Lancaster Mk.X – A Flying WW2 Icon

One of Ontario’s best kept secrets is its magnificent Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum.
Located just outside Hamilton, it houses a glittering collection of warbirds. And its crown jewel is the beautifully maintained Lancaster Mk. X, one of the worlds two Lancaster’s still flying!

The museum’s documentation gives the following information:
The Avro Lancaster is probably the best known British bomber of the Second World War. Thousands of Canadian airmen and ground crew served with RCAF and RAF Lancaster squadrons in England, during the war. By late 1944, the Canadian No. 6 Group of Bomber Command operated thirteen squadrons of Lancasters in the war against Germany. At home, thousands more Canadians worked at Victory Aircraft in Malton (Toronto) to produce 430 Lancaster Mk. Xs, between 1943 and 1945.


The Lancaster X in its pristine glory. Because of her squadron code, volunteers have started to nickname her ‘Vera’ , but the flight crew frowns upon this…

After WW II, about 230 Lancasters served with the RCAF in several roles including, Arctic reconnaissance, maritime patrol and as a bomber. The Lancaster was ceremonially retired from the RCAF at Downsview (Toronto) in April 1964. In total 7,377 Lancasters rolled off the production lines in Britain and Canada, during WW II. Today, 17 Lancasters survive around the world, but only two are in flying condition.


January 1952 at Trenton; a collapsing landing gear caused extensive damage

The Museum’s Lancaster Mk. X was built at Victory Aircraft, Malton in July 1945 and was later converted to a RCAF 10MR configuration. In 1952, it suffered a serious accident and received a replacement wing centre section from a Lancaster that had flown in combat over Germany. It served as a maritime patrol aircraft, with No. 405 Squadron, Greenwood, NS and No. 107 Rescue Unit, Torbay, Newfoundland for many years and was retired from the RCAF in late 1963.
With help from the Sulley Foundation in 1977, it was acquired from the Royal Canadian Legion in Goderich, Ontario, where it had been on outside display. Eleven years passed before it was completely restored and flew again on September 24, 1988. The Lancaster is dedicated to the memory of P/O Andrew Mynarski and is referred to as the “Mynarski Memorial Lancaster”. It is painted in the colours of his aircraft KB726 – VR-A, which flew with RCAF No. 419 “Moose” Squadron. Andrew Mynarski won the Victoria Cross, the Commonwealth’s highest award for gallantry, on June 13, 1944, when his Lancaster was shot down in flames, by a German night fighter. As the bomber fell, he attempted to free the tail gunner trapped in the rear turret of the blazing and out of control aircraft. The tail gunner miraculously survived the crash and lived to tell the story, but sadly Andrew Mynarski died from his severe burns

The museum’s Lancaster flies during the summer months. Those of you who wonder what it’s like to fly in a real WW2 vintage bomber can book a ride. You’ll be airborne for an hour but you’ll probably have to raid your piggy bank; flights are priced at Can $ 3.500 per seat.

Whenever you are in the greater Toronto Area, do yourself a favor and visit the museum. It is opened all year round (except on X-mas) and easily accessible via highways 403 and 6.

171017_Lanc_3Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum
9280 Airport Road
Mount Hope, ON
L0R 1W0


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Trial by Fire

The Experimental Units of the Condor Legion


The Spanish Civil war broke out on July 17, 1936 and the Nationalist leader, General Francisco Franco almost immediately asked Germany for direct support in the form of transport planes to ferry “loyal” troops from Morocco to Spain. Adolf Hitler decided on July 26 to support his rebellion, justifying this decision by arguing that he was saving Europe from “communist barbarism”. On July 27 he sent 30 Junkers 52s from Berlin and Stuttgart to Morocco. Over the next couple of weeks the aircraft transported over 15,000 troops to Spain, tilting the balance in favor of the Nationalists.

It immediately dawned on Hitler and his Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe leadership that providing military aid to the Nationalist Army would give them the opportunity to test out commanders, weapons and tactics.
Germany started to supply war materiel to the Spanish Nationalists in July 1936 under the code name “Operation Feuerzauber” (Magic Fire) and in its wake a “Sonderstab W” (Special Staff W) was set up in Berlin to direct the experimental projects. Prototypes of future frontline aircraft such as the Messerschmitt Bf-109, Junkers Ju-87 “Stuka”, the Heinkel 111 and Dornier Do 17 were rushed to Spain to be tested against the Republican opposition.



