Trapped Above the Clouds by Coincidence

Recalling how a chain of coincidences led a young Sub Lt. (A) RNVR to the war in the Pacific and eventually, to an encounter in a bar in London after the war.

by Peter Hyde



How it all started

Why did ten minutes spent in a Nissen hut on a Scottish airfield towards the end of the Second World War lead to a unique experience on a South Pacific atoll and to near disaster in the Australian skies? The answer: a series of coincidences, each setting the stage for the next, and documented by entries in my flying log book. The account that follows illustrates the powerful role of coincidence in shaping the direction of our lives.


It begins with my arrival on 28 December 1944 at R.N.A.S. Ayr, the birthplace of Robbie Bums. I was there for a three-week conversion course. I would learn to fly the Navy's first-line fighters and torpedo bombers, and I hoped, complete six practice deck landings on an aircraft carrier in the Clyde.  By then I had logged 455 hours, some at flying schools in Britain and Canada, the remainder while "stooging" in Boulton-Paul Defiants. Designed for night fighting, they were found to be lacking in speed and manoeuvrability, and were soon reassigned to other duties, one of which was drogue towing. The monotonous task of hauling sleeve targets at the end of a long cable, backwards and forwards along a designated sector of the Cornish coast between St. Merryn and Tintagel, so that they could be fired on by student fighter pilots, was one of the safest of all wartime flying jobs. Now, at the ripe old age of 20 I was about to realize my dream of joining an operational squadron and going to sea in one of HM's carriers.  Little did I realize that fate would intervene and deposit me on the other side of the world.

Picture the scene at Ayr on January 4th, 1945. At latitude 55 degrees, 30 minutes north, the sun is about to set. It is 1530 hours and the sky is overcast. Flying has ended for the day, and the pilots and their instructors are awaiting transportation to the Mess, located on the far side of the field.

A utility van known as "Tilly" is sighted wending its way along the perimeter track towards the aircraft dispersal area. As soon as it arrives there is a rush to clamber aboard, for there is only enough space for about a dozen. The laggards, an instructor, another student and myself, must wait in the hut until the return of the van. As it happened, the conjunction of my tardiness and a high-level decision in London to assemble a British Pacific Fleet to lend direct support to the U.S. forces during the final months of the war were to have an immediate effect on my future.


Suddenly, the telephone rang in the next room. The instructor appeared briefly in the doorway to ask which of us was available for a flying exercise on the following day. As my companion was already booked, I was asked to give my name and rank, which were repeated to the caller. Minutes later, "Tilly" returned and whisked us away to the Mess. On arrival, the Senior Pilot casually informed me that someone from the Admiralty had "phoned and I'd been appointed to join 723 squadron in Australia. "Get your things packed and go on embarkation leave tomorrow. Take the morning train to London and get kitted out for the tropics. You'll receive further instructions in due course." So that was it'-not an exercise but half way round the world in a troopship. "What an extraordinary coincidence," I thought.


Off to Australia

The six-week voyage to Australia was completed without incident. After embarking in the troopship "Dominion Monarch," along with thousands of others, including many homeward bound Australian and New Zealand aircrew, we departed from Liverpool on the afternoon of January 15th. By daybreak we had joined a convoy of some 200 merchant vessels assembled off the coast of Northern Ireland; preparatory to crossing the U boat- infested North Atlantic at the speed of the slowest ship, about eight knots. It took all of 16 days to get to the Panama Canal.


After refuelling and victualling in Colon, we crossed the Pacific unescorted. Towards the end of the voyage we were scheduled to disembark several hundred New Zealanders, however, the plan was hastily abandoned upon the discovery that a Japanese submarine was shadowing us. The fact that the ship couldn't slow engines preparatory to entering harbour came as a major disappointment to the Kiwis, many of whom had been away from home for four or five years. Two days later, we arrived in Sydney.


