James, or Jim as he was known to his friends, was born on the 8th May 1917 in Roselle, New South Wales, and he enlisted in Sydney on the 2nd June 1940.
As with all historians, Jim has had the unfortunate legacy of writing history and not being written about, just like photographers not often having their photo being taken. However, we will address that problem in part by this mini biography.
Jim initially served in the Australian Army as a Signalman with 1st Division Signals from January 1939 until he transferred to the RAAF in June 1940. There he became an Aircraftman Class One Trainee Instrument Maker and began his training at Ascot Vale, Melbourne.
When he completed the course in February 1941, he was posted to 2 AD (Aircraft Depot) Richmond in NSW, where with others from his course, to use his own words, they “wasted their time” in the Instrument Repair Section through to May. Then he was promoted to the rank of Leading Aircraftman, once again to use his own words, “for my war effort”, which amounted to making serviceable two Walrus seaplane engine speed indicators, using a third for spare parts.
Jim and his “newcomer” colleagues formed the opinion that the Permanent Air Force Corporals and other ranks serving on the base, would be quite satisfied to spend the war at RAAF Richmond, but this was not for Jim and his mates, for when the opportunity arose for them to volunteer for the RAF Infiltration Scheme, they did just that and moved on.
(Web Master: At the beginning of the War, London invited the Dominions to establish a vast pool of trained aircrew, who could be used to create new squadrons in England, and replace combat losses in what was expected to be an intensive air war over Europe. Initially, most of the aircrew joined RAF squadrons. However, an agreement called the Infiltration Scheme dictated that once an individual squadron reached a predominant proportion of aircrew from a particular nationality, it would be designated, in Australia’s case, as an RAAF unit.)
Jim was posted to 454 Squadron, where its ground crews were assembling at RAAF Williamtown in NSW in preparation for a departure to the Middle East, but on the 11th July his posting was cancelled and replaced with another to 457 Squadron, which was in the process of forming up under the command of RAF Squadron Leader Peter Brothers, DFC, at Baginton in the UK.
After a ten week wait and several “final leaves”, Jim’s draft went aboard the “Awatea” in Darling Harbour, Sydney, bound for Vancouver via Auckland and Suva. On the second leg of the journey, the Canadian National Railway carried the draft across the continent to RCAF Y Depot, Halifax, Nova Scotia, where it remained until the “Empress of Asia” bore hundreds of Aussies, Kiwis and Canadians across the Atlantic to Liverpool, England. They arrived on the 28th September 1941, and then it was up to British Rail to speed the draft on the last leg of the journey to the other side of the world, to the RAF Reception Center at Bournemouth.
No sooner had they settled in at this attractive Channel resort town, than small groups of mixed musterings were dispatched to RAF Spitfire squadrons scattered around the UK to “learn the ropes” so to speak. In Jim’s case, he and several others were sent off to Acklington, well to the north, on attachment to 74 RAF Spitfire Squadron. However, on arrival there, they found that this “Battle of Britain” fighter unit had moved to Llanbedr, North Wales a day or so earlier for a well-earned rest from front line duties. It was here, when they eventually reported in to the RAF base, that the men learnt how to keep those famous WWII fighters in fighting trim. Then it was eight weeks before they were ready to go it alone under the watchful eye of senior RAF NCOs back in 457 Squadron RAAF. When they rejoined the Squadron, it was based at Kirk Andreas on the Isle of Man, preparing for “The Battle for Europe”. The photo is of our Honorary Historian in spine bashing mode on the Isle of Man in 1941. The other photo is of Jim, when he was a Corporal, and Instrument Repairer LAC Des Walsh at work. It was also taken at Kirk Andreas on the Isle of Mann in 1941.
During this period, RAAF pilots arrived from their Operational Training Units to join the nucleus of experienced RAF fighter pilots. Additionally, a host of RAF ground staff were posted in to make up the required numbers for an operational squadron and it was at this time, the 1st January 1942 to be precise, that Jim made it to Temporary Corporal. However, it wasn’t until May, when the Squadron was about to return to Australia, that he became aware of the promotion, due probably to the fact the Poms had no establishment for Instrument Makers. Instrument Repairers, yes; so the “powers that be” must have consigned the matter of Jim’s pay to the “impossible” basket.
On the 22nd March 1942, 457 Squadron moved to Redhill Aerodrome at South Nutfield in Surrey. This was where 452 Squadron, the first Australian Spitfire Squadron to be formed in the UK, had spent a very successful 10 months with Number 11 Group in action over enemy held territory.
For 457 Squadron, it was a hectic experience and for most, it was their first exposure to pilots being sent over enemy territory and not returning. However, everyone learned to cope and put to good use the skills they had all acquired. The ten weeks of frontline action ended at the end of May 1942, when the Squadron was stood down in preparation for a return to Australia, in company with 452 Squadron and 54 Squadron RAF, to form Number 1 Fighter Wing RAAF. They were to engage the Japanese Air Force that had been attacking targets in Northern Australia, from nearby occupied Timor, since their demolition of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii in December 1941.
