Bill was born in 1911, the only male of six children to Hugh Alexander Pigott Conant (Twice knighted by the Pope for services to Catholic journalism) and Alice Agnes nee Hungerford. He grew up in a fine old house in Lindfield, Sydney, named Wyndella, and attended St Aloysius College. He left school at fifteen and found work at various times as a chicken farmer, mechanic and metal worker although he held no formal trade qualifications. Like hundreds of thousands of other men and women, Bill’s defining years encompassed the Second World War. He enlisted in the RAAF on the 22nd April 1940 as a trainee mechanic, before being reclassified to LAC in March 1941. His postings included Geelong, Victoria, where he helped assemble the first Fairy Battle. The photo is of Bill on the actual aircraft.
Bill’s photo album (a rich source for the war historian) contains shots of the Fairy Battles, a Harrow, Lysander, Hurricane, a Miles Magister, a Defiant and even an American Clipper tied to a pontoon in Wellington. He embarked from Sydney aboard the MV Awatea on the 8th August 1941 for Vancouver, then onto the UK, becoming part of the newly-formed 457 Spitfire Squadron. Late in 1943, after his Squadron returned to Australia to defend the north, he was posted to Livingstone Field, 30 kilometres down the track from Darwin.
As unlikely as it may seem, the Air Force was an outlet for his creativity – he painted the mascots onto many of the aircraft, in the UK and Australia. The finest example was the painting of Pegasus, the flying white horse on ZP-T, the Spitfire he helped service throughout his tour in Darwin. Note as well, in the photo, the matching emblem on the life vest.
The photo depicts the crew hanging out at the “White Horse Inn” sampling their one bottle of beer ration to celebrate New Year’s Day 1944.The living and working conditions, interspersed with bombing raids, were primitive. Bill described the horrific conditions in letters home to his mother. He also mentions in one of his last letters, the posting south of ZP-T’s pilot, Jack Newton. The breaking up of pilot and ground crew appeared to affect him deeply. All he would say in the letter was that the White Horse on ZP-T was removed for personal reasons.
Bill married Betty Trewern on the 21st June 1942, and on their return from their weekend honeymoon at the Log Cabin, Penrith, found the wedding party still in progress, financed from the return on empty beer bottles. They had met at an Amatuer Theatre Society in Northbridge where they also rented a flat during and after the war years. Back in the North (at Livingston,) it wasn’t long before Bill received news of their first baby, which was due to arrive in June 1943. The pen and ink drawing on the back of a folded envelope arrived at the flat in Northbridge in a letter from Darwin. See photo.
The other photos are of Pegasus painted by Bill and displayed on BR543, ZP-T of 457 Squadron. The pilot is Jack Newton with ground crew Andy Anderson and Bill (foot on wing) and some more of his artwork. The example on the aircraft was painted while he was in 457 Squadron in the UK.
William Hungerford Conant was discharged from the military on the 30th October 1945. He passed away in 1983.
Vince Conant (son)
The Spitfire Association