November 10 - 16, 2013: Issue 136
Spitfire pilots of the Northern Beaches
David Lowy with, from left, WWII pilots Jack Curtis, Lysle Roberts and Ken Wright. Picture: Peter Morris.
Spitfire pilots of the Northern Beaches
by Steve Meacham
Seventy years ago this weekend, long term Avalon resident Ken Wright was a prisoner of war in a Nazi stalag, having been shot down in his modified Spitfire over Germany on August 17, 1942.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, another young man - Lysle Roberts, who now spends most weekends at his Palm Beach retreat - was still at Knox Grammar School, dreaming of becoming a Spitfire pilot. Soon he would achieve his ambition, eventually being based in Darwin and flying missions to force back the Japanese forces that had invaded so much of South East Asia and the South Pacific.
As we commemorate another Remembrance Day, Wright (93) and Roberts (89) have just returned to the skies.
They and a third World War II fighter pilot - Jack Curtis (88), who lives in St Ives - were guests of honour at Temora Aviation Museum’s spectacular Warbirds Downunder air show on Nov 2.
Personally flown down to Temora by multi-millionaire David Lowy in his Gulfstream executive jet, the trio’s trip was the subject of Spitfire Spirit, a feature which appeared in the Weekend Australian Magazine on Nov 2.
Pittwater Online caught up with Ken Wright and his wife Lola at their home in North Avalon where they have lived for 50 years. As Lola listens to the interview, she interrupts momentarily to say she loves hearing her husband finally describe his World War II experiences “because he never tells me”.
Ken is typical of so many generations of Australian soldiers, sailors and airmen who have never boasted about their achievements. “No-one was interested when we got home from the war,” he explains. “I just went back to working for the Bank of NSW.”
In fact, Ken Wright’s story is truly inspiring. That it is being told now owes much to another Avalon aviator, Qantas pilot Brad Fisher, who met the veteran at a barbecue and took it upon himself to write down the saga.
It was Fisher who rescued the story from never being told. For unlike most Australian World War II Spitfire pilots, Wright was a Flight Sergeant during the war, not an officer. And he served as a Spitfire pilot in the Royal Air Force, not the Royal Australian Air Force. So when the repatriated prisoner of war finally got back to Australia, he slipped through the bureaucratic radar.
“Lofty” Wright (“I was six foot 5 inches in my youth,” he explains) is the antithesis of the folklore image of a Spitfire pilot.
Mild-mannered, modest, Wright expected to continue working in country banks until the day the RAAF recruiting train pulled into Tamworth. He joined up on Dec 9, 1940 - just days after his 20th birthday.
After completing pilots training at Tamworth and Amberley airfields, he qualified as a service pilot on July 25, 1941. At the time he didn’t even have a licence to drive a car!
Unlike Lysle Roberts, Wright wasn’t picked out as a potential fighter pilot by his training officers, nor did he particularly want to be. Instead Wright plus the mates he’d trained with, and other rookies, set off on the SS Awatea for further training in Canada.
However when the troop ship reached Auckland in August 1941, it was clear Wright had caught mumps.
“My mates decided their shore leave would be cancelled if anyone realised I was infectious,” Wright remembers. “So I wrapped a scarf around my throat and went ashore. But by curfew time and after numerous glasses of beer, I was feeling pretty seedy and ended up in hospital.
“This probably saved my life because most of the guys I’d trained with were killed on ops, flying bombers, by early 1942.”
Wright eventually continued his journey to the UK and was assigned to Coastal Command, protecting the shipping convoys which were Britain’s wartime lifeline.
But on an impulse he volunteered to join the RAF’s Photographic Reconnaissance Unit instead. What convinced him wasn’t the fact the PRU flew modified Spitfires, painted in RAF blue, but the promise of being able to fly twin-engined Mosquito fighter-bombers once the PRU received them (they never did).
Still, says Wright, “I can still remember the thrill of that first takeoff in a Spitfire. There were no dual seat Spitfires in those days, so I was on my own, just a quick brief, a read of the booklet and off you went.”
Hours of specialised blind-flying followed, learning to navigate through cloud, followed by more high altitude training practising with the cameras. “They were electrically heated for high altitudes and usually fixed behind the pilot, protruding slightly below the fuselage. Each photograph covered up to seven miles on the ground, usually taken between 20,000 and 30,000 feet. The pilot positioned his plane directly above the target and flew steadily ahead with the camera turned on.”
