to get away if we have to.” So we towed some of the aircraft…towed them out to a bit firmer ground. They flew
them back but we had a couple of aircraft that were really bogged down. We couldn’t get them out. And then blow me, the German tanks broke through. We could hear the artillery and that at night, and we could hear the tanks. They weren’t ours. They were the German tanks, and then the message came through, “You’re on a 15 minute stand by to leave.”
That’s when we scattered the bombs around and we messed around trying to make the landing ground unserviceable. They couldn’t use it anyway because it was that boggy. Our truck…I was completely bogged down and a little Pommy chap came along…they used to use Morris trucks that had two wheels at the back.
They had a special type of …it wasn’t a chain, it was like a track. Very similar to a tank track but much lighter and they used to lay it on the ground, roll the vehicle up to it, roll it up and put a pin through it and it became a tank track. Excellent in bog and sand. This guy…they used to tow their Beaufort guns
with these little tracks. Anyway he came along with this thing and once we got going we just kept going. And that’s when we got out as the German tanks came on the other end of the landing ground. They started to throw a few shells around and gee whiz we put the foot down and we drove all that night. And that’s when I ran through a slit trench and broke the spring. But
luckily it broke the back part of the spring so it didn’t collapse on me. We just kept driving and driving and driving and when we pulled up, we said, “Where are we?” We didn’t have a clue. We were lost. Oh Jesus. So we looked at the sun because it was daylight again by then. We just navigated east on the stars. We used to use the stars quite a lot at night.
Even when we walked between our tents. It’s very hard to believe that a tent from here to the bottom of the street…and at night time when it’s pitch black and you’ve got nothing to guide yourself, you can miss that tent by a mile and you invariably walk around in a circle. So we use the stars and we’d reckon where the tent was and before it got really dark we’d line 2 or 3 stars up.
Because up there the stars that are in the sky are out of this world in the northern hemisphere. The Milky War, boy there’s millions of stars. We used to lie in our bed rolls at night when we were laying next to the truck and we’d just lay there and look at the stars. They were brilliant. So
we had plenty of stars to steer by. Anyway we drove all that night and the next day. During the night we could hear the tanks and we thought they can’t be too far away if we can hear them. Our tanks and their tanks, some of them had big radial motors in them and it was just like an aircraft and you could hear them from quite a long distance.
Anyway we thought we had just better keep going. So we just kept going. We drove all night and then we proceeded to drive all day to keep in front of these tanks. They can move along over the desert. So we drove all day. We thought, “Gee whiz, where’s the rest of the squadron”. It only seemed to be us again, on our own. So
we though we’ll keep going because we know if we go far enough we’ll hit the road that goes down to the main trading oasis, Siwa. So we kept going and we saw some dust again on the horizon. And we thought, “Well, it’s got to be aircraft and it will be far enough back to be safe.” So we caught up with them and it was a sister squadron and they told us where we were, so
we were able to catch up with the rest of the squadron. That was a hair raising ride because we just didn’t know where these tanks were. We could hear them but that was too close.
You didn’t mention the leave that you took in Syria or the Jewish girls that you met there?
yes. When we were coming back out of Syria, we came back to Haifa which is now Israel and Haifa is their main port…no, before that we went to…while we were at Riyaq the boys got onto a lot of Lewis machine guns. They were stored
in a hangar there. The Jewish settlement…I’m trying to think what they called those Jewish settlements…Kibbutz [communal living settlement]. They invited us over to this big Jewish settlement. I think it was a Christmas dinner or something. Some special dinner. So
the boys went over there and they took over a lot of these Lewis guns. We didn’t find this out until after, but that’s probably what it was all about. They knew some of our guys could put their hands on some of these guns, so they took over a bundle of Lewis guns. They were having trouble raiding their settlement. At the corner of each kibbutz they would have a bit tower and they’d have a machine gun set up. The Arabs would come in
and pinch their stuff. The same thing that’s going on now. So we came in with these Lewis guns and they reckoned that was great. I never ever found out…I heard stories that some of the boys got £160 for them…they would have been Egyptian pounds in those days. But whether they did or not I’m not sure. They may have just given them to them
because they just pinched them out of the Vichy French hangar, so it was captured stuff.
What kind of meals were you served in the kibbutz?
Oh great. A lot of fruit. Mainly fruit and some quite good meat. I don’t know what it was. Fresh meat and it was good. I would say it was possibly goat.
Goat is excellent meat anyway. I don’t know why we don’t eat more of it. I’ve had it up in Exmouth when my son was up there. We’d been out shooting goat up in the ranges there. A young goat, the steaks and that are absolutely beautiful.
And it’s 85% disease free which is far better than any of the beef and lamb we’re eating now. So a lot of the locals up there love goat meat. It’s really good meat.
Is it more similar to lamb?
Yes, similar to lamb. It’s very nice. It doesn’t have a lot of fat in it. Always seems to be tender. It’s good meat.
You can buy goat meat. Some butchers have sold it. But my son brought some steaks down to a barbecue. They said, “Where did you get this steak from, John?” And he said, “I know a good butcher.” After they had all eaten it he said, “You know what you’ve been eating all night? Old goat off the ranges.”
