Jim Eames, an established and respected aviation writer, whose previous credits include The Flying Kangaroo, a history of Qantas, has written an absorbing account of Australia’s national airline at war.
Courage in the Skies is a tale seldom acknowledged. At the outbreak of the Pacific War in December 1941, Qantas provided critical assistance to the Australian military and broader Allied war effort through the provision of scarce aircraft and skilled crews. From withdrawal from South East Asia, especially the Netherlands East Indies, evacuating refugees while maintaining the air links to Australia, to later support of the Australian and US militaries in Papua New Guinea and neighbouring island campaigns, Qantas delivered. Eames’ story is one of bravery in adversity, especially in the darkest days of 1942, when Australia was directly threatened by Japanese invasion. It was an Australia critically unprepared for the danger. Of the pre-war RAAF, Eames writes: In fact, in September 1939, the RAAF was in poor shape, its 3500 personnel backed up by a 600-strong Citizen Air Force with no modern aircraft to fly. Lacking any heavy, long-range patrol aircraft, its largest machine was the Avro Anson, little more than a communications aircraft used for training. Its frontline fighter was the Wirraway, a version of the American Harvard trainer aircraft that had no hope of competing with fighters like the Japanese Zero.
The outbreak of the Second World War saw Qantas Empire Airways about to enter its second decade of operations, with its signature service being the longest air route in the world, the Australia-UK link. Qantas was ably led by founder Wilmot Hudson Fysh, who, along with business compatriot, Paul McGuinness, was an air ace from the Great War.
Fysh had seen first-hand in both 1937 and ‘38 the dramatic developments in aviation in Nazi Germany. He was under no illusions about German ambitions.
It was Fysh and Briton Walter Runciman, of Imperial Airways, who established the Australia-UK route, mainly for mail but also for passenger services. In 1937, the route took twelve days over 20,000 kilometres, mostly by air involving DH86 four engine aircraft and later, Short S23 Empire Flying Boats. The flying boat, especially the larger American Catalina, was to be a decisive asset in the Pacific War.
The war brought new realities into painful focus: All indications were that an aggressive Japan posed a serious threat to the stability of the region to Australia’s north and, ultimately, to Australia itself. While Britain had assured Australia it would come to its aid in the ‘unlikely event it would be attacked’ and Winston Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, had pledged to divert British arms from its Mediterranean resources if necessary, the Australian government nonetheless still faced the dilemma of deciding how much support it could provide to the mother country and how quickly.
Imperial strategy left Australia vulnerable. When Japan struck at Pearl Harbour in December 1941, Qantas, under prior agreement with the Australian government, was required to fill some of the defence void.
The Netherland East Indies (NEI) figure prominently in Courage in the Skies. Likewise, in Dutch journalist Marianne Van Velzen’s Bomber Boys, the NEI is the central geographical player.
Van Velzen has also unearthed a story largely absent from Australia’s wartime history, that of the evacuation of Dutch flyers from Java and other parts of the Indonesian archipelago in early 1942. Along with Australian comrades, the Dutch were trained at Fairbairn RAAF base outside Canberra in flying B25 Mitchell bombers.
Transferred to primitive Northern Territory airfields as the RAAF’s No.18 (NEI) Squadron, the exiles gave a first-class account of themselves in combat during the Pacific War, under Australian command.
Van Velzen’s book is sympathetically written and highly readable. She traces individual lives thoroughly and thoughtfully, recognising the difficult circumstances of those Dutch flyers who had been obliged to leave their families behind. There is even a suggestion of espionage, as a consequence of an overwhelming desire, on the part of a few, to rejoin their loved ones.
In his considered introduction to Courage in the Skies, Sir Angus Houston makes the telling point that, unlike their RAAF counterparts, Qantas’ crews were not recognised for their outstanding wartime service. And that service was often extremely hazardous, whether it be ferrying supplies to Port Moresby; evacuating Allied wounded from Milne Bay or riding the waters in Darwin Harbour on February 19, 1942. The flying boat Camilla, which escaped the inferno, was among the lucky, as Qantas’ service personnel observed: The British Motorist was already on its side, the water around it ablaze from its ruptured tanks, and Neptuna and Barossa were well alight, but although Camilla was difficult to make out through the smoke, miraculously it was still afloat and appeared to be unharmed.
Their attention was now turned elsewhere and they watched in awe as the American destroyer USS Peary attempted to fight off a ferocious attack by dive-bombers and Zeros until a massive explosion engulfed it in flame and smoke. Their final glimpse was of its stern going down and when the smoke began to clear nothing remained of the ship.
And there was a cost, in human terms, for Qantas, with some seven flying boats lost, with crews and passengers. Sometimes, as in the Japanese raid on Broome on 3 March, ‘42, the carnage was overwhelming.
By then, Australia had been at war for two and a half years yet there were no Allied fighter aircraft anywhere on the North West coast; the Broome airfield and port were virtually undefended. Home defence does not appear to have been afforded sufficient priority in Canberra, given our strategic challenges in Asia and the Pacific. Indeed, Eames makes it clear that certain Commonwealth bureaucrats should have been decorated for obstruction. In particular, the ramp fiasco on the Swan River at Nedlands, WA, as Qantas endeavoured to re-establish the air route to London, across the Indian Ocean to Ceylon, still infuriates.
Eames has written an excellent account of a neglected chapter in Australia’s war. It deserves mention and memory. Courage in the Skies will find readers unable to look at the Flying Kangaroo in the same way again.
Stephen Loosley is a Senior Fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute