Reprinted here by kind permission of ‘Aeroplane Monthly’ Geoffrey Wikner was the designer of the Wicko.
HUMPING THE BLUE IN WALTZING MATILDA
Aircraft designer captain Geoffrey Wikner, ATA, describes how he and his woman co-pilot took a Halifax loaded with men, women and children to Australia.
During the second world war 1 flew with the air transport auxiliary in Britain, and after hostilities had ceased my wife and I thoughr we would like to take our family out to Australia to see my mother and other relatives. It was quite impossible to travel by normal surface transport. I thought of yacht at first, and even managed to get a party together, but couldn’t find the type of yacht I wanted. My thoughts then naturally turned to air transport. I had heard that they had never seen a Handley page Halifax bomber in Australia, and I approached the ministry of aircraft production to see if they would sell me a Halifax for exhibition and fund raising in Australia. They agreed, and I bought handley page Halifax b mk 3 nr169. this aircraft rather aptly had flown with no 466 australian bomber squadron and had carried out 51 raids. In February 1946 it arrived at the manufacturers aerodrome at redlett, in hertfordshirs, for conversion to civil transport. It emerged as a 15-seater with other modifications made to my order. Externally the Halifax remained very much as it was in wartime, although all armour was stripped out. It retained its night camouflage but had the civil registration G-AGXA painted in large white letters. The legend waltzing matilda, the 51 bombs plus the key representing the aircrafts 21st mission remained, and were supplemented by the dive of peace to represent its latest mission a peaceful flight to Australia.
In the meantime I had been sifting through some 500 written requests from people wishing to join us on the flight in addition to thousands of telephone calls. Initially my wife handled these, and I later interviewed likely candidates in London. From the original thousands who wanted to come we eventually narrowed the number to 19 including crew, as listed elsewhere. I made the final handling flight in waltzing matilda on may 25, 1946, after nine frustrating months of seemingly endless red tape, during which the air ministry, the foreign office, handley page ltd and the Bristol aeroplane company all tried to stop the flight from taking place. However, de havillands very kindly overhauled the propellers free of charge, and dunlops gave me a new set of tyres. Other companies kindly donated items free, including emergency rations. Shell organised the suplly of fuel and I paid them £2,000 in advance. They did a very fine job and there were no hitches on their account. My flight was to be the first made to Australia in a privatley owned aircraft after the war, and I was up against it from the start.
I was told that there would be no accomadation or food supplies and that I could not use RAF aerodromes, although we were using the old RAF transport command routes. No maps of the route were available, but transport command kidly provided a manual which consosted mostly of radio aids and a few aerodrome maps. The aerodrome maps were not important - it was finding the aerodromes that mattered. Most of the flight was made using a daily telegraph map of the world and local knowledge gained from the staging posts as we proceeded.
I had limited each passenger to 100lb of baggage as we were flying from early summer in England to the Australian winter, with about five other varying climates in between. It was particulary difficult for the women passengers. Most of them wore heavy linen bettle dresses of various colours and took shorts, jumpers and pullovers, the odd evening dress and fur coat, but don’t ask me how they did it. All luggage was stowed in the bomb bay and the passengers either sat in canvas seats or were dispearsed around the aircraft in the varios crew positions. We took with us camp stretchers, emergency rations, blankets and mosquito nets, so that we could camp by the sircraft if accomadation elsewhere was impossible.
The Halifax had a still-air range of 2,000 miles and was good for 11hr in the air, giving us plenty of opportunity for the long hops; a pretty good performance for a 30 ton aeroplane. I had estimated that the trip should take about three weeks for the 13,000 miles, the longest hop being from Darwin to Brisbane, just over 2,000 miles, and had decided to cruise at 180m.p.h. at 5,000 ft whenever possible. This was the most economical cruise, and I wanted to avoid cloud flying in order to facilitate map reading.
My co-pilot for the flight was to have been Neville Stack, but two weeks before departure he declined. Amongst the passengers was Miss Audrey morgan, and ex-ATA pilot who had twin engine flying experience. She was also an attractive, well built girl, and was delighted when I told her she was co-pilot. So was I when adjusting her harness. I considered this to be captiains privalage for the rest of the flight.
C. B Scott was the navigator, and he had managed to scrounge a few maps to supplement our daily telegraph map. He was skilled in working out bearings and ETAs but could not navigate by visual means, for although he carried out two tours of operations with RAF, they were all at night and depended on electrical equipment. We were to wander off course a couple of times, but it was not really his fault. The directional giro was precessing badly and the distance reading compass in the rear of the fuselage, so placed to avoid interference from other metals, was giving trouble transmitting the readings to the dashboard. The engineers at Karchi were to rectify this to the extent that it worked in reverse, so that if we wanted to fly east we headed west! Fortunately I had a very reliable standard P.9 compass beside my seat in the cockpit.
Mr Toye was recruited as radio operator because he held a PMG licence, although he had only worked in air sea rescue boats. He had little to do but play around and try to work the radio.
Bonny Sacombe was really the only crew member I could not have done without. He had also flown with ATA and knew the Halifax. The engineers postion was behind the pilot, and all the petrol taps and gauges were there. The late Tom Sulman, a well know racing driver at the time, was acting as second engineer. He also helped with the conversion of the aeroplane in the beginning.
After being interviewed by the BBC, a broadcast that was networked to Australia, we took off from the Hurn, Bournemouth, in Hamphire (now in Dorset) on may26, 1946. after about ten minutes after take off we ran into a layer of cloud over the English channel. I was certainly not going to turn back after all I had gone through, so over the top we went. Strangely enough there was a break in the clouds and we were able to circle the island to say goodbye to some friends as arranged, and then continued over the top again until well into france. Owing to the delay in our departure caused by customs and farewells we decided we could not reach tunis, the first stage of journey, before dark. We settled for Marseilles and landed in maraigne. Here we were welcomed by the BOAC, we were the first to occupy. The next stop was castle Binato aerodrome in Tunis, which Mussolini during the war. The RAF were there so we made sure that the attractive lady passenger were the first to leave the aircraft and we just tagged along. The officers gave up their cabins to the girls and we slept in the crew’s quarters. We were advised to make a dawn take-off to avoid the heat of the day, but then another complication arose. We were flying directly into the rising sun. this got worse and worse until finally we tore up all the cartons we could find and completely blocked out the cockpit, except for one peephole on the right to enable the enginner to look out for other aircraft and another so I could see out the window beside me. This resulted in flying on instruments, which I continued to do for most of the flight.
Crossing the Mediterranean, I could have sworn an engine was givng trouble, but I think it was imaginary jitters, as it was the longest over water hop I had done. We headed down the coast to Tripoli where we circled the harbour, looking at all the sunken ships on their sides at the bottom. From there we flew a direct course to Cairo, where we circled the pyramids and settled in for the landing. The usual drill followed:under-carriage down, flaps down, check controls, fuel etc. To our horror we had red lights to show the wheels were not locked down and green lights to say they were. Throttles open, flaps up, undercarriage up and another approach, and the same thing happened all over again. This went on for about 5 circuits, until I told Bonny could he visually see the undercarriage arms locking into position. Fortunately he could and I could see the same thing from my seat. When I closed the throttles on the final approach an extremely odd motor horn blew in my ear, nearly deafening me. I was pretty rattled at this time and shouted to Bonny “for christ’s sake tear the wire off the bloody horn” I don’t know what he did but he silenced it, and we made a smooth landing. We tried to rectify the fault but I think the heat had expanded the metals beyond adjustment.
Customs gave us a lot of trouble, and the racial tension was so great that my son and another passenger slept on the aeroplane. The rest of us went to the Heliopolis Hotel, where the local inhabitants slept in the hallways and you could not lock your doors.
In the Halifax the navigators seat is under the engineers position, and it was occupied at the time of landing by Lady Farwell, a widow on her way to visit her sister in austrailia. She was middle aged, and the sweetest and most uncomplaining of all passengers. Whilst having a drink at the hotel I apologised to her for the “airman’s” language I used during the landing, and she politely replied she hadn’t heard a thing.
We got out of that dump as quickly as possible, but did get some good advice from the control tower. We thought we might head direct from Cairo to Karachi, but we were told that if we happened to go down in Arabia they would not bother to look for us, because by the time anyone got there the women would have been raped and killed and the men mutilated and killed. We altered the route to fly over the Holy Land to Jerusalem, where we would pick up the pipeline which ran to Rutbah. I think the road went on from there. Before we reached the end of the pipeline a sand storm blew up and rose to a height of 7,000ft.