Heinkel 112 V9 flown by Oberleutnant Harro Harder, here at La Cenia


Other types to be tested were the Heinkel 112 (runner-up in the 1933 fighter competition won by the Bf-109) and the Junkers 86 bomber.
The tests were carried out by “Versuchs Staffeln” (Experimental Squadrons) VJ88 (fighters) and VB 88 (Bombers) and this book follows their actual operations in detail. The summarized “information bulletins” allow the reader to follow the operations of the various squadrons on an almost daily basis and a number of firsthand accounts are also included in the text. The book is lavishly illustrated with many hitherto unpublished photographs and contains a series of full color drawings of the various types in Spanish Nationalist color schemes.
It is a pity the authors have not added some maps as background information since the text is replete with references to “… the Vizcaya Campaign…” and “… the Battle of Brunete…” etc.
What I also miss is a chapter “Lessons Learned.” The Luftwaffe sent a considerable number of pre-production aircraft to Spain and the accumulated frontline experience must have had great influence on their subsequent development and production. There are some glimpses of this, such as the successful testing of a 20mm cannon armed Heinkel 112 (The “Kanonenvogel”) against Republican armored cars and tanks or the withdrawal of the Junkers Ju-86, due to the dismal failure of its Jumo 203 diesel engines.



One of the Ju-86’s in Spain, arguably one of the ugliest aircraft ever designed. I still wonder how even an experienced pilot could land this big plane on such a clumsy, knock-kneed undercart.


On the whole, the authors have done a very good job in clarifying an obscure period of aviation history. A must for all those interested in this particular period and for model builders looking for authentic photographs and color schemes.

Originally published by Galland Editorial Books in 2013 titled: “Unidades Experimentales de la Legion Còndor.”
Published 2017 by Frontline Books, Pen&Sword Ltd.
ISBN 978 1 4738781-4
94 Pages (Illustrated)

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‘Coming Down in the Drink”

“Coming Down in the Drink” is the (slightly misleading) title of an Irish airman’s full-blown war-time flying record. The book covers most of his life, from the bleak days of his youth in County Kilkenny, all through the 2nd World War, his service in the peacetime RAF and his subsequent civilian career.

PENSW_BrennanJohn Brennan emerges from this book as a sturdy, independent individual who ran away from home at 16 years of age, was successful in a number of civilian jobs in the late 1930’s and enlisted as an airman in the RAF during the summer of 1940. His preference was to be an air-gunner but, as a result of the twisted military logic that sometimes sends experienced truck drivers to a cook’s school, he ended up being trained as a wireless operator.

The book follows John through his training and his posting as a Sergeant to an operational squadron flying Vickers Wellingtons in the North African desert. It provides the reader with a graphic view of the desert war, as well as the dangers and mishaps that occurred during that hectic time.
Teething troubles with a new, Merlin powered version of the Wellington that caused loss of life, sand storms and maintenance problems in the desert and of course enemy action. During this tour, John becomes a member of the ‘Goldfish Club’ as his Wellington has to ditch near the African coast and the crew has to paddle to safety.

At the end of his ‘desert tour’ (40 operational missions as an air-gunner / wireless operator) John is posted to an OTU in Kinloss (Scotland). Frequent crashes caused by the combination of bad weather, mountainous terrain and inexperienced aircrews make this assignment nearly as lethal as fighting the enemy. In November 1943 John is promoted to officer. His two years of instructing end in mid-1944 and he is assigned to an operational bomber squadron equipped with Handley Page Halifax heavy bombers. He completes a second tour of twenty missions in March 1945, surviving raids on heavily defended targets in Germany and France. John is awarded the DFC in September 1945.

The book is well written and gives a personal view of the war, interspersed with statements by John. It is also very detailed – down to the serial numbers of individual aircraft mentioned in the narrative. I recommend this book to those who are deeply interested in the history of bomber command.

Published by Pen & Sword Aviation (
ISBN 978 147389153 1
190 Pages

Reviewers note on “The Goldfish Club”.

C. A. Robertson, the Chief Draftsman at the PB Cow & Co., (manufacturers of air-sea rescue equipment), decided to form an exclusive club for airmen who owed their lives to their life jacket, dinghy, etc. The club was formed in November, 1942 and named The Goldfish Club: gold for the value of life, and fish for the water. Each member was presented with a heat-sealed waterproof membership card and an embroidered badge. Uniform dress regulations prohibited the wearing of the Goldfish Club badge on British and American uniforms but many RAF & USAAF airmen placed their badge under the flap of their left hand uniform pocket.

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New cover for “The Odyssey”

I am proud to announce the launch of “The Odyssey” with a new cover, designed by Daniela Colleo.   (


The Java Gold Series

Follow a few desperate men in their quest for a cargo of pure gold that got lost at the outbreak of the Pacific War. A riveting tale that takes the reader to three different continents and through one of the most violent periods of human history. A story that will keep you turning pages, packed with deadly action, drama, intrigue and romance .

Look at “The Books – Java Gold Series” for more information
or just go to to secure your copy!