They were surprised it was such nice meat.
Did you get very well acquainted with any of the families you met in the Kibbutz?
We spoke to them all and I queried them on the system they used there and how they survived. And what would happen:
they would get a crowd…people would turn up. This is how they started….they were refugees from Europe because of all the Hitler thing and German bit. They arrived there and they set up in Palestine and they had these settlements. Now what would happen, they would have a central dining room and a central medical place and stores.
If you look at it they were probably using true communism as it should be used I guess. What they would do, they would share everything. The girls would work out in the fields and they used to wear like little bloomers and they had some pretty nice legs on them some of them.
Did you offer to give them a hand?
We would have liked to have stayed there. I asked them, “What happens if you get a young guy and you want to get married?” They said it wasn’t a problem. When two of them get married like that, then the Kibbutz
allocated so many acres of land. I don’t know if was 10 acres or 20 acres or what have you. And the Kibbutz built a house on it and they got you started until it’s productive enough to keep two of you and then that’s your property. Until you can grow stuff suitable to feed yourself,
you can still go back to the central dining room and the commune and you live there until such times as you’re self supporting. And that’s how it worked and it was very, very successful. They had beautiful groves. They had eucalyptus trees everywhere. They really made those places into really nice farming areas.
It sounds like an idyllic valley?
It was. They really did a great thing there. Of course the argument always is perhaps the British shouldn’t have given away Palestine to the Jews because the Jews came in after. That was a political thing and I wouldn’t delve into how that came about. But they had to go somewhere.
And in that exodus they all lobbed on the shores there and they built the cities there. The cities are lovely. And their towns. Their towns are just like ours. They’re modern and well set up. Totally different to the Palestinians and the Arab towns like Damascus and those other places.
Did you go to the beach while you were on leave there?
Yes, I wonder why you mentioned that? We went to the beach. We thought we’d go down and have a swim. Lovely beaches there. So we went down to have a swim. We were sitting down, we’d had a bit of a swim and these little Jewish girls walk onto the beach. They were all fully dressed and they were carrying their bathers in their hands and we thought, “Where the hell are they going to change?”
We were very alert so we were watching them, and blow me down, they undressed and got into their bathers just a few yards from us and boy, were they artists. You never saw anything. They were clever and we said, “Well, by gee”. They were really good and they just changed into their bathers on the beach.
You might as well have had a wall built between you because you never saw anything.
What were the beaches like?
Good. The Mediterranean is a terrific little ocean. There’s no sharks in it for starters. The temperature isn’t right for sharks apparently. And we definitely never saw any.
A beautiful colour and those pictures you see of the Greek Islands and all that sort of thing, that’s what it looks like. A lovely bit of ocean.
What did you get up to on the beach?
Not very much because we never got to the beach very often. I can only remember that time…oh, and once at Alexandria we went onto the beach there.
We used to think we were wasting too much time just sitting around on the beach when we could have more fun up in the town. We did…talking about beaches. We had a beach camp in from Gambut. It was about a 20 mile run to the beach. The CO said, “Righto, we’ll set up a couple of tents. We’ll send down a cook and we’ll
give you guys a break.” So he gave us…there were a couple of armourers, a couple of fitters, about 12 of us we went down to the beach and we left a skeleton crew behind. And we went down to these huts and he sent down a case of beer. God knows where he got it from. I didn’t ask.
No questions asked?
No questions. So we had this case of beer. Now we turn up at the beach out of the desert with a case of beer and so you can imagine how hot the beer is.
That was the problem. If you got beer in the desert…and we got an odd ration. Sometimes there was some beer left over and we got a ration then. But we used to cool it by digging a hole and putting the bottles in the hole and pouring in about 20 gallons of 100 octane fuel and covering it up. Now 100 octane fuel evaporates like that.
aircraft fuel, and the evaporation used to cool the bottles down. It used to take the heat out of it. It wasn’t cold but cold enough to drink.
You wouldn’t want to have a beer and a smoke would you?
No. Hey, we used to put 100 octane in our primuses which were only built for kerosene. But there was an art. We would light them and once they got hot it would build up the pressure. We never used to put any pressure in them. It would just build up and build up
And when we would reckon it had enough pressure in it we’d get our face close right close to it and we’d blow across the jet just to break the jet and it would go out, and then we’d wait for a while to let it cool down a bit and then we’d relight it. But if it had blown up the whole tent would have gone up. Dangerous fuel. We used to wash our shirts in it. We didn’t have any water. We used to just dip our shirts in the 100 octane and give it a couple of flicks and put it back on again. Quick washing.
Wouldn’t that be highly flammable after that?
I don’t know.
It dries out almost completely, but whether it would burn or not, Jesus we didn’t experiment like that. But as I was saying, this case of beer came down. In a crowd there’s always some smart alec who always thinks his idea is the best. He said, “Don’t worry about it. Leave it to me. I’ll have this beer cold for you by the morning.” He said, “Leave it to me.”
So we said, “Ok, righto, don’t touch any of it. It’s got to stay sealed.” Anyway he had a shovel and what have you and we didn’t worry any more about it until the morning. A case of beer was 5 dozen in those days…the big bottles. So we thought this will be good.