Our plan was to fly to the Euphrates River and then change course to Basra. We were also advised the owing to melting snow in the mountains further north the river would now be 20miles wide. With out world map Scotty manged to work out an ETA for us to turn on a course to Basra. We were still on the pipeline when he started his calculations. We changed course as arranged, and after a few hours flying there was the river, but because of its width we had no idea where we were.
However, after 3,000hr experience of visual navigation I picked up the row of trees beside the river, and so we were spot on course. We flew and flew and at last we had overshot his ETA, but we kept going because we had sufficient fuel to fly to the Persian Gulf, reposition ourselves and fly back. This proved to be unnecessary as Bonny spotted what looked like a pocket handkerchief in the middle of the sea. Sure enough this was the aerodrome, with a ten foot bank around it. Down we went, with the red and green lights showing and the usual “ Thumbs up”. We taxied in and selected flaps as usual but nothing happened. On inspection we found the starboard wheel nacelle flooded with hydraulic oil, and also the side of the fuselage. It was hot as hell and the passengers started demanding that their cases be taken to the hotel. At this stage I said “take your own bags. We are all in this together as a co-adventure, we are not flunkies to wait on passengers.” There was no more trouble from that quarter! Once again we were guests of BOAC. There was a dutch captain there, I think he had a DC3, but the best thing he had was plenty of Bolls gin! The hotel was beautifully air-conditioned, and we had a grand party.next morning, search as we may we could not find the oil leak. As I carried 8gal of hydraulic oil we topped up and took off, heading for Sharjah. More local advice; “fly as far as you can from any coast line, as everybody is trigger-happy and will fire at anything.” So down the middle of the persain gulf we went-rule two boken (not to fly over water)
Because of an island which was not shown on the map we changed our bearing. As a consequence we off course at the end of the gulf, and there was no sign of Sharjah. I flew 20min east and then turned and flew west. In about 30min we sighted a desert fort with a black strip on the sand and a windsock. This was Sharjah, a Sheikdom working in conjunction with England. The heat was fantastic, I burnt my arm on the side of the fuselage.nothing larger then a DC3 had ever landed there before. I approached with caution owing to the heat, but the glare caused a mirage and I dropped the Halifax from about 20ft. I didn’t think it would ever stop bouncing, so I pushed the controls forward and forced it on to the ground. “We made it,” said a distant voice, and there were no complaints from the passengers. There was a rush to the desert fort where cool drinks were generously supplied. It was not normal practice to refuel aircraft in the niddle of the day, but cash soon had them on the wings, filling up the tanks from bags of fuel. This done we proceeded to take off from this rather short strip. At the North end were some sand dunes and then the Persian gulf. I taxied as far back as possible, jammed the breaks on and opened the throttles fully. Normally this was not done in a Halifax, as the torque of the engines was likely to cause the aircraft to turn off the runway. However, my luck was in and we shot down the black line towards the sea. I doubt very much if the undercarriage was properly retracted when we passed over the sand dunes. I think Bonny beat the “thumbs-up” signal. However, all was we and we set course fro Karachi. At this stage we were over the Indian ocean at least 50miles out from the coast. It was somewhere about there that Kingsford Smith lost his life.
The aerodrome at Karachi was named Almaza. We made a safe landing and booked in at a hotel. Val, my son, was feverish so we stayed two nights and did some shopping for cooler clothes. The engineers tried to fix the radio and, as already mentioned, messed up the distant reading compass. The cockpit was still being illuminated with red and green lights which we noe ignored. Sometimes I put my cap over them. We intended to preoceed to Calcutta, but this was impossible owing to monsoons and we were advised to proceed to Delhi/ this we did, but the weather deteriorated and we put into Jodphur. We had a very comfortable hotel, well air conditioned. In the evening we were invited to visit and swim in the Maharajah’s swimming pool, and we graciously accepted. One of our passengers was an acrobatic by the name of Ruby Ceolleano who had performed at the Palladium before royalty. She put on a special show for us on the spring board, and some of the girls swam in the undies. (You thought I was going to say in the nude!)
