Oisne Aisne Military Cemetery – “Plot E”

Plots A-D of the Oise Aisne American Cemetary hold the remains of American soldiers who died fighting in a small portion of Northern France during World War I. However set across the street unmarked and completely surrounded by impassible shrubbery is Plot E, a semi-secret fifth plot that contains the nearly forgotten bodies of a number of American soldiers who were executed for crimes committed during and after World War II.

Over 6,000 soldiers are buried in the first four plots of the Oise Aisne Cemetery, but just 94 bodies are currently buried in the shunned fifth plot. While the small patch of land is technically on the grounds of the greater cemetery, it is not easily distinguished as it sits across the street, hidden behind the tall hedges that surround it. The only way into the secret cemetery is through the superintendent’s office.


The soldiers eventually interred in Plot E were tried for rape, murder, and in one case, desertion (although the remains of the deserter, Eddie Slovik, the only American executed for desertion in WWII, were returned to the states in 1987). After being convicted in U.S. courts martial held in Europe, the men were dishonorably discharged and executed via hanging or firing squad. In many cases, the men who were buried in Plot E were initially buried close to the site of their execution. Those bodies were later exhumed and moved to Oise Aisne in 1949 when the plot of shame was established.


The lone headstone in Plot E.


Plot E has been referred to as an anti-memorial. No US flag is permitted to fly over the plot and the graves themselves, small in-ground stones the size of index cards, have no names; they are only differentiated by numbers. Even underground they are set apart with each body buried in Plot E positioned with its back to the main cemetery. The site does not exist on maps of the cemetery, and is not mentioned on the cemetery website.


Marker for Private Louis Till, who was hanged in Italy in July 1945 after murdering an Italian woman, raping two others and then assaulting a US navy sailor.


Plot E has been described by one cemetery employee as a “house of shame” and “the perfect anti-memorial,” especially as the original intent was that none of the individual remains were ever to be identifiable by name.

“The Fifth Field: The Story of the 96 American Soldiers Sentenced to Death and Executed in Europe and North Africa in World War II” by French L.Maclean (Schiffer Publishing, 2013) was the basis for this blog post.

Maurice Buckley- Victoria Cross recipient

Back in November 2015 I made a blog entry about Frederick Whirlpool, the Victoria Cross winner who ended up leading a hermit-like existence in the Hawkesbury. Here is the story of another Victoria Cross recipient, and the unusual way that he was awarded the highest honour in the British armed forces.

Maurice Buckley was born in Melbourne on the 13th of April 1891, and joined the 13th Light Horse Regiment the week before Christmas 1914, and was sent to Egypt.

Maurice Buckley’s enlistment form.


Like so many of his comrades, Buckley contracted gonorrhea and syphilis. Venereal disease was a huge problem for Australian troops based in Egypt. With the troops not actually fighting, they spent each day training in camps outside of Cairo, and when off duty they frequented the many brothels in the city as well. By February 1916, almost 6,000 men had been infected, and more than 1,000 of them were shipped back home to Australia.

Buckley ended up at the Langwarrin Venereal Diseases camp, located 40 kilometres outside of Melbourne in November 1915.  The facility at Langwarrin had originally been a training camp for Boer War soldiers, and at the start of the Great War was recommissioned as an internment camp for German and Turkish civilians. But with the dramatic emergence of venereal disease amongst enlisted men, the facility became a ‘pox camp’.

The camp was located well away from the township of Langwarrin, and conditions for the patients who went there were terrible – the men were herded behind barbed-wire enclosures, and slept in tents with rubber sheets and blankets for bedding. There was a shortage of water, which impacted on treatment and hygiene. In October 1915 there was a mass break-out involving 50 patients who had been refused leave to visit the township. The patients overpowered the camp guards, and caught the train to Melbourne, where they were subsequently arrested by police.


Entrance to Langwarrin Venereal Diseases camp, circa 1915.


After five months in Langwarrin, Buckley had had enough, and in March 1916, he escaped from the camp, never to return.  His Army papers were stamped ‘deserter’ and he was struck off the army roll. Buckley returned to his family’s house in the leafy Melbourne suburb of Malvern, to explain to his family why he was no longer serving in the Army.

With Military Police looking for her son, Agnes Buckley suggested that Maurice re-enlist, but under another name. So Maurice travelled to Sydney and re-enlisted as Private Gerald Sexton. Sexton was his mother’s maiden name, and Gerald was the name of his brother who had died in an army camp almost a year earlier of meningitis.


Maurice Buckley – awarded the Victoria Cross under the alias Gerald Sexton.

Sexton was assigned to the 13th Battalion of the 4th Division, embarking shortly after for Plymouth in England and then France. Sexton was promoted to Sergeant, and on the 8th of August 1918, earned a Distinguished Conduct Medal for his bravery in the action around Morcourt Valley.

Sexton received his Victoria Cross for bravery during action near Le Verguier on the 8th of August 1918. Here is the official citation, as reprinted in the “London Gazette” of the 13th of December 1918:

“No. 6594 Sjt. Gerald Sexton, 13th Bn., A.I.F.

For most conspicuous bravery during the attack near Le Verguier, north-west of St. Quentin, on the 18th September, 1918. During the whole period of the advance, which was very seriously opposed, Sjt. Sexton was to the fore dealing with enemy machine guns; rushing enemy posts, and performing great feats of bravery and endurance without faltering or for a moment taking cover. When the advance had passed the ridge at La Verguier, Sjt. Sexton’s attention was ‘ directed to a party of the enemy manning a bank, and to a field gun causing casualties and holding up a company. Without hesitation, calling to his section to follow, he rushed down the bank and killed the gunners of the field gun. Regardless of machine-gun fire, he returned to the bank, and after firing down some dugouts induced about thirty of the enemy to surrender. When the advance was continued from the first to the second objective the company was again held up by machine guns on the flanks. Supported by another platoon, he disposed of the enemy guns, displaying boldness which inspired all. Later, he again showed the most conspicuous initiative in the capture of hostile posts and machine guns, and rendered invaluable support to his company digging in.”

At the end of 1918 the commanding officer at the Langwarrin camp notified the authorities of Sexton’s real identity. When Sexton received his Victoria Cross at Buckingham Palace in May 1919, he did so under his real name of Maurice Buckley. Buckley returned to Australia and was discharged from the Army. Buckley, a strong Catholic, was openly aligned to the controversial Archbishop Daniel Mannix, and marched with Mannix in St Partick’s Day parades. Buckley established a strong friendship with infamous Melbourne identity John Wren, who business empire was built on SP bookmaking, sly grog and prostitution. Wren gave Buckley financial support to help set up a road-contracting business.

Buckley died after a horse-riding accident in January 1921, aged just 29. At his funeral, his casket was carried by ten other Victoria Cross winners. He was buried in the Brighton Cemetery, and fittingly was laid to rest alongside his brother – whose name he had borrowed to restore his reputation.

Buckley family grave at Brighton Cemetery.

As far as I know, Buckley is the only soldier to have earned a Victoria Cross while serving under an assumed name/alias.
Russell Robinson’s book  “Khaki Crims & Desperadoes” (Pan Macmillan Australia, Sydney, 2014) was the main source for this entry, along with various Australian and international military history sites.

The SS Fort Stikine explosion – Bombay, 1944

The Fort Stikine was one of 26 identical ships, all 441 feet long and 57 feet across the beam, and all bearing names beginning with the prefix Fort. The Fort Stikine was a solid workmanlike merchant ship of 7,142 gross tons, capable of travelling at ten to eleven knots and carrying more than 7,000 tons of cargo in its holds.  The Fort Stikine’s first and only captain was Alexander Naismith, who took over the ship in May 1942. It was a utilitarian product of the Lend-Lease system in World War 2, under which the United States essentially allowed Great Britain to borrow war supplies on credit until after the war. Huge numbers of ships were supplied on this basis, the object being to maintain trade and keep war materials moving around the world at a time when German U-boats were destroying unprecedented tonnages of Allied shipping.

The SS Fort Stikine – the ship responsible for one of the largest maritime explosions of all time.

The Fort Stikine steamed out of Birkenhead in England in February 1944, bound for Bombay in India, via the Suez Canal. The Fort Stikine was part of a large convoy, and sailed slightly apart from the other ships. The reason for this was the ship’s cargo. Apart from crates containing twelve Supermarine Spitfire fighter aircraft, the cargo also included 1,395 tons of explosives, of which 238 tons was the highly sensitive category A type, stowed in the wings of the ‘tween-decks. The explosives were essential to the war effort in the Far East, and the Fort Stikine was the only ship that was going to Bombay – all of the other ships would turn away to their destinations before the Fort Stikine reached the Indian Ocean.


As well as the explosives, there was also another curious part of the ship’s cargo. In the upper half of No. 2 hold there was a specially constructed steel tank measuring five foot by four foot by four foot. Inside the tank had been placed thirty-one wooden boxes, each containing four bars of gold. In 1944, this quantity was worth in excess of £1,000,000. The use of such a vulnerable ship as the Fort Stikine for transit of such a valuable cargo is evidence both of the dire shortage of more appropriate shipping and the urgency with which the gold was required. The lid of the tank had been padlocked and then welded on.

After a stop for coal at Suez, the Fort Stikine reached Karachi on the 30th of March. The twelve crated Spitfires were unloaded, and in the vacated space the Fort Stikine took on 8,700 bales of raw cotton, several thousand gallons of lubricating oil, sulphur, rice, resin, scrap iron and fish meal. It was highly combustible and sat uneasily with the thousands of tons of explosives already in the ship. Captain Naismith and his senior officers were unhappy about the new cargo but they had no real choice to accept it.

The stowage plan for the SS Fort Stikine, showing the lethal mixture of cotton and explosives in the ship.

The Fort Stikine left Karachi on the 9th of April and reached Bombay on the 12th of April, and was put into No 1 berth at the Victoria Dock. According to regulations the ship should have flown a red flag to signify to other ships that it was carrying explosives. Captains were reluctant to fly the red flag, feeling that it made their ships a better target for air attack and possible sabotage. Naismith chose not to fly the flag – possibly a fatal error that sealed the fate of the ship.

As the Fort Stikine had explosives on board, it was given priority for unloading over all other ships berthed in Victoria Dock. The category A explosives could not be directly unloaded onto the dock – they had to be transferred onto lighters and then onto the dock. No lighters were available, which delayed the unloading of the explosives for twenty four hours. In the meantime, dock workers started unloading the oil drums and then to the satisfaction of everyone, the fish meal, which had gone rotten and was putting off a terrible smell.


