Anzac day 2015 Collection
454/459 Squadron Gathering 25th April 2015
Phil Howson speaks on his father’s wartime experiences

 

I must say it’s a huge honour to celebrate this very special Anzac occasion with you all today.

Can I firstly acknowledge the presence of ex-squadron members John MacMahon and Frank Cowan.

 

Dad was an extremely proud member of 459 Sqn and I was very proud of him and other squadron members I met. 

 

Like many veterans Dad didn’t talk much about what happened so it was terrific when several books were recently published, the Hudson books by David Vincent and respective books on 454 and 459 by Mark Lax and Leon Kane-Maguire.

 

Also, the diaries kept by several of the squadron members including Ian Campbell, Ray Heathwood, Cec Brownlee and Arthur Magnus have proven very enlightening.

 

I commend the 459 book, “Desert Scorpions” to you as it is interesting as well as entertaining, and I have resolved to read the 454 book too.

 

I guess you all know that 459 squadron was synonymous with the names of Hennock, Howson, and Henderson, all having graduated from Point Cook in 1938. 

Dad met Pete Henderson on the train going down to Point Cook for the first time. 

After graduation, Phil had postings to 4 Sqn Richmond, 23 Sqn Archerfield, 8 Sqn Canberra, 2 Sqn Laverton, 6 Sqn Richmond then back to 23 Sqn Archerfield flying Hudsons and Wirraways. 

 

He met his future wife, my mum Jean, in Brisbane. 

Mum was one of 5 girls in the Tait family and I know the pilots of the day in 23 Sqn including Nicky Barr and Bobby Gibbes found Brisbane a popular base

 

However, looking overseas service in the eye Phil was posted with Ian Campbell on exchange to the RAF and took command of a contingent of troops who embarked at Newcastle on 7th November 1941 bound for the U.K. on the SS Thermistocles sailing via Albany and Durban.

Phil’s first real test as a leader came when these troops threatened to walk off the ship at Newcastle due to onboard conditions.  

Complaining that there were no plugs in the baths Phil very firmly told them to stick their foot in the plug hole, or words to that effect!

 

Enroute to the UK Phil and Ian Campbell received orders to disembark at Durban and make their way to Alexandria.

From Ian Campbell’s diary we know that they were both initially disappointed at this direction.   

 

Travelling to North Africa in late 1941 via South Africa on Rhodesian passports, Howson and Campbell flew in Empire flying boats via the Great Lakes of the African continent to Alexandria where they set out to establish a base camp. 

At Alexandria they reported to RAF Headquarters and were initially posted to 203 Squadron RAF in January 1942 flying Blenheims.

 

I have been fortunate whilst growing up to meet several squadron members including Keith Hennock, Pete Henderson, Ian Campbell and Jim McHale and they were all wonderful characters. 

I know all the squadron also had huge respect for the 3 RAAF chaplains, Bob Davies, Fred Mackay and John McNamara as they greatly boosted squadron morale, and not just for the grog they organised for the parched squadron. 

I was personally pretty chuffed that I was able to get Fred Mackay to conduct the service at Dad’s funeral in 1994. 

 

I still have Dad’s log books and refer to them occasionally when reading other books and war stories.

In fact, I remember Dad coming home from a happy lunch at the Imperial Services Club and going straight to his desk and logbooks to check on something he had heard over lunch.

 

After the war Dad flew for Qantas for several years before going on to the management side of things so he was still able to keep up with a lot of his mates and enjoy their company. 

One of these was Tom Joseph, the Squadron Gunnery Officer, who was in the rag trade after the war and ran a business called Custom Apparel here in Sydney and we would all get our suits and blazers made by Tommy, and he even tailored for the girls.

 

I was fortunate enough in 2007 to strike up a rapport with one of Dad’s crew members, WOP/AG Alan Norton-Baker, who amazingly was good on the email.

I asked Alan to recant some stories to me about Dad and the Squadron and I can share some of them with you, especially the grief.

 

“Four aircraft landed at forward base to prepare for am take off.   

Our aircraft burst its rear tail wheel on landing and was grounded as spare part not readily available.  

Aircraft parked at the end of the runway - our sleeping quarters for the night. 

Early am first aircraft takes off, staggers very low over our craft and prangs in the trees and bushes surrounding.   

Second aircraft takes off and at the point of passing the crashed craft receives the force of the bomb blast from No.1 and then crashes into the sea.  

Third aircraft takes off and does not return from sortie.  

The Boss has the job of supervising the collection of 4 splattered bodies and 4 more washed up from the sea.  

Sorry that’s war."

 

I know the torture Dad felt of having to write letters home to the families of those lost in action.

The loss of 7 lives in one accident alone in early June 1942 rattled everybody and was well recorded in Ian Campbell’s diary

And more from Alan Norton-Baker

 

“After our aircraft was repaired and we became airborne I looked at the Boss and his face was black - he was depressed - not good at all.  

I started to play around with the radio - confused - but suddenly I picked up Radio Cairo and this female was singing oh-a-la-la and on impulse I switched the music through to him and bingo - his face brightened and a smile appeared on his face - the biggest I have ever seen - he picked up a short iron bar and threatened to hit me." 

