Leading Aircraftman Robert James AITKEN
459 RAAF Squadron
Service No. 32510
Date of Birth: 16 April 1912
Place of Birth: Dulwich Hill, NSW
Date of Enlistment: 23 Jul 1940
Place of Enlistment: Sydney, NSW
Date of Death: 1 Jun 1942 El Alamein AIV, H 3-9
Rank: Leading Aircraftman
Posting at Death: 459 Squadron
Roll of Honour: Gunnedah, NSW
Shipping Strikes - Hudsons
On 19.4.42 K.S. Hennock assumed command as Wing Commander. Hudson aircraft continued to arrive, and by May the Squadron had moved to its own airfield at Behig. On 1.6.42 the first squadron sortie flown was to be the forerunner of three years of concentrated effort in a wide variety of roles. In a period of three weeks from 28.7.42 to 17.8.42 Squadron Hudsons claimed as destroyed 17 F-Boats and 3 others damaged, for the loss of 5 crews in very low level attacks. F-Boats were landing barges, heavily armed for their size (approx. 300 tons displacement), ferrying fuel, vital equipment, and stores for Rommel's rapidly advancing Axis forces driving past Mersa Matruh towards Alamein and the Nile Delta area. Successful mast head dawn attacks by several squadrons, including No. 459, towards silhouetted targets stopped this supply line. Depth charges had been replaced by sticks of 100lb bombs for 459's shipping attacks.
The Squadron finally had its own airfield but a horrific accident took place and was witnessed by Syd Wickham who was Acting 'B' Flight Commander at the time, he recalled:
"I heard an aircraft on the circuit, picked up the field glasses to read off the identification letters and walked outside the Flight tent. I focused the glasses and in trying to read the letter I realised my body was twisting over sideways. I thought, this is odd, stood up straight and dropped the glasses in horror, as the aircraft rolled completely over and crashed at the end of the runway. There was no hope for anyone to survive the crash, much less the instantaneous inferno that followed. The pilot was Sergeant Leavey and a good pilot too.
In a tight steep turn the aircraft appeared to have done a high-speed stall. The fire tender was slow getting to the scene, but it couldn't be effective and I was too devastated to complain."
Pilot Sergeant Frank Leavey was returning from Kasfareet where modifications had been carried out on its Wright Cyclone engines to improve oil consumption. three of those killed when the aircraft crashed on its return were ground crew fitters who had been taken to 107 MU to assist with the modifications. Understandably, there was considerable concern as to what had caused the tragedy, as it did not appear that an engine had cut. Another fitter, Stan Charington, who had been waiting at the airfield for the return of his friend Bob Aitken (RAAF) who was on board, gave a similar explanation to that of Syd Wickham.
"The pilot overshot the strip, then on banking with the large wing flaps extended, turned into the wind for second approach. According to those watching, at 150 feet that was inviting disaster. The port wing stalled, the nose dropped and it was all over"
Ray Heathwood described the grim aftermath, “Instantly we knew no one would get out of that alive. Don [Beaton] jumped on one of the trucks racing to the crash site. Later I was told a hand was seen reaching up through the flames. In the afternoon we are graving digging.” Thos killed in the accident were buried with full military honours the following day. Present were two very fortunate fitters, ‘Gunner’ Gaunt and his friend John Cosgrove, who had also been at Kasfareet and would have been on the fatal flight but for their decision to accept a truck ride back to base. The pathos of the desert burials is captured in Ian Campbell’s diary:
“Today at 1000 hrs, the usual scene was re-enacted. The grave with freshly-dug earth each side and the Padre wearing his clerical robes standing at the head. On one side stand the firing party stiffly, whilst on the other side the officers and airman are lined up in two parties. At the other end of the grave on the ground lie the seven bodies, a pathetic heap covered by the Union Jack.
I know the words of the service by heart now.
the bodies are lowered reverently into the grave, the firing party’s three volleys ring out across the quietness of the sand and between them you could hear a pin drop. Then the ‘Last Post’, which is the saddest bugle call of all, followed by ‘Stand to’. The latter seems to have a note of challenge and somehow expresses still a spirit of defiance. We file up one by one and salute the grave, so it finishes. Once again the Last Post echoes in my ears and as I walk back, my mind goes back to all the other times and the other fellows. The best chaps one could ever wish to meet and they’re going like flies.”
That evening Ray Heathwood sadly noted,
“The crew we buried today are missed in the Mess tonight. They made up a poker school and were the centre of a lot of bright backchat. Now with the tragedy on everyone’s mind there is a hushed quietness.”
Anti-submarine patrols off the North African coast between Mersa Matruh and Sidi Barrani continued for the next six days of June.
[from the book Desert Scorpions - A History of 459 Squadron RAAF 1942-1945 - written by Leon Kane-Maguire]