By midday on the 14th of April very few explosives had been landed. About this time the Chief Officer of the Fort Crevier, berthed opposite the Fort Stikine, first notices smoke issuing from one of the Fort Stikine’s ventilators. Approximately half a dozen other seamen saw the smoke, but also did nothing – it was lunch hour, the docks were at a standstill and an atmosphere of tropical languor hung heavily in the air. Eventually three hoses of water were deployed into the No 2 hold, and it was thought that the fire would be put out in a couple of minutes. The smoke however, continued to build, and the Bombay City fire brigade arrived to also lend their assistance. The officer in charge of explosives at the docks, Captain Oberst arrived at the docks at 2.30 pm and asked to see the Fort Stikine’s manifest. When he read about the explosives, and the burning cotton, he requested that the Fort Stikine should be immediately scuttled, in order to eliminate any chance of a major explosion. Unfortunately for Oberst, the water was not deep enough in the dock for the ship to be scuttled.

Someone noticed that the bulkhead between No 1 and No 2 hold was getting very hot, and two exceptionally brave firefighters descended into No 1 hold and moved all of the detonators that were resting against the bulkhead. It was suggested that the Fort Stikine should immediately head back out to sea, where an explosion would not damage the docks. Once again circumstances conspired against this plan – the ships’ engine was being repaired while in dock, making it impossible for the Fort Stikine to head out into the open seas.

By 3.00 pm it was obvious that the situation was getting worse – millions of gallons of water had been pumped into the hull, but the paint on the outside of the ship began to bubble. The seat of the fire had been identified – the aft port-side corner, and the Bombay fire brigade chief gave the order for a gas cutter to be fetched, so that an opening could be cut in the side of the ship and the fire attacked directly. Incredibly, more problems occurred – the fire brigade’s own cutter did not work, and an order had been placed for a cutter to be sent from the nearby Magazon Docks, but this order had been cancelled by a senior docks official. The order was resent, but to no avail.

The running of water inside the hold was fanning the fire, and not suppressing it, as the water raised the level of the burning cotton which floated on the surface of the water until it was just below the ‘tween-decks where the explosives were stored. By 3.45 pm huge flames began to leap out of the hatchway, and within minutes had reached the height of the Fort Stikine’s mast. Captain Naismith gave the order to abandon ship, and the crown which had gathered to watch the attempts to put the fire out now surged towards the dock gates. At 4.06 pm, Naismith had just completed a final check of the ship to see that all crew members had disembarked, when with cataclysmic force, the Fort Stikine exploded, killing Naismith immediately and many people who were still dockside.

Diagram of the ships at the Bombay docks prior to the explosion, and where they ended up after the explosion.

Pieces of flying metal hurtled through the air and landed up to a mile away. The Jalapadma, a 4,000 ton ship berthed next to the Fort Stikine, was lifted right out of the water and deposited on the quay wall. One of the Fort Stikine’s anchors was caught in the rigging of a ship in a neighbouring dock. Eleven ships were now on fire and four were sunk or sinking. This was not the end of it – at 4.40 pm the explosives in what was left of the aft end of the Fort Stikine blew up, throwing debris 3,000 feet into the air. With such devastation, the casualty list was high, although due to wartime censorship and the chaos and confusion after the explosion, figures vary. Approximately 230 dock employees were killed, along with over 500 civilians, although some sources claim that the total death total was closer to 1,500. The Bombay Fire Service took the brunt of the explosion – of the 156 firemen who were present, 65 were killed and 80 wounded. Approximately 2,500 people were injured. It took three days to bring all of the fires under control, and a further seven months before all of the debris were removed and the docks became operational once more. Here is a a contemporary newsreel report, which features the second explosion and the aftermath of the explosions.

Once the fires had been put out, the authorities thoughts turned to what became of the gold that was stored in the steel tank in No 2 hold. It became obvious that all of the gold bars had been scattered far and wide by the explosion. Many civilians returned bars that they had found after the explosion, with other bars found lying on the ground unclaimed. Whenever the dock was dredged, the odd bar was found, with one of the last finds being in February 2011.

Nigel Pickord, “Lost Treasure Ships of the Twentieth Century”, Pavilion Books Limited, London, 1999, pp. 139-146 was used as the major source for this blog post.

1940 Swift training rifle

In June 1940, Great Britain stood alone against Nazi Germany. Her European Allies, France, Poland, Belgium, Norway, Denmark and Holland had all been crushed by the Blitzkrieg in 1940. The BEF that was sent to reinforce France and Belgium was almost overrun and was only saved by the evacuation from Dunkirk.

At Dunkirk, they had been forced to leave behind a huge store of equipment and munitions. This created an acute shortage of arms for defence not to mention training of new forces. With invasion pending, the government turned to the Swift Training Rifle to help educate the nearly two million British Home Guard troops and the RAF ground defence forces who would repel German paratroopers expected to land at RAF airfields.

Going back before to the 19th century, rifle-sized practice devices were used for target practice. Earlier examples were the American Hollifield “Dotter” and Cummings “Dot Rifle”. The reasons for this were multiple.

When using an active line rifle to train raw recruits, many of whom were city-dwellers who had never held a firearm before, safety issues were tantamount. By using a training rifle, which was incapable of taking and firing any sort of live ammunition, it was nearly impossible for a recruit to have a negligent discharge. Because a training rifle could not and would not fire live ammunition, you could practice basic marksmanship in any room and were not chained to a shooting range. This also allowed training in inclement weather when outdoor ranges would be closed.

Firearms instructors, both civilian and military, attest to the fact that basic marksmanship is decided by the proper use of trigger control, grip, stance and sight alignment to effect rounds impacting down range of the target. A training rifle taught all these fundamentals. The use of one such device with proper reinforcement could teach the basics of these fundamentals to a platoon of recruits in a single afternoon.

With these skills, the recruits could progress to being issued live weapons and proceed to the shooting range to fine-tune their skills. This training formula also would reduce the amount of rounds having to be fired in training as poor shooters could be sent back to the training rifle for more simulated firing before coming back to the range to try again.

Built in Oxfordshire, the Swift Training Rifle had the same dimensions as either the Short Magazine Lee Enfield or the US-made P14/17 Enfield rifles. Some 16,000 of these devices were built in 1941-43 in five variants. The trigger group, magazine, bolt and sight were identical as was the length of pull, weight and overall “feel” of the device to its model.

Where the Swift Training Rifle differed from a real rifle was that instead of a barrel that fired cartridges, the end of the Swift had a series of metal probes. The soldier behind the sights would aim these probes at a scale drawing of enemy troops and when the trigger was pulled, the prong would ‘dot’ the paper target. The whole affair was set up in a folding frame that held the rifle and target, thus making the Swift a simple and self-contained unit to use. Another feature was a spring-loaded butt plate, designed to help the trainee pulled the rifle firmly into his shoulder. If he didn’t do this, an internal safety mechanism prevented the Swift from being “fired”.

The source for this blog post was the www.firearmstalk.com website. The Forgotten Weapons youtube channel has a video on the Smith rifle, which shows the operation of the rifle, and also shows the targets that were placed in front of the rifle.


Poperinghe execution cells and shooting post

One of the lesser-known facts of the First World War was that 320 men of the British and Imperial Forces  were executed between August 1914 and November 1918 – 308 for military offences such as desertion and cowardice, and 12 for murder. No Australians serving with the AIF never met this fate, although two Australians who were serving with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force were executed.

One of the major places where these executions were carried out was in the small Belgian town of Poperinghe, located seven miles due west of Ypres. 70 executions – 50 British and 20 French were executed in the area.

During the First World War Poperinghe was the centre of a large concentration of troops, and there were many camps in the countryside around it. There was generally at least one Division billeted in the town, and it was described in a very early battlefield guide as “a [wartime] centre for recreation, for shopping and for rest”. The population before the War was about 12,000, but in 1917 there were as many as 250,000 soldiers billeted in the area. The imposing Town Hall, built in 1911, can be found on the main square. It was used as a Divisional Headquarters during the War.

Within the town hall are execution cells where some of the British soldiers condemned to execution during the Great War were kept awaiting their fate – to be shot at dawn. There were originally four cells, which were used by the police here before the war. Two of these small rooms have been restored; one with a simple pallisade bed and a lavatory bucket.

Exterior view of Poperinghe execution cell.

Although the exact number of men shot here at the Town Hall is unknown, there is firm evidence for five. There are photographs of some of those executed on the wall, part of an artwork located here. The two small rooms have small barred windows and are very dark, even on a bright sunny day.

Interior of Poperinghe execution cell.

The cells have brick floors, and many people have left wreaths here. On the walls are graffiti, scratched into the surface, much of which dates back to the Great War. The cells were used to hold many men who were taken into custody for a number of reasons, such as drunkeness, as well as to hold some of those awaiting execution.

In the courtyard outside stands a very grim reminder of the Great War – the post to which at least one soldier was tied before he was executed.  The execution post stands next to a large silvered panel on which a few words from a Kipling poem (The Coward) are inscribed – including the words ‘blindfold and alone’.

Poperinghe execution post.

The executions of British soldiers during the Great War is a subject on which emotions run high. There are many viewpoints; often today the men are seen as those who simply could not cope with the horrors of warfare and were victims. However amongst those executed were murderers, and also some who had deserted many times and been given many previous chances. It is also true that some of those executed were men who deserved another chance, or who perhaps should not have been at war at all. But it is easy to judge this by the standards of our own times and forget that this was a time when the country was quite literally fighting for its future, and even in peacetime at that period the laws and punishments seem harsh to us today.

The nearby Poperinghe New British Military Cemetery has the graves of 18 executed soldiers – more than any of the many other British military cemeteries that are located along the site of the Western Front.

The book “Guide to Australian Battlefields of the Western Front – 1916-1918” by John Laffin, Kangaroo Press, Sydney, 1999, p. 196 was used as the source for this blog post.



After the crushing victory over the French and British armies in France in May/June 1940, the German High Command started working out how to launch a successful land invasion of the English mainland, which was given the codename “Operation Sealion”.

One of the key elements of the plan was the need for the Wehrmacht infantry to have armoured support as they landed on the English coast. The preferred solution was for tanks to be taken close to the British coast on specially adapted ships, and then lowered into the sea. They would then drive along the seabed before emerging on the invasion beaches. The Tauchpanzer (diving tank) would be able to operate underwater for up to twenty minutes, and thus provide the support required to make a landing on the coast a success. 168 Pz IIIs were modified this way, along with 42 PZ IV tanks.

The Tauchpanzer was produced by sealing all openings on the tank using a waterproof compound. The gap between the turret and the hull was closed with an inflatable rubber ring, while rubber sheeting covered the commander’s cupola, the mantlet and the hull machine gun. The engine intakes were blocked with rubber seals, while the exhaust stacks were given non-return valves to prevent water reaching the engine that way. The rubber seals were fitted with explosive charges to allow them to be removed from inside the tank. In case the waterproofing failed the tanks were equipped with pumps.

Air was supplied by an 18m long flexible hose, attacked to a buoy floating on the surface, with a 1.50m air intake stack above the buoy. Maximum operating depth was 15m, and the tank was designed to stay underwater for no more than twenty minutes.


PZIII Tauchpanzer showing original long snorkel hose.


From July 1940, four sections of volunteers from existing Panzer regiments were trained on the island of Sylt, and then for further training at the Panzer training centre at Putlos in early August. Their use in Operation Sealion never occurred, due to the failure of the Luftwaffe to gain air superiority in the Battle of Britain.