After a few days of luxurious R & R in the spacious accommodations of HMS "Golden Hind," occupying the grounds of Sydney's pre-war racecourse, I travelled by train to HMS "Nabbington" at Nowra, a naval air station about 100 miles to the south, only to find that I was supernumerary, as the vacancy in the squadron had been filled. By yet another coincidence, a requirement had arisen for two maintenance test pilots to be sent to what were vaguely referred to as "the islands," lying somewhere to the north of Australia. To that end, another Subbie and myself were to receive training for the job at HMS "Nabberley" at Bankstown, an R.A.A.F airfield on the outskirts of Sydney. During our several weeks at Bankstown we were instructed in the fundamental principles of test flying in the leading naval fighters of the day, the Vought-Sikorsky F4U Corsair and the Grumman Hellcat, both designed and built in the United States, and the British-built Seafire Mark III, the naval version of the famous Spitfire. All were fitted with retractable arrestor hooks to facilitate deck landings, and with wings that folded hydraulically to facilitate storage below decks and in the limited space available near the forward end of the flight deck.

On to the Admiralty Islands

From Bankstown, we were ferried in an R.A.A.F DC-3 Dakota to Port Moresby in what is now known as Papua-New Guinea, and from there to the vast U.S. naval base at Manus, by far the largest of the string of Admiralty Islands forming part of the crescent-shaped Bismarck Archipelago. After its recapture from the Japanese, Manus became the headquarters of General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of U.S. ground forces in the Pacific Theatre. Furnished with an excellent natural harbour, it served as the staging area for many hard fought operations by U.S. ground forces against enemy-held islands lying farther to the north. By the time we arrived, MacArthur and his staff had already departed for their new headquarters at Manila in the Philippines. Ponam Island, Home of HMS Nabaron, MONAB IV


From Manus, a light aircraft ferried Sub-Lieutenant Jack Jones and myself to Ponam, an atoll lying about three miles off the shoreline of the 60 miles long, jungle-covered Manus Island. The approximately mile and a quarter-long Ponam had been transferred by the U.S. Navy to the recently formed British Pacific Fleet. It incorporated an airstrip of crushed coral; aircraft repair shops and communications facilities; prefabricated buildings for the storage of aircraft parts; jeeps, trucks and other rolling stock; a launch in which a callow Midshipman named Balls deftly negotiated the treacherous waters of the reef; gasoline and oil storage reservoirs; a small control tower; a desalination plant to supply brackish drinking water; and accommodations for several thousand men. Air Artificers, riggers, fitters, armourers, radio technicians, electronics and communications specialists, to mention only some of those with state-of-the-art training in their trades, comprised the bulk of the Ship's Company. Known as HMS "Nabaron," MONAB 4 was the most northerly of the wartime MONABs.


Again by coincidence, this was the very unit with which I had embarked at Liverpool earlier in the year for the six weeks voyage to Australia. I had never given a thought to its purpose or ultimate destination, and none of the lads had taken the trouble to enlighten me. On thinking back, their studied silence undoubtedly reflected the high level of secrecy that surrounded every aspect of a brilliantly conceived mission. During the closing months of the war, "Nabaron" played a vital role in enabling forward repairs to be effected to British carrier-based aircraft that had been damaged in strikes against the enemy. The majority could be flown ashore, but the occasional severely mauled "kite" had to be ferried on landing craft that picked their way through the reef and the lagoon. Our job was to test fly them upon the completion of repairs, to ensure that they were airworthy and able to land-on and rejoin their squadrons.


Peter's final entry in his flying log for his time on Ponam.

