Wing Commander John Arthur Gordon "Jack" (Camel) COATES
454 RAAF Squadron
Service No. 74699 (RAF)
Date of Birth: 28 Sep 1920
Rank: Wing Commander (Commanding Officer 454 Sqn Nov 43 to April 44)
WW2 Honours and Gallantry: DFC, MID, CBE (England)
Date of Death: 17 Jul 2009
The following is a copy of the speech made by Jack Coates for a Reunion dinner in 1992.
50 YEARS ON FROM BERKA 111
Looking back over nearly 50 years, it seems unbelievable to me that someone should have seen fit to appoint a young man, within a few days of his 23rd birthday, to command 454 Squadron RAAF – and a Pommie at that! I suppose that it was because I had been fortunate in piling up quite a lot of operational flying hours in Coastal Command over the North Sea, and then having a good grounding in desert conditions with 203 Squadron operating from Burg el Arab (where, incidentally, I first met Phil Howson and Ian Campbell).
I was posted to the Squadron on 29th August,1943 at LG91, and I well recall having to make my first solo in a Baltimore in full sight of all ranks; thankfully the landing wasn’t too bad! We messed about a bit, with a flap in the Dodecanese, and were moved up to St. Jean in Palestine (do you remember the gum trees?), but finally we got down to business with our long flight to Berka 111 on 2nd November and first Aegean sorties on the 4th. This was when I began to understand the enormous contribution of George Barnard, “Polly” Pollard and their admin. team, who overcame all the discomforts and problems involved in a move of personnel and equipment for more than 1000 miles, whilst the aircraft were kept flying at a critical time – the German reoccupation of Cos and Leros. As Adjutant, and elder statesman (he was some ten years older than most of us), George held the Squadron together while his CO went flying, and kept us just about straight within Kings Regulations and the requirements of Group and Middle East headquarters. He knew everyone, and managed to deal with most of the Squadron’s domestic affairs in a manner which endeared him to all ranks. When we met again in 1989 he told me about some of his problems I never heard about at the time!
Under Ian Campbell, the Squadron had developed a system of planned maintenance which enabled us to sustain a very high level of aircraft availability, even through that wet and uncomfortable winter of 1943/44 – for example, 90.5% serviceability in December against a Group average of 73% (459 was 89.6%!). One of the characteristics of our Squadron which made a deep impression on me was the commitment of the ground crew in all trades to keeping those kites in the air – not always easy when you were miles from home, wet and cold, and generally browned off. We did have our moments: who was it said “Pig’s ass, Baldy” when ordered to turn out from his bunk late one night to get an extra plane ready for dawn take off ? I think that after all these years I might be excused if I quote from a letter which I wrote to my parents at the time and which I found among their effects:
“I like talking to the men on the aircraft. They will talk as they never would in the office. We are an Australian Squadron, but with a mixture of RAAF and RAF people. As Fitters, Riggers, Drivers and in technical trades, the Aussies are without equal. They are all amateurs in the Service, but mostly professionals In peacetime. Most British ground crews were put on technical jobs for their first time after short courses when they joined the RAF. On the other hand the Australians are not very good sanitary men, cookhouse hands, storekeepers, Postmen, orderly room clerks etc’; and in all these jobs we have RAF chaps who Excel. In short I should say the combination is ideal – it certainly works well.
Another difference is that an Englishman will work if he is told to, without muchQuestion, whereas the ‘Diggers’ want to know “why?” Therefore we do all we can to keep everyone informed about what is going on and what the results of our Work have been”.
Looking back I realize that this might be thought rather patronizing, but I was very young, and very proud. It is also too generalized, because I remember some extremely competent RAF types who were in technical trades, not least some of those who serviced my favourite aircraft, B for Barbara! Life for ground staff was not , of course, all sweetness and light, particularly because conditions were rough, female company remote, and leave very irregular. Some had been too long separated from their wives and families. Moreover, our base was at that time a long way from the shooting war, which made for periods of boredom as well as discomfort; but my word, how morale picked up when an aircraft returned from a trip with some bullet holes.
In some ways, life was easier for the aircrew. They could look forward to a change when they completed their operational tours, even if this was not very well defined, and they did have the satisfaction of seeing the enemy from time to time. Flying over the Aegean was usually a bit tense and always lonely, but our crews certainly established a reputation for determination and courage which the Squadron carried forward into the land battle in Italy. I shall never forget the time when we lost three aircraft in ten days, nor the CO’s agony in writing to the next of kin. It is right that we should continue to honour on Anzac Day the memory of those who did not come home.
It would be invidious to try to name many names, because we had a number of heroes and even more characters; and in any case my memory is becoming unreliable. But a personal tribute is due to the Flight Commanders who supported me so well, and to my crew who were frustrated that we could not fly more often because of the burdens of administration. It is sad that two have passed on. We had some super NCO’s too, who kept A and B flights, the Armory and Maintenance going, through thick and thin. I also have to thank Padre’s and Doctors who, in retrospect, I realize must have done so much to sustains men's health and spirits.
Of course being young, tough and optimistic, we had a lot of fun. We managed to arrange a bit of sport at Benghazi, though little night life, but we had some good parties in all the messes. The RAF were introduced to the Australian rules of Football, and to the appropriate words of encouragement from the touchline: “Kick him in the guts; he’s still breathing”.
I still have a photo of a Gharrie full of painted Abos, and of our mascot “Sergeant”, the Boxer dog.
In return some Australians tried to learn Soccer, Hockey and Darts, with varying success! I remember too the wonderful food, or so it seemed, which our cooks produced, particularly at Christmas, and that time when some real Aussie beer arrived. More seriously, I remember the frustration we felt about the long delay in getting any commitment from Cairo about the repatriation terms for Australian personnel – a question over which I like to think that the RAF was able to be of some help after the AOC was persuaded to come up and listen to the feelings first hand.
I have a lot to be grateful for from this early and dramatic part of my life. I am thankful that so many of us are still in touch, not I think through any sense of duty, but perhaps because we share a deep-down feeling that is worth remembering and preserving that spirit of togetherness which we developed when we were young, very far from home and generally up against it; but pretty competent at what we had to do.