The idea of using submersible tanks was not shelved, so in early 1941 the Tauchpaners were modified. The long hose was replaced by a shorter 3.5 metre snorkel, to adapt them for river crossings with a maximum depth of 5 metres.


PZIII Tauchpanzer in a staged photograph on the Eastern Front in 1941. The shorter snorkel pipe that replaced the original hose can clearly be seen above the cupola on the turret.


Tauchpanzer IIIs and IVs were used during Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the USSR on the 22nd of June 1941, in service with 6th Panzer Regiment, 3rd Panzer Division, and 18th Panzer Regiment, 18th Panzer Division. It was he 18th Panzer Regiment under Major Manfred Graf von Strachwitz that used the Tauchpanzers to cross the River Bug at Patulin, after which they were used as normal tanks. This was the only occasion when Tauchpanzers were used in combat during the Second World War.


The Tauchpanzer demonstrated a very different approach to the problem of supporting amphibious operations to that adopted by the Allies in 1944 for the D-Day landings in Normandy – rather than produce submersible tanks, the British and Americans concentrated on making their tanks float, by using a removable “skirt” and small propellors for propulsion, as seen in this video clip of an M4 Sherman DD (Donald Duck) Tank.


Rickard, J (24 April 2008), Panzerkampfwagen III als Tauchpanzer , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_panzer_III_tauchpanzer.html


Robert Forczyk “Tank Warfare on the Eastern Front 1941-42: Schwerpunkt” Pen & Sword Publishing, 2014.




Frederick Whirlpool – Hawkesbury’s forgotten Victoria Cross recipient

Frederick Whirlpool was possibly the only Victoria Cross recipent to live in the Haekesbury. He died at McGraths Hill in 1899 and only one mourner attended his funeral. In his later life, he had built a slab hut in the McGraths Hill bush, in which to live, and was rarely seen, becoming a hermit. His only visitor was a local shopkeeper, John Dick Smith, who had befriended him.

It is usual for every Victoria Cross winner to have a memorial noting their bravery on their headstone, but as Whirlpool lies in an umarked grave, he is believed to be the only Victoria Cross recipient to have neither a memorial or headstone. No photos exist of Whirlpool, either in military uniform or in his later life.

Whirlpool was born in Liverpool, England in 1829 to Irish parents. In 1854, aged 25, Whirlpool enlisted in the British Army at Glasgow. It was during his service with the 3rd Bombay European Regiment as part of the Indian Mutiny in 1858 that he received the Victoria Cross. The Victoria Cross is the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry issues to British and Commonwealth troops. Whirlpool received the VC for his bravery and valour during the actions at Jhansi and Lohari, as described in this report from the London Gazette, dated the 21st of October 1859:

“For gallantly volunteering on the 3rd of April, 1858, in the attack of Jhansi, to return and carry away several killed and wounded, which he did twice under a very heavy fire from the wall; also, for devoted bravery at the Assault of Lohari on the 2nd of May, 1858, in rushing to the rescue of Lieutenant Doune, of the Regiment, who was dangerously wounded. In this service, Private Whirlpool received seventeen desperate wounds, one of which nearly severed his head from his body. The gallant example shown by this man is considered to have greatly contributed to the success of the day.”

Invalided out of the army in 1859, and disliking the attention he was receiving as a Victoria Cross winner, he decided to emigrate to Australia. Arriving in Melbourne, Whirlpool was presented with his Victoria Cross by Lady Barkly, the wife of the Victorian Governor, in the presence of some 10,000 spectators.

Australia Post commemorative letter of Whirlpool's VC presentation.
Australia Post commemorative letter of Whirlpool’s VC presentation.

His was the first Victoria Cross ever presented in Australia, and Whirlpool received an annual pension of £10. By 1865 Whirlpool was earning his living as a schoolmaster, firstly at Wisemans Ferry and later at Pitt Town.

Unfortunately the privacy that he wanted did not occur when he had emigrated, and Whirlpool changed his name several times to avoid being discovered as a Victoria Cross winner. He used Frederick Conker, which was his birth name, changing it again to Frederick Humphrey James, before finally adding Whirlpool.

Around the 24th of June 1899, Whirlpool had a heart attack in his little slab hut and passed away, aged 70 years. He was found by the delivery man from John Dick Smith’s shop, when he called with his usual weekly delivery of groceries. Whirlpool is reputedly buried in an unmarked grave at the Methodist Cemetery at McGraths Hill. The Victoria Cross that was awarded to Whirlpool is held by the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

For a man whose gallantry earned him the highest award in Britain and the Commonwealth, he ended his life the way he chose, as a quiet man withdrawn from society.

This blog post is based on the article “Frederick Humphrey James Whirlpool: 1829-1899” by Carol Carruthers, from Issue No 3 (2014) of the Journal of the Hawkesbury Historical Society Incorporated.

Crash of an RAAF Avro Anson at Richmond – 18 December 1939

I mentioned in a previous post about the crash of an RAAF Avron Anson of 6 Squadron at Riverstone in April 1939. This wasn’t the only crash of a 6 Squadron Anson in 1939 – on the 18th of December another Anson crashed shortly after takeoff from the Richmond RAAF base. As with the April 1939 crash, here are the detailed reports on the crash and subsequent investigation from the “Windsor and Richmond Gazette”.

Windsor and Richmond Gazette, Friday, December 22, 1939


Another sad Air Force fatality occurred in the early hours of Monday morning, when an Avro Anson bomber, which was taking off from the Richmond Aerodrome on a night reconnaissance flight to Point Cook, Victoria, crashed on the Richmond golf course, its crew of five, which included four officers, were killed. The bomber arrived at Richmond from Victoria on Friday.

The victims were:

Flight Lieutenant Arthur Morehouse Watkins, 25, single, son of Dr AM Watkins of Roseville.
Flight Lieutenant Hugh Bonham Horner, 27, married, of Point Cook, Victoria.
Flying Officer Henry Parker Fitzgerald, 21 married of Tasmania.
Flying Officer Malcolm Musgrave McInnes, 21, single, of Melbourne.
Leading Aircraftsman Leonard J King, 23, single of Brisbane.

With the five men on board the plane took off from the Aerodrome shortly before 1.30 am, and as it disappeared in the darkness the engines appeared to be running well. Another aircraft took off a few minutes later, but the ground staff at the aerodrome heard a roar and then a crash in the direction taken by the first plane, and when many ran to the spot they found the bomber smashed to pieces on the Richmond golf course. Every member of the crew was dead and some had been thrown for a considerable distance. Pieces of the plane were scattered over a wide area, parts being wrapped around the posts of a fence, while one engine had ploughed a deep hole in the ground. An examination revealed that both engines were at full throttle, but the plane was so badly wrecked that nothing could be readily seen to give a clue to the cause of the crash. With the aid of torches and flares the ambulance staff removed the bodies of the unfortunate men to the aerodrome, and later the remains of the aircraft were collected.

The funeral took place on Tuesday, a service being conducted at Kinsela Parlors, Darlinghurst, by the Rev RGB Ashcroft, of Richmond, the Air Force chaplain. In the course of his address, the Rev Ashcroft said that these young men had given their lives for King and Country. “The loss of these valuable lives,” he added “is part of the great price we are paying in this struggle for liberty and freedom. Every day similar valuable lives are being sacrificed in the fight to overthrow force and aggression as a means of settling international affairs. How inexpressively sad it is when young men in the full vigor of their youth and struck down”.

Forty officers and men acted as pall-bearers, and three tenders, with gun-carriages attached, carried the bodies to the Eastern Suburbs Crematorium.”



A verdict of accidental death through the crashing of the plane of which they were the crew, but as to what caused the accident the evidence adduced did not enable him to say, was recorded by the Hawkesbury District Coroner (Mr HS Johnson, JP) at the Windsor Court House on Thursday of last week, after hearing lengthy evidence as to the circumstances, surrounding the tragic death of five members of the RAAF in the early hours of the morning of December 18, when an Avro Anson bomber crashed on the Richmond Golf Links a few minutes after taking off from the Richmond Air Station on a navigational flight to Point Cook.

A feature of the inquiry – at which the Coroner commented on the “injudicious” action of an Air Force official in forwarding to two relatives of the deceased men telegrams stating that attendance at the inquest was not obligatory on their part – was the examination of Air Force witnesses by relatives of three of the deceased, who also gave evidence of conversations with members of the crew regarding the functioning of the plane concerned, and emphasized that their examination of witnesses was not prompted by any vindictive spirit, but by an anxiety to ensure that all precautions were being observed to safeguard the lives of the flying personnel. In connection with certain references made at the proceedings, the Coroner stated that there was no evidence to indicate that members of the crew had any liquor prior to the flight.

The deceased men were Flight-Lieutenant Arthur Moorehouse Watkins, Flight-Lieutenant Hugh Horner, Flying Officers Henry Peter Fitzgerald and Malcolm Musgrave McInnes, and Leading Aircraftsman Leonard John King.

Detective-Sergeant Flint, of Parramatta, who was present to assist the coroner, was the first witness, and gave formal evidence of having visited the scene of the crash on the morning of December 18, and noting the remains of a bomber, which was strewn over a distance of some 130 yards. Subsequently he was present when the bodies of the five men who had comprised the crew were identified to the Coroner at the Richmond Air Station, and he later made inquiries as to the relatives and life particulars of each of the deceased, statements of which he tendered to the Coroner


Dr Arthur Moorehouse Watkins, Roseville stated that the deceased Flight-Lieutenant Watkins was his son. Deceased was 24 years of age, was single, and perfectly healthy. He left no property or will, and his life was not insured. When witness last saw him alive he was in good health and spirits.

In reply to Detective-Sergeant Flint, witness said he last saw his son at the home of friends at Killara, when he was in the company of Flight-Lieutenant Horner, both refusing any alcoholic refreshment when it was offered to them by their hosts. This was on the evening of December 17, immediately prior to their departure for Richmond Air Station.

In reply to a question by the Coroner, witness said he had received a telegram from the Adjutant at Point Cook, stating that it was not necessary for witness to attend this inquest.
The Coroner: Well, I can only say that was very injudicious on the part of the sender of the telegram. I trust it will not occur again. The Coroner alone is the person to say whether the attendance of a witness is necessary or otherwise.

Asked if he wished to make any additional statement, Dr Watkins replied in the affirmative, adding “My chief reason for being here today, Your Worship, is that I want to clear my son’s memory of a scurrilous attack made on it by a not over-punctilious daily paper.” He went on to give a detailed statement of his son’s movements from his arrival home after completing the flight from Point Cook to Richmond, to his departure at 10.15 pm for Richmond Air Station preparatory to making the return flight. During that period deceased spent all his time between his parents’ home and that of his fiancé, who resided a short distance away. When he called at a friend’s home at Killara to say farewell to his parents, who were visiting there for the evening, his host offered him and Flight-Lieutenant Horner a drink, and they asked for ginger ale, which they drank. Witness’ son had not attended any wedding party, and had not consumed any alcoholic liquor during his stay.