Anyway we said, “Let’s go and get this beer.” And he said, “Yeah, it will be cool.” So we followed him up the beach about 50 or 80 yards and we said, “Where’s the beer?” He said, “I dug a hole in the sand there, right near the water’s edge because the tide would come in. It would flow over
it and cool the beer down, and when the tide goes in the morning we’ll be able to get it.” We said, “Well how do you know where it is?” He said, “I put a stick up.” We said, “Well where’s the bloody stick?” And then I heard someone in the back say, “You drongo, the tide’s washed the stick away and now we’ve got to try and find our beer.” Well Jesus, you should have seen that beach because beer’s like gold in the desert.
The beach looked like a plough had been up and down there. All day we were digging and digging and we never ever found the case of beer.
The guy sounds like a dope.
He wasn’t popular that lad I tell you.
Can you maybe go into detail about your role during sorties?
What a day’s work? What I’d do…
I would get up just at daylight. I’d start up the truck and make sure…I used to keep all the detonators under the front seat. So the detonators were under the front seat where nobody could touch them. The ammunition, the ordinary ammunition for the guns were in the back, and the other four wheel truck with bombs in the back would be the bomb truck.
I’d jump into this and then I’d drive across to the other 2 or 3 tents depending on how many armourers I had at that time. I’d go and yell out, “Righto out of bed, time to go.” Some of the replies I got didn’t sound too good. Anyway they’d quickly get dressed and jump in the truck.
And we’d go over to the next tent and wake them up and get them all and we wouldn’t go to breakfast then. We’d go and do some work first. Breakfast wouldn’t be on until a bit later. This was just at the crack of dawn, daylight. So then we’d go over to the bomb dump and we’d see what bombs were in the truck. If there weren’t enough then we’d load up some more bombs. And don’t forget
we didn’t have any hydraulics or anything like that. All we had was an iron bar like with a hook in it, and on the top of a bomb is a lug where it clips up into the aircraft bomb carrier. And we’d hook this hook into the lug, get a guy on each side and you’d lift a 250 pounder or a 500 pounder into the back of the truck. And boy that was hard work but were we fit. We were only
on bully beef and biscuits. We worked hard so we were quite capable of lifting those bombs and doing it that way. So they’d be on the back of the truck and then if there wasn’t enough ammunition belted up then we’d belt up the ammunition into clips…when we had clips. But later on we got the ammunition in boxes. There was a tin liner in the box and
the belts of ammunition were lying in there in that sequence I mentioned. Don’t forget there were six boxes of ammunition to an aircraft, but they wouldn’t always have to be completely done. Some might have a hundred rounds in there, so we’d just pull a shot out and we could split the runs up to whatever we wanted.
So we would just get on top of the wing, undo little button clips with a screw driver, lift the flaps up and then we’d undo a stainless steel container that had all the rounds in it, and we’d see how many rounds were in it. Then we’d lift up the machine gun clip, unclip the round, pull it out, join in what we wanted, fold them in because they were folded in like that.
They had to run straight into the gun. Then the runner would then go over the top of that gun, in a channel and into the next gun and then another channel would go right over and take it to the next gun and then another channel would come right over and take it to the third gun. Each gun had its own box of ammunition of 250 rounds. We would feed them into the guns. We would pull the loader from inside the cockpit to make sure they were feeding through ok.
We would clean the gun barrel with a big long cleaner, clean the barrels through, pull the breech block back and put thin gun oil on it and oil it all up. See, it was free. Then where the shells drop out from underneath the gun through the wing there were this square openings, and we used to have a special
glue which we called dope. It was just like glue, like silver paint stuff to look at. So we used to just run a brush around that and stick paper on it to keep the dust out of the guns. When he ran up the motors we would have them covered over the front, the barrel and underneath, otherwise the dust would go up inside and the gun would be useless.
So the moment he fired when he was up in the air, it didn’t matter then, the shells would just drop through the paper and everything was ok. So we did that and then we’d load on the bombs. To start off they didn’t carry any bombs, then we decided they could carry a bomb. So we fitted bomb racks on them between the wheels
right along the guts of the aircraft and we used to load up a 250 pounder. Then we found some daisy cutters somewhere. They were a piece of rod about that long with a cap welded on the end and a screw here and we used to screw them onto the end of the nose pistol. The idea was, when the bomb was that far off the ground it would explode instead of just losing a lot of the explosion and just digging a hole in the ground.
Daisy cutters we used to call them. I’m not too sure if that was within the rules of war but we didn’t worry about that. And so we used to fit those onto quite a few. So the boys would like the idea of being dive bombers. They would go and dive bomb transport and whatever and then they could use themselves as fighters. So they could do two jobs with the one plane.
Then later on we said, “Well, if they can carry one perhaps they can carry two”. So we set it up so we could put two 250 pounders side by side. Then after a while American bombs started turning up. It must have been under some system. So these American bombs started to show up. They were a different shape sort of bomb and they were 500 pounders.
So we thought we’ll start to modernise the racks and put them on. So the were carting 500 pounders then. Then they had 3 40 pounders under each wing. So we finished up with 6 cannons, 3 40 pounders under each wing, so that was 6 and a 500 pound bomb underneath.
