Australian Debut

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Australian Spitfire pilots. From left, Flying Officer Ken E.D. Bassett , Flight Lieutenant P. St. J. Makin and Flying Officer J.H. Bisley, 1943. [National ...

Australian Spitfire pilots. From left, Flying Officer Ken E.D. Bassett , Flight Lieutenant P. St. J. Makin and Flying Officer J.H. Bisley, 1943.
[National Library of Australia]

Its unmistakable lines created the most distinctive and recognizable aircraft silhouette of World War II. However, on August 25, 1942 its presence was so secret, it flew under the code name Capstan. On that day 67 years ago, the Spitfire took to the air for the first time in Australia.

At RAAF Laverton, Squadron Leader Ken James reached forward and pushed the starter and booster coil buttons. As the prop started to turn he vigorously worked the priming pump. One.. two.. three.. four blades, the engine coughed and then with a belch of exhaust smoke burst roughly into life. Soon the Merlin settled down into its familiar rough idle and staccato crackle from the exhausts. Ken released the buttons and stowed the primer pump as the engine warmed up. All the vital signs looked good – oil pressure and temperature in the green, coolant temperature well within limits, brake pressure up to 120 psi – time for the power and magneto checks.

Ken ensured that he had two men on the tail. He then opened up to maximum boost with weak cruising fuel mixture and exercised the constant speed propeller. No problems there. He then applied full throttle and checked that he was able to attain maximum take off power of 12 inches of boost at 3,000 rpm. Then, coming back to 7 inches of boost and 2,650 rpm, he cut each magneto in turn and observed the drop in revs. Less than 150; that’s OK. As he throttled back to idle he again checked temperatures and pressures. All were within limits. It was time to fly.

As he taxied out, Ken did his final checks. Trim, elevator one division nose down, rudder full right; flaps up; radiator shutter open; mixture rich; pitch fine. He turned on to the runway and slowly opened the throttle. Countering any tendency to swing with a boot-full of rudder, he held the Spitfire VC straight until, he gently lifted off the runway and retracted the undercarriage as the aircraft accelerated to 170 mph. As he pulled into the climb, the thought passed through Ken James’ mind that it was three months since he had last had the joy of flying a Spitfire. That had been half way around the world in the United Kingdom and he had been flying operations against another enemy. Now he was back in Australia to help save his homeland from the Japanese.

Two Australian Spitfire squadrons had been flying in Great Britain since the middle of 1941. Nos 452 and 457 Squadrons had been formed as Commonwealth squadrons operating within the RAF. Both had acquitted themselves extremely well in offensive fighter sweeps over France, No. 452 at one time being the top scoring squadron in Fighter Command. The pilots had flown against the Luftwaffe’s best pilots flying the latest Messerschmitt Bf 109s and the new Focke-Wulf Fw 190.

However, the war at home had been going badly for Australia. Following its surprise attack on Pearl Harbour, the Japanese military machine had swept down through Asia and the Pacific. Singapore fell and thousands of Australian troops were captured.

The RAAF’s fighter and bomber squadrons on the island were decimated. Other RAAF units in the South West Pacific that came up against the Japanese also suffered severe losses. The war reached Australia on 19 February 1942 when Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft twice raided Darwin. To say that the defenders were caught unprepared would be an understatement. Panic ensued. To make matters worse, the Japanese landed in the North of New Guinea.

The RAAF found itself unable to protect the country. It had no fighter aircraft at home, the general-purpose Wirraway being pressed into the role. The Australian Government appealed to its allies for fighters. The Americans, who were moving men and equipment South to counter the Japanese advance, were the first to provide assistance. They had large numbers of P-40E and P-40E-1 Kittyhawks being landed in Australia but had insufficient pilots to man them. Enough aircraft were made available for the RAAF to form three Kittyhawk squadrons, Nos 75, 76 and 77. No. 75 was the first into action, taking its aircraft to New Guinea in March for a gallant defence of Port Moresby. However, the defence of Darwin still depended on the P-40Es of the USAAC’s 49th Fighter Group, assisted after July by the Kittyhawks of 77 Sqn RAAF.

The Australian Government made strong representations to the British Government. Prime Minister Winston Churchill agreed that three fully manned and equipped Spitfire squadrons would be sent to Australia. The two Australian squadrons, Nos 452 and 457, would return and would be accompanied by No. 54 Sqn, RAF. It was agreed that each squadron would initially be equipped with 16 Spitfire VC aircraft and would be supplied with attrition replacements of roughly five a month per squadron. These Spitfires would be drawn from the aircraft that were being prepared for overseas service at 47 and 215 Maintenance Units.