From Jodphur we made a circular course around the top of india with Calcutta as our destination, Dum Dum being the name of the aerodrome. I was nearly thrown into jail there, for while I was arranging the picketing of the Halifax, Trudy took my over night kit to be cleared by customs, they turned it out and out fell a small automatic. This caused great confusion, but fortunately I had a british .22 rifle licence which they did not understand so I was allowed proceed to the hotel. I think it was the Metropolis. Of all the places on this earth I think Calcutta is the worst, and the inhabitants hate the English. They spit on the path in front of you as you pass by. I was gald to get out of thet hell-hole. Rangoon was our next stop but we were advised to land a Pegu, an RAF base in Burman close to Rangoon. The flight from Calcutta was uneventful except that we had to fly about 50miles out from the coast, as the monsoon clouds and rain covered most of the mainland. We had to take a dog-leg turn towards Rangoon. Pegu was a wartime strip in the jungle, and the last leg was a bit dicey dodging clouds in poor visability.
I made a good landing, but on hitting the strip I thought the aeroplane would fall apart. The strip comprised thousands of steel strips about 6in wide locked together, and had lightening holes about 3in in diameter at intervals of about 12in. When turning at the end of the runway, the tail wheel was damaged on a bent strip, but did no leak or burst. It saw us through to Australia. We did find a Lancaster tyre which would fit the hub, but because it had a twin row of rubber to stop wheel wobble it wouldn’t fit the Halifax fork. In an emergency we would have stripped the twin track off.
As usual we unloaded the girls first, and welcome what a welcome we had! The station was occupied by the RAF, and a few stationed there had not seen white women for three years. The girls had VIP treatment, and we were accommodated in a dormitory. I was just about flaked out and required sleep and rest, but this was not to be. The parties were on every night, with whisky cheap and beer dear. I turned into bed early each night, but drunken passengers turned in at varying intervals up to three o’clock with a great deal of noise, so I got little sleep. The humidity was shocking, and the only way to keep your shorts dry was to sleep in or on them. The girls managed to get some garments washed and dried in the laundry, but we just had to smell worse and worse day by day.
To add to the other noisy discomforts, Dakoytes raided the camp each night, trying to steal whatever they could. To counter this there was a night patrol, and rifle fire went on at intervals all through the night. Owing to rain one minute and sun the next it would have been impossible to even attempt a take-off, but the girls were having fun and the men getting drunk and cranky, and I was at least resting, if not sleeping. On the evening of the second day the passengers got together in my absence and formed a “mini” mutiny. Their decision was to force me to press on regardless - what a laugh!. No one else could fly the Halifax, and I was the only one carrying an automatic pistol! Bonny my loyal engineering, told me about it, so on the third night I called a meeting of the men and said, “When every man is in bed by ten o’clock for two nights in succession I might then, weather permitting, make an attempt to get airborne.” so it came to pass that peace reigned in the land of Pegu.
One day all the passengers were taken by the RAF to see the reclining Buddha. On the base were two Liberators, one brand new and one that had done a little flying. The officer commanding told me he had instructions to tow them into the jungle in a week or two, and that I could have either or both as a gift if I could fly them out. What a pity I didn’t have a co-pilot with a four engine rating. There was a beau fighter there, too, from which we were given a drift sight, not that it was much use, as we would be over water most of the remaining journey. We also were told that we could strip anything we wanted from the Liberators. As we were already at our maximum weight there was little we could take. Bonny searched our aircraft thoroughly with my assistance and found that our radio operator had stacked a lot of heavy gear all over the place; this, of course, we jettisoned.
