THOSE TREES AT GERALDTON
by Tom Scotland
|JOHNNY & QUEEN MARY|
In 1942, Geraldton inWestern Australia had a busy airbase at which I did part of my aviation training. On top of pilot training we learnt to use the machine-gun from the rear of the Avro Anson planes we flew. A rotating gun turret towards the rear of the aircraft gave the opportunity to have another pilot fly the plane while I fired the gun onto a target.
I had completed firing my rounds of ammunition and was loosening myself out of the gun turret. I looked to the ground and saw, with a start, that my pilot was flying us close to the head of a farmer opening a gate on his farm. Johnny, my pilot obviously had a penchant for the thrill of low flying but it wasn't too thrilling for me. We were too low.
The next thing I knew, a screaming, scraping "pang, pang, pang" echoed through the aircraft. We had flown through the top branches of a very tall eucalyptus gum tree. It was terrifying as our propellers chewed through leaves and wood. Such an event had killed many adventurous pilots previously. I scrambled down into the main body of the Anson feeling shocked and angry. I dropped myself into the flying seat beside Johnny, determined to let him have a blast as to how I really felt. But he looked white as a sheet and his face was drawn, "Tommy I've got some branches hanging from the bottom of the plane. When we land will you get out and remove them. We don't want our instructors to see them." That made me really cross. I felt he was silly for going so low. But I calmed my anger.
Eventually Johnny landed the plane back at our base, Kojarina at that time. There was a convenient rise on the far side of the airfield and he headed the plane to where the ground fell away again. As he stopped, I got out and crouched behind whirling propellers and removed the quite thick branches, which had become stuck in the wheel bays of the Anson.
One day someone might see the unusual heap of branches lying there and wonder, but today we could leave them there and return to our instructors who were waiting to give us the target results from firing our gun. No word of our collision with the tree ever leaked out.
JOHNNY AND THE SHIP QUEEN MARY IN 1940
Johnny was an adventurous character. At the beginning of WWII, he was intrigued by the appearance of large Atlantic liners carrying Australian and NZ troops to Malaya and Egypt. He decided he wanted to visit these huge ships as they lay at anchor off Fremantle. He had a canoe and began paddling across the several miles of ocean. It was a hazardous journey for a home-made canoe. Johnny had nearly made the distance when his canoe sank and he had to be rescued and hauled aboard the huge liner Queen Mary. The police were advised and finally he was shipped back to shore. To his neighbours and friends, Johnny was a hero, but to his family, their Johnny was a risk taker. What would he be up to next?
JOHNNY’S FAMILYIn 2009 the sister of Johnny read the book, “Voice from the Stars” by Tom Scotland. The book opened her eyes to Johnny’s near death by flying his plane into the trees at Geraldton in 1942. She then read of his pathway to Britain and then his loss over Frankfurt in Germany in WWII. She and her husband then alerted Tom, the book’s author, to Johnny’s teenage adventure with the ships. They also advised Johnny’s school of his story in the book, “Voice from the Stars”. The school arranged a memorial service in which Johnny’s sister laid a plaque in remembrance of her brother. More than a thousand students participated in this unforgettable and moving ceremony. What a precious closure this event gave to Johnny’s sister who had grieved for so long over his loss in the air battles of WWII.
There are a number of trees in a paddock near Greenough along the main road to Geraldton. They are a tourist attraction because they are growing horizontally along the ground. Tourism guides say they were forced to grow that way because of strong prevailing winds. Now I know the real reason those Greenough trees are laying over. It's not at all because of those consistent sea-breezes and gales that people talk about in Dongara, it's because you trainee pilots were flying too low during WWII and those trees ended up stuck in that position.Johnny and I left Australia in 1942, and went to war together and took part in many air battles over Europe. He was a fair-haired handsome young man whose Halifax bomber was shot down during an attack on heavily defended rail facilities at Frankfurt in March 1944. I think of Johnny and hundreds like him who trained in the skies over Geraldton and its trees. Those trees form a living memorial to so many of the other pilots, young men who perished in air battles over a blood stained Europe and against Japanese invaders in Asia and the Pacific in World War 2.
© Tom Scotland DFC