Our Few Of The Few
Sydney Morning Herald
Friday June 15, 1990
THE 1930s were thin times, when most young men sought stable lives with food in the icebox, a roof overhead and a good suit to be married in. That wasn't enough for some who dreamt of risk, adventure and perhaps honours. A handful were fit and lucky enough to join the RAAF, learn to fly at Point Cook and cross the world to Britain for officer service in the Royal Air Force. When the phoney war of 1939 faded and the shooting war began in 1940, they went up in Hurricanes and Spitfires.
They found their risk, high adventure and honours with Fighter Command in the Battle of Britain. How many? The usual estimate is 23 but others put the tally at 37 and 44: either way, a tiny company in the roll call of the RAF. Numbers are not the point. Qualities are. Our young men took guts and daring with them and matched all comers.
Many - probably a majority - lost their lives in combat and most of the rest have since died. Australian-born Battle of Britain pilots known to be alive in Australia can now be counted on the fingers of one hand.
In Adelaide there are Sir Ronald Lees, who reached air marshal rank in the RAF, and Dick Power. Tabilk, Victoria, is home to a hale and hearty 72-year-old Ian Bayles who will take his Scottish-born wife home to Britain for reunions and celebrations.
They married during the stress of the battle itself in between his scrambles up to meet the enemy high above south-west England. Bayles has vivid memories of being young, of flying a beautiful aeroplane and of knowing he was in the finest of company. He got two confirmed kills and two probables from his "Spit One" - an early marque of the Spitfire. One of his most vivid memories was of the first time he came under attack; the first time he realised that it was no game, the enemy actually wanted to destroy him.
"A flight of Messerschmitt 109s jumped us from a cloud and I could see one behind me in my rear-vision mirror. Puffs of smoke were coming from his spinner as he opened up with his cannon. It all happened so suddenly. Fortunately, I could turn inside him and the shells flew out harmlessly but it must have been close because a nose cone of a shell lodged in one of my tyres. I still have it."
A short time later, Bayles went to India to fly later versions of Hurricanes, Spitfires and Thunderbolts and kept on flying privately in peacetime from his grazing property in Victoria. Only recently did he do what the enemy could not - he grounded himself.
Another survivor is in the Thames Valley, still matching the British for sangfroid. Desmond Sheen, a Canberra boy, shot down six enemy aircraft, got another two probables, damaged several more, was wounded once and had to jump for his life twice. The second time he jumped from 8,000 metres, his parachute did not open until he was breaking through the branches of a tree. He believes"pretty shocked" is the way to describe what he felt then and his description of life in 1940 is "a fairly lively time".
Sheen believes he was the first Fighter Command casualty of the war. Months before the Battle of Britain began, he was in a flight of Spitfires which intercepted seven Heinkel 111s at sea off the Firth of Forth. In a dogfight, he caught one bullet through his ear and another in his backside.
"They dug it out. I spent a month in a hospital in Edinburgh Castle, which was a comfortable place for Christmas," he said. Back on duty, he got into another blazing fight off England's north coast and shot down a Messerschmitt 110 and a Junkers 88. "I remember vaguely lots of aircraft blowing up and people baling out all over the sky and bombs dropping into the sea." When the Battle of Britain flared, he was at Biggin Hill near London. Flight Lieutenant Sheen commanded a flight and destroyed three enemy aircraft before he baled out from 8,000 metres and landed in that tree.
Out of action for six weeks, he was back with 72 Squadron which, in October, moved to Norfolk to prepare for night fighting. Sheen was one of the first pilots in the RAF to shoot down an enemy aircraft from a Spitfire at night.
"When I first saw the raider he was about 100 yards above me so I opened out and climbed after him. I saw he was a Junkers 88. As I opened fire I could see my tracer bullets bursting in the fuselage like fireworks. Soon the old familiar black smoke that you've heard so much about came pouring out of the raider. With it was a lot of oil which covered my windscreen and forced me to break away.
"When I turned in for my next attack, I saw that one of the Hun's engines was beginning to burn; but just to make quite sure of him I pumped in a lot more bullets, then had to dive like mad to avoid ramming him ... When I landed, my Spitfire was in a dreadful mess." He did not care. He had evened his personal score with the pilot of the Luftwaffe's Messerschmitt 109 who shot him down from 8,000 metres. Group Captain Sheen, as he became, looks back on a life devoted to flying and service to Britain. After 1945, he brought his English wife and two children to Australia for service in the Immigration Department.
Even a posting to San Francisco could not keep him on the ground. After two years he rejoined the RAF and made it his career.
It delights him now, in his early 70s, to say that his son became a Red Arrows pilot and is now a captain for Britannia Airways. His daughter married a helicopter pilot in Sheen's old squadron, No 72. As to nationality: "I follow the Australian cricket team here in England and the English rugby team when they are out there." He still carries an Australian passport.
For Desmond Sheen, life bloomed after the battle. For Pat Hughes of Victoria, life ended in the battle. His squadron records show him to be an ace, crediting him with 16 kills - an astonishing eight of them in eight days. But in September 1940, he attacked a German bomber and it blew up in front of him, dragging him down in the debris. He died before Fighter Command could scrutinise his claims for 16 kills. The official record credits him with only seven. To his fellow airmen, though, Hughes was an ace as a leader and a hunter.
In the fury of the months from August to October 1940, traces of many personalities were simply rubbed out.
In the shadows is one who might have been older than most fighter pilots, quieter than his juniors, more sober in the mess. Stuart was his first name. His second appears as Walch and as Walsh. Probably Walsh. He came from Hobart and had reached the rank of Flight Lieutenant when he was killed in May.
