QANTAS THE WAR YEARS

Tuesday, August 02, 2016 12:46:29 PM

 

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 Qantas contribute proudly, and often adventurously, to the national cause in World War 11, however the cost was heavy from the war time service.

On September 1st 1939, as war with Germany became inevitable, Qantas was told by the Australian Government that its sector of the service linking Australia with Britain would cease. It was false alarm.

Only 5 days later, when it was told that Italy and Japan, would immediately enter the war, it became clear that Imperial Airways could continue to fly it route across the Mediterranean  to Singapore  to link with Qantas. It was evident, however that uncertain and tempestuous times lay ahead. Qantas was under threat. Qantas had just completed its own workshops at Mascot, Sydney, giving it the capability to overhaul the engines of the Short flying boats that were operating across the world. It was sufficiently self contained as an airline to carry on if the empire route to England was broken. But there was a great deal of doubt whether Qantas would continue intact as an organisation; there was pressure to have it taken over by the Royal Australian Air Force.

Qantas Empire Airways (half owned by the old Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Service and half by Britain's Imperial Airways) had flown more than 6.000.000 miles in both its DH86 land planes and Short S23 flying boats since 1934, without loss or injury to passengers or crew. That fine record was to be tragically shattered in the war years ahead.

In mid 1940, France capitulated and Italy entered the war. Churchill made his mighty speech of resolve and resistance: "the whole fury and might of the enemy  must soon be turned on us ... Let us therefore brace ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth lasts for a  thousand years, men will say "This was our finest hour".

Britains' air link across the Mediterranean  was cut. Plans were at once implemented for a weekly service to link Sydney, via Cairo, with Durban in South Africa. The onward link to Britain was possible only by sea. but Japan was not yet belligerent. Qantas still linked Australia with Singapore.

The Remarkable Catalinas.

The PBY5 Catalina flying boats that Qantas flew on its sustained delivery flight programmed to Australia across the Pacific we remarkable aircraft. The design was not a  one, but had been proved in service by the united States Navy since introduction of the PBY5's  predecessor, the PBY1.

Named after an island off the US west coast, the 24.000 pound all up weight of the original aircraft had been improved by internal strengthening of the hull to provide a normal service loading of 27.000 pounds, an overload of 29.200 pounds, and  specifically approved weight for take off in calm waters of 43.500 pounds.

Qantas captain Lester Brain, who flew the fists of the delivery flights from the US in January 1941, noted that take off qualities were substantially  affected at anything over 30.000 pounds and his take off run, as green water broke over the cockpit, took 47 seconds.

At Consolidated factory in san Diego the might of American war time industrial muscle was obvious. There were 20.000 employees producing Catalina flying boats and 4 engine B24 bombers. The PBY's were leaving the line at rate of 8 a week.

Brain's delivery flight took and indirect route for Honolulu, dictated by wind and weather, and covered the 3000 statue miles in just over 22 hours - with sufficient fuel left for a further 5 hours. There were no mechanical troubles and said Brain, the engine cowls and wings were spotless on arrival  in Sydney. He thought the aircraft was well fitted out for crew, with a stove, comfortable bunks, and lockers.

Navigational aids on the trip across the southern Pacific were few. Brian commented: "It need scarcely be pointed out that for an arrival at night in a minute coral island such as Canton, a crew is absolutely dependant on radio to guide the aircraft in ... It is highly recommended that receivers be installed." Brain also commanded the last of the 19  delivery flights flown by Qantas, which arrived in Sydney on 22nd October 1941.

The Qantas expertise in the operation of long over the water flights by flying boats now brought it a challenging and remarkable task. The airline was asked to deliver from the Unites States, for RAAF service, a large fleet of PBY Catalina flying boats. When Captain Lester Brain, who headed Qantas flying operations, arrived at Consolidated's main factory in San Diego, he was astonished  at what he saw "at this moment," he wrote, "there are literally acres of aircraft under construction out of doors. As far as the eye can see there are lines and lines of big, modern war planes."

On January 25th 1941 the first Catalina bound for Australia turned, heavily laden, into the wind for take off, taking green water over the cockpit. It flew the 3000 mile indirect route to Honolulu in just over 22 hours and then continued on via Canton Island and Noumea to Sydney.