The Squadrons’ personnel embarked on the S/S Stirling Castle at Liverpool and the convoy sailed on 20 June. Six of their Spitfires were carried on the Stirling Castle and the remainder on the Nigerstown. Alas, due to the British setbacks in the Western Desert and the acute shortage of aircraft in Egypt, the orders were changed underway. On 2 July the convoy put into Sierra Leone on the West coast of Africa and the Nigerstown’s aircraft were diverted to Takoradi in Ghana. They would be ferried East to Khartoum and then North to the Western Desert where they were urgently required. The remainder of the convoy, with only six Spitfires for three squadrons, sailed on to Australia, arriving in Melbourne, Victoria on 13 August.

The squadron personnel were all given three weeks leave, apart from a small group of 54 Sqn ground crew who would remain at RAAF Laverton and assemble the six remaining Spitfires. All were warned that they were not to talk about Spitfires. The aircraft were given the code name Capstan, (a popular cigarette of the time), and their engines were to be known as Marvels!

The 54 Sqn personnel set about their task and uncrated, assembled and checked out the six aircraft at 1 Aircraft Depot, RAAF Laverton.

The aircraft arrived in three crates. The fuselage and the removed wings were in one, the tail unit in another and the engine in the third. Various fairings and fittings were distributed amongst the crates. Following much hard work, and application of not a little ingenuity, the ground crew had the first ‘Capstan’ ready for flight in late August. As related above Squadron Leader Ken James made the first Spitfire flight in Australia just before midday on the 25th August. He demonstrated the aircraft to an audience of assembled VIPs and film-camera men. After assembly the six aircraft were ferried up to RAAF Richmond, near Sydney, NSW.

Photographs of the first Spitfires from Laverton are somewhat rare. In this still from a contemporary newsreel filmed at the airfield at a later date,
BR462 visible in the background is one of the original complement of six aircraft which arrived with S/S Sterling Castle on 25 August 1942.
[Australian War Memorial]

A new wing, No. 1 Fighter Wing, was formed to manage the operations of the three squadrons. Group Captain A.L. ‘Wally’ Walters AFC, a highly respected permanent RAAF officer was appointed to command the RAAF’s first fighter wing. His Wing Leader was 21.5 victory ace Wing Commander Clive R Caldwell, a much-decorated veteran of the fighting in the Western Desert. No. 452 Squadron was commanded by Squadron Leader Ray ‘Throttle’ Thorold-Smith, No. 457 by Squadron Leader Ken ‘Skeeter’ James and 54 by Squadron Leader Eric ‘George’ Gibbs.

Although, nominally, the three squadrons were manned by experienced combat veterans this was not entirely true. No. 54 Squadron had mainly new personnel and its CO had little fighter experience, having recently been posted in from a general reconnaissance squadron. Both flight commanders, Bob Foster and Robin Norwood, were Battle of Britain veterans, however. No. 452 Squadron had seen intensive fighting between August 1941 and March 1942 and its CO, Squadron Leader Thorold-Smith, was credited with 8 victories. Several of 452 Squadron’s more experienced pilots, including then CO, ‘Bluey’ Truscott, had been posted back to Australia in early 1942 and now formed the nucleus of No.76 Kittyhawk squadron. Most of the replacement pilots had seen little or no combat. The balance was partly redressed with the posting in of Malta veterans, Tim Goldsmith and John Bisley, who would later become Flight Commanders.

No. 457 Squadron had commenced operations over France in March 1942, but was withdrawn at the end of May to return to Australia. Although the pilots of both squadrons had flown many operational hours over France, combat was relatively rare. The three most experienced pilots in 457 Squadron had been involved in combat only 12 times. The type of combat they were to experience over Australia’s North would be quite different, being defensive in nature rather than the long-ranging fighter sweeps they were used to. The enemy, his aircraft and his tactics would also be quite different.

Because of the scarcity of Spitfires, CAC Wirraways had to be used for operational training of the squadrons
[National Library of Australia]

The six Spitfires were ferried up to RAAF base Richmond where the wing had been formed. They were allocated two to each squadron, each of which also received two Wirraways and a Ryan ST-M trainer. This lack of aircraft was a major hindrance to training but the wing made the best of what it had. On 9 October, BR471, flown by Sergeant Michael Clifford of 452 Squadron crashed into the sea. This was the first Spitfire fatality in Australia, but the loss was also the pointer to a problem, which would cause the loss of more aircraft in the future.

It was not until January 1943 that the new shipment of Spitfires arrived from Britain,  the three Spitfire squadrons received a a full complement of aircraft and were deployed to the Northern Territory to defend Darwin.

RAAF Spitfires, now in squadron strength, photographed at altitude behind a Beaufort bomber. 1943.
[National Library of Australia]

This article was first published at the pages of The Spitfire Association, www.spitfireassociation.com.au. Used with permission.

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