At this stage Dr Watkins said he had a statement written by Mrs Watkins concerning a conversation with her son when she met him on his arrival at Richmond from Point Cook.
After a short consideration, the Coroner remarked that he did not think this statement would be material to the matter he had to decide, whereupon there was a concerted chorus of protest from other relatives of the deceased man present , one remarking “But it is material, Your Worship!”. The Coroner, after pointing out that this was a matter for him to decide, and that he would not tolerate any more interruptions of this kind, finally decided to have the statement tendered as an exhibit, and it was thereupon read.

In the course of the statement, Mrs Watkins had written that in conversation with her son on his arrival she had asked him whether he had a good trip, and he had replied that they had been having a good deal of trouble, owing to the fact that the number of mechanics in his squadron had been considerably reduced, having been cut down in number from 15 to 6. Flight-Lieutenant Hartnell, who was present, remarked that they had been having the same trouble in his squadron, and that the men were “working night and day, and are worn out”.

Albert George Allen, company director, Roseville, stated that the late Flight-Lieutenant Watkins had been engaged to his daughter, and corroborated the evidence of the previous witness to the effect that the whole of deceaseds’ leave was spent between his parents home and that of witness, and that deceased had not at any time attended a wedding party. On the afternoon of December 16 witness offered him a glass of ale, and he replied “No thanks; you ought to know better than to offer me a drink. I never take that stuff before a flight. On two occasions on the afternoon of December 16, witness added, deceased used his phone to communicate with Richmond Air Station, and witness understood that the conversations were with a mechanic relative to a defective magneto on the plane in which deceased had flown from Point Cook. At 5 pm on December 17 deceased again telephoned the Air Station, and there appeared to be some argument, at the conclusion of which witness heard deceased say; “This is an order, I want the job done.”


When he asked what the trouble was, witness continued, deceased said “the old ‘maggie’ gave us a lot of trouble coming over. It kept cutting out and spluttering, and I want the job properly fixed up”. At 6.5 pm on the same day, deceased again telephoned the Air Station, after which he informed witness that “the job’s fixed up”.

At 6.30 pm he telephoned Mascot Aerodrome to get a final weather check, and then remarked to witness that the ceiling was perfectly clear, and that they would be taking off at about 1.00 am on the following morning. At 9.15 pm Flight-Lieutenant called at witness home to make the trip to Richmond with Flight-Lieutenant Watkins, and before they left witness offered them a drink “for the road”, as he would not be seeing them again until Christmas, but they both refused, later having a ginger ale each.

In reply to a question by the Coroner, witness said that definitely the two officers he had mentioned did not attend a wedding party, adding that he and his daughter both felt very keenly the injustice of the allegations of the paper he had mentioned. They had been asked by the Air Force authorities after the accident not to make any statements to the press, and they had agreed to this request, which had been honored to the letter. Meanwhile the “Daily Telegraph” had been allowed to publish certain statements without censorship, and the headline over the article had been “atrocious”.


In reply to Flight-Lieutenant Macfarlan, witness said he did not know the identity of the person to whom Flight-Lieutenant Watkins was speaking on the telephone. He did not suggest that the Air Force authorities had issued the statement which had appeared in the paper mentioned, nor did he entirely disbelieve that this was so. He would merely say that he thought the article was published with the knowledge of the Air Force.

At this juncture Flight-Lieutenant said he wished to explain to the Court that the National Security regulations, under which the censorship as concerned to the Air Force was imposed, related to the movements of aircraft, etc, and had no relationship to the private movements of any member of the Air Force, which was the subject of the article mentioned. In any case, were such an article to come within the censorship regulations, it would be a matter for the Chief Censor, and the RAAF was not associated with it in any way.

The Coroner replied that he accepted this explanation. Harold Gordon Horner, general manager of Station 2GB and the Macquarie Broadcasting Network, stated that Flight-Lieutenant Horner was his son, whom he had last seen alive on December 16, when he appeared to be quite fit and in good spirits. He was a married man, and had left no property, but had had three life insurance policies. Witness only wished to add that any suggestion that his son had been drinking on the subject weekend, or had attended any wedding party, was absolutely incorrect.

Dr Frederick Ismay Woolten stated that he was attached to the RAAF Station at Richmond, and he had been the duty medical officer on the morning of December 18. At 1.20 am on that date he was awakened and informed that a crash had occurred at the western end of the aerodrome, on the golf links, and he immediately proceeded to the scene with the ambulance. On arrival he examined the five members of the crew of the plane which had crashed, and found that each was dead, having obviously been killed instantly. He thereupon immediately proceeded to establish identification of the bodies. Going on to give detailed evidence as to the injuries sustained by the five deceased, the doctor added that in his opinion death was due in each case to a fractured skull and cerebral trauma. The bodies were removed to the aerodrome, where witness subsequently gave a verbal report, and later a detailed report, to the Coroner on the nature of the injuries. In reply to Detective-Sergeant Flint, witness stated that in his examination of the bodies he detected no trace of alcohol whatsoever.


Squadron Leader Harold Burston Seekamp, attached tp the RAAF Station, Richmond, stated that he was duty staff officer over the subject weekend, and at 12.45 am on December 18 Flight-Lieutenant Watkins, as officer in charge of the flight, came to him to report prior to taking off on a return navigational flight to Point Cook. Witness asked him if he was quite satisfied with the engines (which, witness had been informed, had been serviced during the preceeding day) and he replied that he was quite satisfied . They then consulted the weather reports, and witness, being satisfied that everything was in order, authorized the flight. He would say that Flight-Lieutenant Watkins was quite fit at the time. There was some cloud or mist at about 500 feet, but horizontal visibility was good. He watched the two machines making the flight take off, and a few minutes after he lost sight of the first one he saw a red light traveling towards the ground at an angle of about 30 degrees to the horizontal. He then heard a thud, and the cessation of the sound of the engines of one of the machines. He immediately issued the necessary orders for the despatch of the ambulance, crash squad, etc to the site of the crash, and when he arrived the ambulance, doctor and police were already there. Flight-Lieutenant Watkins, up to November 16, had had 840 hours as a pilot, including 400 hours on Anson aircraft. Witness produced an order that Flight-Lieutenant Watkins was to be O.C Flight, and that the flight was to be made at his discretion . For a time this officer had been chief instructor of the navigational course at the flying school at Point Cook.


To Detective-Sergeant Flint, witness said he did not know of anything which might indicate the cause of the crash. There were many possibilities, but he could not suggest any particular theory. Flight-Lieutenant Watkins was a highly-competent officer – particularly in navigation, in which he was a specialist. Flight-Lieutenant Horner had had a great deal of flying experience – probably more than had Flight-Lieutenant Watkins, who, as captain of the aircraft, was responsible for the disposition of the crew of the machine until it had returned to its base. Witness had no reason to suppose that the machine was not in serviceable condition, as defects reported had been fixed to Flight-Lieutenant Watkins’ satisfaction. Witness could not say who was piloting the machine when it took off. The others were capable pilots, and if he chose the captain of the aircraft could put one of the others in the pilots seat, as he was perfectly entitled to do.

To the Coroner, witness said he could swear that Flight-Lieutenant Watkins was perfectly normal during their conversation. Witness had not seen any other members of the crew, but from what he knew of Flight-Lieutenant Watkins, he was confident that that officer would not have permitted any irregularities in the form of drinking before the flight.

To Flight-Lieutenant McFarlan, witness said that it was the responsibility of the crew of any visiting aircraft to see that any defects in their machine were rectified, and it was the responsibility of the duty pilot on the aerodrome visited to ensure that such reasonable assistance as to the flight required should be provided. The daily inspection was the responsibility of the pilot, in charge of the machine concerned.

To Mr Horner, witness said that none of the deceased was a qualified fitter or rigger, but a pilot was capable of doing routine inspection, which was not a very technical job. Expert examination was provided for at 10 hours, 20 hours, 40 hours and 120 hours flying intervals, the larger machines coming into the later inspection period. To Mr Norman King (a brother of one of the deceased), witness said a record of the hours which the engine of the subject machine had functioned was not available. It would be necessary to obtain this from Point Cook, and a request for the record had been forwarded. It was to have arrived that morning, in time for the inquiry, but as yet it had not been received.


Flying Officer Blake Richmond Pelley, attached to the RAAF Station, Richmond, stated that he was duty pilot at the Air Station on the subject weekend. On December 16 Flight-Lieutenant Watkins informed him that he (Watkins) had brought two Ansons over from Point Cook, and that they required refueling and examination of the starboard engine of each machine. Witness accordingly had them refueled, and two fitters examined the starboard engines under his supervision. Witness then personally tried the running of the engines. Previously they had been running roughly, but after the overhaul they were running “very well indeed”. The engines were overhauled by Leading Aircraftsmen Pollard and Leading Aircraftsmen Sample, after which witness tested each of the engines concerned by starting it, warming it up, and testing it on each magneto. After the machines had taken off on the subject morning, and Squadron Leader Seekamp informed witness of the crash and issued his orders, witness took all prescribed precautions, including the dispatch of the fire tender, ambulance, etc to the scene.

To Detective-Sergeant Flint, witness said that when he stepped into the subject plane to give the crew their last instructions, before taking off, Flight-Lieutenant Watkins was in the pilot’s seat, and it was extremely probable that he was the pilot when the machine took off.

Before leaving the witness box, Flying Officer Pelley said that when the police had taken his original statement and asked him his qualifications entitling him to test the engines, he had replied that he thought it was sufficient to say that he was qualified to do so. Now, however, he wished to add that he was so qualified because of his training as a pilot of the RAAF and because he was the holder of an engineering degree from Cambridge University.

The next witness called was Leading Aircraftsman Pollard, but it was explained that he had since been transferred to Melbourne, and Detective-Sergeant Flint tendered a statement he had obtained from the witness. Mr Allen thereupon asked whether, in view of the importance of this inquiry, the Court might be informed why this witness was transferred before the inquiry took place, and Flight-Lieutenant McFarlan explained that Pollard’s flight had been transferred to Melbourne. He had been asked to attend, but apparently had not done so. However the speaker would point out that, of the men who had serviced the subject machine, only one had been ordered by the Coroner to attend. Mr Horner remarked that, as evidence had been given regarding certain telephone conversations, and either of the mechanics might have been the person spoken to on the telephone, it was “a great pity” that they were not present. The Coroner replied that Pollard’s statement was very brief, and threw no light on this matter, and, unfortunately, no names had been obtained in connection with the conversations recorded.


To a remark by Mr Allen that presumably there would be some record of such telephone conversations, Flight-Lieutenant MacFarlan replied that it was obviously impracticable to record every order which might be given at the Air Station. At this stage Flying Officer Pelley asked permission to make a further statement to assist the inquiry, and, when this was granted, stated that, as he was the duty pilot at the relevant time, any telephoned orders or requests regarding servicing of machines would, directly or indirectly, come to him. No telephone messages or calls from the late Flight-Lieutenant Watkins came to witness on that weekend, and any such would be addressed on that weekend to the duty staff office (Squadron Leader Seekamp) or witness.

