Britain's Aerial Outpost

by James Bassett, Jr

Australia's tough RAAF airmen are keeping the official British eye on Far East developments. Theirs is a big scouting job.

Dull, gray, menacing, the clouds bore down over Richmond Air Base, a sprawling military field that encompasses lands over which fine Australian mutton once grazed. Sydney, with its superb harbor, lay a few miles east. North and south from Sydney stemmed the 5,000 vital coastal miles which the Anzacs must protect in order to continue living as free British.

Richmond throbbed with activity. Off the turfed runways thundered American-built Lockheed Hudsons. Aloft, they would attain the 240 mph cruising speed produced by their 950-hp engines, "souped-up" by the Australians. Their bomb racks were filled with TNT projectiles manufactured at the Commonwealth Explosives Factory at Maribyrong, Victoria; their machine guns came from Australian armories; their men, from chief pilots to rear gunners, had been trained on Australian soil.

A squadron leader, wearing shorts, poked at the handkerchief in his striped sleeve: "Demned good ship."

Murk swallowed the Hudsons. Six of them, roaring toward the Tasman Sea that washes the shores of Australia and New Zealand. Forever watching for the enemy that some day may strike at them. They would remain away for five or six hours. Low over the gray waters, they would patrol.

"Alert," said the squadron leader, "for hanky-panky."

That is how this writer, late last fall in the second year of the Second World War, met the Royal Australian Air Force. In a way, it was like arriving unexpectedly back home for the Hudsons originally had emerged from a factory in my home city of Los Angeles.

The squadron leader seemed inclined to talk: "Of course we're readying ourselves for invasion. That's always a threat. Especially if the Dutch Indies or Singapore were first attacked. Probably they'd come by air. But because of the nature of Australia, they'd bring their carriers. Maybe they'd have 400-500 planes to launch at us."

He did not have to identify "they" — who could have been none other than Japan. Then his face brightened as he cited the time-honored axiom that an attacker needs a four-fold superiority in numbers over a defender. It is to be hoped that the ruling holds true, for that is precisely the ratio today of Australia's fledgling air force to an armada capable of leaving the decks of Japan's 10 (perhaps 11 by now) carriers.

Australia stands as one of the British Empire's richest bread baskets. Its wool, wheat and mutton joins New Zealand's lamb in the desperate race to feed the beleaguered motherland. To reach England (or the Anzac troops fighting Mussolini's warriors in Africa) these products must run a gauntlet which in time might become hostile. Ship lanes to Australia are lifelines.

Her small navy of 11-odd cruisers and destroyers has been dispatched to the Mediterranean arena. Which leaves the No 1 defensive force of this continent of 3,000,000 square miles (larger than the United States) the RAAF. Actually, Australia boasts 11,130 coastal miles. But fortunately, "only" 5,000 need the daily patrolling of Hudsons, Avros and Bristol Beauforts-yet-unborn in the new factory at Sydney. These strategic miles lie between Adelaide, on the edge of the Great Australian Bight, to Port Darwin in the sweltering, dust-laden northern tropics. Elsewhere is unpopulated desert, for the continent hasn't been pioneered extensively beyond the littoral strip.

Later in this yarn we shall discuss another Empire outpost — Hong Kong — which isn't a bread basket at all. Yet, in its way, that China city means much to Britain; for it is a liability which, in an enemy's hands, might become a terrible asset.

With great vividness we recall a three-fold, simultaneous interview with the three Australian chiefs-of-staff: Sir Ragnar Colvin, Navy; Maj Gen John Northcott, Army; and Air Marshal Sir Charles Burnett. We sat in a small, map-laden room in Victoria Barracks, Melbourne. They talked war; the dozen correspondents, assembled like so many disciples, listened to a strange story of heroism-in-the-making. We retraced time to September, 1939.

With the motherland embroiled with Germany, Australia-New Zealand on that date began massing men (to reach a total of 250,000 soldiers for the continent with a 7,000,000 population and 100,000 for New Zealand with 1,500,000). Anzacs promptly sailed for the Middle East, virtually without convoy, since the Royal Australian Navy already had sped to Europe.