 

Flying with the boss

Phil, your father was a bloody good pilot. 

First memory - having a mock dog fight with another Hudson and your father failed to see a cairn of rocks. 

I tapped him on the shoulder and just pointed - no words just a nod - then the bugger flew over the camp and into a steep dive, then hard back on the stick and down went Hennock’s office, the Adjutant’s tent and Orderly room. 

Funny thing they were not amused. 

No sense of bloody humour."

 

As reported in this month’s bulletin and well documented by others, there was plenty of scrounging for goods and practical items.

On arrival at any one of their bases, of which there were 4 alone in Egypt, apart from setting up defences, it prompted the acquisition and downright thieving of doors, canteen bars, stage curtains and right down to salt and pepper shakers.

There were concrete paths laid and ice making facilities located.

At Gambut, the Germans had left in a hurry and left behind lots of equipment and even clothing. Since winter had set in it was quite common to see someone working in a Luftwaffe jacket as their warm gear was still stored in Alex and the desert winters were cold. 

As Cec Brownlee commented, “no nonsense on 459, more or less do as you like as long as the aircraft are serviceable.”

 

Dad hated throwing things out and I guess from wartime experience everything and anything had a use.

Bunnings wouldn’t have survived in those days as everything had to be fixed – there were no warranties and replacements.

 

He also hated sand, I guess from blowing in his face during these desert years. 

Mum always struggled to get Dad to come to the beach with us as kids - Mum said he hated the sand between his toes but he did like plenty of ice in his drinks!!!

I know the cement they found at Gambut was put to great use laying paths between their tents - they even had a complete and workable steam roller.

No wonder Dad was into laying concrete paths at his first home!! He even had an Italian labourer to help!

 

Whilst life was grim on one side there was a lighter side of things encouraged to keep morale high. 

These activities at the Gambut base in early 1943 included

the Squadron Athletics Day where pilot Tony Martin came second in almost all the events,   the First Annual Western Desert Victory Dog Show which gave many dogs a reprieve from a camp cull, and The Bardia Beach Club which provided 48 hour R&R for all ranks…..and Flying the Italian Caproni - Ian Campbell and Phil often joked about it - apparently they stumbled upon a deserted Italian aircraft and had a bet who could fly it – the trouble was the controls were all reversed so when you pushed the throttle it closed down and vice versa – you can imagine the skylarking trying to get it airborne.

 

I know Dad and crew also enjoyed his leave in Cairo at various clubs and institutions, all of which is well recorded by Leon Kane-Maguire  

 

To survive any war, I think we all would need a certain amount of luck on our side.

Luck would follow Phil with a number of threatening accidents I at least heard about – I guess there were many more.

 

Whilst he saw plenty of action in the Middle East, Phil came close to coming down when he took out a flight from Archerfield over the sea with Bobby Gibbes in September 1941.

 

After a late-night party, Bobby and Phil took off out to sea on a low-level sortie.  

Phil who was officially in command asked Bobby to take over the one pilot aircraft while he went down to the lower observation turret to take some navigational bearings.

A little later, Phil had the uncanny feeling they were getting closer and closer to the water until they were barely just above the wave tops.  He scrambled upstairs and found Bobby Gibbes dozing in the pilot seat.  

Bobby Gibbes in his own auto biography, “You Live but Once”, refutes any responsibility – they remained great mates though!

 

I guess this was pretty good training for future ops in the Middle East when they went down to just 50 feet above the sea – imagine the concentration by all crew members when the aircraft was screaming along at 240mph at mast head height!!!

 

On another occasion 26 March 1942 during an escort run with Hurricanes to Malta, Ian Campbell wrote in his diary

“Phil goes off on the job at about 1700 – I wonder if we will see him again.

It leaves me with an empty feeling in my stomach.

Malta has no future in it these days- it is lousy with ME109’s

It’s a toss of a coin whether you can get away with it or not”.

 

More luck followed on 14 June 1942 during Operation Vigorous on convoy duty when sadly Dad’s following relief aircraft, piloted by Dave Blackstock, was shot down by an ME 109 and lost. 

 

Then on 22 March 1946 Phil came close to misadventure again when piloting a Qantas Lancastrian from Karachi to Colombo, he swapped rosters with another crew who went on to be lost over the Indian Ocean, in one of Qantas few losses.

I guess these are the incidents in life you know about and can reflect on - there would have been many times during war time when crews and ground staff never knew how close they might have come to meeting their maker.

 

In conclusion it should be noted that Leon Kane-Maguire found 459 Squadron aircrew uniformly outspoken in their high praise and appreciation of the work done by the ground staff.

The squadron’s maintenance staff had consistently given the unit the highest aircraft serviceability and lowest accident rate in 201 Group.   

 

In contrast to many RAF Squadrons, there was easy social mixing between air and ground crews, 

 

“It was like one big happy family”

 

I am sure the boys of 454/459 Squadrons would be delighted to see us all honouring them here today.

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