Asked by Mr King the nature of the trouble found in the starboard engine, witness replied that careful examination had disclosed that the spark plugs were faulty, and these were removed and replaced with tested plugs. When this was done, the maximum revolutions of the engine were entirely normal.

To Mr Horner, witness said that there was no possibility of his having made a mistake as to which engine Flight-Lieutenant Watkins had asked him to service. The request was not made in any written order, but witness immediately wrote it down on a scrap of paper. He had not kept this piece of paper after the servicing had been carried out.

At this stage Flight-Lieutenant MacFarlan took exception to the expression “disgusting” which he had just overhead in the body of the Court, and Mr Allen, in informing the Coroner that he had used the expression, said that he would withdraw the remark, but it had been actuated by the thought that here was an instance where five lives were at stake, and yet no record of any engine defects had been kept, or any record to show whether the servicing, in fact, had actually been carried out, apart from a verbal statement made to this inquiry. Flying Officer Pelley immediately took exception to the remark, whereupon the Coroner directed attention to this witness’ detailed statement of the work which had been carried out, and Flying Officer Pelley added, that if desired, he could have attend to give evidence, the duty pilot from whom he took over, and the Flying Officer who assisted in supervising the work.

Mr Allen asked if any evidence could be obtained to indicate which wing of the machine hit the ground first when it crashed, and Squadron Leader Seekamp handed him photographs of the wreckage, which, he said were the only indications which could be given in that respect.


Flying Officer William Thomas Morton Bolton, attached to the RAAF Station, Richmond, gave evidence of having at about 1.20 am on December 18, been present on the tarmac at the aerodrome when two Avro ‘planes took off. The first one circled the aerodrome, with its engines functioning normally, as the second one took off, but shortly after that the first machine had crossed the aerodrome heading in a south-westerly direction, witness heard a thud, aand was one of a search party which subsequently made an unsuccessful search for the crashed machine.

Flying officer Russell Edwin Bell, attached to the RAAF Station, Richmond, stated that he was present when the two machines took off, the second following the first about 3 minutes interval and just then witness saw the tail light of the first machine appear out of the cloud above the aerodrome, and the navigation lights of the machine showed it to be gliding towards the ground at an angle of about 45 degrees. The lights disappeared, and a few moments later witness heard a dull thus. He was a member of the search party dispatched from the station to find the wreckage. The night was clear, so far as horizontal visibility from the ground to about 600 feet.

At this stage the inquiry adjourned for lunch, and on its resumption Leading Aircraftsman Joseph Frederick Walmsley, attached to the RAAF Station, Richmond, stated that on the night in question he was awakened at his home in Windsor Street, Richmond, by the sound of an Anson flying over, and almost immediately afterwards he heard a thud, and the cutting-off of the engines of the machine. Adding that he, on hearing the crash siren at the aerodrome, immediately seized a torch and went to look for the wreckage, witness proceeded to give detailed evidence as to the disposition of the bodies and the wreckage when he arrived on the scene. Each member of the crew was quite dead when he arrived, and he subsequently assisted with the identification of the bodies.

As regards the engines of the machine, witness added it was his opinion and he was competent to give an opinion – that they were running quite normally when the machine passed over his home. The sound of the engines did not cut out until the bump occurred. The crash was only 200 or 300 yards from witness’ home. As regards the position of the plane when it struck, he would add that when it passed over his home it banked to port, and the port wing appeared to dip low a few seconds before witness heard the thud. After daylight witness made a minute examination of the scene, and discovered certain identification marks which convinced him that the port wing had hit the ground first. In reply to the Coroner, witness said he could venture no opinion to what caused the port wing to strike the ground first.


To Detective-Sergeant Flint, witness said that when he heard the plane he went straight to his bedroom window and looked out. He thought the machine was flying at slightly more than normal speed. It was turning in a normal bank, and there was nothing to suggest that it was going to crash. To Mr Horner, witness said he had made no mention, in the statement he had given to police, of the functioning of the engines, as he considered this was a matter for the mechanics concerned to make any comment when they gave their statements. He had only mentioned the subject at this strange to cheer up a point which had been raised at this inquiry. Although he had a theory on the matter, he could not suggest why the plane had lost elevation.

Robert Turner Rankin, locomotive cleaner, Richmond, stated that he was at the Richmond locomotive shed on the subject morning when he heard a plane take off. The engines cut out several hundred feet above the ground, and then began to roar again. This happened twice, then the engines began running normally. Witness then heard another machine coming towards him only about 100 feet above the ground. This appeared to be turning, and it lost elevation and suddenly crashed. It was a very dark night, with no moon. Witness immediately ran in the direction of the crash, notifying Constable Hunt on the way, and, guided by the smell of petrol, they eventually reached the scene of the wreckage, among which at different places, five bodies were lying.

To Flight-Lieutenant MacFarlan, witness said he was quite sure that the second aircraft to leave the ground was the one which crashed. The engines of this ‘plane were functioning normally from the time it left the ground until it crashed, and there was no cutting-out whatever.

Constable Hunt, Richmond, gave evidence corroborating that of the previous witness as to the finding of the wreckage, and went on to describe the positions of the bodies and the steps taken to identify them. The wreckage was strewn over a distance of 130 yards, and at one spot was lying around over a radius of 35 yards.

Norman Wilfred King, ground engineer, Randwick, stated that he was employed by Qantas as a aero engineer. The deceased leading Aircraftsman King was his brother, whom he had last seen alive at witness’ home on 8 pm on December 12, when he left for the return flight to Point Cook. During the whole of the time the crew was at Sydney, witness’ brother was at home. To the Coroner, witness said that his brother was not at any party during his visit, and would have an alcoholic drink only at very rare intervals so rare, in fact, that to all intents and purposes he might be called a teetotaller. At this stage witness handed to the Coroner a telegram he had received requesting his attendance at the inquest, and, after reading this aloud, the Coroner repeated his earlier remarks on this subject.


To Mr Horner, witness said that he was licensed by the Civil Aviation Department in 1934 as a ground engineer, and he had been in engineering occupations since 1931. It was the practice when he was employed for Qantas pilots or co-pilots to make written reports of faults at the end of each flight and as these were rectified the fact was noted in the log books and signed by the engineer responsible. Under no circumstances would verbal reports be accepted. Witness experience had shown that mistakes could be made as to starboard and port engines, and this mistake could even be made in a written report.
During his visit home, witness’ brother had mentioned that one of the engines of his machine had been “very rough” on the trip from Point Cook, and he hoped that this would be rectified before the return trip began. It could happen that one engine might be reported as faulty and the ground crew, finding that the other one as moderately faulty, and being under the impression that it was the one reported, might survive it without testing the one actually reported.

At this stage Mr Horner pointed out that it had not been said in evidence that both engines had been checked, to which the Coroner replied that he had before him ample evidence that both engines were functioning normally when the plane took off.

To Flight-Lieutenant McFarlan, witness said that if both engines were treated by running, a defect should be noticed by a qualified person listening expressly for that purpose, such as a qualified pilot of the RAAF.

Flying Officer Pelley recalled, said, in reply to the Coroner, that he had only received verbal instructions regarding the servicing of the plane, whereas any such request by a pilot should be made in writing on the prescribed form known as “E.77”, in accordance with the regulations. It was the duty of every pilot to complete certain entries at the conclusion of each flight, and these covered the satisfactory running or otherwise of the machine concerned. Witness did not receive any such report on the subject occasion.


To Flight-Lieutenant McFarlan, witness said it was also the duty of a pilot of a visiting plane, or his deputed representative from the crew, to be present when any servicing of the machine was carried out. On the occasion in question no member of the crew was present when the work was carried out, and witness made out a full report of the circumstances and submitted this to the duty staff officer. He was present at the takeoff of the machine, and heard the engines testes in the normal way prior to the flight. After the testing of the engines, no member of the crew made nay complaint as to their running.

To Mr King, witness said that he had not tested the port engine, as he had only been requested to service the starboard one. As a matter of fact, it was not his duty to test the engine at all, as he had not received the prescribed form, already referred to, instructing that this should be done, and it was the responsibility of the pilot that this should be submitted.

In reply to Mr Horner, witness said that in his opinion there had been no carelessness on the part of the ground organization in this matter. He did not draw the attention of Flight-Lieutenant Watkins to the irregularity of the manner in which he made the request for the engine overhaul, as the latter appeared to be in a hurry to get away to Sydney, and witness did not know that he would not be seeing him again until just before the return flight. Witness had heard no complaints as to the difficulty of keeping up the nose of Ansons in flight.

In reply to Mr Horner, witness said that it would have been competent for Flight-Lieutenant Watkins to have deputed a member of his crew to supervise the servicing. Witness noticed one member of the crew at the ‘plane on December 17 but when he went to him and explained the circumstances under which the servicing was carried out, he received the reply “That’s Flight-Lieutenant Watkin’s pigeon” (At this stage witness said he wished to emphasise how distasteful it was for him to give evidence of this nature or in any way draw attention to any breach of duty committed by any one of the deceased men).


Squadron Leader Seekamp, recalled, gave evidence of having received the report submitted by the previous witness, and of having submitted it, as was his duty, to the Station Commander on the following day. When he saw Flight-Lieutenant Watkins, prior to the takeoff, he mildly reproved him in connection with the lack of supervision of the servicing, and asked him if he was satisfied with this work, to which he received an affirmative reply.

To Mr Allen, witness said that Flight-Lieutenant Watkins “took the reproof in a great manner”, and said he had left two officers on the station, but did not say whether he had specifically instructed them to supervise the work.

Mr King asked if it might be possible to obtain the history of the engines of the subject ‘plane, and Flight-Lieutenant McFarlan said it would be necessary to obtain this from Point Cook, but if it was desired by the Coroner it would be secured, as the Air Force Authorities were desirious of assisting the inquiry in any way.

There followed a discussion on the desirability or otherwise of an adjournment of the proceedings in order to permit of this information being obtained, in the course of which the Coroner remarked that he had a good deal of evidence before him to indicate that the engines were running perfectly, but he did not wish anything to be overlooked in the inquiry and would be prepared to arrange an adjournment if the parties interested desired this. All other parties, with the exception of Mr King, then intimated that they did not desire an adjournment, and the Coroner finally ruled that he had sufficient evidence before him to enable him to record his verdict.


There followed a short adjournment while the Coroner considered the evidence, and when the parties were again assembled he remarked:

“Before giving my decision, I would like to say that there is no evidence of any alcoholic liquor having been consumed by the crew of the ‘plane concerned. In my opinion there does appear to be some laxity in the manner in which the ‘planes were serviced before flight. The person checking the machines should insist on the correct instructions before carrying out the work. However that is really outside my province, and I leave it to the authorities concerned.”