So what happened? Australian National Airways' four Douglas DC-3s and two DC-2s lost their dura1 burnish for a coat of brown camouflage. Vickers guns were poked through windows and doors. Makeshift bomb racks were installed below the crafts' broad bellies until, for the first time, writers' glib predictions that "commercial transports are convertible overnight into bombardment planes" seemed to have been realized. These airliners accompanied troopships far out to sea. They were the protective convoys.

Then the hysteria passed. People knew that Germany could effect little more than sporadic Asiatic raids. They began to appreciate a grimmer fact: that all-out preparedness must be achieved for a greater menace — Japan.

One of the staff chiefs said: "Invasion is possible, but unlikely. Nippon's easier course would be to gobble up the Indies (if she could) ." Instead of invasion, what? "Strangulation of our trade," he continued.

To defeat such a move before it gets well underway rates as Sir Charles Burnett's job. Each year, until Australia's manpower has been exhausted, he must produce 26,000 pilots, gunners and radiomen. In the none-too-distant future this saturation point will be reached, he said, for 20,000 troops at the most result from each 500,000 of bulk population.

Last autumn Australia had about 400 effective aircraft: about 90 Hudsons, 250 Wirraways (North American combat ships built at Melbourne) and approximately 100 miscellaneous types ranging from Supermarine Walrus amphibians down through obsolete Fairey Battles to dinky Wackett trainers, which are Ryan-like monoplanes made by Commonwealth. Today there are more, because of the Commonwealth's burgeoning output of Wirraways (one-a-day in November) and its ambitious Beaufort long distance bomber.

This latter is interesting. Designed by the chief of the Commonwealth plant — who raised production from nothing-a-month in 1936 to present levels — this machine is a twin-engined craft capable of 350 mph. In two jumps it could span Australia, the Indies and reach Singapore— in an emergency. With two 1,850-hp Wasps (also to be built Down Under), it will carry nine heavy-caliber guns, including a pair of power-turrets. By late April, Beauforts should start rolling from the Sydney factory.

Before Dunkirk, 10 RAAF. squadrons had been dispatched to England. Now the overseas force travels posthaste to General Wavell's victorious Middle East command; and Commonwealth has home-constructed planes sufficient for a whole, new squadron every fortnight. Sir Charles frowned as he talked: "In view of our dearth of surface ships, the RAAF. is pretty small. We patrol as far north as the Solomon Islands (east of New Guinea). That's covering a whale of a lot of territory (but it's the direction a southward enemy thrust would take)."

Thus the close-knit RAAF makes the most of what it possesses. Confidentially, its flyers deem the Wirraway — something rated as slightly above an advanced trainer in the United States — equal to the best the Japanese could send from a carrier. Modernization has given them a 500-mile range, better than 200 mph speed-on their 550-hp Wasps. But the RAAF. desperately wants Spitfires or Hurricanes — or Yankee Curtisses, Bells or Vultees.

Spring and summer exercises of this "pocket air force" looked good, we were told. Men's spirits flared high. You sense this when you chat with 50-year-old volunteers who served in the last War. They have kids at home. They're quietly determined.

Across the rolling face of the continent, right to the edges of the forbidding outback country, where roam only the antelope and the Stone Age aborigine, the RAAF has its airports. Even the facilities of the commercial airways — surprisingly complete, down to a new directional beacon system — have been taken over by the government. Although official confirmation has been lacking, evidence points to a workable sub rosa means of cooperation between the Dutch Indies and Australia in the event of trouble. For a quick concentration of sky-power, Australian flying fields have been splendidly located.

Sand-bagged machine gun emplacements and neat, businesslike arrays of barbed-wire greeted us at all major points such as Richmond. Here 2,000 men at a time study the mysteries of mechanics: taking one-month semi-skilled courses, or six-month ground crew training. When the war ends, these technicians will be extremely useful for the young continent.

