Eric was born on the 20th March 1916 at Bega in New South Wales. The son of a plumber, John Hey, and Kazia Hey, Eric showed natural aptitude as a student, excelling in mathematics and spelling from kindergarten. When he was six, the family moved to Mittagong, where he developed a love of the outdoors. Eric always liked to move fast, even as an eight-year-old when he was noted “furiously peddling” a borrowed pushbike. The spirit never left him, taking him to cars, motorbikes, planes and to his most glorious hour, flying Spitfires in World War II.
Leaving school at 14 to help support the family during the Great Depression, he worked as a labourer building roads until, realising there was no future for him there, he joined the railways. He became a senior porter at Cootamundra, where he played in the front row for the town’s first grade rugby league team.
Hey then met Coryl Maher and, motivated by a desire to win her affections, he went back to study and in 1940, he began a correspondence course for a Diploma of Mechanical Engineering. He married Coryl in June 1941, and was then called up for military service. He enlisted in the RAAF in Sydney on the 19th July 1941 and earned his wings in 1942. He was posted to Britain, where he completed his training as an aerial reconnaissance pilot in Dyce, Scotland. There, he was credited with the highest pass ever recorded.
Eric then took to the skies and flew with 683 Squadron RAF. In one action, to photograph the German battle fleet off Greece, he had to fly at 16,000 metres over the top of an extensive cumulous cloud formation. One day over Palestine, the engine of his Harvard single-engined aircraft failed and he had to crash-land. Reconnaissance work was dangerous, as indicated in his log book entry for the 27th May 1944: “Spezia (Italy) 3 hrs 10 mins flight duration. Bounced by a fighter – came out of the sun, missed (me) and (he) turned, but I had gone, rapidly.”
No.683 Squadron was formed from B Flight, 69 Squadron at Luqa in Malta on the 8th February 1943, for photographic reconnaissance duties from Malta. Though equipped with Spitfires throughout its period of service, it also had a few Mosquitoes for two months in 1943. In November 1943, the Squadron moved to Tunisia for a month, before being transferred to Italy where it joined 682 Squadron in providing detachments of Spitfires throughout the Allied-occupied section of the country for the rest of the war. In August 1945, it sent a detachment to Greece but was disbanded on 21 September 1945.
The photo is of a camera being loaded into a reconnaissance aircraft.
During some leave in Palestine, he passed his London University entrance examinations.
Eric survived the war, which took him over the skies of Malta, Italy, Palestine, and finally, the South Pacific at Moratai and Labuan. Somewhere along the way, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. His citation reads as follows:
“An outstanding pilot, Flight Lieutenant Hey has excelled in completing many long distance sorties with a high standard of accuaracy, while as Flight Commander his general administartion and cheerfulness have done much in maintaining the morale of the Squadron at a very high level. This officer has frequently brought back valuable information confirming the result of operations. On one occasion he flew from Malta to Larissa (Greece) and Volos (Greece) necessitatingan extremely long sea crossing, being the first and only member of the Squadron to accomplish this feat.”
It is not know what squadrons Eric flew with when he was at Moratai and Labuan.
Back in Australia after the War, Eric joined the rush of returned servicemen to study for degrees. Given the choice between medicine and dentistry, he chose the later went to the University of Sydney and drove taxis part-time to support himself. After graduating, he rejoined the RAAF in 1950 on a short service commission as a Senior Dental Officer at Richmond. On the 30th June 1952, he was discharged from the RAAF and he began a private dental practice in Coogee. Ten years later he went to London, practised in Earls Court, and gained a Licentiate of Dental Surgery at the Royal College of Surgeons.
Eric died in died 2009 at the age of 92. He is survived by four children, Lorraine, Christopher, Peter and Virginia, and 21 grandchildren and great-grandchildren. A son, Graham, predeceased him.
With thanks to Malcolm Brown’s obituary in the SMH 3 February 2009.
Updated by Vince Conant
The Spitfire Association