Gee, they were armed to the teeth.
The same planes when they went across to Whitley, I think they put a better motor in them, a heavier motor, and they were carrying a 500 pounder under each wing, and a thousand pounder in the guts. I never thought they’d lift off the ground but they did. So they
were a good solid aircraft the Kittyhawk. They were easy to crash land. So long as you had a good patch of desert…the desert was ideal for that if you could get a nice flat sandy bit. How the wings are made, sloping up like that underneath…it was sort of a point V shape and they could belly land them almost as good as they could land them on the wheels.
The pilots became very proficient at that and if they had a wheel that was jammed and they couldn’t get down through perhaps the hydraulics being shot up of something, they’d belly land them and they did a lot of crash landings. They used to belly land them.
Felix, while the armourer was going through his tasks…
Oh yes. So you had the fitter and the rigger.
The fitter was responsible for the motor. So he’d be running up the motor. He’d have the cowls off. He’d be checking plugs. He’d be checking everything he was supposed to check. He would be checking the generator and all the fuel systems and he’d [be] making sure everything was ok. They were cooled on Glycol. He’d make sure the Glycol
tank was hunky dory. He’d check the motor to make sure it wasn’t dropping revs. So he’d be doing his job. The rigger would be checking all the ailerons, rudders and make sure the joy stick and the rudder bars were all working perfectly at that time. Then you’d have the radio chap. He used to go from one aircraft to the other. He’d just make sure that the
R/T [Radio Transmitter] was ok for the pilot. Your main crew was just the armourer, the fitter and the rigger. Now the 3 of you you had this pilot and this was his plane. It could be CVR or whatever. Our monogram was always CV. That meant 3 Squadron. It might
be CVR or CVJ and you generally found that the CO would always have a V on it. And others had J’s and R’s and what have you. They would come through with all the different letters on them. They had a number as well. An AK number,
but it was only used as far as the forms were concerned. But as far as we were concerned, all we took notice of was the CVR or what ever it was. And we would have our aircraft and we’d look after that aircraft like a sore toe and make sure it was hunky dory for the pilot.
It got to the stage that they fully trusted us. They would just come and jump in and they knew they’d be right and we rarely had aircraft that gave us any trouble. If they did it was picked up on the ground before they ever got in the air. If there was one that was not right and it was flyable then it would be flown back to base for a new motor or whatever they did back there.
Maintaining those planes for 60 sorties in a day must have been hard yakka [hard work]?
The record we did was 68 sorties in one day. That’s from daylight to dark. We may have worked up until 9:30 that night. Getting them armed for the next day. See, you had to have them ready for the next day. So you had to get up in the dark for them to get away in the daylight.
So it was hard yakka. When they were bombing and strafing, you had to reload your guns with ammo and you had to have the bombs ready and you had to bomb them up. Now getting those bombs to the aircraft…how we used to do it. We had a warrant officer come out from Australia to show us how we should do things by the book.
We educated him in about the first two days. We just told him to keep out of the road.
Did you throw the book at him?
We used to drive down the side of the aircraft and one of the armourers in the back would just push his foot on the bomb and he’d just push it out, bang, plop. In front of each aircraft. We’d plop the bomb down and 3 of us would come along, load it on, put the detonator in, screw the pistol on and arm it.
That was it. Don’t forget you were on your hands and knees lifting 250 and 500 pound bombs. Don’t forget underneath the belly of an aircraft, it’s shaped like that and it’s very close to the ground. So you were loading them virtually on your knees or in a crouched position.
You would be doing all the lifting with your back and arms?
Yes. After a while we sort of got used to it.
Interviewee: Felix Sainsbury Archive ID 0980 Tape 09
You mentioned you captured a plane?
When I say we captured it…the Germans who had just left this particular aerodrome couldn’t take it with them. Either they didn’t have a pilot to fly it or anything else. That was the last thing they wanted because this particular 109 Messerschmitt G
was the latest of their aircraft. It was a really good aircraft. Anyway our Engineering Officer, Ken McRae, he sighted it first and he raced over in the truck with some of the guys in and they were looking at it and they said, “Right, we’re keeping this. This is 3 Squadron’s plane. No one’s having this.” Then
a couple of army officers turned up and they were intelligence officers and they said they were commandeering this aircraft. We said, “No bloody fear. This is our aircraft, we’re keeping it.” He said, “You can do what you like about it. I’ve got a truck full of men here.” And they said they would see about that…they would go back to headquarters, and he said, “You do that but by the time you get back to headquarters, this plane won’t be here.”
They said, “You can’t fly it.” And we said, “Yes we can.” So within a couple of days, Bobby Gibbs our CO was flying it around and he said to the boys, “Right, you come up and try and shoot me down. We’ll see how good this aircraft is.” And it was a brilliant aircraft. But they found out any weaknesses there was in it and the CO loved to fly that. And that same
plane finished up in Benson in England, fully serviceable and I would say possibly the only 109G captured. They had a big celebration there some years ago and Nicky Barr and Bobby Gibbs went to England and he saw his plane again.