Soon after arriving, Jack Jones and I decided to stage an exhibition. We would do some unauthorised low flying in Seafires over the United States base at Manus, and after landing, provide an opportunity for the U.S. pilots to examine the famous "Spits" at close range. Upon returning to Ponam we were told to report immediately to the Commander (Flying). Lieut-Commander John Boteler R.N., a product of the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth, ordered us to stand stiffly to attention while facing him, and proceeded to read out a blistering signal received by Captain Bingley from the American Rear-Admiral a few minutes earlier. I recall hearing the phrase "not conducive to the development of good relations"... etc. etc. After telling us never to attempt such an "idiotic, blankety blank" performance again, "for if we did, that would be it," he shook hands warmly and the three of us sloped off to talk things over less formally in the Mess. John Boteler, who was old enough to be our father, was immensely popular with a wide assortment of flying types. In exchange for a case of Scotch, he had acquired a home-made Piper Cub, built by an American sergeant in his spare time, and was in the habit of taking to the air in the old crate in the late afternoon hours. I can still "see" that tiny speck in the sky, some three-quarters of an hour later. It flew so slowly that it was impossible to lose sight of it. Getting back before dark was what really mattered, as Ponam lay only two degrees south of the Equator. He had some nasty prangs though, one of which consisted of tipping a Hellcat upside down after landing on the runway, and being forced to hang helpless in the straps, to the great consternation of the onlookers, the fire crew, the ambulance driver and the padre. Who knows! Perhaps he had applied the brakes too heavily? We were all saddened to learn of his demise, which as far as I know, was the result of yet another mishap.


I enjoyed my three months on Ponam; especially the time spent in the air, when one could open the hood and obtain blissful relief from the all pervading heat and humidity on the island. It was with mixed feelings that I returned to Australia in mid-July, leaving behind an all-male community that included two Air Engineering Officers who were my cabin mates, the overhead coconut trees, the afternoon siestas that ended with a violent thunderstorm precisely at 4 p.m., followed by superb swimming within the safety of the reef, knowing full well that hungry sharks and barracuda lurked just outside it, the multicoloured birds and fish, the friendly lizards that shared our living space and pounced on uninvited insects, and the mysterious flying foxes, which could be seen among the treetops just before sunset. Another lingering memory is that of watching Nabaron's padre, popularly referred to as The Bishop, explore the mysteries of the coral reef, with the aid of a snorkelling device. He did this every day. All one could see of him were the bubbles.


Return to Oz

In the Australian spring and summer that followed the end of hostilities, I remained on strength in 723 squadron at Nowra until space became available in a troopship for the return voyage to the UK. It was during this waiting period that a ceremonial flypast of British carrier-based aircraft took place off Melbourne as part of the victory celebrations. In the course of it, a Hellcat had become unserviceable and was forced to undergo repairs at Point Cook. A signal to Nowra was made, requesting that a pilot be sent to collect it, as the Fleet was already steaming north and it was necessary for the Hellcat to land-on. The task was assigned to me and on September 6, 1945 I was flown from Nowra to Melbourne's Essendon airfield as a passenger in a clapped out Avenger torpedo-bomber, piloted by a well known Lieutenant Commander, one Freddie N. I


 still remember the uncomfortable, drafty flight of several hours duration. We arrived in the late afternoon and agreed that on the following morning we would meet at 2,000 feet, and then fly back in formation. Over breakfast we finalised our plan. We would take-off simultaneously, he from Essendon and I from Point Cook, join up over the city, and head for Nowra and Bankstown, respectively. As he was by far my senior, I assumed that all matters pertaining to navigation and safety would be his responsibility. This was the only occasion I had ever taken off without a map, a chart, or some knowledge of the weather. All that I knew were Freddie's call-sign and the frequency of his receiver transmitter on the VHF radio band, essential for voice communications. It was easy to see him silhouetted against the ten-tenths ceiling. I had no idea of how thick the clouds were, and expected it would be easy to remain in formation as we climbed through them. At flying schools in Canada and Britain we had been thoroughly trained in the stringent demands of instrument flying, both at night and in cloud. But never before had I attempted to fly on instruments while keeping station on another aircraft. I soon discovered that it was impossible to do both. One would have needed two pairs of eyes. Cease watching his port wing for a moment and there would be an immediate change in your airspeed, course, altitude and the aircraft's angle of attack. The need to trust one's instruments implicitly and resolutely ignore subjective sensations was repeatedly emphasised in the training courses. Given that formation flying necessitates keeping the leader constantly in view, so as to instantaneously make corrections, the total loss of visibility was twitchy, to say the least. I hadn't expected the clouds to be so thick and had no alternative but to remain glued to the instruments until breaking clear of them.