It was lonely work, though. As one historian put it: “It took a particular type of bravery to fly alone, unarmed, untrained in evasive tactics and over enemy territory to bring back photographic evidence.” Survival chances weren’t high - only one in three PRU pilots flying over Europe in 1942 were there to fly again in 1943.
Yet Wright loved the work and never felt isolated: “There was always plenty to see.”
Didn’t he feel scared about being spotted and attacked by German fighters? “I never thought about being attacked: it was just a case of ‘She’ll be right’. You’d just get as high as you could and stayed there, without leaving vapor trails.”
In fact, before he was eventually shot down, the only time Wright ever saw an enemy plane was on his way back from a dangerous photographic mission over Cologne.
“I had to photograph a place in Belgium where two roads met,” Wright explains. “I looked down and saw five Focke Wulf 190s in the distance about the same height as me. I just put the nose of the Spitfire over the North Sea and got out as fast as I could. They never saw me.
“A lot of my flights were to do with the Canadian army’s attack on the French port of Dieppe in 1942. My job was to photograph the German guns and planes defending Dieppe.
“The Canadians got wiped out, but I met lots of them at Stalag 8B, after I’d been shot down. The Germans had marched them from France to the eastern part of Germany.”
Wright’s meticulous log book, recovered after the war, documents all 19 successfully completed missions. But his luck ran out on 17 August, 1942.
“I’d been sent to photograph the German submarine base in the Bremen to Bremerhaven canal. I’d tried once before, but fog spoiled the photographs.” He had already worked out his escape route: head out over the North Sea at midday, with no cloud.
However as Wright began his run at 28,000 ft, dodging flak from the ground anti-aircraft defences, “I saw a Messerschmitt 109 in my rear view mirror.”
With no armaments, all Wright and his Spitfire could do was dodge, avoid conflict. As the 109 attacked, “I made an evasive move and his burst missed the cockpit but left one aileron flapping in the slipstream.”
Wright and his Spitfire were a sitting duck. “I was still able to hold the plane level,” Wright says. “But when he came round again, his burst strafed my instrumentation panel and left me with shrapnel injury.”
Wright had left England with 80 gallons of highly inflammable fuel in the Spitfire’s main tanks, plus 65 gallons each in the two wing tanks.
“I could smell petrol,” Wright says. “The fact the plane wasn’t already on fire was amazing. So I decided to bail out rather than be burnt to death in an explosion.
“I’d never done a parachute jump before, but I remembered my escape drill. Undo my harness straps, turn the plane upside down, and ‘kick the stick’ to get me out.
“As the parachute opened and I floated down, my adversary continued to circle me. I can remember thinking: what if he shoots me?
“Apparently he decided I would be caught very easily. German army trucks were already gathering in the potato fields below.”
Wright remembers feeling a sense of failure: “I loved flying and knew that my flying days were over.” His captors took him to a nearby airfield, where incredibly he met the pilot who had shot him down.
“He told me he had been flying on the Russian front, that the Nazis were winning, and that we would be friends after the war.”
Subsequent research by Brad Fisher indicates the German pilot was probably Dieter Gerhard, a German ace who was himself shot down and killed shortly afterwards.
As a prisoner of war, moving from Stalag 8B Lamsdorf before being moved to Stalag 3A Luckenwalde, Wright got a new nickname. “They called me Lucky Lofty,” he smiles.
But his wartime adventures weren’t quite over, though. Shortly before the Nazis were defeated, Wright and a mate escaped. “The Germans had left and the Russians had taken over the POW camp,” he remembers. “I’d talked to some Yanks running around in a Jeep and knew that the Americans had agreed not to cross the River Elbe, about 12 kms away. If we’d stayed, we thought we’d be sent to Russia before we could get home. So I said to my mate from Gosford, let’s walk to the Yanks.”
Though Wright typically underplays the escape, it was still a dangerous day’s trek. Several times they had to hide along the roadside. But eventually they managed to join the American forces, who fed them their first meal of freedom. As it turned out, that day became known in history as VE Day - the end of the war in Europe.
By contrast, Lysle Roberts’s war was less traumatic for the very good reason that by the time he qualified as a Spitfire pilot, the enemy was in retreat.
