© 2009 454 & 459 RAAF Squadrons


459 RAAF Squadron

Desert Air Force - Middle East


Flying Officer John Saxton Talbot


Service No. 416234

Date of Enlistment : 24 April 1941

Place of Enlistment : Adelaide, South Australia

Date of Discharge : 27 September 1945

Rank : Flying Officer

Died 09 September 2013


The 1943 Journey of five crews of 459 Squadron - 

John Talbot - 459 Squadron


Preliminary Note:  More than six decades have passed since the towns and locations mentioned in this account were visited.  An enormous amount of development has since taken place in locations which were then quite primitive to inexperienced Western eyes.  For example,  in West Africa Maiduguri and Kano now have modern university buildings and campuses on sites which were then bare desert or rampant jungle.  Ikeja, then a single, short fighter strip ever assailed by the jungle, is now Nigeria's principal International Airport.



In February 1943, ten RAAF wireless operator/air gunners (WAGs) were posted to No 5 PDC, the RAF embarkation depot at Blackpool, Lancashire, England.  They were withdrawn from a number of squadrons in the UK.  At the same time, five RAAF pilots and their five RAAF observers, who had just completed training at No.1 Coastal Command Operational Training Unit (OTU) at Silloth in Cumberland, were separated from the British and Canadian RAF and RCAF WAG's with whom they had been crewed and were posted to the same draft at the embarkation depot.  All that any of the twenty knew was they were to be sent as a matter of urgency to an RAAF squadron overseas, plainly as five all-Australian crews.  The names of the twenty, grouped into crews they formed by mutual negotiation were:


 

P/O Bob McDonald - (Pilot)                                     Sgt. Don MacDonald - (Pilot)

Sgt. John Talbot - (Observer)                                  Sgt. Roy Fagg - (Observer)

P/O Jack Sharpe - (WAG)                                       Sgt. Harry Moy - (WAG)

Sgt. Jock Chambers - (WAG)                                 Sgt. Fred Wallis - (WAG)

 

F/Sgt. David Barnard - (Pilot)                                 Sgt. Jack Glazebrooke - (Pilot)

Sgt. George Crisp - (Observer)                              Sgt. Jack Laughlin - (Observer)

P/O Brian Cobcroft - (WAG)                                   Sgt. Claude Saunders - (WAG)

Sgt. "Shorty" Purcell - (WAG)                                 Sgt. Brian Tuxford - (WAG)

 

Sgt. Mick Gisz - (Pilot)

Sgt. Colin (Barney) Campbell - (Observer)

Sgt. Bill Leatham - (WAG)

Sgt. Bill Robinette - (WAG)


After inoculation against various tropical diseases and being issued with a pile of hot-weather kit and flying gear (including parachutes), then wrangling a few days' leave to visit and farewell friends all had made in UK, they embarked in Liverpool on His Majesty's Transport (HMT) Strathmore.  She sailed into the teeth of an Atlantic gale and joined convoy on 23rd February 1943.  As well as the twenty Ozzies, no less than 5000 British soldiers were aboard  Strathmore.  The Ozzies were generally pleased to be leaving UK - after all, their destination was almost certainly to be closer to home.  The native British, however, were leaving their homeland and loved ones for a very uncertain future , so their morale was rock-bottom.

Consequently, several days of stormy weather resulted in widespread sickness, with consequent fouling of the already cramped quarters aboard.  This was not to the liking of the Australians so they quickly purloined and manned the ships' fire-hoses and happily occupied themselves with sluicing the decks until calmer waters were reached.


The convoy crossed the Bay of Biscay under heavy escort, which included the old battleship HMS Malaya, positioned immediately ahead of Strathmore.  The rough weather tossed her about  with ease, so the plunging of her bow and the crashing of the swell over her forecastle and high gun turrets made a fine sight for the aircrews, who by this time were taking part in anti-submarine watch from various stations about the ship.