Pilots and Observers of 723 squadron at RNAS Nowra

The fact that the Avenger was heavier than the Hellcat and climbed more slowly added to the difficulties. On breaking into sun, Freddie was nowhere to be seen. I immediately contacted him by VHP. His reply: "Continue to orbit and I'll find you." Describing huge circles in the sky at an altitude of 9,000 feet, I wondered how long it would take him to spot me. About ten anxious minutes passed, during which I checked the amount of fuel in the main tank and the auxiliary drop-tank, which would provide an additional 45 minutes of flying. To my relief, both were registering full. There was no sign of the Avenger and I felt twinges of nervousness. The flight path between Melbourne and Nowra, approximately 500 miles to the northeast, crossed a major structural element of Australia's Great Dividing Range; it is known as the Australian Alps. The mountains trend north-eastwards from Melbourne at least as far as Canberra.


"Where the hell are you, Freddie?" I shouted, without switching on the transmitter, of course. Suddenly, the radio crackled in my earphones and he was saying "I can't see you. You had better proceed independently;" whereupon he gave me a bearing in degrees of azimuth on the compass, ending with "Good luck! Out." Now, the course that a pilot steers in order to make good a desired track is governed chiefly by the force and direction of the wind. It was fortunate that, despite the absence of maps and weather information, I was able to recall the orientation of the departure runway at Point Cook and the approximate strength of the wind. Ideally, you take-off directly into the wind, so as to use up as little space as possible before becoming airborne. Knowing the compass heading of the runway, it was a simple matter to arrive at a rough approximation of the wind direction. By mentally working out a "triangle of velocities," I calculated a course that was based on the velocity of the wind at Melbourne and the direction and distance to be flown. The compass heading thus determined lay well to the east of the course I'd been given. After reflecting for a moment I decided that this easterly course was preferable. Getting lost over the outback would have led to my premature departure from this world! Although I was counting on a break in the cloud, which would provide for a visual fix, after an hour had elapsed about half of the fuel had been expended and there was no indication of this happening. I was "sitting on the bearing," but the question that nagged me most was-"-how far away was the coast?


For a number of reasons I didn't dare reduce altitude. For one thing, on the previous day we had flown close to or over Australia's highest peak, Mount Kosciusko, rising to more than 7300 feet. Secondly, if I were to turn 90 degrees to starboard, fly eastwards until well clear of the coast, and then come down through the clouds, I might still be above the land, as the course I'd worked out could have been wrong. The alternative of ditching in "the drink" and inflating the emergency dinghy was distinctly unappealing. It was safe to assume that there were sharks out there. There was no alternative but to remain on course and continue to hope for a break. After a further 45 minutes had elapsed I became seriously worried. The main fuel gauge was registering almost empty. I would soon have to switch to the drop tank. I peered downwards and could see only solid cloud that gave no sign of dispersing. Several minutes later, I looked down again. There were fleeting patches of cloud that presented a darker shade of blue. Then suddenly, I realized that the clouds were beginning to disperse. This was fact, not a mirage. Within minutes, a continuous expanse of dense eucalyptus bush country came clearly into view, some 10,000 feet below. Now, for the moment of truth.  I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and turned my head to the right. After a moment of hesitation, I cautiously opened my eyes. Some 30 miles off the starboard wing was exactly what I'd been hoping for'a magnificent stretch of coastline. I breathed an enormous sigh of relief, made a rough estimation of the aircraft's position, and within half an hour was safely on the tarmac at Nowra.


My only other encounter with Freddie took place six months later in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve Club on Hill Street in Mayfair. Noticing that someone had just taken an adjoining seat at the bar, I was astonished to find that it was he.  How's that for a coincidence!

"Hello" he exclaimed.
"'Melbourne wasn't it? Get back alright?"
 "Yes thanks," I replied, somewhat gingerly.
"What will it be?"




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Copyright  Peter Hyde  2007


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