So that had a little bit of history to it that particular plane.
Isn’t that a bit dangerous flying a Messerschmitt around in that area?
Yes, of course it was. But he stayed pretty close to the area. Whether later on they put our insignia on I’m not sure. I’m not sure. I didn’t see it very often
after that. They flew it around and took it up to the next ALG and I think the pilots had a good look at it and we had a good look at the armament. So yes it was a valuable bit of plunder as far as we were concerned. How it finished up in England I’m not sure, but
they knew that Ken McRae had got it. I was over at a reunion recently and met Ken. He’s 92. He was still going.
While we’re on the subject of aircraft coming down, how uncomfortable is it for you when one of your pilots does come down and do you don’t know what’s happened to them?
This happened so often.
We used to say…we had so many of them who crash landed in the desert or who got shot down. They’d say…Tiny was my pilot and they’d say, “Tiny’s been shot down.” You wonder what was going to happen. “Is he gone? Did anyone see him go down? Did you see a parachute open?” No parachute opened. But we said, “He’ll be back.”
And so many of them walked back out of the blue. They covered some big distances. Seventy miles. And they walked back or they thumbed a lift somehow or other, or they came back on a camel or a truck or a German truck. But I think it was just the natural initiative of Australians in situations like that.
They were just prepared to go that extra limit. They were sure they could get back to the squadron. Nicky Barr came back 3 times. Bobby Gibbs got shot down and he came back. Tiny Cameron came back 2 or 3 times. Another chap came back…they called him the White Sheik.
He came back dressed as an Arab on a camel. Two of them came back on camels. And another one, Eric Bradbury, he lives down at Rockingham now. He’s our president. He got shot down in the middle of a tank battle. Now he crashed landed in the middle of this tank battle. There was dust and everything as far as the eye could see and he got out of the aircraft before he got hurt. He
jumped out of the aircraft and dived into a hole in the ground there and was just laying there, and …I don’t think he was shot up himself but he had had a hell of a shock. He crashed landed in the middle of a tank battle. Tanks are frightening things with big radial motors in the back. It sounds like you’re standing right next to a jumbo jet. And
they’re firing shells right, left and centre and machine guns going. It’s probably the worst environment you could ever come down in. Anyway he stayed there for a while and a tank came along next to him. So he ran up to the side of the tank and was hanging onto the side of the tank and he looked up and the German officer was looking around with his binoculars on the top of the tank. So he just dropped back on the deck and he just lay
there. After a little while a tank recovery chap came along. Now tank recoveries were huge big white trucks, big diesels and they had a big flat tray on the back where they could run up one or two tanks. And they used to take the tanks back to base. And this guy’s…
Eric ran out waving to him and he pulled up and the corporal said, “What the hell are you doing here?” He said, “I crash landed over there, can you get me out of this tank battle?” He said, “Yes, jump in. I’m not supposed to be here either.” So off they went and on the way back a German armoured car came along and poor old Eric,
he was such a mess. He could hardly talk. He said, “If he gets in our road ram him, we’re bigger than he is.” And the little corporal said, “Aye aye sir.” And if the officer had told him to do it he would have done it. So they went straight at this armoured car and the car pulled away and he drove back. He drove Eric back to the squadron.
He didn’t know where his mob were anyway. So he drove him back and when he got back nobody could hardly understand him. He couldn’t talk. He was a wreck. They sent him to hospital and after a while they sent him home. Even back here, it was a long long while before he would fly in an aircraft again.
That must be amazing to have one of your pilots come back after some of these unbelievable circumstances?
And we had so many of them. This Nicky Barr…
It would have boosted morale a lot.
It did. We used to say, “He’ll be back. He’ll be back for breakfast.” And gee whiz came back but quite a few of them we saw them go up in flames. One of them bailed out and the German
shot him out of his chute. That was crook. He shot the shrouds and he just dropped you know. He was a sergeant pilot. We had 15 sergeant pilots arrive at one stage and there was only one of them left in the finish. So they sent him home.
What would you do when a pilot crashed and you knew they weren’t going to come back?
I don’t know if our squadron was any different from any other. All the boys who we worked with and the pilots…we try and describe what the word mate means. To us a mate was something closer than a brother. You would do anything for them. And the pilots were the same. They were good mates and
they’d wander over to your tent and sit down with you and say, “Gee, those guns were good today.” They just gave you a lift. And on that basis I would say the whole squadron worked on that system, that everyone was a mate and you’d do everything in your power to make sure everything was right…whether it was his guns or
the rigger with all the fuselage work. So the whole system of 3 Squadron was just one terrific team. That’s what it amounted to. And I think that’s why we were the most senior squadron. We shot down the most aircraft. We shot down over 200 aircraft in the campaigns there. And we were noted for the dive bombing skills that
we had...for the accuracy we had, and we got so many people out of trouble. The Free French, we got the AIF out when they were surrounded and we did a lot of special jobs like that. They used to always call on us as being the most experienced and senior squadron.
There sounds like there was a lot of mateship going on?
Oh yes. When we lost someone it was like a death in the family.
I heard you mention that there was some singing and trumpet playing when you were being shelled?