Posted in Australia in WW2 and later, Dutch East Indies, My Books, Pacific War, WW2 Pacific | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

British Tanks in Java – 1942

Forgotten Heroes of the Malaya – NEI Campaign

3rd Hussars_BannerIn December 1941, the Commonwealth forces were driven relentlessly down the Malayan peninsula in a humiliating series of military disasters. Defenceless against swarms of strafing Japanese fighters and harassed by scores of light tanks that, according to British General Staff doctrine, could not operate in the Malayan jungle, they had to retreat from one strategic position after another. In a desperate effort to stem the tide, a single squadron of light tanks was sent from the Middle-East to Singapore.

It was one of the most ill-advised, ineffectual and altogether futile decisions taken during the whole Malayan campaign.


A Vickers Mk VIb light tank during training exercises at Aldershot in 1937

‘B’ Squadron of The Kings Own 3rd Hussars was chosen for this overseas duty and its CO, Major P. William-Powlett (*), was allowed to pick whoever was willing to go with him. He chose seven officers and 138 NCOs and men. According to the regimental records, the squadron had 18 Vickers Mark VIb and VIc light tanks, including three reserve vehicles. The squadron left their base in Cyprus for Egypt on January 7, 1942. For some reason, it was not until the end of that month that the 3rd Hussars embarked aboard  S.S. Hermion and sailed through the Suez Canal, toward the Dutch East Indies. After a three day layover in Colombo, their ship sailed for Oosthaven, now Bandar Lampung, at the extreme southern tip of Sumatra.

The ship docked in the evening of February 13, 1942, and since Japanese troops had already invaded Singapore Island, Major William-Powlett sought guidance from GHQ. He was ordered to unload his tanks and immediately occupy the two airfields in the Palembang area; the tanks were to go by train, the crews by road. The CO pointed out that his objective was 170 miles to the north and that, after several weeks at sea, he needed time to unload his tanks, charge batteries, de-grease the guns and to re-fuel (if he could get hold of petrol). It would take at least 24 hours to get all tanks in shape so their arrival at Palembang could not be expected before the early morning hours of February 18th. GHQ ordered him to stick to his orders and, as all stevedores had fled the port, it was up to the sweating men of the 3rd Hussars to unload their tanks directly onto flatcars at the quayside.


A 3rd Hussars Vickers Mk VIb at the Tanjong Priok quayside, February 1942

Japanese paratroopers landed at Palembang P1 in the early morning of February 14 and it was obvious that, long before the tanks could get there, Palembang would be occupied. In another acrimonious discussion with GHQ, Major William-Powlett proposed to wait for two Australian infantry battalions, expected to arrive soon. Together with Dutch troops, this force would be able to defend southern Sumatra. But GHQ rudely told him to ‘obey his orders’ and take his squadron to Palembang forthwith. Captain Pat Lancaster, sent ahead to make contact, returned from P.2 on a borrowed motorcycle. The R.A.F. officer in charge had been about to board the last aircraft to take off for Java and the airfield was to be abandoned.

So, on February 15, when all tanks, trucks and stores had been unloaded, GHQ ordered the 3rd Hussars to load everything back onto S.S. Hermion, embark the troops and head for Java! Unfortunately, the ship had already left (buzzed off to a safer place, as some said) and it took them until the next day to find transport, a small steamer called Silver Larch. Its derricks could handle the tanks but not the heavy ammunition lorries and most of them had to be left behind. Working deep into the night, they loaded ten tanks on the Silver Larch and eight on a lighter towed by a Dutch tug. Around 04.00 on February 17, the ships left Oosthaven, with all tanks, 80% of the transport vehicles but only 25% of the ammunition on board. Six hours later, the ships docked at Merak, a small port at the extreme western end of Java, just across Sunda Strait. After debarking most of the Hussars and other troops, the ships sailed on to Tanjong Priok, the port of Batavia. There, a team of 30 Hussars would unload the tanks and vehicles for the second time.

The next week was one of turmoil, chaos and confusion.
The main body of the 3rd Hussars had gone by train to Batavia which they reached on the night of the 18th. The CO assembled them in the station forecourt and told them to wait while he went in search of a Transport Officer. When he finally had found one, his troops had disappeared; an over-zealous Dutch officer had ‘discovered’ them and sent them to barracks at the outskirts of Batavia, of course not the ones they were supposed to go to.
While this problem was being unravelled, William-Powlett received the alarming news that Silver Larch had been ordered to leave the port immediately. It took some fairly dramatic pleading at naval headquarters to get permission to complete the unloading of his tanks and vehicles. Next, he had to find out whom to report to and which orders there were for him. This took several days and he returned from his visit to GHQ ABDACOM in Bandung with the firm impression that there was no general plan and that he and his men would be left behind.
On his return he found maintenance in full swing. But when the radios were tested they proved to be totally inadequate; the maximum range over which could be communicated was just one mile. William-Powlett next had a look at the countryside he was supposed to operate in. It was absolutely unsuitable for this type of tank; swampy rice paddies interspersed with patches of light jungle, with only a few roads and some muddy tracks.
Then, on the night of the 26th, he was ordered to Buitenzorg (now Bogor) where he met Brigadier Arthur Blackburn VC, commander of an improvised Australian brigade called ‘Blackforce’, to which the 3rd Hussars were to be attached. The squadron was stationed in a rubber plantation, 8 miles west of Buitenzorg on the road to Batavia. Some semblance of order had finally been established but there still was no consensus on the deployment of the British tanks.


