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THE TEMPORARY COMMANDOS: ‘THE RAAF BOYS WHO FELL OUT OF THE SKY’


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‘The RAAF boys who fell out of the sky’.  Sgt John Jones with (mounted) RAAF Sgt Webb and Flying Officer Gabb. [1]

Introduction

No. 31 Squadron was formed on the 14th August 1942.  It was to be a long range fighter squadron equipped with Beaufighter aircraft, the first of which was received on the 23rd August 1942.  The arrival of the squadron at Batchelor in the Northern Territory on the 27th October improved the RAAF’s fighting potentialities in North Western Area.  After a few weeks of intensive training and familiarisation flights, No. 31 Squadron moved to its operational base at Coomalie Creek on the 12th November.

Beaufighters, later to be known to the Japanese as “whispering death”, joined the offensive for the first time during the early hours of the 17th November, when two flights of three aircraft each strafed Maubisse and Bobonaro in Portuguese Timor.  At this time the RAAF were implementing a policy of bombing and strafing hostile Timorese concentrations in Timor and encouraging resistance to the Japanese authorities.  This policy was translated into action by the combination of Hudson and Beaufighter attacks daily stepping up the number of sorties in Portuguese Timor, culminating on the 26th November in the biggest RAAF operation in this theatre to date, when, ten Hudsons and six Beaufighters from No. 31 Squadron bombed and strafed Hatolia and Beco districts, starting a number of fires in the villages of Nova Lusa and Beco.

In the first two weeks of operations, the Squadron had recorded 53 sorties into enemy territory, the majority of which were strafing attacks.  The targets for all these operations were identified and ‘called in’ by Lancer Force HQ on the ground in Timor.

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Line up of Beaufighters, Coomalie Creek, 1942

Callinan, by then commanding officer of Lancer Force, previewed the circumstances relevant to the topic of this story:

Meanwhile, the Japanese had driven down and occupied Same in strength and had established a camp at Betano with approximately 300 troops.  This was most disconcerting, as from there they were pushing eastward, and had already established daily patrols past the Quelan River area which had been used for the evacuation of the 2/2 Company and the Dutch". [2]

The No. 31 Squadron attack on the Japanese camp at Betano that was initiated in response to the threat just described by Callinan.

Shot Down at Betano

Operation Coomalie 43 of December 29th, 1942 was a strafing attack directed at huts in the vicinity of the near coastal village of Betano, on the south coast of Portuguese Timor, just to the east of the mouth of the Sue River, by four Beaufighters of Number 31 Squadron, Coomalie Creek.

Of the four planes that made up Coomalie 43 – one (COO 434) turned back around an hour after take-off due to failure of that aircraft’s intercom and WT equipment; the remaining three planes continued on to the target, through at times very poor weather.

After eventually locating the target at 2:20 pm, COO 431  commenced their first pass followed by COO 433 and then COO 432 crewed by Pilot Officer Glen Gabb, (21) and Observer/Navigator Sergeant David Webb (22).

COO 432 followed COO 433 in the first run over the target, flying in northerly course at 100 feet height, fired three bursts of cannon and machine gun at some native huts.  COO 432 finished this run by turning to the west and is was then that Webb observed the tail fin smashed by fire either from a mortar or Oerlikon gun (he saw a red ball go through tail of aircraft) – the aircraft was also holed in several places in the tail and the port motor cut out.

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Remnant of an Oerlikon gun from the wreck of HMAS Voyager. [3] No. 4 Independent Company veteran Rex Lipman states that the Japanese had salvaged the anti-aircraft guns from the Voyager and used them against the Beaufighters involved in the action described here [4]

Gabb then turned the aircraft in an easterly course, and Webb threw out propaganda pamphlets as instructed.  The Pilot was unable to maintain height or speed, and after crossing the Quelan River headed the aircraft out to sea.

At this time the speed had decreased to 100 knots and the temperature of the starboard engine had increased to 280° and the controls were acting erratically.  Gabb then crashed landed on the sea about a quarter of a mile out to sea off Cape Mati Boot.  The tail of the aircraft hit the water first and then the engines – the crew had braced themselves for this crash, Gabb also had moved the gun sight out of the way, and the men quickly escaped through the two top hatches.  They climbed onto the wings which were then waist deep, and then swam to the shore.