A formal verdict was then given by the Coroner to the effect that the deceased had died from the effect of injuries accidentally received through the ‘plane in which they were piloting crashing on the Richmond Golf Links, but as to what caused the crash the evidence adduced did not enable him to say.”

The battle of Lake Tanganyika

An earlier post in this blog featured the short military campaign in the German protectorate of Togoland, which marked the first surrender of German troops in WW1, during the same month in which the war started. The war in Africa featured one of the more unusual actions seen during WW1 – the only naval battle fought on a lake, rather than on the open sea.

The lake in question is Lake Tanganyika, which at 12,700 square miles, is the second largest lake in Africa, after Lake Victoria. Its 4,700 foot depth makes it the deepest lake in Africa, and the second deepest in the world, after Lake Baikal in Russia. At the time of the war, Lake Tanganyika was flanked on the eastern coast by German East Africa, and on the western coast by Belgian Congo, with a sliver of land on the southwest corner touching Northern Rhodesia (Zambia).

The Germans had two gunboats on the lake, the 100-ton Hedwig von Wissman and the 45-ton Kingani. A third ship, the 800-ton Graf von Gotzen, was under construction, and would be launched in June of 1915.

On the 22nd of August the Hedwig von Wissman attacked the unarmed Belgian steamer Alexandre del Commune, which was then beached by her crew. The Germans then sent a landing party, which exploded charges in her hold, turning here into an unusable wreck.

To make sure that there was no chance of the British attempting to control the lake, the Germans towed away and sank the Cecil Rhodes, and old steamer lying without engines on a beach at Kasakalawe Bay on the southern end of the lake. Nearby was the wreck of the Good News, which had been used on the lake from the mid-1880’s, until it was abandoned. For good measure the Germans shot up the rusty hull, turning it into total scrap.

The stage is set for the first of several unusual characters to make their mark on the battle for the lake. The first one is an Englishman, John R Lee, who was a big game hunter and prospector. Lee was in the lake region when the war started, and having gained the trust and respect of the local tribes, discovered that the Ba-HoloHolo tribe in Belgian Congo had German sympathies, which could have a major impact on who controlled the lake. Lee realised that something needs to be done, and returned to England, where he met with Henry Jackson, the first Sea Lord, in April 1915, to outline his solution.
Lee’s solution was for the British to have their own gunboat on the lake. Getting such a boat from England to Lake Tanganyika would require a long and complicated transport route:

England to Cape Town by ship – 6,100 miles

Cape Town to Elizabethville (Lumbashi) by rail – 1,800 miles

Elizabethville to Fungurume by rail – 142 miles

Fungurume to Sankisia by oxen, African porters and traction engines – 120 miles

Sankisia to Bukama by rail – 15 miles

Bukama to Kabalo by the Lualaba River

Kabalo to Lukuga (Kalemie) by rail – 175 miles

The overland route of Mimi and Toutou
The overland route of Mimi and Toutou

Surprisingly the Admiralty agreed with Lee’s plan, and suggested that two motorboats be sent instead of one. Lee went to look for suitable vessels, and came across two launches that had been built for the Greek Army, but had been commandeered by the Royal Navy before they could be delivered. They were forty foot long, built of mahogany and were powered by a 100 hp engine, which gave them a top speed of nineteen knots.

While Lee was the “brains” of the operation, convention required that a regular naval officer be the official commander. Finding such an officer was a problem, as nearly every serving officer was already at sea. Our second unsual character now enters the story. When a potential candidate at the Intelligence Division declined, an officer at a nearby desk, Geoffrey B Spicer-Simson, volunteered his services, which were accepted. Spicer-Simson’s career had taken a bad turn when a gunboat under his command was torpodoed in broad daylight at Ramsgate, while Spicer-Simson was ashore “entertaining” a lady at a hotel. He was consigned to a desk job, until Lee’s mission came before him. Spicer-Simson had previous experience in Africa, and spoke French, which would be a great help in cooperation with the Belgian authorities. As commander, Spicer-Simson wanted to name the boats “Dog” and “Cat”, but was overruled by the Admiralty. Instead he named them “Mimi” and “Toutou”, which stood for “meeow” and “bow-wow”.

mimi (1)

Eventually the expedition was ready for departure, and left England on the 15th of June 1915 on the “Llanstephan Castle”, a passenger liner bound for South Africa. Lee was already in Africa, making the plans for the ardous overland transport of the two boats. To assist him, Spicer-Simson had appointed to the expedition Sub-Lieutenant Douglas Edward Hope, who had served with local police forces in Africa, as well as taking part in the Boer War. Hope did not “assist” Lee at all – instead upon reaching Elizabethville he sent a flurry of telegrams stating that Lee and his assistant (Frank Magee) had been picked up drunk by the Belgian police, disclosing the purpose of the expedition, and insulting the Belgian authorities. Unaware of this, Lee had cabled Spicer-Simson in mid-July to say that he had found a practicable route, and had improved it to make the transport of the boats easier, through blowing up boulders and building up firewood dumps for the traction engines. Spicer-Simson responded not by thanking Lee, but stating that Hope should be promoted to Lieutenant and replace Lee as the advance party, effectively sacking Lee from his job.

When Lee and Magee came out of the bush and reported to Spicer-Simson at Elizabethville on the 26th of July, Spicer-Simson informed Lee of the charges raised by Hope against him, and ordered him back to Cape Town to await further orders from the Admiralty, while promoting Magee to the position of Warrant Officer.

Eventually the expedition reached Fungurume, at the end of the railway, at the beginning of August, followed by the traction engines in mid-August. These were large vehicles with big wheels and a canopy that covered the driver and the engine, as well as having a trailer to carry the wood required for the boiler.
The first engine nearly collapsed the first of 150-odd bridges that needed to be built to cross rivers and other waterflows, and then one engine tumbled down an embankment, and had to be righted. Thirty miles from Fungurume, the specially constructed trailers hauling “Mimi” and “Toutou” collapsed. The wood trailers of the engines were modified to take the boats, but the delays meant that the rainy season was approaching, with the possibility of the expedition sinking into the mud.


The expedition got started again in early September, and with the added assistance of eight pairs of oxen, six miles were travelled. By this stage the expedition had added Lieutenant Arthur Dudley, who was appointed as executive officer to Spicer-Simson, and who would play a key role in the battle on the lake.

Eventually on the 28th of September, the expedition reached Sankisia, and then travelled on a narrow-gauge railway to Bukama, on the east bank of the Lualaba river. Spicer-Simson was informed that the steamer that was going to transport them down the river had not arrived, due to the river being at its lowest level in six years. It was decided to float the boats down the river to Musanga. Empty petrol tins were added to the underside of each boat to increase buoyancy, and on the 6th of October they started downstream, pulled by barges rowed and pulled by Africans.

The boats safely reached Musanga, and boarded a steamer, which reached Kabalo on the 22nd of October, ready for the final rail trip to Lake Tanganyika.

At this point Lieutenant Hope joined the expedition, but his stay was brief. He disregarded orders, and Spicer-Simson discharged him accusing him of drunkenness and insulting Belgians – the same charges that Hope had levelled against Lee and Magee! The expedition eventually reached Lukuga, which proved that Lee’s original plan was sound. As well as actually reaching Lukuga, the other achievement was the lack of sickness and even deaths of expedition members, due mainly to the excellent work of Dr HM Hanschell, the expedition’s surgeon. The boats were hidden until they were ready to be launched.

Spicer-Simson was one grade higher in rank than the senior Belgian officer at Lukuga, Commandant (Major) Stinghlamber, and this lead to a dispute as to who was in charge. Spicer-Simson once gain trotted out his stories, but what really drew attention to himself was when the started wearing a skirt in his hut. It was a not a sarong or a klit, but a proper skirt, which Spicer-Simson had made by his wife. He also rolled up his sleeves, which along with the skirt showed off the elaborate tattoos covering his arms and legs. The Belgians disparagingly referred to him as “Le commandat a la jupe” – “The commander in the skirt”.

By this stage the Germans were of the existence of the two boats, and made several reconnaisance trips with the “Hedwig von Wissmann and “Kingani” to find out the details of the boats. Lieutenant Rosenthal, captain of the “Kingani”, swam ashore and discovered the boats, but was then captured when he realised that the “Kingani” had travelled back home. This would have been an ideal opportunity to find out about the strength and plans of the German forces, but due to the dispute between Spicer-Simson and Stinghlamber, Rosenthal was released by the Belgians before Spicer-Simson could question him.

By late December “Toutou” and “Mimi” were slid out of their hiding places and prepared – 3-pounder guns were fitted, petrol tanks were filled and the engines tested. On Christmas Day a test run for both boats was done, and the guns were fired. The tests were done just in the nick of time, for at 7.15 am on the 26th of December, Belgian lookouts reported that an enemy vessel was twenty miles away on the lake and approaching. Instead of immediately going to sea, Spicer-Simson decided to hold the Sunday church service, and only at the end of the service did he order the boats to be manned and launched. Spicer-Simson commanded the “Mimi” while Dudley commanded the “Toutou”. Everyone, British, Belgians and Africans alike, watched anxiously as the two boats went out for the battle of Lake Tanganyika.

The enemy vessel approaching was the “Kingani”, and it continued to move sedately along the coast, unaware that there were two ships intent on sinking her. Spicer-Simson placed “Mimi” to block the retreat of “Kingani” to her home base at Kigoma on the eastern side of the lake, and ordered Dudley to attack on the port side, while he attacked from the starboard side.

The Kingani spotted the two English boats and opened fire with its 6-pounder gun at “Mimi”, but luckily for the English boat it missed. Eventually the two English boats were able to get within 2,000 yards of Kingani and started to return fire. However, the close range allowed the crew of the Kingani to rake the English ships with rifle and machine gun fire. By continually zigzagging, the “Mimi” and “Toutou” were able to put off the fire, while they continued to fire at the “Kingani”.

The fight was soon ended, as the Kingani’s foredeck exploded in flames from a direct hit, and a white flag was waved. The skipper of the Mimi, an ex-Army lance corporal who had never been to see before, headed straight towards the Kingani and rammed it amidships. Spicer-Simson was sent sprawling across the deck, while the Belgian officers watching on land couldn’t believe what they were seeing.

With her bow badly damaged, Mimi returned to shore, and was beached. While Mimi fled the scene, Dudley had come alongside the Kingani in the Toutou, taken off two survivors, put a prize crew aboard and ordered a petty officer to try and get the Kingani back to shore. This was difficult, due to the Kingani listing after having a hole blown in the port side of the hull. What made it even more difficult, was that there was blood and various body parts from the three Germans who had been killed in the engagement – the Captain and two sailors – spread around the ship. The petty officer beached the ship, and then promptly fainted.


Eleven crew members of the Kingani – three Germans and eight Africans survived, and were assembled on shore after the Kingani was beached. They had heard of the English plan to transport the boats overland, but thought that it would be impossible to achieve. The German dead were given a military funeral, while the eleven who survived were marched away to a Belgian prison.

