O’Byrne, Justin Hilary

Justin was born on the 1st June 1912 in Launceston, Tasmania. He enlisted in the RAAF in Hobart on the 20th June 1940. After he completed his flying training in Canada and England, he joined 452 Squadron in May 1941 for his first operational posting. 

The following is courtesy of the Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate:
After leaving Ottawa, Canada, as a newly commissioned Pilot Officer, O’Byrne travelled to Kirton-in-Lindsey in Lincolnshire, serving as a founding member of 452 Squadron, RAAF. In July 1941, the Squadron was transferred to Kenley in Surrey and, with the arrival of Squadron Leader Robert Bungey, 452 Squadron was now predominantly Australian. O’Byrne participated in offensive operations across the Channel, opposing the waves of German bombers preparing for Hitler’s projected invasion of Britain, thus helping to ensure the enemy’s ultimate defeat. A Spitfire flown on occasion by O’Byrne is on display at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

In August 1941, accompanying British bombers, O’Byrne’s Spitfire was shot down over France by a German fighter. Although wounded, O’Byrne bailed out. It was his first parachute jump. He was captured by Germans, and spent some time in hospital at Saint-Omer, France. A fellow casualty was the legendary Douglas Bader. O’Byrne later related that before the RAF parachuted artificial limbs for Bader into Germany, he carried the ace pilot on his back. Bader never forgot him, and sent O’Byrne a telegram on his retirement from the Senate. After leaving the hospital, O’Byrne began nearly four years of incarceration in eight prisoner of war camps. Conditions, even for officers, were bad. Food was so meagre that without Red Cross parcels many would have starved to death. Life in the huts was monotonous. Only the hope of escape kept up morale. O’Byrne continued his studies, leading seminars in politics, economics and languages in preparation for the better world to come. At Stalag Luft III at Sagan in Silesia, O’Byrne took part in celebrated break outs, which subsequently inspired the popular books and films, The Wooden Horse and The Great Escape. During the latter, teams of prisoners created escape tunnels while others distracted the guards. O’Byrne, who later described himself as ‘the administrative officer’, did not draw a place in the lotteries for the relatively small number who would try to escape through the tunnels. He was fortunate, as fifty of the prisoners who broke out were executed following recapture. To O’Byrne, the effort, despite its results, was worthwhile.

As the Russians moved west in the closing stages of the war, the Germans forced O’Byrne and other prisoners to walk 150 kilometres through the snow from Scubin to Luckenwalde, south of Berlin. After the Russians finally liberated this camp, O’Byrne had to make his own way to the American forces on the Elbe, over 100 kilometres away. In light of this experience, and his earlier wanderings across Australia, he later described himself as a ‘Roads Scholar’. By May 1945, he was back in the United Kingdom, having been promoted to Flight Lieutenant in February 1943 while still a POW.

After rehabilitation in England, O’Byrne returned to Sydney in May 1945 and was discharged on 1 February 1946. Back in Tasmania, he worked for a short time as the Launceston district officer in the Department of Post-War Reconstruction. With his gallant war background and well-honed socialist philosophy, in March 1946, O’Byrne obtained nomination for the Senate for the September federal election. The ALP, under Ben Chifley, was returned to power, and Labor won all three Senate seats in Tasmania with O’Byrne elected third.”

After the War, the Honorable Justin Hilary served as a Tasmanian Labor senator from 1946 to 1981, and was elected President of the Senate, 1973-1975. He died on the 10th November 1993.

Web Master:
Other accounts of Justin’s story say that 11 aircraft of 452 Squadron, led by the CO, took off on the 11th August 1941 at 1035 hrs for Circus 68 to Gosnay. Justin was intercepted by a
Bf109 around 1130 hrs between Mardyck and Bethune. At some stage when he was between 10,000 and 20,000 feet, he was shot down and became a POW. During the Eueropean Offensive in 1941 to 1943, fighter sweeps (“Rhubarbs”) and bomber escort missions (“Circuses”) were mounted over France and other occupied territories, with the express purpose of forcing a response from Luftwaffe fighters. “Circus 68”, was actually a bomber escort mission into France on the 9th August 1941, not the 11th. This was the mission in which famous legless RAF pilot Douglas Bader was shot down and became a POW. It is generally accepted that Circus 68 was on the 9th August, and it is a moot point whether or not Justin was shot down on that day or later on the 11th.

The Spitfire Association