© 2009 454 & 459 RAAF Squadrons


454 RAAF Squadron

 


Robert S. (Bob) Andrews - WAG


Service Number : 422369

Date of Birth : 4 Nov 1923

Place of Birth : Gladesville, N.S.W.

Date of Enlistment : 22 May 1942

Place of Enlistment : Woolloomooloo, N.S.W.

Date of Discharge : 15 Feb 1946

Rank : Warrant Officer

Posting at Discharge : 22 PTC

 Died - 05 Nov 2014


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"Bradfield, Bankstown and Beyond" - by Bob Andrews


This is the first time I have ever written anything about my wartime service as an aircrew man in the RAAF or, for that matter, my later life as an aviator in civvy street.  Like many ex-servicemen I have always been reluctant to even talk to people about my war experiences, lest I be labeled a "line shooter".  But because our comrades are passing on at a rapid rate and having been encouraged recently I thought it was time to gather my memories and put them on paper before it became too late.

 

The story begins in May 1942 when I enlisted in the RAAF and joined my Taw workmates, Alf Green and George Pearton in the same crew intake.  Regrettably after our initial training course at Bradfield Park the three of us went our separate ways.  Alf went to Wireless/Operator/Air Gunner (WAG) schools within Australia while George journeyed to Canada for similar courses.  My destination was Temora where I completed a pilot course in Tiger Moths.

 

At this stage successful trainee pilots were given the option of further courses on single-engine fighters or multi-engine bombers.  I chose bombers based on the falsehood they they were safer.  This involved a move to Point Cook and further training in twin engine Airspeed Oxfords.  Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) I was scrubbed out just before the "wings" test and had to resign myself to a switch to the WAG field.  This meant a transfer to Ballarat and Sale for training in Wacketts and Fairey Battles.

 

After qualifying in 1943 I left Australia on the USS Mount Vernon, bound for San Francisco.  From there our group traveled across America to a place bearing the rather aristocratic name of Myles Standish, a US Army base in Massachusetts.  This turned out to be a staging point before embarkation to Europe.  A few weeks later we traveled to nearby New York to join the troopship Aquitania for the Atlantic Crossing.  The old Cunard liner, built in 1914, proved to be a far cry from the Mount Vernon.  No ice cream this time, only meagre helpings of corned beef and cabbage twice a day.

 

The crossing was uneventful except for one night when we were on our bunks below the waterline.  We were startled to hear lots of gun fire and exploding depth charges - never knowing the cause of it all, however the Aquitania pressed on regardless.

 

Finally, at dawn one morning we moved into the still waters of the Firth of Clyde, Scotland, to berth at Greenock just a couple of Spitfires zoomed over the surrounding hills.  Then followed a night trip south to Brighton, Sussex, where the reception unit for all RAAF aircrew was located.   Until each of us received a posting the unit was free and easy except for the odd dinghy drills at the local baths and for the WAG'S, clay pigeon shooting.  At dusk each evening I lay in a hot bath singing "I don't want to set the world on fire". (The irony of the words escaped me until I started bombing missions).  Those hot baths proved to be our last for the next couple of years.

 

After Brighton the next posting was to an airfield at Hooton Park, Cheshire, for airborne training on ASV equipment (Air to Surface Vessels radar).  The trainees sat at a screen in the aeroplane (Avro Anson) and watched lots of wiggly green lines and learnt to locate a surface vessel and establish its bearing and distance.  With this unit the operator could also guide the pilot into and down the landing path in poor visibility.  One day I was in the co-pilot seat of an Anson when the young pilot began wriggling, squirming and contorting his face - all the symptoms of a bladder about to burst.  I motioned for him to go aft and relieve the pressure but he just stared at me in disbelief - I was only a WAG.  Finally in desperation, he trusted me with the controls briefly and all was OK.

 

At Hooton Park we were quartered in a stately home - stripped of course of carpet and furniture and with its bathroom locked.  It was winter and the footpaths were icy and slippery for the walk to the air base.  One freezing night, cold and miserable, we were gazing at the empty fireplace when our focus switched to our only piece of furniture, a long wooden bench, inevitably it soon became a sacrificial pyre for the sake of one night's warmth.

 

At the conclusion of the ASV course we headed south for another advanced radio course at a place called Carew Cheriton, near Tenby - a Bristol Channel port in Wales.  Here we flew in Airspeed Oxfords and it soon became obvious we were being trained for Coastal Command.  Four Aussies began the course  but before long two of us had to be posted elsewhere.  We tossed to see who would take the posting and I happened to be one of those to go.  The two who stayed were shot down by a JU88 over the Channel a little later, just the luck of the draw.

 

My posting from Carew Cheriton resulted in another sea journey, this time to the Middle East.  Remarkably Georgie Pearton and I were reunited on the troopship.  We stayed for awhile in Jerusalem and even in those days there were terrorist bombings in the city at night by a mob known as the Stern Gang.  After joining an operational training unit at Shandur, near the top of the Suez Canal, we were formed into a permanent crew to fly the aircraft in which we were to finally earn our pay - the American Baltimore, a light bomber designated as the A30 (Attack 30). When crews formed it was customary to allow the individuals to sort themselves out and choose each other.  I already knew one of the Pilots from early days at Bradfield, so we chose each other.  Our navigator was an old bloke from Perth (at 29 he seemed old to us kids) and the turret gunner was an Englander.  Strangely enough, we were all partly trained pilots but that was of no advantage because in the Baltimore it was not possible to change places with the pilot.