The entire Wing went aboard the “Stirling Castle” at Liverpool and arrived in Melbourne via Freetown, Sierra Leone and Durbin, South Africa on 13th August 1942. After some disembarkation leave in his home state, Jim reported back to his Squadron, now under the command of Squadron Leader Ken James and based at RAAF Richmond NSW. The Squadron was waiting for the delivery and then the assemby of its Vc Spitfires and the orders to proceed to the Darwin Area. Jim’s “A” Flight, denied the convenience of Richmond Base proper, had been shunted off to Yarramundi and was living under canvas.
The six aircraft that had arrived from the UK aboard the “Stirling Castle”, were delivered in crates to Richmond and assembled there in September, but the Squadron’s full complement of aircraft did not materialise until October after the squadron had moved to Camden. When they were eventually flown in, the ground crews gave them a really good going over and the pilots air tested them. Jim was promoted to the rank of Sergeant just before the three Squadrons got on their way to their date with destiny.
For the long journey to Northern Australia, the members of the Wing were divided into three parties. One, the “Land” did it the hard way travelling by rail and truck, another, the “Sea”, luxuriated aboard ship and the last to leave, the “Air”, made up of the Spitfires, their pilots and a service crew aboard a Hudson bomber.
The “Maetsuycker” with Jim aboard, avoided the attention of the Japanese and arrived in Darwin Harbour via Townsville and Thursday Island on the 25t January 1943. Later in the day, after a convoy of Army trucks bore the travellers from the wharf area to Batchelor, which was well south of the devastated township, they caught up with the “Land” party, which had arrived a day or so earlier and the small “Air” party, which had beaten all the others to the North-West Area. A day or so later, after waiting for the Kittyhawk Squadrons to vacate their strips and camp sites, the Wing moved back up the track in dribs and drabs to occupy Livingstone and Strauss Airfields, and the Darwin Civil strip.
As the bulk of Jim’s experiences up north, from the day Bob Foster, DFC, of 54 Squadron RAF shot down a Jap “Dinah” reconnaissance aircrafte, which was the Wing’s first kill, to the last enemy air raid on the 12th November 1943, is a story in itself, you should pick up and read Jim’s account of these events in his book, “Spitfires over Darwin” which was first published in 1995. You can also visit this website and peruse the many stories he has written for “Spitfire News”, the bi-annual journal of the Spitfire Association, which has the distinction of being a document of historical value.
But, back to the remainder of Jim’s story, we find that some twelve months after his arrival at Livingston Strip, he was sent on detachment to No.1 Photo Reconnaissance Unit based at Coomalie Creek, several miles down the track from Livingstone. He remained there for three months before returning to his home Squadron to serve out the remainder of his proscribed time in the forward Operational Area. When his number came up, he was posted to No.1 AD Laverton in Victoria in June 1944.
Jim worked in the Instrument Section of this Permanent RAAF base, which also acted as a starting point of ferry flights to Operational Units in the South Pacific Area. As the service crews required to maintain the aircraft in the course of the journey were drawn from the ground staff there, Jim made himself available for one of these flights, which took him out of the country from August 22nd to September 8th 1944.
Then it was back to work in the Instrument Section until the 17th February 1945, when he was admitted to No.6 RAAF Hospital, Heidleburg and later to No.1 Medical Rehab Unit, Warburton. This was because he had got in the way of a .303 bullet, which had passed through his left knee when an armourer accidently discharged a single round from the machine gun he was removing from an aircraft, which the pair had been working on in the course of a routine inspection.
When Jim returned to Laverton at the end of May, he was soon after posted to RAAF Headquarters at St. Kilda Road, Melbourne, where he saw out the War flying a desk and living off the unit at Hawthorn with his wife, Jess, whom he had married shortly before his accident. There, he filled in his postwar time in the Service awaiting his discharge, which came through on 22nd January 1946.
Back in “Civvy Street”, Jim Grant took advantage of the Commonwealth Reconstruction Scheme, becoming a full time student at the Sydney Technical College and graduated from there, as a Licensed Electrician after completing the course. Additionally, he regularly wrote columns and articles for many publications and the Spitfire Association’s magazine, The Spitfire News. His articles were in a great many cases on a theme of his beloved 457 Squadron (Spitfires) and he had a great affection for the men and the aircraft that he worked with during his days in Darwin and the Islands.
To meet him, one would think that Jim was a dour Laddie, but to read his articles, one would see a very robust sense of humour always shining through. His knowledge of the Squadron and the Spitfire was extraordinary and was no doubt from a love of both, which led to his immense store of knowledge. He has left in the Association’s archives hundreds of short stories and articles, which will prove to be of value to future historians and researchers over the years to come.
In 2010, Jim aged 93 years of age and living in full care at Colac in Victoria, chimed in with the final paragraph of this story. “I draw pleasure and some satisfaction in knowing that in a very small way, I contributed to the making of history”.
Bruce Read and Steve McGregor
Updated by Vince Conant
The Spitfire Association