Oh yes. When we were being bombed and it generally happened when we had been bombed night after night. If we were having a particularly bad night and we had been in the
slit trenches for a while, Don Page with his trumpet used to come up and he was a good trumpet player. He used to play, ‘There’s a Boy Coming Home on Leave,’ and ‘Home Sweet Home,’ ‘Waltzing Matilda’ and all this stuff. He’d be playing this as the raid was going on. And that was great. That gave all the boys a lift.
But there was always something like that. Now, we had an aerodrome defence. Our own boys…we made up guns for them. We got a 20 millimetre cannon out of a Messerschmitt and we set it up on a tripod. And they used to man this gun and shoot at the bombers when they flew over. Doubtful if they would ever get high enough to hit one but …
I went over there one day and he’d got a great big camel bone and he’d wired it onto the top of the gun. He was ‘pointing the bone.’ Those boys they never gave up. They used to keep firing at them all the time.
Would you see a lot of dogfights going on?
Not a lot. But often
when daylight raids were going on, our aircraft would scramble and go up to mix it with them, and several times we’ve had a dog fight directly over where we were on the drome. And it was like a footy match. Blokes would be there cheering. It was something really good to watch and to see our own chaps in action.
We often would only hear the stories of what happened from them. But to see them actually in action and gee, it was something. And when they shot an aircraft down, when they returned they’d shoot up the drome. They’d come right down and they’d come so low to the ground. I don’t know how their props didn’t touch the ground, I don’t know. They’d come down like that and do a complete couple of turns.
So they’d actually buzz you to tell you?
That must have been a bit of a morale booster as well?
It was. They’d fly over and if they were ok they’d waggle their wings like this. You might see one of your own go over and you’d think, “I wonder if he’s alright” and he’d waggle. So there was a means of communication between the pilots and the boys.
That was good and appreciated.
When you’re watching some of the dangerous things they’re doing up in the sky, your heart must be in your throat?
Yes, it’s amazing what they could do with those aircraft. You’ve got to realise, these guys went to an operational training unit. They would be trained on the Wirraways or something in Australia and then go to…there was one at Khartoum I think. There were several units down in South Africa
that they’d go to. And some of them…because we desperately needed pilots, some of them would only do 2, 3 and 4 actual flying hours. And then when they got to the squadron they’d shoot them up in the air and give them a bit of practice with one of the other boys. And then they’d be into operations straight away. Of course in the early days the opposition was so strong against them that you’d have not only German planes but you’d have
Italian planes. You might run across a gaggle of 42 aircraft and there were only 6 of you. But they didn’t turn and run. They used to just dive in and have a go. It was almost unbelievable what they took on in some of these incidents. And then you’ve got to realise that they were well over enemy territory when they’re having these dog fights.
They’ve got to be very careful that they don’t use up too much of their fuel because they’ve got to get back home. Now if they want to get home and they’re in the middle of a fight, they’ve got to be careful how they can bail out of it without being chased or shot down because as soon as you turn or make one mistake you’re in trouble, especially when there’s a lot more than you. So they had to do a retreating battle until they could
get back behind the lines. They know if they get shot down where they are then they’ll be captured anyway. So they had to watch their fuel because they only had so many hours from when they take off to when they get back. So that was always a worry as far as they were concerned, so
they were very good. Some of them got back with hardly any fuel at all. They were a heavy plane so once you ran out of fuel you were in pretty serious trouble and they would have to crash land if you could. And hope the terrain where you crash landed was something you could handle.
With this incredibly close relationship with all the folk that you’ve got in 3 Squadron,
it must have been very difficult to leave this group of people?
Yes. While I was there, the chap I did the course with, Bill Gordon, because he was there 2 or 3 months earlier than me, his 2 years came up before mine. Him and Reg…there were about half a dozen of them and they were due to go home. Yes, I still get a bit emotional about these guys.
We had shared so much with and they were off home and we weren’t. Yes it was a sad goodbye to some of those guys but we knew they had earned it and we were happy that they were happy out of it, fit and well. We knew our turn would come too. It was just one of those things that happens.
It’s hard to say goodbye to mates you’ve been living with. They’ve shared so much of the bad times as well as the good.
How ready were you to go home at that stage?
The ticket for home was the ace card that you were always looking for. Not many people ever refused the ticket home.
The advances and the retreats that we went through and all that sort of thing, was never repeated afterwards. When they went to Italy it was a totally different type of campaign. The Germans never had air superiority or anything like that. The biggest fear for the pilots there was the ack ack when they were strafing enemy positions and that. So we had a pretty
tough deal in the desert because we were there early in the piece. We were ill equipped and inexperienced and we were totally on our own. We didn’t get any help from any area at all. We just had to teach ourselves and do the best we could. That’s why in my book, I stated plainly there that the Australians
handled the conditions and the traumas and dangers far better than any other. And I can say that without problem because they did. And they did it so well. And that’s why we’re proud of our squadron, and we are today. We’ve
got a 3 Squadron Association, Australia-wide and of course we’re getting a bit thin in the ranks now. We’ve got 3 Squadron chaps who served up in Malaya and Vietnam. They’re tangled in all the wars because we’re still the senior squadron in Australia.
