Thursday, December 17, 2015

Introduction to the Book "The Cross in the Sky"

An autobiography is usually uninteresting and dull. But at the same time, the story of a life of the generation which has seen two major wars, with the interval between of time and space occupied by travel and adventure, can be of interest to both young and old. In this story the dull periods are omitted and, in accordance with the old slogan that truth may be stranger than fiction, my intention is to give an outline, particularly to the younger generation, of what can happen to all who have inherited a spirit of travel and adventure. (Eaton, 1953)

The Cross in the Sky is a series of episodes about the adventures and personal survival of a man who exemplified his generation in times of war and peace. Charles Eaton, playing both minor and major roles, participated in a number of the most significant historical events of the 20th Century.

In 1994 I was privileged to be invited to the opening of the new Parliament House in Darwin. The historic annex within the building exhibited a memorial display in honour of my late father. On that occasion I was fortunate to view the display together with the Hon Gough Whitlam. I did not know until that day that the former Prime Minister had served in one of his front-line squadrons in the Pacific during World War Two (WWII). After speaking to Mr Whitlam, I realized the depth of respect he and his contemporaries had for Charles Eaton. When at school I was a keen, but frustrated, history student and it was on that afternoon, and at a mature age, I realized that our own family’s history was staring me in the face.

Although a number of articles had been written about my father’s various activities and a book about his connections to the Northern Territory I considered it would be difficult to write a comprehensive biography.* He wrote only 58 pages of frustratingly brief biographical notes, each page raising more questions than answers. For example, he summed up 25 months as a First World War (WWI) front-line soldier participating in the battles of Festubert, Loos and Vimy Ridge in addition to trench reconnaissance on the Somme front in one single sentence. In his personal notes he never wrote a word about his evidence when exonerating an Australia’s hero Charles Kingsford Smith from impropriety, on the post WWII rehabilitation of East Timor or about his initiatives in the deployment of the first United Nation’s military observers. Yet, when commenting about playing “hide and seek” in and out of German prison camps he writes briefly and with subtle humour. However on India, its forest people and wild life, the timber country of north Queensland and the people of Australian’s north the he opened up by writing at length and with empathy.

I remember only a few occasions when he mentioned his army service in WWI. Once he mentioned the dirt, the filth and the mud and that one could never keep clean. Another time when the battle of Loos was mentioned on television he suddenly went blank, leaned back in his arm-chair, stared into the ceiling and said softy but firmly “Loooooooos” like the name had no ending. Fortunately, I received a few tit-bits of his army life from my mother, especially about the trench bombing at Givenchy and Loos. My brother Peter told me that our father had such an abhorrence of barbed wire that when faced with it while fencing on his farm, he simply dropped his fencing tools and walked home. Perhaps the memories of his fellow soldiers hanging dead on the wire, so many years before were still too strong. Father also wrote three short, unpublished articles; the first two The Bear Hunt and Fear, described incidents of my parents’ life in the Indian jungle which have been amalgamated as Episode VI. The third, The Cross in the Sky provides the title for this book. I have adopted this name as it marked an extraordinary occurrence that represented a defining moment of his life, and perhaps more significantly, it is his own words.

I assumed that it would be very complex to track down records of the various incidents over many years and numerous localities. In France during WWI, three prisoner-of-war camps in Germany, India during the high noon of the Raj, Australia during the formative days of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and a secret reconnaissance mission to the Netherlands East Indies during WWII. Also on the emergence of Republic of Indonesia, where he played a pivotal role in the establishment of that nation. In the majority of those events, his role was of an exploratory or reconnaissance nature.

While the whereabouts of his log books unfortunately is a mystery, there is a wide range of official reports, published literature and private correspondence, such as the Douglas diaries, that relate to the various incidents in which he participated. This information has been vital in providing an authentic background for all episodes. One blessing was that he bequeathed a comprehensive photograph collection which illustrates the many aircraft he flew and the units and personalities with whom he served. His interest in photography developed during training and service as a reconnaissance pilot in 206 Squadron, Royal Air Force (RAF), in 1918. Although long deceased, my father contributed not only the title but also his unpublished articles on India, personal notes, official correspondence and the majority of the photographs. All formed the nuclei around which all episodes were written; Charles “Moth” Eaton therefore must be designated as the co-author.