World airline routes were still in their infancy. that flight was only the third in aviation history to accomplish the direct crossing of the South Pacific Ocean, Kingsford Smith and Ulm had made the first crossing, from east to west, in the famous Southern Cross. Kingsford Smith, with Gordon Taylor, made the second, from west to east, in the Southern Lady Cross. The Catalina delivery program by Qantas was a combination of aviation pioneering and war service, and a remarkable achievement.

Altogether, 19 Catalinas were flown across the Pacific by Qantas without incident, the last arriving in October 1941.

Because of air crew shortages in Britains BOAC ( the successor to Imperial Airways),  Qantas now flew the the Empire service beyond Singapore to Karachi, a distance of of 8000 miles. But Australia was about to receive the greatest shock to its security as two seemingly impregnable bastions of defence were stripped of credibility. Both the fortress of Singapore and the might of the Royal Navy were to be humbled by Japanese arms.

On 7th December 1941, Japan and the United States was at once brought into World War 11. On the 10th December the two greatest battleships of the Royal Navy, the Prince of Wales and the Repulse, were attacked at sea and sunk by the Japanese air force. On 15th February 1942, Singapore surrendered to the Japanese. The Empire route to England was broken. In only 3 months the Japanese had been victorious at Pearl Harbour, in Malaya, Singapore and Burma and in the Netherlands or (Dutch) East Indies. Rabaul had fallen on the 23rd January 1942 and Japanese forces were advancing on Port Moresby. Australia faced invasion and knew it could expect no help from the 'Mother Country'.

The Qantas baptism of fire was dramatic. On 30th January, as the end was near for Singapore, Japanese fighter aircraft shot down the QEA  flying boat Corio with the loss of 10 passengers and 3 crew members. The aircraft had set out from Darwin to bring back woman and children refugees from Sourabaya, in Java. As they neared shore they heard, without warning, the rattle of gun fire. The aircraft filled with tracer bullets and the crash of intermittent  cannon fire. Passengers, some already dead, were thrown violently about by the flying boat's evasive actions. It dived at full throttle and flew bare foot above the ocean until, it speed falling off, it plunged into the water. Overhead were 7 circling Japanese Zero fighters. Only 5 of the 18 people on board reached the shore, and were later rescued by another flying boat.

4 days after Singapore fell, on the 19th February 1942, the Japanese landed at Dili in East Timor. On the same day, in bright sunlight, air attack on Darwin. That attack was commanded by Admiral Nagumo, who had been in charge of the massive attack on Pearl Harbour air strike. The Japanese had assembles a powerful force of 4 aircraft carriers, 4 heavy cruisers and 9 destroyers 220 miles north west of Darwin. From the carriers 188 fighters, bombers and dive bombers set out in radio silence for an unsuspecting and sleepy city, from Ambon, in Celebes 54 land bases bombers followed them.

The Japanese sank 9 of the 45 ships in Darwin harbour and severely damaged 13 others. 2 Catalina flying boats were sunk, many important buildings hit and RAAF aircraft on the ground destroyed. Somehow, in all that mayhem, QEA captain Hussy and Crowther managed to get to the flying boat Camilla, moored near the jetty, and take off to the south. They landed, eventually, 420 miles away from Groote Eylandt. Crowther, who had been shaving when the fist bombs  hit Darwin, still had dried soap around his ears when they touched down. Late in that afternoon they returned to Darwin .

A shuttle service was rapidly improvised, as the Japanese advanced in Java, to evacuate civilians and servicemen. Its northern end was Tjilatap and it southern end Broome, in north western Australia. Qantas was heavily involved. (The 1210 mile crossing took 8 hours.) A fever epidemic was rife in Broome as its population swelled with arrivals from Java on American, Dutch and QEA civil aircraft  as well as military transports, A second Qantas boat was shot down. 

On February 27th QEA flying boats Corinthian and Circe set out from Tjilatjap. Circe with 16 passengers  onboard, was never seen again. Altogether  more than 7000 people passed through Broome during the hectic days of the shuttle.

