My Unfinished Father – A Life Lived to the Full
A Life Lived to the Full
03/07/1938 – 18/10/2018
Part 6 – Pages 54 – 62
Father front row, third from right.
THE RAAF 1966
I was posted to RAAF Williamstown, a fighter station about twenty miles north of Newcastle in New South Wales. On the Sunday night I drove up there thinking I could make it during the Sunday evening. I could not. So I spent several hours asleep in the car in a lay by, which meant that I arrived, a little dishevelled, early on Monday morning at the station.
I quickly met up with my boss, Wing Commander Trevor Pughes, uncle of the future Australian cricket captain, Kim Hughes, and settled in to a room in the Mess. The following day I was attached to the Headquarters group as a supernumerary officer. The day after that I found out what ‘supernumerary’ meant when I met with Station Commander, Air Commodore Gary Cooper. No, no it was not that Gary Cooper.
It was plain from the start that he had no idea what to do with me. I had been sent to Williamtown to learn how to become an Air Force officer, without there being a fixed role for me to fill. So the Air Commodore set out to rectify that position.
He called out, “Come in,” and stood up as I entered. We shook hands.
“Good to meet you. Do you call yourself Patrick or Brian?”
“It’s Brian, sir.”
“Righto, Brian it is. Sit Down. I am glad you are here. I have a job for you.”
I tried to look intelligent. “Yes, sir, delighted to be of assistance.”
“You’ve heard that we lost an aircraft a couple of days before you got here?”
“Yes, an F86 Sabre. It blew up at low level over Merewether. It killed the pilot, Bill Goddard. He ejected but was at too low an altitude. He was still in the ejector seat when they found him. Great pity, that was. He was a fine young man.”
“Anyway,” he looked up. “There was a great deal of structural damage. I have a couple of Board of Works chaps on the job, assessing the claims for damages. I’d like you to go with them. Keep an eye on things from the RAAF’s viewpoint. Think you can manage that?”
“I’m sure I can sir.”
“Good, they will be here tomorrow to meet you.”
“That’s very good sir.” I got up to go.
“Please sit down. I have a few other jobs for you.”
And he had. I was appointed the Deputy Formation Counter Intelligence Officer, reporting to Flt Lt Jim Roddy, Intelligence officer. I was also deputy UFO Officer again reporting to Jim.
“And you can keep an eye on sonic boom claims. Some people around here see the RAAF as a sort of cash cow.”
He then asked me a question. “You are an Englishman?”
I bristled a little.
“No sir, I am an Ulsterman. I am from Northern Ireland’”
“Oh, I am sorry. But you still play soccer?”
“Yes, I do, but we call it football.”
He smiled. “Football is something different in Australia. I’d like you to manage the soccer team. Can you do that?”
I think that this was not an invitation. I nodded. At that stage I was not a great footballer. I had played a few games for Hackney, but was completely unqualified to manage the RAAF side, or anyone else, as I would quickly demonstrate. It did not seem appropriate to share my concerns with the Air Commodore.
Before I left his office that morning I had been given; Philatelic officer; Photographic Club Officer; Wrestling Officer and undoubtly several others which I can no longer remember. My plate was full.
It took me a day or two to catch up with Jim Hoddy whose office was next to mine. I was busy for several weeks being picked up by a young WAAF in a large Chrysler car and after picking up one or other, sometimes both, the Works engineers we headed for Merewether. The job was simple. The Works men were very experienced and competent. My job was to see the RAAF was not being defrauded in any way. The young WAAF was a girl from Parkes or somewhere in rural NSW and everything excited her.
Then I met Jim Hoddy, a long term Fight Lieutenant and a magnificent chap. He struck me as rather more English than Australian. Jim realized that he had gone as far as he was going, and was content to remain a flight lieutenant until it was time for his pension. He had a brother in the service; I think they were twins. He was also an officer of the same rank and in the same Branch as Jim. This was Dick Hoddy whom I subsequently got to know and who was the spitting image of Jim, complete with a large moustache.
Jim’s big interest outside the RAAF was fishing, beach fishing and it was a sport to which he devoted his weekend energies and his Monday mornings to describing what he had achieved to anyone who would listen. This normally meant me.