In his memoirs, my father praised some but criticized none; if he disapproved of anybody, their names were damned by silence. In recording my father’s life, it would be his wish that it would focus on the activities of the units and images of the personalities he interacted with. My initial hesitancy to write on his life was influenced by his wish to “keep one’s name out of the papers”. My mother told me that the wide media publicity he received in 1929 and 1931 discomfited him. Another reason I was apprehensive was the danger of making judgements of his character and his actions that I had no first hand knowledge. I therefore have focused on known historical facts and avoided any appraisal of his service life except when quoted by a third party. My only exception was to comment on his curious attitude to death together with his somewhat tenacious and impatient nature.

The chance to investigate his life has given me an opportunity to discover both his personality and the conditions he and his compatriots experienced. From the age of seven, I saw my parents only on brief intermittent occasions. This was due to his war service and diplomatic postings between 1941 and 1950, and my own departure overseas in the mid-1950s. As the youngest child I gave my parents no end of worries as verified by one RAAF sergeant “That snowy-headed kid, mischievous little devil, gave us no end of trouble”. Their forbearance and understanding continued when my life-style was at times, non-conventional. Compiling these episodes has given me the opportunity to acknowledge the immense debt I owe both my parents. They migrated to Australia from India with £ 20, knowing virtually no one and having no direct family connections. Yet my father, with my mother’s enduring support, was able to make a contribution to the development of Australian aviation and to his adopted country’s diplomatic ingenuity in south-east Asia.

* Aircraft, 1931; The West Australian, 1979; Tennant Creek Times, 1981; Owers, C. 2000; Thomas, A. 1996; Williamson, M. 2000 and 2002; Lax, M. 2001; Aviation Heritage Vol. 35/4, 2004. Farram, S. 2007.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Cross in the Sky: Contents

Foreword - Dick Smith
Family Background
Co-Author’s Note


Call to Arms
The Trench Bombers of Givenchy
The Kick-off at Loos

In and Out of Line
“That Minenwerfer Hour” – Vimy Ridge
Green Fields Beyond
Farewell the Uhlans

Defending London
Jump or Burn
Back to the Trenches

Flakgruppe 49
Court Martial at Stalag Karlsruhe
The Dungeons of Festung Neun
Blue Skies

Diplomatic Baggage
High in the Himalayas
The Forests of Orissa

The Jungles of the Khonds
The Bear Fight
A Tiger in the Night

The Kauris of the Tablelands
No 1 Flying Training School
One Royal Salute and a Close Call
A Summons to the Rescue

VIII LOST IN THE TANAMI: The Search for the Kookaburra
The Desert Searches
“A Good Crash”
The Bird is Found

IX THE CROSS IN THE SKY: The Burials of Anderson and Hitchcock
Sand, Spinifex and Flies
Jurntakal Country
Two Heroes

The Thornycroft Expedition
The Inquiry: Facts from Fiction
The Searchers
The Recovery

The Aviators
Crossing the Continent
“The Dangerous Last Stage”

XII A MIRACLE: Finding the Golden Quest
Lasseter’s El Dorado
The Quest for the Quest
Possum’s Last Days

The Mystery of the Southern Cloud
Squadron Leader (Air)
The Citizen Air Force

“Aggies” to Darwin
The Court Martial of Dr Clyde Fenton
The Darwin Dock Strike
Commanding Officer: RAAF Darwin

A Most Secret Mission
Welcoming the United States Army Air Corps
War Games
A Change of Command

The Ship from Hell
Training for Empire
High Divide in Dutch New Guinea
On Stand By

79 Wing vs the Rising Sun
The Netherlands East Indies Air Force
The Mina River Bridge Strike
Operation Potshot
On a Wing, a Prayer and a Broken Pipe
Rockets over Timor
Finale: High Command

The Hitch-Hiking Consul
Deputador Governador
Oil on Troubled Waters
Air Waves
Fronteira Konfrontasi