It’s a bit worrying when I talk about it because it’s something that will never happen again, but we’re all pretty proud of our accomplishment anyway. I especially like the opportunity to be able to tell people that the ground crews were absolutely wonderful and they did their jobs well.
I know the pilots were very, very happy with the way we treated them and what we did for them. And they’ve never been sparing in praise for what the crews did. And I can appreciate that too because their life depended on their aircraft, and the
aircraft was just a means to get them up in the air and fight. If that wasn’t a success they were in deep trouble. And I think they appreciated that, I’m sure they did.
With your extreme experiences over there in the desert, the conflict and mines and everything you’ve gone through, do you see any point to war?
home to us when we went through the battle field at a place called Sidi Rezegh. There had been a huge tank battle and a huge amount of transport involved, and we were dive bombing and strafing. Everything happened there. There was artillery and batteries and God knows what and we came through about a day or so later and gee I saw the ugly side of war there. There were bodies hanging out of tanks and
burnt out trucks with people in the trucks. I went…there was a tent there and I lifted up the flap and there were 4 or 5 Germans dead in there. And of course there was the usual death smell and what have you. And all the boys suddenly very, very quiet
for the rest of the trip. And although we had seen death to a certain extent, you can’t totally divorce yourself from it. So yes, that affected us because we saw it in the raw only perhaps a day after it happened. And it really brought home to us what a stupid senseless thing it was.
And I saw two Germans lying there and this chap his pocket was open and there was a photograph half out of his pocket and it was obviously a photo of his girlfriend or his wife. So yes, it comes home to you then.
They’re just people just the same as us. They’ve been ordered to do what they’ve got to do and they’re trying their best. They were fighting for their country as well. It gave us a different viewpoint on the war. It didn’t look like it was going to attain very much as far as we were concerned. So
yes, there’s always an ugly side of these things, and that upset quite a few of the boys. So we just drove on out of there as quick as we could.
How did you actually get home when the time came?
That’s another story. We went to Tripoli. Tripoli was a nice city.
We up further to near the Mareth Line which was a big German area which was well fortified and it was the Maoris that got them out of that. They went up at night to the gun emplacement and got them at night up there. We couldn’t bomb them out.
They were well disguised. Anyway I got my ticket for home there and they said, “We don’t want you to go. We want you to go across to Italy and take the armament section and be in charge of that.” They promised promotion and promotion was something we didn’t get. That was another thing we were a bit crooked on with the Australian headquarters. After all my time there
I didn’t get my sergeant stripe until I had been back here about 12 months. But we had guys, LACs [leading aircraftsmen], acting corporals, acting sergeant, acting flight sergeant in the whole unit. All the engineers, the rigger, the lot. Jerry Bourne was one of them. We came home and some of the guys who didn’t go away were in courses well after ours and they were all officers and warrant officers and what have you.
So promotion got let by the board. Even some of the guys who got captured, they got their promotion while they were in a prisoner of war camp. A bit unbelievable. But anyway I got my ticket for home. Was a corporal at that stage and I had been in charge of all the armament in the advance flight.
And Gerry Bourne was going home; Arch McIntyre…there was about 12 of us. The squadron couldn’t afford a truck. They did, and they took us to Tripoli but they couldn’t take us back because we were way up the other end of North Africa. They told us we were on our own to get back to Alexandria and we thought, “Gee that’s a long way. How the hell are we going to thumb a lift
all the way back there?” So they dropped us off in Tripoli with our bags and stuff and we went to the RAF Headquarters and Jerry Bourne was a real goer and a good organiser. He was a born salesman and we told Jerry he was in charge and to go and have a talk to these Pommy officers. “Worry hell out of them until they get us back to Alexandria.”
So Gerry went in and put up a huge story of these battle-scarred, worn out Australians. Anyway, they said they would do what they could for us. It took about a week and by that time we’d seen all of Tripoli and we turned Jerry lose again and he went in and put up another story. He told them he thought we were going to cause trouble if we stayed here…”You don’t want us in your gaols!”
In the finish this chap got jack of this corporal coming in and standing up to him all the time. So he said ok, you’re going to have to work your way home. We told him we didn’t care so long as we could get back to Alexandria.
They said they would take us down to the wharf. There was a ship down there. The ship was going to Alexandria and we could go back on that. We were told that the marshal on board the ship would probably want us to do some work on the ship. We didn’t care. We weren’t frightened of a bit of work. It would be easier than being out in the desert. So we got loaded on this boat and we thought there weren’t many decent looking boats around.
There were a lot sunk in the harbour and they took us out and stopped right in front of the dirtiest, rustiest looking rust bucket you’ve ever seen in your life. It was called the Uralia, I’ll never forget it as long as I live. A filthy looking old thing it was. Anyway, we thought, “It’s a way back. It’s better than thumbing a ride down that coast road.” So we got on board and we got called up before the skipper. The transit officer, he’s in charge of all the people on board.
The skipper just looks after the boat. He said, “Righto, you Australians. Don’t think you’re on an ocean cruise. You’re going to have to work you way down to Alexandria.” We said, “What do we have to do, scrub decks?” He said, “No, we’ve got 500 prisoners down below in the hold. You’ve got to guard them.”