While living in the Mess before Margaret and Rory joined me, I met some interesting characters. The first was a tall young lieutenant with the flashes on his shoulder bearing ‘Royal Australian Army Provost Corps. I was intrigued, as I didn’t know there was one, and introduced myself. He was a civilian, a senior constable in the South Australian Police and was a member of the CMF, civilian military force. We had a long and interesting chat one morning over breakfast.
I asked him what he was doing at Williamtown. He was, he informed me, there for a parachute course. He explained that his Provost Marshal thought it would be a good idea if a couple of his officers could jump into hotspots in Vietnam, if they were ever needed.
I thought this was pretty crazy and said so. I also pointed out that in the RAAF and most other Air Forces in the world, as a matter of principle’ you never jumped from a perfectly serviceable aircraft. We agreed to differ.
The second man with whom I became friendly in my first few weeks in the Mess was Richard Speers. He was an Ulsterman who was living in the Mess, as I was, awaiting the arrival of his family. Jimmy was a flight Lieutenant on a short service commission, having retired as a squadron leader in the RAF. He had spent a large part of his career in the RAF flying Mosquitoes. We got along famously and I was soon to get to know his two sons, Martin and Shamus as members of my football team.
Jimmy’s current job was to pilot search and rescue helicopters which he did every morning when the Mirages were flying. One day he asked me if I would like to join him in the chopper. Naturally I jumped at the chance. On the appointed day I turned up, was dressed for the occasion, and took off with Jimmy.
We flew around for a while the Mirages went through their drill and after an hour or so it was all over and we could return to base. Jimmy then said “Do you want to fly this thing?”
In horror I said “I can’t fly anything.”
Jimmy replied, “It’s easy. Put your feet on the pedals and your hands on the control stick.”
Scared stiff I did so.
“There you are, you’re doing the flying.”
“No, I’m not. You are.”
Jimmy removed his feet from the pedals and his hands from the stick. “No, mate, you are.”
Fortunately he quickly retook control. As it turned out, I moved into my own rented house before Jimmy and I had another opportunity to play games again.
During my first few weeks at Williamstown I was busily engaged ending my tenancy of my flat in Melbourne and renting a house in Nelson Bay, a small town about twenty miles to the north. Nelson Bay was a very pretty sea side town with a large number of Air Force personnel living there.
The house we rented had the romantic address 30 Christmas Bush Avenue. I was delighted when I was able to drive to Melbourne to pick up my small tribe and live together again as a family. I was equally delighted to be reunited with them again. It was just coming into summer and we had all the delights of an Aussie summer season ahead of us.
In the meantime I had all the pleasures of caring for the ‘soccer’ team, as they called it in these parts. In Australia in the 1960’s football did, in truth, mean something different. In New South Wales it meant Rugby Union, in Queensland it was Rugby League and in the southern states it was very much Australian Rules. Soccer was very much despised and this applied also at Williamtown.
Nevertheless, a small but enthusiastic bunch of eager players kept turning up each week to take part, in spite of a continual record of losses. There were always two games in the afternoon. The first one involved the first teams and the game which followed involved the Reserves. It did not make a lot of difference, except our reserves were somewhat more goal proof that the first team.
Our record defeat was 18-0. The first team played 22 games, winning one, and drawing one, and losing 20. We scored 23 goals and let in 158. Shocking was it not? But most of us enjoyed ourselves. The second team was marginally better. They played 22, winning 1 and drawing 2 with 19 losses. At least the goal scoring record was a bit better, 21 goals for and 79 against.
What can I say? I was the most unsuccessful manager in history. I played in 20 games, most of which were in the Northern NSW League.
However, a couple of games did stand out as being a bit different. The first was against the Base hockey club, which was drawn 3-3. We took a lot of stick over that result, especially from the station newspaper. Their headlines were all along the lines of not being able to beat the hockey players.
The second was at least a victory. A Royal Navy submarine was on detachment to the Royal Australian Navy and was visiting the Port of Newcastle. The crew of HMS Trump, of whom there were 66 officers and men, asked RAAF Williamtown for a game. We were delighted to comply and on Friday 5th May 1967 the brave lads of RAAF Williamtown faced up to the might of the Royal Navy.