Spicer-Simson took as booty the ring of the dead captain, while a couple of his crew members took blood from the captain, and stored it in small bottles, along with pieces of the captain’s finger as well.

Spicer-Simson was promoted to substantive commander, while Dudley was promoted to full lieutenant. Spicer-Simson had already made quite an impact on the local Africans, due to his tattoos and behaviour, and his role in the battle turned him into a deity, with many Africans kneeling, clapping their hands or throwing themselves on the ground when he went by. He was given the name “Bwana Chifunga-tumbo”- “Lord-Belly Cloth”

A short time after the battle, the Kingani was re-floated, patched up and put in running order. A 12-pounder gun was mounted on the bow, while a 3-pounder was mounted on the stern, and the ship was renamed the “Fifi”, becoming the first German warship to serve as a Royal Navy ship.

This would be the highlight of Spicer-Simson’s service in Africa. He returned to England and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, but when the Admiralty learned how he failed to destroy boats at Bismarckburg in Northern Rhodesia, allowing German forces to escape, his operational career was at an end. In a great irony, he returned to the same desk job he was doing before he went to Africa. While Spicer-Simson bathed in the public spotlight, no recognition or awards were given to John R Lee, the originator of the expedition.

Crash of an RAAF Avro Anson at Riverstone – 28 April 1939

One of the distinctive features of the Hawkesbury is the Richmond RAAF base, which has been operating just east of the town since 1925, and is still going strong 90 years later. Many different RAAF squadrons using many different types of aircraft have been based at the station during that time. By 1939 the base was home to No 6 Squadron and their Avro Anson reconnaissance planes.  No. 6 Squadron was responsible for conducting reconnaissance patrols along Australia’s east coast as well as undertaking training exercises with the Royal Australian Navy  In early 1939 the Squadron  gained the additional role of providing conversion training on the Anson for new pilots and air gunners. The Anson was the RAAF’s first retractable undercarriage, low wing monoplane, and over 1,000 served in various RAAF Squadrons from the mid-1930’s onwards.

A RAAF Avro Anson similar to the machines used by 6 Squadron
A RAAF Avro Anson similar to the machines used by 6 Squadron

Unfortunately there were several examples of Ansons being involved in in-flight accidents, which lead to the deaths of RAAF personnel, including 6 Squadron. On the 28th of April, an Anson was returning from an air navigation course training exercise over the Sydney coast. At 3.27 pm Richmond RAAF base received a message that the radio transmission aerial was being retracted in preparation for a landing. At that time, the aircraft was within a few miles of the base, and everything seemed in order. This was the final communication with the aircraft, which crashed into the ground on the outskirts of Riverstone, killing all four crew members.

The loss of an aircraft was keenly felt in the district, and the crash and the ensuing coronial inquest received large coverage in the Windsor and Richmond Gazette. Here, word for word, are the reports on the crash and the subsequent coronial inquiry.





“Crashing at the outskirts at Riverstone shortly after 3.30 pm on Friday last while returning to the Air Station after a routine flight, an Avro Anson bomber was reduced to a heap of tangled wreckage, killing instantly its crew of four, and adding to the growing RAAF list a further lamentable tragedy which shocked the whole district – and, in fact the whole state – when the news became generally known. A particularly sad feature of the unfortunate affair was that two of the victims were married, and leave widows and young children, for whom every sympathy is felt in their sudden bereavement.

In several respects eye-witness reports of the tragedy bear a marked resemblance to the observations of those who saw the fatal crash in which a similar machine was involved in Windsor some months ago, when another young pilot, who was the only occupant of the plane in that occasion, also met his death. For instance, there is mention in both instances of a loud report from the plane, similar to an engine backfire, which first attracted attention, the unaccountable dive towards the ground, the momentary righting of the machine, and, most peculiar of all, the continuing of the dive with both motors at full running speed, there evidently being no attempt to throttle them back – usually an instinctive action by a pilot when he sees that he is going to crash, and followed immediately by the equally instinctive switching-off of the ignition, as a partial safeguard against fire.

Apparently quite a number of people variously employed around the town – and particularly in the immediate vicinity of the crash – had their attention attracted by the unusual behaviour of the plane when it suddenly began to dive towards the ground. It is stated that the machine, in which there were two pilot officers – LJ Harness (20) of Mordialloc, Victoria and ML Hickson (22) of Kensington – and two aircraftsmen RD Knight (31) of North Richmond, and H Clark (28) of Parramatta – was returning from a navigational training exercise flight. Approaching the outskirts of Riverstone, on its proper course to the Air Station, it was flying at about 1500 feet when it appeared to go into a dive suddenly, after witnesses on the ground had heard the engines begin to fire irregularly. When it began to dive its engines appeared to pick up again, the throttles apparently having been opened to pick up flying speed, and the machine appeared to right itself momentarily, and then continue to dive, with the motors still running, striking the ground with a terrific crash.

When a number of horrified spectators reached the scene, it was immediately evident that nothing could be done for the occupants of the plane, which was nothing more than a tangled heap of wreckage, hardly one portion of it being intact, and the whole crew had obviously been killed instantly, when the machine struck. The Air Station was immediately notified, and within a few minutes had despatched the ambulance and a guard to be posted around the wreckage until such time as it had received official examination. The bodies were recovered from the wreckage, and were conveyed to the station.

The possibility that the crew had been having trouble with the machine before it reached Riverstone is evident from a later official statement from the Station to the effect that it was overdue when the accident was reported. It had been used in certain routine navigational exercises out to sea, and it is stated that the last message to the Station received from it was to the effect that it had begun the return trip. Owing to the fact that it was completely wrecked leaving no evidence as to any defect, and the crew were all killed, it is probable that no definite information as to the primary cause of the tragedy will be ever ascertained. The Air Accidents Investigation Committee left Melbourne immediately on receipt of the news, arriving here on Saturday, and spent all Saturday afternoon, Sunday and Monday morning at the scene of the crash, later returning to Melbourne, preparatory to preparing a report for presentation to the Minister. In the meantime an official Court of Inquiry was convened at the Air Station and has concluded its sitting.

The largely-attended funeral of three of the men killed in the crash – Hickson, Harness and Clarke – took place in Sydney on Monday, a service, in which the local RAAF chaplain, REV RGB Ashcroft, assisted, being held at the Kinsela chapel, Taylor Square, and attended by a large gathering of citizens, in addition to officers and members of No 6 Squadron, to which the men were attached. A further Air Force detachment joined the funeral at Rookwood, where a short service was held at the Crematorium, and a firing party presented a final salute.

The fourth member of the crew, Aircraftsmen (First-class) Knight, was an extremely popular resident of North Richmond, where he was very well known and widely esteemed, and the news of his tragic passing was received in this area with especially keen regret, the sincere sympathy of the whole district being extended to the widow and her young family of four in their irreparable loss. The funeral took place on Monday afternoon, after a service at the Methodist Church at North Auburn, conducted by Rev SW Bonner and the chaplain, Rev W Evans. At the approach to the Methodist Cemetery, Rookwood, the cortage was met by the RAAF Band, which proceeded the casket to the graveside, playing the Dead March, while a firing party fired a salute and the Last Post was sounded at the conclusion of the Burial Service – touching last tribute of the Service to a popular comrade.”

WINDSOR AND RICHMOND GAZETTE, Friday, September 1, 1939


The Coronial Inquiry into one of the worst tragedies associated with the history of the Richmond Aerodrome, the fatal crash of the Avro Anson bomber at Riverstone on the afternoon of Friday, April 28, when four airmen attached to this station, Pilot Officers Maxwell Leonards Hickson and Lloyd George Harness and Aircraftsmen Raymond Duncan Knight and Harrie Clarke, were killed, was held at the Windsor Court House on Tuesday, the Hawkesbury District Coroner, Mr HS Johnston, JP, returning a verdict of accidental death, adding that as to what caused the aeroplane to crash, the evidence before him did not enable him to say.

During the hearing of the evidence, one witness, a girl of 17 years, after describing how she had seen the machine make its fatal dive 70 yards from where she was standing, stated that she had run to the scene and had tried to extricate the body of one of the unfortunate victims from the wreckage, but found that the body was too mutilated for her help to be of any avail. Her heroic effort was commented on by Sergeant FB Forde, who assisted the Coroner, the sergeant stating that such an action – especially when it was made by a girl of such youthful years, in the face of a shocking scene, was deserving of the very highest praise. The coroner also paid a tribute to this young witness, stating that her action was most commendable, and had proved her to be a lady possessing outstanding courage and character.


Lyle Charles Holswich, Flight-Lieutenant of the RAAF, Richmond, stated in the course of his evidence that he was a member of No 6 Squadron, to which Pilot Officers Harness and Hickson and Aircraftsman Knight and Clarke were also attached. Witness had flown with each of these men on different occasions, and knew that each was fully qualified to fly Avro Anson machines, each having about six months experience with that class of machine. Aircraftsman did not in any way concern the flying or control of a plane, though the wireless aircraftsman might assist in really bad weather in obtaining bearings for the navigator. Harness and Hickson were both First Pilots, fully qualified to take charge of any Avro Anson. In their 18 months flying experience Harness had completed 60 hours as a First Pilot and 54 hours as a Second Pilot, while Hickson had completed 49 hours as First Pilot and 60 hours as a Second Pilot. The officers of the Anson on this occasion were engaged on a navigational reconnaissance course which involved wind finding exercise at sea, up to approximately 100 miles out, and were in constant communication, reporting their position each 30 minutes of the flight. There was no unusual occurrence reported during the flight, and the last message received, at 3.27 pm, when the Anson was within 3 or 4 minutes of the aerodrome, was that the aerial was being reeled in preparatory to landing, and no forced landing signal was received.

Both pilots had done their regulation 40 hours day qualifying to qualify as First Pilots, witness continued and altogether Harness had a total of 220 flying hours, and Hickson 234 hours, both being “above average” pilots. Witness visited the scene of the Anson crash, at Riverstone, at 11 am on April 29, and was able to identify the plane by its engine numbers and numbers on the fabric parts. The machine was a complete wreck, and from statements witness received from eyewitnesses, he would estimate that the height of the aircraft prior to the crash was between 800 and 1200 feet. Witness had been flying a Gypsy Moth around the aerodrome on the day in question, and it was a good day for flying, being calm, and with practically no wind. The Avro Anson concerned had been flown in England for 1 hour 10 minutes prior to being issued to No 6 Squadron at Richmond in August 1938. There it had a 1 hour 15 minutes test, and since then had completed 226 hours 50 minutes flying. It had not been involved in any previous crash, and the records showed that it was serviceable for leaving the ground on April 28. The plane was due back at the RAAF Station on that date at 3.50 pm. Witness was present at the RAAF Station at about 8 pm when four bodies from the crash were brought to the mortuary there by the Air Force ambulance, and he was able to identify three of them by various means, subsequently identifying them to the Coroner.


