Bushell, Les

Web Master: To help explain the following story as told by Les, 549 Squadron was formed at Lawton Airfield, Queensland on the 15th December 1943. It was made up of RAF Aircrew and RAAF groundstaff, to provide air defence duties with Spitfires. On the 1st January 1944, the Squadron moved to Petrie Airfield, Strathpine, Queensland. In April 1944 the squadrons Spitfire’s arrived. In similar circumstances, 548 Squadron was formed at Lawnton near Brisbane. Thanks to Wikipedia.

In the words of Les:
549 Squadron pilots were mainly those from 234 Squadron RAF, which was temporarily disbanded. As a consequence, the new Squadron was made up mainly of UK pilots. (All our friends from Commonwealth and foreign countries were posted away). We of 549 also formed at Strathpine. I remember that the Squadron was camped alongside the airstrip, whereas our camp was close to the railway, in fact only a few yards from Strathpine Station. I cannot remember the departure of, or route taken by 548 Squadron when we moved to Darwin (WM: Strausss Airfield) but I will never forget the “cock-up” in getting there. 

The whole of our ground crew, except for a small rear party, had departed when a signal arrived to say that the Americans would not accept our aeroplanes unless they were silver. Our CO, Squadron Leader Bocock, tried hard to get the orders rescinded but failed, and it was decided that all the lovely paint would have to be removed, and that the pilots would have to do it! (Note: Squadron Leader Bocock was killed in a Meteor in 1946 while practising to lead the Victory fly-past in London.)

We flew the Spitfires to Amberley, and were supplied with drums of caustic soda, stirrup pumps and gloves, and told to “get on with it.” Then, for days we sprayed these lovely things, which had been so well put on at manufacture. This of course removed any “filling” which might have been used, and exposed all the rivets. That was apart from creating spots on the Perspex and possibly damaging the control cables. The pilots’ hands, already rather soft through lack of manual labour, finished up like talons and in some cases were not fit to hold a control column.

The Squadron then flew to Darwin via Rockhampton and Cloncurry. The flying times for this trip might be interesting to old pilots. On the first day we covered Amberley to Rockhampton in 2hours 30 mins, and Rockhampton to Cloncurry in 3 hours 40 mins. On the following day, Cloncurry to Darwin Strauss Strip in 4 hours 20 mins. We were all relieved to get this job done because no one really knew how much damage the vandalization of the aeroplane paint had done.

Squadron Leader Dave Glaser was a Flight Commander with 234 Squadron and was, in fact, acting CO when I joined. He took over from Squadron Leader Wright at 548, and then moved on the 54 Squadron when Squadron Leader Gibbs was killed. I kept in touch with him for a time after the war because he became a test pilot at Farnborough, which was near my home. He then went on to become a production test pilot with British Aircraft Company, flying the BAC111. I met him again a couple of years ago, and he is now retired after spending some time in Rumania as a project controller for the building of he BAC111 in that country.

In a small background summary of the Squadron forming 81 Wing. 54 Squadron was formed in 1916. It was disbanded in 1919, but reformed in 1930, and is still active today, flying Jaguars. The Squadron served in Australia from 1942 until the war ended.

The forerunner of 548 Squadron (130 Squadron) was formed in 1918 and disbanded almost immediately. The State of Punjab donated a squadron of Spitfires in 1941, and 130 Squadron was reformed to take these aircraft on strength. The Squadron was in existence until 1957, flying Sabres, Vampires and Hunters. It always carried the elephant’s head, symbol of the Punjab.

234 Squadron, which formed the base of 549 Squadron, was reformed immediately in 1943 after we left for Australia.  It was originally formed in 1918, flying seaplanes and after WW1 was disbanded in 1919. The squadron reformed in 1939 and again disbanded in 1946. It reformed yet again in 1952 and was swept away in the massive cuts of RAF Germany in 1957. The 234 number plate has been revived as a shadow number as part of No. 1 Tactical Weapons Unit.

Les once said, “Despite what you Aussies feel about Darwin and the Top End, I was very happy there and have very fine memories of the bush. My wife and I have many times talked of returning there for me to “have a look around.” Who knows?  Now that fares are coming down we may yet make it!”

Editor: Were the “Quickstripped” Kites subsequently repaired? The front cover of No. 55 of the Spitfire magazine has 548 Squadron’s Mark V111s on Darwin Civil Strip in full war paint. It was an odd decision on the part of the US Brass, though perhaps they had spotted Clive Caldwell’s highly burnished, converted VC around Darwin a year earlier and thought it a good idea. Can someone explain please?   

By Les Bushell
8 Fairview Road
Hungerford, Berkshire
England RG17OBT

Bruce Read and Paul Carter.
The Spitfire Association