Map of West-Java and the Japanese landings of March 1, 1942


The Japanese 26th Army invaded West-Java on March 1, 1942 and moved rapidly toward Batavia and Bandung. The planned counterattack by ‘Blackforce’ became impossible when the Dutch blew up bridges across several rivers. They also ordered the withdrawal of all forces toward Bandung. By the evening of March 2, the retreat was suddenly cancelled, replaced by orders for a planned counter attack around the bridge across the Llewilliang river. Then, at 0200 in the night of March 3, this counter attack was cancelled and new orders for withdrawal received. At 0600 the 3rd Hussars were about to depart when, in torrential rains, an intelligence officer arrived with the news that the withdrawal was cancelled and Llewilliang Bridge was to be attacked…
Australian troops sitting ready in their trucks hurried down the road, followed by the tanks. The Australians reached the bridge at the same time when Japanese advance guards arrived and in a heavy fight the Australians managed to halt them and throw them back. ‘Blackforce’ would hold the bridge for two days, supported by the 3rd Hussars and the excellent gunnery of the 131st Field Artillery, the single US Artillery unit in West-Java. But the Japanese pressure mounted and by the afternoon of the March 4 it was clear that ‘Blackforce’ would have to join in the general withdrawal of the Dutch forces on Bandung. The 3rd Hussars and one company of Australians were ordered to remain behind and hold up the enemy for twenty-four hours.
Before withdrawing on the morning of March 5, , a unit of the 3rd fought off and killed about a dozen of a strong Japanese patrol that had come cycling down the Semplak-Buitenzorg road. The 3rd Hussars disengaged and reached Bandung on March 6. Major William-Powlett learned that the Dutch were about to capitulate. Plans were made for the British and Australian troops to move south over the mountains. But when the Dutch surrendered on March 8, Major William-Powlett knew that there was no hope of further action against the enemy, and he had to obey a written order from General Sitwell to destroy his tanks. They did this by sending them tumbling down a ravine into a strongly flowing river.

It turned out that 60% of the men wanted to ‘walk home’ and they started off during the night. But none of them escaped from Java. The seaworthy boats on Java’s south coast had been destroyed by the Dutch, and by March 28, most of them were together again – in the Prison compound near Bandung. They had to endure three and a half years of captivity, during which nearly half of them died of starvation, sickness and brutality.

Perhaps the best epilogue has been written by David Fletcher in his book ‘British Light Tanks 1925 – 1945’

‘There was not a lot that could be done with tanks such as this [in Java], but throwing them away on, what we now know to be such a futile expedition and losing the men with them for the rest of the war, seems little short of insane…’

(*) The CO’s full name was Peter de Barton Vernon Wallop William-Powlett.


“The ‘Black Force (Java)” – The AWM monographs
Brief Diary of ‘B’ Squadron 3rd Hussars” – Major P. William-Powlett, M.C.
“The British Tank Unit in the East Indies” – Jacques Jost
“British Light Tanks 1925 – 1945” –
David Fletcher
British 3rd Hussar Tank Squadron in the Dutch East Indies, 1942″ – from “The Galloping Third” by Hector Bolitho.

Posted in Dutch East Indies, Java Campaign 1942, Malayan Campaign 1941-42, WW2 Pacific | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

USAAF P-40’s in Java – Part Ten


The loss of the Langley and the final curtain

When USAT Monroe docked in Brisbane on January 31, 1942, she brought in 70 additional P-40’s while the SS Mariposa delivered 4000 US servicemen, including personnel of the 49th fighter group. On paper it looked like there were now 142 P-40’s available to equip four USAAF squadrons. Reeling under the Japanese onslaught on Singapore, Borneo and Celebes, ABDA Command sent out desperate appeals for more fighters. Appalled by the loss-rate during the ferry flights and aware that the Japanese could cut off the supply route at any moment, the USAAF decided to send the next P-40E reinforcements by sea.
Orders were issued on February 9 to two of the still forming provisional squadrons, the 33rd and the 13th, to fly their 50 P-40’s to Fremantle, Western Australia for shipment to Java. The seaplane tender USS Langley (AV-3), at anchor in Darwin, was ordered on February 11 to sail to Fremantle to pick up the P-40’s. ABDACOM’s repeated demands for more fighters also led to the re-routing on February 12 of USAT Seawitch, loaded with 27 crated P-40E’s, originally intended to go from Melbourne to Karachi.