With a crew’s complement of 66, they did their best but we won 4-0. I was surprised that on the football field the officers were still called ‘sir’. We did take a lot of stick in the station paper over that game. Something good did come out of it. My wife and I had an invitation to visit the submarine on the Sunday following the game where we were royally entertained.
It was my first time on any kind of submarine and it was utterly fascinating. I was especially taken by the hammocks hanging over the torpedoes.
One sad event occurred in regard to the football team. Flying Officer Burkley O’Loughlin, nickname BOL, a Mirage pilot who played regularly for the football team lost his life when his Mirage crashed into the ocean. Before my time at the station was up we lost a further pilot to the ocean, a Wing Commander Lance Drummond. They did say that deaths occurred in threes.
As the summer drew on the weather improved, not that it was unpleasant in the first place. Living where we did, in Nelson Bay, we were always close to the beach and we took advantage of that.
Getting to work called for a car club and we formed one with Paddy, an Irish Flight Lieutenant; Guy, a Frenchman who was part of the Mirage Conversion Unit; and an Australian officer. This worked pretty well except that Paddy did not have a car and instead offered to pay for his rides. He did not and after a few weeks of this the rest of us decided on some tough tactics.
I think the Aussie was driving to work and about half way to the air base he stopped the car and told Paddy to get out. Paddy protested and was told why he was no longer welcome. A confused and angry five minutes followed before the unfortunate Paddy apologised and promised to pay up. He did but left our club for another one soon after.
The Frenchman disagreed when he was called French, stating very firmly that he was a Breton and had to go to school to learn French.
This was the happy little band that made up our car club. Nevertheless, it lasted the whole year I was at Williamtown.
Events occurred that made doubt that Federation had ever happened. Firstly, I was required by the NSW State government to apply for an NSW driving licence to continue to drive, my Victorian licence being deemed as no longer valid as I was a ‘permanent’ inhabitant of the new state. In addition, it was deemed necessary to change the registration plates on my car.
I protested about this, stating that Federation had been a great idea and wondering why they had not carried it out.
Back in Christmas Bush Avenue we generally got along quite well with the neighbours, particularly a young married couple called Colin and Moira with whom we frequently went out together at weekends. They seemed to care for each other but were also capable of some blazing rows.
But as Margaret and I were not exactly blameless in this area ourselves, we kept quiet.
Just before Christmas, I ran into the greatest problem I had so far faced in the Air Force. In a way, it was my own fault in that I was careless. It involved the Catering Officer whose name I have long forgotten. In the service there is an appointment called Orderly Officer. Junior officers are appointed on a daily basis to represent the Officer Commanding. In practice this only applies during the night as during the day there are many more senior officers to deal with problems.
The Catering Officer, a flying officer, came to see me one day and asked if we could exchange the date on my day as orderly officer about a week ahead. He said that he had something planned which he didn’t want to change. I agreed readily enough as one day is much like another. It was several days later that a Standing Order was issued by Headquarters. Our overall boss, Headquarters Strike Command had announced that the AOC, Air Officer Commanding, was to visit RAAF Williamtown and that there would be a parade to welcome him. The OC himself would take the parade.
Of very much more interest to me was that the AOC would also take a parade to mark his departure. This further parade, his departure, would be commanded by the Orderly Officer of the day. In other words, that meant me. I cursed the bloody Catering Officer. I put it to him that he had known what he was doing in arranging the swap. He denied this.
It mattered little; I would be commanding the parade. I was utterly petrified. I had several days to learn the drill movement. I did my best. I was barking commands in my sleep. No one offered any help. Finally came the day and in the morning I was part of a dizzying parade to welcome the AOC who carried out his inspection, stopping every so often to speak to various personnel There may have been a thousand officers, men and women on that parade.
The morning parade over, all the key personnel disappeared until late in the afternoon when I appeared as OIC the farewell to the AOC. I barked out my orders and, miraculously, the parade obeyed. Finally I halted them, turned around and marched up to the inspection point. I came to attention in front of Sir Colin Hannah.
“Parade is ready for inspection, sir.”
Sir Colin spoke. “That’s very good. Just come forward one pace and halt.”
I did so.
“That’s better “he said.
I saluted, he returned the salute, and shook hands. “I do not need to inspect the parade again. You can dismiss the troops.”
