Warrant Officer Kevin O'BRIEN
454 RAAF Squadron
Service No. 426901
Date of Birth: 13/07/1922
Place of Birth: GYMPIE, QLD
Date of Enlistment: 15/08/1942
Date of Discharge: 06/121945
Rank: Warrant Officer
Ron Barton - Pilot,
Kev O'Brien - WAG,
Harold (Blue) Munce - WAG,
Bunny Rabbits (Nav) B
There were eight of us on the Squadron who had almost our whole service life together. There was Harry Marks and Dick Shakleton, Chris Murray and Jimmy McGrath, Doc Hughes and Doover (John) MacMahon, Harry (Blue) Munce and I.
WW2 began at Wireless School in Maryborough (Qld), then gunnery at Evans Head, Brisbane to San Francisco on U.S. Matsonia, to Taunton (Mass.) by train, New York to Greenock (Scot) in the Queen Mary, south to Brighton, then back to Dumfries in Scotland. To Port Said on the "SS Sibajak"" (the troop ship from "hell" - ]12,040 ton ship, built in 1927 for the East Indies service]) then to Cairo, then various places till finally to Squadron 454 at Benghazi.
Six of us finished operations at the same time and became "Tour Expired" together. Jimmy did not have enough sorties up because he had been in hospital with a poisoned leg and had to go onto night intruders. He has some interesting stories.
While Jimmy was in hospital his crew was shot down and poor old Chris became a POW. That was better than what happened to the chap who replaced Jimmy though. He was in the turret and was killed - it was almost impossible to get out of the turret when an aircraft was hit.
We all went to Cairo from where Dick and I went to Dar es Salaam in East Africa to spray swamps with DDT mixed with sump oil to control mosquitoes flying below 50 feet, while there the war ended and we returned to England, then home and discharge.
The good ship "Matsonia" was on the first night at sea and the safety on all on board was in the capable hands of the Australian airmen who had just joined her. Two of us had been rostered to each gun tub - steel structures out from the sides with these strange guns like we had never seen before but we thought might destroy enemy aircraft. Pretty soon the Duty Officer arrived bringing enlightenment, and the following occurred --- Evening Sir - Evening Son. What are we supposed to be doing Sir? You're on watch Son. What are we watching for Sir? Torpedoes and that sort of thing Son. What if we see one Sir? Report it, of course. How do we do that Sir? Buggered if I know, just stop your nitpicking and get on with it, and away he went to wake up the next chaps on guard and enlighten them.
Now that I knew what things were about I leaned on the gun and started to think over the last few days. Highly emotional leaving home, marching down Queen Street down the river across Moreton Bay, past Caloundra where we used to go on holidays and past Moreton lighthouse. The ship was gently rolling, the full moon being crossed side to side by the mast. All things considered very good for putting a person to sleep - which happened. Waking suddenly I realised I was endangering the lives of all on board by not watching for torpedoes and that sort of thing so I pushed myself off the gun. At the same time the ship gave an extra roll that had me staggering across the gun tub to balance precariously over the black water rushing along the side of the ship. God reached out and pushed me back before I became the first of us reported "Missing - Presumed Killed". There was no more sleep that night till nearly morning and for nights afterwards it haunted me.
On another day we had just turned onto our bombing run and I was waiting to hear Bunny say "Open bomb doors" when there were two voices from up front using very bad words and "C Charlie" did a violent change of course - The Flight Leader had lowered his flaps instead of opening his doors. This slowed him to the extent that everyone overshot him and were all over the sky. I can hear Jerry yelling "Achtung ACHTUNG, the buggers are up to something else today". Well we just had to drop our bombs in the sea. Just recently on TV I saw that Italian fishermen were still getting their nets tangled in live bombs from W.W.2.
BOMBS BOMBS BOMBS
Also, in Africa, the German soldier was Jerry. We were very close to the front in Italy and often had Kiwis from the 8th Army visiting us and they called him Ted. This was an abbreviation of Tedesci (that may or may not how you spell it) which was what the Italians called him. Also they called anyone associated with the 8th Army Englisi - English, Scots, Aussies, Kiwis, Canadians, just about every nationality under the sun (except German). Get to the point Kev.
The Italian told this tale - "Tedesci bomb - Englisi run
Englisi bomb - Tedesci run
Americano bomb - everyone run".
Of course over on the west coast where the American army were pushing north Englisi and Americano would have been interchanged in the story.
SKELETONS IN THE CLOSET
We had plenty of leave in Italy - some of it even official. One such time we were on the road and pretty soon got a lift with some Kiwis who were going to Rome. They were staying near us and the next day came around to see if we would like to go with them to the Catacombs. In ancient Rome when Christianity was coming it was the custom to discourage it by putting early Christians in with the hungry lions in the Circus Maximus (or the S.C.G. or the Gabba) or some such. This wasn't too popular with the early Chistians who hid in the Catacombs, which are on the modern tourist attractions.