Handmade Software, Inc. Image Alchemy v1.9

On that same February 12, Major Floyd S. Pell who had just flown a 15 ship flight of the 33rd from Sydney to Port Pirie in South Australia, was ordered to turn north to Darwin and then on to Kupang, in response to a frantic demand for fighters (see Part Six of this series).  Twelve P-40’s left Port Pirie for Darwin. Three stayed behind with mechanical problems.
When the remaining 10 P-40’s of the 33rd came staging through Port Pirie on February 15 on their way to Perth’s Maylands Airport, they were joined by two of the stranded P-40’s. The third, flown by Lt. Pringree, was still down. When repairs were completed on February 19, he took the fighter up for a test hop and was killed in a crash close to the airfield.

usaaf p40warhawk-WRG-0020978

The lack of trained pilots to fly these fighters again became  painfully clear during the relatively easy transit of the 13th to West Australia. When the squadron reached Maylands Airfield on February 17, it had lost two planes at Williamstown and three at Grafton. It lost a sixth fighter when 2nd Lt. J.P. (Joe) Martin upon landing at Perth managed to hit a 15 feet high windsock pole with his right wing.

During the night of February 21 – 22, a convoy of 32 flatbed trucks towing P-40’s slowly made its way along the twenty miles of main road from Maylands Airfield to the Fremantle docks. The transfer went without a hitch, especially since some very tall trees along the route had been furtively cut down, to the consternation of the owners. As soon as the P-40’s were hoisted aboard the Langley, they were followed by 33 pilots of the 13th and 33rd Pursuit Squadron.


The USS Langley (AV3, formerly CV-1) as a seaplane tender in 1938

The USS Langley and USAT Seawitch sailed on February 22, 1942 as part of convoy MS-5. But that same night Langley’s skipper, Commander Robert P. McConnell received a direct order from Vice-Admiral Helfrich (by now ABDA naval commander in chief), to leave the convoy and at her best possible speed – which was 13 knots – set a direct course for Tjilatjap, a port on Java’s south coast that was still relatively safe. As this port had no airstrip, orders were given to clear roads of trees and obstacles so that the planes could eventually take off.

The plan called for USS Langley to reach Tilatjap in the afternoon of February 27, risking a daylight arrival. The Dutch Navy had promised a minesweeper and Catalinas as escorts but Langley lost precious hours in steaming on various courses while the minesweeper never turned up. Reversing course again, she teamed up with two damaged destroyers, USS Whipple (DD-217) and USS Edsall (DD-219), and started her final run in.

Unfortunately, the time lost in searching for the minesweeper proved to be fatal. At 11:40 in the morning of February 27, at a point about 75 miles from Tjilatjap, nine Japanese Mitsubishi G4M bombers appeared over the ships. They belonged to the 1st Chutai, Takao Kokutai that had moved up to Den Pasar airfield on Bali the day before. Their commander, Lt. Jiro Adachi, immediately singled out the Langley as the important target. His bombers made two unsuccessful runs but the third one was deadly. Adachi and his bombardier PO Ozaki anticipated the ship’s next course change and lined up exactly before they released their 250 kg bombs.
The Langley took three hits that set fire to the P-40’s on deck and the drums of gasoline that were stowed between them. Then a fourth and a fifth bomb hit increased the conflagration, near misses buckled the hull and water was rushing inside. Escorting Zero fighters strafed the decks of the burning ship and soon, the Langley was a raging mass of unquenchable fires. Listing badly and out of control, Commander McConnell had no choice but to order ‘abandon ship’ . Out of a crew of 300, 16 were killed and the survivors were taken aboard the escorting destroyers. To prevent the Langley from falling into Japanese hands, they used torpedoes and 4 Inch shells to sink her.

Then one of the cruellest tragedies of the Pacific War started to unfold.

On March 1,when the destroyers sheltered behind Christmas Island to transfer the Langley survivors to the tanker Pecos (AO-6), the Dutch High-Command ordered the Edsall to land the pilots of the 13th in Java and ordered the Seawitch to set course for Tjilatjap so that pilots could be paired up with airplanes. The Edsall set course for Java and was never seen by Allied ships again.


USS Edsall DD219

Many years after the war, her story has slowly come to light. The Pecos, a T-3 tanker carrying 700 refugees from Java as well as the Langley survivors, was attacked late in the Morning of March 1 by waves of carrier dive-bombers and fighters. Its distress signals were heard by various ships, including the Edsall. The old destroyer turned back on its course to help rescue survivors and sailed straight into a Japanese fleet under Vice Admiral Mikawa Gunichi. For 3 hours, two battleships and two heavy cruisers bombarded the four-stacker, firing off the astonishing total of 1.335 shells and registering one or two hits that did not stop her. Angered by this failure, Admiral Gunichi finally sent three groups of Aichi D3A (‘Val’) dive bombers against the ship, leaving her dead in the water, to be sunk by gunfire. The Japanese picked up only a handful of survivors, leaving the others to perish in the waves. Those picked up by the Japanese were later summarily executed on shore and dumped in mass graves.