The first port of call of Strathmore on her voyage to Suez via The Capoe was Freetown in Sierra Leone, reached after a fortnight at sea.    Here the twenty disembarked and were taken to RAF Station, Waterloo, where they were billeted quite comfortably for three days before re-embarking in a small vessel named Hai Lee, which took them on the next leg of their journey to Takoradi on the Gold Coast.


HMT Hai Lee was a hell-ship, pure and simple.  Originally Swedish, she had spent most of her life transporting  coolies about the China coast.  Now under  loose British administration, she had a mixed Chinese and West Africa crew and very unsuitable facilities for the transport of our twenty, whose NCOs were to sleep in hammocks slung in a rat-infested hold.  (In the event, they much preferred the open deck, even without any semblance of a mattress).  The O.C. Troops, a British major, was seldom seen and was clearly the worse for liquor when he did appear.  The medical officer aboard was reported as wholly incompetent by those who had the misfortune to suffer the inevitable gastro-intestinal or influenza-like complaints.


Food (such as it was) was prepared in 44 gallon drums  and it was common to see an African stirring one of these over a fire on the open steel deck, with sweat dripping from his brow into the mixture!


Disembarkation at Takoradi on 19th March was greeted with acclaim: the twenty were billeted for almost a fortnight at the RAF station, where conditions were excellent.  RAF Takoradi was a major base where aircraft ferried across the Sth. Atlantic were received and others which arrived by ship in crates were assembled, all to be flown up a staging route through Central Africa to the  Middle East.


Billeted close to a good sandy beach, the aircrews were able to swim daily, canoeing and fishing in the ocean were also easily available.  Local native servants could be engaged for a pittance; with very little training they became highly efficient in performing the routine chores of laundry, ironing, and so  on, important in the steamy West African climate.


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It happened that at that time there was a dearth of Hudsons arriving at Takoradi.  Therefore the twenty were split up at this point and flown individually to Lagos, Nigeria, from whence their respective journeys to the Middle East continued by diverse and improvised means. (Thus the remainder of this narrative is written wholly from the writer's personal viewpoint.  Others on the draft might provide very different accounts of what happened to them).


Talbot, for example, traveled to Lagos on 1st April as a paid passenger in a German-made Junkers 52 tri-motor aircraft run by Sabena (the Belgian airline)!  On arrival he was transported to an RAF fighter strip at Ikeja, deep in heavy jungle, where he remained for eleven days without contact with others of the drafty. (His stay was nevertheless full of interest by virtue of the local colour and the variety of RAF characters he perforce lived with.  Also this was where he learned to play contract bridge and stud poker.  His next move was to the railway station in Lagos, where he was re-joined by P.O.'s Cobcroft and Sharpe, to board a train to Kano in Northern Nigeria.



The train trip was a full two-days, which proved unexpectedly pleasant in two respects: first, it gave a unique opportunity to see something of the vibrant rural populations along the route and, second, the seating and sleeping accommodation on the train was well-furbished and the food (and drink) surprisingly  enjoyable.


At Kano, Sharpe and Cobcroft were whisked off to the officer's transit accommodation and Talbot to that for senior NCOs.  They didn't meet Sharpe again for several weeks, as Talbot was told to be ready very early next morning to board a Hudson as a passenger for the rest of the journey to Cairo, and he found on arrival at the airfield that Cobcroft was to be a fellow-passenger.  Seven or eight other Air Force men, made up the complement, who perforce were all uncomfortable crammed with their impedimenta into the rear of the aircraft.  The aircraft landed at Maiduguri (still in Nigeria) for fuel and reached El Fasher in Sudan by late afternoon.  There was little of interest to see on the journey, most of the country being red desert, although at one point they had a good view of the stark and arid Atlas Mountains.


Arriving in Khartoum their aircraft was commandeered to join a search for a missing aircraft.  The following day  - aircraft returned - they took off for RAF LG224 in Cairo where the aircraft was delivered and John was taken to RAF Almaza Transit Camp.  Here he learned that HMT Strathmore, the ship on which they had embarked in the UK had arrived in Suez the day after.  In John's words "it showed the futility of the trans-African shortcut!", and the complete crew did arrive on 459.


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John S. TALBOT