On the fifth day the weather had improved a little and having had two reasonable nights’ rest I decided to try for a take-off. We loaded up and got to the end of the runway in sunshine, but at the other end was an enormous black monsoon cloud. “Well, “ I thought, “it is now or never.” I gave it the gun and took off with the cloud almost upon us and did a “splitarse” climbing turn off the runway - not done in the best of circles. Especially with a heavily-laden four-engined bomber. I got away with it, but we flew for half an hour back toward England before we could find a break in the clouds to climb up and over the top. We were heading for Bangkok, and the RAF were unable to tell us the height of the mountains over which we were to pass. However, this didn’t matter as we had to climb to 13,000ft to clear the clouds. Scotty had previously obtained permission for a let-down into Bangkok as the weather there was clear. We still had no radio. We only stayed in Bangkok for lunch and to refuel. Then, with everything running smoothly, we took off for Singapore. We were advised at Calcutta to fly on the east side of the Malay peninsula owing to the monsoons. This advice we took, but nevertheless we were about 50 miles out to sea at Singapore. The approach and the strip isn’t (or was not, at that time) the best. It was at Changi, and the end of the strip ran into the water’s edge. I made a good landing, but with the same shattering noise of a metal strip. It was not a very long strip, and a fair amount of brake pressure was required. I felt they were a bit on the weak side, but managed to taxi to the parking bay. As I pulled in somebody waved at me frantically and pointed to the port undercarriage. I hurriedly rushed down to find an air line cracked and when touched it just fell apart. If I hadn’t made a good landing we would have finished up in the sea. There were more passengers aboard the aircraft than were visible; I think the guardian angels outnumbered the gremlins. Raffles hotel was our destination. Here we were glad to get out of our stinking clothes and get them to a laundry. It cost us a fortune, but was well worth it to fell fresh and clean once more. I guess the hotel has altered since then, but it was pretty crude in those days. Trudy and I slept in a double bed with a ceiling fan going all night, just a bottom sheet and a mosquito net above and we slept in the nude. All doors were open and peeping Toms walked up and down outside the room. I think we stayed there two days waiting for our laundry.
We intended to land next at Sourabya, but were advised that there was a pocket of Japs on the point of the island and anti-aircraft guns who fired at anything in the air. As this was only three miles from the airport I had to find a different route, and so with the aid of the control tower we decided to cross Borneo and land at Balikpapan. No one know anything about the strip, length or anything else.
I repaired the pipeline to the brakes as I had some copper tube and a flaring tool, so that problem was solved. We left Singapore in the early hours as we did not know what lay ahead of us, and set a course for Balikpapan direct, but this was not to be. We were dodging monsoon storms with poor visibility when crossing Borneo, flying at almost tree top height, waving to the inhabitants of the small villages on the river banks. We seemed to be flying for hours and hours under some strain at such low altitude. It was interesting to note the type of country. There was heavy vegetation and every few miles would be an outcrop of soil or rocks rising to 50ft or more. After what seemed a lifetime I sighed a gap between mountains and the base of the clouds, just about enough to get through, so I turned left and headed for it. We just scraped through- as a rough guess I would say the rear turret was in cloud and the propellers just above on tree tops. I think it was the only time on the trip that the passengers were scared. Diving down to water level, we followed the coastline northwards. After some hours we spotted the landing strip on the waters edge, but to my horror there was an enormous black storm heading for the strip from the north. There was no time to circle the strip, so in we went, hoping for the best. It turned out to be a very good strip with plenty of length, in spite of more shattering noises from the metal surface.
We were welcomed by a Dutch captain whose name had escaped my memory, but he made us very welcome and allocated some seaside cottages for us. We dined in a communal dining room. As this was our last port before Darwin, we doled out a fair quantity of our food supplies, for which they were most grateful. I gave the captain a bottle of scotch whisky, which he had not tasted for many years, and in a return for this he tore up the slip for 800gal of petrol which they had put in the Halifax. That is what I call dealing. We were of course still losing all the hydraulic oil in flight, but up to this stage we had managed to scrounged around RAF dumps and find supplies of hydraulic oil. Here we failed to find any. Mineral oil would destroy the seals, so it could not be used. I tried the hospital for castor oil but had no luck. I went to bed with the thought of using water, but in the middle of the night those angels awakened me and said “You silly clot, the island id full of coconuts and coconut oil.” I don’t know if angels are supposed to talk like that, but I got the message loud and clear. Out trouble were over. I bought a four gallon drum of coconut oil next morning from a local store.