In reply to questions by Sergeant Forde, witness said that there was in the hands of the Court conducting an inquiry into the crash, a form which gave a record of the inspections carried out on the machine, and the times that it had been flown. This form was signed by the officers who carried out the work and also by the pilots, who signed it before taking the machine in the air. This record would show the machine as being in good serviceable conditions.

Dr GP Arnold, Windsor, said that at 9.30 pm on April 28, at the Hawkesbury District Hospital, he examined the remains of four men, who were identified to him as the four deceased, and in his opinion death was caused from extreme violence.

John David Furze, wireless operator attached to No 6 Squadron, Richmond, stated that he had been associated for a considerable time with Knight before the date of the fatality, and last saw him on that day when he was preparing for the flight. Witness went out at the same time in a similar type of machine, and was on the return journey when he saw the other plane out at sea, approximately 10 miles of North Head. Witness subsequently returned to the aerodrome with his machine, and heard that one machine had a forced landing. Later witness identified the body of Knight, who was a very cool, level-headed man of very temperate habits.

Nelson William Edward Hartnett, aircraft hand, Richmond, gave evidence of having identified one of the bodies as that of Harrie Clarke, who had been a quiet, reserved type of man, not excitable in any way. Leonard Bathurst Hickson, clerk, Kensington stated that the deceased Hickson was his son, and was 22 years of age at the time of his death. He was a normally healthy man of sober habits, and was a native of Sydney. His life was insured, and he left a will.


Gustav Charles Wenesmius, leading aircraftsman, Richmond, stated that he saw the subject Avro Anson bomber on April 28, and assisted in removing it from the hangar just prior to lunch. After lunch the machine was started, and the engines were run for about 15 to 20 minutes, and then the airman took control. Witness examined the port engine during the morning, before the machine was removed from the hangar, and everything was quite satisfactory. He had spent approximately an hour examining the port engine of the machine that morning. Witness saw the machine take off, and saw the crew, which comprised the four deceased, leave in the machine. Witness had previously completed a “20-hour inspection”, which was a thorough inspection after 20 hours flying, this inspection being completed on April 27, and it had taken about two days work. The flight on April 28 was the first flight after that inspection. Witness was satisfied that the engine was in a serviceable condition. He was a fitter, and had served his apprenticeship with the Clyde Engineering Co, at Clyde.

Kenneth George Paul, leading aircraftsman, Richmond, stated that he was attached to No 6 Squadron. The subject Avro Anson bomber was also connected to that squadron. Witness saw the machine in the hangar before it went on a flight on April 28. During the morning, as a rigger he completed a daily inspection of the aeroplane, during which inspection he went over the controls too see that they were working freely, and also the fuselage, undercarriage, the main planes and the tail-plane unit. This work took about an hour, and everything was found to be satisfactory. At about 11 am on the day in question the machine was removed from the hangar and taken out for a flight, after which he went over all of the inspections again, and signed the daily inspection form.

Joseph Webster, aircraftsman Class 1, Richmond, stated that he knew the plane that crashed at Riverstone on April 28. He saw it prior to its going out on that flight, and he carried out a fitters daily inspection, whilst it was in the hangar, of the starboard engine and installations, switches, magnetos, petrol gauges, tanks, oil and petrol. He was engaged about one and a half hours on that work. At about 11 am the machine was wheeled from the hangar, and then at about 12.35 pm it was started and the engines warmed up. He saw the machine take off, and he was the last one to leave it. Witness signed the machine off at its departure, where everything was running smoothly and it was serviceable. The petrol and oil were checked by witness, and the tanks were full, Pilot Officer Harkness, who took the machine off, signed the necessary chart. Later witness went to the scene of the crash at Riverstone and checked up the engine numbers, and found that the crashed plane was the Avro Anson bomber in which Pilot Officer Harkness and crew had left Richmond that day.


James Edward McLean Boyes, gardener, Schofields, stated that on the day in question, at about 3.30 pm he was in a paddock near his house when he saw an Avro Anson bombing plane passing over his paddock, the plane flying at a height of about 1,000 feet. As it passed over there was a snapping noise from the plane, but the engines appeared to be running perfectly and he could not account for the other noise. Witness watched the machine and it was traveling evenly, when suddenly the engines appeared to increase their speed, and the airplane to rise, then it nosedived straight down, and witness heard a crash. “It was a dull thud like an explosion”, added witness. Nothing dropped from the machine, it went down intact, falling in a paddock about 400 yards away from witness. Before it crashed it was flying in a direct line, in a north-westerly direction. Witness had seen Avro Ansons pass over his property frequently prior to the day in question, and sometimes the machines back-fired, but there had never been any noise similar to the snapping noise he had heard on this occasion.

Charles Edmund Fisher, baker, Riverstone, gave evidence that at about 3.30 pm on April 28 he was on his property at Neville Road, Riverstone, engaged in ploughing operations, when his attention was attracted to a plane traveling from Schofields and going towards Richmond. He was spelling his horses at the time, and was watching the plane. “The first thing I noticed that I thought it was in trouble”, he added, “was when it was doing a nosedive very fast, then it temporarily righted itself. The engines were running well at the time, then after that the plane veered to the left that would be towards the south – then I lost view of it through the trees. I heard the crash”. When he first saw the plane it would have been about 800 feet in the air. It lost altitude and came fast towards the earth, then it was righted, and picked up speed, to then nosedive straight down. Witness saw a little smoke from the engines, but they appeared to be running perfectly. The spot where the plane crashed would be about a quarter of a mile from where he was. Witness later went to the scene, but found that he could not do anything for the plane or for the occupants.

To Sergeant Forde, witness said that it would be approximately 15 seconds from when he first saw the plane until it nosedived.

David James Wagner, signal ganger, Granville stated that at about 3.30 pm on April 28 he was standing on the platform of Riverstone Railway Station, and saw an aeroplane, at a height of about 800 feet, coming in the direction of the aerodrome. It appeared to be traveling at an angle of about 45 to 60 degrees below the horizontal, and for about 1.5 seconds witness could not hear the engines. Then the engines “roared terrifically” for about 2 to 3 seconds, when witness lost sight of the machine behind the hotel. He could hear the roar of the engines for about a second after the plane disappeared behind the hotel, then the roar ceased, and he heard a thud, but did not hear any explosion. The machine did not come to pieces in the air, as it was intact when it disappeared from witness’ view behind the hotel. Witness asked the Station Master the time, and was informed that it was 3.32 pm.


Dorothy Dobson, single woman, Riverstone, stated that about 3.30 pm on April 28 she was walking along Carnarvon Road, Riverstone, when she saw an aeroplane, the noise from which at the moment was quite normal, and which was flying in the direction of the aerodrome, from Sydney, at an average height. While she watched, it glided down, and at the same time turned to the left and dipped a little on the left wing. Witness then heard “two bangs”, and saw dark-coloured smoke come from the plane in two streams, one from each wing. The engines roared immediately afterwards, and the machine leveled off, when its nose appeared to rise slightly, then, with its engines still roaring, it dived straight towards the ground at a spot about 70 yards from where witness was standing. As soon as it crashed witness ran to the scene, where bits of the machine were scattered about, and, seeing the body of one man in the debris, tried to drag it clear, but saw that it was so mutilated that life must be extinct, and desisted from her efforts. She could see other bodies in the wreckage, and had started to move away to get assistance when three men came to the scene, and, in answer to their inquiries, witness informed them that the bodies of the crew were in the wreckage of the machine. She then started to wall to a nearby house but “felt giddy and fell”, and was taken to the house.

Cecil Badenham, contractor, Schofields, stated that he leased a property at Carnarvon Road, Schofields, owned by Mrs Edith Owne. On April 28, at about 3.25 pm, he was at the bottom of the property, at about 200 yards from Mrs Owne’s place, when he saw a plane approaching from the direction of Sydney, at a height, he thought, of about 1000 feet. While witness was standing there, a man named George Hurst came up to him, and remarked “Another one of our bombers”, and when witness had answered in the affirmative, the wing of the plane dropped sharply, and the machine nosedived straight down, the engines roaring at full speed. The engines continued at full speed until the machine crashed. Witness and Hurst went to the scene, and he noticed that there was petrol dripping from the tops of the tress through which the machine crashed. Witness could see plainly the body of one man, two others were buried in the bank of the water hole, and the fourth was buried well in the mud. At about 5.45 pm witness saw Sergeant Daws and asked him for assistance to keep people off the property. One man spoke to witness, stating that he intended to take photos, and witness told him that he could not. Later witness met two reporters at Mrs Owne’s gate, and they asked for a formal statement, but witness refused. The reporters were from the “Daily Telegraph”, and witness gave them a verbal account of the occurrence. To Sergeant Forde, witness said that he had the machine under observation for about one minute prior to noticing anything wrong, and during that time it appeared to be flying in a normal course.


Constable Percy Oliver Pike, Balmain, said that on April 28 he was stationed at Riverstone, and at about 3.40 pm on that day he received a telephone message that an aeroplane had just crashed in the creek near Carnarvon Road. He telephoned the Richmond Aerodrome and advised them of the crash, and telephoned the Parramatta police, requesting the latter to send the Parramatta Ambulance. He then communicated with Dr Rich’s locums tenens, who arrived at the scene of the crash at the same time as witness. The doctor looked at the wreckage and said “There is nothing I can do, they are all dead”. The Air Force ambulance arrived soon after, as also did Sergeant Dawes and Constable Davis, from Windsor. There were quite a number of people about at that time, and witness, assisted by other members of the police force, set about guarding the scattered portions of the machine, keeping persons from coming too close to the wreckage. Flight-Lieutenant Wright, of the RAAF then arrived, and requested the police to keep the people away and to prevent photographs being taken of the wrecked plane. While the bodies were being removed, witness was engaged keeping the crowd back, and after the ambulance left Sergeant Dawes and witness removed all persons from the paddock, at the request of the lessee. On April 29, at 8.30 am, witness went again to the scene and was present when the Riverstone fire engine pumped the water out of the creek, where the wrecked plane was, and he was also present when the Coroner viewed the wreckage.

Detective-Sergeant John James Flint, Parramatta, stated that at 4.20 pm on April 28, in consequence of a telephone message received, he went with Constable Power to the scene of the crash, where he saw that the machine had been completely wrecked, and he was informed that there had been a crew of four in the plane when it crashed. Rescue work was then being carried out by members of the Air Force, and, after obtaining the particulars, witness telephoned these to the Coroner at Windsor. He was present at the aerodrome at 8 pm when the deceased were identified to the Coroner. On the following day witness again viewed the scene of the crash, and directed the taking of police photographs of the scene (produced). He was present when the members of the Air Accidents Investigation Committee visited the scene on the same afternoon, and had later made exhaustive inquiries, interviewed numbers of people, and obtained statements from those able to give evidence in connection with the matter. At the request of the Coroner, witness produced, as evidence, statements from several people.

This concluded the evidence, and the Coroner returned a verdict to the effect that the deceased had died from the effects of injuries accidentally received through an aeroplane in which they were traveling crashing, but as to what caused the aeroplane to crash, the evidence adduced did not enable him to say.”