The cave we went into wasn't too attractive, being all cluttered with rubbish. At this stage, in TV style it is necessary to point out to readers that the following report may contain segments that some people may find distressing.
As we were leaving I opened the lid of a tea chest and saw inside all these large coconuts - which on closer inspection proved to be human heads, I closed the lid and left. We discovered later we were in the wrong place. This was a cave where Jerry had a group of captured insurgents whom they shot in the back of the neck with their .45 revolvers, then they blew up the entrance. The blast blew off limbs and heads of the murdered men. When the cave was opened it was necessary to put them together for burial. I had found some heads not yet dealt with.
Around Benghazi there were a lot of German ammunition which did not quite fit the revolvers we had. Of course we were not issued with any proper stuff, so we had to do the best we could with Jerry's. There were lots of snakes hiding under rubbish about the place away from the camp. Vaguely I recall Shakespeare a year or so before stating that Cleopatra did away with herself by clasping an asp to her bosom which showed its appreciation by poisoning her. That called for retaliation so we used to exact revenge by shooting them (or trying to). The 8mm rounds wabbled in the barrel most times which made for inaccurate shooting. One did something different for Blue by jamming in the barrel so Blue tried to dislodge it by firing another - which only compounded the problem by causing the barrel to develop a balloon, of course it might have been worse had it burst.
Snakes were not the only vermin there. There was a fearsome spider thing with huge jaws called a Jerrymander, this was the most likely, just our name for it. Its hated enemy was the large scorpion that also existed in the place. It was found that if the two of them were put together in a large tin they would engage in mortal combat. If they were reluctant to do so, a sprinkle of flea powder got them into the mood. As they were evenly matched, it was always anyone's game, so bets could be made on the outcome (not by any of us of course!).
There were plenty of stories exchanged and remembered yesterday 19th May 2006, when Jimmy, Blue and I met at our annual reunion. I had bought the book "Alamein to the Alps" and took a page I copied to show Blue. On page 146 it related how we had twice received direct hits with shells that failed to explode. In both cases we sustained huge holes in the tail plane, and thereby hangs another tale.
I was sitting in the turret alarmed by what I could see and hear and feel outside when this great hole appeared and an 88mm shell exploded above us.
As though that was not enough there was only the thinnest of the leading edge of the tail plane left intact. I expected the whole thing to tear off at any time and did not take my eyes off it all the way home - to Hell with the fun in the Sun!.
Another time I had been watching out the bottom hatch to see that all five bombs had left us. When I returned to the wireless I heard Blue (from the turret) asking Ron is all the controls were working, "Why? asked Ron", because we have just had a shell through the tail again, replied Blue. Obviously Jerry was making a habit of this thing and we waited anxiously for the third time (un) lucky but fortunately it didn't happen.
We had a couple of very good "erks" looking after our aircraft C-Charlie - Jim and Roly - and they almost always had it airworthy when we wanted it, which I liked a lot - I always felt safer in C-Charlie - (but not totally safe).
Someone mentioned that a shell through the tail of your aircraft would have scared them to death. Well we were at least apprehensive every time we went out I can tell you. Everyone in the truck on the way to the aircraft was pretty quiet, but on the way back there was always lots of loud excited talk about what we had been up to.
When we first arrived at Falconara all hands set about pitching camp right away. A necessity was, of course the toilet. This consisted of a long trench with a timber superstructure which would seat maybe a dozen or so blokes. The weather being fine, sides and roof were unnecessary. This camp was set up in an old vineyard with a break wind of mulberry trees along the side, our temporary structure was under the trees.
On the first morning of its use, there we all were sitting comfortably smoking cigarettes (they were not bad for you in these days) chatting companionably and attending to our own business when a stealthy movement in the trees overhead caused someone to look up. To the horror of everyone it was seen that in every tree was a sight not before seen on the squadron - women. They were busy picking the mulberry leaves. This upset the happy assembly and everyone quickly found he had urgent business elsewhere.
Conventional conduct in some respects was absent in the absence of female members of society among us - at Benghazi the shower was open to the elements and few of us wore swimming togs at the beach. Some blokes had problems coming to grips with this sort of thing - I had been at boarding school and had few inhibitions myself.
Life on the squadron was a very relaxed affair, with no irksome discipline imposed from above - we were almost a big happy family with all on first-name terms. As long as we were there when due to fly or be on standby, it didn't seem to matter where we were so we visited a lot of little villages around the place.
At Cesenatico the artillery at the front were always audible - I can't imagine how anyone ever got to sleep up there. Perhaps that was why there always seemed to be Kiwis with us - we were a kind of bed and breakfast establishment. Well one day Doc, Doover and I thought we might have a look at this front place. As we hitch-hiked North we found it increasingly difficult to get a lift the further we went, till at last it dried up altogether. We saw no trenches or anything like they had at the front in WWI, or anything else of interest so decided they could have it and went home.