Less than a week after the disappearance of Circe, on the morning of March 3rd 1942, Japanese fighter aircraft came in from the sea under a clear sky, tracer guns and cannon sweeping the harbour at Broom. 15 flying boats of various types, mostly Dutch Dorniers that had come from Java, were at their moorings. On board still were many Dutch women and children, preparing for breakfast. The Japanese destroyed all the flying boats in the harbour, 6 land planes at the aerodrome and Liberator bomber that managed to get airborne. Some 70 people were killed. Among the flying boats  that remained now operated with military loads between Sydney, Brisbane and Darwin. But on March 23rd one of these three remaining boats, Corinthian  crashed on landing at Darwin, shortly after midnight. QEA now only had 2 flying boats left. Qantas wrote  managing director Hudson Fysh, was in "an obscure and weak position".

However, there were new challenges ahead. On May 13th 1942, 2 QEA DH86 aircraft set out from Horne Island, on the tip of the Cape York peninsula , for the Bismark Range in New Guinea, where Japanese army was pushing southward. The aircrafts' destination was Mount Hagen, and their task the evacuation of 78 people, taking only 6-7 people per load. The soggy aerodrome and its high altitude made take offs hazardous. The local population was asked to help harden the airstrip. Soon there were 2000 people marching and singing, up and down, stamping their feet into the soft grass surface. It worked!

3 Days before the evacuation was completed the Japanese, in a big raid on May 21st, attacked neighbouring Port Moresby with 34 bombers. But the QEA operation was concluded without loss of life or damage to aircraft.

Fergus Mc Maser, QEA chairman, and Hudson Fysh now pressed hard for a dramatic new initiative to reopen the air links between England and Australia.  They pressed for Catalina flying boats to operate between Perth, in Western Australia, and Ceylon. Mc Master told the government: "Whatever action is taken now will determine the future, not only of Australia, but of Empire ocean service." The initiative was opposed by Australia's director general of civil aviation.. "It is no use firing at a dead target," he told Fysh. "If you knew all the difficulties  you would know how utterly hopeless it is to do what you suggest at present." He was wrong. 

The tide of war was, however slowly turning. The Coral sea naval battle in May 1942 had brought defeat for both the Japanese navy and the end both of the Japanese thrust southward and the likelihood of an invasion of Australia. In June came the decisive defeat of Japanese navy forces by United States at Midway. It was possible to contemplate the coming of  a post war world for either British or Australian aviation. As 1942 closed the president of Pan American Airways, the redoubtable Juan Trippe, announced: " America must dominate the air routes of the world ."

Qantas lost the flying boat Camilla in bad weather crash of Port Moresby in April 1943. But on that day there was also good news. Fysh received word from London that policy had been settled for the operation of an Indian Ocean service by Catalinas, with Qantas as the operating agent.

The flight took 28 hours and 9 minutes. The Qantas engine operations pan that evolved for the Catalinas gave them and extraordinary flight duration maximum of 36 hours and an extreme range at cruising speed of 5650 miles. No other air service in the world approached the distances flown on this service. The closest to it were San Francisco - Honolulu (2400 miles),  and Montreal - Scotland (2870, miles, flown only with a following wind.) It was aptly called the 'double sunrise' flight because those on board saw the sun rise twice. Fysh flew to England on this service in august 1943 and found that civil aviation was in a mess and BOAC getting weaker and weaker. The Australian position was just as dismal. A Government report commented that a post war Australia might have as few as 12 transport aircraft, all obsolete  and over age. "Civil aviation in Australia" it said "is expiring month by month."

As the war in Europe entered its final phases with the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944, decisions were made in London on aviation matters that were to effect Qantas greatly. The British Air Ministry had indicated it support for the reopening of an air link between London and Sydney. They followed this with the release of 2 converted 4 engine Liberator transports for use on the Perth - Ceylon service. This small step, introducing Qantas to the operation of large, 4 engines land planes, was to lead to emergence of the modernised, post war Qantas.

The first Liberator arrived in Perth in June 1944 and the first Liberator service started on June 17th, almost a year after the introduction of the Catalinas. As the new aircraft were land planes, it was now possible to cut the length of sea crossings by more than 500 miles by operating from Exmouth gulf, north of Perth.