The Beaufighter sank in about 20 seconds, the front going down first followed by the tail – it is estimated that the aircraft sank in 15 metres of water, at low tide about a 200 metres off the shore near Cape Mati Boot. [5]

[5] Given the fairly precise description of the location of the crash site, the wreck of this Beaufighter should be able to be located.

Gabb and Webb Become Temporary Commandos

The story is taken up again by Callinan:

Then, from company headquarters, came the message that two Australian airmen were with the section posted above Alas.  This was rather surprising, as we had not been informed that a plane was missing.  Eventually the two men reached us, Pilot Officer Gabb and Flight Sergeant Webb; they had been the crew of a Beaufighter that had strafed the Japanese company at Betano.  As they-swept over at tree top height, the Japanese had opened up with everything, and as far as one could judge their tail had been blown off by a mortar bomb.

The pilot had managed to get the plane down in the sea a little to the east of Betano.  Then, making slow progress they managed to cross unwittingly and without being observed an area subject to regular Japanese patrols.  Then by good observation of scraps of evidence carelessly left by the evacuated (Australian) troops they got on to a track that led them towards Alas.  They were fortunate enough to meet a native who willingly gave them some food and directed them towards the Australian position.

These were great fellows and we were pleased to have them at headquarters.  They were new faces with new ideas, and we learned from them not a little about the air side of the picture.  Also from then on Australia received improved meteorological reports because we gave that duty to Webb who had attended a RMF school in the subject.  We were also pleased to get these airmen as they augmented our guard list.  Such was our lack of manpower that everybody on HQ staff from myself and Baldwin down did our turn on guard.  And now with two additional men it meant that every third or fourth night a couple of us could get a full night's rest.  They entered into the spirit of the show very quickly and were most adaptable. [6]

Evacuated To Australia With Lancer Force

Gabb and Webb’s sojourn with commandos was short lived as their arrival coincided with the decision to evacuate Lancer Force to Australia.  The Force’s position had become untenable in the face of increasing Japanese territorial pressure in conjunction with their Timorese allies.  The formerly used landing and evacuation sites at Betano and the mouth of the Quelan River could not be used, so an even less desirable location further east at Quicras was selected.  The two men staged with Force HQ over three days from Belulic to Fatu Berliu (Nova Anadia) then Cledec to the coastal village of Quicras (Clacoc).

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Map of the Gabb and Webb's travels on Timor

On the morning of the 9th January 1943 Lancer Force (now concentrated except for a detachment at Ainaro from whom there was still no word) set out with 50 Portuguese (all they could take of over 100 who had asked to go with them) on the last stage of their journey—over open grass country.  It was raining heavily.  The rivers between them and Quicras might flood and block them.  They had to hurry.  Soon after they started a Zero fighter suddenly appeared about 1,000 feet above them.  They were afraid it would pick them up, but the pilot apparently noticed nothing.  The afternoon march led through swamps, often up to a man's chest.  The going beneath the surface was slippery with mud and twisted mangrove roots.  But by 5 p.m. the whole party was in the bush which fringed the beach.  Exactly at midnight recognition lights from the sea answered the signal fires.  The surf was heavy.  Boats sent inshore from a destroyer—the HMAS Arunta —were swamped.  Time was running out.  A few strong swimmers swam out beyond the broken water but reported this manifestly too difficult for most.  At last, however, through great efforts, the whole group was ferried on board.  The sailors were very kind to them.  Most of the soldiers were so tired they slept almost all the way to Darwin where they landed on 10 January 1943.

Both Gabb and Webb had caught malaria and were hospitalised for several weeks before being fit enough to rejoin their comrades at 31 Squadron.

References

[1] Rex J. Lipman. - Luck's been a lady. – Adelaide: [The Author], 2000: 87.

[2] Bernard Callinan. - Independent Company : the Australian Army in Portuguese Timor 1941-43 / introduction by Nevil Shute. - Richmond, Vic. : Heinemann, 1984:  206.

[3] Photographed in Same side street, 1 May 2018.

[4] Rex J. Lipman. - Luck's been a lady. – Adelaide: [The Author], 2000: 87.

[5] Given the fairly precise description of the location of the crash site, the wreck of this Beaufighter should be able to be located.  The narrative of the attack and crash landing has been adapted from Garry Shepherdson ‘The losses of Coomalie 43: it could have been a lot worse’ ADF Serials Telegraph News 7 (2) Autumn 2017: 28-33. (http://www.adf-gallery.com.au/newsletter/ADF%20Telegraph%202017%20Autumn.pdf)

[6] Callinan: 209-210.

 

 

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