No records of combat or decorations show up but fellow Australian Gordon Olive said he was "completely careless of his own welfare or success; whenever inexperienced boys had to go into battle, he personally shepherded them and supervised their work. It was while he was trying to rescue two boys from a hopeless position that he was killed".
Simply getting into the RAF and then into the air in fighter planes brought out the quality of perseverance.
Take Richard Lindsay Glyde of Perth. He won his way into the RAAF school at Point Cook, Victoria, took to the air like a bird and went solo after only five hours of instruction. The fastest cadet ever to get his wings at Point Cook, they said, and added: "So sorry, you can never be an RAAF pilot. We've discovered you have a slightly crooked spine. So sorry." Glyde refused the rejection.
He paid privately for spine therapy, paid his own way to England as a civilian, joined the RAF and was fighting the Luftwaffe before the Battle of Britain. He helped cover Allied ground forces during the battle for France and won the Distinguished Flying Cross. The citation is brief and spare: "This officer showed great dash and offensive spirit and has accounted for many enemy aircraft." He went on flying and fighting until he was shot down and killed early in the battle on August 12, 1940.
These Australian fighter pilots were solo types of men, sprinkled through RAF units like salt and pepper. They did not wear the deep RAAF blue but rather the RAF blue which was more a field grey. In appearance, they melted into the British background. Often, though, their style flashed.
Flying Officer Leslie R. Clisby from Mclaren Vale, SA, must have had the instincts of a killer dog.
He flew Hurricanes over France and was killed on May 15, before the Battle of Britain began. But before his end, he had shot down 10 enemy aircraft and it was recorded of him that he forced a Heinkel down in France and landed beside it. Clisby leapt from his cockpit, chased the German pilot into a wood, brought him down with a low rugby tackle, grabbed the German's revolver and handed him over to the French.
Once the battle was joined and losses mounted, the RAF was hard put to keep up the flow of fresh pilots.
Operational Training Units (OTU) got men ready for action immediately before they joined their squadrons. At OTU, fliers became fighters. But so desperate was the demand that, during the battle, some pilots were passed out in as little as 10 days. Such haste, however, is unlikely to have rushed Australians through. Those who crossed the world in search of the Battle of Britain got themselves there in plenty of time.
Gordon Olive was one who seemed to prepare himself for the battle in the years of edgy peace. He left school about age 15, worked in his father's radio shop in Brisbane, studied at night, became an engineering cadet with the Brisbane City Council and broke away to follow the trail to England and war. He, too, got his RAAF wings at Point Cook and sailed for Britain and the RAF. He had social aplomb and athletic power. In 1938 he was the Air Force javelin blue.
Olive flew with No65 Squadron covering the Allied retreat and Dunkirk. When No456 Australian Night Fighter Squadron was formed, he commanded it. His tally of confirmed kills was five. As the fight came closer to Britain, it seemed he could not get enough combat. And he was good humoured when he had to take it. He recalled a day when the Luftwaffe was attacked the RAF. "We were lined up ready for take-off when the Jerries came in behind us, diving to the attack. Our only chance lay in getting into the air quickly. Once in the air, we turned and stung the raiders plenty."
When it was all over, Olive returned to hometown Brisbane and a fine welcome. At one function, a group of women old enough to be his mother were charmed and glowing. They could have had no inkling of the kind of high adventure he'd been living but their frissons were showing. They sensed a manly spirit, quick to breathe good, gentle humour. He died two years ago after 40 years in business and public life in Queensland, always sociable, always frank and open.
A more private fighter, a loner, philosopher and tragic figure was Richard Hillary. Australia nurtured him up to his teens when his father, a Treasury official, was posted to London. By the time the war came, Hillary was in his third year at Oxford and a member of the University Air Squadron. He and his fellows were not welcome in the real Air Force when war broke out.
"We were known as weekend pilots, as the long-haired boys; we were to have the nonsense knocked out of us." Nonsense had nothing to do with his fighting career. He flew Spitfires, up and down twice in a day, knocking down five of the enemy with two more probable and one unconfirmed. In the thick of dogfights, he sweated in his cockpit, dodged enemy fighters, had to crash-land once.
Early in September he was shot down into the cold water of the North Sea. Badly burnt and in agony, he tried to drown himself but his soggy parachute kept him afloat until he was rescued. They brought him in for almost two years of pain, surgery and traumatic treatment. Nursing aides used to faint as his dressings were taken off.
Yet he recovered. Richard Hillary, Oxonian, looked for something useful he could do and he did it - he wrote a book about his experiences. It is so good that Pan Books still sell it today under the title The Last Enemy.
In January 1943, Hillary returned to active duty only to be killed at a night-fighter OTU. Much fine writing died with him. The Last Enemy reveals a man who fought for many but felt close to a rare handful. Of the time he was hoping to die on his parachute in the sea he wrote: "I merely thought gloomily of the squadron returning, of my mother at home, and of the few people who would miss me. Outside my family, I could count them on the fingers of one hand."
Coolly and thoughtfully, he wrote of fallen comrades: "At that time, the losing of pilots was somehow extremely impersonal; nobody, I think, felt any great emotion - there simply wasn't time for it." There is time now to remember them. And salute.
In September, they will receive homage in print when the Australian War Memorial will publish a book, A Few of the Few, by Dennis Newton. He spent eight years pulling together the stories of the Australians who found their way into the Battle of Britain.