Britain's home front battle originally diverted 150 Hudsons from Australia. Now, as we type these lines, word comes that almost 100 Consolidated PBY-5s will ferry south over Pan American Airways' lower Pacific run to bolster the RAAF. This will be good news to Sir Charles, whose main worry has been the lack of long range patrol ships. Such machines will help protect the $500,000,000 worth of foodstuffs, about to go in transit, which England has ordered from her youngest commonwealth.

Meantime, 2,500 miles north even of steaming, humid Port Darwin, jumping-off place for the White Man's East, a non-productive area smoulders. Should the Japanese troops on the Canton frontier (20 miles away) move, the smoldering would become white hot flame. That is Hong Kong. Airplanes play a convex role at Victoria-Kowloon, the truncated double city that is Britain's last Chinese bastion.

High on a hill on Victoria Peak, we talked with Maj Gen A E Grasett, commander of His Majesty's forces in Hong Kong. He sketched his problem, thwacking a riding-crop against a map of the island and peninsula. Suddenly, although he circumnavigated the fact in the interview, we gathered the truth: he has been ordered to hold Hong Kong at all costs and hazards. Because, since Singapore became the Class A fortress of southeastern Asia, Hong Kong has existed only as a place-to-be-defended for Britain. In the latter's possession, it is a static port, rimmed with potential enemies. Manned by Japan, it would be a serious threat to every white man from Manila to Batavia.

What about aircraft here? Well, there remains China National Airways. We term this the miracle line of the world. Its Douglases still fly between Hong Kong and Chungking, somehow, on a weird schedule arrangement that appears exactly the opposite of United States airline policies. One of our friends left Hong Kong for Generalissimo Chiang's capital that same day last autumn. They telephoned him at 2 AM to "stand by."

Outside, the rain drove down; by the wildest imaginative stretch, you couldn't have conceived nastier flying weather. But at 3 AM the DC-2 hoisted off the smallish runway on Kowloon Peninsula, spiraled to its 9,000-foot operative altitude over Victoria, then snapped off its running lights. Bee-lining, it streaked for Chungking, radio silent, dark, unarmed except for God's elements which certainly were on its side.

Occasionally the skies clear.

That's tough, because CNAC then loses a plane to the Japanese. You can't base many fighting aircraft on an island only seven miles long. Thus General Grasett's defenses largely are without benefit of pursuits and bombers. Should the Japanese launch their attack, almost certain to come if Britain falls this year, the embattled 12,000 troops at Hong Kong would be forced to sit and take it. Plenty of 4.5-inch anti-aircraft guns and fixed defenses have been prepared. But few planes. That's why the 758-mile Manila-Hong Kong airway looms so important at this juncture.

The former island city stands at the western terminus of the multimillion dollar "stepping stone" project designed to give the United States long range access to its farthest possessions. Upwards of $100,000,000 will be expended on such infinitesimal coral as Canton, Midway, Wake, Howland, Palmyra and Johnston islands. Each will become a snuggery for PBYs or even larger patrolling seaplanes. Already a contingent of these Consolidated boats has reached the Philippines. And when you reflect that Cavite Bay lies less than four hours from Hong Kong in a modern bomber, you begin to catch the significance of any possible Anglo-American cooperation in the White Man's East.

This article was originally published in the April, 1941, issue of Flying and Popular Aviation magazine, vol 28, no 4, pp 32-34, 86-87.
The original article includes 6 photos.
Photos are not credited.

Notes:
Sources are not conclusive, but it seems that the Hudsons used by RAAF were powered by R-1830 Twin Wasp engines. The Twin Wasp was license-built by Commonwealth Aircraft.
The Bristol Beaufort was designed by Bristol in England. The Beaufort Division of the Commonwealth's Department of Aircraft Production (DAP) was organized to build the Beaufort in Australia. It is highly likely that they had to do a great deal of adaptation to bring up production in their own plant.
—JLM