So we thought, “Ok, we’ll guard them.” So we went to the hold and it had a big door each side and the hold was down there and there were all these poor cows all standing down there. Hardly much standing room even and it was stinking hot and there was body odour and everything else.
And we stood up on a parapet on each side looking down. They gave us a rifle each and we thought, “These poor buggers.” And we thought, “Wonder if any of them can talk English.” So we yelled to them down there and said, “Look, we’re Aussie’s. We’re going to going to take you back to Alexandria.” And
one came forward and said, “Oh, do we go to Australia?” And we said, “If you’re lucky you might.” And they said, “Yes, we’d like to go to Australia.” And I said to one of the guys, “These blokes might like a bit of cheering up, a bit of a sing song.” So we said, “Any of you
boys sing down there?” And some yelled back, “Yeah, we sing.” So we said, “Righto, let’s sing ‘Lili-Marlene’”, which we knew. It was our theme song like it was for the AIF. So we started that and gee whiz, they knew all the popular songs and there were a couple of good tenors who I sorted out. And there were a couple of good baritones.
They knew most of the popular songs that we knew and we had them going a riot down there. They were really lapping it up. This went on for about 2 days and the marshal heard about it. And the next thing we’re up before the mat. “What’s this fraternising with the enemy and all this rot?”
We said, “The way they’re housed down there, they’re just like bloody cattle. We were just trying to cheer them up for a bit. There’s no way they can get out of the hold and they’re only interested in where they’re going. They want to go to Australia not Pommy land.” Anyway he said, “That’s the end of you chaps. No more duties for that. Keep out of the way of everybody on the boat. You’re upset the good running
of this vessel.” We said, “Well, ok, we’ll keep out of the way”. So they wouldn’t let us do anything. We said to the Pommy guards, “Get them singing, there’s some good music amongst those fellas down there.” So I don’t know what happened to them.
But we weren’t allowed anywhere near them again. So we thought we’re going to have to find something to do to upset the mob. They had a toilet…this shows how prehistoric this bloody boat was. On the deck…the deck would have been about from here to that wall wide. On the deck they had all these toilet seats in a row.
It would probably seat about 8 or 10 and there was just a partition over the top. There were no doors on the front. They just had side pieces and you sat on the toilet there. And there was a trough underneath them that went over the side, and there was a tap up this end. You turned the tap on and that used to wash everything out.
One of the boys said, “I think we should wait until all these Pommies are sitting on there and we’ll make a nice little paper boat up this end and we’ll light it and we’ll just let it flow with the water under them.” Well we did this and did that cause a furore. They all got scorched bums and did they go crook. They said they didn’t have any trouble until the bloody Aussies came on board.
So we didn’t make ourselves real popular there either. But some saw the funny side of it and a bit later on we found them doing it to themselves. It was funny after a while because anyone who came to sit on the toilet would put their head in and look up the end to see if something was coming down the trough.
How long did it take you to get back to Australia?
us 3 days to get to Alexandria. They had one of those blimp balloons on it to stop the dive bombers. It was just a quite trip but we were glad to see Alexandria. It’s a lovely harbour with all the beautiful white buildings and the blue Med. We were glad to see Alexandria. And we were there
and we went to a place called…up near Cairo, called Genifa. The Genifa Transit Camp. We got in there and we were allocated a tent and we were in these tents and there were the toilets there and
old chap in charge, the CO said…we had sent Jerry in again and he said, “Look, we need some leave.” Anyway he put up a story and we got about 3 days leave. He said, “Don’t be AWOL [Absent Without Official Leave] or you’ll miss your boat home.” Anyway this went on for about a fortnight. We thought, “Where the hell is this boat?” We kept harassing him,
and then in the meantime the toilet seats were infected with crabs and everybody got these. All troops went through this. It was a huge transit camp. We went to the CO and said, “What’s the strength of this, we’ve all got this business now.” He said, “It’s very difficult to control in a place like this.” So we said what do we do about it? He said he had some special ointment. And so we said,
“What’s the procedure?” And he told us to go over there, and there were about 40 towels hanging up. He said you get a towel and a razor. You got down to the ablution huts and shave yourself. I don’t know if anyone’s ever tried shaving themselves but it’s a work of art with a mirror and a razor and you’ve got one leg up on the chair.
Holy mackerel. We went back with blood all over ourselves and we had gashes and cuts everywhere. Then we put on this special ointment.
Then you were probably scratching all the way back to Australia?
Oh yes. Then once the stubble appeared we got chaffed and god knows what.
It would have been marvellous to get home though?
Yes then we got aboard …down at Port Tewfik, we were taken out to…we said we hope we’re going to get a decent boat for home. It was the Nieuw Amsterdam, a Dutch ship. It was a good ship and well equipped and as soon as we got on board we ran into our Free French mates. And some of the Tahitians and the New Zealanders and the Maoris. There were more Maoris than New Zealanders, and they were all heading for home as well. And I ran into King Elliott with his VC. So we had a good trip home and they were all glad to get out of it and go home. They were all stuffed.