Warrant Officer Leslie James (Jim) McGRATH
454 RAAF Squadron
Service No. 425958
Date of Birth: 29 May 1923
Place of Birth: TOOWOOMBA, QLD
Date of Enlistment: 21 May 1942
Date of Discharge: 6 Dec 1945
Rank: Warrant Officer
Keith Howard (Pilot)
Sam Birtles (Nav)
Jim McGrath (WAG)
Chris Murray (WAG)
The following story from Jim McGrath.
On my eighteenth birthday I joined the A I F but was rejected because I was only 18, so I joined The Air Force and was accepted for aircrew in May 1942. After a short initial training at Maryborough we were sent to do Guard Duty to await a placement in a course for what we were allotted for:
I, with several others was sent to Maryborough to do a wireless course. We were 32B, after completing that course we did a gunnery course and on completion of that we became WAG'S - Ready for service.
Our next journey was on a ship for Europe via America, we called at Auckland then to San Francisco and then across the States to Taunton. We had about 10 days there, with a trip to New York and Boston. We then boarded the Queen Mary for Scotland. We were allotted the third class swimming pool and only to move in a special area as there were 15,000 on board. After an uneventful crossing we landed in Scotland near Dumphries where we did a conversion course.
Then on to Brighton for another course, then to Morecambe where we boarded another ship for The Middle East. It was a small ship of 12000 tons (Saberjack) and we had a very rough crossing in the Irish Sea. We disembarked at Port Said and traveled to Heliopolis and billeted at a Hotel – “Heliopolis Palace Hotel”. After filling in the various papers, we visited different places in the Middle East of great interest. Looked over the local town of Heliopolis, plenty to do locally. Good meals at Hotel waited on by POW'S. Also a local picture show so we had a great time while we could. Visited a Green Mosque 900 years old, went to a Bazaar and bought bottles of scent etc., but very little of it reached home. Did a trip to the pyramids etc. and several mosques said to be 1100 years old, fitted with felt hat for the desert.
We then traveled by train to Cairo with rations for food, and arrived in Jerusalem where we were billeted in a German Hospital. More lectures and looking at sights and a little mischief when possible. We then traveled to 75 OTU., the last training before active operations, also the place where you find your crew, it is by mutual acceptance of one another, than your crew together, in our case it was Keith Howard (Pilot), Sam Birtles (Nav), Chris Murray and myself as Wireless/Air Gunners.
We are now a crew and joined the 454 Squadron at Giananclis after familiarising a couple of flights with our crew, we were ready and started our ops. Over some area patrols and close cover for the Navy, then some trips up to the Aegean Sea looking for enemy ships in dock and code messages back. Beaufort Bombers were able to go straight to the target, this was very successful.
After some 20 sorties from Benghazi they transferred with 454 to Italy to join Desert Air Force as a short range, day, medium-level, close army support, pattern bombing Squadron to help “crack” and breakthrough the Gothic Line defences behind to stop the drive for Vienna. The Appenine Mountain Range provided a priceless barrier to sustain the Gothic Line. It ran on a Northwest/Southeast axis. 454, with strong experienced leadership soon mastered the “Tedder Carpet Bombing” technique, and were eagerly used by 8th Army in battering the Line's strong points.
We flew Berka, Malta, Bari and to Pescara, our first base in Italy. We camped about 2 miles out of Pescara, nice locality and close to the drome. Besides being used by our Baltimores, it was also used by 21, 24 and 30 S.A.A.F. squadrons who flew Baltic Maruders.
We flew 5 ops. together on formation flying (pattern bombing) with only a few shrapnel holes, but safe and sound, after this I finished up in Hospital with a poisoned leg. During this time my crew were shot down, they all managed to get out except Dick Litchfield who took my place, he went down with the plane and was killed. This was quite a shock at the time and on top of that I had no crew, so I was a spare, over all I flew with 12 different crews on this tour, the others were: F/L Humphries, F/O Hott, Sgt. Solomon, Lt. Dryden, F/O Wilson, F/L Fraser, W/O Pederson, F/O Hobby, F/Lt. Strickland, F/O Rawlingson, W/O Webb. I did crew up with an English crew and flew some 6 plus sorties with them. Then we were to go over to night bombing and the Pilot F/O Hobby crashed his plane on practice take-off and landing at night, so I was again at loose ends.
Being spare gave me some spare time so together with a couple of others with time to spare, we would do our best to have a look around , get a lift where you can, always carry plenty of spare cigarettes as they were cash in the pocket, at least 100% profit. On one of these trips I met up with 2 Kiwis who had a jeep, somehow they had been given it by some MPs and they had been AWOL for awhile and had enough, so they gave it to me , so after a little paint job etc. we had us a jeep to travel and trade cigarettes with for anyone who wished to, it had some great uses. Lots of chaps on the Squadron had some good trips to see different places. All went well with the jeep till one night I was invited to a party at an English Sergeants mess and coming home It stopped and I couldn't get it into gear, it had 3 gear sticks and they all had a neutral??, so anyway I got out and hitchhiked home and went back the next morning but it had disappeared. That’s life!!
Another little sortie we had was to go up to the front line to the Kiwis to get wine. It was hidden in haystacks in big casks, so we saved it from harm and took it back to the Squadron and cared for lovers of wine in the canteen. It was generally 500 litre kegs and on one particular occasion we had loaded a keg on our truck and on our way we looked back and saw the haystack blown to pieces. (Alls fair in Love and War). On a lot of the sorties we would sample lots of liquors etc. at the local, in fact we tried just about all and some of it was quite potent, but the vino out of the keg was the everyday drink for most of the locals and we developed a liking for it.
Another story was the winter time in the snow etc. keeping warm in the tents. We would erect the tent, then dig down up to 18” and line it with whatever we could find, also try to find a covering of sorts for the floor, we managed to get some fairly good beds along the way. To keep the tent warm we made heaters out of a 2 four gallon drums. First you set one up inside the tent and make a chimney up through the flap for the smoke to go out, put some holes in the top and make a little door to light it and so you could close it, and then you placed another 4 gallon drum outside on a stand, a bit higher than the one inside, run a copper pipe from the one outside which is filed with petrol and has a tap just inside the tent, the next step is to turn the tap a fraction and throw a match inside the door and away you go, instant heat.
Many stories can be told of the hospitality of the Italian people, how they would wash your clothes very good for practically a cake of soap and would cook up a spaghetti dish and make you very welcome, the more you ate, the better you were liked, means you appreciated the food. We always repaid them with what gifts we could, food, soap.
In May 1945, word came through that my father was very sick and I was given compassionate leave to go home. So started the return journey home spending some time in Rome, then onto The Middle East where I waited for transport from one place to another, then finally I boarded a ship with a load of New Zealand Army personal on 2nd August, and on that day a Padre came aboard with a telegram to say my father had passed away. After several weeks we arrived in Melbourne, from there I caught a train to Sydney and managed a flight in a Liberator from Sydney to Amberley and I was discharged in late December and managed to catch up with Chris Murray, one of my first crew (who was a prisoner) discharged and back at work.
I did keep a diary from January 1944 to December 1944, so used some of it for dates and activities, but it was mainly quite sketchy, the rest is mainly from The Log Book , never dreaming we would be doing such a thing as a Website. I am sure if we all add our bits we will be able to tell a big story.