Only 2 of the 13th and 33rd Pursuit pilots survived; 2nd Lts William P.Ackerman and Gerald J. Dix. They were amongst the 232 survivors of the Pecos that were picked up by USS Whipple.

The USAT Seawitch did get through and arrived at Tjilatjap on February 28, 1942. The crated P-40’s were unloaded on barges in record time. After taking 40 USAAF survivors on board, she sailed on the tide of March 1, 1942 and made it safely back to Fremantle.
By that time the Japanese troops had invaded Java. The remaining P-40’s at Ngoro had flown their final mission and the surviving crew members were being evacuated to Australia. 32 crated P-40E’s were on barges and on the shore of Tjilatjap and there are conflicting reports on what happened to them.  It is certain that a number of them have not been destroyed as the photograph below shows.


A Japanese propaganda photograph showing a line-up of captured P-40E’s in the markings of the Tachikawa Technical Research Centre – with a B17 and a Brewster Buffalo in the background

Posted in Aircraft, Australia in WW2 and later, Dutch East Indies, Pacific War, USAAF in Australia, USAAF Pacific, WW2 Pacific | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

“Pappy” Gunn, a latter day Daniel Boone

No account of the early days of the Pacific war is complete without mentioning “Pappy Gunn”, one of the most colourful characters to emerge during the early stages of the Pacific war. He left his mark on a number of desperate undertakings and – Navy man to the core – he wasn’t shy to tell everyone about it. Some of his ‘Sea-Stories’ have become so embroidered in the re-telling that they are to be taken with a grain of salt. But there is no denying that “Pappy” Gunn was a mover and a shaker in those hectic days, when the US military structure crumbled and collapsed under the Japanese onslaught

Pappy Gunn - via Leroy HickeyPaul Irvin Gunn was born in Quitman, Arkansas on October 18, 1900. At the age of ten, Paul saw his first airplane and knew that he wanted to fly. He left school after 6th grade and by “correcting” his year of birth to 1899, managed to join the US Navy.

His hopes to become a naval aviator were dashed by his poor education but he became an aviation machinist’s mate. He spent most of his Navy time at Pensacola where he met Clara “Polly” Louise Crosby, his future wife.
The end of the Great War meant there was no chance of a flying career. Undaunted, he saved his military pay for years, bought a surplus seaplane when his enlistment expired and taught himself to fly. Then, just after he left the Navy, he learned that enlisted men could apply for pilot training and he immediately re-enlisted. After some hassling and rope-pulling, he was sent to flight school from which he graduated as a Navy pilot in the spring of 1925. Over the years, he served as a flight instructor at Pensacola, as a fighter and seaplane pilot with the Fleet and finally as a VIP pilot at Anacostia Naval Air Station in Washington, D.C. He retired from the Navy for the second time in 1937 and was almost immediately employed as a pilot by a Hawaii businessman called Bob Tyce (the first American to be killed during the Japanese air raid on Hawaii.)


Magazine story about the first PAL flight

In 1939, Gunn was lured away to the Philippines by the wealthy Ariala family and for some time he piloted their twin-engined Beechcraft D-18S. Early in 1941, Gunn convinced the family they should start an airline called Philippines Air Lines (PAL), of which he duly became general manager.


After the sudden and devastating Japanese attack on the Philippine airfields, there was a major shortage of transport planes. All remaining Douglas C-39’s and B-18’s were working overtime and even the scarce B-17’s were used as transports. Appalled by this situation, Major-General Lewis H. Brereton, (commander Far East Air Force – FEAF), commandeered the Philippines Air Lines aircraft and personnel. Gunn and his friend Dan Stickle were sworn into the Army Air Force (with the ranks of Captain and 1st Lieutenant respectively) and Brereton ordered them to use PAL’s aircraft and any others he could lay his hands on to establish an air transport squadron.