I turned about smartly and marched back to my place in front of the troops and turned around to see Sir Colin marching off. Awaiting a minute or two, I was finally able to give the one command I had been waiting all day to give. “Parade, dismiss.”
It was all over and I had survived. Later I spoke to Warrant officer Ted Deas.
“How did I do?”
“You did OK” he replied. “However, we would have done the right thing whatever command you had given.” At last I felt like a real Air Force officer.
Subsequently, I came to realise that I owed the Catering Officer quite a lot. I felt more confident about my abilities. I later met Sir Colin in my next posting.
On 5th April I played my only game of cricket i would play in two years. It was a rained off game for RAAF Williamtown against Newcastle University in which they scored five for no wicket.
Nor was my Provost training neglected in my year at Williamtown. In May 1967 I was sent to RAAF Amberley for a counter intelligence course for a week. I enjoyed the course but found Brisbane to be a rather dull place.
There was an intense four days on an Intelligence course at Middle Head with the Australian Army at their Intelligence school. The entrance to Sydney Harbour is divided into three, North, South and Middle Heads. This was tough work and rather less enjoyable. Coming home, late in the evening and in the rain, I hit a pot hole and pranged the Peugeot. Rats!
There were two further incidents which have remained in my memory ever since they occurred. The first was a complaint from a Yugoslav chicken farmer in the country. One of the Mirage jets had banged through the sound barrier above his farm the previous afternoon; the resultant sonic boom had frightened his chickens who had become involved in a pile up leaving about 1000 dead.
The station commander called me into his office and briefed me on what had been reported to him, and in Jim Hoddy’s absence, sent me off to deal with it. His last message to me was to bring back a couple of ‘chooks’ for the oven. Off I went with my WAAF driver and her big Chrysler on a pleasant morning.
When we arrived at the farm we found the farmer in the process of cleaning out one of his three chicken sheds. These were about fifty yards long and covered in chicken netting. The birds were free to run about inside but they panicked when frightened and all rushed in the same direction causing a pile up and they suffocated.
In the farm yard a great pile of birds lay dead and smelling very badly in the hot Australian sun.
“Ther are about 1000 in that pile. Do you want to count them?” For a Yugoslav his English was excellent.
“I’ll take your word for that” I replied. I took a few notes and we departed leaving the farmer with his dead chickens. I reported back to the OC with the bad news. The ‘chooks’ were not fit for the oven.
The second incident was a lot more thought provoking. It again occurred when Jim was away somewhere. It was a report of a UFO reported by two policemen near Lake Macquarie.
Once again I linked up with my WAAF driver and her Chrysler and off we went. This incident had a profound effect upon me, as it had had with the two police officers. Their story went like this.
About three in the morning, the two men on night shift were sitting in their stationary car near Lake Macquarie, contemplating life. The officer in the driver’s seat drew his mate’s attention to what he could see coming up on his right. It was a light in the sky, travelling quite fast. At the point where the light should have passed over the car, they both looked out the passenger side window to pick up the light again and nothing happened.
After several seconds both got out of the car and looked upwards. There, above them, they saw that the light had stopped and was shining down. For several minutes it remained in that position before moving off again very slowly, following the line of the lake. The two policemen got back in the car and followed alongside the lake. After about two or three minutes, the object suddenly picked up speed and left the police car in its wake until it disappeared into the distance and was gone.
I questioned the two but there was little else to tell me. I believed them. They were men in their thirties and were trained witnesses. On my return to base I enquired about aircraft movements and meteorological conditions. There was nothing to explain what had happened. These men believed what they had seen. And I believed them. This incident had a curious effect on my life. Not being able to understand something which happened would never stand in my way of believing that it might have an explanation, even if I could not understand it.
And my time at Williamtown was now complete. I had enjoyed it more than I can say. I had arrived as a ‘bog rat’ a no nothing pilot officer and was leaving as a know something flying officer. The RAAF was succeeding in turning me into an Air Force officer. We had, I believed, had a good year at Nelson Bay and had spent an idyllic summer there. We were ready to move on, but not too far.
I was posted to Detachment A, in Sydney about 100 miles to the south.
Writing this over fifty years later, I do wonder what Margaret thought of it all. At the time she didn’t say much and I thought, stupid and selfish as I must have been that she had nothing to say. It would be several years before I was proven wrong.
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