The Ultimate Reconnaissance
In the Firing Line

The Batavia Consulate
Bea’s Journey
Freedom for the Republic
ChargĂ© d’Affairs

Controversy 1976
Remembrance Day 1979

“Moth’s” Last Flight - Air Commodore Mark Lax

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Redux

13 Squadron Royal Australian Air Force in flight Darwin.

The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) played an important role in the Allied war effort. At the beginning of the conflict, the RAAF was a small, ill-equipped, but well-trained force of 3,489 personnel and 146 mostly obsolete aircraft. These included Anson bombers, flying boats, and the Australian Wirraway, essentially a training aircraft that proved totally inadequate as a fighter. When the war began in September 1939, one squadron was en route to Great Britain to secure new aircraft. The Australian government released this squadron to serve with the Royal Air Force (RAF), which it did for the remainder of the war under the auspices of RAF Coastal Command. In this role, the Australian squadron was responsible for sinking six submarines. Other squadrons served under the RAF in the Middle East and in the Italian Campaigns. Although there were 17 formal RAAF squadrons during the war, Australian pilots served in more than 200 individual Commonwealth squadrons.

To facilitate air training, representatives of the Commonwealth established the Empire Air Training Scheme. This brought potential pilots to Australia for initial training and then sent them to Canada for final flight school and dispatch to Great Britain to serve in the RAF. The RAAF established several flight schools in Australia for a program that eventually trained some 37,000 pilots.

The initial deployment of RAAF assets was to support the war in Europe. Thorough training took time, and it was not until the Battle of Britain was over that Australia's first, and justifiably famous No. 452 (Spitfire) Squadron was formed in April 1941. The squadron soon produced a number of outstanding aces and was commanded by the famous Wg-Cdr "Paddy" Finucane, D. S. O., D. F. c. and two Bars, who welded the unit into a highly efficient fighting team. Such was their success that for the four months from August to November 1941, No. 452 became and remained the top scoring squadron of British Fighter Command.

Before this, however, members of No. 10 Squadron had gone to England to take delivery of their Sunderland aircraft, which were to be used for Australian coastal defence. But when war became a certainty, the aircraft and crews were at once placed at the disposal of the R. A. F. As such, No. 10 became the first Commonwealth squadron to go into action in World War II. In the extended see-saw battle against U-boats in the Atlantic, No. 10 scored many noteworthy successes and was later joined by No. 461, a second R. A. A. F. Sunderland squadron formed for similar duties. Perhaps the most startling event concerned a No. 461 Squadron Sunderland piloted by Flt-Lt C. B. Walker which encountered eight German Ju 88 fighters over the Bay of Biscay on 2nd June 1943. In a series of furious attacks lasting 45 minutes, the Ju 88s almost shot the lumbering Sunderland to pieces but they paid dearly for their determination to finish off the crippled machine - three were positively destroyed, a fourth probably destroyed and a fifth badly damaged. The Sunderland, too riddled with bullet holes to carry out a normal landing, crash landed and was destroyed on the beach at Marazion, Cornwall. Today pieces of this machine can be seen on display in the Australian War Memorial.

By far the greatest Australian contribution to the air war however, lay in the formation of bomber and attack squadrons consisting of Nos. 455, 458, 460, 462, 463, 464,·466 and 467 Squadrons, all of which took part in the strategic bombing offensive aimed at crippling the vital industries of Germany and the occupied countries under her control. The first Australian units experimented with the development of night bombing techniques later used so effectively by Bomber Command. With many of these units the mortality rate of crews was something horrifying, but nevertheless two machines recorded over 100 missions - Lancasters "G for George" and "S for Sugar", both of which were preserved after the war, the former in Canberra, the latter in England.

Although such types as the Hampden, Ventura, Wellington and Halifax were widely used by R. A. A. F. squadrons, there can be little doubt that the famous Lancaster was the outstanding night bomber type of World War II. Lancasters had wings holed by falling bombs, lost elevators and tail assemblies through flak damage, suffered in-flight fires and loss of engines, and yet somehow still managed to limp back home. There is even one account of a No. 460 Squadron Lancaster flown by Flt-Sgt Christensen which was accidentally looped over the Ruhr Valley whilst carrying a full bomb load. It recovered a scant 1,500 feet from the ground, having plunged over 15,000 feet and bending its mainspar several feet in the process.

