Geoffrey was born on th 4th July 1917 at Pembroke in South Wales. He enlisted in the RAAF in Sydney, New South Wales, on the 30th June 1942.
Geoff spent some weeks at 2 ITS (Initial Training School), Bradfield Park (now Lindfield), where he had failed the aircrew tests. He was subsequently posted to No.1 Bombing and Gunnery School (1 BAGS) at Evans Head in northern NSW. Later, at Richmond Air Base, Geoff found that his Wing Commander was the famous “Killer” Caldwell and that No.1 Fighter Wing comprised three Spitfire Squadrons, 452 and 457, both RAAF, and 54 RAF. All three Squadrons were undermanned by RAAF standards when they arrived from England in 1942, so a number of RAAF ground personnel were posted to each, and Geoff was posted to 54 Squadron. They were about three months in forming, the delay being caused by their Spitfire Mark V aircraft having been diverted to North Africa for the battle of El Alamein instead of being delivered directly to Australia. Eventually, they were in a state of readiness, and the Wing was moved north to undertake the defence of Darwin.
Their advance party left to travel overland up through the Centre, while the bulk of the three Squadrons sailed from Sydney on the 13th January 1943 aboard the troop ship “Maetsuycker”. They stopped at Cairns and Thursday Island for water and reached Darwin on Monday the 25th January. In this large harbour there were sunken ships to be seen following earlier Japanese air attacks. They found that 54 Squadron was to operate from the RAAF drome, Darwin, but their campsite was located a few miles away in virgin bush at Nightcliff. Now this is one of Darwin’s flourishing suburbs. During the many Japanese attacks on Darwin and areas further south, the three Spitfire Squadrons under Killer Caldwell shot down 83 aircraft until the raids ceased in late 1943.
Geoff served with 54 Squadron for 21 months to June 1944. Because of his Lay preaching background (he had been earlier approached to undertake Welfare and Chaplaincy duties with the ACF and the YMCA) he then served overseas as a Chaplain with the First Tactical Air Force (1 TAF RAAF) which was with the 5th US Air Force on the island of Noemfoor, in what was then the Dutch East Indies.
While he was in Darwin, he kept a diary and made the following notes in 1943:
“In the peaceful stillness of the bush at 54 Squadron’s camp at Nightciff, we are up earlier than usual this morning. We have had word that there is a Japanese concentration over at Penfoie, and so 54, 452 and 457 Squadrons have been placed on readiness in case the enemy flings yet another attack on Darwin. At breakfast, we are not as noisy as usual because the air seems charged with expectancy, as though we were waiting for a blow to fall and not knowing from whence it will come. Coupled with the Jap build-up of planes at Penfoie, we know that today is Sunday and this will make it twice that we have been attacked in recent weeks on the Sabbath. Our camp is a couple of miles from the Darwin RAAF base and our transport trucks are soon filled with pilots and ground staff for the journey from Nightcliff.
After arrival things get into full swing as work on the Spits begins. From nearby trees in the dispersal bays comes the loud screech of gaily coloured parakeets, and somehow we cannot help think that war is far away. This will not last as we know, only too well, that everyone awaits the electrifying word, “Scramble”, which will send the Spits on their way to intercept those who would destroy our base. The crew-room phone rings and we are now on “stand-by.” Pilots climb into cockpits and mechanics are ready for the order to come, as seconds are precious, time means altitude, and altitude to a fighter can spell the difference between life and death. Barely have the pilots settled in when the phone rings again. Crews jump into action and engines are started as the order “scramble” comes through. With ground crew clearing the area, Spits follow each other to the end of the runway. These men know their job and some have had like experiences during the Battle of Britain.
One by one the Spits take off and climb steeply, quickly getting into formation, and soon they are out of sight. We all feel relieved now that we know it’s on. Waiting is never pleasant, especially waiting for an air raid to start. It is not very healthy on the airfield in times like these and “tin” hats and trenches come into their own. Five minutes, ten minutes slip by, then the order “Take Cover” is sounded. The ack-ack opens up and we watch the feathery puffs of smoke in the sky. Some shouting starts when the Jap formation is sighted. The puffs are a little wide and behind, but soon they are on target in the port “vic” formation. Firing stops and the Spits peel off and go in. Now aircraft are twisting and turning all over the sky and firing at each other. Through all this the bombers keep formation, though attacked from all sides, ignoring the cost to themselves. We on earth have gone to ground, and just as well, for bombs start exploding. We are thankful that they appear to be wide of the mark.
The fighting has moved away now, towards the sea and nothing can be seen except an odd aircraft streaking across the sky. The Spits have been airborne for a while and will shortly have to refuel and rearm. Ground crews get ready to leap into action as soon as they taxi back to dispersal. We count them anxiously as they come in. This is the most trying time, we on the ground know we are safe, but we all worry about the pilots. Our CO comes in and jumps out to examine bullet holes in his fuselage and all pilots are hustled into the Intelligence Officers room for de-briefing. The crew of Spit “X” scan the sky and listen for the sound of a Merlin engine; one of the Flight Commanders is missing. Minutes tick by, then an engine noise is heard and the aircraft appears and lands. The mechanics rush over and discover that Flight Lieutenant Robin Norwood had chased the bombers out to sea and had to return short of fuel. With all our pilots safe and several making claims of Jap aircraft hit, we feel that the early morning start was worthwhile.
At lunch time, the din in the Mess is terrific, such a contrast to the hush at breakfast. There is a continuous buzz of talk and we hear, “The CO got two and a probable”, “Mr Foster is claiming a bomber” and so it went on, with the result that, with all the chatter we have shot down twice as many Japs as came over! We are all flushed with excitement after a morning in action. The afternoon comes and we settle down to normal routine, the parakeets still screech and the sun beats down relentlessly. At night, before going to sleep, I reflect on the whys and wherefores of all the pain and suffering. I would give anything to be back in Sydney with my dear wife Beatrice, whom I married in1939. But Hitler’s aggression in Europe, his slave labour camps, the extreme cruelty of the Japs to the captured soldiers and nurses of our 8th Division, AIF, captured in Singapore and Malaysia, makes me realise that we must continue the battle above this distant and lonely outpost of our beloved homeland, Australia, so that one day victory will come our way. So ended, for me, a memorable Sunday.”
Geoff was discharged from 55 OBU on the 16th June 1944.
Geoff Hartnell and David Hamilton
The Spitfire Association