Thinking about it later it occurred to me we had done a pretty silly thing that time. It was a safe bet that had we met The Military Police they would have shot us out of hand as spies, thinking no-one who didn't have to would be hanging around the front lines unless he was up to no good. No-one at home knew we had gone - we would have just been missing. The authorities would have informed our grieving families that an enemy raiding force had captured us - but those courageous young airmen under their most brutal Gestapo questioning refused to divulge the highly secret source of the vino that most times was available in the Sergeants Mess.
BACK TO BENGHAZI
We were on a convoy escort this day somewhere between Malta and Alexandria, this was interesting for maybe a half-hour. Ships, ships and ships all staying in position, all moving forward, all with a wake stretching way back to the horizon. Escort vessels like Border Collies fussing about. Perhaps it gave those below a sense of safety to see an aircraft overhead watching out for any threat to them. Mind you, I don't know what we would have done had we ever seen an enemy submarine. As far as I can remember we carried neither bombs not depth-charges or even an Aldis Lamp to talk to them. Anyway, eventually it was time to go home but this time instead of Ron asking Bunny for a course we just headed south to the coast of Africa - perhaps Bunny was asleep and Ron didn't want to wake him.
All along the coast there were abandoned ships that had been badly beaten up by bombs or torpedoes. Ron suggested that it would be good practise for me to fire a few bursts of .5 machine gun into one and accordingly went down low and I lined up the deck ready to do dreadful damage. Just as I was about to do so four things happened simultaneously. Little explosions appear along the ship's side, our aircraft had a violent change of course, there were shouts of profanity from up the front and a Beaufighter shot across my target. We had flown across him as he was making a head-on attack on the same target. He was using only practise rockets but they had cement warheads which were not to be argued with.
We then went to home and safety.
STEAK & EGGS
At ITS Kingaroy my memory is of Military Police keeping us six feet apart in a mess line that stretched to the horizon, because of an outbreak of Meningitis. Two memories from WAGS in Maryborough - of fish & chips at Harvey Bay on leave and a weekend CB in the cookhouse for some minor transgression where the WAF's took great delight in my embarrassment at their language and suggestions. Food on the Matsonia was American and that was the case all the way to Scotland. Turkey at first was wonderful but by the time we reached Brighton I had enough and I haven't liked it since. Two foods I did like a lot in England were fish & chips smothered in salt & vinegar and wrapped in newspaper and Welsh rarebit (A cheese concoction).
Sometimes at Brighton a rumour would circulate to the effect that there would be eggs for breakfast and everyone would be there, but never once was it anything but reconstituted egg. In Scotland the WAF mess line was next to ours and they would tease us with their songs of doubtful propriety.
On The Sibjak, we were all suffering from food poisoning before we were out of The Irish Sea. Added to a rough passage through the Bay of Biscay, queues to the hopelessly inadequate toilets and ship rails were permanent features.
In Africa, my only memory of food was an attack of "Gippo Guts" in Alexandria. On the Squadron - food changed from one star to five star when we got Itie POWS in the cookhouse, and when we ate in cafes when on leave we enjoyed their spaghetti.
On arrival in Perth in the Stratheden, the waitress in the cafe we entered said "Don't tell me - it's steak & eggs isn't it?" and it was.
In Italy we were all keen to fly as much as possible to get up the required 75 sorties to become Tour Expired. That got us so much closer to going home to sanity again. Unfortunately, that bad-tempered lot north of the Gothic Line didn't understand that and used to discourage us by shooting at us. Consequently it was good sometimes when the weather was bad to have flying cancelled due to rain.
Rain could be encouraged. It was not unusual to see an apparently normal bloke looking up at the sky and shout 'Send her down Hughie", and it was not hard for Hughie to oblige at that time of the year. Who Hughie was - no-one knew.
Well one day we took advantage of the rain to set out for Tolintino. Bunny, Blue & I were joined by Jimmy and Mac, Mac was Dover's Navigator. He was a very talented artist, very enthusiastic about his art and always looking to buy prinys & art materials. This gave him a much better grasp of the language than anyone else of us had.
We caught a series of lifts to Jesi, then Mesarata, then Tolinto, by which time we were getting hungry. Mac (a great bloke) accosted a likely looking local who was able to take us to food. The owner of the place spoke a little English which helped. He bought us a big dish of spaghetti , much vino and a roast pigeon each. I noticed Jimmy about to put an odd looking forkful of pigeon into his mouth and stopped him just in time from eating its head. For all of us the total cost was one pound ( English - they didn't like Lira at all).
We decided to stay the night so Mac found the same obliging local who said he could put us up. He introduced us to his wife - a fat little lady about twenty-five who was a real comedian and had us laughing all night. Their little boy - a lovely kid - had his leg smashed by an English lorry but they didn't seem to resent it.
When we went to bed Jim had a big sofa, while Blue, Bunny & I had to share a very large bed. Mac slept at another house down the street. For breakfast there was steak - which was a bit of a mystery - I don't remember seeing animals anywhere - ever.
Going home was a bit of a worry as the weather was lifting and flying a possibility. There was a problem though - the strip was just too boggy and flying was cancelled.