PAL Hnagar 1941 D18

Gunn’s Beech D-18S in the damaged PAL hangar

The “squadron” initially had 4 aircraft, a Sikorsky seaplane and 3 Beechcraft D-18’s. When the Japanese raided Nielson field and destroyed the Sikorsky, Gunn immediately decided to relocate his 3 remaining (damaged) aircraft to a safer location. Characteristically, he decided to exploit superstition and chose the Manila Grace Park cemetery as his new “field”. His reasoning was that even the most battle hardened Japanese pilots would wince at the thought of shooting up a graveyard. Grace Park had actually been an airfield some twenty years earlier. After it had been closed, the runway been turned into a long driveway. His friends Dan Stickle, Harold G. Slingsby and Louis Connelly helped Gunn to knock down some headstones and remove some pinnacles from tombs to create wingtip clearance. And the new “field” was quickly ready for operations.
For the next few weeks of December 1941, the 3 Beech D18’s flew supplies and personnel around the Philippines, frequently attacked by Japanese fighters and often the target of both Japanese and “friendly” ground fire. To give an example: Gunn was flying a Beech over Cebu on December 13, 1941, when he was attacked and badly damaged by a Mitsubishi A6M “Zero”. Adding insult to injury, “friendly” AA fire from the Zablan airfield caused further damage to the Beech while it struggled back to Nichols Field near Manila. Gunn had barely recovered from his near-crash landing when he was ordered to fly Manuel Quezon, the President of the Philippines, and his family to Mindanao.


AAF-I-3On December 22, 1941, the Pensacola convoy reached Brisbane, Australia, delivering 18 P-40’s and 52 A-24’s earmarked for the Philippines and Colonel Harold “Hal” George ordered Gunn on Christmas Eve 1941 to fly pilots of the 17th Pursuit Squadron to Australia. Gunn drew all his military pay and borrowed as much money as he could before he left. He gave it to his wife “Polly” and instructed her that, if she was captured by the Japanese, to tell them he had been killed in a plane crash a few weeks ago.

After a hectic and dangerous flight (see USAAF P-40’s on Java – Part Two), he and his passengers reached Australia where he got involved in assembling the P-40’s. By January 16, 1942, the hastily assembled fighters took off for Darwin, with “Pappy Gunn” upstaging the RAAF by guiding the first group of fighters in his clapped-out Beech D-18S. Upon reaching Darwin, the pilots of the 17th were told the Philippines route was cut and they were re-directed to Java. Undaunted, Gunn guided his charges safely across the Timor Sea and on to Java. He returned to Kupang (Timor) with a spare tyre for one of the P-40’s and decided to fly back to the Philippines to fetch some fighter pilots that had escaped to Del Monte and take them back to Australia before they were captured.

It was not to be. He made it all the way to Zamboanga Point where a Japanese floatplane attacked him and badly shot-up his Beech. He managed to crash-land and, uninjured, set the plane on fire to convince the Jap, still circling overhead, that he had not survived the crash. After a restless night in the jungle, Gunn set out for the small airfield near Zamboanga. He was taken off by his friend Louis Connelly who broke the news that his wife and 4 children were now in a Japanese internment camp.


A Douglas A-24 with its dive brakes extended

Safely back in Australia, “Pappy” Gunn became great friends with Major John “Big Jim” Davies, the commanding officer of the 27th Bomb Group (later known as the 3rd Bomb Group).  Davies and his men had been waiting in Philippines for their Douglas A-24 dive bombers to arrive. When it became clear these planes were in Australia, Davies and his men had been flown to Brisbane to pick them up and ferry them back to the Philippines. The A-24’s, however, were in such a bad condition and lacking so many essential parts, that only 11 were assembled in time to be sent off to Java.


The 27th became the 3rd Bomb Group by March 1, 1942, but Davies and his men were still sitting on their thumbs, waiting for North-American B-25 “Mitchells” to arrive. Then “Pappy” Gunn and “Big Jim” Davies found out that a whole squadron of them was standing idle in Melbourne. These B-25’s had been part of a priority shipment to the Dutch forces but Java had fallen by this time and the Dutch had no trained aircrew to fly the bombers.


The Dutch Mitchells, standing idle at Melbourne.

Davies talked to General’s Brett and Eubank and, after obtaining a vague “OK”, took Gunn and the rest of his crews and flew the B-25’s out of Melbourne to Charters Towers. Over the years this “raid” has become another legend (See my post “Not their finest Hour – The Troubled Start of No. 18 (NEI) Squadron RAAF”) but there’s no doubt that Gunn was directly involved in it. Although he was still officially with the Air Transport Command, he took charge of the conditioning of the B-25s for combat, promising to have them ready in “two days.” It took a little longer but on April 5, 1942 the 3rd Attack Group flew the first B-25 combat mission in history as they attacked the Japanese airfield at Gasmata.



3rd Bomb Group at Charters Towers , October 42. Pappy Gunn in the middle of the 4th row


The following day Davies and Gunn were called to Melbourne, along with one of the other “senior” officers in the 3rd Attack Group. They were greeted by Brigadier General Ralph Royce, who was in command of bombing operations in the Southwest Pacific. Royce had been directed to go back to the Philippines and carry out offensive operations from Del Monte Field on Mindanao and the B-25s afforded the means of doing so. As it turned out, only three B-17s and eleven B-25s could be made ready for the mission. Gunn was given a verbal order transferring him from the Air Transport Command to the 3rd Attack Group as a maintenance officer and assigned to the mission.