The higher cruising speed of the Liberators reduced flying tome by about 10 hours. They eventually carried 15 passengers and crew of 5 - a payload of 5 times that of the Catalinas.

As 1944 ended there was growing optimism  that Qantas could, with the coming of peace, continue ad expand its operations. What was plain was that only stop gap services could be operated, and these with uncompetitive  and utterly unsuitable modified British war time aircraft.

Qantas war time operations had also included continuous flying to threatened areas  like Darwin, services between Townsville and Port Moresby and flights to Noumea, Merauke in Dutch New Guinea and to Vila in the New Hebrides.

Good news came in September 1944 when the British Government advised that it would allot  Lancaster bombers to Qantas for conversation to civil use for a future daily service to Sydney. One Qantas director, A. e. ruder wrote to McMaster: "It would seem just as hopeless to try and turn this machine into a satisfactory operational craft as it would be to convert a destroyer into a passenger or freight ship. The Lancaster is just a fighting machine.'

But there was nothing else available. On June 2ne 1945, a month after the European war, an Avro  691 Lancastrian  left Sydney with mail on the opening of the London - Sydney service. Hudson Fysh found the catering on board very good, but the metal trays unsatisfactory. "Curry,"  he wrote "overflowed on to my lap instead of off the plate and on to the tray ."

The introduction of the fast Lancastrian service made the Indian Ocean service  of the Catalina . Teh airline companies, in addition to their regualr erices,are at present operting 12 transport aircraft owned byt eh united States Air Force, for miliarty transport for teh allied forces flying boats redundant. It ended in July 1945 after 2 years of operations. There had been 271 crossings carrying a total of 648 passengers plus freight and mail. Almost a 1.000.000 miles had been flown without loss or accident on the world's longest ocean hop.

In August 1945, Japan surrendered and World War 11 was over. In civil aviation terms Britain, committed to military aircraft production  throughout hostiles, was left incapable of providing completive civil aircraft for a peace time world that would soon witness great advances in airliner operations. "We know of no suitable British aircraft types to competitively bridge the gap of the next 4 , 5 or more years." Fysh wrote. With real sadness, but with a professional hard headedness that was to mark all future Qantas aircraft choices, the airline turned to America for its peace time fleet. Written by John Gunn  taken from 70th Anniversary In Flight book in October - November 1990 (when travelling to and from Hong Kong.)

Australia ponders post war flight..

Australia first began to grapple with the problems of spot war civil aviation in late 1943. The Director General of Civil Aviation, A. B. Corbett outlined the grim Australian situation. "We have available for operation of regular airline routes totalling 2003 miles (in Australia) only 33 aircraft with a total seating capacity of 358 passengers. Of (these) only 17 can be considered as large transport aircraft. The remainder are mostly small and practically obsolete machines."

Before the commencement of the war in 1939, the Australian airline companies operated 53 aircraft over 25.721 route miles. The aircraft now available for civil air transport are in insufficient to carry the load offered. No spare aircraft are available to meet emergencies.

"The airline companies, in addition to their regular services ,are at present operating 12 transport for the United States Air Force for military transport for the allied forces. They serve no civil need; they do not carry mails and they are not owned by the Commonwealth; they will there for not be available  after the war."

Corbett was far from optimistic about any role for Qantas after the war, He Wrote: "Qantas may resume their overseas service after the war, depending on the international post war arrangements. Their internal service is non profitable and depends on subsidy.  At present the operate 2 flying boats over the Sydney - Townsville route... a 3rd flying boat operates to Darwin for the Department. The future of an independent  Qantas under this policy was very uncertain one.  but Qantas still had an existing contract for the Australian - England service not due to expire in 1953. A Government report said: " There ware very real difficulties in providing for Qantas Empire Airways in the future."

The Australian Government policy, of course, needed international agreement to make it  a reality. no such agreement was forth coming. The giant of the world civili aviation, the United Sates, had other plans. The US, as the engine of the world civil aviation in both aircraft manufacture and operational capacity, wanted open skies and free competition.