My son went swimming and cut his foot on some coral. It festered very smartly and took many weeks to heal: we stayed two nights there and went to watch a football game with the captain. He drove us in his jeep, and I have never been so scared in all my life, zipping at high speed through and around bomb holes in the road. However, it was a friendly gesture
We made a dawn take-off from Balikpapan, as our next landing would be Darwin, close on eight hours’ flying away, dodging monsoon clouds that rose from sea level to 40,000ft. We were just about skimming the waves most of the way to Timor, where we ran into clear skies. As there are numerous outcrops of small islands in that area, extra care had to be taken in the poor visibility to avoid flying into one. We did not see the sharks for which the Timor sea are renowned.
At Timor I handed over the controls to Audrey and warned her about precessing directional gyro. She probably forgot, because we were well of course when we hit the Australian coast. Fortunately we had a map of the northern territory, although I cannot remember how we came by it. Scotty may have secured it at Singapore, or perhaps I managed to get one in England. The coastline was so flat and swampy that it was difficult to pinpoint our position, and as the radio was out of action we could not get a bearing from Darwin. I was getting worried, as the fuel tanks were getting pretty low after such a long hop.
As previously mentioned, Scotty was not good on visual navigation; so it was up to me whether to turn to port or starboard. After scanning the map for some time I finally located our position right on the edge. Had we been a few miles further west we probably would have been dining with the aboriginies- or them dining on us.
By this time I had taken over the controls again, and circled the aerodrome and got a green light from the control tower. I think it was the worst landing I made apart from one at Sharjah. I expect I was pretty flaked out and darned glad to be on Australian soil in one piece.
The customs officers were most objectionable, and tried to keep us shut in the plane in the stinking heat. The girls revolted and just walked out, and so did the men. Well they could not really have shot us or jailed us, for that matter. Mr Johnson, the DCA rep at Darwin, very kindly turned over his very large home to the ladies. We men were guests of the RAAF, and they gave us a tremendous welcome. The RAAF also rectified the radio and machined a brass fitting to replace the cracked alloy fitting that was losing the hydraulic oil. The reason we were unable to find the leak was that when the wheels were up and the doors closed it got hot and expanded, allowing the oil to escape, but on landing it would close up as it cooled. I was grateful for their kind help.
After landing and clearing customs all the party proceeded to the RAAF Mess to drink a toast to the guardian angels. However, I went for a walk in the bush, kicking up good old Australian soil and enjoying the smell of the gum tress and the wild flowers. I take the liberty to quote from Dorothy Mackellar’s poem, My county
The night of our arrival we who were Australians contacted our families by telephone. It was a wonderful evening. We were at Darwin for couple of days whilst the aeroplane was being fixed up. Bonny and I re-swung the compass to suit the southern hemisphere. We had intended to fly to Brisbane but changed our plans and landed at Cloncurry, which was on a direct route from Darwin to Sydney. We received a terrific welcome there; my wife and I and our two children were guests of the mayor, and the other families very kindly took in the remainder of the passengers as guests. It was true Australian hospitality and greatly appreciated.
We left for Sydney the next day, passing the Queensland/new south Wales border spot on course, and at this stage I handed the controls to Audrey. I took control again when nearing our ETA fro Sydney, but there was no sign of the place - we were too far west. I headed fro the coast and searched for landmarks, and sure enough I recognised the Hydro majestic on the Blue Mountains, where I had spent many a pleasant Christmas evening when I was single.
We landed at Mascot at 3.40p.m on June 15, 1946, on a beautiful winter’s day. We were welcomed by our relatives and about 200 other people. John Grose, the representative for the Handley page, threw a party for us at the aerodrome, and the following night my family and friends turned on a reception at the Hotel Australia with many kind words and lots of champagne. There is now a large oil painting by Howard Baron of the Halifax arriving at Mascot. It is in the Canberra National Library, together with a complete documentary of the flight. The title of the painting is Journey’s end.
I love my sunburnt country,
As I was unable to get support for the exhibition flight around Australia, I communicated with the ministry of aircraft production to seek permission to sell the Halifax. This was granted, providing I did not sell it to a foreign country. I tried to sell it to the RAAF for training purposes; I advertised it for sale, but had no success. I then offered it to the Canberra War Museum as a gift, but it was not accepted.
It was finally sold to a group of pilots and ground engineers for trading with the far east. Unfortunately, they were forced into liquidation after one flight and waltzing matilda was finally sold by auction to a scrap dealer. A sad ending for such a wonderful aeroplane.
Aeroplane monthly, September 1979