When General Royce tried to confirm Gunn’s Captain’s commission, the Army Air Force bureaucracy balked, complaining that he had no formal flight training; a commission was only possible after going through the formal 6-month training…
Fortunately for Gunn (and the USAAF), the top brass cut through the red-tape and Gunn was in one of the fourteen bombers that left northern Australia for Mindanao on April 11, 1942, their cabins laden with supplies for the airmen stranded at Mindanao but still fighting the Japanese.
The Royce Mission flew three missions from Del Monte, one against Nichols Field outside Manila, the others against Japanese facilities at Cebu City. Pappy Gunn led one element on the second Cebu mission and he and his wingmen are reported to have destroyed at least one Japanese motor launch and badly damaged a merchantman. Reasoning that the attack could have only come from Mindanao, the Japanese attacked Del Monte several times and one of the B-17s was destroyed and the other two were damaged. However, the B-25s were well-hidden and flew another mission the following day.
When General Royce learned that Japanese ground forces were within 24 hours of Del Monte, he decided it was time to abandon the field. The pilots loaded as many American airmen aboard their airplanes as they could and the B-25s departed for Australia. Pappy Gunn was the last to leave and the last to arrive – the long-range fuel tank for his bomber had been shot-up by Japanese strafers and he had to make an emergency repair.
It was by this time people started calling him “Pappy”, partly because of his age and partly because of his rapidly greying hair.


General George C. Kenney

In April 1942, a shipment of A-20 “Havocs” arrived but they had been shipped without either guns or bomb racks. Pappy Gunn advised Davies to pack the nose full of .50-caliber machineguns and use them for low-level attack. Davies liked the idea and Gunn worked up a nose package of six machineguns, with four in the fuselage and one mounted on either side. He was in the midst of the modifications when Major General George C. Kenney arrived at Charter Towers on an inspection tour He found Pappy Gunn working on the A-20s and asked if he could build bomb racks that could carry 27-pound fragmentation bombs. Pappy liked the idea of spreading fragmentation bombs all over a Japanese airfield or troop positions and said it would be no problem.
Kenney was very impressed and informed the (by now) Major Gunn that, effective immediately; he was relieved of his duties with the troop carriers and was transferred to his personal staff. However, he could remain at Charter Towers long enough to train the Army mechanics to complete the installation of the guns and bomb racks on the A-20s.


The business-end of a modified B-25

The A-20 gunships were a feather in Pappy Gunn’s hat, but an even more powerful weapon was to follow. After the A-20 conversion proved itself, Kenney recognized that the best solution to his problem of finding a “commerce destroyer”, an airplane that could be effective against Japanese shipping in low-level daylight attacks, might be a conversion of the B-25.  and gave Gunn the OK to start work on his next conversion project.


A20_2The first converted B-25s teamed up with the modified A-20s In early March 1943, during the historic Battle of the Bismarck Sea. This epic battle is recorded by US Navy historian Samuel Eliot Morison as “The most devastating attack of the war by airplanes against ships.”
The first low-level attack on the morning of March 3 literally stopped the convoy dead in the water. A second attack later in the day finished the job. Not a single one of the twelve transports in the convoy survived the battle.

Meanwhile, North-American had developed a B-25 packing a 75mm cannon in its nose and Kenney gave Pappy permission to take the first one that arrived in Australia, test it in combat and make it ready for operational duty. Although Pappy was impressed with the Big Gun and made several spectacular kills with it, it was actually not very effective.  Most of the cannons were removed and replaced with .50-caliber guns.

The war ended for Pappy Gunn late in 1944, when a fragment from a white phosphorous bomb dropped on the airfield at Tacloban buried itself in his shoulder, causing great pain and rendering the arm useless. Pappy was evacuated to Australia and remained in convalescence until the end of the war. When US troops landed on Luzon, General Douglas MacArthur personally ordered the Gunn family liberated from the Santo Thomas Internment Camp. They were put on an airplane to Australia to join the dad who, in the meantime, had become famous throughout the Pacific.

Peace came and “Pappy” Gunn went back to flying commercial aviation in the Philippines.. He was killed in an airplane crash while trying to avoid a tropical thunderstorm in 1957. His remains were returned to the United States and interred at the US Navy cemetary at Pensacola Naval Air Station, where he had spent much of his naval career. But his memory still lives in the hearts and minds of those who knew him.


“The story of Pappy Gunn” – Sam McGowan –

“The 27th Reports”, stories, extracts from diaries, copies of orders – edited by Capt. James McAfee

“Operation Plum” – Adrian Martin and Larry Stevenson,

“3rd Bomb Group Stories – Paul I. “Pappy” Gunn” – G.J. “Robby” Robinson,

“Paul Irvin “Pappy” Gunn in Australia during WW2”. Peter Dunn, OZ at War,

“Indestructible”- John R. Bruning

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