Fred, as he known by his mates, was born on the 15th March 1908 in Edinburgh, Scotland. He enlisted on the 30th June 1940.
He was originally a Flight Rigger, then a Fitter IIA. He was an original member of 457 Squadron from its inception at Williamtown, NSW, followed by tours of operations in the UK and the North-Western area. His War finished in the islands north of Australia. He had been a Warrant Officer in the militia before becoming an ACI in the RAAF, but took laconic pride in the fact that he never went beyond the rank of LAC in his five years in the RAAF.
Even though the following report was by Captain O.F.Y. Thomas, after almost fifty years, Fred Connett can recall the same event when he was down the back of Lodestar VH-CAK.
“To prepare for the long haul to Darwin, the air party moved from Camden near Richmond, NSW, on the 14th January 1943, following a most enthusiastic farewell given by the Horn Island Heroes of 32 Squadron.
On the Friday evening, while Group Captain Paddy ‘Tin Hat’ Heffernan (it seems he did have at least one friend) – entertained his guests, we made our way to Ma Tunnell’s for a quiet drink, which sadly ended up as an animated discussion with some AIF Parachutists. Having been thrown out to continue the discussion elsewhere, the matter was finally settled when another of our members from the West, who could be relied on in such a situation, hung one on the most vocal of the ‘Paras.’ I was relieved indeed as my effort would have been strictly on a ‘hit and run’ basis.
The following morning we took off, no doubt much to the relief of the Station Master and his spit and polish HQ Staff. Our Squadron of the Capstan Wing (Spitfires) didn’t ever measure up to their standards of ‘smart and airman-like’ behaviour, and we certainly had our own very firm ideas on the meaning of discipline!
During the earlier part of the trip I was airsick – very, very airsick, as was also the dog. He had his head nestling on my lap most of the time. We were alongside the rear hatch and if it had been opened, I would have cheerfully followed the dog south. Our pilot must have chased every bit of turbulence there was, and I’ll never know why he had to do three tight turns, standing on the starboard wing-tip, over a homestead somewhere out in the backblocks. I was on the high side and don’t recall any seat bets being worn.
At Mildura, we had the assistance of the station ground staff, which resulted in a few hiccups, particularly the proposed use of K2-140 (castor based) oil to top-up the hydraulic reservoir. We avoided a major drama just in time.
We finally pressed on to Oodnadatta where, on the advice of the local publican, three of us – the ‘Jacks,’ Tindale and Keys were my partners – invested in two, or was it three, bottles of COR ten whisky. (Web Master: Many older Australians will remember Corio Whisky, a brand with a questionable reputation. It was joked about as being “COR-10” in reference to a petrol brand of the time.) We were told we would get five quid a bottle from the Yanks in Darwin, but we never found out. The whisky never reached them!
At the Alice, the only event of note was the transport into town arranged by an officer, ‘Wingless Wonder’. He maintained that it was for aircrew only. Who in his right mind would want to see that one-horse town anyway? Next morning, when he boarded the truck talking us to the airstrip he was greeted with a chorus of ‘ground crew only.’ We were treated with disdain and he boarded anyway. After all, he, like us, was only a groundling.
At Tennant Creek, the sick aircraft (first time I’ve heard the expression – we used U/S (unserviceable) to cover a multitude of sins) needed a wheel change. The previous attempt had mutilated the locking pin and jammed the nut. The obvious weapons – sorry tools – to shear the pin were an outsize 13 inch King Dick and a road mender’s 5 pound napping hammer. The Corporal 2A and I set to work, with the Corporal using his seniority to grab the hammer while I held the King Dick. In no time at all the King Dick was in two pieces, which resulted in a quick revision of technique.
With the help of off-siders, enthusiastic, and otherwise, some of the Lodestar crew and the disconsolate Spit ‘peelo’ holding up the mainplane, the wheel was eventually changed and we were off – up one Spit. But not for long. At Daly Waters, where there were more flies than Camden ever had, and half the NT’s dust quota, one of our Spits was ‘deprived’ of its tailplane. This was the result of the excessive dust from the slip stream of a preceding aircraft. (The Record Card shows it was Capstan’ BR538. I think it was XB-U. JBG) Normally, under such conditions there would have been someone on each wing tip, but with eleven of us and twenty six or twenty seven aircraft that was obviously impossible. And who was the very disgruntled ‘peelo’, now walkabout as the result of the incident?
On arrival at Batchelor, our aircraft were seen in by crews who had already done the trip by road. The boys on the MV Maetsuycker were only a day out of Cairns, heading for Thursday Island.
Having put our charges to bed and covered the tell-tale Spitfire wing tips with tree branches, we stood ourselves down and attacked our Oodnadatta ‘Investment’ with great gusto. We may even have entertained a couple of guests, but I can’t remember. Later that evening, there was a ‘red’ alert and while we ‘veterans’ showed little interest, there was some excitement among the odds and sods we had acquired on our return from Britain.
I would like to pay credit to our pilots. Most had done their flying training in Canada and had been on ops. From Andreas and Redhill to Darwin through the ‘Red Centre’ was a very new and no doubt boring experience. I did hear of one pilot who flew inverted to relieve the boredom and keep the sun off his newly shaved upper lip. I believe this was the first time the 90-gallon slipper jettison tanks had been used in earnest. On the trip they gave considerable trouble, which resulted in much acrimony among the crews when it became necessary to drop one for adjustment. However, on one such occasion, Group Captain ‘Wally’ Walters did lend his back to help support one during the re-hanging process.
It is no wonder the Lodestar pilot was amazed at the route chosen, but at that time the Yanks did own Queensland and it was their war – that was the way they intended it would remain. ARAF/RAAF Spitfire Wing was not really welcome. According to Arthur Austin, Bill Reilly was the ‘peelo’ who clearly upset the Lodestar driver.
I recall Dick Walsh, Jack Tindale, Jack Keys, Arthur Austin and ‘Andy’ Anderson shared the experience with me, but I can’t recall the others, although I think ‘Chocka’ Dehlsen was one of the team. There were also three ‘queer trades’ but again, can’t remember their names. With twenty six aircraft they would have been extremely busy tapping bezels or whatever else ‘queer trades’ mysteriously engaged in.”
Fred was discharged on the 2nd July 1946. He then joined the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation and finished up as an Inspector in that organisation. Fred married Mabs, the widow of a permanent RAAF “Wingco”, late in life. They lived in Melbourne before moving to Palm Beach, Queensland, where he died peacefully in his sleep in August, 1996 in his late eighties.
Bruce Read, Geoff Litchfield and Paul Carter
The Spitfire Association