Memories of World War Two Biplanes
In May, AHSA member Murray Adam's described some of his flying experiences in Egypt in World War II. Murray has kindly supplied a typescript of his talk.
My short career as an in distinguished fighter pilot led me to foreign lands, service with men of several nationalities and the opportunity to fly 185 aeroplanes of 12 basic types. After joining the RAAF in September 1940 I spent a year in training and traveling to Egypt, in the world’s largest ship, the Queen Elizabeth, before being seconded to the Royal Air Force for the next four years. Then followed a tour of operations on Tomahawks (P40s) in the Libyan Desert, and a later tour from bases in Italy, England and Holland with Spitfires and Tempests. To illustrate the mobility of fighter squadrons it is interesting to note that during five years service I had a total of 53 addresses spread across nine countries. However, my purpose tonight is to talk about some historic aircraft I flew during a rest period away from the excitement of aerial combat.
I was fascinated by the biplane era which lasted through the Kaiser’s war and into the early stages of Hitler’s war. Therefore, I took any opportunity to fly old biplanes left over from those more leisurely days.
During a stint in 1942 at RAF Station Ismalia, midway along the Suez Canal, a fellow pilot named Chambers and I used to walk past an ancient biplane sitting neglected under dust and cobwebs, in the corner of a hangar and we developed an ambition to restore it to flying condition. The Engineering Officer found a great many reasons why this could not be done, including rust in the bracing wires, rotten fabric and an out of time engine. We persevered and had a breakthrough when we discovered in another hangar, a new Armstrong Siddley Panther 11A engine in a cobweb covered crate. Nightly we plied this Engineering Officer with drinks we could ill afford until we weakened his resolve to the extent that he agreed, against his better judgement to fit the new engine, dope up the fabric and turn a blind eye to the wires. Then, if Chambers and I flew the old crate, returned alive and declared it airworthy he would sign the necessary form. So began a love affair we had with a fine old aeroplane which we, largely kept to ourselves, and used it for a variety of tasks.
This was a Fairey Gordon, descended from the Fairey 111 which in various forms, on wheels and floats, was used to keep the peace between the two World Wars. Our machine, K3994, had been used to teach unruly tribesmen in Trans-Jordon a lesson or two when they became truculent, and in its old age suffered the ignominy of towing banners to be shot at by the more modern Hawker Demons and Gloster Glauntlets. We restored the old girl’s self respect by using her to do things which she could do better than her successors, such as landing away from airfields, and almost hovering when flown into strong winds. She was described officially as a General Purpose Day Bomber.
One of the first jobs I did with the Gordon was to fly another pilot, a mechanic, and a can of oil down the west side of the Red Sea to recover a Gladiator which had forced landed. (Someone had allowed the rather unpopular Air Commodore to take the Gladiator for a jaunt without telling him that particular machine had a duration governed by its high oil consumption rather than its fuel supply. That rescue operation involved landing and taking off on a rough dirt road.
On another occasion whilst flying two passengers—very much economy class, standing in the open compartment– to el Arish in northern Sinai, I spotted a light aircraft which had forced landed on a sandbank a few miles off the coast. There were two people, and in the sand they had written: FOOD, WATER. I hastened to Romani and found the old airfield used by the Australian Flying Corps in the Kaiser’s war, and prepared to land to secure some sustenance for the stranded party. However, since the previous war, high sand dunes had built up around the landing ground, reducing its length considerably, and because it had not been used for years, there was no windsock. Being dead into wind was critical with the Gordon because of the absence of brakes so I searched for some indicator of wind direction. There was no smoke, grass or trees, but there was an Australian type windmill and using that I touched down, and was gathering speed towards the sand dune on the perimeter so opened the throttle, and on the second attempt made a successful landing in the reciprocal direction. I then discovered the windmill was a relic from the earlier war and had been rusted up for many years and was quite incapable of turning into wind. I loaded up two jerricans full of water and some sandbags filled with basic rations of bully beef and biscuits and returned to the stranded party. Then the near hovering capability of the Gordon was put to good use. Flying into wind just above stalling speed, at about ten feet above the sand the two officers in the back heaved the items over the side, and we were rewarded by the message : FOOD & WATER OK scratched in the sand.
Another task was to take mail down to a few lonely radar stations in the Sinai on the eastern side of the Gulf of Suez and the Red Sea. These posts had no landing grounds or access to roads and each was manned by an officer and about six other ranks who sweltered in year– round temperatures of about 45 degrees C in the waterbag. I would land on the beach and stay over night at one of them, where the normal thing was to share a bottle of scotch with the poor officer who had been deprived of the company of his own kind for so long. On one occasion I went down to the beach at 0600 the next morning to fly back to Ismalia and the atmosphere looked decidedly hazy, which I put down to an excess of whisky the previous evening. However as I got off the ground I was in thick fog which had a level top at 1,000 ft. I knew I was on track when I saw the smoke of a coal burning ship on the Suez Canal coming up through the fog. Sure enough, the fog ended right on the coast and I was able to sneak in under the edge of it to land at Port Said for breakfast. The high temperatures and treeless desert created massive thermals and it was not uncommon over the Sinai to suddenly rise or fall 300 ft at a time. This presented a problems for passengers in the rear compartment who stood without any seats to be strapped to. Some years earlier, one or two pilots had landed minus the passengers they had started with. This was clearly a waste of manpower and upsetting to friends and relations, so it was decreed that in future all passengers must be secured by dog chains from rings on the floor to their belts.
I developed quite an affection for the old Gordon, even although one day towards the end of our association she shed a piece of rusted exhaust collector ring which narrowly missed my left ear. I would like to think that she was preserved as an historic aeroplane in some air museum, but it was probable that she was just left to rust away to dust. There is an Australian link with the Gordon in that the same airframe, designated a Fairey IIID, fitted with floats, and a Napier Lion engine, was used by RAAF officers, Goble and McIntyre, in the first circumnavigation of our continent between 6 April and 19 May 1924.