From 1942 onwards further R. A. A. F. fighter squadrons joined No. 452; No. 456 flying Defiant and Beaufighter night-fighters, and after the debacle at Singapore, No. 453 Squadron, now more happily equipped with Spitfires. Changes in equipment were made according to the availability of aircraft and two squadrons - Nos. 456 and 464 - were issued with the versatile all-wooden Mosquito in either fighter or fighter-bomber versions. It was in a Mosquito that the Australian daredevil Sqn-Ldr C. Scherf destroyed fifteen aircraft in the air and a further nine on the ground in the period of sixteen weeks; an eloquent testimony to the speed and striking power of this outstanding aircraft.

When the war drew to a close in Europe the R. A. A. F. had three fighter squadrons; Nos. 451, 453 and 456; five bomber squadrons, Nos. 460, 462, 464, 466 and 467 as well as three Coastal Command squadrons; Nos. 10,455 and 461. In varying degrees and according to their opportunities all these squadrons distinguished themselves with the sturdy British-built machines with which they were equipped.

The entry of Japan into World War II in December 1941 led to a redeployment of Australian squadrons to the Pacific. Japanese military advances and Japan's air raid on Darwin on 19 February 1942 increased pressure for better air defense over Australia. Beginning in 1942, U. S. air units were dispatched to Australia to bolster the RAAF. On 17 April 1942, all RAAF squadrons in the Pacific were placed under the auspices of Allied Air Forces Headquarters, part of U. S. General Douglas MacArthur's Southwestern Pacific Theater command.

The RAAF participated in almost every major campaign of the Pacific Theater. Four RAAF squadrons, two with Hudson bombers and two flying obsolete Brewster Buffalo fighters, fought in the 1941-1942 Malaya Campaign. Later, elements of these squadrons were withdrawn to the Netherlands Indies and finally back to Australia. Two other RAAF squadrons fought in the Netherlands Indies before being relocated to Australia. RAAF units distinguished themselves in the defense of Milne Bay in September 1942. Early deficiencies in aircraft were overcome with the addition of P-40 Kittyhawk and Spitfire fighters. The RAAF played an important role in supporting ground operations and in attacking Japanese shipping, including during the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. It also assisted in long-range minelaying operations throughout the war. The RAAF also provided wireless units to its troops who participated in the invasion of the Philippines. By the end of the war, the RAAF numbered 131,662 personnel and 3,187 aircraft.

References Firkins, P. Strike and Return. Perth, Australia: Westward Publishing, 1985. Gillison, D. Royal Australian Air Force, 1939-1942. Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1962.

Wyndham Attacked

Wyndham Aeradio after the Japanese raid. Bullet holes can be seen in the upper part of the building. Note the bicycle propped out the front ready for a quick getaway

Wyndham, the West Australian coastal town close by the border with the Northern Territory, which was twice attacked by Japanese aircraft in March 1942. The first raid, carried out shortly after 10 a.m. on 3 March 1942—the same day as Broome, Western Australia, was similarly hit— involved eight Zero fighters from Koepang, in Timor. A RAAF DH–84 Dragon navigation training aircraft, which had just landed, was caught on the ground and set alight by strafing. Also set on fire was the airfield hangar and a fuel dump comprising a large quantity of 44-gallon drums which had been delivered only a week earlier. A second aircraft, a Lockheed 10 operating a commercial service for MacRobertson-Miller Aviation Co., had cleared the area just minutes before the enemy fighters arrived and thus escaped being caught up in the raid.

The second attack, again focused on the aerodrome, was conducted by seven bombers on 23 March. This saw a chain of about 30 large craters blasted along the runway, but there was no other damage. An hour later three Zeros appeared and made low-level strafing runs, but with little significant effect.

Broome Attacked

An aircraft burning at Broome, Western Australia following the Japanese air raid on the town on 3 March 1942. The aircraft is probably a United States B-24 Liberator

Transporting passengers to and from a Dutch seaplane in Roebuck Bay near Broome, a few months before the attack.