Now 89, he still looks remarkably like the young man in the photograph that takes pride of place in the office of home in Pymble. It shows a smiling Roberts in July 1944, sitting in the cockpit of his Spitfire Mk VIII which he’d named “Rhapsody in Red”.
“I’d just turned 20,” he recalls. “I’d seen the illustration in a men’s magazine and I asked someone to paint it on the plane for me.” Most of his mates in 457 Squadron decorated their warplanes with similar girly motifs, or satirically-cute ones like “Jiminy Cricket” borrowed from the 1940 animated Walt Disney classic, Pinocchio.
Born Joseph Lysle Roberts, he had joined the RAAF on New Year’s Day, 1943 after leaving Knox Grammar where he’d been school captain and a noted sportsman.
He’d been offered a commission in the Australian Imperial Force by the IF, but turned it down “because I wanted to fly Spitfires”.
After training on Wirraways at Uranquinity, outside Wagga Wagga, Roberts had become one of only two pilots from his course to be selected for Spitfire training at Mildura. Why Spitfires? “We were considered better pilots,” Roberts answers honestly. “The Spitfire was a more prestigious airplane and certainly more difficult to fly that a Kittyhawk or a Boomerang, and I flew them all.”
But was the Spitfire pilot mythology deserved? “I think being as young as we were, it all went to our heads. We thought we were the creme de la creme when, of course, we were no better than anyone else.
“All the (Australian airforce) planes in World War II - the Mustangs, Boomerangs, Kittyhawks - had their role to play”. But the Spitfire had the elan. “I don’t know it really deserved it. As an ex-pilot, I’d have to say the Hurricane did a far better job in Europe. But the Hurricane never came to Australia. As far as combat in the South West Pacific is concerned, the Kittyhawk did better than we did.”
Roberts candidly admits that by the time he qualified and reached Darwin, the Japanese air assault on Australia was virtually over. “There were no more raids on Darwin. The Japanese were in more trouble on the islands (New Guinea, modern-day Indonesia). We never saw a Zero (the famed Japanese fighter plane).”
Christmas Day, 1943, is a day Roberts will never forget. As a new arrival, 457‘s squadron leader, “Skeeter” James, told Roberts to perform several takeoffs and landings while he watched. On Roberts’s final landing, the youngster suddenly felt the undercarriage of his Spitfire Mk V collapse beneath him.
He could have been killed, but what worried Roberts just as much was the warning he’d received from his mentor, Wing Commander Clive Caldwell before he left to join 457 Squadron: “Anyone who prangs a Spitfire will be sent back south immediately.”
Roberts endured a few nervous days before an official report eventually sheeted the blame home to a technical fault.
In January 1944, Roberts was posted to the Drysdale mission, the closest air strip to Timor. There the Spitfire squadron was kept busy by the Japanese equivalents of Ken Wright, pilots of observation planes interested in photographing the development of Truscott Airstrip then being surveyed and constructed on the Anjo Peninsula.
Soon afterwards, Roberts and other members of 457 Squadron were sent through a cyclone to Perth, following a suspicion that a large Japanese task force was in the area. The rumours proved false, but the flight south was one of the most difficult of Roberts’ career.
Then the squadron was given the task of protecting an Allied task force refuelling and rearming in Exmouth Gulf. As Roberts recalls on his entry on the Spitfire Association of Australia’s website, “I flew number two to Flight Lieutenant Alf Glendenning on dawn patrol. We came out of cloud and below us were two aircraft carriers, four heavy cruisers, six light cruisers and eleven destroyers being refuelled and rearmed.
“Alf took us a little too close and the next minute we came under attack from anti aircraft fire. Whether it was serious or for practice, we did not wait to find out.”
Shortly after returning to Darwin, Roberts decided strafing, bombing and night flying weren’t what he’d joined the RAAF to do. So on Nov 10, 1944, he left 457 Squadron to join No 2AD at Richmond Airbase in Sydney. From then, until the end of the war in 1945, Roberts spent most of his time delivering Mustangs, Kittyhawks and Spitfires to wherever they were required in Borneo and New Guinea.
In February 1946, Roberts was officially discharged, aged 22. Like Wright, he has never flown a plane since. “We had a job to do, and it was finished,” he says.