 

On completion of training as a crew, we boarded yet another troopship to cross the Mediterranean to Taranto, near the heel of Italy.  There we transferred to a small coastal ship loaded with soldiers of the British 8th Army.  Upon reaching our destination, the Adriatic port of Ancona, we four air force bods waited well into the night (getting inebriated to fill in the time) until we were gathered up into an RAAF truck and taken north to join 454 Squadron RAAF at Esenatico, a coastal town between Rimini and Ravenna.  454 Squadron was one of four Australian squadrons forming part of the Desert Air Force (DAF) which was married (for want of a better word) to the British 8th Army, whose entry into the Italian campaign had followed its successful operations in North Africa.  Other components of the DAF  included RAF and South African units while Allied ground forces, headed by the US 5th Army, consisted of New Zealanders, Brazilians, the Polish Corps and a Jewish Brigade.

 

The four Australian squadrons were No.s 3 and 450 (Mustangs) and No.s 454 and 459 (Baltimores).  During my time in 454, in close support of the 8th Army, we carried out formation daylight bombing of designated targets on German lines of communication over a wide area of Northern Italy, including Padua, Bologna and Conegliano.  Later, after we were converted into a night intruder squadron, air operations extended a far north as Verona, many of them involving low level flying ranging from a few hundred feet to 5,000 feet.


Baltimore - 454 Squadron - flying over Italy


I was no hero.  I just did my job as a WAG.  This required me to conduct the formalities with base by Morse code when airborne, to use the Verey pistol at times, drop flares and operate  the six guns (two free travel and four fixed firing to the rear).  I also had to hang out of the open ventral hatch to see that all bombs went out OK.  The most distasteful task of all was having to put one foot on each side of the open hatch, minus parachute, monkey strap and intercom  (trying to ignore the big drop that could result from any lapse of concentration) and then go aft to arm the IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) set.  This apparatus sent out a signal so that friendly aircraft (especially night fighter Mosquitoes and Beaufighters) would know we were goodies. 


One night a Mosquito did line up behind us and I watched him nervously until he broke away at the last moment (Smart Alec).  Now for a little confession.  My family thinks its hilarious that I could have shot down our own plane.  On that occasion whilst using the free travel guns, I was too lazy to swivel them out through the hatch and fired them from inside the aircraft.  Instantly lots of little holes appeared with daylight shining through.  Dear me (to put it mildly).  I never mentioned the mishap and the armourers didn't dob me in.  The airframe boys must also have kept mum because nothing ever hit the fan.  In fact, it was only about six years ago that I told our Pilot, Jim Lysaght about it at one of our Anzac Day Reunioins at The Glenmore  Hotel.  Jim and I remained close friends until his death shortly afterwards.  Once when a new crew arrived on the scene its WAG turned out to be Georgie Pearton and needless to say, we really enjoyed another reunion.

 

Some time later George earned himself the nickname "Flak" following a daylight mission involving three Baltimore squadrons, a total of 36 aircraft.  Each plane carried "window" (silver tinsel) boy be dropped by each wireless operator at a designated time. Window is designed to confuse the German radar and radar predicted anti-aircraft guns.  Due to bad weather conditions, the squadrons aborted the mission and returned home.  However, through a misunderstanding, one hapless wireless operator (George) dropped the window at the designated time - in our own airspace.  The result was a stinging censure from our own radar people.  On two occasions I volunteered to stand in for a turret gunner because the usual fellows were ill.  These were the only times I ever did a trip in the turret and I didn't enjoy the view.  Subsequently, disaster befell both the regular crews.  One plane failed to return from its next mission  and the other managed to survive after a bomb exploded as it left the bomb bay.  With all three of his crew wounded the pilot brought the blood streaked plane home on one engine.  So much for volunteering.

 

On reflection, my war experiences in the air could hardly be summarised as thrilling, tinged as they were with underlying feelings of apprehension.  Rewarding is probably closer to the mark.  But I must admit to getting a bit of a thrill from time to time, such as when hanging out of the hatch in the daytime to count the bombs out, I could see and smell the orange and black flak when it was close. 


In closing the wartime element of my story I would like to say that 454 Squadron was proud of what it achieved, even though its role was a relatively minor one in the final battle for Italy - the scene of one of the greatest Allied victories in WW2 which, strangely, has received scant attention from historians.  In all, our crew managed to complete some  35 missions.

 

During the war and later back home in Australia I had always carried some private shame about being wiped out as a pilot at Point Cook but it was 1966 before I decided to do something about it.  I joined The Royal Aero Club at Bankstown, where I eventually gained my unrestricted pilots licence and night flying rating. In 1983 I was fortunate to receive the Federation Award and Medal of the Royal Federation of Aero Clubs  for what was described as outstanding service and contribution to the Aero Club movement in Australia.  It was very gratifying to receive such a prestigious award which is usually  given to only one person in Australia each year. 


Sadly by 1985,my health and other factors grounded me permanently but I am still engaged in my hobby of building and flying radio-controlled model aircraft.  Today however, I only fly small electric powered models because of my disability.  I can stand for only a brief period and walk a short distance with extreme difficulty,  as a result of the loss of control of my legs.  I am very grateful to my fellow club members without whose assistance I would not be able to pursue these activities.




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See Bob Andrews in the 2006 Channel 10 Anzac Day Interview at The Rocks Sydney

Robert S ANDREWS