Broome, the pearling town on the north coast of Western Australia, was subjected to four Japanese air attacks between March 1942 and August 1943. The first attack came while the limited port facilities were heavily stretched coping with a large influx of refugees fleeing the Japanese invasion of the Netherlands East Indies. During the last stages of this evacuation, flying boats and land planes had been operating a shuttle service from Broome to bring out thousands of Allied personnel and Dutch civilians from Tjilatjap, on the south coast of Java. As a consequence, there were sixteen big flying boats moored in Roebuck Bay at dawn on 3 March—all highly vulnerable in an area only 2,400 metres long and 1,200 metres wide.

The appearance of a Japanese reconnaissance plane about 3 p.m. the previous day had been an unmistakable portent that an enemy attack was possible, indeed likely, yet pilots ignored warnings to leave at the first opportunity after daybreak. Only one aircraft—a small float-plane from the American cruiser Houston, sunk two days earlier in the Bantam Bay battle—had taken off from the alighting area that morning before nine long-range Zero fighters dropped down from the overcast at 9.20 a.m. Six of the attacking aircraft, flying in line-ahead formation, swept in from the sea and crossed the harbour entrance at a height of about 500 feet, while another three circled overhead as a protection against opposing fighters (of which there were none).

Three of the Zeros concentrated on strafing the moored flying boats, their explosive bullets quickly accounting for every one of them. Several of the trapped aircraft had been almost ready for take-off and were filled with passengers, many of them women and children, who were forced to take to the water. The Japanese pilots showed restraint in not further attacking those thus rendered helpless, or a party of 25 evacuees who were gathered on the wharf about to board their aircraft, but casualties were nonetheless heavy.

While these scenes were being played out on the harbour, the second attack group of three Zeros turned their attention to the aerodrome. Seven Allied aircraft had been standing there when the attack began: a RAAF Hudson bomber, a Dutch Lodestar bomber and a Dutch DC–3 cargo plane, and two American B–17E Flying Fortress and two B–24 Liberator bombers. One of the Liberators, carrying 33 passengers and crew, attempted to take off as the Zeros began their attack runs. It was promptly shot down into the sea in flames, and the other machines were all destroyed on the ground.

Within fifteen minutes the Japanese pilots had fulfilled their mission and departed on a return course for their base. When about 80 kilometres north of Broome they encountered another Dutch DC–3, one of the last Allied aircraft to escape from Java, which happened to be carrying a large quantity of diamonds. This was also promptly shot down, raising the Zeros’ tally of Allied aircraft destroyed to 24. In fact, the pilot of this machine managed to crash-land on the beach at Carnot Bay, from where a number of its passengers were rescued by missionaries from Beagle Bay several days later.

The number of people killed in the raid has never been determined accurately but is estimated at 70, including 32 who perished in the downed Liberator; approximately another 30 people were wounded. As Gillison’s volume of the Official History states: 

The evacuation of civilians from Java was conducted with inevitable haste and later, in the war cemetery at Broome, the graves of 29 unidentified victims of the raid gave solemn proof of the absence of records listing the names of the passengers embarked in Java. 

The Japanese attackers did not escape unscathed, having been forced to fly through a considerable volume of machine-gun and rifle fire from the flying boats and personnel on the shore. Most notable was a Dutch air force crewman who took up a machine-gun which had been removed from its mountings for repair and cradled it in his arms to engage any Zero which came within range, despite suffering burns to his arm supporting the gun’s barrel. One of the attackers was shot down and crashed, and damage from ground fire forced another to ditch near Roti Island while returning to base at Koepang in Timor (the pilot not being rescued until 21 March). Bullet holes were found in six of the seven aircraft which reached their base safely.

At 10.45 a.m. on 20 March Broome’s aerodrome was the target of a raid by seven bombers. During this attack the north–south runway was cratered and rendered temporarily unusable by several explosions, a Stinson civil aircraft was burnt out, but there was only one fatal casualty recorded. Further attacks on 27 August 1942 and 16 August 1943 produced neither damage nor casualties.